27th September 2015
Just under a year ago I put my name in the ballot for the Berlin Marathon, mainly on a whim. I had no specific reason why I wanted to run it, but if you like city marathons, why wouldn’t you? Berlin is an amazing city and the race, like the other five World Marathon Majors, is legendary.
2015 has been a tough year of training and racing for me. I’ve recorded five ultramarathon finishes including the 95 mile West Highland Way Race, and the accompanying Highland Fling and Devil O’the Highlands ultramarathons to complete the Triple Crown of West Highland Way ultras. In addition to this I have been completing my MSc in Digital Marketing, and come the end of September I found myself running on fumes. My running mojo was at an all time low and I was physically drained from a racing season which started in March, I knew that Berlin would be just the tonic for this ailment if I took the pressure off and allowed myself to enjoy it. Gone was the sub-3:45 goal, or even a sub-4 target; my goal changed to having fun and treating this marathon as a celebration of what I have achieved this year. A victory lap, if you will.
Kynon and I flew out on Thursday the 24th in order to enjoy a little time in the city before the race. Of course the sensible plan would be to stay longer after the race, but since my submission deadline was the 1st of October, at the time we booked the travel it was impossible to bet on whether I would be able to submit my thesis early before the race as planned, or whether I might need the extra time after. Due to our early arrival we ended up doing a lot of walking in the days prior to the race. It’s just as well neither of us were hunting for our best possible performances as we clock up 8.5, 9.5, and 14 miles walking in the three days before the race…!
On Friday we visited the Expo; a celebration of running of epic proportions inside the monolithic structure which is the old Berlin Templehof Airport. Images alone cannot capture the scale of this building; it is HUGE.
After we collected our numbers and bought some race apparel (be ready to fight if you want a certain item in your size!) we browsed the stalls before refreshing ourselves with some beers at the Expo Biergarten.
The Expo was an amazing place for people watching; it seemed like every nation on the planet was represented. Many were wearing commemorative race t-shirts and jackets, and there were more than one individual draped head to toe in Ironman finisher gear. Also, rumour has it that once you earn a Boston Marathon jacket, it is in fact possible to remove it…but many choose not to 😉
After some more snaps and exploring of the venue, we headed back into town amongst the army of people carrying race bags. The atmosphere in the city was full of anticipation – the 40,000 runners and their fans were taking over!
Saturday morning was the International Breakfast Run – a celebration of running and runners around the world. The 6k run was open to everyone and included a ‘power breakfast’ at the finish.
This was great fun, but not as scenic as the Paris one. The run finished in the Olympic Stadium though, which more than made up of the lack of sightseeing! The Stadium was amazing; both in scale and the sheer brutality of the architecture. For a fan of brutalist architechture like myself, Berlin is an absolute haven.
The afternoon before the race was spent watching the Inline Skating marathon at the 40km point – a 90 degree corner. I don’t know what I thought I expected to see, but this was something else. I had no idea the sport was such a big deal and even has a Pro Division! I thought it would just be people out skating for fun…how wrong I was! The skaters went so fast and I was amazed at how they stuck together in huge packs of hundreds of skaters at a time. When they whizzed around the corner at such intense speeds and gravity-defying angles, it was almost hard to watch in case someone slid and fell, taking the whole pack down.
I had some delicious Kartoffeln und Bier for lunch, and a pizza for dinner. I was well and truly carb-loaded and excited for the next day when we turned in for an early night. Our apartment was only a 30 minute walk away from the race village so in the morning we enjoyed a gentle stroll down to reach the start around 8am.
Kynon and I were seeded in different corrals and also had been assigned baggage tents which were on opposite sides of the race village, so we decided to say our good lucks and goodbyes early on and went our separate ways after a couple of photos.
The weather was perfect – clear skies and a low sun rising into the perfect blue overhead. If it was like the preceding days, then it was going to be a bit too warm in the sun but it would be chilly in the shade. My fears of overheating were gone but I knew I would need to be careful about how much I drank, especially later in the race in the warmest part of the day.
After dropping off my baggage I debated whether to go straight into my corral or sit down and wait a bit. In the area where I was standing there were people peeing EVERYWHERE though, so no matter where I sat I would be getting a close up view of things that no-one wants to see first thing in the morning, or well, ever, so I decided to go to my corral after a visit to the loo myself. The portaloo queues were monstrous so I decided to join the mass public urination and found a dry bush to water before checking into my corral.
There was a peaceful walk through the woods of the Tiergarten before you emerge onto Under Den Linden and the breathtaking sight of the sea of 40,000 runners. If you’ve seen aerial television footage of the Berlin Marathon you’ll know the sight I mean, and in real life it was incredible.
I sat down on a kerb and spoke to two guys from America including one whose wife was from Forres. He was a Marathon Maniac so I recommended the Glen Moray Marathon to him, especially as he didn’t really enjoy his visit to the Edinburgh Marathon this year.
The race started at 9am but I didn’t get near the line until 9:23am. When I crossed I was near the 4 hour pacers so thought I would stick with them for as long as possible, however about half a mile in I saw people dashing into the nearby forest to relieve themselves. Standing around with nerves in the cold had expedited my need to do the same and I debated for a moment whether to join the al fresco toiletters or await a portaloo. I was quite uncomfortable at the time so decided just to duck in for a quick fix; 20 seconds later and I was feeling much better – the game was on! Hallo Berlin!
I felt like I ran the first 5k far too quickly but I recorded 29:59 so my feeling couldn’t have been further from the truth! The first water stop was chaos so I decided to skip it and just keep trucking. I lost sight of the 4hr pacer at some point and then didn’t see another pacer again for the whole race. They were wearing black balloons which weren’t very noticable, and it was also just hard to keep track of anyone due to the wide roads full of people.
The route was crowded but not overwhelmingly so. Even in the early miles the support from the crowds was strong and there were bands playing great music. I remember lots of fabulous jazz and blues outfits, brass bands, rock bands, metal bands, and most memorably…an Alp Horn Choir?!
The Danes won the award for the most enthusiastic travelling support, and the Swiss seemed to have flown pretty much the whole country out to support their runners. Mexico and all of the South American countries’ support were a riot to pass by and anyone with a Scottish flag gave me huge shouts of support. The crowds really made the race special for me. The route is flat and kind of uninspiring visually – Berlin is a city of many amazing things, but beautiful scenery is not one of them.
As the heat grew more intense I began to tire but just kept pushing at a steady pace. My rules were no walking allowed, and any pace under 10 minute miles was OK. I ran through sprinklers, high five’d kids, ate bananas and apples, and cheered back all the supporters who tirelessly applauded us. Every time my energy levels dipped and I started to feel less happy, another band or DJ seemed to appear which lifted my spirits. Whenever I felt grumpy there always seemed to be someone calling out my name on my bib and giving me a personal cheer which was just so lovely. I couldn’t help but smile nearly all of the way – these people weren’t out to cheer for hours only to be ignored by someone with a face like a punched quiche!
Other memorable moments include;
– The long, shady, narrow street with the tall tenement buildings on either side and a bar in the middle with a wall of speakers pumping out banging dance tunes that you could hear for a mile away (also the associated punters dancing along going heavy on the beers at 11am!)
– The guy and his family with the HUGE Scotland flag on a stick who popped up on multiple occasions near me screaming “C’Moooaaaannn SCOATLANNNN!!!'” in their best football terrace voices, and their enthusiastic high fives for me every few miles.
– The participants who looked even older than my Grandad, who were still pushing along faster than I was. The results show there were 5 men in the 80+ category, one of whom ran a sub-4 time!
– The Nike cheering points with their infectious enthusiasm and motivational signs, which made even this seasoned cynic well up a bit.
– The care homes which had brought their residents out to the kerbs to cheer and high five the runners.
– The American lady on the bike who gave me kind encouragement in the last two miles, even though she called me Rhonda.
– The last half mile, running towards the wall of sound at the finish, and floating on air as I ran under the Brandenburg Gate for the last 200 meters.
I didn’t take any photographs during the race as I was too sweaty and sticky and it would have been too much of a faff getting my phone out of my dry bag. Much of the race itself is a happy blur though, especially the last two miles where I was far too hot and very dehydrated. It was a huge relief to stop running and I was very happy to see 4:19 on my watch – a credible time, even if it is 21 minutes off my best. Reviewing my 5k splits, I maintained a very steady average pace of between 6 mins and 6 mins 20s a kilometer for the first 40km and managed to wing a sprint finish for the last two kilometers, pushing my average pace down to 5m 49s.
Afterwards I began to feel very not ok and knew I needed electrolytes quickly. I shuffled along with the crowd and picked up various food items and forced myself to eat a banana and some powerade. After collecting my bag I found a shady tree and just wanted to curl up under it in my space blanket and fall asleep… thankfully my sensible sub-concious took over and got me back on my feet to track down Kynon.
So what of the results of the McKinnon Marathon showdown? Well! In the end I retain my title, and lived up to my assertions that I would beat Kynon on the day as well – but only just. Independently, and starting in different corrals, I finished in 4:19:25, and he finished in 4:19:47 – a 36 minute PB for his first road marathon. It seems the competition is on – I had better up my game for the next round!
The next day, we wandered around the East Side wearing our medals and exchanging friendly nods with the scores of others who were doing the same. We sat down for a beer in a bar and it seemed like everyone there had a marathon bracelet, a finisher shirt, or a medal on, which just perpetuated the warm fuzzy feeling I was getting from the event. It felt like my first marathon all over again, like I had been a part of something really special. Random strangers congratulated us on the street and our waiter gave us a free congratulatory shot.
Later on in the airport, the great exodus of runners continued and the airport and our plane were packed with marathon finishers, all struggling with the gangway stairs and getting up and down off their seats. I didn’t want to take my medal off when we had a layover in Amsterdam, and wore it proudly in the airport bar and as we boarded the next plane, the Cabin Crew were full of congratulations. In a year when a marathon has been a easy training run, it felt weird at first to celebrate completing a race of the same distance, but receiving such positive congratulations from random strangers reminded me that ran slow or fast, for most people the marathon is an achievement worthy of huge commendation. It is still a distance worthy of respect, and acknowledging and celebrating that by no means changes it in context of the other distances I’ve ran this year. I guess for some daft reason I had got myself mentally into a place where I felt like I couldn’t celebrate a marathon anymore, in the same way that a multi-marathoner wouldn’t really celebrate completing a 10k.
Anyway, looking over the various pictures and videos which have emerged of the event since Sunday, I feel proud to have been part of such a huge shared experience. It’s inspired me to better my performance at marathon again, and instead of looking at ultras for early 2016, I’m looking for a road marathon. Like many, I’m awaiting the result of my London Marathon ballot application this week, so fingers crossed perhaps the decision will be made for me…
Thank you Berlin, we will DEFINITELY be back!