Berlin marathon report – 25/09/16

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Way back in January I found out I’d got a ballot place in the Berlin marathon – one of the biggest in the world and one of the 6 ‘world marathon majors’. This was an opportunity too good to turn down, especially as Katie had also got a place along with my good mate James ‘Bosh’ Bosher. As with a lot of these events I sign up for, this was promptly forgotten about as I embarked on a summer of ironman training.

Ironman came and went, and after a couple of weeks of decent recovery time, I had around 6 weeks to get in some good quality, run specific training. I knew a lot of the fitness I’d gained during the ironman preparation should have left me in relatively good shape, but I didn’t have the high run mileage in my legs that I’d logged before Barcelona, so wasn’t sure what would my strength and endurance would be like in those final few miles.

Katie and I flew out to Berlin on Friday evening, immediately after work. By absolute chance, there were around 5 or 6 other Clapham Chasers (our running club) also on the flight, so we said hello and introduced ourselves, engaging in the standard pre-race nervous marathon chat. It’s made me feel guilty about not getting down to more club sessions in the last few months – something I’m looking to fix in the near future.

We got in fairly late, having to negotiate a good hour plus train journey (one of Berlin’s airports is not actually that central apparently), so after checking in, we went straight to bed to get a decent nights kip. We were staying ten minutes or so away from the main park in which the marathon starts, so first thing in the morning I headed out for a short run to loosen up the legs.

This turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip; as I was drifting along minding my own business, Wilson Kipsang came flying past in the other direction. Recognising him immediately (marathon geek), I shouted hello, and he returned a friendly ‘morning’. What a legend! Minutes after this, the ground started to shake (metaphorically), before a group of around 10 Kenyans came around the corner, charging towards me. I took the safe option of hopping to the side of the path and admired them as they floated past, looking absolutely effortless.

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After briefly considering chasing after them (no chance), I plodded home, before tucking in to the all you can eat breakfast. Unfortunately restraint was needed here, although the same can’t be said for the morning after the marathon. We then met up with Bosh and his army of supporters, and made the short trip to the expo to pick up race numbers, timing chips and some free beef jerkey?

Saturday lunchtime was never going to be the ideal time to go – it was absolutely rammed, everyone shuffling around like sardines in a tin. The whole process itself was well run, but if you can avoid Saturday and get there beforehand – thoroughly recommended. They also let me jump forward a couple of starting pens due to the fact I’d ran a quicker time since I put my application in – I just had to show them proof of that time. Something London doesn’t allow, and a good idea in my opinion.

The rest of the day was spent chilling around the hotel. The day before the race, for me, is the absolute worse. You’re in a really cool city, and everyone around you is eating burgers and drinking beer in the sun – the exact thing I want to be doing! I just about managed to resist temptation, settling instead for a nice bit of Salmon and a diet coke.

The only thing to brighten up a dull day was Katie managing to go into the wrong hotel and successfully navigating her way all the way to the 6th floor before standing outside what she thought was our room. Luckily, something twigged, and she messaged me asking me to open the door. Obviously I opened the door to an empty corridor, confirming she’s officially navigationally challenged.

A bowl of pasta and an early night followed, and I actually slept ok for once before a big race. I still had the now-normal dreams about missing the start, but the first time I looked at my phone it was 5am – close enough to the time I planned to wake up anyway.

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Classic lame kit photo

The hotel had put on an early breakfast for runners, but wanting to stick to my tried and tested porridge, I had brought my own little pots, which got me a few funny looks from the assembled Europeans. This also clashed with my personality of wanting to get my money’s worth out of the free breakfast that I’d paid for, but I told myself I’d eat them out of business the following morning.

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After a quick shower and change, Katie and I jumped on the metro and met Bosh en route to the start. As we got off at the Brandenburg gate about an hour and a half before the start, there were already massive crowds – it took an age to walk anywhere. Might be worth getting there a bit earlier and finding a quiet spot to relax – it was quite stressful trying to navigate through the sea of people.

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We also had slight issues with the toilet situation. In London they always have ample facilities. However, the Germans obviously want to be efficient as possible and hire as small a number of toilets as they can get away with. So after parting company with Katie, we just about got to the front of the queue and did the business before it was go time. I know Katie couldn’t actually get into one until after the start, but fortunately as she was slightly further back, she didn’t miss the start of her wave.

We jumped into the pen with about 10 minutes to go. We’d been promoted to the 2.40-2.50 area, and were probably only 20 or so rows back from the very front, which was incredible. Bosher bumped into his mate Gary, while I said hello to a ‘virtual’ friend, John, who turned out to be a proper sound chap. You never know with the internet, it’s usually either legend or axe murderer. I was lucky, and we quick chin-wag, mainly about his lack of ‘trendy’ headband.

After the usual pre-race chat of playing down expectations while secretly feeling quite good but not wanting to say it, the elites were announced to a hearty applause, and I gave my new mate Kipsang a little wave which he chose to ignore – probably getting himself in the zone.

Finally the countdown was on; the shades were donned and the good luck messages exchanged. Those last few seconds before the start of a marathon are electric, especially in the big city events. I spent the last few seconds visualising the day ahead, before the gun went and we were off.

My goal pace was simple enough for me not to have to rely on my skills as an ex-mathematician; 4 minutes for each kilometre. As we’re in Europe and they’re of the metric persuasion, they only had markers at each kilometre, so you’ll have to think on your feet if you’re a mile man like myself. This pace would take me just below 2 hours and 50 minutes. I didn’t know if I had it in me, but I was going to go for it regardless.

The course contains sections of long, long, really long straight roads – perfect for running quickly. The weather was pleasant (if not a tad warm), and there wasn’t any wind. Near perfect conditions. I got to run alongside Bosh for a mile or two, which was awesome, before he eased away from me, although I could see him ahead of me for the whole first half.

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Gary, me, Bosh (all very serious..)

The opening 13.1 miles of a marathon should be quite unremarkable; it’s just the process of getting to halfway as comfortably as possible before the race starts for real. So I tried to relax, find a rhythm, and stick to it, rather than fluctuating in pace and wasting precious energy. I covered the opening 5km in just under 20 minutes, and thought back to the time I could barely run that speed flat out, let alone 8 times back to back. However, I hadn’t done that yet – I just needed to tick off one at a time.

Team Bosher were in great voice throughout the day. It was absolutely awesome of them to stay put and cheer me through after Bosh had already passed, knowing full well they had to get to their next scheduled point as quickly as possible. I was so grateful for that; it was a real boost to have some friendly faces out there, as it’s clear my own family don’t love me. (This is a joke Mum, I know you love coming along).

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High spirits early on

Other chasers were also out on course – Gemma, possibly the loudest person on the entire route, popped up at various points; at one point even dishing out a high five – much appreciated. Unfortunately Ed had to drop out early on with an injury, but it was great seeing him offering out some much need encouragement when it really mattered. I’m sure there’ll be better days to come for him.

Through 10km in 39:37 – slightly ahead of schedule, but nothing too alarming. Following from where I left off in Barcelona, I was on a no gel strategy. I just took advantage of the water stations en route to pour a couple of cups over my head and have a couple of sips if I was thirsty. The stations were a bit of a car crash, with everyone diving in for the same cups, and that was nearer the front where it was a bit more spread out. Katie told me it was an absolute nightmare slightly further back – some people picking up a cup and deciding to stop dead and have a mini picnic.

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I could still see Bosh up ahead, but spent a few kms with his mate Gary, and we shared a bit of chat – nothing that required more than a 5 word sentence as I was already having to concentrate on keeping the effort steady and not slowing. Another sub 20 minute 5km from 15km-20km kept me on pace, still being able to take in the awesome crowd support (although not quite as awesome as London..) without hurting too much at this point.

I hit halfway in 1.24, which 2 years ago would have been a 10 minute personal best in the half marathon. Today that was just the warm up for the main course. The Bosher’s seemed to be everywhere, and always seemed to appear at just the right moment when the energy levels were starting to drop. The same could be said for Gemma – I have absolutely no idea how she managed to get to so many spots!

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All aboard the Spraggins express

I’d been counting up the miles up until half-way, but once I reach 13 I always then start counting back down to zero. Things were now starting to get interesting – my heart rate was a few beats higher than I’d want it to be this early on, and from that point I knew I was going to have to fight for every step. For me though, there was no point trying to slow down and bring it under control – I had a definitive time goal and I was going for it regardless.

I wanted to get to 32km before I even started thinking about the finish – this would leave me the final 10km to deal with separately. So I kept plugging away, going from 25km-30km in 19.52, but the effort level was really starting to tell now. I tried to take my mind off the pain, with thoughts of all the nice snacks I could tuck into post-race, as well as that cold lager waiting for me at the end.

The crowds out on the course were awesome, offering support to everyone. However, it wasn’t quite the atmosphere and sheer number of people watching London, underlining what a special event we have right on our doorstep. From memory (which is more than a little hazy), drinks station were also only every 5km – I didn’t found this a big issue but others I spoke to would’ve preferred them a little more frequently.

I’d been reading a book in the build-up; ‘Iron War’ by Matt Fitzgerald, which documents the career of two of the greatest triathletes of all time. This had given me a real insight of how hard these guys had to work, and how much the back end of endurance events can be all about the head rather than the heart and lungs. I found this really inspiring, and had told myself that whatever happened I was going to tap in to these mental reserves and dig as deep as I possibly could.

At 35km things started to get really ropey, with the pain in both legs starting to really get to me. I had blocked out the crowd by now, and was just focussing at a point 20 metres up the road, willing myself to maintain the pace and not slow. I knew we were heading away from the finish and had to turn around and head back to the Brandenburg gate, but as I stared into the distance, I was sure this turnaround point was never going to arrive.

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Getting harder now..

Finally, after 40km we turned left, and then left again, and were starting to head for home. I was running on fumes, and despite my best efforts, starting to slow significantly. The legs just wouldn’t respond to the brains instruction telling them to run faster. I hit the last kilometre, worried the legs might give way. The Bosher’s spotted me at this point, later telling me that I was looking decidedly unstable, and I remember on one occasion nearly tripping over my own legs.

Once under the Brandenburg gate (rather unfortunately I have no memory of this) my gaze was firmly locked on the finishing line. I could see the clock ticking towards 2.50, but barring disaster, I was going to make it. This still didn’t make the last 400m any more comfortable, and I couldn’t even muster an increase in pace for a ‘sprint’ finish. A clenched fist was just about all I could manage as I crossed the line in 2:49:30, 30 seconds to spare and job done.

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Fist pump

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Everything hurt for about 15 minutes afterwards – my legs, my feet, my head and my upper body. I felt like I’d gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. I could barely drag myself to the baggage tents to collect my stuff after receiving various freebies in the ‘goody bags’. I was reunited with Bosh and we hugged it out – he’d had an awesome day and gone 2.47; what an absolute hero, and just reward after an incredible few months of hard work and dedication.

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We reclined on the grass in the sun sipping our free beers (alcohol-free unfortunately), reminiscing about the race. The finish area was excellent, with plenty of space to relax as only runners were allowed access – the reunion area was slightly further away. I took out my phone to track Katie home, and promptly dropped it in surprise when I saw she’d gone through 30km at sub-4 hour pace.

The lack of running in the last month (I think she ran about twice) eventually caught up with her and she ended up coming home in 4 hours and 5 minutes, and I couldn’t have been more proud. I’m usually more emotional about Katie’s race than my own, and we had a bit of a moment when we were finally reunited after she’d made her way through the finish line melee. I can’t wait until she finally gets some much deserved luck with an injury-free campaign, because when she does she’s going to fly.

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As usual, getting anywhere after finishing a big city marathon was a bit of a struggle, but we finally got back to our hotel and tucked into some well-earned post-race food. That evening we enjoyed a lovely meal and a few beers with Bosh and his family, before spending the following few days in Prague, eating and drinking far too much and enjoying some much needed recovery time.

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I can be a bit crap when it comes to reflection and celebrating achievements, always driven by the next goal and moving on far too quickly. If you’d have told me 2 years ago I was going to run a marathon in under 2 hours and 50 minutes, I would’ve told you to go and get your head checked. I don’t believe I’m overly talented or even well built for running. I’ve just got the determination and drive to want to better myself and see what I can achieve. The great thing is, I’m coming away from Berlin feeling like I’ve got much more to give, and heaps of room for improvement. I can’t wait to keep testing myself – I get bored sitting on the sofa.

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6 thoughts on “Berlin marathon report – 25/09/16

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