It seems like ages ago that, one drunken evening, I filled in the ballot form for the Berlin Marathon. Hey, no harm in that. It’s a huge event and I had no chance of getting a place. Just meant I could do the whole “well, I tried” thing.
And then, unexpected and terrifying, the email arrived…
“Dear Iain Hawkins,
We are happy to share the good news with you that your name was drawn for a race entry in the BMW BERLIN MARATHON 2019!”
Yeah, shit, wasn’t expecting that !!! I’d only been bloody running for a few months.
It’s fair to say the training didn’t entirely go to plan. I had a rough 16 week schedule, out of which I spent 4 weeks not running owing to old bugger’s knee (2 weeks) then old buggers back (2 weeks). To make things even more interesting the back thing happened during the longest training run, 30K that I could not wait to see the back of.
The months passed too bloody quickly and all too soon it was time to board the Ryanair flight from Edinburgh to Berlin. On the plane with two other runners who talked about things like “PBs” and “sub 3:30”. Well I know I was pretty sure of a PB, for obvious reasons, but all the talk of strategies and times made me want to put my headphones on and watch Futurama..
Which I did.
Of course before the Marathon there was parkrun day. We’ve been to Hasenheide parkrun before. It was a small, intimate affair with friendly volunteers and not too busy. Well, strangely, this time around there were slightly more competitors than usual. Like about 600 more.
We arrived at the closest U-bahn station and di what everyone else seemed to be doing. Looking at Google maps to see where the start was. We chatted to more Marathoners on the walk there, these ones were in the 2-something target time.
I took the parkrun VERY easily, for obvious reasons. There’s such a thing as Maranoia, and in my case it manifested itself as a primal fear of getting injured (again) before the big day. I trotted round the pretty park trying to avoid anything even remotely ankle-twisty or calf-strainey.
Ok, Ok, There may have been something of a hangover thing going on too. But, hey, it IS Berlin !!!
That evening was spent eating my bodyweight in Pasta and laying out all the kit for the big day. The running top picked itself but there were last minute changes of mind about what shoes to wear. As I’d missed WSW day on the parkrun Tourist group (yes, it’s really a thing, no, I couldn’t believe it at first either) I had to make my own mind up. In the end I went with my new Brooks Launch 6s, although I’d only done one long run in them.
I wouldn’t even say I was feeling that nervous, until we got the tram into the town centre to check out the public transport and have a look at the start / finish area. Now since I heard I had got a place every run I’d done ended with me picturing the Brandenburg Gate in my mind. and here I was standing under it…
And the next day I’d be running under it at the end of the Marathon.
The big day
Up and attem, it’s showtime.
We headed for the tram allowing plenty time to get into the middle of town. We also learned, from a friendly passing local, the German for “the trams are not running today, the Marathon is on!!!!!”. Fortunately Google Maps gave us an alternative route via the U-bahn and we arrived in the vicinity of the start to join the throng. I was (surprisingly) at the back of the last start wave so when the elite folk shot off at 9:15 I was on the third toilet stop of the morning. Hey, I had an hour to kill.
With about 10 minutes to go I kissed the support team goodbye and headed into the start pen. from the back I could see the 5 hour pacers waaaay off in front of me. This gave me my (hopefully) worst case scenario. If I started 5 minutes behind them, and then caught and ran at their pace, I’d be round in 4:55. I could live with that.
It took about 10 minutes to get over the start line from the gun going off. This was where the excitement really kicked in and the 5 words started circling in my head.
I’d decided to ditch all the technology I’d used in my training. No headphones, no strava updates and no looking at the watch every 30 seconds. I’d brought a buff so I out that round my wrist to cover the watch anyway. No distractions.
And we’re off!!
I crossed the start line and headed off along the wide tree lined boulevard. I was a bit surprised to see some people were walking already (to each, their own) but was more surprised by the number of men stopping for a pee in the bushes. I mean we’ve only just started and there were loads of toilets at the side of the starting pen.
Maybe it’s a marathon tradition. Actually it must be because virtually every clump of bushes for the next 26 miles quickly became an impromptu urinal. Boggin’.
I didn’t have much in the way of a strategy worked out in advance. I thought if I could stay at 6 min KM for the first 30Km or so I’d be doing fine. I tried not to look at the watch, which was just as well as it soon got well out of step with the Km markers on the course. By about 5k I think it was about 500m out, and that became about 1Km by the end of the race. Leaving the Tiergarten the route swung to the right past the Reichstag before heading off into the East half of the city.
The watch buzzed it’s “about 5k” buzz and a quick glance showed the time was 30 minutes, more or less bang on. I’d found a groove that I thought I could sustain so just went with it. It wasn’t long after this that I caught the 5 hour pacers, now all I had to do was stay in front of them.
Oh, and not get beaten by the beer can.
We were still in the pretty part of Berlin at this point, and the support was out in force cheering us all along. That was an unintended benefit of my Mr. Slow top, lots of shouts of “Come on Mr. Slow” which helped.
10K came round in almost exactly an hour. I was being nothing if not consistent. The 10K timing mat had a big digital clock next to it showing the total time since the elite folk set off. Here I was at the 10K point while the winner was just about crossing the finish line…
The furthest I’d ever run without any walking was a half marathon, so I was determined to better that here. I thought to myself “If I can get to 25K, that’ll be brilliant”.
Oh bugger, is that a totally arbitrary deadline?
The sort that becomes an unnecessary target?
The sort that you know will bugger things right up because you’ll reach it and stop??
Yeah… one of those… Physically everything was fine but mentally the cracks were beginning to show. Marathons are full of horrible numbers. My favourite was that when I had been running for 3 hours I was less than 2/3 of the way there time wise. Then there’s the point where you work out that you’re not going to make a nice round finish time like 4:30 so you mentally move the goalposts to 4:45.
To be fair, 4:45 was what I was hoping for. I got a text at 10K saying I was on for 4:25 but I knew I could never keep my 6 min KM pace up for 42Km. By now it was also really starting to piss down I knew from 25K it was going to become a war of attrition with my own doubts.
And then I thought I’d died. I was running up one of the bigger hills on the course (not really a hill at all) when I heard the distinctive racket of the bagpipes. That must be St. Andrew coming to take me away to the Scottish paradise where everything is deep fried and we’re occasionally not embarrassing at sporting events.
But, no, I was pretty sure I wasn’t dying. Could definitely hear Flower Of Scotland though. Turned out the Berlin Thistles pipes and drums is a thing. May have, erm, got something in my eye at that point. Then something started to tickle in the back of my left calf and I thought “right, here we go”.
Fortunately a good dose of ignoring it worked. As it did with the knot in my calf about 5k later.
A run of two halves
By 30K It was clear that I was going to have to start a bit of walking. My legs and breathing said they were fine but the brain just wouldn’t listen. It was not far after here that I encountered the most horrible person I’ve ever met out running. Bear in mind that this was back at the 4:40-ish finishing time bunch, hardly the elite end of the field. Well this arrogant cow jogged past saying, in that irritating loud south London accent “I f*cking hate walkers”.
Yeah love, well I don’t now who you are, but I DON’T PARTICULARLY LIKE YOU EITHER !!
(I’m still angry, two days later. Bitch).
Right, where were we ?
Heading into the last 10K you get the feeling that you’re heading for home. By now my average pace had dropped from 6 minutes-ish to closer to 7. I decided on a strategy to try and keep my brain happy while running as much as I could. This basically meant I would walk for an arbitrary “short while” then run 150 steps. If I was walking and anyone shouted “Mr. Slow” I would immediately start another 150 steps. Also, If I was running and someone shouted it, I’d run an extra 50 steps.
And if I lost count the 150 started again.
Hey, it sounds convoluted but it worked. 4:45 was going to happen !
The last bit through the middle of town took in some really impressive sights. Berlin does have some pretty architecture. Even the bits the RAF tried to modify have a certain grandeur about them. The Kaiser William church spire, known locally as “the hollow tooth” looks amazing in its 1943 bombed out state.
Right, nearly there.
The last 5k of the run winds round the centre of of the city. And, Yes, I did think “only a parkrun to go” at this point. As I mentioned earlier I’ve been picturing the Brandenburg Gate in my mind almost every run I have done. But here, finally, you turn one last corner and there it is. Right in front of you. OK, admittedly still a fair bit away but here I did the most marathon thing ever…
I burst into tears.
Then I did the least marathon thing ever. I stopped for a selfie. Hey, I may never pass this way again !!
I passed under the gate, stopping to kiss the damn thing and thought “that’s it, no more running, I’m done”. Then I looked at my watch and it said 4:43:50. SHIT. The finish line is still a wee bit away!!! I’m not going to make 4:45!!
Cue an entirely unexpected sprint finish. I mean proper sprint, going from 7 minute KMs to less than 3 for the last 200m.
There was even time for a joke that struck me as I passed under the gate and had the end in sight. I stopped on the timing mat and asked the marshall “excuse me, I’m just checking, Is “Ziel” German for “finish?”.
Well it made me laugh.
And the result ?? 4:44:13.
And that was that, it was over. I do like being average and I came about 25,000th out of about (I think) 50,000. You don’t get more average than that.
Waiting for the flight the next day I checked into the Berlin Marathon app to check my split times. They confirmed what I knew, it was very much a race of two halves. Up to 25k the split times were, as planned, all 31 minutes (more or less exactly, consistent or what?) but from there they dropped to 34, then 36. In fact none of the times were particularly quick. My 30k time here was 7 minutes slower than my longest training run. I think I may have taken it too easy at the start and should maybe have got more time in the bank early on to make up for the inevitable crash.
But hey, I’m not going to beat myself up about it.
I’d just run a bloody Marathon !!