I was SO excited about Berlin. I really was. And now every time I think about it, I (still) have a bitter taste in my mouth and so much regret that I can’t turn back the clock and try again. All of this seems silly, because running is what I do for fun. It’s not my career, my livelihood doesn’t depend on it, and it’s not as if I missed out on a top placing or a world record. But at the end of the day, our goals are important to us, particularly when we work so hard towards them. Failing to achieve them can knock your confidence and make you question why you even bother in the first place. Read on to find out what happened…
Berlin was my sixth marathon and my second major. After a great year of ultrarunning and PBs in shorter distances, I was hoping to build upon my 3:37 at Chicago the year before and aim for a sub 3:30 time. All my training pointed towards this and despite a pretty short build up after Comrades, I was feeling confident that I could at least get somewhere in the 3:30-3:34 range.
I flew from Dubai to Hamburg a week before the race and spent a couple of days there before getting the train to Berlin. From the moment I arrived, I absolutely fell in love with the city. So much culture and history, so many contrasts…all of which I happily explored under perfect blue skies. Perhaps this was partly to blame for my downfall. I almost forgot that I was there to run a marathon, and didn’t bother to look at the course map. I walked far too much and didn’t sort my kit out until quite late the night before the race, which is very unusual for me.
Berlin Marathon 2017 Race Report: Race Morning
On race morning, we were greeted with grey skies but the promise that the weather would improve by the time the starting gun fired. I look back on it ominously now, but at the time I happily forced down my usual breakfast and got ready before heading to the start area on the tram. The race village was super easy to get to and we arrived well ahead of time. I tried to ignore the fact that as I walked around in a bid to keep warm, my shoes were becoming more and more soaked. Perhaps I should have taken this as another sign, but I was so obsessed with getting to my start pen early that I didn’t think that maybe my race plan should be revised a little.
At the front of my pen, the commentator announced that the morning had brought with it 99% humidity and temperatures of around 14c. If there’s one thing that I can sincerely hold my hands up to in terms of what I did wrong, it would be the fact that I completely ignored the humidity levels. I was used to running in HOT humid weather, and would always adjust my pace accordingly, but on the day I thought that as the temperatures were mild, it would be ok to set off at planned race pace. I should have started more conservatively and gauged how I felt after 5km or so.
As wave one started, the atmosphere was electric. At the front of wave two, we slowly made our way to the start line, a human chain of volunteers holding us back. I was surprised to find myself stood ON THE ACTUAL START LINE, the placeholders with the names of the elites still stuck to the ground in front of me. Since wave one had already disappeared, there was nothing ahead of me but an open road, whilst behind me, the crowd became more and more excitable. It was a great feeling and one that I tried to take in as much as possible. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever get the chance to stand at the very front of a marathon major ever again. Being slightly concerned that all the runners behind me were going to set off at high speed, and I would be trampled or tripped, getting away from the start quickly, and then slowing down once the initial excitement wore off, seemed important.
Off we go!
Promptly, the start gun fired, and we were away! Thankfully I experienced no pushing and shoving, and simply let people go past me whilst keeping what I thought was a reasonable pace. I had to make a concerted effort to slow down, but despite this my first kilometre was a 4:52 – far too fast (and also my fastest kilometre of the entire race).
As we made our way through the Tiergarten and past the Siegessäule, we made a right turn and began to double back on ourselves. At about 7km, we passed the Reichstag and were pretty much level with where we had started. Pounding through the drenched streets trying to avoid puddles, I waited patiently for the course to open up and become less crowded. I had heard that the first 10km had a lot of bottlenecks, so I held back on pace ever so slightly, telling myself that I would speed up once the congestion had eased. I passed through 10km in 50:08, just a couple of seconds slower than what I had planned.
What concerned me though, was how tired I felt. At 10km, I found myself wishing that it was a 10km race so that I could stop. This was a complete contrast to Chicago Marathon the previous year, where even at 35km I felt incredible. I told myself that it was just taking me a while to get into the swing of things and that soon I would feel ok. Again, I wonder how I would have felt if I’d set off at a slightly slower pace.As I waited for the course to open up, it became clear that this was not going to happen and that I would have to manage the crowds of people as best I could. On several occasions runners behind me stood on the heels of my shoes, almost causing me to lose my trainers. The water stations were a nightmare as they were only located on the right side of the road, meaning that each time we approached them everybody surged to the right. I avoided them during the first 10km or so, and this could have been another reason for my poor performance. When I finally did get my hands on some water, it sloshed around in my stomach so much so that I could hear it as I navigated my way through the crowds in an effort to keep to my planned pace. I crossed 15km having lost a couple more seconds, but still assumed that my luck would change and I would be able to speed up.
The first hints of trouble
Around this time, I developed a side stitch. It was bearable when it started and I figured that it would soon pass if I ignored it. I took a gel at 16km (which ended up being the last gel I would take all race) and did my best to continue. Then the 3:30 pace bus sailed past me. The runners looked effortless and, in stark contrast to how I felt, seemed to be enjoying the race. I tried to keep up before realising that they were going too fast, and resigned myself to watching them fade into the distance.
Halfway was clocked in 1:47. Although this was two minutes behind my target, it was still not too late for negative splits to bring me closer to the 3:30 mark. “Ok, time to speed up!” I tried to enthusiastically tell myself. Negative thoughts had begun to plant their seeds in my mind, so I banished them. “Only positive thoughts from now on!” my inner monologue faux-cheerily exclaimed. “Foot on the gas, clear your mind, see it as a half marathon race…GO!”
Well, that’s not quite true. Kilometre 22 saw me somewhat back on track with a 4:58 split. Shortly after this, my stitch got worse. I still felt exhausted, and I couldn’t pinpoint why. I was scared to take another gel. Negativity invaded.My mind was basically a rolling collection of thoughts, each one following on from the other:“You’ve done too much this year. You’ve broken yourself.”“Who do you even think you are? You told everyone your goal and now you’re going to look like a fool.”“All that training. How many hours did you spend on the treadmill this summer? What a waste.”“What a waste of money too. You paid to do this and it has all been for nothing.”“You’re just rubbish at everything you do. A complete failure.”
Then pain took over. Sharp and searing, right between my ribs. Any remnants of hope about getting a PB or another Boston qualifier faded as I slowed and slowed…until I eventually stopped. I walked a couple of hundred meters, unsure as to whether my whooping sounding breathing was some kind of freak lung injury (by this point my mind was convincing me of a whole encyclopaedia of make-believe ailments, I’d simply never felt anything like it) or actually the more likely hyperventilation that usually happens during a panic attack. It took me everything I had to dial it down, stop crying, and keep moving. The only thing I had left was to finish.
The rest of the race was a blur. 8km is a long way to go when you’re in agony and the mental battle has been lost. With no choice, I walk/jogged, physical and emotional battle scars on full display for all to see. Runners patted me on the back as they went by. Some turned back to check if I was ok. Medics seemed to appear from nowhere and I would fake a smile and say I was fine just to make them go away. Spectators shouted at me to keep going every time I stopped to walk. “I would if I could,” I thought.
A German TV station stopped me for a quick interview, and I obliged. After all, the time had gone out of the window and I was grateful for another reason to stop. “What is wrong with you?” the interviewer asked. I tried to explain, clutching my side. It sounded so lame. “What will you do?” he queried.“Just keep going,” I responded. “I have to finish.” 4km to go.
The last kilometres of the Berlin Marathon wind through various streets until the course finds itself at Unter Den Linden. From there, it’s a straight kilometre up to the Brandenburg Gate and then a little further to the finish. My new goal became clear. I was NOT allowed to walk on this final stretch. Not in front of all those cheering crowds and certainly not with the finish line in sight. I could jog and hobble, but I would not stop until I crossed that finish line.It was the one goal I achieved.
Getting Over It
My official time of 3:50:43 was twenty minutes slower than the 3:30 I was aiming for and gave me anything BUT negative splits. Quite the opposite, in fact.A lot of people said to me afterwards that I still ran a good time and at least I finished. Whilst this may be true, it’s still disappointing for me and has definitely shaken my confidence somewhat.
It’s a funny thing, running. When everything’s going well you feel unshakeable and on the top of the world. Yet when things go wrong (which they inevitably do), the opposite is true. And then what? You wallow for a while and see what you can learn from it. Then, you dust off your trainers, wash your smelly sweat and tear ridden kit and start putting one foot in front of the other again.Because if we stop for too long, it’s even harder to reset and restart. #Tokyo2018