Oh, the irony of getting a place in the Berlin Marathon. I’ve entered the ballot for London and received the infamous ‘Sorry’ magazine four times now, but it was a ‘ja’ from Berlin the first time they operated a ballot system earlier this year! It was the perfect opportunity for me to do my bit for the Team Shepherd Children with Cancer charity challenge. The course is pretty much flat as a pancake and has a reputation for being super-fast. The men’s marathon world record has been broken at Berlin many times, so the race attracts many serious PB chasers and elite athletes. I may not have been aiming to break the world record, but I was certainly hoping for a PB, and felt this would be my best shot at finally cracking the magical four hour mark. Plus I love Berlin and the race was the day before my birthday, so what better way to celebrate? My training had gone really well, so I felt pretty optimistic about the whole thing.
Signing on at Berlin is a feat of endurance in itself! Registration takes place at the former Tempelhof airport, a vast complex of buildings. You’re forced around the accompanying exhibition to get to sign-on, then through a maze-like queuing system to pick up your number. Seriously, I expected to find a piece of cheese at the end! You actually get your finisher’s t-shirt when you register. Call me superstitious, but this does seem a bit like tempting fate. And speaking of temptation, there certainly is plenty of it at the exhibition – a veritable paradise of running kit, most of which I managed to avoid!
Saturday morning sees the traditional warm-up breakfast run, which goes from Schloss Charlottenburg to the famous Olympic Stadium. It’s not every day you get to run on an Olympic track, so this was great! And at the end there’s as much coffee, ‘Berliner’ doughnuts and other carby delights as you can shake a stick at. A brilliant start to the day! Traditionally you’re supposed to wear things that show where you’re from so I donned my Yorkshire Marathon t-shirt. The weather was really warm and sunny; very pleasant for a 6k jog, but I hoped it would be a bit cooler for Sunday.
However, marathon day dawned just as sunny, and it was clear this was going to be a warm one. The start was huge but well-organised, with runners being set off in waves. This system works really well, avoiding all that jostling and shoving you sometimes get at mass participation events (Great North Run take note). There were lots of toilets by the starting pens with hardly any queue at all – bonus points for that! I encountered my first problem of the day here as my Garmin refused to lock onto satellites. This has happened to me once before, at last year’s Great North Run, and it’s massively annoying. The gun went off and it still hadn’t fired up. Music blared, people sang and clapped, helicopters circled overhead; it was all hugely exciting, but I just kept staring at my wrist and swearing! Our wave was started. Hundreds of runners trotted past me. Still no satellites. Then I saw the four hour pacer approaching and decided to set off anyway, reasoning that even if the Garmin didn’t work at least I’d know whether I was on track if I was with him. The weather was glorious and crowds cheered as we looped round the golden Siegessäule (victory column) as we got underway – the perfect start.
The Garmin eventually fired up at around 8K – then a couple of miles later said it had lost reception again and that was that for the rest of the race. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t have a record of the event, but not too sad as I was feeling pretty comfortable tucked in behind the four hour pacer. Drinks stations were plentiful, if a little chaotic. Water and PowerBar energy drink were served in cups, which obviously ended up all over the road in a pretty lethal fashion. Plus you can’t run and drink with a cup, but I guess it is a lot less wasteful than a bottle, so fair enough. Every few miles there was also a fruit station stocked with masses of bananas and apples. Personally I find it impossible to eat proper food whilst running, and although I can see the point of the bananas I can’t imagine stopping to eat an apple on the hoof! But I think that’s just me, as plenty of others were taking advantage of it. There was just one gel point at 28K.
Things were going pleasantly OK for me, well on track for four hours… until about mile 16. Gentle reader, if you are of a sensitive disposition you may wish to skip the rest of this paragraph, for I am about to relate how I suffered the dreaded ‘runner’s trots’ for the very first time. Quite simply, I suddenly needed the loo in a number two fashion very urgently! It was completely unexpected, as I’d never experienced it ever before. Surrounded by buildings, and with not a Portaloo in sight, I dived into some bushes and did what was necessary. When I emerged the four hour man was quite some way down the road. “Never mind” I thought “I’ve got miles to claw that gap back”. But a short time later I was obliged to do the same thing again. Residents of Berlin, if any of you saw me on either of those occasions, I apologise here and now! Of course this time Pacer Man was out of sight when I got back on the course. I was beginning to feel discouraged, feeling sub-4 slipping away, but thought I could still manage a PB. Then a couple of miles later the now-familiar urgent feeling welled up again. Only this time there were no bushes, just acres of concrete and thousands of spectators. I actually slowed to a walk and thought “What the hell am I going to do now?!”.
Then something amazing happened. I felt a hand on my shoulder, looked up and saw a man in a Children with Cancer vest. I had no idea who he was, but he just said “Come on” and we started jogging together. It seemed like fate! I still felt spectacularly uncomfortable, but at least I was moving. I dropped a little way behind him for a couple of kilometres, not wanting to hold him up, but I could tell he kept checking on me. I caught him up at a water station and explained what the problem was. And then, shining like Camelot, I spied a vacant Portaloo! Thanking my knight in shining armour and telling him not to wait for me I dashed inside. I was so relieved, but also shed a little tear of annoyance because I knew sub-4 was long gone. Not only had I lost time with the three loo stops, but it always takes a while to get back into your stride after an interruption like that. I’ve no idea why the trots happened. I’d been really careful with food and drunk mostly bottled water. Was it because I made up some electrolyte drink with tap water? I guess I’ll never know, but I really hope it never happens again.
I managed to cover the remaining distance without further incident. The course was indeed as flat as billed, with barely an incline, but until the final few kilometres it wasn’t as scenic as I’d imagined. However, the crowd support was fantastic all the way round, especially in lively Schöneberg and towards the end in the city centre. As we ran under the legendary Brandenburg Gate techno music blared, people made more noise than a football crowd and the atmosphere was amazing. I was accompanied along here by a man in a fluffy pink rabbit suit! When you crossed the finish line, the medal was placed round your neck with a “well done” rather than just being handed to you, which was a lovely touch. It was a long walk out of the finishing area, but there were plenty of refreshments, including more apples, warm sweet tea (which was surprisingly refreshing) and the most wonderful Erdinger alcohol-free isotonic beer, which really hit the spot. This should be given out at the end of every race by law!
My final time was 4:11, which isn’t a bad time as such, but wasn’t what I’d hoped for, so I was a bit disappointed. I felt I could have made sub-4 without the tummy troubles. But Berlin was incredible, and I would really recommend it to anyone who loves a big event. One thing that struck me on the way round the course was that there were hardly any charity runners. Almost all the people I saw promoting charities were British. Most runners were in club or national kit. Maybe running for charity isn’t such a big thing in Europe, I don’t know. But I was really pleased that at the Children with Cancer meeting point I got to thank and hug my saviour (who turned out to be called John) because without his motivation I would definitely have been even slower. Aren’t runners lovely people?
So now I have less than a fortnight until the Yorkshire Marathon. I was planning to run this really slowly after Berlin, but am now tempted to have another go at sub-4, despite the hills. I’ll see how my legs feel next week! If anyone would like to donate to the Team Shepherd Children with Cancer fund you can do so here.