pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune
Or so it felt like.
The Berlin Marathon is widely regarded as one of, if not the, best marathons in the world. Held annually on the last Sunday in September it is one of the 6 Abbott World Marathon Majors and has been home to multiple world records including the current record, set this weekend, by the greatest marathon runner of all time, Eliud Kipchoge. The renowned flat course, with its long wide streets and professional pacers attracts all the top athletes. This results in world best times. Notwithstanding this the course is still very much a full marathon which needs to be respected and duly trained for. It would be egregious for anyone to assume that they will come away with a personal best simply because Berlin is a “fast” course. Underestimate it at your peril.
Having been lucky enough to secure a guaranteed entry to the event I didn’t have to concern myself with the lottery system. This meant the race was effectively marked in the diary since the qualifying time was achieved last October. I wasn’t entirely sure how happy my wife, Michelle, was going to be with me firstly training for another marathon and subsequently travelling to Berlin alone for a weekend, considering our children are still far too young to be able to bring them to these events so a family affair was out of the question. Thankfully Michelle acquiesced to the idea so flights and accommodation were booked as soon as official confirmation of entry was received in January.
Back then I would have been fairly confident that a good, consistent run of training could have yielded a sub 2.40 time however these things rarely work out as desired and from February I had a torrid run of injuries & illnesses. This meant that I didn’t get an opportunity to build a good base level of fitness prior to properly beginning marathon training, which is not ideal as it is very difficult to build fitness and endurance at the same time. Ideally the fitness would be there prior leaving you free to focus on building up your endurance. By mid-July I was convinced that the most recent bout of sickness that had swept through our household had completely jeopardised any chance I had of obtaining a PB, let alone a sub 2.40 effort. Thankfully, however, from the end of July onwards I managed to string together 8 consecutive strong training weeks which had me feeling confident that I could perhaps still put in a decent performance. I used the Tullamore half marathon as a time trial where I ran it at 2.40 marathon pace and then collated the data (nerd alert) to assess my fitness. It was blindingly obvious from my heart rate that I would not be able to sustain that pace for an additional 21 kilometres so a revised target was hatched which was to avoid the cavalier approach and to attempt to manage myself to a PB.
The race itself is an enormous event with 45,000 entrants in addition to the wheelchair event which runs alongside it. Organising an event of this magnitude involves huge planning and cooperation and the committee deserves huge respect for consistently pulling it off. My only complaint would be the sole entry point which all participants were funnelled through. Having a few separate entrances would have made life a lot easier on the morning of the race. My accommodation was only 2km from the start line however it might as well have been 10km as there was no direct access route so walking was out of the question. The underground appeared to be the best option so off I went but somehow I managed to get on the train going in the wrong direction. Engrossed in my own thoughts I didn’t notice this for a couple of stops at which point a benevolent Berliner advised me of the quickest route to the entrance. Thankfully I had given myself plenty of time and I was in my starting coral with 15 minutes to spare.
There are 8 starting blocks and I was assigned to Block B which meant no faffing at the start and pretty much straight out of the blocks. A virtuoso performance was never going to be on the cards but I did feel confident that a PB was possible as long as I was disciplined in the early stages and didn’t leave myself with an insurmountable challenge in the latter stages. The plan was to go out at 3.50 p/km for the opening 16 kilometres and then see how my body reacted and whether a pick up would be possible.
I’m not going to lie and say that from here on I enjoyed the race and really appreciated the experience. The opposite is true. It took me a long time to settle into the race, way longer than it should have and mentally I found the whole race very draining. In fairness to the Berliners, they came out in force and the entire course was really well supported. Maybe it’s the German accent but I felt like they were giving out to me the whole way around. Being shouted at in German whilst suffering was an unusual experience. It felt like they were enjoying my pain, hence the schadenfreude gambit at the beginning. I know this wasn’t the case at all but it didn’t feel like it at the time.
Anyway, I definitely found this marathon a lot more challenging than others. My legs were hurting from early on and I was cramping badly for the last few kilometres. It was a case of mind over matter to get through it. My slowest kilometre was between 40-41 when I really thought the cramp was going to win but thankfully I battled through and picked it up for the last 1,200 metres with a strong finish. Going through the Brandenburg Gate was a brilliant experience, which I actually did enjoy, and I even attempted a sprint finish for the last 200 metres. Bad idea. The cramp in my leg came back with a vengeance resulting in me bordering on the precipice of becoming a YouTube meme “marathoner hobbles last 100 metres”. The thought of this embarrassment and endless gifs helped me somehow compose myself and make it to the finish line.
It was only then that I realised that I had achieved a PB, finishing in 2.42.51, which was a PB by almost a minute. My usual marathon approach is to focus on 5km splits so I never know my total elapsed time until I finish. If you manage the splits correctly the time will look after itself. The chute after the finish line was something else. There was such a juxtaposition of emotions & reactions. There were people joyously elated with their times beside people who were inconsolable surrounded by people who were in absolute bits and barely able to walk. I’ll let you decide which category I fell into but honestly the overriding emotion that I felt at the time was relief. I did manage to meet a friend afterwards for some much needed beers & a pizza before the flight home which helped me recalibrate.
On reflection it’s mildly irritating that I didn’t enjoy the experience at the time as much as I should have. I think being over there on my own and not having somebody to talk with and bounce things off meant that I probably overthought everything instead of being more relaxed. Throughout the race all my thoughts were negative. My legs are sore. The finish line is ages away. The crowd don’t like me. These plastic cups are impossible to drink from.
I failed to look at all the positives. My legs might be sore but my pace isn’t dropping. The finish line is getting closer with each step. All these people are out to cheer you on. I’m not coming last like Emmet Wardell did that time in Tymon Park.
It’s with hindsight that I can realise that it was a really good day but I just didn’t appreciate it at the time. That’s a learning point to take forward.
Unsurprisingly the race was dominated by Eliud, whose image was adorned on this year’s medal. Despite the dogma of some members of the running community who insist that his achievements are purely down to the “super shoes” the reality is that he is an incredible athlete who is at the pinnacle of his career. I feel that we are blessed to be able to witness an epoch of marathon running which is bringing so much attention and focus on the sport that we love. It was thrilling to compete alongside him and a privilege to take part in this record breaking event.