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Wandering the World

Stories and tips from around the world.

Germany Day 3

BMW Berlin Marathon 2021

My third World Marathon Major had arrived at last. It was difficult to know how this race would go. When I entered the ballot for this race in 2019, the idea was that if I got in I would use this race to aim for a Boston Marathon qualifying time. So much has changed since then, and I’ve not run a marathon since Amsterdam. Even though the lead-up to this was my third marathon training cycle since then.

This time around, training has been haphazard at best. I started a run streak in May 2020, and to this day have continued it on. In fact, today would be my 508th consecutive day of running. This combined with no longer commuting by bicycle has meant that my training this time around has been different. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. This would be the test to see where I was at after 18 months of the pandemic, and waning motivation. Some of my longer runs had felt good, even if they were a little slower than I was used to - so I had no idea how they were going to translate to race day. I may not have raced much since the start of the pandemic, but I had done enough to get a feel for what race day might be like - it would definitely be slower.

My training got up to 22 miles, but I only did this distance once. My runs at 20 miles had been much better, but a last minute burst of heat at the start of September slowed me down. I had to hope that I’d got my runstreak right during the final weeks so the taper would take me into the race with legs that were ready to go.

My goal, to a degree, was to finish it. I’ve wanted a sub-3:00 marathon for a few years but things have not gone to plan. I felt at one point that maybe there was some hope, although small, that I’d edge closer to that goal today. So, I’d previously decided my different goals would be defined as:

  • Bronze: Sub-3:10
  • Silver: Sub-3:05
  • Gold: Sub-3:00

I knew even the bronze goal would be considerably more effort than I felt it would have been in 2019 if things hadn’t gone wrong. To meet these goals I’d need to average between 7:15/mi and 6:52/mi. My plan was to start off at 06:52/mi if I could, and to see how long I could comfortably hold on to it. I wouldn’t want to burn out too quickly though, so if at some point it was looking like I wouldn’t be able to hold the pace, then I’d need to slow down soon enough to not slow down too much. My Granddad seemed insistent I’d get sub-3:00, but I knew otherwise. Whatever happened, it was going to be a challenge.

I slept better than the night before, despite waking up a few times. At 06:30 I decided it was time for breakfast - it’d give me almost 90 minutes until I’d need to be heading out for a warm-up jog to the race village, and the start of my third major. I’d packed some cereal from home to have, and had bought some milk yesterday to use on it - although it was lukewarm now. The room didn’t have a kettle, but I’d brought a heating element with me that I’d be able to submerge in a camping mug to boil some water for tea. So, breakfast was as close to normal as possible. Now it was time to move.

Starting blocks filled with runners wearing masks

I decided to have a 1 mile warm-up which took me almost to the Reichstag building. From there I walked to the race village, waved the blue wristband, and put on my FFP2 mask which I then wore until not long after crossing the start line. Inside the race I followed the signs for the starting blocks and found it to be quite a trek through Tiergarten to near the Siegessäule. I sat down in block D, and watched the screen. It showed us the wheelchair start, and at that point I stood up and shook my legs a little, ready to start running.

At 09:15 the race had begun! Surprisingly I was able to run at the pace I wanted to not long after crossing the start line - so that was a welcome difference compared to when I did London. When reaching the Siegessäule people flooded around it on either side. Despite the pace, it was a sea of people from one side of the road to the other. There were times when I needed to weave to overtake, and others were doing the same - it was like a scramble but expending as little effort as possible to do it. Sometimes this meant slowing down briefly instead, but in the grand scheme of things a second or two doesn’t tend to matter much.

At the next roundabout it was a right turn, and suddenly the sun washed over us all. There was a small amount of shade on the other side of the centre. I gazed at it, wondering if I should leave the racing line and get some shade early. I decided for now at least it was better to make progress when I could - I had no idea if it’d get much warmer or not. For now I felt comfortable at around 06:50/mi pace, and felt like I could keep this going for quite some time. I thought back to my last 20 mile run, and thought if I could repeat that today, then it wouldn’t matter too much how the final 10K went, even if I didn’t get a sub-3:00 today, I felt hopeful of a PB at this point.

At 5K I crossed the first of the mats that track your progress. I wondered if anybody was tracking my run today, I doubted it. If they were though, maybe they’d see I was on track. It felt surprising how many people were still around - with Manchester I was sure it started to thin out a bit by this point in the race.

Just after mile 5 I passed the end of the road where the hotel I’m staying in is located, and at the 10K point I was still on target for that elusive sub-3:00 marathon. However, I felt it wasn’t going to happen. It’s warmed up since, and the periods of having shade to run in were few. I decided to have a sip of water at the next water station, but it wasn’t really doing much to cool me down. So, I reluctantly decided to run slower for a while. I wondered how close to Alexanderplatz we’d get. For the next mile I started to speed up again, thinking that maybe this would be okay, and then got back to the proper pace for the mile after that. I realised though that I couldn’t hold this pace any longer and after that mile I started to slow down.

Why did the one day I’m racing have to be the hottest day of the week? Looking at the forecast, the following week (when I’m sightseeing elsewhere) would be mostly rain. In the 10th mile, the sun had gotten to be too much, and I started to walk briefly, and then a second time before the mile was even over. This wasn’t supposed to happen - I’d planned to run at least as far as mile 20, but had really hoped to run the entire thing even if it meant dropping the pace at the end. It was lucky though I’d expended the effort to get my wave changed - if I’d started at 10:30 it would have been unlikely that I’d have hit the pace I’d wanted for as long as I had.

At this point, each road didn’t seem that different to the road before. Every one of them was well supported by the people of Berlin, and many would call out the names from bibs to cheer people on. I started to get a cup of water from most water stations. I’d take a small sip, and then pour the rest over my head - each time it was enough to get me running again for a while. At times when there was shade, this was a massive help as well. It felt like I wasn’t losing too much time, so maybe I could still manage something. At half way I’m not sure why it still felt positive. I guess it was good that each mile would be getting closer to the finish.

I believe it was just after half way that a blue van entered the course and was getting close to runners. One runner got angry with it, but eventually ignored it. This van would be in constant proximity for the majority of the race that remained. I wondered if it was for people that had given in - I’d already seen a few people collapsed on the side of the road. There was one runner I’d helped and he’d started running again, and then a few hundred metres down the road a runner collapsed in front of him, and he stopped to help that one. There had been over half a dozen I’d seen in that condition by the end of the race. Hopefully they all came out of it okay.

My own race was getting slower - the walking breaks were longer, and I was moving slower and slower in each one. Whenever there was a hose spraying water across the road, I’d walk under it - it’d be a brief reprieve. Since around the 10K mark I’d found whatever water I’d poured over me would have dried within half a mile. By mile 20 I was starting to wonder how I’m going to run the Jordan Marathon next year, it’d be hotter than this. Considerably so. I reminded myself that Nepal and Malawi had been hotter than this, and I’d done those. They were slow too. I realised now that this one would be somewhere exceeding 3:20 - a PB was already far out of the question.

At some point I recognised a street with a sculpture of twisted metal that I’d seen when I’d visited in 2009, and found myself passing the Wilhelm Memorial Church and the hotel I’d stayed in that time too. I was now on track for seeing the majority of what I’d seen back then, and more - in less time.

When I got to mile 25 I was starting to think about whether or not I could run this entire mile. I tried to run for as long as possible, but took some walking breaks as I didn’t want to walk when I reached Unter den Linden - I wanted to run towards the Brandenburg Gate and not stop until I’d finished. When I saw the gate I kept thinking how cool it was to be running through it, and then shortly after there was blue carpet down leading towards the finish. I pushed on for as long as I could, but did not sprint over the finish - it was not worth it today. I stopped my watch, and didn’t even look at it. Another runner was carried away from the finish on a stretcher in front of me. This weather really had taken it’s toll on so many people.

It was not the race I’d wanted, or had hoped for. However I had finished it in 3:32:01, missing all three goals completely. I wasn’t disappointed really though; this was my first marathon back after a long pandemic-induced break. Maybe Manchester in two weeks time would go better. It was expected to be a cooler race at least. The focus for the next couple of weeks, other than many miles of tourism, would be trying to let my legs recover as much as possible.

Finished with the medal outside the Reichstag

I looked to see where I’d collect my medal from. This was off down a sidestreet, and then after that there was water and other drinks (the tea tasted too sweet for me), and then a goodie bag as well. Once I’d got mine I went over onto the grass in front of the Reichstag to get a picture, and then went to get my medal engraved - handing in the timing chip on the way out. Having to mess around unthreading it from shoe laces after a hot marathon is such a pain! The goodie bag consisted of a banana, an apple, a bag of pretzels, a pain au chocolat, a locally made chocolate bar, and a bottle of water.

I then walked the shortest route back to the hotel, so I could have lunch, get clean and changed, and spend some time relaxing. I didn’t really want to eat much though. I’d found that O2 had fixed my data roaming so I could now use my iPhone whilst out. Eventually I had to head back out as I’d got a ticket for looking around the Neues Museum at 15:30. Upon entering I had to check my bag, and from there found myself on the bottom floor - looking around all the Egyptian exhibits. I think I photographed the majority of them, including The Book of the Dead.

The Book of the Dead

Due to the one-way system, whether it was for COVID-19 or not, I found myself doing far more walking than was necessary. What didn’t help though was at one point following a sign and finding I’d actually left the museum and was in a connecting one I wasn’t supposed to be in! I re-entered, and then headed back upstairs to the ‘ground floor’. Again, this was mostly Egyptian, but I photographed less, and rested my legs every now and then.

Inside the Neues Museum

After that, I went to the top floor and looked at more exhibits that included prehistoric ones, and then went back down to see the bust of Nefertiti last. Sadly this is the only item in the museum you’re not allowed to photograph. I assume it’s because they fear people will use flash even if they’re told not to.

Bebelplatz

Once I was done in the museum I walked over to Bebelplatz, the place where the Nazi government had been responsible for the mass burning of books. In some ways it seems unsurprising such a party would burn books. It is said that the National Socialist Party was abbreviated to Nazi in Bavaria by opponents due to a colloquial term for ignatz, meaning a foolish person, being ‘Natzi’.

It was still quite a walk from the square to get to Checkpoint Charlie. Unlike last time, there were no actors there, and I knew where I was going, which meant I could spend time getting some better pictures of it. It’s amazing how quick it is to get between the sights when you know where you’re going.

Checkpoint Charlie

I’d planned to get some pizza after that, but the place which I’d checked would be open today, was no longer in business, so I backtracked to an Italian restaurant and got a Hawaiian pizza from there. The only problem with sitting outside though, were the wasps that seemed to really enjoy the pizza too.

Siegessäule at dusk

I looked at the time, and thought maybe I could visit the Siegessäule as well - a sunset picture of that might be okay. So, I set off in the direction of Tiergarten. I kept looking at my watch, making sure I wasn't running out of time. Around that area I found I had to take longer routes at times due to closed off areas where the race village was being disassembled. This meant staying in the wooded part of Tiergarten all the way there, but this led me to find the subway entrance that would take me across to it. The sound of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ theme echoed along the tunnel as a violinist played for money. I’d got no time though, the longer this took, the riskier it was that I could reach the Reichstag in time. I walked quickly, and did a lap of the column. Unlike last time, this time I noticed it was only a couple of Euros to go up it, but I couldn’t spare the time.

I headed back along the other side of Tiergarten until eventually after weaving passed the closures I got to the Reichstag. What I thought was the west side of the building, where the paperwork told me to go, was in fact the wrong side. I got to the other entrance with 1 minute to spare, they checked my paperwork and got me to join a queue.

The Reichstag

This queue went into a small outbuilding where they checked paperwork again, and then ID. This was followed by putting my bag through an X-ray machine, and walking through a metal detector. I was then led up the stairs and into the Reichstag where the entrance is like an airlock - two doors that open when the other is closed. Going up the elevator on the other end of the lobby, I could see that an interview was happening inside - it likely explained why RTL were outside. Obviously not late coverage of the marathon event then. It was actually coverage for the country's elections that were taking place.

Reichstag Rooftop Terrace with a view of the dome

Once out onto the roof terrace I was able to remove the mask I’d needed to wear since security. It was getting dark now as the sun had set only minutes ago. I did a lap of the terrace and then walked up the ramp inside the dome, and down the ramp on the other side. My legs were definitely tired, but I’d decided to do a surprise Skype call to home as I knew they’d be Skyping my Granddad too. I showed them the dome, and then the Brandenburg Gate, and told them about the race.

I didn’t want to use too much data so kept the call short, and headed back down. Once I’d got a night shot of the Reichstag I decided to get one of the gate as well. As I was there, I figured I may as well walk down Unter den Linden to look for somewhere open selling water as well. Sadly most places were now closed, but I did manage to get a fizzy drink from a shop selling ice cream. That’d do for now.

Brandenburg Gate at night

Eventually I got as far as the Berliner Dom, and cut across the grass to get back to Hackescher Markt as quickly as possible. I was back at the hotel at last, and able to relax for the remainder of the evening. I’d decided to leave most of my packing until the morning. I’d covered over 40 miles on foot today.

Running: 27.41 miles, Walking: 13.39 miles

Tags: 26.2 26point2 berlin germany marathon race sport travel trips

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© David G. Paul