Berlin Marathon Race Recap – Expo, Race, and What’s Next

Friday Expo

We arrived in Berlin uneventfully on Friday afternoon (a good thing with travel) after an overnight flight from Chicago to Frankfurt and a short flight from Frankfurt to Berlin. We shared a car to our hotel with a couple friends from back home who were also coming to run the marathon. There is a 7-hour time difference between Chicago and Berlin with Berlin being 7 hours ahead, but excited to be in a new city, the jet lag hadn’t quite set in yet. After checking into our hotel, we headed straight for the expo since we were still too early to get into our room and I wanted to get the expo over with on Friday to rest my legs on Saturday and not be overwhelmed by crowds.

The joke was on me as the expo was crazy even on Friday afternoon. It was chaotic to say the least, with very little signage to tell you where to find the bib check-in and extremely narrow walkways. For a marathon hosting 44,000 runners on top of many others participating in other events throughout the weekend, it was a madhouse and I started really appreciating the organization of Chicago’s expo which is also a marathon major. After about 45 minutes, I finally found the bib pick-up where I was handed my bib number and my rented shoe timing chip; this is different from every race I’ve ever run before where the chip timing is integrated with the bib but it seems to be pretty common in Europe as many already owned their own chip. Don’t expect to be given a bag at packet pick-up unless you selected gear-check when you registered. You either get a poncho at the end of the race or a bag for gear-check (I still recommend going with the poncho but more on that later; I ended up getting a free bag elsewhere at the expo). Unlike every other race I’ve run, you won’t get a free participant shirt with your registration. If I could go back and do it again, I would’ve preordered clothing, but didn’t realize when signing up that trying to get marathon apparel at the expo was like shopping in the U.S. on Black Friday – chaos. People were grabbing things off the racks as soon as they were put on and throwing them to the side if they weren’t their size. I felt bad for the volunteers who had to clean up that mess because it just wasn’t right. After a half hour, I finally found a t-shirt and jacket in my size and we got in line to pay and made a beeline for the exit. If there is anything I have learned from large marathon expos it’s that you can spend way too much time on your feet so I try to get in and out as quickly as possible.

We caught an Uber back to the hotel where we napped for a very long time after the jet lag had finally caught up to us. Unfortunately there wasn’t a good public transportation to the expo which was over 3 miles outside of the city at a retired airport. Around 6:30 p.m., I was feeling a little better and wanted to stretch my legs so I did a light 3-mile run before dinner.

Saturday

On Saturday, I did a 20-minute shakeout run in the Tiergarten, a beautiful park in Berlin. I even saw a couple of the African elites doing their shakeout run (I couldn’t tell who they were but they were going around 6:30 pace for a shakeout run in full Nike track suits so I’m pretty sure they were elites!); it was so cool to be out there running the same trails as them, even if I was far behind at my 7:40 pace.

My husband and I decided to do some touring around Saturday to make the most of our time in Berlin and saw the major sites like the Victory Column, Bradenberg Gate, and Checkpoint Charlie before meeting our Chicago friends before the race to hang out for a bit. I walked/ran about 14,000 steps on Saturday which is more than I would normally do before a race, but we took it slow and took the subway back to the hotel after walking in the morning and afternoon. The coolest part to me was seeing the start and finish line to mentally start preparing for Sunday and to have some peace of mind knowing where I would need to be to start in the morning.

Sunday – Race Day

Sunday morning came and with a 9:30 start time, I got to “sleep in” for a race day and woke up at 6. We ate a light breakfast around 6:30 then got ready to head over to the start line. It was about a 2K walk to the start which was perfect for warming up my muscles and getting out some pre-race nerves. I slept terribly the night before between the jet lag and nervousness but was feeling surprisingly peppy the day of. We waited in line for the porta-potties (not nearly enough for 44,000 runners, by the way) and after waiting in line for nearly 30 minutes, I ditched the line and found a spot in the woods to go. So many people were doing this because of the lack of porta potties so I didn’t feel so bad. I said goodbye to my husband and then headed for Corral F (Berlin corrals are fast. My 3:38 only landed me in Corral F out of A-H). The corral was way overcrowded and I had to hop a fence just to squeeze in. I noticed that no one was enforcing what corral you actually went into which was really frustrating when I saw all these people from H ahead of me.

It took 15 minutes from the start of the race for me to start but then we were off…and then stopped again. The congestion was unreal and I think because of all the people who didn’t go into the right corral, the pace was really slow to start. My watch was hovering around an 8:50-9:00 for the first 400 meters and I knew that was not going to fly. I spent about the first 13.1 miles weaving in and out of slower runners. I know this wasted a lot of energy and I couldn’t believe how long it took for things to open up. I was getting so frustrated, nearly in tears at one point, and had to jump on and off of raised platforms in the middle of the road to get around slower runners who had definitely started in faster corrals than they were seeded. But I told myself that this was happening today and I hadn’t trained through snow, sleet, rain, heat, and humidity for nothing. I felt like I was moving so slow but somehow the miles were clicking in around 7:45 pace which was right where I wanted to be.

The water stations were just as chaotic as the rest of the race and the volunteers all stood behind the tables filling up plastic cups so everyone was dive-bombing to grab a cup off the table. People would stop as soon as they hit the aid stations and you would run into them if you weren’t careful. Plastic cups are awful for both drinking out of and being on the ground as it makes for a super slippery surface to run on. You can’t crease a plastic cup so expect half the water to spill out unless you slow down to drink (which you need to do to get your GU down). However, I had mentally prepared myself for this after reading all of the race reviews so although it was frustrating beyond belief, I wasn’t blind-sided by it. These aid stations definitely added time to my overall time (and most likely everyone else’s), but it was something I knew was going to happen. When I run Chicago next week, I’m going to hug the volunteers because although I have always appreciated them in the past, I didn’t realize just how world-class Chicago is compared to other large events and how they have more than enough volunteers to make the experience positive!

Because the race started so late, by the time I hit 18 miles it was starting to get pretty hot (in the 70s). Fortunately I trained through much hotter and humid in Chicago so I could handle it, but I’m still not sure why the start time is so late for a September race! Miles 18-21 hovered in the 7:50s and it was around mile 22 that I really started fighting. This was the infamous “wall” that I’ve hit every marathon, but this time around, my mind was so much stronger and even though my pace slowed to about an 8:15 for the last 4 miles, I never once walked. The fact that my last 4 miles were still faster than my overall pace in my previous PR was something that was amazing to me. In these 4 miles I knew that the BQ was mine if I just kept running and that it was up to me to determine just how far under that I could go. I was passing people left and right, even at a slower pace, and it was honestly the coolest thing. Normally in those last 4 miles I’m the one being passed so passing others was propelling me to keep going. I reminded myself that I worked so hard for this and that I should feel strong. Unfortunately, I think a lot of my energy had been wasted in the first half of the race being so congested so I didn’t have much kick by the end of the race, but when I saw the Bradenberg Gate, I started pumping my arms again to make it to the finish. I tried hard to get under the 3:28 and make it to 3:27 but I just had nothing left in the tank. I finished in 3:28:06 and sat down as soon as I could. It was a PR by 10:11 and my first BQ. I wish I could tell you I was crying and emotional in that moment, which was what I had envisioned crossing the line, but I was literally so gassed that all I wanted to do was sit down (so anticlimactic, I know, but marathons are hard!). A volunteer came to check on me and I got up to start moving, but seriously had no energy left so I hobbled my way over to get my medal, then made my way towards refreshments. I needed water desperately and drank probably 10 cups worth before finally finding a water bottle.

I almost had forgotten about the race poncho since I was still super hot, but saw a sign for ponchos and hobbled over to get mine. I was glad I had grabbed one as I quickly started cooling off and being so sweaty left me cold. I definitely recommend going with the poncho option for this reason because it took me about an hour after the race to find my husband in all the chaos and without the poncho I would’ve had no covering. I’m still debating on whether or not it was harder to run the marathon or to take the shoe chip timer off post-marathon (kidding…but it was a close second). Just trying to bend over to take my shoe off was next to impossible as my muscles started seizing up. I was cracking up because the guy sitting next to me spoke Italian and we couldn’t converse, but he could understand my post-marathon pain since that is a universal language! Eventually I got the shoe off to take the chip timer off, then made my way to an exit gate. You had to turn in your timing chip at the gate or else you would be charged $25; it was next to impossible to find the lady with a bucket to turn your chip into but finally I found her and was able to go find my husband. An hour after finishing, we were reunited and then had to start making our way back to the hotel.

From my husband’s perspective, this was a terrible race to spectate because many of the subway stations had been closed down for the race so it was hard to get around. He had planned to see me 3 times (7K, 21K, and 37K), but missed seeing me at 7K because it was crazy congested, couldn’t get to 21K on time to see me, and saw me at 37K but I did not see him. We had to walk about 3 miles back to the hotel after the race and I was so dead. There were no good public transportation options and many of the roads were still closed so taking an Uber wasn’t an option. I got about 65,000 steps in for the day (35ish miles!) and because of how tired I was, didn’t eat a meal until around 8:30 p.m.

This was probably the most frustrating race I’ve ever run, but it taught me a lot about grit and how strong I have become to have overcome obstacles thrown at me left and right and still to achieve my goal of a BQ. I have a goal of doing all 6 marathon majors so I’m glad I had the opportunity to do Berlin, but I would caution anyone trying to go for a fast time to mentally prepare for the crowds and chaos. It is definitely possible to PR and fun fast, but I took a lot more effort than I was anticipating on a flat course. However, my husband did give me some good perspective; I have the tendency to go out fast in marathons and to suffer for it later in the race so the congestion did hold me back in a sense and kept me honest.

I’m thankful for this experience and for the amazing training cycle I had. I stayed injury free and had some really great workouts, despite a crazy hot and humid summer in Chicago. This training cycle brought back a lot of confidence to me and my running and I’m so excited for the next challenge and to be at the point where I can set new, bigger goals! From the silly 19-year old who thought she could BQ in 2012 (and died halfway through to finish in a 4:10) to 6.5 years later finally achieving that BQ dream, I’ve come a long way.

Oh and the 10 day trip wasn’t so shabby either! We spent time in Berlin, Prague, Bavaria, and Munich. I would definitely recommend doing your trip after the marathon because I felt like I could fully experience the trip and not worry about diet or how many miles I walked because the race was over. I got to be fully present on our trip and had the most incredible time. I recommend picking just a few places to visit otherwise you’ll feel like you’re spending all of your time traveling and not exploring a city. I felt we had an appropriate time in each place, but could’ve definitely used an extra day in Bavaria because I’m much more of a mountain girl than a city girl! It was absolutely stunning.

What’s Next?

So where do we go from here? Well for starters, on October 7th, I’ll be running the Chicago Marathon! I had signed up with a time qualifier for Chicago before finding out about the lottery results for Berlin so that is the only reason I’m running two marathons so close together (3 weeks apart). I don’t recommend it, but so far my recovery is going really well and if things look good for race day, I’m going to try to chase another PR because I think there was more in store based on what I trained for this summer. But, I’m not putting any pressure on myself and have 0 expectations going in because I accomplished my overall goal in Berlin and know that my body, even if no longer sore, is still recovering from the marathon.

I applied for Boston 2019 and have yet to hear back, but depending on those results, that will determine my Spring plan. As for the rest of 2018, I’m not racing and am going to just run for fun and to maintain fitness. We moved into our new house at the end of August and I really want to focus on making it feel more like home which up until now I had no time for! In mid-October, I’ll be taking a course to get my RRCA Coaching Certification which is something I have envisioned doing for a long time. I can give a lot of advice based on my 10+ years of running, but I want to be as informed as possible before trying to really coach others. Finally, I’m on a “vision-quest” as my husband calls it, and will be trying to find my professional passion because it’s an area of my life I’ve been neglecting but has caused me the most stress and anxiety over the last several years. I have a feeling I’m going to take a risk, but there is nothing more important than your happiness; this is the newest “unicorn” I’ll be chasing so stay tuned for updates on that!

If you’re still reading this, you’re awesome, and thanks for your support! Keep on chasing your unicorn, whatever it may be.

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