For all of the build-up and anticipation and training, the Berlin Marathon is one big 42-kilometer blur. That’s something I don’t think I expected about marathons before running one: how so many moments would fade into each other and become one amorphous mass of neighborhoods and water stops and discarded gel packs. Did I high-five those kids at KM 20 or 32? Where was the neighborhood where everyone was banging on pots and pans?
But while it’s still somewhat fresh — and before this plane lands in Munich and deposits me straight into four days of beer and pretzels — I’m going to try to remember.
The race started at 9, and being in the last corral meant I wouldn’t start till some time after, so we got to sleep in by race-day standards and left our hotel a little after 7:30. It was chilly (I was grateful for my arm warmers and for our 2.5K walk to warm up) but also cloudless, and I was worried about how hot and sunny it might get.
We walked through the Brandenburg Gate and saw part of what we thought was the finish, then made our way toward bag check. We were only checking one bag, under Pete’s number, and that led to one of the only organizational fails of the whole weekend: his booth was actually in a row set apart from the main booths with no path through. We (and about 50 other people) ended up squeezing through a precarious break between two tents and got the bag in just before the 8:30 cutoff. Pete headed to his corral and I got in a porta potty line, where I spent the next 28 minutes fretting and staring at my watch before finally getting my turn. I headed to Corral H, where all 4:15+ and first-time marathoners were, just as the elite race started.
H got its own start around 9:20. There were three Americans in front of me who kept saying “I can’t believe we’re here!” I was having a hard time fathoming what was about to happen, so I kept repeating “You love this city. You love this sport.” Just, I guess, trying to remind myself how and why I’d ended up there.
start to 5K
The start wrapped around both sides of the big statue in the middle of Berlin’s Tiergarten. I was on the left and watched in awe as we split from the right half, then merged back together – a huge sea of runners. I expected to run for a while without music, but after the immediate thrill of the start, the crowd really thinned out — especially on my side of the road; it was one of the quieter spots of the day. So I turned on my playlist somewhere before 2KM (the first marker I saw) and kept it on for most of the race, though I paused some for bands and frequently for crowds.
I was focusing on running easy and my watch was all over the place on instant pace, so I decided to wait till I got a steady stream of believable data and then flip over to average pace, which I think happened around 5K.
Random snippets from the first 5K: there was a giant Adidas installation at 2K spewing red confetti; I don’t remember any bands; it was really, really sunny. I spent a lot of time looking for the coffee shop where we’d watched the inline skating race on Saturday but never saw it.
Also around 5K was the first big water stop. It was AWFUL. Berlin uses plastic cups, and when they get tossed on the ground and stepped on, they splinter, and they’re slippery and bits fly up everywhere. I eventually learned how to pick up my feet and get through it, but I honestly dreaded every single water stop after that.
I don’t remember a whole lot from this bit, except I crossed the 10K timing mat exactly on the pace I’d told my parents to expect (I crossed at 1:06 and had given them a range of 1:03-1:08). I thought I might see them around 6 or 7K but it turns out they’d gone ahead (which makes sense — Pete and I were already probably 45 minutes apart at that point between pace and start time).
We also had a few stretches with shade, which made me realize just how much I was loving every single second of the race with shade (and how little I was enjoying the sun). Luckily, the second part of the course was a lot less exposed, but at this point I was just reminding myself to take advantage of every tree-covered stretch.
I remember being sad when I got to 15K, because it felt like I’d gone more than nine miles. (Something about having kilometer markers messed with my head, especially in this stretch — with 42 bits to tick off, instead of 26, I was constantly aware of where I was and exactly how much further there was to go.) My Rocktane kicked in shortly after that, though, and that perked me up.
It was in this stretch that I realized I was going to need a bathroom stop, soon. They seemed to be coming every few K, so I decided I’d try to hold out for 20. I was still running well and on pace, but I knew that wasn’t going to last if I didn’t stop.
I spotted a guy in a 2009 SF Half Marathon shirt and tried to catch up to him for probably a solid 4K. But when I stopped at the porta potty just after the KM 20 checkpoint, I lost him (as well as two guys with yellow flags who I’d assumed were 4:45 pacers, but considering that I finished ahead of them, they might have been just guys running in funny outfits).
My watch had been reading around a 10:22/mile average till the bathroom stop, but the time I spent there clicked it up to 10:40, and I never got it back down. Hard to tell because my watch laps are in miles, but I think I lost 4 or 5 minutes at that stop. I knew I was trading a slightly better time for a more comfortable race, but I was willing to deal with that.
Oh: there was no toilet paper in any porta potty the whole race, including the one I used before the start. I had two tissues with me, and I was rationing them.
So, I crossed 20K at 2:10, which I was thrilled with, but I didn’t get to the halfway point at 21K until 2:20. That kind of sucked because I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to wildly exceed my expectations. But: OK. First marathon, just want to finish, etc.
Race math kicked in around here. I had 5K to 25K, and from 25K it would only be an hour or so to my last checkpoint at 35K. And from 35K, it was just a little jaunt to the finish. I could handle that.
My stomach wasn’t feeling great (and never did again until, like, Monday) but I got a great boost from three things in this stretch: First, I saw my parents somewhere around 22-23K. I heard my name and I screamed and waved and attempted to jump up and down, which I bet did not look much like jumping. Second, I remembered I had salt packets in my shirt pocket, and I pulled over to walk one of the longer aid stations and take one. (By this point I was briefly walking at every second or third stop to refill my handheld anyway.) That salt saved my race. I’d taken margarita shot bloks at 1:45 into the race, but they did NOTHING compared to this straight-up fast food salt. And third, we went through one of my favorite stretches of the course, in the southwestern part of the city, where it seemed like entire streets had rolled out of bed to cheer.
Despite the salt, I again knew I’d be happier with another bathroom stop, but it wasn’t particularly urgent, so I decided to get to 30K first and stop at the bathroom with the shortest line after that.
I think it was around here that we went past a big wall fountain sponsored by a drinking water company and some fire trucks with their hoses spraying us. I also definitely high-fived some kids. And I think a water stop with gel packets was in this stretch, which was memorable because it made the road all gooey.
The 30K bathroom stop took FOREVER. There were only two people in line and one ditched shortly after I got there — which probably should have been my sign that this would not be so quick after all, but I stuck it out. Again, I was sad to lose the time but happy to feel better.
Before that stop, I’d been running awesomely for probably 20 or 30 minutes — feeling strong, passing people, picking up a bit of the speed I’d lost. I hoped I could get it back and cruise in for the finish, and while I never felt that good again until right before the end, I also never had a truly low moment.
I also remember a super terrifying water stop around here, where the road was noticeably slick for several hundred meters with plastic cups and Powerade.
From the second I crossed the 35K time pad, I was counting down to the 37K marker. How many times had I run 5K? I was enjoying the race, and I wasn’t wishing for it to end, but I *knew* that when I hit 37K, I would be able to finish. Also, given my total time, I thought that if I hit that mark at 4:15, I could finish under 4:45, which sounded good.
Aaaand I never saw the marker. Pete didn’t either, so maybe it wasn’t there, or else it was in a very odd location. This was the closest I came to hitting a wall: though I still felt OK physically, I let myself give in mentally. “Well, you can’t finish in 4:45, but you could basically walk the rest of the race and break 5. So, why NOT take one more potty break and walk this last big water stop?” And that’s exactly what I did: quick break in a bathroom with no line, quick walk for some Powerade and my second salt packet (which once again immediately relieved a side stitch; I will race every race with backup salt packets from now on). I started jogging, resigning myself to having 5.5K or so to go … And then I saw the next marker. For 38K.
Well, OKAY then.
I’d inadvertently paused my watch at the last bathroom, so I didn’t know my race time. But I was sure that even though 4:45 wasn’t happening, 4:50 could. And really, at that moment, I felt awesome. I told myself it was only about 4 songs to 40K, so I should chill and ride it out with my music till then and then go kill the finish.
It was a weird moment. I realized most people around me were walking. I was one of the only ones running, and I mean, I’ve walked at mile 12 of a half-marathon before, so I know that feeling, but all I wanted was to get to 40KM and TAKE OFF. I also finally saw (and passed) the guy in the San Francisco shirt, and I wanted to thank him for pacing me for basically the whole middle of the race, but he veered off for water just as I caught up.
We were making a lot of turns in this part of the course, and I wasn’t ever quite sure where I was, but we suddenly were in front of some museums, and I knew we must be getting close. I started giggling, and I said out loud, “I OWN this shit.”
And then we turned and ran past an Adidas thing that was pouring gold confetti into the street, and I saw the final inflatable arch and the Brandenburg Gate. Which I was about to run through.
And I swear, I’m a crier anyway, but seeing that was one of the biggest emotional rushes I’ve ever had. I yelled “HOLY SHIT!” and then clapped my hand over my mouth, and I was laugh-crying and speeding up and honestly, I wish I could run that last 1.5K every day forever.
I went through the gate and mugged for every photographer (apparently to no end, because I have zero official photos of me running) and sprinted the 400 or so meters past the gate to the actual finish, looking up into the grandstands and listening to the crowd cheering. And then I was done. 4:48:08.
I really wanted someone to put the medal around my neck. Usually I just take them, but I wanted to be crowned or something, I guess, so I found a volunteer and bent down for my medal. They gave us plastic sheets instead of space blankets, and mine stuck to me and I ditched it not long after. I found volunteers giving out bags of food, got a finisher’s photo with my medal, and started walking to the family reunion area, because it was becoming clear that I wanted to stop moving and if I stopped before I got there it might be hours before I made it.
I also stopped in a porta potty along the way and it HAD TOILET PAPER. I actually said, out loud, “Oh my god, finally!” And then I took some extra and put it in my bag, because apparently I’d gone full hoarder.
I also had to stop and unlace my shoe to take off and return my timing chip, which took me forever, partly because I was talking to everyone around me about how much that sucked and couldn’t we just take a nap first?
I made it to family reunion and Pete and my parents got there a few minutes later. We took some pictures, found the Adidas tent to buy race shirts (I’d been too superstitious to get one at the expo), and shuffled the 2.5K to our hotel. On the way we saw some people running and Pete remarked that he didn’t understand how running was a thing anyone could ever do, which I heartily agreed with.
I didn’t feel terrible after. My feet and knees and right hip were worst, but not so much more than a normal long run. I’m sure the flat course helped. I didn’t want to eat for a while — it took me 45 minutes to eat half a roll from my finishers’ bag — but when I did, I was STARVING, and we went around the corner where I ate this.
Germany apparently hates ice so my substitute was running cold water on my legs in the shower. Getting out of bed on Monday morning was not fun, but we did some walking around the city and by Tuesday, when I’m writing this, I felt almost normal.
I have so much more to say about the race — about logistics, for anyone who might ever want to run this race, and about what I learned about myself and running over those 42 kilometers. But there’s beer to drink and sausages to eat and lord knows this is long enough already, so I will save that for when I’m back at a computer with a real keyboard.
For now: I’ll end with this picture Pete got at the finish. I’m in the middle of the three people in lime green, grinning like a fool.