Registration for the 2013 Berlin Marathon starts Thursday (um, ahem, and sold out in three and a half hours. I’m going to leave this post up for any lucky folks who got in, as well as just in case more registrations open up later). I can hardly believe it’s been a year since we first started dreaming up our destination race trip. While my experience is still fresh, I wanted to write a bit about the logistics of Berlin — from registering to getting there to eating.
The tl;dr version is: It’s a race I loved in a city I adore with the perfect timing to hit Oktoberfest after, and I think you should
go sign up right now hope that a lot of people don’t complete their registrations by Nov. 5 and thus release the slots back into the world so you can have one.
The long version is … long.
Frankly, I think the Berlin Marathon is a steal. Registration goes in three waves: The first 10,000 people at 60 Euros, the next 15,000 at 90 Euros, and then 110 Euros for the rest. (Last year, at least, some of the 40,000 entries were reserved for people who booked travel packages, and I’m not sure if that’s the case for 2013. If I were doing it again, I’d assume that only 35,000 entries would be truly publicly available.) At the current exchange rate, that equals $78 / $117 / $143. My understanding is that Chicago registration usually starts around $150, and NYC is well over $200. This story claims that among US marathons, only the Marine Corps Marathon has entry fees under $100, which is definitely not true (Avenue of the Giants, Pete’s first marathon, costs $60), but for a major city marathon, it’s got to be one of the cheapest. Hell, the Nike half marathon was $130 the year I ran. (In fairness, Berlin doesn’t include a T-shirt in the registration price. You can pre-order at registration or wait till the expo or after the race if you want to buy one.) Of course, entering the race isn’t the biggest expense if you’re traveling in from abroad. Everything else is. So, moving on…
The Registration Process
A few things of note. One: We had to fill out a health survey before we were allowed to register; only after filling out the survey did you get a code that would unlock the payment part of the site. There wasn’t anything to verify that the code was unique, though, so as far as Berlin is concerned, Pete and I were both 30-year-old 5’1″ women. Two: You have to pay with a credit card that will still be valid at the time of the race; one of mine was set to expire in June 2012, so I couldn’t use it to pay for my entry in November 2011. Three: For various life-related reasons, we didn’t register till the last week entries were open, and I found the news feed on the site incredibly valuable and up-to-date in terms of how fast the race was filling. I set up an RSS feed and didn’t panic till the race was down to 5,000 entries.
Berlin is building a new airport, so booking travel was more drama than it needed to be. We bought tickets shortly after we registered — 10 months in advance, earlier than I usually buy plane tickets — and options seemed fairly limited. I now wonder if airlines just weren’t willing to commit to routes before they were sure the new airport would open on time (which, in fact, it didn’t; it’s now supposed to open sometime in spring 2013). After several itinerary changes, we ended up on a direct flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt with a short connection to Berlin. Since there will probably be a whole different airport by next year’s marathon, I have few useful tips to offer, except for this: We fought like mad for a 7 p.m. departure out of San Francisco. My recollection from years on the East Coast is that night-departure flights to Europe are more plentiful there, but they’re rare from San Francisco, and I wanted to get the best chance to sleep at something approximating my normal bedtime. It worked and was worth the time fighting with United.
The race starts and ends near the Brandenburg Gate, and we stayed about 2.5 kilometers away in the Mitte area. We knew we liked the neighborhood (we had stayed there briefly on a trip in 2011) and 2.5K seemed like a reasonable distance to be away from the race activity. Our hotel was the Motel One Berlin-Alexanderplatz, part of a budget chain with a young, design-y sensibility. Of four total times I’ve stayed in hotels in Germany, three have been at Motel Ones, and if you’re a relatively low-maintenance traveler, I recommend the chain. We took good advantage of the lobby bar and its free WiFi, watched a few hours of ridiculous European cable in the room, and enjoyed the view of the TV tower from our window. We walked to the start and finish, but I assume it would have been possible to get there via one of the S-bahn or U-bahn lines, many of which stop at the Alexanderplatz station in Mitte. My parents stayed on the other end of the Tiergarten in Charlottenburg, a bit further from the start/finish but not unreasonably so, and there are plenty of hotels in that area.
Berlin can get a bad rap for its food, but I’ve had plenty of good meals there, and only one of them was currywurst. Our hotel was right across from Spreegold, a great fast-casual place (with free WiFi; see what I care about?). We wanted to eat at 12 Apostel the night before the race but it was booked (we ate there later and were quite happy); we ended up at Basil, which was near the hotel and a solid meal despite the stupid women-in-lingerie-eating-pasta imagery. We also had great Singaporean food in Prenzlauer Berg (I just tried to find the place and brought up no fewer than five Singaporean places in Prenzlauer Berg, so that says something) and, on our previous trip, great falafel in Kreuzberg. One restaurant I’m still sad we didn’t get to try is Zum Schwarzen Hasen, a “German tapas” place that looked amazing but wasn’t open for lunch the day we wandered by. Also: berlinerweisse, hand-mixed, woodruff syrup. See above.
The expo was in an old airport, which made for some funny interactions as we tried to find which hangar housed packet pick-up. It’s pitched as a health-and-fitness fair for the public (anyone can pay a small fee to enter, but it’s free for participants and a couple of friends/family members each), so I expected a blowout event, but it was pretty similar to most big-race expos I’ve attended in the past (other than the booths being spread through several airplane hangars and across the tarmac). As official sponsors, Adidas and Powerbar dominated one hangar, so if you want any three-stripe gear or European gels (which are square and come in flavors like Green Apple and Blackcurrant), this expo can definitely provide. We rushed to get there on Friday and only had about half an hour before closing, so we didn’t explore much, other than to do a foot analysis at the Adidas booth and take a silly photo at the Brooks stall. Possibly notable: Free stuff in the goodie bag included a box of pasta, some Powerbar energy powder I brought back but haven’t tried, a sponge for dipping in buckets of cold water along the race course, a ticket for the official marathon after-party that we didn’t attend, some chocolate, and a German running magazine. (Official shirts are also for sale, though we waited and bought ours after the race. In retrospect, I wish I’d tried one on when I wasn’t all sweaty.)
The Saturday before the marathon has several race-related events, including a kids’ “mini marathon” and an inline skating race that takes place on nearly the same route as the marathon. On Saturday afternoon, we watched the inline skaters whiz by from a cafe in the Moabit neighborhood, near the 5K mark, and tried to get our heads around what it would feel like to run past that same spot the next day. But by far my favorite pre-race event was the Breakfast Run, a semi-organized casual run from Schloss Charlottenburg to the 1936 Olympic stadium (aka, the evilest of all Olympic stadiums). I was told 10,000 people generally show up, and I believe it.
The run is about 6K and ends with a lap of the stadium track, which this total Olympic nerd was completely over the moon about. Then, there’s breakfast, which is about the quality of a standard post-race spread (yogurts, rolls, crepe-like pancakes that were highly sought-after). Basically, if you like running, the Olympics, and fair-to-middling-but-definitely-free breakfast foods, the Breakfast Run is not to be missed.
This is what running it was like for me, so I’ll just say a few words about logistics. Good stuff: big, looping course (no out-and-backs, lots of different neighborhoods and landmarks, conveniently passes a lot of transit stations so spectators can follow along); plenty of water stops (one every 3-4K, alternating between water only and water/sports drinks/bananas); great crowd support, especially near any transit station; the coolest finish ever (I will start laugh-crying again right now if I remember the moment the Brandenburg Gate came into view); blue line for tangents painted on the ground. Not-so-good stuff: plastic cups at the water stops (slippery, crunchy); a few crowded spots when the course merges from both sides of the road down to one side in the first 10K; could have used more on-course porta potties. Also, they promised me a band every 500 meters, and while I don’t care about bands on race courses (and generally prefer they not be there), if you promise me something ridiculous like a band every 500 meters, I want a band every 500 meters! I’d guess I only saw 20 or so bands.
One logistical hassle of the morning was bag check, and I wish I’d handed stuff off to my parents beforehand, because we checked under Pete’s number and the stall for his drop-off was in a really inaccessible part of the start area (we and a few dozen other people ended up climbing over a cement block and squeezing between tents to get there). I also wish I’d just used the porta potties in my corral instead of the ones by bag check, because Corral H (the last one, for 4:15+ marathoners and those with no prior marathon time) didn’t start till almost 9:30 and it would have saved me some stress to just wait in line there. The finish line experience isn’t the best “flow” — Pete missed the food bag pick-up/medal photo station, and I missed the sports drinks/bananas table, I think because one forked to the left and the other to the right — but it wasn’t awful. The family reunion area is big and well-marked. I was worried about forgetting to return my timing chip and getting charged for it, but there were big signs at the exit, and (other than having to bend over and unlace my shoe!) it was an easy process.
The Berlin Marathon is the last Sunday of September. Oktoberfest goes through the first Sunday of October. Plane tickets from Berlin to Munich on Air Berlin were $100 — for both of us, total. I’m just making a suggestion.
What did I miss? Ask away!