The weird thing was, I was neither nervous nor anxious in the days and hours leading up to the Berlin Marathon. I slept poorly the night before the race, but not because I was worried about whether I’d do well, or about the conditions I might face. It was excitement that kept my mind churning until 2 a.m. Finally, I’d run ready and rested. Finally, I'd discover what I was capable of doing.
There was also the fact of what this marathon wasn’t: an Ironman triathlon. I can’t emphasize enough how daunting the details of Ironman are for me. This past June at my second go-round at Coeur d’Alene, experience and checklists together couldn’t keep me from spiraling into exhaustion as I pondered clothing, equipment, nutrition and hydration possibilities, fretted about forgetting things and wondered how weather might derail me. Logistics are not my strong suit and maybe Ironman doesn’t actually punish every miscue, but its complexity and length make it less forgiving than marathon.
Sweet, simple marathon: a run from here to there.
Plus, there was my buddy Steve, running his first marathon on brave but short training. Sure I provided him insight and reassurance, but let’s be honest: When fear and uncertainty, that blood-sucking duo, entered the room they knew they had an easier mark than me. And there was this about Steve: As a longtime Berlin resident, he bestowed upon me advantages not common at a faraway marathon. I had a comfortable apartment to stay in instead of a hotel room, and keen local knowledge at the ready. I told him what time I thought we ought to arrive at the race site and he knew the train to get on and when.
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I often wonder how much detail to include in these race reports. Do readers really want to know about the bowel movements? And indeed, I believe I just heard somebody mutter, “Dude, don’t go there.” Fair enough, but this is a real concern if you plan on running hard and don’t wish to spend time seeking refuge on the course. You want to make sure your business is completed. And the way things went for me on race morning in Berlin says a lot about the kind of day it would turn out to be.
A typical scenario for me is two visits to the toilet before leaving home, then a couple more to the porta-potties at the race site. These appointments might not always be productive, but they always feel—literally—necessary. Race morning in Berlin? There was one visit before leaving the apartment. That was it. Never even thought about needing to squat after that. As for the less grave but still potentially troublesome matter of finding a place to pee, that too was a non-issue. In Berlin, the procedure was: amble up to a bank of bushes or into a grove of trees in the sprawling greenery that is the Tiergarten, where the race began and finished, and let loose.
The race was set for 9 a.m. Around 8:30, I jogged a little and did a few striders, hit the bushes one last time, then lined up in the Group D block, for runners whose previous marathon times made a 3:00-3:15 effort within the realm of possibility. The starting line was a few hundred yards in front of me and the vast crowd behind me—more than 40,000 people were registered for the race—stretched down the Strasse des 17 Juni, toward the Branderburg Gate, for what could have been a kilometer. (Yes, a kilometer; for this marathon, in the heart of Europe, I adopted a metric mindset.) Somewhere back there was Steve, with a lot on the line—for himself, and for me.
* * *
The pretense of this blog was a head-to-head matchup with the great Haile Gebrselassie. At Berlin, I asked, could I beat my previous best marathon time by more than Geb could beat his? Geb’s best was the world record of 2:03:59, set in 2008 at Berlin; my best was 3:18:52, set at Boston in 2008. You could say my time presented me a tad more downside potential than Geb’s did him. If Geb could take even a minute off his world mark it would be an amazing achievement. Me, a minute would maybe put me in the front of the front of the middle of pack, instead of the middle of the front of the middle of the pack.
Really, though, my goal wasn’t even to run a minute, or three minutes or eight minutes faster. There wasn’t a number. Believe me, this claim sounds more ridiculous to me than it does to you, because there’s always been a number, or set of numbers. But as strange as my calm was before the race, equally odd was how slippery a numerical goal was proving to be. I wanted to beat my Boston time but that didn’t seem like enough. I thought I might wiggle below 3:10, but that would be a huge drop—hell, I’d gone from 3:49 in my first marathon to 3:41, then to 3:35, then to 3:24 before that Boston effort, then to 3:18. Meanwhile, I was not getting younger. At nearly 47 years old could I reasonably ask myself to run considerably faster than I did at 45?
A couple of factors said yes. First, there was the “10-year rule.” This is often attributed to Joe Henderson, but Henderson himself credits fellow runner and writer Joan Ullyot with saying, “No matter what your age when you start racing, you can expect about 10 years of improvement. That's how long it takes to learn the game.” (Ullyot got her own marathon PR at age 48, in her 12th year running the distance.) The other thing was, I actually trained to run this marathon. My earlier marathons had all come as by-products of triathlon training. True, that training was weighted toward running because running was what I liked and was good at, and I am not immune to the human tendency to favor that which I like and am good at. Still, that translated to just 30 miles of running a week, on average, with no thought given to tempo runs and long runs and track work, and how a good mix all of these types of training could push me toward my potential.
So this time around, in the two solid months of training post-Coeur d'Alene, I ran more miles than ever, hitting a three-week plateau of 60 per week. More importantly, my training was built around the FIRST program's aggressive pacing on three weekly core runs: tempo, track and long. As Berlin approached, I knew I was in the best running shape of my life. I'd done three 20-mile runs, the last at under 7:30 per mile. I rocked the Yasso 800s under 3:00. I was sure that with a good taper I could have gone out and smashed my PR by at least a couple of minutes.
My half-marathon PR, that is.
Lingering, still, was a sense that what had happened in most of my marathons could happen in Berlin: a dramatic fall-off in pace over the final few miles.
* * *
With 40,000 runners, you'd think the first few miles would be an obstacle course filled with skipping, swerving, jostling and leaping to get past slower runners and let faster ones by. Not so at Berlin. We had both sides of the Strasse des 17 Juni, plus the center median. Plenty of room as we headed toward the Siegassaule, the Victory Column. I was to the starting line just a little over two minutes after the gun sounded and hit the 1K sign 4:36 after crossing the starting line. It was then that I firmed up my squishy goal pace. I would aim for 4:30 kilometers. That would translate to a three-hour, 10-minute finishing time—but that really wasn't what I was thinking. Rather, my thought was that 4:30/kilometer was the right spot between manageable and ambitious, between going too easy and falling short of my potential and going too hard and blowing up. Between, you could say, fear and ambition.
I ran. I ran comfortably and with great pleasure. Berlin unfolded around me, a bit blurry in hindsight, but glorious, unique, historic, grand. I know there were gaps here and there, but it felt as though deep crowds lined the streets the entire way. The sound, it was like being on the coast at Mendocino, with voices punctuating the undulating roar, voices often shouting "Danmark," for I was among a clutch of Danes wearing their colors. At two spots, first down in Shoneberg, passing through the platz where Kennedy declared his allegiance to Berlin nearly a half-century ago, and later, damn, I can't remember where, before we got to the Kurfurstendamm, I know that, I remember hearing church bells folding into the crowd noise, and it all made me tingle and feel inspired and strong.
I had my Garmin 305 set to record a lap every kilometer. It got ahead of the course early on—to be expected, since the course was measured to be 42.195 kilometers at its absolute possible shortest route, and even my best efforts at running good tangents would take me away from that minimal path. So my kilometer splits came a few meters before each sign, at first, then several dozen meters, then a hundred meters … the gap gradually growing. But it didn't matter. I was getting a good read on my pace, and it was remaining consistently at or below 4:30/kilometer. I sped up to work my way around a group of runners, and slowed a little when I hit the aid stations—and, in a big change from my normal practice, I did hit nearly all of them.
In all my marathons before Berlin, I operated, I think, under the assumption that I needn't worry about fuel or hydration; after all, a marathon was so much shorter than a half-iron triathlon (let alone an Ironman). A few sips and nibbles here and there, I had always figured, would be enough to get me through. More careful study, however—of expert opinion and my own experience—inspired me to make a change at Berlin. I became convinced that, as with the rest of humanity, I had the glycogen stores to get me through 20 or so miles, but not 26.2; and that significant dehydration could and would slow me. Whether it was by 1 percent or 3 percent, I didn't want it to happen. So I would eat and I would drink. With the forecast for warm, sunny conditions—60F to start, and well into the 70s by noon—the task would be doubly important, and more difficult, but I was 100 percent behind the plan.
So nearing 5K—my first opportunity for water—I tore open one of the two gels I was carrying and began sucking it down. It was the usual chaos approaching the aid station but I did my best to check my blind spot and drift to the right side—barely slowing down, but avoiding cutting anyone off—to get a cup of water. A lot of it splashed away as I grabbed it from the table, but I pounded the two or three ounces that remained. That was another part of my fueling/hydration scheme: gulping instead of sipping. One of the worst things that can happen in a race is to be thirsty and to be drinking but to have liquid sloshing around in your stomach. Gulping, studies show, enhances absorption. It took me another kilometer or two to finish off the gel, by which time I was at the next aid station, which offered a Euro version of Gatorade called Basica. I grabbed a cup—and gulped.
I ran. It was never a problem maintaining the 4:30 pace over the first half of the course. If anything, I had to fight the urge to speed up. There was a 4:19 kilometer in there in the early going, and several under 4:30, particularly from 10k to 15k, which I ran at a 4:24 pace. I briefly, very briefly, flirted with the idea of rethinking my goal pace to 4:25, but sanity prevailed. I told myself that if I was really in such great shape, if I was really meant to run faster, well, I'd get my chance to prove it in the final 10k. For now, steady she goes.
I hit the half-marathon mark in 1:34:24—that's 4:28.5 per kilometer, just slightly faster than what I was aiming for. I was continuing to hit nearly every aid station, and had eaten my second gel after the 15k mark. Just before or after the half mark, I can't remember, I saw a Team Red Lizard singlet up ahead. I'm a member, though up until recently I hadn't acted like one. I surged ahead to chat with the guy, who I knew had run Boston in 3:13 and was hoping for something better in Berlin. I also knew, however, that he'd arrived from the West Coast on Friday, just two days before the race, which seemed ludicrous to me. I had arrived on Monday, and it took a good three days for the nine-time-zone dislocation to be neutralized. I don't know if it was jet leg that did him in or something else, but my Red Lizard compatriot didn't look or sound good, and after a brief chat I left him behind.
* * *
Here's what I thought about after the halfway point (when I thought about anything): If I run the final X number of kilometers at a five-minute pace, I'll still beat my PR—and every kilometer under five minutes means more time under my PR. This was wily thinking, a deft combination of optimism and pessimism: optimism in that it allowed for slowing but not blowing up (I just didn't think that was going to happen); pessimism in that it was mostly about avoiding disaster, instead of reaching beyond my grasp.
I kept up with the 4:30s through about 30k. Around there, the running, for the first time, began to feel like work. I wasn't suffering, but my legs began to gain some weight; it took more concentration, more effort to keep things humming along. And, in fact, I began to slow. Below are my splits for each 5k segment of the race, plus the final 2.2k (they couldn't make the marathon a nice, even 40k?). I'm quite proud of the consistency of the splits, but you can see that they do begin to fall off a bit:
5k: 22:36 (4:31/k)
10k: 22:37 (4:32/k)
15k: 22:03 (4:24/k)
20k: 22:18 (4:28/k)
25k: 22:32 (4:30/k)
30k: 22:45 (4:33/k)
35k: 22:48 (4:43/k)
40k: 22:52 (4:34/k)
End: 9:21 (4:15/k)
But I didn't panic. This was still good. Remember, ever kilometer under five minutes was now taking me even further under my PR. So I stayed cool, worked a little harder, and got closer to the end.
* * *
Late in the race, I never did any hard math on getting sub-3:10. I don't even remember when it occurred to me that I might have a shot. In fact, it may not have. I recall thinking it took a long time to get from 37k to 39k; I'd become confused somehow and thought the 37k sign was going to be 38k. When it wasn't, I felt like I was being asked to do an extra kilometer. I sagged ever so slightly, the only time all day. Finally, though, we made the turn off the Leipziger Strasse—there was the 40k aid station!—and were heading north, soon to meet Unter den Linden for the climatic straight through the Brandenburger Tor.
Forty kilometers. Shit, I said to myself: this thing is nearly over. There's no falling apart to fear now; there's no time to fall apart, not enough distance to go. There's no reason not to go hard. That's really what the final 2.2k was about. I wasn't chasing 3:10. No, I went hard because I'd trained my ass off for this race, thought about it endlessly, been knocked for a glorious, giddy loop by its grandeur and utter coolness, and now I had fuel in the tank and nothing to lose.
There was a patch of cobblestone along that final stretch that I didn't like, but I got through it. For a good while down along the way it was hard to tell where the damn finish line was, what with the Morgenpost banner and the Gate and then it was beyond there somewhere, somewhere. So I just kept going, running the final 2.2 at a 4:15/k pace, which is 6:50/mile, which is faster than half-marathon race pace for me and may not impress you or Geb but makes me feel really, really good. I didn't know that's what it would take to get 3:10, but it did, and I did it.
My time of 3:09:54 placed me 1,992nd out of 35,031 finishers, and 316st out of 4,992 finishers in the men 45-49 age group.
* * *
What's next? Well, being 40+ and sneaking in under 3:10 gets me into New York, and now that I've got check marks next to Boston and Berlin, I'm thinking I'd like to do the five marathon majors (London and Chicago are the other two). There'll be more races along the way, mostly running, probably some shorter-distance triathlons, too. But there will also be a lot of swim training, a hell of a lot of swim training. You see, my buddy Steve, well, the deal was that if he ran the marathon under five hours, I'd join him in attempting to swim the Strait of Gibraltar. Kooky, eh?