Sunday September 29th
It was before Christmas last year when Darren and I received e-mails to say we had secured entries in Berlin 2019 through their lottery for places ballot. So we had been looking forward to this weekend for a while and there was a fair bit of excitement as the last few days passed by. I always enjoy the build up to a marathon and all that goes with it. You sort of subconsciously get your head ready from early in the week and the path to the startline is shared equally by hope and doubt. The questions that you ask yourself about where exactly your preparation has left you can only be answered come Sunday afternoon. The only thing you can be sure of is that there will be no hiding places in 26.2 miles of running!
Our flight from Dublin was early on the Saturday morning so rather than drive up in the middle of the night we decided to travel up on Friday evening and stay near the airport. Sleep is an important part of the puzzle for a marathon so this would at least afford us a few extra hours. After a straight forward morning we touched down in Berlin and were through the airport and ready to go by 10 am local time. We flew into Tegel airport in the north of the city but would fly back from Schonefeld in the South as the flight from there on Monday would see us back in Donegal at a more convenient time in the evening.
We had decided we would go straight from the airport to the Marathon Expo to pick up our race numbers as we were told it would be crazy busy from Saturday lunch-time on. We got a taxi from Tegel to the Expo which was taking place at a former airport building called Tempelhof in Platz der Luftbrucke. The sheer scale of the expo blew us away. It was such a huge operation with anything you could think of connected to running on display. By the time we got to the queue for our bib numbers at the end of the 4th large hall area we figured we had walked at least a couple of km. On the way in you had to show your race pass and photo i.d. to an official who then secured a band onto your wrist which you would need for entering the start area on race morning.
There was probably 20 counters where you could line up to pick up your number and this involved only about a 15 minute wait despite the crowds. On each number was a letter from A to H that signified which starting block you would be in for the gun. With over 46,000 people due to line up in the morning starting positions would be fairly important. The race would start in four different waves staggered from 9:15 to 10:10. When we were filling in our registrations for the ballot however, the system wouldn’t allow us to enter times from previous marathons completed. We just skipped over this at the time which meant we were viewed as first time marathoners and were both placed in block H. This was the only block in wave 4 and would contain an absolutely huge amount of people. Thankfully if you have ran a quicker marathon than that on your registration the organisers allow you to move forward into the appropriate block as long as it was in the last 3 years and you can show them proof of doing so. We went to the desk which looked after wave changes where I was placed in block D and Darren was moved up to block F.
We didn’t want to use up too much energy in and around the expo so whenever we got sorted with our numbers we picked up our race t-shirts from another desk and made our way to the exit. I had checked things out a bit before we came over so I knew that we could get on the U-bahn at the nearby underground stop and get to our hotel which was just 8 stops away without having to change lines. Once we figured out how to use the ticket machine inside the station this was very straight forward.
We got checked into our hotel which was in the Berlin Mitte region and headed out to a little restaurant for lunch. There was a supermarket next to the hotel which was handy so we picked up some bottles of water and fruit for the hotel and just took it easy for a while. The tv in the room had Sky Sports which was great as we caught up on both the days premier league matches and the action from the world athletics championships.
We decided to take a walk down towards the Brandenburg Gate area which is where the start/finish area of the race would be so we could get our bearings for the morning. On the evening before the Berlin Marathon there is an in-line skating race over the marathon course and a couple of minutes after we arrived down we saw the leading group of skaters come around the corner and make a push towards the finish. We watched the race unfold for a while and it was good to see the sheer speed of them in action. We spent a while down around here just being tourists really and it was nice to take it all in. It took just under 20 minutes to walk down from our hotel so although we could also get a train we decided we would walk it in the morning and that would be our warm up done!
On our way back up we stopped at a bar to have our dinner so that we could then just relax for the night. Between the German menu and the English speaking waitress we got our order in while we resisted adding the German beer to the list. I ordered a shepherds pie like meal with potatoes while Darren went for a steak which was to be served on a stone platter. After she left Darren remarked that she hadn’t asked him how he wanted it done before adding “I hope they don’t cremate it”. Well he was safe enough there! Out came a lovely looking shepherds pie dish and a big lump of raw steak for Darren served on a red hot stone. He had to let it cook himself to his own liking, turning it over and back as it sizzled like crazy! We did have a great laugh at that. We got back to the hotel and got whatever we would need for the morning organised. We then watched another bit of tv, talked over our race plans for a final time and got an early night.
We got up at 6:30 on Sunday morning and went down for breakfast. As I said on my last post I had recently joined up with Milford AC. I had only got to a few club sessions so far but was enjoying being a part of it. This would be my first run out in a club singlet so I was looking forward to that too. There were 3 other Milford athletes running in Berlin as well with Marty Lynch, Anthony Doherty & Damian McBride being over to run here for the second year in a row which left us in the company of real marathon royalty! By chance Marty was staying in the same hotel as us and the other 2 were just 400 metres up the street. We met Marty for breakfast and he was looking fairly laid back but ready to have a go at lowering his phenomenal personal best of 2:36.
We were soon walking down towards the start area with the road becoming more crowded the closer we got. We passed through security at the barriers and again just took in the enormity of the event unfolding around us. We relaxed for a short while before it was time to make our way to the starting blocks. We wished each other luck and arranged to meet at a huge 3-D Erdinger beer bottle afterwards. I had to then get through the entrance to wave 1 and the entrance to block D after that. I got through the barrier and made my way to the front half of the block and just picked a spot. I had 15 minutes until the start so I went down on my hunkers for a while and just thought about what lay ahead. I thought about all the running I had done in Ards forest and other places in preparation for today and now here I was in Berlin. I thought about Sarah and the boys at home and how days like this might somehow inspire them to run a bit in the future. You are also aware of the few family and friends who will be tracking us online and you hope to do as well as you can. With exactly 5 minutes to go I got up and threw my top to the side and enjoyed the building of the atmosphere.
I could hear the elite athletes at the front being unveiled to the crowd and then the big countdown before the starting pistol was fired. From the gun it took me just over 3 minutes to get through the start line where my timing chip would then kick in. Although my block was crowded, once I got over the line I could pretty much run as I wanted and easily got into a rhythm right away. Unfortunately for Darren his block was way more congested and it was almost fully 10 miles into the race before he could get running with any freedom.
My plan was to try break 3 hours & 10 minutes for the first time and I felt if the day went well I shouldn’t be far away. My personal best time was 3:11:26 so this would be the first target to aim for really. I had heard so much about the flat course in Berlin so I hoped this would surely help my cause. This is the first marathon for me where the distance markers were in kilometres instead of miles so I had 42 signs to pass rather than 26! Me & Darren are still old school and work in miles so I decided to carry on like this for the race and left my watch set as it was. There was plenty to be keeping an eye on between the km markers on the road and the mile markers on my watch. At Milford everybody talks in kilometres and when they ask us what our pace per k is for certain runs we say we don’t really know and they just look at us as if we have 2 heads!
I had decided I would try to run at an average of 7:10 per mile which would result in a 3:08 marathon and see how I went as the race progressed. I wrote the 5 and 10 mile splits on my hand and told myself under no circumstances to be quicker at these points. I quickly settled into a nice rhythm and took in my surroundings while I covered mile 1 in exactly 7:10. Perfect. The next 2 miles were a bit looser and although I didn’t feel like I slowed any they took me 7:30 & 7:22 to cover. The first water stop could maybe account for 1 of them. The water stops were crazy busy as you had to really dive into to one of the tables on either side of the road and get back out again before drinking and they did break up your rhythm. Staying hydrated was vital though so you didn’t want to take a chance of passing them by.
For the next few miles I was back nearer my pace as I stayed relaxed and didn’t want to panic about catching up any seconds at this early stage. Passing 5 miles I was about 50 seconds slower than the time on my hand and by mile 10 I was almost the same so my overall pace wasn’t bad. I was mainly concentrating on staying relaxed and not let the work rate up too much yet. In my head I kept thinking about when I would start to run a bit harder so I took this as a good sign. I kept really focussed on the road ahead and didn’t waste any energy looking around me or interacting with spectators although I was aware of the atmosphere in certain places. There was a few great spots where there was music blaring so I let this carry me along. I passed half way in 1:36 as I got ready for the real work to begin.
I clicked off a couple of 7:05 miles after here and was coasting along nicely. It started to rain lightly at first which was really refreshing but it got a bit heavier after this and kept up for the rest of the race. It didn’t seem that long until I reached mile 17 which I imagined to be the start of a 9 mile loop that we run in Ards forest park regularly. I felt my momentum was good and I was enjoying myself and was overtaking runners every so often which helped my progress. My mile pace was still good as I dipped just under 7 minutes a couple of times although I did feel my quad muscles really start to tighten up now.
I was breaking up every mile on its own and was soon over the magic 20 mile mark and just 10k to go. I kept telling myself to just keep it going and kept my running form as tidy as I could. My quads were now starting to scream at me rightly if I let them but I kept blanking them out and pretending they were fine. Taking water and energy gels on board during a marathon are obviously vital to get your body around in the best possible shape but it can feel like hard work for your mind thinking about doing this at times. Just before 5k to go I took my last gel and took a drink of water and said to myself that was it now until the finish. I would just put the blinkers on and head for home. I had never got to this point of a marathon before where my body still felt full of running even though my legs were tying up. It was so enjoyable and painful all at the same time. I was passing out countless runners and felt strong.
In the last 2 miles the streets narrow and the crowds increase and you really feel like you are on the home straight. I hadn’t really looked at my overall time in a while but when I got to 25.2 on my watch and 1 mile to go it had passed just over 3:01. So 1 more strong mile would see me comfortably under 3:10 I thought as I kept the hammer down. I hadn’t been thinking on the distance on your watch usually reading a bit more than 26.2 at the end though so I actually had a wee bit more than a mile to go.
I turned the last few corners and waited for the left turn that would take me on the straight towards the Brandenburg Gate. What a brilliant finish to a marathon. Thankfully I knew that once you came through the gates there was still a pretty long straight to the finish line. I had a quick glance up at the gates as I passed by but I knew I still had work to do. I looked up ahead to the line and glanced at my watch. 3:09:31! I thought I wasn’t going to make it in less than 30 seconds! I somehow found another gear to blast my way through the line and couldnt do any more. I hit stop and turned my watch towards me. 3:09:51. I clenched my fists and let an almighty yessss out of me in both delight at my time and relief at having the race done.
I ran the second half in 1:33 and the last mile was actually my quickest of the race. I don’t think I could have given any more as if I had gone quicker early on I wouldn’t have had as much left near the end. It was the first time I’ve ever ran a marathon in a negative split where the second half was quicker than the first and they say that’s the best way to run them if you can. I finished in 3,605th place out of 44,000 finishers. The rain was still lashing down so I kept moving forward and picked up my medal and plastic blanket which helped with the cold. I made my way to the main finishers area where I also got a foil poncho with a hood on it and got some water into me. The body was getting cold and only for these ponchos I would have been fairly shivering. They were serving tea so I went for some and it tasted like sweet American iced tea but it was warm. It also helped though. I heard on the loud speakers that the race had been won by Kenenisa Bekele who missed out on the world record by just 2 seconds. This time had seemed pretty untouchable beforehand. As I watched the replay later you could see how disappointed he was at going so close. It really was a monumental effort. It struck me though that these races and running in general have something for everyone. He ran the 2nd quickest marathon of all time and was disappointed. Here I was nearly an hour and 10 minutes slower and I was over the moon with my day!
I managed to spot Darren near the large beer bottle despite the crowds of people milling about. He had hoped to break 3 hours 30 and I felt he had a good chance of doing this as he had been really running well lately. He felt he had to work too hard to get through the crowds in the early miles though and it certainly cost him a bit of time. He still finished strongly which is a good sign and still ran his quickest ever marathon by 21 seconds coming home in 3:35:36. Any day you run a p.b. is a good day especially if its in one of the world marathon majors and there’s more to come from Darren for sure.
My legs were now really cramping up on me and were in right pain. The timing chips for the race had been tied into the laces of our runners beforehand. We had to return them before we got back out through the barriers at the end but I literally could not bend down to get mine off! Darren had to untie it for me as we then ambled our way back up to the hotel. It was a great relief to get in and showered and recovered a bit. After speaking to our families we got in touch with the other Milford lads and met them across the street for some food. Their times were absolutely brilliant with Marty running 2:34, Anthony clocking 2:49 & Damian coming home in 2:54. We hoped something might rub off on us! We then took it easy for a while and met up with them again later for a few beers which was a great way to round the weekend off.
Our flight on Monday was delayed by over an hour but we still arrived home just before 7 in the evening which was grand. It was good seeing Sarah and the boys and filling them in how it had all went. Its the first time that Jamie who was almost 1 showed genuine excitement to see me as he made a real fuss which was great fun. Aaron & Caolan were full of questions about the marathon and it was good catching up with them before their bed time.
It’s great to have marathon number 9 ticked off and its hard to believe we will be doing it all again in Dublin on the October bank holiday weekend. We will hopefully have just about enough time to recover and prepare in between!