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The Berlin Marathon… Fun, Pain, Achievement and Struggle

Sunday, September 25. Berlin Marathon. Over 41,000 runners in the traditional marathon distance alone (plus some 20,000 at side-events like the inline skating marathon, mini marathon and so on). 36,000 finishers.

Among them: Marina and myself.

I wish I could tell you that it was easy. That I made it in the time I announced a couple of months back here on this blog. That I made my goal of at finishing my first Marathon in at least 3h30.

Well, I didn’t. But that somehow doesn’t matter to me.

I knew that when I started running on Sunday. A lot of things went wrong during training, a lot of things prohibited me from training at all for longer periods, and worst of all, on Sunday morning both Marina and myself had caught some kind of stomach disease – ever tried finding a toilet while running a Marathon, at the specific time when you are desperate? Well, we found one.

But somehow we made it through. Here is the story of my first and Marina’s second Berlin Marathon.

Here Is What Happened During Training

3h30 for 42.195 kilometers – one lesson I learned on Sunday is that this is not impossible, that, with some training, this should be an easy goal for next year.

Because this year, we stopped training after a couple of weeks.

On our way
On our way

Why? Several reasons – one of them: work. Another one: time requirements for training sessions. Working 10-hour-days while having to fit in 2 – 4 hours of training every other day doesn’t go so well together. And motivating yourself to go for a 30 k run when you stop working at 10 pm is hard.

But the most important reason we stopped training was that our dog Mia nearly died. For weeks we couldn’t leave her alone – or didn’t want to. Given the choice, I would stay by her side again.

Around 3 – 4 weeks before the Marathon, we started training again, but by then it was too late for anything. The longest distance we ran before the Marathon was 23 kilometers, just over half the distance we would need to conquer if we wanted to finish the damn thing.

Adjusted Expectations

Amateur sports always means constantly managing your own expectations: So, 3h30 was out of the window. But hey – at least finish the damn thing in something around 4 hours. Right?

4 hours for 42 kilometers means you should be able to run each kilometer in something like 5 minutes and 45 seconds. Sounded like an appropriate goal to me. If my lungs were trained enough, then 4 hours should be doable.

But even that wasn’t going to happen – and my lungs weren’t the problem.

The Morning of The Marathon

It’s not like I was sure that I would be able to make my goals. Quite the contrary: I wasn’t sure what to expect – and the day before I wasn’t even sure that I would be able to make the finish line at all.

So, what do you do? In our case, we listened to some 90s rock: “We’re gonna win!” by Bryan Adams (kind of forgotten track on the “18 ’til I die” album) has to be one of the best songs for sporting event preparation ever. We had it on repeat.

Berlin Marathon Rock
Nothing like some 90s rock music to prepare for the Berlin Marathon

Then we went to sleep. Marina’s stomach wasn’t ok, but she wasn’t going to give up now.

Next morning my stomach had started to be trouble as well. But what the heck. Let’s do this.

We ate some cornflakes, packed our things and went to the event.

One thing about those huge Marathons is, that you literally wait at the point where you will start running for at least one hour – trying to keep warm, battling your doubts. The colder you get the bigger the doubts get.

But all that is forgotten once you finally run.

One of 42,000 – Watched by Millions. The Berlin Marathon.

The Berlin Marathon is of importance to Berliners. It started in West Berlin in the 70s with only a couple of hundred runners – but it became an event of worldwide fame when in 1990, only a couple of days before the reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990, 20,000 runners would finish the Marathon running through the Brandenburg Gate – many with tears in their eyes.

This history is still there – and you feel it when you take part. From the first meters to the last, the course is crowded with people cheering. Bands playing. People handing out drinks, food, firemen spraying water over the exhausted runners. Bystanders cheering for the runners, the runners cheering back at the crowd. An atmosphere of being unified to a common goal (whatever that goal may be).

Berlin Marathon Brandenburg Gate
Arriving at Brandenburg Gate – almost ready to run.

It’s an atmosphere that is hard to describe and nothing you can ever experience if you watch it on TV.

I’m 36 years old. I was 9 when the Berlin wall came down, 10 when Germany was reunified. I’m old enough to remember it – yet young enough to call myself a child of the new Germany and the unified Berlin.

Maybe it is just because of my age, but that atmosphere carried me when I ran. Marina and I were faster than we expected and up until kilometer 20 we were all set to make our goal of 4 hours. That’s when the problems all started.

Marina had to find a toilet twice – which lost us at least 10 minutes. But that wasn’t so bad. I had my first problem at kilometer 23, when one of my toes started hurting badly (I later found out that one of my toenails had been too long and the toe next to it had started to bleed). However, the pain went away after a couple of kilometers.

Then, the real problem started: At around 30 kilometers, both my knees started to hurt.

If this had been a training run, I would have stopped at once. But it wasn’t a training session – this was the real thing. You don’t give up that easy. At this point, I was in front of Marina – but just a couple of minutes. I decided to stretch a little and then walk for a couple of minutes until Marina caught up, hopefully lessening the pain.

The pain didn’t go away. When Marina caught up, I managed to eep up with her until kilometer 37. Then I had to let her go. My left knee had gotten really bad – even when I walked, I had the feeling that it would explode.

Getting Through, Whatever It Will Take

The last 5 kilometers were one of the most painful experiences of my life. Until kilometer 40, I managed to keep the pain somewhat in check by switching between running and walking all the time – for the last 2 kilometers I forced myself to run. You don’t want to show weakness at the finish line.

Roughly 1 kilometer before the finish line I noticed that I was crying (I was lucky enough to wear sunglasses that would hide this from the crowd). It wasn’t just the pain, it was the knowledge that the next step would hurt even more – but unwillingness to stop.

The Final Obstacle

The Berlin Marathon has one final obstacle for runners that are already at their limit: The Brandenburg Gate is not the finish line.

It’s a psychological thing that when you see the gate you think you are almost done. But after passing the gate, you still have roughly 200 meters to go. And while this may seem like nothing compared to the 42 kilometers that are already behind you, this is a huge distance when you are pushing through and barely holding together.

But all the same, nobody is ever going to stop at this. You push through and you make it at that point.

The Finish Line

Berlin Marathon Finish
Made it. Happy People at the Finish Line.

I don’t know about other runners – but for me, the finish line wasn’t where it ended. You might expect instant happiness – or at least relief. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I didn’t notice much around me. I slowly limped on – every muscle seemed to hurt and what was worse, I wasn’t sure how long my knees would hold. I arrived at the line where medals were handed out. Luckily the simply throw them over your head – if they would have just given them to people, I would have rejected it, not being sure I would be able to carry it.

Marina called my phone – I somehow passed her between the finish line and the medals, where she had been waiting for me.

We managed to get our bags and lay down in the park Tiergarten in the shade. We lay there for hours before we finally had the stamina to go home. Drinking the non-alcoholic beer that was handed out helped to recover some strength.

During that time, we finally realized that we made it.

Marina actually managed to beat her time of last year’s Marathon in the end. I came in 2 minutes behind her at 4 hours and 38 minutes.

Lessons Learned

It is now 2 days later – my knees are getting better, my muscles don’t hurt as much anymore, and the sense of achievement and the positive memories of the Marathon have outweighed the negatives.

What happened?

When people think about Marathons, and the dangers of a Marathon they usually think about heart problems, and lung problems. Nobody really believes that the biggest problem will be your legs. When your legs give in, they won’t kill you, right?

Berlin Marathon - Finisher
We made it.

That is true – but it is far more likely that you won’t be able to finish the Marathon because your legs are suffering than to get a heart attack while running. When you haven’t trained enough, it is more probable that your legs will give up on you then your lungs.

When I crossed the finish line I was sure I would never do this again – but just two hours later, it was clear to me that I will do this again.

Just with better training – and I don’t mean just constant running. This Marathon sneaking in a few leg exercises at home every other day would have saved me! What I was missing was clearly just some additional power in my muscles.

So, next year, I will make my 3h30.

Final Words

If you had the chance to experience 3 hours of a jaw-dropping emotional experience, would you pay for it with 1 hour and 30 minutes of extreme pain?

That’s the deal I made this year at the Berlin Marathon. And it was worth it.

Maybe I didn’t make my goals – but for me, goals are often just there to make sure I give it my best shot. That I give everything. Who cares if you make a goal – if you can say you gave everything, isn’t that worth more?

See you next year.