What could be simpler than putting one foot in front of the other on flat tarmac for 26.2 miles?
Okay, there’s stuff like the weather playing up and the chance that you’ll hit the wall if you don’t get your training or your nutrition/gel strategy right on the day, but barring that marathons are pretty damned straight forward. At least they are in the context of trail, ultra and mountain running where you potentially have to deal with dangerous technical terrain, where a wrong footing can send you tumbling down a hillside. Or getting lost, which I’m pretty good at, by the way. In fact, I’ve managed it in two very well-marked races already this year. One a 110km ultra in the Lakes and the other being Beachy Head Marathon. Both were a simple, but equally stupid cases of following the bloke in front, rather than actually bothering to read the high-vis signage placed at eye height right in front of my face!
Anyway, the roads of Berlin weren’t about to throw me any significant technical challenges and even I was going to struggle to get lost when the course was fenced on either side. Then just in case all that wasn’t sufficient, there were the 40,000 or so other runners that should give me some indication of which direction the course follows. All that said though, the race still managed to save something special for my PB attempt.
I ran 2.56 in Barcelona last year. My training had been unbroken, and unlike previous marathons, I’d run at least 3 times a week for a good three months. Even though it wasn’t particularly structured, I had run a good combination of fast, steady and slow stuff. I was aiming for a sub 3hrs, but had felt so good after a 8/9 miles that I’d pushed the pace and managed to maintain it. Actually my wife told me I should have managed quicker! There’s no pleasing some, eh? Apparently I looked far too relaxed in comparison with those finishing around the same time as me. She might have been right actually, but I had a target and didn’t want to risk blowing up at mile 22 only to run the last 4 miles so slowly that my target wouldn’t have been met.
One of my running goals for 2015 was to run a 2.44, which I had planned to attempt at Rome in the Spring, but having been injured in December, I wasn’t running again until late March. I then started training for the North Downs Way 100 ultra, which was to be my first 100 miler. So hopes for a decent marathon time were put on the back burner until a good friend of mine who works for Nike was kind enough to get me a place at Berlin in late September.
Post NDW 100 I had about 4 weeks of marathon adjusted training and managed a decent amount of fast stuff including the track and threshold sessions with my running club, Serpentine. Bar the obvious nerves and sense of doubt that sets in I felt the target pace of 6.27 m/miles was within my reach.
My wife, Irene, and I planned to spend the long weekend in Berlin and do some exploring whilst we were there, but I also had a number of mates that were also going to be racing. One of whom was James Hayhurst, a good buddy whom I’d met at work in around 2005. Whilst his background is more shorter distances such as 5 and 10Ks, his marathon PB was within a few seconds of my own. We often run our Sunday long runs together and our paces are a good match, so we’d planned to run the race shoulder to shoulder and try for a 2.49.
I’m forever grateful for the place my mate from Nike managed to get me, but what I didn’t appreciate at the time was that it was in the rear pen, which meant I’d be surrounded by sponsored charity runners wearing rhino suits, carrying fridges and the like. All very commendable, but not great when faced with the prospect of weaving in and out of them to try to reach your target pace. I decided it was going to be impossible to have the race I wanted if I started all the way at the back, so instead I planned a break-in.
When James and I arrived at the ‘C’ pen (2.50 – 3.00hrs), we spied a wall of security guards more akin to the gates of the Glastonbury Festival. It was time for a plan B, or at least a more considered approach to overcoming the wall of security. We watched for several minutes and eventually made a dash for it at a point where there was a surge of runners occupying each of the security guards on the gate. It sounds trivial, but this was all actually pretty stressful (i have the heart-rate data to prove it!). Had I failed to get through Checkpoint Charlie, my race would already have been over.
Safe in the pen, James and I wished each other luck and like all those around us spent the next 10 minutes bobbing up and down and performing strange contorted stretches due to being tightly packed together with the other runners. Then we were off. That first mile or two always feel much harder, whilst the muscles and ligaments warm up. But I knew it would ease up as the race continued.
“A little fast”, ‘Bang on”, “More or less”, James called out each kilometre as we knocked them off. We were both running comfortably and keeping pace together. Until shortly after mile 6 when I took my first gel. It came on quickly and was instantly recognisable. That ache in the gut. There was going to be no avoiding it, I’d have to find somewhere to relieve myself and pray that it wouldn’t involve leaving my dignity on the course ala Paula Radcliffe at the 2005 London Marathon.
As we weaved down the streets, I hoped, even prayed that around each corner would be the welcome sight of a small rectangular plastic box that would provide the relief I now craved. Mile after mile went past, and I felt more and more uncomfortable. It’s not easy clenching your buttocks whilst maintaining a sub 6.30 m/mile pace, I can tell you.
Just as I was having to contemplate leaving the course to find a bush where I could lighten the load, I spied the first port-a-cabin of the race. At just beyond mile 14, there was a bank of them. It’s hard to convey the sense of relief I felt at this point. And whilst I knew solace in a plastic box would spell the end of my PB attempt, it meant I’d be spared the embarrassment of squatting on the side of the course. Ultimately, I chose dignity over victory.
Some time later. About ten minutes by my reckoning. I emerged from what was a surprisingly pristine toilet, complete with multiple rolls of toilet paper, feeling relieved and a little lighter, but still uncomfortable. I did consider quitting at this point, but figured that whilst a DNF can be considered acceptable in an ultra, I didn’t want to make a habit of it in shorter distances. So somewhat sluggishly and a little awkwardly, I pushed on through the beautiful streets of Berlin, and just soaked up the atmosphere. Which was fantastic. The crowds of supporters offering constant encouragement.
In truth, I was bitterly disappointed at having blown my chances of a PB, but I committed to getting over it by the time the race was over. I had friends who would be celebrating their own successes and my wife hadn’t come all this way to listen to me grumble and whine about what could have been, but wasn’t.
Race over, we got on with enjoying the sights (and beers) of Berlin. We took in a 10K guided bike tour of the city on the Monday, which I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s a captivating four-hour compressed history of the city by bicycle.
My own unfortunate circumstances aside, Berlin is a fantastic city with an equally great marathon. One of the best I have run. If you’re out for a PB, it’s a must. I hope to come back one day, and I’ll be sure to bring the Imodium.