Sunday, September 29, 2013

Berlin Marathon

The Berlin Marathon could hardly be more contrary to most races I do.  It's paved.  It's flat.  It's fast.  The world record is often set there.  It's held in a city of 3.5 million people.  There are 40,000 participants.  And my chance of winning was worse than a new college graduate in the job market.

I landed in Berlin on Friday, two days before the race.  I went to the race expo later that day, then watched the speed-skating marathon, particularly to cheer on the always lovely Luise.  She broke her own PR!  And the world record for a skating marathon was set in that race, breaking the one-hour barrier for the first time.  I think it's pretty cool that Luise will always get to say she was a part of the race where they beat 1:00 for the first time.

After two days of doing marathon-related activities, I felt mentally prepared, even in a foreign country where I don't speak the language, running an event that's very different from my normal one.  And I hadn't even adjusted to the nine-hour time zone difference, about as big as it could possibly get.  But still, I felt ready.

One notable thing - you get next to nothing in your race bag at the Berlin Marathon.  Not even a T-shirt.

I woke up early on race morning and took the train into downtown, where the race would start.  It was cold.  I piled on some clothes and tried to stay warm.  Just as we arrived, the sun came out.  Made a huge difference.  I said good-bye to Luise and walked into the athlete's area, almost immediately heading to the line for the port-o-potty.  And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Why are there never enough of these?  Do they ever learn?

10 minutes before the gun, with still at least 15 minutes before I'd finally get to pee, I got out of line and dropped my clothes off, then headed over to the start area.  Turned out to be a lot farther away than I thought.  In one area of the park, there was a row of bushes and a lot of men turned towards it.  Well, if I'd known that was there in the first place...
20 seconds later, I resumed walking.

I could hear pre-race announcements winding down and knew the start couldn't be far away.  I looked at my watch.  No more than a minute or two.  I still couldn't even see the start line.  I started seeing signs pointing people to their starting blocks.  G, then 20 seconds later, F...  I was in B, the second-fastest.  If I was going to make it, I'd have to run.

I was incredibly thankful I was going to be in starting block B, because I had a goal of breaking 2:40 for this race.  I knew it would be difficult, improving my previous best by almost four minutes, and maintaining an average pace of 6:06/mile.  If you had mentioned that to me half a year ago, I would've said it was impossible.  But after running a 2:44 in San Francisco, a much tougher course, and after a couple surprisingly fast training runs in the past couple weeks, I was believing.  It would just take an error-free race: no bathroom stops, solid pacing, and I can't get stuck behind slow runners at the start.  Starting in block B took care of one of those, but I was now in danger of missing out on that.  I ran faster.

I had logged probably over half a mile before I made it to the start area.  When I got there, the race was already underway.  Rather than go back around and get behind the very slowest runners, I squeezed through a hole in the fence right in front of the start.  A guard nearby noticed, and when he saw my bib with "Block B" written on it, he even helped me.  I jumped into the crowd, hit the start button on my watch, and took off as best I could.  I was walled in behind slower runners, but they weren't too terribly bad.  I looked around at other bibs and saw the letter 'D'.  Could be a lot worse.

Since I didn't have any time before the race to stand still and get my watch to get a satellite reading, it didn't work right away.  I kept letting it search for a signal, but it's very hard to lock on your location when you're moving.  After 10 km, I gave up.  I didn't even have my time, since it won't record anything without a signal.  For the remainder of the race, I just went based off of time-of-day, since I knew when gun time was.  But since I jumped in after the gun, I had no idea what the difference was between my chip time and gun time.  I guessed about one minute, even though I thought it was more, just to be safe.

For at least the first five kilometers, I spent at least as much time on sidewalks and medians as I did in the street.  There were so many people and there was rarely a good way to get around them.  Not only was I losing time by getting stuck running something slower than my pace, but I was probably adding extra mileage by weaving back and forth, and burning out juice by surging ahead when I could.  Still, I felt like this was my best option.  I couldn't afford to get too far behind early on, and if I didn't find a way to get around these people, I'd only spend more time stuck behind them.  I needed to get around them ASAP.

Things got a little better as the D's slowly turned to C's, and by the 10 km mark, I was able to run normally most of the time.  I was still passing almost everyone I saw, but slowly.  My strategy, most of the time, was to get behind a small pack, follow them for a little while, then surge ahead to the next one.  Follow them, then once my legs recover from the last pseudo-sprint, run ahead again.  Repeat.  I kept my eye on my watch.  If I wanted to break 2:40, I would have to run each kilometer in just under four minutes.

At the halfway mark, I noted my time.  I was almost perfectly on pace.  That might be good news, only you usually slow down in the second half.  Of course, in my most recent road marathon, the opposite happened.  And maybe in this one, there was a major difference since I was stuck at a slower pace during so much of the first half.  I kept my hopes up.  It was still possible, maybe even probable, but certainly wouldn't be easy.  Just then, my stomach started acting up.

As I approached kilometer 27, where I had planned to grab one of the free gels being handed out, my stomach was hurting enough that I debated whether I should even take it or not.  Aside from my bite-sized pack of peanut butter, which I also had second thoughts about, it would be my only sustenance the entire race.  But I knew that if I stopped for a toilet, I could probably kiss 2:40 good-bye.  I took it anyway, and the peanut butter too.  If I didn't, I'd probably burn out in the last half-hour.  We're going to have to take some chances to make it happen.

But by 31 km, though I was still dead-on pace, I stopped for the toilet.  My stomach was starting to affect my running, and if I didn't stop now, I wouldn't have enough time to make up for the time lost in the toilet.  It was now or never.  I wanted to make it a 20-second stop, but it, um, just kept coming.  Good news to get it all taken care of at once, but I was losing time.  In the end, I spent at least a full minute in there, and probably more.  I got out and immediately started passing loads of people again, just after I'd gotten to the point that I wasn't anymore.  I looked at my watch.  2:40 was still technically possible, but might realistically be out-of-reach.  But hot damn, I was flying now...

At one of the many musical spots on the course, a family had set up a canopy tent and some big speakers.  They were playing a great song by Boston.  My head started bobbing.  My feet moved a little faster.  A grin spread across my face as the riff led into the chorus.  Though there was a chance I would irritate every runner nearby, and quickly label myself a foreigner, I burst into song:

"It's more than a feeeliinnn'..."

The guy three meters in front of me, in a red shirt and a backwards hat, turned his head halfway around, a big smile on his face, and sang the backup part: "More than a feeeeliinnn'!"

I smiled bigger and launched into the next line: "When I hear that old song they used-ta plaaayee-aaaayy!!"
Just about then, I caught up with him.  He was Jeff, from Boston, and obviously a solid runner.  I told him about my Boston experience, and how I thought folks from Boston were pretty cool.

"Yeah, the whole city gives you the rock star treatment all weekend when they find out you're running the race," I recounted.  "About 50 Red Sox fans gave me a standing ovation in the subway tunnel, and once I got on, the whole car got up to give me a seat."

"Oh, that bullshit, man!!" he responded.  "When I ran New York, I took a three-hour train ride home, and not one New Yorker gave me their seat.  I had to stand up for three hours after the marathon."

I told him I was trying to break 2:40.  He consulted his watch.
"I think you're gonna have to run 6:00 miles from here on out to make that happen."
"Well, I know I can run that fast, but will I?"  There was still about nine km to go.
"I mean, if you wanna go for it..."
"I'm not gonna make any strong decision.  I'm just gonna run as best I can.  If it happens, that's great, and if it doesn't, that's OK."
"Alright, that sounds good."

He didn't say anything else after that, but he noticeably picked up his pace.  While I was about to pass him earlier, I was now having trouble keeping up with him.  He stayed about a stride ahead of me, and every now and then, flicked his head back to see if I was there.  It finally dawned on me: he's trying to pull me to my goal.  My heart warmed.  Here's a guy who was already running a great race, was perfectly happy with the pace he was holding 80% of the way through, and he's changing his strategy to help a stranger reach his goal.

Friends and neighbors, that is why you sign up for races.  That's what makes the $100+ registration worth it.  And that's what long-distance running is all about.

I picked up my pace and stuck with Jeff.  His watch beeped.
"We just did that last mile in 5:54."
I'd noticed we were moving a little faster, but it hadn't taken a toll on my legs just yet.  "Damn, man, we're cookin'!"
"Yeah, well...yeah!"  He responded like it was just something we needed to do.  He kept running.  I kept up.  I figured if I broke 2:40, I was going to give Jeff the biggest, sweatiest hug in recorded history at the finish line.

At about the 37 km mark, though, Jeff just got away from me.  I could no longer hold the pace he was at, the pace that would be necessary to break 2:40.  In the last 4 km, each step got worse.  My legs burned.  My abs ached.  And I was just running out of energy.  For the first time in the race, a few people passed me.  My pace sagged more.

With 2 km to go, I looked at my watch one last time.  It was clear that I wasn't going to make it.  I stopped worrying about running fast and tried to run strong and manage to enjoy it.  I only kind of did.  I kept counting off the minutes until I'd be done.  I looked around at the thick crowds cheering us on.  I wished I could manage a smile and a better performance for them.

After a ton of turns in the last couple km, the course straightened out and I ran through the Brandenburg Gate to the finish.  I didn't bother sprinting for the end; didn't see a point.  I must not have looked well, because a volunteer immediately rushed over to me and asked, "Are you OK?"
I managed a weak half-smile and a thumbs-up, then muttered, "Yeah."  I kept walking.  I noticed they didn't do that for any other finishers.

Only about 10 seconds later, I saw Jeff.  He must've waited right there for a couple minutes just to see how I'd finish.  Hadn't gone well for me since I saw him, but I smiled when I did.  Turned out he was going to Oktoberfest with his girlfriend too, only they were taking trains, not bikes.  And they were going on a different day.  Shame.  I woulda bought him a beer.

A banana and an alcohol-free beer later, I was feeling right as rain again.  I danced through part of the athlete's area, then went back and got another alcohol-free beer to bring to Luise.  Took a train back to her place, showered, and finished the day with a couple beers, roast beef pizza, and surprisingly good chicken nachos.

My gun time was 2:43:00, which means my real time was probably somewhere around 2:42.  So I missed out on my goal, but still set a PR, and I'm pretty happy with that.  Overall, the race went well.  I did catch myself playing a lot of what-if, like what if I'd started on time and didn't get stuck behind so many at the start, what if I'd been able to properly draft off people going my pace for the entire race, what if I'd gotten a port-o-potty before the race and managed to do #2, thereby eliminating my toilet break?  But I don't like what-iffing; anyone can what-if.  My finish time is 2:42 or so, and that's that.

But my chip time?  That's where it gets interesting.

Apparently my chip didn't work properly at the start, and for some reason, instead of just using the gun time as my start time, it assumed I started 16 minutes after the gun.  Officially, my chip time is an astounding 2:26:36!  That's good enough to get on the Olympic team in some countries.  Somewhere in the books, it's on record that I'm that good.  I know I'm not, but it's kinda cool just to see that number next to your name, I guess.

With my results, official, imagined, or otherwise, I'm generally satisfied.  Hard to be upset with your fastest race ever.  And the rest of my trip; bikes, beer, and bratwurst, was an awesome time.  Exceedingly glad I went.  And I've knocked off my second of the six major marathons.  I'll probably never do all of them.

And Jeff, if you ever read this, thanks again.  This maß is for you.  Prosit!