On September 25, I ran the Berlin Marathon. This is a race that first captured my imagination in 1990. Before that, this race was held entirely within West Berlin. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was possible to run through both sides of the city. I remember reading about the 1990 Berlin Marathon and thinking how exciting it would be to be there.
At the time, I had only completed four marathons, and I was just beginning to explore marathons outside of my home state of Minnesota. I wasn’t ready to seriously think about international travel.
Over the years, the novelty of running through both East and West Berlin faded, and the Berlin Marathon fell off my radar. It wasn’t until 2010 that I finally ran my first international marathon. Since then, I’ve run more than 20, including the London and Tokyo Marathons.
Now I had a new reason for wanting to run in Berlin. Aside from an opportunity to explore another great European city, it’s an opportunity to run all of the World Marathon Majors.
The World Marathon Majors were established in 2006. It was originally conceived as sort of a grand prix series for elite athletes. Since then, it has also become a goal for amateur athletes to complete all of the majors within their lifetime. The series originally included the London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago and New York City marathons. In 2012, the Tokyo Marathon was added to the series.
In addition to the London and Tokyo Marathons, I’ve also run the Boston and New York City marathons. I could complete the series by running the Berlin and Chicago marathons. (I actually ran the Chicago Marathon in 1999, but that was before the World Marathon Majors were established, so it doesn’t count toward completion of the series.)
I got into the Berlin Marathon through the lottery. It’s also possible to get guaranteed entry via a tour group, such as Marathon Tours & Travel (MT&T). Because I got in on my own, I had the freedom to make my own travel arrangements. Ironically, I still booked through MT&T. As I starting researching lodging arrangements, I looked for hotels that were conveniently located for the race and also had certain amenities. The ones I found were expensive. MT&T had a four night package that included any of three different hotels that are near the start and finish of the marathon. They met my needs, and the cost of booking through MT&T was about the same as what I could find myself for a comparable hotel. By booking through MT&T, my package included a guided tour of the city and a pre-race dinner. I also got to travel with other marathon runners.
Wednesday, September 21
I left Minneapolis on an overnight flight to Amsterdam. There are a few different flights to Amsterdam, but this one was the last flight of the day. A severe thunderstorm delayed our takeoff by more than an hour, which made it even later. That made me a little nervous about my connection in Amsterdam.
I waited until after the meal service before trying to sleep. By then it was about 1 AM. I’m not usually able to sleep on flights, but this one was an exception. I managed to fall asleep for about an hour. That was just enough to allow me to be alert when I arrived in Amsterdam.
Thursday, September 22
When I arrived in Amsterdam it was already 2:00 Thursday afternoon, in part because of a seven hour time change. I still had an hour to make my connection, which turned out to be plenty of time. I arrived in Berlin around 4:30. To save time on arrival, I packed light, so I could get by with only a carry-on bag. After a 30-minute taxi ride, I got to my hotel around 5:15 PM.
I stayed at the Grand Hyatt Berlin, which is located in Potzdamer Platz. Potzdamer Platz is a large shopping and entertainment district that was redeveloped in the 1990s, in a neighborhood that was previously divided by the Berlin Wall. It couldn’t have been in a better location. I was within a mile of the Brandenburg Gate, where the marathon starts and finishes. I was also only a few blocks away from shopping, dining, museums and the city’s largest park. After checking in, I had about 30 minutes to unpack and get settled into my room before their welcome reception.
The reception was my opportunity to meet other runners in my tour group who were staying at the same hotel. The other two hotels each had their own receptions. It was a catered affair with drinks and appetizers. The appetizers were so filling, I didn’t feel the need to go out for dinner.
The reception lasted from 5:30 to 7:30. After that, I walked over to the Brandenburg Gate, so I could see it after dark.
My brief nap on the plane was enough to make me feel OK during the day, but it didn’t keep me from falling asleep at night. After that, I was able to adjust to the local time zone.
Friday, September 23
Our hotel had a nice breakfast that was included in our package. I think every European hotel I’ve stayed at has had an excellent breakfast. This one was no exception.
After breakfast, we met in the lobby to begin our city tour. It was a five bus hour tour of historic sites dating mostly to World War II and the Cold War period. We made several stops to take pictures.
Our first photo stop was the Lustgarten in front of the Altes Museum. These grounds were used by Hitler for large rallies in the 1930s. The building, which is a museum of antiquities, still shows the scars from World War II. From here, we also saw Berlin’s largest Protestant church.
Our next photo stop was in the Gendarmenmarkt area of the historic city center.
Then we stopped to see a section of the Berlin Wall that’s still standing. While the wall doesn’t look that imposing today, there used to be barriers on either side of a wide “death strip” patrolled by border guards. During the Cold war, it was difficult for people trying to escape East Berlin to get over the two walls and through the space between them without being shot.
Next, we stopped at Checkpoint Charlie. This used to be a heavily guarded border crossing.
After Checkpoint Charlie, we visited the Holocaust Memorial. This monument to the millions of European Jews murdered during World War II was dedicated in 2005. We stayed here long enough to explore the memorial. Then we walked a short distance to where Hitler’s bunker used to be.
Our last stop was the Reichstag. This was the home of the German parliament up until 1933, when it was damaged by a fire. During World War II, it was further damaged by bombs and sat in disrepair for another 45 years before German reunification. Now, it’s the home of the Bundestag.
At the conclusion of our tour, we were dropped off at Station Berlin, where the marathon expo was held. After picking up my race bib and timing chip, I browsed the various booths. I didn’t buy anything, but I picked up brochures for a few other European races. I’m always thinking about future trips.
It was a nice afternoon to be outside. After walking back to the hotel, I spent about an hour exploring the Tiergarten. This park is about two thirds the size of New York’s Central Park. You could easily spend a whole day walking through the park. I only walked through the section closest to my hotel.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon at Gedenstätte Deutcher Widerstand. This museum, within the German defense ministry, is a memorial to Germans who resisted the Nazis before and during World War II. It describes Hitler’s rise to power, various groups who tried to oppose him and prevent war, and numerous coup and assassination attempts. In addition to the permanent exhibit, I was also able to tour a temporary exhibit describing Slovakian resistance and a failed uprising in 1944.
I joined Martin, another runner in my tour group, for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Potzdamer Platz. On our way, we stopped to take pictures of remnants of the Berlin Wall that have been decorated by local artists.
Most of the Berlin Wall is gone, but there’s a narrow strip of cobblestones in the streets to mark its former location. There’s a project underway to create a bike corridor where the wall used to be.
Saturday, September 24
I didn’t need to be up early, but forced myself to get up at the same time as other days, so I wouldn’t have trouble getting to sleep in the evening.
Most of the other runners took part in the Breakfast Run. This is a 6K fun run held the day before the marathon. I skipped the breakfast run, preferring to eat breakfast at the hotel and then use the time for sightseeing on my own.
After breakfast, I went to Topographie des Terrors. This is a museum I discovered during our tour on Friday. The outdoor part of the museum is the excavated remains of a wall that was part of the SS Headquarters. Next to it, were several displays outlining the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party and how they used propaganda and oppression of political opponents to consolidate their power. Inside an adjacent building, there are exhibits describing the organization of the SS and how they systematically segregated, relocated and murdered not only their political opponents, but Jews, other Non-Aryans, people with physical or mental handicaps, and anyone considered to be “asocial elements.” In contrast with other Holocaust museums or memorials, this one focused on the perpetrators of atrocities, rather than the victims.
I had lunch with my friends Stefan and Gülben from Frankfurt. We had pizza and some good German beer.
On my way to the restaurant, I saw the remains of a church that was evidently struck by bombs during World War II. The top of the church is missing.
After lunch, I went to Schloss Charlottenburg. This used to be the palace of Prussian Kings, including Frederick the Great. They were doing restoration work on the central dome, so my pictures don’t look as good as the stock photos in the tour guides.
I spent more time at Schloss Charlottenburg than I expected, and I did quite a bit of walking. When I got back to the hotel, I decided to relax and stay off my feet until dinner.
There was a pre-race pasta dinner for everyone in the MT&T tour group. It included runners from the other two hotels, so it was the first time I saw how big the whole group was. Altogether, there were 453 runners in our group.
Sunday, September 25
Sunday was race day. The hotel started their breakfast early, so I was able to have a light breakfast before leaving for the race. I didn’t eat much solid food. Mostly, I had tea and orange juice. I knew the aid stations would be spaced about 5K apart, so I wanted to be well-hydrated before the race.
At 7:45, I walked to the start area with the other runners staying at the Grand Hyatt Berlin. That gave us 90 minutes to walk over there and find our way into the right start corral. It also allowed extra time for people who needed to check a gear bag before lining up. The start was at the east end of Tiergarten, near the Brandenburg Gate. We couldn’t take the most direct route, which would have been through the park, so we had to walk about a mile.
We got to the start area in about 20 minutes, but it took a long time to work my way through the start area to get to my corral. Throw in time waiting in the bathroom line, and it’s good that we left the hotel as early as we did.
Most people would have considered the weather to be too warm, but it was about right for me. The overnight low was 48 degrees, but the race didn’t start until 9:15. By then it was in the mid-50s. The temperature continued to climb during the race, getting into the upper 60s.
Because it was a nice day, I didn’t see any need to check a gear bag. I raced in shorts and a singlet. To keep warm before the start, I wore a trash bag.
After I complete the World Marathon Majors, I’ll receive a medal and a certificate that lists all my finish times. I’ve already finished London, New York City, Boston, and Tokyo with Boston qualifying times. Naturally, I wanted to see if I could also post good times in Berlin and Chicago. Ideally, I wanted them all to be Boston-qualifying times. To qualify for Boston, I needed a time of 3:40 or faster. My best time so far this year was 3:36:39, but that was on a downhill course. My best time this year on a course with no net elevation change was 3:53:22.
The Berlin Marathon has a loop course that’s one of the flattest in the world. World records have been set on this course. While it’s not as fast as a downhill course, it’s the next best thing. In the past, I’ve had some good results in flat races, so I felt I had to go for it, even if it was an optimistic goal.
One of the advantages of a flat course is that once you get into a comfortable rhythm, it’s easy to stick with it. That’s also an advantage of large races. Once you settle into the right pace, you can settle into a pack of other runners going the same pace and just run with the crowd. That assumes, or course, that you’re in a pack that running at the right pace.
To break 3:40, I needed to average about 5:12 per kilometer. My plan was to settle into that pace as early as I could and then run a consistent pace for the rest of the race.
There were several start corrals, separated into three waves. Corral seeding was based on your fastest recent time. I got seeded into corral D, which turned out to be a fairly fast corral in the first wave. I saw a 3:15 pace group lined up in the same corral, so I knew I was surrounded by faster runners. Being so close to the front was both good news and bad news. The good news is that the start wouldn’t be as congested. The bad news is that I had to be careful not to start too fast.
After the wheelchair athletes started, they started introducing some of the elite athletes. We could watch on large monitors in the center of each corral. The field included household names like Mutai, Kipsang and Bekele.
It didn’t take long after the gun went off for the runners in corrals A, B and C to get moving. The runners in corral D walked forward quickly and started running just before we reached the start line. From the moment I crossed the line, I could run freely. That was a pleasant surprise. Usually large races like this are congested for at least the first mile.
I didn’t try to keep up with the runners around me. I tried to run my own pace, and I guessed what 5:12 per kilometer would feel like. I really had no idea how fast I was running. I haven’t had a good sense of pace this year, and it’s been thrown off even more by doing two consecutive downhill races.
We ran in a straight line for the first two kilometers. It was a wide street, and I was running near the middle, so I didn’t notice the first two kilometer markers, which were on the side of the road.
When we made our first turn to the right, I moved toward the right hand side of the road. I noticed when I reached the three kilometer sign, so I checked my watch for the first time. Ideally, I wanted to get there in 15:36. My watch read 14:19. I started WAY too fast.
I eased up a little and made sure all of the other runners around me were gradually going by. The next kilometer took 4:57. That was better, but it was still too fast. I kept easing back the pace, but it took several kilometers before I was finally running the correct pace.
Around this time, I noticed a slight change in the grade. We were briefly running uphill. We probably didn’t rise more than two meters, but it was the biggest hill in the race. It was the only time I noticed any change in grade. This is a flat course.
The only time I had problems with congestion was at aid stations. I usually skipped the first few tables in hopes of find one where I wouldn’t bump into other runners. That proved to be almost impossible, as people were darting to and from the tables and stopping unexpectedly. I often had to slow or stop to keep from colliding with other runners. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I still had collisions. This was a problem throughout the race.
At about 7K, I passed the Reichstag. Ahead of me, I could see the top of the tall TV antenna on the east side.
After 12K, I was finally running the right pace. Overall, though, I was ahead of schedule by about two and a half minutes. I was on pace for 3:30, but I knew that was deceptive. The fast start had sabotaged whatever chance I might have had of breaking 3:40. The extra energy I expended in the first hour of the race would catch up to me soon.
Most large races have music along the course. It’s generally a mixture of recorded music and local bands. Sometimes local bands will sing in their own language, but most of the music is similar to what I would hear in the US. I often try to come up with a local connection. When I heard “Sweet Georgia Brown” I recalled that the Beatles once record that song. It was during the time period when they were performing at clubs in Hamburg.
In races that are marked in kilometers, I usually divide the race into thirds. At 14K, told myself I was entering the middle third of the race. The first 14K was much too fast. For the next 14K, I needed to focus on conserving energy, even if that meant slowing down.
Now we left familiar sights for neighborhoods on the south side of the city. Here, I wasn’t familiar with any of the landmarks. We would eventually run through Neu-köln, Kreuzberg, Schöneberg, and Steglitz, but I never really knew where I was.
My pace over the next few kilometers was inconsistent. Sometimes I was running the right pace, but it felt too fast. Sometimes, the pace felt about right, but it was actually too slow. I gradually realized that a 5:12 pace took too much effort. I was going to gradually give back the time I gained in those early kilometers.
Some aid stations only had water. Others had water, an energy drink, and tea. I tried to drink the energy drink where I could, but sometimes I got past those tables before I saw them. Then my only choice was to grab a cup of tea. The first time I did that, I was surprised when the cup felt warm. I’ve had tea in other races, but it was always a cold beverage. This tea was warm. On a day when it was already getting into the 60s, I would have preferred to stick with cold beverages.
I reached the halfway mark in 1:48:33. Overall, I was still on pace to break 3:40, but my recent kilometers were all around 5:30. At best, I might sustain that pace. More likely, I would continue to slow down. I gave up on breaking 3:40 and ran a pace that felt comfortable. For the time being, my new goal was simply to break four hours. I would wait and see how I felt at 28K before deciding if something faster was realistic. My “comfortable” pace was around 5:40.
In international races, I always notice runners from other countries. I can usually identify them by shirts with the names or flags of their home countries. I didn’t notice as many runners wearing “national kits,” but I did see runners from Poland, Estonia, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico and Estonia. I saw an unusually large number of runners from Denmark. There must have been at least 30 running near me at different times during the race.
Because I started in a fast corral and gradually slowed down, I was always getting passed by other runners. I seldom saw the same runners twice, as I was gradually drifting back through the pack.
After 28K, I realized that I could probably break 3:50 if I continued my current pace. Sometimes I picked up my effort. Then I’d relax and slow down again. I wasn’t confident that I could sustain an increased effort for the rest of the race.
For the first time, I started passing people. It was getting warmer, and a few people were walking. I don’t know if they were getting too hot or if they started too fast, like me. I couldn’t keep up with anyone who was still running, but I was passing the walkers.
Sometime after 34K, I recognized a building in the distance. It was the same damaged church I noticed on Saturday. Now I once again had a good feel for where I was. I was near the zoo.
My kilometer times had been creeping up near six minutes. Then I ran one that seemed to be under five minutes. Later, I had one that was about seven minutes. It didn’t seem reasonable that my pace could be varying that much. In smaller races, sometimes a mile marker will be misplaced. That’s unusual for a major. In races like this one, the markers are usually right on. It’s more likely that I was making some mental arithmetic errors.
Not knowing my pace for sure shook my confidence that I could break 3:50. I had to keep my pace under 6:00 per kilometer. I might have been able to do that if I really pushed, but it was hard to maintain my motivation when I wasn’t confident I could do it.
I started running a little bit too slowly. The next two kilometers each took longer than six minutes. As I realized 3:50 was slipping away, I set my sights on 3:53. My new goal was to beat my best time this year on a course that wasn’t downhill.
I somehow missed the 37K sign. I knew I was getting close to 38K when I started recognizing the buildings of Potzdamer Platz. I was about to pass within sight of my hotel. From there, the surroundings would be much more familiar, which gave me a psychological lift.
My pace had slowed to the point where even 3:53 was in jeopardy, but then I was able to dig deep and pick up the pace. The next two kilometers where each six minutes even. For the first time in the race, I passed a few people who were running.
Just before the 40K mark, we made a left turn. When I saw another left turn just ahead, I assumed it was the last turn, and I would be headed toward Brandenburg Gate and the finish. I was wrong. After making the turn, I still couldn’t see the gate. The last two kilometers had some zig-zags.
After a right turn and another left, I still couldn’t see the gate, but I saw the 41K sign. I was dismayed to realize I still had more than a kilometer to go, but I was pleased to see that I picked up the pace. That kilometer was under six minutes.
After another right turn, I recognized more familiar landmarks. We stopped here on our guided tour.
After another turn, I saw a series of balloon arches. Just beyond them, I could see the top of the Brandenburg Gate.
Most races in large cities have a signature moment, when you run past an iconic landmark. In New York, it’s the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the start. In London, it’s running past Buckingham Palace as you make the final turn. In Berlin, it’s the Brandenburg Gate. It’s one of the city’s most majestic landmarks, and you run right through it just before finishing. When you run under the gate, you’re at roughly 26 miles. Then you can see the finish.
I tried to give it a strong finish. I know I picked up my pace, but I was still passed by other runners who had more gas in the tank. I crossed the line in 3:51:55. That’s not the 3:40 I was hoping for, but it was still my second fastest race this year. More importantly, it was my fastest time in a race that wasn’t downhill.
I didn’t pace myself well. As a result, I ran the second half about 15 minutes slower than the first half. With better pacing, I could probably have run about five minutes faster. That gives me something to shoot for in my next race.
I like the design of the finisher medal. It had different designs on the front and back. I prefer the back side, which depicts the Brandenburg Gate. The ribbon has the colors of the German flag.
As I continued through the finish area, I heard the news that Kenenisa Bekele won the race, but he missed the setting a world record by six seconds. I guess I wasn’t the only one who missed his “A” goal.
During the race, I drank fluids at every aid station, but I suspected I was still a little bit dehydrated. I drank a cup of water. Then I had a cup of energy drink. Then I had two large glasses of the alcohol-free beer. I kept drinking until I had to pee. Then I knew I was hydrated.
I knew several other runners who were at this race, but staying at different hotels. Everybody had different schedules, so it wasn’t possible get together with everyone. One of them was Andy. He passed me in the last few kilometers and waited for me at the finish. Together, we navigated through what seemed like a maze to get out of the finish area and back to Potzdamer Platz.
While I was in the finish area, I grabbed a snack bag. It included a chocolate filled croissant, an apple, a banana, a bag of apricot slices, a small bag of pretzels, a bag of beef jerky, a bottle of water, and a can of Red Bull. When I got back to the hotel, they gave me a bottle of energy drink. It was enough food for lunch with enough left over for my breakfast on Monday. I gave away the water and Red Bull, knowing I couldn’t finish them before flying home.
After the race, I went for a walk though Tiergarten to help my legs recover. At the time it didn’t seem to help much, but I’m sure it will help in the long run.
Later in the day, I met other runners from my tour group for drinks at the hotel bar. A few had major accomplishments to celebrate. For Sandy, this was her sixth World Marathon Major, and she received her “six star” medal. Another runner, who’s 82 years old, won his age group. Winning your age group in a major is a big deal
On trips, I often struggle to get enough sleep. The night after the race is usually the only night I sleep well. This trip was an exception. I got a reasonable amount of sleep every night until the last one. After the race, I couldn’t get to sleep.
Monday, September 26
Marathon Tours & Travel offered a three day extension to travel to Munich for Oktoberfest. It was tempting, but I didn’t want to be away from home for that long. Instead, I flew home the day after the race.
My legs were somewhat stiff when I got up, but all the walking though airports seemed to help. I’ll rest for another day before returning to training. Then it’ll be time to start thinking about Chicago.