Auseinanderfallen: 2015 Berlin Marathon

I walked calmly through the Berlin Tiergarten, a large, horizontal park that rests in the middle of the city, headed for Corral D and the start of the 2015 Berlin Marathon. There were runners around me but not as many as you would assume for a race that would soon have over 41,000 finishers. I was twitching a little, more from cold than nerves, though there were plenty of nerves. This was my target race for the year, the event that had dominated my workouts and preparation. All roads led to Berlin, and the event name itself was the mantra I would whisper whenever I felt tempted to skip an early morning workout. After a banner year full of personal bests and absolutely no injuries, I was ready to dominate the course. Friends and family were tracking my splits, some even staying awake well into the night to watch my progress. My first international marathon and third World Marathon Major had been hyped up considerably, and I was in no mood to disappoint anyone, least of all myself.

 
A giant bubble of yellow balloons marked the start of the race. They rose into the faultlessly blue sky and disappeared over the trees of the Tiergarten. Just past the starting line was the Siegesäule (“Victory Column”), a large structure with a golden angel perched atop, around which we ran to the sounds of many spectators. We had about eight lanes to explore and jockey for position, but only one lane would occupy the streaks of blue painted earlier to indicate the tangents, or the quickest route possible. This was, after all, the world’s fastest course, where new world records are notched with astounding regularity. I quickly found these intermittent streaks and followed them, as if they were the footprints of favorite and eventual winner Eliud Kipchoge.


In those first miles, I felt like I was running from pack to pack, nudging myself into the folds of a group of runners only to slowly part them by exploiting the human instinct to keep some personal space. It wasn’t long before the width of the course was halved and I became acquainted with the impressively international field (though we would later debate whether 90% of it was made up exclusively by Germany and Denmark).

Aid stations came and went without much fanfare, which was one of the many subtle differences between this race and its American brethren. Big-city races portend imminent aid stations by loudly announcing them a few blocks early, with descriptions of what to expect. Here, I glanced right and realized I was mistaking a crowd of spectators with an aid station and immediately dashed to grab a drink.


In fact, it was this unassuming character that led me to accidentally drink a mouthful of warm sweet tea, mistaking it for an energy drink. I don’t know what was more surprising, the unexpected flavor and temperature or that I really enjoyed it. Uncle Greg, who was a few corrals behind me, would later admit to mistaking the caffeinated beverages for warm apple juice before drinking four of them.

The course itself was difficult to describe without giving a description of each mile. Whereas most races have discrete sections, Berlin felt like it would weave in and out of different parts of the city with a few unique stretches. Its course changed effortlessly from residential, tree-lined roads to large plazas with uniform architecture in just a few blocks. Large churches and museums would pop out as if from nowhere and with very few exceptions, all around us was the calming comfort of tree canopy.


It wouldn’t be until the last 2 miles that the course experienced a material change. It kept its parks and city landscape so consistently that it would be very easy to lose one’s self in the race and simply watch the approaching trees and spectators. Once in the heart of the city, the course zigged and zagged through wide lanes until the Brandenburger Tor filled my sight, and from there it was a quick quarter mile to the finish. Spectators and loudspeakers tore through the streets with shrieks so piercing they could have pushed a dead man to the finish.

Which was great, because I had been riding the struggle bus for a good ten miles by now.


You may have noticed that I hadn’t said a word about my performance until now. The reason is, Sunday, September 27 was not my day. Despite a picture-perfect training cycle, I could not convert my peak fitness into a peak time. Maybe it was the Friday evening arrival, or the time on my feet Saturday, or the fact that I only slept 10 hours over three nights. Or, more likely, I picked a goal time (3:04) that was too ambitious, too far beyond my lactic threshold to convert to a winning time. I had even etched the time on the Abbott World Marathon Majors wall at the Expo the day before, quipping “BQ or Bust” underneath.

And what a Bust it was.

The first sign of trouble was literally half a mile in, where a tiny stitch in my stomach emerged to complain. It went away in a minute, but it gave me pause as I ran around the Siegesäule. Eight miles later, I ran past Steph, her sister Janine, aunt Mindy and uncle Scott, feeling confident and fast. But just two miles after that confident display, I came to the unfortunate realization that I was trying too hard. Ten miles into a marathon, you should still feel good, but I was increasingly gassed. Five miles later, I was on my last gear, which I don’t ever have to tap until miles 18-20.


As I ran through the last miles, I had to choose which muscles to calm. If I ran, then my calves would seize up, but if I walked, then my lateral back muscles would tighten up into a fist of nerves. For large stretches of road, I had to run with my hand on my head, my elbow pointing to the sky. Later, my forearms would begin to generate the same high-voltage tension. It seemed that my muscles had decided to take on the shape of all the pretzels I had eaten in days prior.

By the time I reached the finish line, I was almost thirty minutes late for my date with 3:04. I had suffered through a spectacular bonk, one I had not experienced in many, many marathons. I unraveled completely, from my energy levels to my individual leg muscles, such that the world was a shimmering haze for much of the walk from the finish line to gear check. Although the race winner Eliud Kipchoge had to deal with his insoles falling out of his shoes around the same time that I bonked, his 2:04 world-leading time showed that he was able to convert the challenge into  a formidable victory.


And yet, it was not a complete disaster. I did finish, after all, earning a medal for my first overseas marathon, and in a respectable 3:31 time if you don’t see the laughably enormous positive split. And though my body was buzzing with tightness and fatigue, I wasn’t at all injured. I had given myself a few blocks during the race to mope about the situation. It baffled me that I couldn’t run at this pace for a marathon despite all indications suggesting I could, and I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of starting all my responses to “How’d it go?” with “WELP …” But at the end of the day, I was in Germany with family, and I had to make up for the many beers I skipped during training.

Plus, this was my 30th marathon. Over the years and that many races, I’ve learned to accept the cold fact that from training, to the taper and race-week nutrition, anything can happen. Sometimes it’s magic, sometimes it’s tragic. But I always find that, with a few exceptions, every finish line crossed is an accomplishment. And when just beyond that finish line is your loving wife with two beers, bratwurst and sauerkraut, then all memories of miles 18-24 vanish.


As I write this post on a train headed to Munich, I feel emboldened by my shameful slog through Berlin. The world’s fastest course opened its arms and streets for me, but I couldn’t make it happen, though not for lack of trying. It had been years since I had felt such a takedown over this distance and it reminded me of what it was like to try big, courageous things again. I didn’t play it safe, I didn’t ask for a small improvement, and that impudence forced me to confront once again that which all marathoners have to accept:

Respect the goddamn distance.

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For the first time in many years, I don’t have any pending race registrations. My future running plans are a blank canvas, ready to be filled with the next big goal. Maybe fast Majors aren’t my thing. I seem to do better in smaller races, where I can chase someone a block away and not have to constantly weave in and out of crowds. Or maybe that’s me making excuses again. The point is, there is another race out there, one that will get me that BQ, or at least nudge me closer to it. I just have to choose it, and tweak the master plan a bit to ensure that I stay strong and fast over every stride.

As for Berlin, I loved it. Every grimace, expletive and muscle spasm across the course was worth it. It annoys me that if I ever want to run it again, I have to subject myself to a lottery or pay through the nose for a packaged tour. But that is a problem for another time. For now, I have places to see and many delectable morsels of food to try. Ausgezeichnet!

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About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

24 Responses to Auseinanderfallen: 2015 Berlin Marathon

  1. nolan says:

    Hey Dan, congratulations on a hugely successful pre-Berlin season. Take that fitness and go crush some more PRs! Guten abend was ist Namen.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks good sir. It’d be much easier to crush some new PRs if Berlin hadn’t thrashed my legs. That said, I’m planning on eyeing a few shorter races in November, so we’ll see.

  2. Respect the goddamn distance. Great advice.
    Glad to have been a part of this journey.

  3. Hey Dan,
    I’m really glad you commented on my blog last week so I could discover yours! This was a great report and I love your writing style. You’ve really captured the route in a description that I struggled to find. I’m sorry that your race didn’t go to plan but you seem to have come to terms with it wisely and will learn from it I’m sure. That’s the magic of the marathon distance; it’s long enough to trip even the most experienced of us up on a bad day – nothing is ever guaranteed.
    Looking forward to reading more from you,
    Rhona

    • Dan says:

      Thank you for the kind comment, Rhona. I read your recap of the race yesterday and loved re-living every key moment from the weekend. It sounds like you started the race with a very positive attitude and framed the race in such a way that you were bound for success, regardless of outcome. Though I did not fare as well, I certainly hung my Brandenburger Tor medal on my rack with a smile. Glad to have shared this run with you!

  4. Amy says:

    Silver linings: you are in a county with some incredible post-race libations (and pretzels!), and you had what sounds like an amazing training cycle with no injuries that will translate into faster times. Enjoy the rest of your travels!

    • Dan says:

      It wasn’t long after I began to unravel that I took stock of precisely your observations. I figured, how can I truly complain if I have so much fun to look forward to? And then my calves would seize and I’d remember, oh yeah, this f-ing HURTS. But it passed and great times were had. Thanks for reading, Amy!

  5. I am soooo sorry to hear that your race didn’t go your way. I had two like that in the spring and it was so heartbreaking. One, I wasn’t in sub-3 shape but ran like I was. Bonked at 10, walked it in for a 3:43. The other was Grandma’s – same deal but came in at 3:15. UGH!!! I did love reading about the Berlin Marathon though – that in itself seems like a fabulous experience. I’m glad to also read that your race schedule is a blank canvas – I think those seasons end up the best 🙂

    • Dan says:

      Sometimes you just have to go for it to see if you have that superfast time in you. In this case, it either wasn’t my day, or I’m not quite at that level yet. But the best part is, it hasn’t scared me away from the constant process of self-improvement. Maybe one day the stars will line up again. But until that happens, I’m back up in the early mornings, getting it done. Thanks for reading!

  6. Jen says:

    Congrats on your 30th (!!!!) marathon finish. That’s quite a feat in itself, not to mention pushing yourself through those post-bonk miles to get to the Brandenburg Gate. I can definitely relate to doing better in smaller marathons — I think for me it’s sensory overload, and too easy to get wrapped up in the excitement. By the way, “Respect the goddamn distance” should be the pre-race “prayer” at every marathon and ultra. Hope you’re enjoying your travels and drinking lots of beer! Prost!

    • Dan says:

      You know, they do say that the brain consumes about 20% of our energy, so if we’re constantly using it during a race, it might portend an early bonk. I need a smaller race where my brain can relax and focus strictly on keeping forward momentum. You can’t argue with science, so that’ll be my argument going forward. Thanks for the support, Jen 🙂

  7. A wonderful and valiant effort from you at Berlin. As I tell newbie marathoners, the running journey has many highs – a perfectly executed training run or a race when all comes together and clicks. But – as in life itself – the journey has lows as well – training weeks where nothing goes right, races that don’t pan out as planned. Progress is not linear, either. It is a tribute to your resilience as a seasoned runner on a wonderful journey that you are able to take the experience in your stride and look ahead.

    Berlin is reputed as the world’s fastest course – which it is for the elites. For the rest of us, it does tend to be a bit more congested and underwhelming. That said, you went big this time. You will most certainly achieve your BQ – you are already well on your way. This is just an unexpected detour, one which causes you to pause and reflect on your goals and the training you need to achieve them.

    The fall racing season has only just begun. I’m sure you’ll achieve new heights at the shorter distances, should you take advantage of your marathon fitness to do so.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the wise words, Krishna. With 30 marathons under my belt, I’ve learned along the way that sh*t just happens sometimes. Even when everything clicks, maybe I forgot to hydrate well the day before, or perhaps running at 2 AM Central Time was not the optimal strategy for a PR. But you’re right, it’s all part of the process, the ups and downs, that will always point forward if we put in the time and energy.

      And speaking of time and energy, I hope you use your energy for a killer time this Sunday. The forecast is looking good, albeit sub-optimal, but if your training is any indication, you should be set for an amazing time. Have fun!

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  9. Mike says:

    So if I read this correctly – you ran one of the world’s most epic marathons, in one of its coolest cities, with loved ones rooting you on, and finished injury-free in a hair over 3:30? Sounds like a total *sieg* to me! Amazing how expectations evolve – three years ago a result like this would have been a blazing-fast PR and cause for huge celebration.

    So many thoughts on this – I followed your progress on race day, and watched you hold steady at a 3:07-3:08 pace for quite a while. But what stood out then and what stands out still after reading your narrative is the sheer fact that you let yourself GO FOR IT – nothing held back in giving yourself the best possible shot at a BQ. For that you deserve a lot of credit – there’s nothing more punishing than running a fast marathon, and it’s certainly not the best way to enjoy and appreciate a new city. And yes, your muscles all betraying you in novel new ways definitely implicates a lack of sleep following a 10-hour flight two days before the race.

    Or maybe… race day was karmic payback for openly flouting Rule #4?

    I’ve bonked a few times (Crazy Horse 2011 and CIM 2014 most notably) but in Berlin like you I was genuinely hurting, trying to hold it together in the last 8 miles while weaving around runners and trying not to let that BQ slip away. In the end I also learned some valuable lessons, and earned a medal (depicting WR holder Wilson Kipsang) that was already outdated by the time I crossed the finish. I wasn’t as enamored as you with the race itself (the lack of elbow room got to me), but the city I LOVED.

    Krishna said it best – progress at the marathon distance isn’t linear. That may be the most frustrating aspect of this sport, but at the same time the most fascinating. Sure the marathon is an unforgiving distance, but would we want it any other way? Respect the goddamn distance, but don’t expect it to respect you back.

    Maybe your performance didn’t live up to your own lofty expectations this time… but one day soon it will, and when it does Berlin will be largely to thank. Think of what an enviable position you’re in – you had a great summer of training and PRs, and you’ll recover quickly enough to chase another BQ very soon. The toughest part will be giving yourself psychological distance from Berlin – as Frank Shorter said, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.”

    So time to sit down and start filling that blank canvas – so many races, so little time!

    (Oh, and we were wondering during the race why Kipchoge had that “Hermes” thing going on with wings on the sides his feet – turns out those were his insoles trying to escape? Maybe Nike should change their tagline to JUST GLUE IT…)

    • Dan says:

      I didn’t mention it in this post, but my Berlin race was very similar to my 2013 Philly outing. In both races, I was out to run fast from the beginning, to test myself and see what my training had led to. In both races, I reached halfway feeling a little too gassed for comfort, and in both, I ended up slower than expected (3:25 in Philly, 3:31 in Berlin). But I did walk away from both thinking “damn, my BONK time is in the 3:20s now … crazy …”

      So yes, there are many silver linings to be gleaned here with just a little perspective and I always have you to thank for it. The funny thing is, I wasn’t alone on race day. Kipchoge was gunning for a fast time, but his mutinous insoles kept him at “just” a 2:04:00 time. Anna Hahner, Germany’s darling marathoner who PR’d last year, finished in the low 2:30s, off her target mark. American Matt Llano wanted to join the sub-2:10 club but missed out with his 2:12 PR. Sure, I’m not AT ALL allowed to roll with this gang, again, perspective …

      I guess that’s why we have lofty expectations in the first place right? Aim for the stars, you’ll at least reach the moon? It goes completely against race rule #4, as you rightly pointed out, but every now and then it’s good to just snarl at the starting banner and feign invincibility. In my case, I came out the other side uninjured, but not unscathed. So now it’s time for the next big race. Too many options though … wish I had a site that could distill them for me …

      Thanks as always, Mike.

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  11. MedalSlut says:

    So… although it wasn’t the result you were hoping for, it sounds like you took your troubles in your stride and still managed to enjoy an injury-free 3:31 marathon in Europe, followed by (I’m assuming) some great tasting beers! I’ll admit I was worried about your goal when you started flitting through descriptions of the course with no mention of how you got on, but was hoping it was one of your classic “it all came right in the end” style stories. C’est la Vie (I really should have looked up some German phrase, but the only one that comes to mind is ‘schadenfreude’ and, despite being insanely jealous of everyone racing Berlin, that is definitely not applicable here).

    Take some time to recover, and I’m sure you’ll canvas will start to look a whole lot more colourful before you know it. Keep on truckin’!

    • Dan says:

      Instead of the German equivalent of C’est la vie, I would have gone with “Das Leben ist ein Traum” (Life is a dream), because the race I wanted to run that Sunday was increasingly fanciful as the kilometers went by. But the more I tried to grumble about it, the more I faced how fortunate I was. I thought of you on a few occasions, hoping that you will one day cross the Brandenburger Tor with a bib of your own. In the meantime, it’s great to see you channeling that energy into other sports and writing about them just as lovingly.

      Thanks for reading — I wasn’t sure if you were going to muster the effort, given your knee’s prolonged rebellion. It’s much appreciated. I’m still hoping to share a post-race beer with you sometime in the future. I didn’t get into London, but that won’t stop me from contemplating other races in the old country.

  12. Thanks so much for your honesty and your positive look. That’s what makes this blog so great. Absolutely, the marathon is life, man. Sometimes it kicks ass and sometimes it kicks ass. It leads us to GREATNESS and leaves us wallowing in humility. Having bonked hard, I know how hard it can be to keep your head up, especially after such high expectations. Just like life, man. Just like life. But we get back up on that horse and keep swinging for the fences and mixing the hell out of metaphors. Because we can. Can’t wait to read about your next adventure!!

    • Dan says:

      Always happy and humbled to have your thoughts, Jeff. I mentioned to you that your blazing performance at the 2012 Chicago Marathon was inspirational, you had more horsepower in your legs. I definitely learned some lessons during the post-mortem as I looked at my training log. With a few small tweaks, I’ll hopefully convert my peak fitness into something great not too far down the road. But also in the pipeline is potentially the Ice Age 50-Miler next year as my redemptive run at the distance. Otter and I are all but registered — perhaps we’ll see you there?

      And congratulations to Edna on yesterday’s run! It was a gorgeous day for spectating, but it was definitely warming up towards the end.

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