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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The Marathon Bucket List

When you set out on a journey to run a (half) marathon in all fifty states, you inevitably end up knowing about far too many races.  Be it through chatter in a running group, seeing t-shirts from other events or after a frenetic series of Google searches, you realize that there are just too many out there.  This is not altogether a bad thing, but the panoply of races can be overwhelming, leaving you feeling a bit spoiled for choice.  With so many options out there, it’s impossible to run them all.  So I’ve decided to compile a short list of ten races that I want to run before I lose interest in the sport.  Since none of these get me any closer to my ultimate goal, I will be running them purely for the experience they provide (also known as “fun”).  Were I to suddenly become wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, I would sign up for all of these in one calendar year.  In the absence of a giant, golden vault full of bullion minted with my name, I’ll have to settle for the distant gaze of “someday” …

United States

1. Miami Marathon Completed (2/3/2014)

imagesI’ve run the more popular half marathon distance in sunny Miami three times and each time it’s been an extremely fun run, despite some years pairing the 13,000 runners with crushing humidity.  In recent years, as I’ve gotten better at running in adversarial conditions, I’ve begun flirting with the idea of returning to Miami for the full marathon.  It wouldn’t be easy, but I want to run it to prove that I can.  When I dragged myself across the finish line in 2010 I was wondering out loud, in between stifled gasps, how anyone could run twice this distance under such conditions.  One day I will see how it’s not only possible, but hopefully fun.  If I’m lucky, I wouldn’t have to deal with terrible heat, allowing me to enjoy the glitzy beachfront properties, the seemingly endless rows of palm trees and the opulent turquoise condos that jut from the shoreline as if made of coral.

2. Colorado Marathon

colorad-marathonI have had a love affair with the Centennial State that has lasted decades.  It seems that every time I go, I have an amazing time without fail.  When I started running, the idea of going out west to tackle the miles at altitude seemed too daunting to consider.  But after churning out the Horsetooth Half Marathon, a challenging race in Fort Collins, I knew I would someday return for the full beast.  Although the largest marathon in Colorado is the Rock ‘n Roll Denver race, I have always been drawn to the state’s eponymous marathon, run along the Poudre river in Fort Collins.  When I think of Colorado, I think of the outdoors, rising slabs of earth, dirt and trees.  Though I’m sure there are far more rugged marathons in the state, this one has been calling my name for a while.  The fact that the entire race is downhill certainly helps.

3. Boston Marathon

baa-logoNo serious marathoner’s medal display or trophy mantle is complete without the blue and yellow unicorn.  The Boston Athletic Association’s flagship race is a rite of passage for anyone who has put in more than their share of pain and sweat into training, running their fastest possible, grinding their teeth and sapping their lungs.  And that’s just to qualify.  Just being in Hopkington waiting for the race to start, surrounded by twenty thousand other runners who pushed themselves to similar limits, would be reward enough.  But then you’d actually run the race, with Boylston Street 26.2 miles away, and the coveted title of “Boston Finisher” pulling you all the way.  I am several marathon seasons away from even considering a BQ, but with enough diligence and the perfect day, it can happen.

4. Big Sur International Marathon

imagesThe previous three races all involved cities that I have frequently visited.  I was drawn to them because they took place in cities that I hold dear for one reason or another.  Big Sur is the opposite.  I have never been to Monterey County or the Bay Area but have been drawn to it for quite some time now.  In addition, I read somewhere that this is “the race you have to run before you die” which is the literal definition of a bucket list race.  Every story about this race has been inspiring and the breathtaking descriptions of scenery make the decision to someday run it easy.  Even stories where the entire day was covered in fog haven’t lessened my interest in making the trip.  In fact, I’ve been meaning to fly out to California to run a marathon for years now but the surfeit of races is intimidating.  But even as I discover new, exciting courses to conquer, Big Sur has remained at the very top of that list.

International

5. Paris Marathon

logo_newParis, the city of love, high culture and delicious food.  In my head, I find it impossible to separate thoughts of Paris and that playful yet seductive accordion music that you hear in movies like Amèlie or in the closing credits of Ratatouille.  And that’s while not on the course.  What better way to get to know one of the most iconic and renowned cities in the world than by running on the historic Champs-Élysées, around le Place de la Concorde, past Notre-Dame and finishing just shy of L’Arc de Triomphe?  I can’t think of any other race (or city) that would inspire more nostalgia in me than Paris.  After all, it’s the closest major city to Fontainebleau, where I was born.  So now you know that.

6. London Marathon

vlm-logo-baseLondon comes in a close second to Paris’ nostalgia and sheer weight of history.  As a World Marathon Major, it is known for superb organization, a star-studded international field, and a fast course.  On paper alone, it is enough to get me to sign up (or add my name to the lottery and cross my fingers, as I’ve done the last two years).  But it’s more than that.  I lived in London for a little over two months as a child, which was more than enough time to develop an intense liking for castles and all things medieval.  The chance to run past the Tower of London, Westminster Palace, the Tower Bridge and various other structures of the highest regality is enough to make me and my inner child salivate.  That said, if there were a relay race in the United Kingdom whose legs connected castles to each other, then I would sign up in a heartbeat.

7. Berlin Marathon Completed (9/27/2015)

logo-2013-header-enThe chance to run the world’s fastest marathon is another no-brainer.  Sure, there are downhill marathons like Wineglass, Colorado and Tucson, but those events don’t have a torrential river of humanity 40,000 strong pushing you along the way.  This is the city where the great Emperor himself Haile Gebrselassie became the first person ever to run a marathon under 2 hours and 4 minutes, a feat broken in 2011 by Kenyan Patrick Makau.  Though Berlin is also a city with a very complex and fascinating history, it doesn’t have the same resonant, personal associations as the previous two European cities have had (despite living in Bonn for 3 months before college).  Running the Berlin Marathon would certainly help my ties to the city grow stronger, especially if it allows me to earn a new PR on its perfectly flat course.

8. Midnight Sun Marathon

LogoMSM_122x64All of the previous races have been in large cities with sprawling, international airports.  This one breaks that mold.  The Midnight Sun Marathon takes place in Tromsø, Norway, an island in the northernmost part of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and it starts at 8:30 PM in summer, when the sun shines all night long.  I would race this exclusively for the celestial novelty, but it doesn’t hurt that the course rarely leaves the coast and is hosted by a city surrounded by the Nordic wild.  It would be an adventure just getting there and not knowing the language will add to the experience … but I have no doubt that it would be worth the effort.  Marathons push you far beyond your comfort zone, so why not make the trip do the same?

9. Niagara Falls International Marathon

imagesThough technically an international race, it would require a domestic flight shorter than two hours from Chicago.  I have wanted to run this for two years now, but it seems like every weekend in October has ten different marathons, all of which I want to run including Chicago.  Since Canada isn’t part of my 50-states goal, the Niagara Falls Marathon keeps getting pushed to next year as I decide to knock out another domestic race.  But one day I’ll make the trek to Buffalo, New York, cross into Canada and finish to the sound of thundering cascades of foaming water.  It’s also the only marathon, perhaps even race, in the world that starts in one country and ends in another, requiring a valid passport at packet pick-up and check-in.

10. Two Oceans Ultramarathon

logoDespite my love of travel and discovering new places, I readily admit that I have very little desire to visit the African continent.  I used to find Egypt intriguing but the recent political situation there keeps me from taking any steps in that direction.  However, I have several friends who have lived in Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, and they all have, in one way or another, tried to convince me that I should run an African race.  They certainly know me well because that is the most surefire way to lure me.  Though a race in Kenya or Ethiopia would be fitting given the sport, I’ve settled on the Two Oceans Ultramarathon in Capetown, South Africa.  There’s a half marathon option but if I’m going to make that excruciatingly long series of flights, I’d do myself a disservice by running anything less than the full distance of 56 kilometers (34.8 miles).  Adding to the intrigue is its non-exclusive billing as “the world’s most beautiful marathon.”

So there it is, my official bucket list.  Though I’m always finding new races and occasionally removing some, I am confident that these ten will remain stalwart ambitions on my radar.  It will be many, many years before I will have completed these, which is fine by me.  Despite gung-ho carpe diem attitudes towards life, not everything should be done all at once.  There’s something to be said about having long-term plans and knowing that you can tackle them at your own pace.  Besides, I have yet to become perilously wealthy, so all of these adventures will take careful planning and too many hours of daydreaming.

But surely I must have missed something.  Please let me know.  Have I forgotten any iconic races?  Do you have a race bucket list?  Are these races all “so annoyingly popular” that they betray my knowledge of the running world?  More importantly, should I replace Paris with Medoc?  Big Sur with Avenue of the Giants?