This has been a year of many firsts and my recent trip to Berlin, Germany was no different. I ran my first international marathon, and for the first time, got to start a marathon as an elite runner.
As I mentioned in my last post, I was feeling a little uncertain about my fitness in the week leading up to the race. However, all of those worries began to vanish as race day got closer. During my last shakeout run the day before, my legs felt springy and ready to go. The weather forecast was perfect. I thought back to all of the successful workouts I had which gave me confidence that I would be able to hit my 2:55 goal.
So the elite start- my family had some connections with the organizers and surprised me for my birthday in August by telling me I would get to start in the elite corral! This meant I would have a ride to the start area with the professional athletes, a private warm up tent and restroom, volunteers that would take my warm up gear from the start area and have it waiting for me at the finish, and of course a starting place right up in front. For an event like Berlin Marathon that hosts almost 40,000 runners, this was truly a treat. While my personal bests certainly do not warrant an elite start in such a prestigious marathon, I was determined to show I was capable and fast.
The day before the race, I attended a technical meeting for the professional athletes which was pretty fascinating. They had very specific protocols for every little thing. At the start of the race, they would announce the top contenders on the loudspeaker and TV. The athletes were to smile, wave, and essentially do something that would look good on camera. At the end of the race, the winner was to celebrate with their arms wide so that all the race sponsors on their bib would be visible for photos. They were also instructed to show emotion and hug their coach or manager. You know, just in case you forget what to do when you win a major marathon!
On race morning, I waited in a hotel lobby with the top athletes and their coaches to be shuttled to the start. In all directions you could hear every which language being spoken. As we found our seats on the buses, I couldn’t help but think of the precious cargo aboard- the eventual winners Eliud Kipchoge and Gladys Cherono, Emmanuel Mutai and Geoffrey Mutai, who have both run sub-2:04 marathons, and many more prolific runners.
We were dropped off right at the start line and ushered to our private warm up/changing tents, separated between men and women. It reminded me very much of the accommodations provided for artists at music festivals, so the territory was somewhat familiar- just replace the open bar with bananas and a stack of Mylar blankets.
After warming up, we were led out to the starting area. I briefly felt like a celebrity as cameramen and spectators alike were filming our every move. Bleachers full of fans clapped and cheered as we strode and stretched along the road. Newscasters made a beeline for the most well known runners, hoping to get a few last minute quotes before the race began. Ravel’s “Bolero” was playing over the loudspeakers, giving the whole scene a feeling of grandiose anticipation.
We lined up soon after and the fastest runners in the field were announced for television. Seconds later, we were off! I tried to be careful not to get swept up in the excitement. The fastest women would be running at a blazing pace of 5:20 minutes per mile (3:18/km). My goal pace was 6:40 per mile (4:08/km), pedestrian by comparison.
My very favorite part of the course was within the first mile. We ran through the Tiergarten and split around the Berlin Victory Column, which featured a beautiful bronze sculpture of Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory. I learned later that Berliners have nicknamed her Goldelse, meaning something like “Golden Lizzy.”
I settled into a pace that felt good, looked down at my GPS watch and saw that I was right on 6:40 pace. Perfect! While my watch kept track of the miles, I kept note of the overall time at each kilometer mark on the course as well. As I was aiming for 4:08s, I paid attention to the seconds and just did the math every km- 8, 16, 24, etc.
The first ten or so miles of the marathon went by pretty swimmingly. I was clicking off 6:40s like it was no big deal, enjoying the scenery, and navigating the water stations as best I could. Note for those thinking of running Berlin- it was very, very crowded which caused some jostling and the water was handed out in plastic cups, making it hard to drink without spilling all over yourself.. which I did, every time. Not a reason to not run Berlin, but something to be prepared for.
The course took the runners from one district to the next, and all throughout locals lined the streets shouting out “Super! Super!” to all the runners and since my name was printed on my bib, I heard lots of “Go Liz!” and “Leez!” I felt a few random pangs in my ankle early on, but didn’t think too much of it.
I went through the halfway mark just under 1:28 still feeling pretty good, and confident I could run a faster second half as I had in Philly the year before. However, whatever had been bothering my ankle earlier was becoming more pronounced. And worse, my knee on the same side was beginning to give me trouble as well. What began as a minor discomfort turned into definitive pain. Not good!
As the pain worsened, I accepted the fact that this race would be very difficult to push through. I kept looking at my watch thinking that surely I had slowed down, but it still read 6:50-7:00 pace. Slower, sure, but still fast enough to run a significant personal record.
Then things began to spiral downward. Approaching mile 20, My hips tightened up and my ankle and knee were throbbing. I took my third gel earlier than planned and grabbed sports drink at every aid station, hoping the electrolytes would alleviate the tightness or whatever was happening to my body. I felt a temporary boost, but went right back to feeling awful. I glanced at my watch again- still in the high 6:00s, low 7:00s. Considering how wretched my joints felt, I was still clipping along okay. As my watch chirped at 20 miles, I did some quick math and realized I could still finish in under three hours if I ran the last 10K in 44 minutes. I thought, could I run a 44 minute 10K? I exclaimed out loud, “F— yeah!” I can run 44 minute 10Ks in my sleep!
Boy, was I wrong. Mile 21 was in 6:59. Still good. The next mile was in 6:55. Even better. Then everything just shut down. My legs were done. My hips were done. Time was slipping away and my stride was reduced to a shuffle. Any effort to do more than that was met with the utmost resistance. I stopped a few times to walk and a few times to stretch. I felt like such a disappointment to the spectators whenever I did so, but when I’d rally and begin running again, it was met with applause and cheering. A runner that I remembered passing a few miles before gave me a sympathetic pat on the back as he went by. Thanks, kind stranger!
It was hard not to feel dejected through those later miles. Here I was at this prestigious marathon, wearing an elite bib, and I felt like the farthest thing from being an athlete at all. You know how you hear about that runner’s high, when running just feels like the most natural thing in the world and you could go on forever? This was the complete opposite. Running felt like the worst, most alien thing I could be putting myself through.
The timing couldn’t have been better for my husband Andre to appear on the sidelines. He cheered for me and took a bunch of photos, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. It wasn’t my day, but what could I do? While I was unable to run anywhere close to my goal pace, I just focused on what I could do- shuffle forward, enjoy the sights, and be happy that I was there and that I WOULD finish this marathon!
I made it a point to soak it all in until the end. The course took me right by the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, bringing back memories of “Bolero” playing at the start line. The final turn brought the Brandenburg Gate within sight, the grand finale of the race.
While my legs resisted, I pushed to the finish and relished the moment as much as I could. I kept up with the official finish protocol from the day before (okay, maybe that was just for the winners, but still) and my “C” goal for the race which was to have fun, and threw my arms up in celebration- something I never do! And just like that it was over. Official finish time, 3:08:50.
I don’t remember much from that point on, other than having a strong urge to lay down, which I did on the grassy lawn in the sun by the Reichstag building. It was glorious. Soon after I made my way out to meet Andre, but not before grabbing a pint of non-alcoholic finishers’ beer, a Berlin Marathon tradition.
I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on this race and I still don’t know exactly why it went the way it did. I flew to Berlin a week before the race with plenty of time to adjust. I stayed off my feet as much as I could and ate what I normally ate. My training went well and I feel confident that I could have PR’ed easily, if not run a 2:55, had the pain in my knee and ankle not been so bad. I will certainly work on my core strength, stability, and flexibility going forward, as poor core strength or running form may have been the culprit. It could have been that my racing shoes were beginning to break down, affecting my form. They had 150+ miles on them, a poor oversight on my part. Wanting to blame something, I took it out on my shoes by leaving them in my hotel room. I’m done with you, racing flats! Of course I can’t complain about footwear too much, as the men’s marathon winner did so with bloodied and blistered feet from the insoles of his shoes slipping halfway out!
Otherwise, I don’t want to dwell too much more on it. I’m more excited about looking forward to what’s next and improving my training for the next go around, which in this case will be the 2016 LA Marathon! But more on that later- I’m heading to the gym.