I’d finished the 16 marathons for the Marathon Maniacs challenge in November 2016 and had struggled for a time after in setting a new goal. Eventually I’d settled on qualifying for the Half Fanatics, sister club of Marathon Maniacs, but I felt a little half hearted about it. Nonetheless I entered Pine Rivers Charity Fun Run half in Queensland in early June and two more half marathons the following long weekend.
In the week before Pine Rivers I’d been lurking on the Marathon Maniacs Facebook and become involved in a discussion about the longest distance travelled to get to a marathon. People were talking about New York to Europe or even to Australia. I think I won with Australia to Greenland, but a close second was another Australian, Sam, who wrote she’d done Sydney to Berlin and back in about six days. Sam and I exchanged a few messages about Berlin, and it was another case of plant the seed and my mind goes wild!
I researched the Berlin marathon, which was on four months later. I’d missed the ballot however some charities still had entries. Sam had given me the name of her hotel. I was poised to book a guaranteed place with a UK charity event but on a whim looked at Travelling Fit with whom we had earlier booked Greenland and Australian Outback. Their price was fairly comparable, with the added benefit of staying with an Australian group, with assistance getting to the Expo and the start. Craig had already planned a motorcycling trip with a mate and as I’d be on my own I booked with Travelling Fit, and withdrew from the two half marathons.
Now I had something for which to train! I dragged out my trusty 16 week plan, already at week 2, and with another week of limited training to come due to school holidays. Training began in earnest mid July – middle of winter. It was cold, and it was dark. My various running friends, while very encouraging, were working on their own priorities, and I had to develop a new structure around my training. Knowing hills are important for me for strength, but no longer as strong on hills as my Blackbutt Reserve friends, I found a group of ladies who run 6km of hills in Eleebana in Lake Macquarie on Tuesdays at 5:15am! This meant leaving home at 4:45am to arrive with head torches and do 2km before the hill session, and then 2km after, still getting home before 6:30am! I think I ran with these ladies for approximately 11 Tuesdays and it was not until the last two runs I could see their faces thanks to the dark winter mornings.
I trained six days a week, resting Monday; hills Tuesdays; solo intervals Wednesdays at the Newcastle Rowing Club where my youngest daughter rows; running from my home to a cafe by 6am to meet Craig Thursdays; a mix of running friends and solo running Fridays; long run Saturdays; and run to meet Craig for breakfast Sundays. Various running friends were so very generous with their time on Saturdays, running parts of the long run with me which made such a difference. I’d leave home in the pitch dark around 4:45am and run about 10-15km and then do the rest with them.
10 days out from departure Craig’s motorcycling plans changed and we made a snap decision for him to come to Berlin! We matched his itinerary with mine with the exception of Melbourne to Dubai, and had a bit of a rush to get things organised. He would leave a day early and fly a more complicated route via Auckland, NZ. The afternoon before he was due to leave he became aware of the fuel shortage in NZ and that his flight had been re-routed, meaning he’d miss me and our connecting flight in Dubai by several hours. We had another mad rush to re-route Craig via Adelaide, and his departure from home was brought forward to early the next morning!
I left the following day and met him in Dubai early Wednesday. I’d had a brief catch up with Del from the Travelling Fit group in Melbourne airport before my flight, and had otherwise enjoyed the solitude of the long haul flight. Craig had been busy shopping on his layover and had purchased me a Longchamp bag I’d thought essential for our trip 😜 and a pair of Lululemon speed tights I couldn’t get in Australia!
From Dubai we flew to Frankfurt where we had a four hour tour with Stan from toursbylocals.com that took in the main sights of the city.
We spent the night in the Hilton Frankfurt Airport and then flew to Berlin Thursday morning. Our hotel was 1.5km from the Brandenburg Gate and the start of the event. We walked there and looked around before going into the Berlin Mall to buy a few groceries.
Opposite our hotel was the Berlin Story Bunker which is an air raid bunker from WWII – three levels of history from 1914-1945 documenting the rise and fall of Hitler. We spent several hours in there and it was, at times, gut wrenching. Together with the Holocaust Memorial and innumerable other monuments to the Jewish people and the events of the war, it proved an emotionally challenging day. This was the stuff of our adolescent history lessons.
Friday was the first real opportunity to meet the tour group. There was a 5km group run at 6:30am and then a bus tour at 9am. I went on the run and chatted to a few runners, all of whom had their stories of marathons and marathon goals to tell.
We then hopped on the tour bus and had several hours of commentary as we traversed western Berlin to eastern Berlin. It was an excellent way to see the two parts of the city.
Highlights were seeing the still intact sections of the Berlin Wall, important old buildings still damaged from the bombing raids of the war, and quiet reminders of the awful things that occurred in the city.
There are tiny brass plaques in the cobblestones inscribed with the names of the Jewish people taken from their homes and murdered in various concentration camps.
Lines of bricks signify the location of the Wall before it was destroyed.
Across the road from our hotel is the facade of the defunct Anhalter Bahnhof, one of the three train stations where the people were loaded onto trains. Again, gut wrenching.
The tour bus dropped us at the Marathon Expo where bib pick up went very smoothly. There was a lot of security and ID had to be shown several times. I didn’t stop to look at the Expo but there seemed to be loads of vendors. We walked about 600 metres back to the hotel and from there about 1km east toward Checkpoint Charlie where we found Johnny’s Bar (from TripAdvisor) for lunch. It was great to be out in the real Berlin rather than just staying in the hotel restaurant, even though the latter was terrific and the service excellent.
We walked a few kilometres that afternoon to a waschsalon, or coin laundry, and again enjoyed a coffee in a cafe bakery while waiting. Turns out this was opposite the Berlin Airlift Memorial. June 1948- May 1949 the Soviets blockaded all supplies into western Berlin by road and rail. During this crisis aircraft were landing at the airfield every 45 seconds.
That night we went to Mabuhay Berlin (again from TripAdvisor) for Indonesian. Clearly a very popular restaurant with locals and tourists, we had an excellent meal.
Saturday I’d originally planned a day trip to a concentration camp. I have to confess I’d shed tears and felt very overwhelmed by the sights and memorials of Berlin we had already encountered. I went for a solo run, getting lost in the Tiergarten which is fairly typical for me, before returning to the hotel via the rail station facade mentioned above. More tears. I decided to change plans and hold out for another trip at another time, perhaps to Auschwitz, to tackle a concentration camp. Empathy was on overload.
Craig and I instead caught a taxi to western Berlin. He’d seen a motorcycle clothing shop there he wanted to visit and I thought I’d check out Lululemon. We wandered up the main street and could see immediately the difference in architecture between the west and the east. It’s been less than 30 years since unification and building work, particularly in the east, in massive. The whole city had already been rebuilt after the war, but now huge amounts of building continue. Western Berlin on the whole appears more established and the shops are high end.
By contrast the buildings and footpaths in eastern Berlin are relatively austere in appearance.
In the end the motorcycle shop had nothing he was after and he had to make do with a new wallet from Prada. Them’s the breaks I guess.
We did a spot of souvenir shopping, went back to our hotel and then walked up to Potsdamer Platz to see the children’s mini marathon of 4.2195 kilometres and then the Inline Skating Marathon. Both were amazing spectacles and it was quite thrilling to be in the crowd of a Germans watching their children run, and cheering the skaters.
Unfortunately terrorism was never too far from my mind. We had seen the site of the vehicle attack on the Christmas market in western Berlin at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and were acutely aware of the bollards lining various streets and important locations. There were Police everywhere and whenever there was a siren the crowd rushed to make way. Thus it was impossible for me to relax during those exposed times when walking the streets or standing in crowds, which was a shame.
Saturday night we attended the pasta dinner in the hotel with the Marathon group. It was again a good opportunity to meet runners and supporters and there was a wonderful short talk by the Indigenous Marathon Program graduates.
Sunday – race day! It was raining but only very lightly. In fact the cloud cover meant the temperature was already around 12 degrees which was good for me and my race outfit of the Travelling Fit singlet and bike style pants. I was awake at 3am which was a tad early however not the end of the world.
Breakfast was 6:30am and we left the hotel as a group at 7:30am for the start. Elites ran at 9:15am followed by groups A-C; D-G at 9:35am; and H at 10am. I was in G which was finishers with a previous best time 3:30-4:15. I thought I may get trampled as it had been over 12 months since I ran 4:19 in Canberra! I thought I’d predicted 4:30 as my finish time on the entry form but from the accounts of others most people were corralled on PB time no matter how ancient.
The group walking to the start began with 80 runners and 40 spectators but by the time we stopped at the Reichstag there were perhaps 10-15 runners and 4-5 supporters. I guess everyone had their pre-race rituals to get through but in terms of group cohesiveness it wasn’t a finest moment.
By this time it was all of 8:40am. There’d been a lot of standing around but then the guides announced they were leaving with the spectators for the 6.5km mark. I said goodbye to Craig who left with the guides, and two ladies named Kris and Yolande, and a few others. Kris’ husband, also Craig, had already gone as he was in a fast start group.
Yolande’s father Peter and I walked to our start group. Peter is legally blind and we stuck close together until we reached our corral G where he knew he’d be fine.
I left Peter for the toilet queue and was back within 10 minutes. The Germans do their portaloos well. This all happened shortly before 9am when the wheelchair athletes left, and then we clapped the fast start group at 9:15am. This included the three athletes trying to break the World Record!
Our group set off at 9:35am. I tossed the KMart shirt as the weather was fine for a singlet and I didn’t need to warm up. Being in group G out of D-G, we crossed the start at 9:45am. Group H behind us was due at 10am so it’s not hard to guess how huge the start groups were if it took another 15 minutes to get all of my group over the start. The race had 46000 people in all.
Peter said he was right to run alone and so I said goodbye and set off at a steady pace of about 5:40.
I knew Craig would be at 6.5km and I texted him at 5km. The answer came back “stay right” so he could get a photo. We came around a bend and a voice yelled “Go Anne” – a spectator from our group had spied my shirt and then about five metres further on was Craig 😀. I called and waved but the crowd of runners was so dense there was no chance at a photo.
Conditions remained drizzly and there was a lot of water on the road. My trusty Saucony Fastwitch shoes, by now with well over 1000km on them, were letting in the water and my socks were soaked. I knew the likelihood of blisters was high but there was nothing I could do. I ran on but missed the drink stop at 9km meaning I’d had nothing to drink since 9am and it was now about 10:45am. Usually at these big marathons there are several hundred metres of aid station but the 9km one was short and I was past the water before I realised. It seemed silly to turn back for a drink but I got a bit panicky thinking I should have stopped. It was still drizzling and I thought the chances of dehydration were slim, so I had my first gel and kept going.
The next 5km were a bit ordinary. I kept up the pace but my head starting whining. I began singing my go to anti-whining song “The Wheels on the Bus” and chugged along. Around 17km a man ran past and said “Go Aussie” – he was in an Australian singlet of a different style. Recalling all the help it had been running with others in marathons gone past I caught up to him. He was Les, a 57 year old from Brisbane, running for Motor Neurone Disease with a group of friends. Les hadn’t been 100% and had let his group go. We had a great time running together from then until I let him go at 25km.
Craig was on the course at 20.5km, and Les and I stayed on the right to see him. It was still super crowded at this point and I yelled to Craig several times before he heard and then saw me. Again too crowded for a photo and we were gone in a flash. First half done in 2:03.
After I said goodbye to Les I walked for a bit and phoned Craig. My toes were sore and I knew I had blisters on at least two. I took a few hundred metres to re-group mentally and change my focus to something new. This was a reasonably scenic part of the course and I ambled on until I reached 30km. I then had the bright idea of getting to 32.2km and counting down to 42.2km from there. This proved a good strategy and in fact I felt pretty good and actually went to 34.2km before messaging Craig again. 8km to go!
The last 8km were also pretty good. I walked maybe 200 metres but just kept going otherwise. My pace was around 6:30 which for me was also good at this point in a marathon. I knew Potsdamer Platz was at 38km and was a bit horrified to get there at 39.1km. What could I do? Nothing except keep going.
I was feeling fairly fresh except for the toes. I had a sniff of the approaching finish and was becoming impatient to get there. One thing I’d noted that seemed a little less evident from other major events I’ve done was the absence of good signage for impending photo opportunities. Everyone knows it’s all about the photo and I didn’t think I’d seen a photographer yet. I’d paid for the package up front and was determined to find a photographer to get at least one photo! Approaching the Brandenburg Gate with less than 500 metres to go I spied a posse of photographers. I set my trajectory straight for them, when suddenly another runner bounded in front of me, arms thrown up in the air and cutting me off. Bad move! Let jut say what happens at the Gate stays at the Gate. I have an awesome photo of me and I hope they culled the rest 😀.
Anyway, this was now kilometre 42 of the 43.1km I ran.
In true form the final kilometre was one of my fastest – fourth fastest in fact, and I bounded over the finish line. It was all a bit emotional but I’ve vowed not to cry in marathons and thus I’d say my eyes were moist with happiness. 4:26 – fastest marathon in 15 months. I was thrilled.
I made my way through the race precinct, collecting the medal and the race poncho. I already had the Finisher Shirt as it had been distributed at the Expo! It was a bit of a trek to get to Craig but that’s no surprise given the size of the event. He’d had a huge day of walking and standing around, as well as navigating trains. It was then more of a hike back to the hotel as the paths were blocked in places and there were some nifty tricks to cross the marathon course that did involve a bit of waiting, but that’s to be expected.
Travelling Fit put on drinks that evening and we were reunited with people we had met. They were all in good spirits and it seemed everyone had finished. Craig and I left the next morning early. We flew back to Frankfurt, then onto Dubai, and then to Sydney.
So the World Record still stands. Conditions were apparently a little too wet, humid and warm, and the winner missed the record by 37 seconds. Craig saw the leaders go past at 6.5km and of course they were flying – 3 minute kilometres!
For me the conditions were pretty good except for the water in the shoe issue. I’m thinking about a change of shoe but it’s hard to let go of the type that has seen me through so many marathons. Berlin was a wonderful course too in that it was almost perfectly flat – I think there were two slight inclines but they were nothing. The crowd of spectators was fairly evenly distributed and there were no dead spots. Heavy metal seems popular there and if it wasn’t playing through speakers, some band of rockers in their 50s were bashing out renditions of popular songs from the era. Drumming groups are also big there and they are fabulous, particularly under bridges! Amazing.
Hydration – water and sports drink were available, along with some gels and a gel-drink. I stuck with water and had two small mouthfuls of the gel-drink but elected to toss it. One memorable thing was the noise of the plastic cups on the road. Etiquette there is to simply drop the cup at your feet and keep running. It was plastic cup and water mayhem at those spots, and the noise of feet kicking empty cups was incredible.
The medal is awesome; photos a bit light on; start and finish well equipped but could have been sign posted a little better; kilometre marks on course were either absent or I missed them completely – even the tracking pad areas didn’t seem to say where we were up to but again maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place; I ran long, as did heaps of others, but in such a massive crowd that’s hardly a surprise. Berlin is a great city to get around and doing the event with a couple of days either side is completely achievable. We also flew at the pointy end of the aeroplane and I’m certain that extra luxury helped too.
I’m really pleased we came, and it was wonderful to have Craig with me as always. He’s an excellent supporter but I hope next time he will be able to race with me 😀. I’d say Berlin was one of my favourite marathons.
Berlin Marathon was number 23.