16th September 2018
By Oliver Edwards
The 45th Berlin Marathon took place this September. It was the scene of Eliud Kipchoge’s incredible new marathon world record, 2:01:39. Far more important and less reported by the world’s press, it was also my first marathon – and your fellow SHAEF shifter Aaron Chai’s 25,385th marathon of 2018 alone.
I was really excited to see Berlin, as a politics geek and music nerd. What better way to see it than through the strained eyes and cramp-grimace of 26.2 miles on foot?
After an anxious week at work, quelling vivid hallucinations of pretend injuries during the final ‘taper’ phase, I left Heathrow for Deutschland. The (only) great thing about arriving in Berlin Tegel airport is that you get to experience Berlin as you would have done in 1953. Me and the fam got there late Friday night, and quickly found our way to a charming East German 1970s apartment in the Mitte district.
Saturday, T-1. Race number collection, an event in itself, meant an U-bahn fahrt (more pre-race nerves) to the marathon expo at Berlin’s Tempelhof Feld. Once the largest airport in Europe, and since closing in 2008, a vast central Berlin backdrop for ironic Instagram selfies by the world’s most ardent hipsters.
The organisers let me jump from the last starting wave to the 3:00-3:15 group. Whilst this was my first marathon, I’d set a hard target earlier this year of cracking 3:15 in the event. Relieved that I would avoid congestion at the back of the pack, and to be able to find a rhythm early in the race, I got back to the gaff to sort out my kit, food, and quickly check the actual starting instructions I’d received via my charity place provider, JDRF.
Alarmingly it appeared I would need a wristband to enter the start area, and didn’t have one. Thankfully that got sorted in the morning but it did lead to a bit of night-before meltdown. The long suffering Mrs E was on hand to give me a slap in the face and calm me down before a bit of kip and an early start for some carb loading.
The start was an amazing moment. All those early morning runs, intervals, and goal-pace runs leading to a single minute on a single day. When the horn went off and we started, a huge smile broke out on my face and I gurned my way around the roundabout in Berlin’s beautiful Tiergarten park like lost raver from Berlin’s famous Berghain nightclub.
I’d decided to target a negative split in the race. I’d aim for 4:30kms for the first 13.1 miles, and if I felt great, let the pace creep up a bit in the second half. Knowing this, and not having any marathon experience to fall back on, I religiously checked my pace from the off to keep some energy in reserve. The first few kilometres passed easily, and I tried not to be phased by the folks whizzing past me from later start groups.
The water stations were frequent and very chaotic. I was glad I’d chosen to run with a carry bottle containing enough water to last the first half so I could keep a steady rhythm and take on enough liquid. Passing through these water stations and hearing the roar as thousands of runners’ feet crunched discarded plastic cups was another awesome moment.
At about 7k I heard my wife and son cheering, near the Hauptbahnhof. Their support really helped, and looking for them in the crowd during the race proved a great distraction from the growing exhaustion in my legs. This also marked the end of the first loop of the marathon, through old, affluent West Berlin, and the beginning of about 8 miles running through the former East.
Before the race I wasn’t sure whether to run with headphones or not. In the end, the heat of Berlin knackered my iPhone and killed the tunes at about 10k. Actually taking the buds out and hearing the crowd and the amazingly varied roadside music of the event was fantastic, and I’m glad it worked out that way.
My memories of the next 15km are pretty patchy, but all positive. Wide roads, hot sun, but enough shade to manage my temperature. Amazing crowds and music, interesting architecture and keeping my eye on nutrition. The latter was really important for me as a type 1 diabetic – if I didn’t eat every 15 minutes, my blood sugar would fall too low and potentially lead to passing out and a trip to the Krankenhaus (or worse). Running Berlin was my first sport goal post-diagnosis in late 2016 so learning how to eat and run had been a big part of the year’s training.
I spotted a SHAEF t-shirt and the club’s marathon-guru Aaron Chai at about 13k. “What the hell are you doing here?! Slow your pace down!”. I took his wise advice and reigned it back to 4:30kms again, scalding myself for provoking the unvarnished race wisdom of Chai.
Pretty soon I’d clocked the first half in 1:35, bang on target. By this point I was starting to feel some fatigue creep in, so I decided I wouldn’t deliberately up my pace, but would also not back off if my speed accidentally crept up.
From 22k to around 28k I went through a tired phase. This also happened on my longest training run, so I kept calm and hoped it would ease off. It did, and was followed by an unexpected wave of energy from 28k to about 34k. I’d picked up the pace a little during this time too. Much of this section of the race is run through pretty, leafy, older Berlin neighbourhoods. I ran back into Aaron around this point. Whole families were out supporting runners, and often the course was shaded by trees on the pavement. It was an endearing glimpse into West Berlin life.
35k on was brutal. Perhaps ironically given our location, I hit “the wall”. I found myself running with a whole new set of muscles and a whole lot more gurn face. At 37k I saw Hannah and Theo again, which was an real boost. These last c10kms marked an easterly turn in the course, and a shuffle towards Potsdamer Platz, Mitte, and ultimately Tiergarten.
Soon, I was in the last 5k. Mentally I told myself I was doing parkrun in Bushy Park and visualised the course as a distraction. At various points my quads started threatening to cramp, and previously unknown muscles were starting to ache. I stopped picking up water and focussed on the end, on any remaining rhythm I had left, and on the goal. The desire to stop running got stronger and stronger. My comedy grimace from this time can be seen below.
As I saw the Brandenburg Tur the end was almost in sight. I realised that I would hit my time target, had raced 42.2km healthily despite having a serious illness, and had raised over £2000 for a diabetes research charity. As it dawned on me, a couple of times in those last 1500 metres I started hyperventilating from the emotional and physical intensity of it all. It was pretty awesome.
Running under the Tur and over the line was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I was incredibly proud of myself, and grateful to my family, friends, and club, SHAEF, for the immense support and guidance in the preceding 9 months.
My final time was 3:11:15, well under my 3:15 target. The 5am wake up calls to get miles in before work, the long rainy Sunday runs, and the ice packs and exhaustion all came together to help me achieve my goal.
Go and run a major marathon as hard as you can, commit to a goal, join a club, throw yourself into running – I promise you won’t regret it.