When I set out to run the six Abbott World Major Marathons, having the three U.S. runs completed, and the Berlin lottery opened I gave it a shot. I’ve not gotten into London three times and not gotten into Tokyo once. So why not try for Berlin? Low and behold, I got in to Berlin 2020!! And then, covid. I trained with optimism all the way through a 20-miler in July in 2020 and finally accepted that the race would not happen.
I know I’m not alone when I confess to feeling totally rudderless in 2020, without races to train for. So I am eternally grateful that Berlin allowed us to transfer our 2020 lottery entries to the 2021 marathon, September 26. It would be my 15th marathon, my first international, and my fourth in the Abbot World Major series. We just needed covid-19 not to cancel it again.
Berlin Training, Round Two
I used the app RunCoach for a PR at CIM in 2019, specifically under the wings of Coach Hiruni. I didn’t hesitate when it was time to train for Berlin, again. We started in May. I needed to base build all over again. I ran 3 quality runs a week; most weeks I also swam 1-2 times a week; every now and then I did some half ass upper body strength work (sorry Coach), and that’s it. Fast forward to my finish and I’m confident my lack of strength work contributed to my performance (and not in a good way). Nonetheless, I trained far longer than an average 10-12 week plan so I knew I had the miles going into this race under my belt. I also, overconfidently, felt I had the speed. Given the fast Berlin course I really hoped I might even hit another PR (CIM was 3:29:02…so let me tell you, I was ambitious with Berlin).
Crossing the pond to run was a first. I’ve taken planes, trains, and driven myself 3-4 hours to and from marathons. But I’ve never flown 13+ hours for a race. Not to mention after not having traveled that far in over two years. I used to be a pro at international travel (for work) and all of a sudden I had to dust off old travel tricks. If you’re considering running internationally, here’s what I did, plus a few tips on what I should’ve done:
- 13.5 hours from SFO to Zurich; 1 hour to Berlin
- Out of paranoia, packed my race day gear in a carryon which turned out to be unnecessary
- Had 3 sleeps before race morning…one more would’ve been ideal
- I banked NO sleep on night 2 due to jet lag, and as a result went to bed early and entirely exhausted before race day thankfully giving me loads of sleep to run on
- Packed all the gear — extra everything for all weather conditions including rain, cold, extra socks, etc
- Did NOT pack enough of the right power converters
- Did NOT pack favorite race morning food but got somewhat lucky with the hotel breakfast; Nutella will always be an acceptable substitute for peanut butter
- Turns out Berlin is a walking/biking friendly town; was probably on my feet a few hours more than ideal the day before the race…but to travel this far and only be in race mode would be silly; so, I hoped for the best
Berlin 2021 Marathon
As a runner, I obsess about the weather. I watched Berlin, compared to my hometown of Moraga, CA, for weeks. My early morning runs in the 50s/60s were relatively similar to what was shaping up to be lovely fall weather in Berlin. Race day, however, was unseasonably warm. We started in the low 60s and it was downright hot within the first hour. Granted, I’ve run hotter, and more humid, races, but still not ideal marathon weather.
We stayed at the Steinberger Hotel on Ella-Trebe-Strase, which was about a 10 minute walk to the start area and a generally great location overall. Highly recommend. My start time was 9:35am so also a very civilized time that allowed for plenty of prep time and breakfast at the hotel, but late in terms of temps. I’ve never been less rushed or stressed at the start of a race. I simply walked over, walked through the “vaccinated line,” and straight to the porta-pots!
Despite having studied the start area map for DAYS, I still didn’t fully understand the lay of the land until I was in it. I made my way from the main area over toward my corral (E) with a solid hour to spare before start time. I wouldn’t have wanted to cut it any closer than the total 75 minutes I gave myself from hotel to corral. After porta-pot round two near the corrals, I sat for 15 minutes and then lined up with the 3:30 pacers for the last 20 mins before our start.
I checked in with Coach Hiruni many times pre-race for many reasons. And I set many goals. On my second to last long run (19 miles) my left knee totally gave out. So one main goal was to get to the starting line healthy — which I did — and I’m happy to say I had zero knee pain or weirdness during the race. But we chatted about it a lot and how best to prepare for a healthy start after that long run.
I wanted her thoughts on travel, rest, and most importantly pacing. She very wisely guided me to not go out too fast for the first 5-6 miles, to not get swept up in the excitement. And then, she also very wisely consulted me on the weather and that given the temps, I should not overreach in the first 40% of the race and then see what I had. She provided the exact right amount of confidence that I could hit my stretch goal if, BIG IF (my words, not hers), I heeded her advice and all the stars aligned.
At mile 15, I shed a tear, or maybe just salty sweat spilled from my eye, I said out loud to no one, “Marathons are so humbling.” Here’s what happened.
At the start line, despite my two porta stops, nerves (and my espresso) got the better of me and I knew I wouldn’t make it the whole race without stopping. I took care of business early, just after 5k and only lost about 45 seconds.
Coach said don’t get too excited. On marathon 15, I KNOW the risk of going out too fast. And yet, I did. I couldn’t slow down. I tried. I kept pep talking myself to “slow down, chill out, take it easy.” Miles 1-11 were average sub-8. I wasn’t with the 3:30 guys and had already decided to “run my race.” My race, however, turned out to be positive splits and pure grit. Miles 12-15 were fine; maybe 8:30 average. But then it got hot. No breeze. And despite studying the course, I think not really knowing it also threw off my mental game. I also spent the whole race studying the right side of the course for my husband — the only other person here I know — for my “energy boost” which I got about 4-5 times.
I had the Gu I brought with me and only water on the course. I wasn’t going to try the “Tee” for the first time ever on the course. I walked through every water stop except for at mile 24 and by the halfway point was one cup to drink and one cup to pour down my back. I do think that blast of cold helped every single time.
Miles 16-20 were a miserable “one mile at a time” stretch to see if I could stay under 9 minutes per mile, which I did. However, I was back and forth between telling myself I could just enjoy, just slow down, not worry about finish time, enjoy the sites, the views, running in BERLIN…all these totally fine positive options versus my own competitive self.
By mile 20 I switched over to the “final 10k” mentality. This “one mile at a time” mentality is very different than the mid-race wall I hit. This was, just push. See what you have. Definitely stay sub-9. And then, just like that was the final 5k. I didn’t want to overdo it there. I decided to make sure I had enough to finish strong which meant I had arbitrarily landed on an 8:30 at mile 23 (8:57) and then from there my time check read 3:20. That meant I had 20 minutes to run 2.2 miles and still hit my last goal of 3:40. Seemed doable. Mile 24 was 8:40, fine; I wanted to save it for the end. Mile 25, 8:20. Mile 26 I pushed and ran 8:16. And then I saw the arch, and I could see the mat under the arch.
And very, very stupidly, I thought it was the finish. I gave it everything I had, crossed and stopped my watch. Only no one else had stopped running, so neither did I and in that split second moment realized that was not the finish, hit my watch again, shed a tear and looked up to see the proper big blue arch ahead of me. I looked at my watch and knew I couldn’t make 3:40. I wanted to walk that last tenth of a mile. I didn’t.
I crossed in 3:40:49.
My goals as I went into the race:
- Stretch: 3:30
- If all stars aligned: 3:33 (the 7 min margin I would need to actually get into Boston from my actual BQ)
- What I trained for based on paces: 3:29
- BQ exact time: 3:40:00
- Just enjoy, start and end healthy: #runforjoy
No matter the goals, I got to run in Berlin. Period. I know that I’m lucky to be able to run at all, let alone internationally while so much of the world is still navigating a pandemic. I have a support system, I have a vaccination, and I carry with me the gratitude for what this means.
It may take many more lottery tries to round out all my six stars, and that is motivation enough to stay healthy and keep running.