Berlin Marathon 2016 – Race Report

It was an exciting Berlin Marathon. I would rate my overall experience a solid B. Here’s the overall rating:

  • Expo: B
  • Course: A
  • Crowd Support: A
  • Starting Corral: C
  • Race Nutrition and Water Stations: B
  • Pre-race Bag Checkin: B
  • Toilets (pre race): D
  • Post-race Snacks: A
  • Finisher Medal: A
  • Finisher Shirt: B
  • Race Timing: A
  • Race Pictures: D (on this one, I may be biased because I am involved in a startup called Snapathon)

I will cover most of these in the report. Read on…

I woke up a couple of times during the night. There is nothing unusual this. After falling asleep at around 10PM, I expected little sleep. I was pleasantly surprised that I got about 6 hours of total sleep (not counting the hour or so that I tossed and turned in the middle of the night). Race nerves. Love them or hate them, I have come to expect them. I’m sure my heartrate was fluttering higher than average all night long!

Berlin Marathon 2016 Course

I had shaved the night before. I didn’t shower. I simply brushed my teeth and changed into race clothing. I had arranged my race clothing out neatly the night before. From top to bottom, I was wearing my green Ironman visor, Rudy sunglasses, blue Sugoi dryfit shirt with my number pinned on, dark blue Lululemon shorts, Zensah calf sleeves (orange and green), white Asics performance socks and orange adidas adiZero 3 shoes. I was wearing my green Mio heart-rate monitor and my Garmin 920XT on my left wrist and my official BMW Berlin Marathon entry band on my right wrist. For nutrition, I packed 3 Stinger honey waffles, 3 packs for Gatorade endurance gels and 8 salt pills. I was also depending on Binita handing me a water-bottle I had carefully prepared with Carbopro, HydraX and Skratch powder. I was set. I felt good. My over-under was 3:45. I had a race plan; I had a nutrition plan; I had trained with McMillan Running. I was confident and ready!

Berlin Marathon Race Morning – notice the colors of India

I got on the foam roller for about 7 minutes and methodically rolled out my shoulder blades, upper and lower back, hips, buttocks, hamstrings, calves and thigh muscles. I stretched my quads, thighs and lower back. I meditated in child’s pose for about a minute.

Binita woke up at around 7AM and we headed downstairs for breakfast. I ate lightly; a bit of yogurt with raisin-infused granola and lightly-buttered toast.

At exactly 7:45, I started walking to the starting line. I knew it would be a 30-minute walk through the woods of Tiergarten. This would give me plenty of time to check in my bag, use the restroom, get to the starting corral and relax for a few minutes. I walked slowly and deliberately visualizing the race. Today’s race would be about patience and nutrition. “Make sure you start slow.” “Make sure you eat a waffle or 4 gels every 5 miles.” “Make sure you swallow 2 salt pills every 10 kilometers.” “Make sure your heart rate is around 140 for the first 2 miles, below 145 for the first hour, below 150 for the second hour and around 155 for the rest of the race.” “Make sure you run on the 3-striped blue line.” “Make sure you take all your zigzagging turns efficiently.” “Make sure you cut as many corners as possible.”

In a Marathon, dozens of things can go wrong. I planned to enjoy the race today, but also planned to run with a strong mind.

As I crossed the canal and walked north and east to Tiergarten, I picked up a few runners all walking towards the starting line. Some were jogging. I was conserving energy and walking as slowly as possible. There were no signs; we were walking in the general direction of the race by sheer intuition.

All of a sudden, we came across a fence preventing us from going any further. We had to walk on its periphery to go straight north. There was a detour taking us back west. I was starting to get frustrated. I knew 30 minutes would turn into 45 minutes. After taking a few more lefts and rights and wrong-turns and walking through the woods and scaling a couple of small fences, I finally arrived at the bag check-in tent. It was utter chaos. The restroom lines were 100 deep and completely disorganized. People were cutting in line left and right. It was around 8:45AM now as I stood in line for the restroom. It moved slowly. When I finally got to the restroom, I realized that there was no toilet paper. Yikes! A friendly soul with an Irish accent had a few leftover tissues (thank god). It was just enough.

By the time I was finished with my business, it was past 9AM. The race was starting in less than 15 minutes. I was in corral E which means I would start approximately 5 minutes after the gun. There was just enough time for me to walk to the corral but zero time to relax. I kept calm and turned on all my equipment. Heart-rate monitor. Check. Garmin. Check. iPod. Check. Nutrition. Check.

The starting line was a zoo. People were so tightly packed in that nobody could move. It was awful. I wish I had my iPhone for a picture of this but I had checked it in with my bag. I decided to stay outside the corral fence and scale it as soon as the race started moving. This gave me enough room to stretch my calf, quad and back muscles. As the start was announced, I ate a Stinger waffle.

My power-song today would be “99 Luftballons” – very appropriate for the Berlin Marathon. I tactically placed in my Berlin Marathon playlist 3 times at approximately 8-mile intervals. This was designed to give me a boost just as things would start to get monotonous. I don’t really know the words of the song; hopefully it is something inspirational like 99 balloons flying in the air like dreams!

Since we were racing in Germany, a country that follow the metric system, I decided to watch both my miles and kilometer paces. I had already done the math in kilometers. Since I wanted to run the race in 3:45, my pace for every 5 kilometers would have to average 26 minutes and 40 seconds. For a reverse split, I would have to run the first 5k in 27 mins, 10k in less than 54 mins and keep going just a bit faster for each subsequent 5k.

Berlin Marathon First Mile – the day before the 2016 race

It was a gorgeous partly cloudy day with temperatures right around 60 degrees and virtually no wind. I was able to scale the corral fence easily and start the slow walk towards the starting line. After a long 14-week training session, Berlin Marathon; the 4th of 6 majors was finally here. On your marks. Set. Go!

The 3-striped blue line (pic taken day before the race)

Kilometers 1 to 5: I started the race right on top of the blue line. As soon as the race started moving, the runners thinned out just enough to run comfortably. I felt good. With lovely wooded trees on both sides and thousands of spectators cheering us on, I started the race easily and smoothly. My cadence felt relaxed as I prepped my mind for a strong finish. We were running in the westerly direction; away from the sun. I knew I would be fine for the first 18 miles. The last 8 miles would test my mental and physical mettle.

Berlin Marathon Starting Line 2016 (kudos if you can spot me)

Dozens of adrenaline-filled runners passed me. I knew I would reel most of them back over the next 26 miles. A marathon will break you down mentally and physically. Unless you have a strong mind, your body will complain to your mind constantly until your mind agrees to give up. Instead of listening to your body, your mind must lead your body all the way to the finish.

I have the knack of finding a “key” during all long-distance running races. I find a runner who runs at my pace and hang on to him or her. Sometimes in windy conditions, I will draft behind this runner! At the 1-kilometer mark, I found my first key. A guy in an orange baseball cap was running smoothly. He was built like a runner; slightly older than me with a cadence slightly slower than mine. I followed him for the first 5 kilometers.

We took a sharp right turn heading north at the 2.5-kilometer mark and another right heading east at 4-kilometer mark. As I passed the 5k mark, I looked down at my Garmin. 27:12 minutes with a heart rate of 141. Perfect!

Berlin Marathon Heart Rate – pretty happy with this

Kilometers 6 to 10: We were running directly into the sun now through a mix of residential and commercial streets. Spectators had lined up on both sides of the streets. The course was flat and fast. I hardly felt the few undulations on the streets. At around the 6-kilometer mark, a slender girl in a white cap passed me. She was just a bit faster than my first key. She would become my next key as I would hang on to her for the first half of the race. She had a black Lululemon string top with printed shorts and Asics shoes. Her running style was efficient. She was running a smart race; directly on the 3-striped blue line.

Running alongside the girl in the white cap

At the 5-mile mark, I ate my first Gatorade Endurance gel pack (4 gels). So far, my pacing had been nearly perfect. My heartrate was a couple of beats higher than ideal but I was okay with that. The 5th mile was distinctly faster than the 4th, but I knew that it was slightly downhill. All signs pointed to a strong race. I was cautiously optimistic.

As I crossed the 10-kilometer mark, I looked down at my Garmin and saw a time of 53:51. It couldn’t be more perfect.

Kilometers 11 to 15: I had packed salt-pills conveniently in a plastic Nuun vial. It was easy to open and close. I took out two pills and swallowed them without water. At each water station, I was gobbling down a whole cup; portions of it spilling down on my face and shirt. This was purposeful, it kept me cool.

After a few zigzagging turns, we were now headed south. We were running through what used to be East Germany although one could barely tell the difference!

I was at a point in the race where I needed to keep my mind occupied. Usually, I do math and fraction problems like calculating the percentage of race left in as many decimals as my mind would allow, or calculating the length of my stride based on distance covered versus my cadence, or calculating the remaining distance and predicting my finish time. This time, I decided to come up with a name for the girl in the white cap. At first I thought I would call her “Betty” or “Jane” but somehow it seemed too sexist and generic. Besides, she looked more like a Jennifer or Kelly than a Betty or Jane. Since I was in Germany, maybe I should call her Steffi (for Steffi Graf) or Katerina (for Katerina Witt). Nope. She didn’t look German (I’d be hard-pressed to describe what “German” looks like). She was either Canadian or American. After all, she was wearing Lululemon, a Canadian brand very popular in the USA. In the end, I decided to let things be and just think of her as the girl in the white cap! We took turns following each other almost directly on top of the 3-striped blue line.

I checked my distance with the official posted markers. I was running a slightly longer course, but barely. With all this thinking the miles and kilometers flew by. When I crossed the 15-kilometer marker, my Garmin showed 1:20:29. This was only 10 seconds behind desired pace for a 3:45 finish.

Kilometers 16 to 20: The temperature was starting to creep up. While it was still comfortable, I started grabbing two cups of water at each station. The first one I drank heartily and the second one I poured on my head. A couple of times, I lost the girl in the white cap only to have her resurface either right in front or right behind me. I was her key as much as she was mine. I wish I knew her real name, but I probably never will. I didn’t even catch her bib number!

As my Garmin buzzed for the 10th time at the 10-mile marker, I whipped out a Stinger waffle and scarfed it down. I guzzled water to wash it down at the 17k mark just after we took a right turn going back west and away from the sun. My mile-splits had come down from the 8:40s down to the 8:30s and were creeping into the 8:20s now. My heart-rate was creeping up above 145 almost touching 150. Once again, it was just a bit higher than I wanted but I was still managing it in level 2.

At kilometer 20, my Garmin read 1:46:40; a perfectly-paced race for a 3:45 finish. With a reverse split, I’d beat the time handily.

Kilometers 21 to 25: I entered the heart of the marathon as I swallowed two more salt pills. It’s always a good feeling when you cross the half-way point feeling strong. For a 3:45 goal, the ideal half-marathon split would be a minute more than half the time. Hence, you’d have to run the first half in 1:53:30 and the second half in 1:51:30. As I crossed the half-way point, my Garmin read a few second less than 1:53. I knew I was pacing well. I didn’t know I was pacing so perfectly. With the half-marathon done, the real race began!

I felt strong as I crossed the half-way mark. It was time to pick up the pace. I looked at the girl in the white cap to signal her of my intentions. She looked back as if to say, “let’s go!” I was leading her now. She was right behind me. We passed dozens of slower runners as we ran around a roundabout and headed right going south-west. It was at the next water station that I lost her. She had stopped to refuel. I picked up two cups and ran on. I looked around. I looked back. I slowed my pace for 30 seconds to see if should would resurface. Nope. She was gone. I would never see her again.

At the 15-mile mark, I ate another Gatorade endurance gel-pack. As I crossed kilometer 25, my Garmin read 2:13:10; slightly ahead of pace.

Berlin Marathon Mile Splits

Kilometers 26 to 30: With my pace at around 8:20-per-mile, I had no key now. I was now running faster than most runners and passing more people than people passing me. For the first time, I saw people walking. They had obviously started out too fast and were paying the price. I’m quite certain that some of them were rookies. I felt bad for them but it is a lesson I too have learned the hard way.

At the Taxofit (the official nutrition at the Berlin Marathon) refueling station, I picked up two liquid gels. One of the basic rules of thumb for a marathon is not to try new nutrition, but I have a somewhat hardy stomach (although Binita frequently calls me “Delicate Darling” – but that’s a blog for another day). I tore open the raspberry Taxofit and sucked it down. It actually tasted quite delicious. I stored the second one in my pocket. In case my plan to see Binita for the bottle of nutrition failed, this Taxofit would come in handy.

We took another sharp right to head north-east. I managed to run on or around the 3-striped blue line by myself almost all of the time. I took in plenty of water. I crossed the 30k mark in 2:39:20, still trending nicely ahead of pace.

Kilometers 31 to 35: For the first time, I felt the signs of fatigue at the 20-mile mark. I also felt a head wind, albeit it was mild. I countered it by swallowing 2 more salt pills, eating another Stinger waffle ahead of schedule and guzzling it down with water. I looked forward to the 34km mark where Binita would hand me the nutrition-filled bottle. The temperature must have heated up to the mid or upper 60s by now. With 10k to go, I felt good but my body had started talking to my mind. I blocked off any negative thoughts.

As I crossed the meeting point, Binita was nowhere in sight. I was momentarily annoyed but I knew that the chances of a smooth exchange were 1 in 3. It was time to dig deep now. I had enough nutrition, I had salt pills and there was support on the course.  I had less than 10k to run. My body was hurting but I was now one of the faster runners!

To keep my mind off my fatigue, I started looking for a key. Momentarily, I found an Asian guy in yellow but he stopped for water. I found a big bulky guy in blue and started running behind him. Sheesh, he had a nasty stink about him; I couldn’t stand it! Besides, he was not a smart runner; he wasn’t running on the blue line. Another try with the girl in pink, and yet another with the guy in the green singlet. Fail and fail. I was on my own!

At the 35km mark, my Garmin read 3:05:31 solidly ahead of schedule.

Running comfortably

Kilometers 36 to 40: I was now in the home-stretch. Out of nowhere, I saw a huge flag of India with Gauri cheering me on. I was wearing the colors of India (bright orange and green calf sleeves, green visor and orange shoes). She screamed my name and I saw her. I barely had to move an inch to high-five her. She had found the perfect spot; very visible on a gentle right turn. It was exactly the boost I needed. I sucked down the second Taxofit gel just as 99 Luftballons played for the 3rd and final time.

After the song finished, I removed my headphones and soaked in energy from the loud, cheering crowds. Thank you Berlin for putting on this amazing race. It was now time to enjoy the crowds and ambiance all the way to the finish line. I let my mind wander to my running buddies in Arizona. I’ve run with so many groups and so many people. The LLS group has always been special. The Ragnar groups have also been special. Kristi, Brett, Ali, Laura, Erin, Will, Kim, Shelly, Mark, Ed – they all have been part of my training at one point or another. For Berlin Marathon training, I trained using a McMillan Training plan designed by Lemon. With a lot of perseverance and a bit of luck, it worked out quite nicely today. I also made new running friends in Flagstaff. Nes, Sharon, John, Jocelyn, Lemon, Jen, Greg and the list goes on.

I felt good. “Relax and Flow” to the finish!

I knew I would beat 3:45, but not by much. It was enough to make me happy! At the final water station, I stopped for a few seconds to guzzle in some water. There was a mild traffic jam at this station with lots of runners prepping for the final two kilometers.

Brandenburg Gate – just before the finish line

The last 2 kilometers: I had enough in me to pick up the pace. My last two kilometers were my fastest of the race. I high-fived a few random spectators as we exchanged smiles. As I ran under Brandenburg Gate, the atmosphere was electric. It was terrific to see hundreds of thousands of spectators gathered in the heart of the city. My finish was strong. It’s always a good feeling when you finish a marathon strong!

I finished the race in an official time of 3:43:12. As a volunteer hung a medal around my neck, I felt like an Olympic champion. I had run my own race within myself and yet tested my mental and physical boundaries. Could I have gone any faster? Maybe by a minute or so, but there is no such thing as a perfect race. One can always do better!

I made small-talk with a few runners as I slowly walked back to the hotel. At least half-a-dozen random Germans congratulated me on the finish. A young girl insisted on shaking my hand; an old lady spoke to me in German but I am sure she was saying something complimentary; two young boys on bikes nodded their heads as they rode by; another teenage girl spoke to me in accented English saying something like “goooood job!” I was tired and all I could muster was a thank you.

I am writing this as I sit on an AirBerlin flight back to Arizona via Chicago. I’ll post this blog once I get back to Scottsdale. It’s been a whirlwind trip to Copenhagen and Berlin. We ate at the BEST restaurant in the world (more on that in an upcoming blog) in Copenhagen. I ran my 4th Marathon Major in Berlin. That’s a lot in 7 days!

I don’t have a race coming up. I’m sure that will change in the next couple of weeks. For now, I will bask in the glory of completing yet another Marathon Major!

If you are running the Berlin Marathon, here are 7 tips for the race:

  1. If you are walking to the race start, make sure you give yourself extra half-an-hour. Also, if you are checking in a bag, try and enter the area from the East.
  2. Before the race, carry your own toilet paper for use before the race! The port-a-potties tend to run out.
  3. At race start, try and stay outside the corrals until the race starts moving. This will give you some room to stretch and some space to breathe.
  4. The Berlin Marathon is a flat and fast course, but it’s still a marathon. Pace yourself!
  5. There’s a 3-striped blue line (sponsored by adidas I bet) that indicates the shortest route on the course. Follow it as closely as you can.
  6. Unless you are going for time, high-five a few German spectators. They will appreciate it and you will gain energy from it.
  7. Lastly, learn a few German words, talk to the crowds in their native tongue; they will appreciate it and will smile to give you a much needed boost.

Enjoy the race!

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