Race date: 30.9.2012
Official Finishing Time: 3:01:43 chip time, 3:03:16 gun time (PB)
Official Position: 1477/26452 (male finishers), which puts me in the fastest 5.58% (289th in my age category)
Race number: 27629
Berlin was my primary target for the year, and my only marathon this year (fourth overall). The year has been far from perfect in terms of running — I hadn’t managed a single PB before Berlin — so I was determined to make the most out of Berlin (as I’ve noted). Sub 3h was the target and I felt that it was realistic, on a good day. As you can see, I was less than 2min short, even though I did beat my Amsterdam time. My preparation had been going quite well, but about a month before the race I got stuck with a persistent niggle in the sartorius muscle of my right leg. I missed out on a couple of planned harder training sessions and the taper was not ideal, but I managed to keep the injury at bay. In fact, during the race I had no real trouble with it. So, what went wrong? Read on for the full story. I’ll write another post about Berlin itself with some more pictures later.
I was in Berlin with Elizabeth, who also ran the marathon (her second). She finished with a stronger PB than I did: 3:39:23, although her target was a more ambitious 3:30h.
No smiles here, just pain
The weather in Berlin was pretty much perfect for the whole duration of our stay: somewhat sunny, but not too hot. On race day the temperature was around +10 Celsius in the morning, getting up to maybe +17 Celsius by the time I finished. A little bit of breeze, but it was negligible in the crowds. We arrived in Berlin two days before the race, to have some time to settle down. The downside of this was that we ended up walking around quite a bit on the two days before the race. Part of this was due to the race expo, where race numbers had to be picked up. The expo takes place at a huge old airport, but it has been designed in such a way that one has to walk about 2km before there’s any sign of the race packs.. and then the same way back. We also did a short 2.5km jog on the day before the race. We didn’t buy anything from the expo, but the free non-alcoholic beer was a bonus. I had also ordered the official technical shirt with my registration, in XS. Turns out they didn’t have XS, so I was promised an S. I got an XL. I then tried to exchange it, but that also turned out problematic. After debating for a while with the non-English speaking staff I finally got the wrong size, i.e. S.
We had the advantage of staying in an apartment rather than a typical hotel, although it was quite far from the centre. This would have been ideal otherwise, but the window in the bedroom was somehow faulty and did not close at all. The temperature was not too bad despite this, but noise from the street was a bit of a problem. In particular, the night before the race was a Saturday and not only was the street full of people shouting, but some of them had explosives. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep as well as one might hope. We got up at 6am and had breakfast before setting off towards the centre.
Chilling out in sunny Berlin after the race
Since Berlin is such a big marathon and has been organized 38 times before, we assumed that everything should be fairly smooth. It wasn’t. The entrance to the official race area had been made rather difficult, and it took longer than one might hope. On a more positive note, dropping off bags was quite easy — a specific plastic bag was provided for this purpose. However, the real problem was the evident lack of toilets. When you’re expecting up to 40,000 runners, it would be nice to provide a couple of thousand toilets for them, but they had at best a few hundred. This resulted in ridiculous queues. With time running out many people, myself included, decided to head for the bushes. Well, I finally made it to my starting pen, “D”, just 10min before the start and squeezed my way towards the front (as it was for people with a previous marathon time of 3:00-3:15h; mine was 3:02h).
Post-race organization was decent, including a bag of goodies like bananas, water, and a protein bar, a pretty good post-race massage, and alcohol-free Erdinger beer. It was rather pleasant to stretch and sip beer after the race.
I was planning to set off at a steady 4:12min/km pace, which should be safe for a sub 3h marathon. It was impossible to do that on the first km, which was extremely crowded, but after that I got a nice pace going. I had been expecting crowds, but it was a bit overwhelming at times, even at the relatively fast end of the race. It’s telling that to get into the “A” starting group in Berlin, you have to have a previous marathon of sub 2:40h. Indeed, the course didn’t really open up until 35km or so, and at that point it was of no use to me as I was just struggling to keep running. The route itself is of course extremely fast. There are just a couple of gentle inclines, similarly to Amsterdam. I may prefer the Amsterdam course slightly, although it’s subject to breezes much more than Berlin, which is well protected by buildings.
The size of the Berlin Marathon does have a couple of distinct advantages: you’ll never be running on your own and there are official pacers. The fastest pacers are the 3h pacers, and my plan was to overtake them some time around the 10km mark and hopefully never see them again. However, they were actually going somewhat faster than I wanted to, partly because they started well ahead of me and, by the looks of it, were aiming to beat 3h gun time. So, I was content with just keeping the pacers in my sight (they carried balloons), until I finally overtook them around the 25km mark. I stayed in front until 32km or so, but they left me behind soon after the 35km mark. Nothing tells the story more dramatically than my 5k splits, from official timings:
To begin with I felt quite fresh and the first half of the race went by very quickly, mostly because I had to focus on getting a sensible route through the crowds. I had four Clif Shot gels with me and I took them at ~10km, ~20km, ~27km, and ~35km. I was quite pleased when I hit the half marathon point at exactly 1:30h gun time, meaning that I was almost minute and a half below that in chip time (1:28:36) — I was feeling great at that point. I felt the first impact of fast running already before the half marathon mark, but it was nothing alarming. The first alarming signs showed up around 27km, when I felt the beginnings of cramps in my calves. I had been dreading that moment, as my last two marathons, both in 2011, involved calf cramps in the last 12km.
Sightseeing on achy legs
This time I had prepared by getting Skins calf compression and I meant to strengthen my legs at the gym as well, but I could’ve done a better job at that. The calf compression did seem to alleviate the issue though. I was able to keep the pace up at a reasonable level until 35km, and I was still just about on target for a sub 3h finish. But it came with a price: I was in quite a lot of pain, and where the first half went by very quickly, 30-35km were extremely long. I kept telling myself that if I’m still on target at the 35km marker, then I can get under 3h, but in the process of making that happen my legs just seized up and I was starting to get concerned about being able to keep running at all. The rest of the race was a mental battle as I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep the pace up. When I look at the splits now, it’s rather heartbreaking to notice that even at 40km I would’ve still been within a shout of a sub 3h finish, had there been enough power in my legs to run a modest 2km at 4min/km pace. Yeah, right, 5min/km was just about beyond my ability. In fact, it became a question of pride not to fall beyond that, with my slowest lap being the 42nd km in 4:59,2. There was no finishing sprint left in those legs… For more details, see the Garmin data:
A disappointment, obviously. Funnily enough, because it was still a PB, if only by 48 seconds. The disappointment is that I know I had sub 3h in me, if only my calves hadn’t given up the race so early on. This also means that not a single one of my four marathons to date has been a solid performance, even though Amsterdam last year almost felt like one due to a negative split. I need to sort out the cramps, that’s now a priority. Calf compression was not enough on its own, but I’ve been suggested salt tablets during the race and a thick layer of tiger balm on the calves just before the race. Anything is worth a try, I suppose. Really, I need to hit the gym and do consistent leg training to strengthen the calves (and quads, which were also close to giving in). On a more positive note, I have managed to improve my marathon time in all of my marathons. If I manage to keep that up, sub 3h can’t be very far.
The only thing that might’ve helped on race day would perhaps have been to get in some isotonic sports drinks, as I was on plain water for the whole race. I would’ve preferred to drink sports drinks at least on half of the aid stations, but because of the setup and the crowds it was almost impossible to get through to anything but the water. This makes me think whether a better electrolyte balance would’ve made a difference (although I doubt it). I should also note that due to the crowds, I ended up running a little bit of extra distance. Nothing significant, since marathon courses are always a little longer than advertised, but still; my Garmin reported a total distance of 42,83km, which makes my average pace just under 4:15min/km. This means that, in fact, I did cover the distance of a marathon — 42,2km — in less than 3h. Of course, it doesn’t count, and I did all my calculations with 43km in mind so it’s hardly an excuse either, but just another fact to dwell on…
Anyway, it’s back to the drawing board now, as they say. Gym work and short speed work will be in a major role, as I think that those are my weak areas — I’ve certainly conquered the distance given that I can run ultras without any issues, but speed endurance is still lacking. I hope to do a couple of shorter races before the year is over, but I’m already setting my sights for Boston 2013 in April, as I qualified with my Amsterdam time and already have a confirmed registration.
Official results here.
Garmin data here.