I did it. I took on the Berlin Half Marathon and got my first ever sub-2hr time and a brand spanking new PB of 1:57:56!
12 weeks of training, 236 miles of training runs, 4 trips to the physio, 1 ripped pair of running tights (from a tumble on Avenue Road’s uneven paving), 2 black-bruised toes, several blisters in the fallen arches of my flat feet, 2 colds, and 3 friends and fellow Chasers all helped me acheive what I was beginning to think was impossible!
This race was the first time since my first ever 10K that I felt genuinely nervous. I normally step up to a start line with a give-it-your-best-shot type attitude, a premature defeatism, and a pretty crappy defense mechanism. But I had trained too hard to miss that sub-2 target for a 4th time and as I waited in the starting pen (starting block D – my first time not in the final pen!) I could barely contain my emotions. I was a bundle of nerves and excitement, jumping up and down, rolling my ankles in a final attempt to stave off calf tightness in the opening miles, and totally unable to remember any German with which to communicate my nerves to the other runners around me. They must have thought I was mad…
The race started bang on time, with the kind of German efficiency that we had all expected, and I crossed the start line less than 10 minutes after the start gun was fired. I knew that fellow Chaser Tim was ahead of us all in starting block A and so I thought of him setting off after his 1:18:00 target as we walked slowly to the inflatable start arch and those first timing mats. From the start I was concentrating on finding my pace – that 9min/mile that was going to bring me home in my 1:58:00 target. I don’t run with a Garmin, and I have long stopped strapping my smartphone to my arm. I run with a £20 Casio sportswatch and have loved learning to listen to my body to find my pace, timing my foot fall to favourite songs that I sing under my breath as I weave in and out of the crowd.
It worked. I passed the 1km marker in 5:32, only a few seconds ahead of my 5:36min/km target. I resolved to not check my watch again until the 5km marker, where I hoped it would read 28 minutes.
It was easy not to check my watch, because the course was so beautiful. I make no secret of my love for the Berlin aesthetic, the overwhelming beige landscape with buildings distinguishable only by the texture that varies between smooth, brutal communist concrete and intricate mouldings of mock baroque that adorns many of the official buildings erected in Mitte following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The sun was out and it bounced off the pink water pipes that criss-cross the city, and the golden and bronze sculptures that adorn rooves and columns along Unter den Linden and St. des 17. June, including Brandenburg Gate and the freshly polished Siegessaule. This long straight road proved just why Berlin is renowned for its fast, flat course. The wide roads guided us to the 7km marker with virtually no corners – the only tricky part was the crowd dividing to run through the Bradenburg Gate – and as I effortlessly cleared my first 5km in 27:28 and took on some water I found myself for the first time really enjoying a half marathon.
The crowd support was a bit strange and a bit, well… German. The supporters had turned out in force with some pretty awesome banners (no idea what they said – lots of laufe and schneller), but they were mostly very reserved and quiet. There were however lots of drumming groups along the first half and a couple of rock bands lining the second half, and in spite of the race being a very quiet one, the atmosphere was somehow brilliant – very few fancy dress constumes and very few obvious fundraisers, just lots of very dedicated and enthusiastic runners which made it a very inspiring crowd to be part of.
I continued to time my pace each 5kms, bringing in split times of 27:28, 27:23 and 28:01 for the first 15K. That was when things got tough, but I was already expecting that. I had made good time and kept telling myself that all I needed to do was hang in there and keep running. My race strategy was to stay steady and strong until the 16km marker and then, if I had anything extra left in my legs, to try and squeeze that last 5K, that last parkrun…
I didn’t have anything left. It was all I could do to keep up my 9min/mile pace! But that is so much better than in previous half marathons, when I normally start to slow right down. As I pushed through those final few kms (which I have very little memory of by the way) I was repeating to myself every little piece of advice that had been given to me by friends, clubmates, colleagues, and family from the 16 to 18km marker. I had also been reading Runners’ World on the flight over and there was an article all about how your body tries to reserve energy. Apparently the feeling of fatigue during a race is your brain telling your body that it’s tired, not your body telling your brain, and so I was repeating this to myself between kms 18 and 19 – my brain is tired, not my legs, my brain is tired, not my legs…
It’s all a bit of a blur now looking back, but I distinctly remember running past a bridge at around 19km and spotting the famous Fernsehturm peeking above buildings and knowing that Alexanderplatz and the finish line were only round the corner. The finishing straight was pretty tense as many of us mistook the inflatable arch marking 21km as the finish line and mustered a final surge of energy to push towards it, only to spot the real finish line a further 100m away! But there was no stopping me by that time. I ran towards the finish line with everything left in me and threw my arms up in the air.
I was in total disbelief as I stopped my Casio and peered at my finish time. My watch read 1:58:00 – my target (my chip time was a few seconds shorter). I chatted with a few Brits that I passed in the crowd as we queued for water, non-alcoholic beer (I’m not kidding, it was brilliant) and our official finishing certificates with speedily available chip time confirmation. I collected my bag from the baggage area (organised with stereotypical German efficiency by the way), phoned my mum (“I can’t talk for long, but I bloody did it!!”), texted my Berliner friend who was still in bed with a hangover (“Why didn’t you wake me up?! I wanted to come and watch!” “I did wake you, 3 times.” “Sorry dude…“), and hunted down my fellow Chasers to find out how they had done (everyone smashed their targets, details to follow).
I’m still feeling pretty elated. It’s an amazing feeling to acheive something that you have worked and trained so hard for. It’s a feeling I haven’t had since passing my Physics GCSE, a subject that I loved but strugggled with. I took extra lunchtime classes to get that B grade and it was a valuable lesson in what you can acheive when you really, really push for it. In the last few months of training I have realised that I can run harder and faster than I had given myself credit for, I have learnt to be disciplined in my training, I have learnt to reward myself and rest when necessary, and I have finally learnt that distance running is a mental feat as well as a physical one that requires focus and patience as much as it requires a banging lactate threshold level.
Berlin – you can eat my dust!