2 days on from the Berlin Marathon 2021 and I can still barely walk. It’s been a long time since a race has taken such a toll and it underlines how much I put my body through on Sunday. I’m mentally drained too. Never has a race build up been so elongated and fraught with difficulties.
I am absolutely delighted that I was able to record nearly a 5 minute PB of 2:49:07 but the time alone does not tell half the story. Yes it will be the first thing (maybe the only thing) people will ask about it but it is not the time that I was most proud of.
I had told a few people I was aiming for 2:45 and that was still the case on the morning of the race. If I’d been told before I would run 2:49 I think I would have been disappointed. My previous best was set 2 and a half years ago and my training had been so much better coming into this race. I don’t think 2:45 was an unrealistic aim.
But I could also see that conditions were not ideal. The sun was out with no cloud cover and forecasts of up to 25 degrees which for a northern lad is tropical. I allowed myself an ‘easy’ first mile to test the water. I could already tell it was going to be a struggle but I tried to notch the pace up a little over the next few miles.
I passed through the 5k marker a bit down on pace and I knew I’d have to pick it up again to get on track for 2:45. The second 5k was nearly in the right ballpark but I was already starting to struggle getting enough water from the cups out on the course which was concerning.
In London and Dublin water came in bottles which is much easier. It doesn’t spill and it’s easy to carry so you don’t have to down it in one go. The cups at Berlin were not full but trying to grab one at pace still meant spilling half of it. Then when you did come to drink, half of it would run down your face rather than into your mouth.
The water issue was making fuelling difficult too. My plan was always to take my fuel just before a water station so that I could wash the gel or bar down after. But eating with a dry mouth was not easy.
I got the first bar down at mile 4 but when it came to my second bar around mile 12 it left me retching and in real difficulty. I had to chuck it knowing that at that moment, lack of water was more of a problem than lack of fuel.
Soon after that I decided that if I didn’t take action now, the race was going to turn into a nightmare. I stopped at the next water station to make sure I got a full cup of water down. It turned out to be a good plan with one problem; downing a cup of water gave me a stitch soon after.
I went through halfway at 1:23:37 and I knew there was no way I’d run the 2 minute negative split required for 2:45. I quickly readjusted to try and run the remainder at 2:50 pace and also to try and manage the stitch which did go after a couple of miles.
I stopped again at the water station around mile 15, this time for a bit longer to try and avoid the stitch. Yes it took another 15/20s out of my time but I knew I needed to try and do everything to get back on track.
The next gel around 16 went down better and I was able to start taking water again on the move so that by the time I was approaching the 30km mark (18.5 miles) I felt like I was starting to pick up again. Despite not knowing the course in depth, I knew it turned back into the centre around 30km which was a real psychological boost too.
In reality, my pace wasn’t picking up but it wasn’t declining much either and I started to realise that I was going past other people frequently. To be struggling at mile 12 in a marathon is frankly alarming and I felt like I must be the only person in difficulty. By mile 19 I knew that I was now faring much better than many people around me.
That’s not to say it suddenly became easy but I’d worked my way through a really rough patch by focusing on each 5km marker and trying to put out each fire as it arose. I finally felt like I was running ‘in the zone’ where I was able to maintain a decent pace without any major issues.
The major issues came (literally) screaming back in the last 5km though this time in the form of cramp. It has been a nemesis of mine in marathons before but I’ve always managed to stave it off. It’s usually in my calves but this time it seemed to be everywhere.
I kept trying to focus on good form knowing that trying to compensate for the cramp in one place may set something off elsewhere. I hadn’t been obsessing over my splits too much as I knew that they had been close enough to the right pace but I was also aware that my watch was measuring long.
This usually happens in every marathon. The course has a blue line round which is the shortest line to take and it must be at least a marathon distance. You can never stick fully to this line with other people and water stations to contend with so you are always going to run a little long.
But more than this, GPS is not 100% accurate especially when you run past tall buildings. It becomes a dot to dot of slightly inaccurate position readings. On a very twisty course this can result in a short reading as it may cut off a corner you’ve had to run round.
In big city marathons where you run lots of long straight streets, there’s far more chance of it measuring long because the GPS tracks you slightly off the straight road and will record curves and zig zags that aren’t really there.
You really have no idea what is going on during the marathon but you can see the inaccuracy afterwards. Usually you can see how far out your watch is by comparing it with the mile markers but I had my watch in miles and the markers were in km so I hadn’t really been paying attention.
The result was that I got lured into thinking I had more in the bag to beat 2:50 than I really had in reality. I was ticking off the miles on my watch at around the right pace but the km markers weren’t coming as soon as they should. I knew I had to keep the effort level high to make it – I couldn’t ease off.
There is a long straight section into 40km at which point it zigzags back towards the finish just beyond the Brandenburg gate. Some people were walking or stopped altogether. Having collapsed before at mile 25 in a marathon, I was determined not to stop no matter how much I wanted to. Plenty of time for that at the finish line.
If the section to 40km seemed to go on forever then the last straight down to the Brandenburg gate and beyond was worse. I’m glad I read that the end wasn’t at the gate because it’s a good bit past it and I was ready for it, not that it made it much easier.
I know some people get emotional at this point but I was having difficulty just concentrating holding my running form together. I had been more in awe before the start of the race but now just needed to focus on getting to the end.
Making sure I smiled for the cameras (I’d no doubt been grimacing most of the way round), I crossed the line and immediately the cramp consumed my legs and feet. I could barely stand let alone walk. Someone kindly held me up whilst an electrolyte drink was brought my way.
Lots of thoughts flooded into my head having tried to block out most of it during the race. I knew I couldn’t have done more. I didn’t hit the main target I’d set but in a way I’d achieved more than just a time in the way I’d battled through.
I thought about the sacrifices Louise and the boys had made back home to allow me to get here at all. I thought about the inspiration of my Mum who introduced me to running and would have been 67 this week. I thought back to the tough training runs and weeks I had been through that had tested my mental resolve especially in the 6 weeks before.
All these things contributed to my ability to deal with the situation but I still wondered why I put myself through it. I think on reflection, it is the sense of achievement at being able to overcome a difficult challenge. It’s about testing myself and coming out the other side of it.
And it’s a truly personal experience. At the end of the day, others will applaud your achievements but there is no real context to place them in. Everyone has a different potential, different circumstances and different problems to overcome.
Time for reflection and evaluation is important too. A lot of sacrifice can go into running a marathon. Was it worth it? Which parts were enjoyable? Which were not? What would I do the same again? What could be changed next time?
I know there are certain things I’m not keen to repeat but it’s still too early to say what my next challenge will be. The dust has to settle a bit more, I need to enjoy some things outside of running for a little while. But I’ve definitely learned and reinforced a few things:
- Your ‘why’ has to be strong enough otherwise you will choose not to suffer when it hurts the most.
- You have to be able to adapt your target / expectations depending on the conditions that you get.
- Having a variety of different targets can help you do this. I had 2:45 as a target but also 2:50, a PB (2:53:50), 2:55, 3:00 and simply just finishing to get my second major.
- Being able to problem solve on the move is key to running a good time. A marathon is rarely plain sailing so what strategies do you have when things go wrong?
- Breaking down a marathon into smaller chunks and focusing on each one in turn will make it easier to get through the whole thing. By focusing on each 5km rather than the fact I had 14 miles left when it was going wrong, I was able to turn the race round.
- Work in the units of the race in your training and on the day. Tracking kms on my watch would have been easier and would have shown me how far off my GPS was.
- Realise that most people are having a tough time of it, not just you. A marathon is not easy.
- Try and take it all in and enjoy it. The crowds at Berlin were fantastic, especially the bands. I wasn’t in a good place to take it in but I really tried at points and I did have a smile on my face when I passed by the bands or someone shouted out my name.
- Share in the success and pain of your fellow runners. Running can be lonely at times and although everyone’s experience of a race is different, you’ll be able to reminisce and reflect on many of the same things.
- Be thankful to the people that have made sacrifices or helped you to get you where you are. Thank you @loulou.ladd and the family, @jm_run_coaching for the extra resolve you’ve managed to instill in me and everyone supporting me at @malluskharriers and @therunningrules.
I hope everyone running Belfast and London this weekend has a great race. You’ve put all the training, planning and prep in and now it’s all about executing the race!