Berlin Marathon 2019: When Nothing Goes as Planned

I started thinking about the Berlin Marathon after finishing my first half marathon back in 2017. By all accounts, Berlin struck me as the fastest and the greatest marathon in the world, and I threw it up near the top of my bucket list. On Sunday the 29th of September, 2019, I got to take part in it. This is my account of how it all went down. This is my Berlin Marathon 2019 race report.

Berling Marathon 2019 start area in Tiergarten.
The Legendary Berlin Marathon. Photo by ©SCC EVENTS / Sportograf.

Background

Berlin would be my second marathon after I debuted at the full marathon distance by sneaking under three hours back in June of 2018. I decided shortly after my debut that I wanted to run the 2019 edition of the Berlin Marathon, and secured my race entry through the lottery.

I originally planned to run a spring marathon as well this year. Unfortunately, after too much running on snow and ice, I struggled with some knee pain during the winter months. As a result, I couldn’t run much between January and March and dropped out of the marathon I planned to race.

During my injury period, I was diligent about cross-training. Instead of running the full as planned, I ran a half marathon to test my fitness. I bettered my personal best with around two minutes, finishing in 1:18:52. Despite the personal best, the race confirmed my progress was not as far along as I had hoped. My big goal for the year of running a sub-2:40 marathon would be challenging at this point.

Training

After responding well to the 18-week plan peaking at 70 miles (112 kilometres) per week from Pete Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning ahead of my previous marathon, I decided on the same approach this time around. The only change I made was adding in some extra miles here and there. As a result, I accidentally ended up following the 18/85 (137 kilometres) more or less to a tee, despite having started with the outlook that 85 miles per week was a bit too much for me.

Over the 15 weeks leading into the taper, I averaged 76 miles (121 kilometres) per week. I peaked out at 88 weekly miles (142 kilometres) and averaged 79 miles (127 kilometres) over the seven weeks of peak training leading into the taper. 

Thule Jogging Stroller
I spent a fair bit of my marathon training block pushing this stroller.

At the start of the marathon block, I went on paternity leave to stay at home with our now 14 months old son. Overall this had a limited effect on my training. The first few weeks, I experienced a bit of unexpected tiredness — who knew keeping up with a one-year-old would be more physically demanding than sitting around in an office all day. Another change was that the majority of my aerobic and recovery runs now included pushing the little guy in a stroller. I was lucky in the sense that he loves coming along for a run in the stroller.

Training generally went well up until the taper. Despite a few hiccups here and there, as must be expected, I got through most of my workouts and big sessions. Two weeks before race day, I did a 10k time trial on the track. I ran 34:43 with a 37-second negative split after closing the final 5k in 17:03. This session gave me some hope that I could get close to that 2:40 barrier in Berlin.

Taper

Unfortunately, as I started my taper the following Monday, everything went pear-shaped. I woke up with a severe cold and knew that I wouldn’t be running the next couple of days. In the coming days, my condition deteriorated further. I became feverish and struggled to get through the most ordinary daily tasks. 

The following weekend, a week out from the race, I attempted a couple of easy runs. It felt terrible. The pattern of feeling a bit better one day, only for my condition to worsen the next, was frustrating me to no end. Time waits for no man, however. And, as the week of the race came around, I was contemplating staying at home. 

Scheduled to fly to Berlin on Friday morning, it was about time to make a decision. After conferring with my wife, we decided on Tuesday evening that I would travel to Berlin regardless of how I felt. Taking the option of not going off the table gave me some relief. 

A final fitness test on Thursday evening would probably have left me panicked otherwise. A few laps around the track at goal marathon pace felt exhausting. Knowing that I would travel, however, I instead clung to the positive; my overall condition was improving. 

Pre-race

Come Friday morning, with two days until the race; I was on a plane to Berlin. With my general condition improving, I was cautiously optimistic. At this point, I had decided that I would start the race and that I would be going out somewhere close to my original target pace.

All I could do now was rest, and give my body room to recover ahead of the race. The only problem, though, is that travelling is not exactly conducive to recuperation. As I arrived in Berlin, I still had a few hours to kill before I could check in to my hotel. Instead of just hanging around, I opted to travel to the expo and pick up my bib. That way, I could rest until the race started as soon as I got the hotel room key.

Seeing The Expo

The expo was a pretty cool place. The location is an old airport, and there’s a ridiculous amount of space dedicated to all things running. And that was good because there was also a ridiculous amount of people there. Weary after close to ten hours of travel, this caught me a bit off guard.

Berlin Marathon 2019 Expo - Line to pick up starting bib
I was not particularly happy with the line to pick up my bib at the expo.

I decided to get in and out as quickly as I could. Apart from picking up my bib, and changing my starting block from C to B, the Maurten booth was my only stop. I had heard that they were launching a caffeinated gel, and I wanted to see if I could get my hands on it. I did but was undecided as to whether I would use it during the race. “Nothing new on race day” is the rule, and for someone with a history of stomach troubles during a marathon, the idea seemed particularly stupid.

Rest and Recuperation

After checking in to the hotel, I barely got out of the bed for the next two days. The only exception was early Saturday afternoon when I met up with a friend and training partner for a short shakeout run. My heart rate was abnormally high, and I felt terrible. I was discouraged as I went back to bed, hoping that I’d be able to sleep for the next fifteen hours and wake up miraculously recovered. 

But, sleep is hard to come by during the night before a big race. I dozed in and out, before properly waking up to my (first) alarm at 5:45 AM. The gun went off at 9:15 AM, and I wanted to have coffee and a very light breakfast out of the way at least three hours ahead. 

As I already touched on, my sensitive stomach has been a reoccurring theme during my time as a runner. It all culminated in explosive problems during my previous marathon. This time, however, I was better prepared.

Although I prefer running fasted, even during long runs, that was not an option here. So those two cups of coffee and two slices of white bread with butter at least three hours before the start were the result of trial and error over the past year. The same was the case for my nutrition strategy during the race. More on that later.

At 8 AM, I met up with my training buddy. We had similar goals for the race, started in the same block, and decided to go out together. We hung around just outside the starting block for about 45 minutes. After a few hundred metres of jogging to shake off some rust, I downed a Maurten gel, and we headed into starting block B ten minutes before the gun went off.

Race

It is difficult to explain just how much of a mixed bag of emotions I felt as the race started. While I was excited to be in Berlin to run, at last, I had no idea what my body would feel like on the day. In-between post-travel fatigue and race anxiety, I found it hopeless to get an accurate read of my condition.

However, I genuinely believed that my chances of getting through to the finish were marginal. Fortunately, the suspense was about to end. The gun went off, and about fifteen seconds later, I was officially racing. Time to find out what I was good for on the day.

Berlin Marathon 2019 Flatlay
Collecting all my race day gear in a flatlay is a tradition ahead of big races.

1 – 10k (38:25)

5k splits: 19:12, 19:13 

The start of the race was as surreal as the two weeks that preceded it; I felt astounding! My legs were entirely unaffected at my original target pace, and my heart rate was low. I knew this was going to be my day.

Then I hit the 4k mark.

All of a sudden, I no longer felt terrific. A glance at my watch confirmed my feeling that something was amiss, as my heart rate was closer to what I would expect at the end of a half marathon rather than the beginning of a full marathon. As I passed the 5k marker, I vividly remember concluding that a lot of running remains at the 5k point of a marathon.

What was strange was that this felt like a detached, observational thought, rather than a helpless realisation. And in many ways, that was how the rest of my race unfolded. From this point on, I zoned out and ran.

Adjusting the pace because I no longer felt great was simply not an option. My original race plan was to run the first 30k at around 2:42 tempo and then kick it home from there. It was what I had prepared to do through months of training, and I stubbornly refused to make any adjustments. Better to do as planned and blow up at 15k, than to finish wondering if I could have gone faster.

11 – 20k (1:17:00)

5k splits: 19:23, 19:14 

Now, I would love to tell you all about the marvellous crowd support and fantastic sights of the Berlin Marathon. I can’t, though, because I barely registered anything around me. Through the better part of the race, my focus was entirely inwards. I kept reminding myself to keep it up and merely do what I had done in training many times already. 

In addition to keeping the pace up, my only other task was to stick to my nutrition plan. After experimenting with at least five different gel brands, all of which gave me stomach troubles, I finally discovered Maurten a few months back. Since then, I had been bringing Maurten gels with me on every single long run, training my gut as well as discovering what works.

In the end, I landed on one gel every 30 minutes. Instead of swallowing the whole gel, I ingested it over five to ten minutes. I have also experienced stomach cramps as a result of dehydration, even during this training block. To combat this, I was diligent about taking water at every single aid station. I also slowed down to ensure that I was able to drink some of it, as opposed to just splashing it all over my face.

There is also another mental aspect of having a strict nutrition plan. Each gel, then, serves as a milestone for my progression through the race. After finishing my second gel, I was closing in on the halfway mark. My heart rate was still unusually high, but my legs felt decent. At times I felt quite hot for short bursts of time, almost as if a fever was breaking out. I decided to put it down to the temperature, which at around 15 C / 60 F was a bit hotter than I would have preferred.

21 – 30k (1:55:43)

5k splits: 19:23, 19:21

Mentally, this was the longest stretch of the race for me. Still disengaged from what was going on around me, I kept telling myself to keep it up to the 30k mark. If I did, I would have a decent chance of coming away with a respectable new PB despite the inevitable blow-up.

After passing the 25k mark, my legs were noticeably heavier than I had experienced at a similar point of my marathon pace long runs. Reflecting on my training over the past few months, however, gave me confidence. I knew that I had the strength and endurance to get through, even on a less than perfect day.

Focusing on what I could control, I kept slowing down to drink well at the aid stations. As far as the brand new, caffeinated gels from Maurten went, I had decided to go for the safe option. I stuck to the original gels I had trained with, and only brought a single pack of the new type with me. The plan was to save that one for the 40k mark. Hopefully, a caffeine boost would help me speed up towards the very end.

31 – 40k (1:55:43)

5k splits: 19:21, 19:14

To my surprise, my training buddy tapped me on the shoulder as we passed the 30k mark. “The race starts now!” he said, and right he was. The big question mark for me was whether or not I would last. My original plan, remember, was to speed up from this point. Hopefully, I could push my finish time down towards that 2:40-barrier.

Runner from the Berlin Marathon 2019 Race Report
“What the heck is that guy up to?!”

Some people were passing me, but it felt like the majority of runners around me were coming back. That, coupled with the fact that I was starting to dig deep, made me think that everything was going according to plan. The split at the 35k mark proved otherwise, however. I was merely working that much harder to keep the pace up.

I did not let this bring me down. If I could avoid a blow-up, I knew that a finish time under 2:45 was on the table. If someone had offered me that 12 hours earlier, I would have grabbed it with both hands.

After the 37k mark, I was well and truly struggling. I remember waiting for the next kilometre marker. I waited and waited, but it never came. Convinced that I had slowed down to a halt, I looked down at my watch. Thankfully, it revealed that I must have missed the sign. The 39k mark was just up ahead, and I lived to fight another k.

41 – 42.195k (2:42:40)

2.195k split: 8:30

With just over 2000 metres to go, I was finally confident of getting to the finish line. That didn’t make the next few minutes less painful, however. Everything was a blur at this point and more of an anticlimax than I would have expected. 

The rain was pouring down, and the remaining part of the course contained numerous 90-degree turns. I ran through a few blocks seemingly closed for construction, and there was not a spectator to be seen. Briefly, I wondered if I had somehow veered off course.

Turning out into the open again, I ran straight into a wall. A wall of wind, that is, and I think I shouted “oh no!” out loud. And that new gel I was planning on taking for a caffeine boost? It tasted horrible, worse than anything I could imagine, and I immediately tossed it.

An eternity after having passed the 40k mark, I finally saw that big, old gate up ahead. The Brandenburger Tor! I had envisioned myself running through it in celebration countless of times. There would be no celebrating as I passed it today, though. All I could think about was the finish line.

That’s me in the white singlet with the red stripe. Footage from the TV broadcast of the race.

Barely registering the gate as I ran below it, I mustered the last of my strength for a final kick. Unfortunately, the official race broadcast serves as proof of my lacklustre attempt. I had nothing more to give, but the finish line came to my rescue just in time.

Post-race

My friend crossed the line right after me. We met up with another local runner and hung around the finish area a bit too long. The rain was streaming down, I was cold and exhausted, and only wanted to get back to the hotel room to lay down.

An hour and a half later, I found my way back to the hotel and probably showered for 45 minutes in an attempt to regain some body heat. I wanted to get up and out to celebrate, but my body wouldn’t have it. Instead, my trip to Berlin ended as it started; In bed, trying to recover.

Reflecting on my race performance, I am happy enough. Considering the circumstances, I don’t think I left anything out there. I didn’t break 2:40 this time around, but that’s just a matter of time. After this, I’m more motivated than ever to keep working and see where this running thing will take me.