Berlin Marathon | Race Report (And a bit more)

Ten times!

There are rare moments in life when you feel that (almost) everything is going your way, and the morning of Sunday, September 24, 2017, was definitely one of those good days. Months of training in the unforgiving Dubai heat, indoors with endless loops around an indoor facility or on the treadmill and struggling with some muscle strains and getting sick not once, but twice in the space of 3 months all paid off in the German capital on a wet and slippery Autumn morning. This is a look back at the last few months, culminating in a race report. This will (hopefully) be a good read for anyone interested in running this prestigious race.

Why Berlin?

Okay, so there’s this thing called the World Major races, which is a collection of six marathons. It’s a bucket list item for many runners. The World Majors are held in these cities:

  • New York
  • London
  • Berlin
  • Tokyo
  • Chicago
  • Boston

To put it bluntly, I was in a rut earlier this year (I think I’m past that) and I decided to make a genuine attempt at running the World Majors in the next few years, however long it takes. I’ve already done London twice, and Berlin was the closest and most affordable race out of the bunch, so I signed up to it through a sports package in the summer.

How I got in:

There are several ways to get into Berlin:

  1. Ballot spot (Did not even sign up in time, as usual)
  2. Qualifying time (Too slow to be included in the list)
  3. Charity spot (The process to fundraise and to get approvals is not quite straightforward nowadays, unfortunately)
  4. Sports package (My method of choice)

Back in the summer, I got in touch with several sports tour companies and got some quotes for packages, these usually include a hotel stay for a few days, the marathon entry and you can add additional options (eg. a city tour, gear, race memorabilia and merchandise etc.). It was not the cheapest option since I chose an upscale hotel (for European standards), but it was worth it considering the hotel’s central location.

Training:

I actually do not remember when I started proper training for this race, but looking at my Strava log, it seems like it was around mid-June (or at least that’s when the serious mileage started). It was on the back of a busy season of racing in the UAE, with several PBs broken a few times in 3k, 5k and 10k distances. I had some sort of jinx in distances longer than 10k, as I did not do as well as I expected in several half marathons and full marathons. In the lead up to Berlin, my fastest half marathon was in January 2016 (Ran at least five half marathons since then and did not come close to breaking my time there) and in a full marathon was in January 2015 (Ran four full marathons after that with the same outcome). The two races with personal bests felt as though they were from another decade.

Intervals training at DSW

I followed a slightly different approach totraining this time around: In addition to the usual two speed session during the week, recovery jogs and cross-training sessions in between and a long run on the weekend, I added some core training and light free weight exercises to work on my upper body and core, and I feel they paid off. To prepare myself mentally for the 42kms, I started doing two to three of the following core workouts on almost daily basis: 42 push-ups, 42 burpees, 4:20 minutes of planks, 42 sit-ups/crunches, 42 triceps dips etc. (you get the picture). I’d like to think that this tweak made a difference, whether it actually did is not easy to identify.

Unfortunately, my training was interrupted twice by getting ill. On both occasions I was a stubborn idiot who refused to go see a doctor, only to drag myself to the hospital after several days of no improvement. In hindsight, it could have been a blessing with my body getting much-needed recovery time that it would have never gotten otherwise. As part of my training, I ran a couple of 10ks and a half marathon and did alright in them (two podium finishes in the 10ks, albeit one of them was more like 8.8k due to problems with the venue hosting that specific race, I still took my podium finish with a grin though).

Traveling:

At Dubai Airport before boarding to Hamburg

What I assumed was the most straightforward part of the trip provided some unwanted panic with less than two weeks to go to the race. For political reasons, there are no direct flights between Dubai and Berlin, and hence, I had two choices if I wanted a direct flight to Germany: Either book on Emirates to any other German city that they fly to and then take trains/drive/another flight to Berlin OR travel from Abu Dhabi, which had a direct route to the German capital thanks to Etihad’s currently defunct acquisition of Air Berlin. I initially chose the second option (with Air Berlin), there was a negative bit of coverage in the media the day I booked my ticket (should’ve read the signs back then), but there were assurances that their flights would not be affected. A couple of weeks before the race more than one hundred Air Berlin pilots “called in sick”, and that raised an alarm for me. After a going back and forth with Air Berlin, Etihad and Expedia (the third party website I had booked on), it turned out that my flight was canceled (nobody bothered to inform me until I chased. Thank you very much Etihad and Air Berlin…) and I was offered a full refund or an alternative flight after the actual race (!). I obviously chose the full refund and booked on EK to Hamburg, and then booked a train ride to Berlin from Hamburg’s city center. The train’s timing very un-German, as it was several minutes late (Which to my surprise was not uncommon according to two passengers I chatted with while waiting at the station).

Pre-race:

There is a 5-6k jog on the morning before the marathon every year which ends at Berlin’s famous Olympic stadium (for the football fans, that is where Zidane’s infamously headbutted Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final), in true Omar fashion, I overslept and missed the run. Since I was staying in the center, the location that was close to the start/finish area, I went on a light jog to explore the neighborhood a little and to figure out the logistics and where to go before and after the race. I met a couple of French runners along the way who were more than glad to jog, take pictures and chat about running and their plans for the race.

Meeting French runners and posing at the finish line 28 or so hours before we crossed the finish line

The race was on a Sunday, and on Saturday there was a big race on the exact same route of the marathon for rollerblade skaters, so most of the roads in central Berlin were closed, that still did not deter me and the group I was with from doing some sightseeing during the morning/early afternoon. After a pasta lunch, I made my way on foot to the race expo with a friend to pick up my bib and race bag/t-shirt etc. The expo was good, but I personally felt London was better and more interesting (products on offer are almost identical though). In the evening, I met up with a predominantly Arab group that also flew in to run the race for some carb loading at a restaurant that was aptly called Pastarium. I do not carb-load as much as I used to before, and as a matter of fact, carbs in the form of pasta, pizza, bread etc. no longer feature heavily in my diet, which makes me personally believe that carb-loading is more of a myth, but it was still a good gathering. I recall I was in bed early, but as far as I recall, I did not get much sleep thanks to pre-race jitters. It rained throughout the evening, which was not a positive sign before the race…

Race day!

Before the race. How sleepy do I look?

Woke up early, got ready and walked to the start line, it was foggy, a bit eery and it was still raining at that point. The air was moist and there was a hint of humidity, but when you’ve trained through the Dubai heat in the summer, the effect of humidity with 13 Celsius degrees is negligible (to me at least). The weather forecast was not very encouraging before the race, with showers expected throughout the morning and the afternoon. The race started in corrals/waves based on runners’ abilities and their expected time of finishing. I was conveniently in corral F, which was part of the second wave. After the elite athletes sped off, the first couple of corrals went and then we followed at about 9:35am local German time.

I was told that the Germans’ stiff attitude is evident even at races, for example, pre-race, during and after the race, it always felt as though people were doing a job or carrying out a mundane task or are in the middle of a dull commute to work, this is in contrast to more ‘jovial’ races I’ve done before in Madrid and London, where there was more of a carnival atmosphere to proceedings. It could be that the weather was a factor for this, I don’t know really, but the serious nature of the runners was encouraging in a way and pushed me to not give up easily. The rain stopped shortly before the race started, but the roads were still wet, but that was not too bad for me. My training was geared towards a sub 3:40-hour finish (ideally with a 3:30 finish, which equates to just under 5:00 minutes per kilometer pace).

Zero marks for style. Gloves? Really?

My pace for most of the race was between 5:00 – 5:10, I was not paying much attention to the route itself and the landmarks we were running past, that was how focused I was I guess. The course was wide, pleasant for the most part and more importantly, it felt as though it was endlessly downhill (it wasn’t). The water and refreshment stations were well positioned and were long enough for the thousands upon thousands who ran the race (39 thousand finishers!), and to my astonishment and utter glee, they had hot tea that was heavy on sugar at several stations, which felt unorthodox and out of place in a marathon. Maybe the London Marathon should take a cue from the Germans? After all, tea is more synonym with Brits than ‘ze Germans’. Another unique observation from the race is the green bibs that some older runners had on the back of their running tops, apparently, if you run ten editions of the race, you get into the exclusive “Jubilee Club”, which gives you entry to run any Berlin Marathon in the future. They are given two bibs, one on the back and the front and a special running t-shirt, felt it was a nice touch for loyal Berlin Marathon runners!

All smiles!

Going back to the pacing and the race, the pace started going downhill after the 30km mark, although I did not walk at any point before the 37th kilometer. That put me behind the 3:40-hour mark, but still comfortably within personal best (PB) range. I eventually crossed the line with an official time of 3:42:47 (A five-minute PB!). I was overcome with emotion after crossing the finish line when it dawned on me that I just reached a significant milestone that was truly unthinkable to me 6 years ago when I completed my first ever race (a 10k as part of the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon). You see, I’ve always been the chubby, unhealthy, apathetic and unmotivated blob of bones, flesh and fat (a lot of that), so finishing one full marathon (back in Jordan in 2013) to me was something, completing ten full ones and with a sub 3:45 hours time was beyond my wildest dreams back then. Here’s hoping for further improvements and even faster finish times (Assuming my body does not give in).

Almost everyone I knew at the race either got PBs or remarkably fast times (for each runner’s ability level), which underlines Berlin’s reputation for being an insanely fast course for everyone (The last few marathon world recorders were broken there too). After taking some time alone at the finish line to reflect on the race and the crazy day I had and after stretching for a while, I eventually found the Adidas Runners Dubai crew, we cheered on the runners under the famous Brandenburg Gate, then had our celebratory drinks (beers for them and a coke for yours truly…).

To mark this milestone, I donated 10 euros for each kilometer covered in the race to the great charity PACES (Palestine Association for Children’s Encouragement of Sports). To find out more about what they do, visit their website at http://pacescharity.org/

If anyone is interested in looking at my pace/speed/times etc., here are my stats + map for the race:

 

Post-race euphoria and celebrations:

After making our way back to our respective accommodation spots to recover, rest up and get ready for the craziness that followed, our ‘leader’ Lee Ryan, the captain of the Adidas Dubai Runners had arranged a table booking at a popular touristy German themed pub, complete with the Oktoberfest theme and everything. Let’s just say that it was a wild evening. The pictures here tell you everything you need to know 😉 (For the record, that was a malt/non-alcoholic beer for me, just feel obliged to make the obvious remark for the nonexistent haters #tongueincheek).

Summary:

Whoa. What. A. Race and what an experience. Would I do it again in a few years? Definitely. Would I recommend it to any runners? Hell yeah. It was an exhilarating experience in a great city.

What’s up next? No plans for any international races yet, I’m unlikely going to run any of the distance on offer at the upcoming Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon in January but I am open to pacing friends for the 10k and/or a segment of the full marathon. I am planning to enjoy the shorter distance local races in the next couple of months and I will make a decision in January on which international race(s) to take part in.

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