The Berlin Marathon 2018.
Sporting History was made on the 16th September 2018. You don’t need me to tell you what happened. On such an incredible day I wrote my own piece of history. I ran a sub 3 the marathon. Something that was never a dream or goal. But something that became a ‘thing’ for me. A monkey on my back in 2018.
Let’s rewind a little. 7 months ago. February. I’d just ran a 3:07 marathon in Muscat and a 3:03 in Malta. My mind went into overdrive. Out of nowhere I suddenly thought I can. I believed. I wasn’t patient though and pushed it. Limassol was the the spectacular climax and crash and burn affect of my naivety and disrespect.
It created this monkey. He isn’t cute. In truth he’s a little mouthy Pratt. He’s loomed over me like a shadow. A shadow that filled me with doubts and fears. What if it happens again, but with more severe consequences? What if I keep trying and keep failing? What if I can’t do it? What ifs. So I did what I do best and blocked it out. Shut it down. I succumbed to the fear. If I don’t try, I can’t fail. And that’s how the next two marathons went.
I found a comfort zone. A safe place. I ran at a pace I could enjoy and where no harm could come to me. Whilst it was great that I could enjoy the marathons in such a way, I wasn’t challenging myself or confronting my fears. A manifestation that I’m almost cheating myself. That has been my norm since. I just accepted it. Maybe one day I’d try again.
There’s been a gap of 5 months since my last marathon as I’ve explored the trails over the summer. September though brought about My next marathon. Berlin. One of the Abbott World Major Marathons. Originally this was going to be my main race of 2018. After obtaining a place I thought I was going to train and go for a GFA (London) time (which annoyingly I’d achieved in Malta until they changed the criteria!!) I then found the trails. This all changed. Two weeks before Berlin I’d now be tackling the biggest physical challenge of my life – The CCC. I had no plans for Berlin once again. It was an afterthought. A secondary race in the shadows cast by the mountains.
Berlin would be special in a different way though. I was in a ‘group’ of 20+ other runners that had formed together through various connections. It was going to be a very social and enjoyable weekend. I was looking forward to that.
As the race approached, my mind only turned to Berlin after I finished the CCC. Two weeks to go. What was my plan? My legs still ached. I hadn’t ‘trained’ for roads or speed. I wasn’t in a training nor taper period. I was in a period of recovery. I didn’t know how long this feeling would last. So I reverted back to the shadows and found a safe option. I decided that 3:15 to 3:30 would be my safe zone. I’d be happy with a time like that. 3:30 was more than comfortable at Helsinki and a time of 3:15 would provide some challenge. Deep down I was scared I’d leg it. You always get caught up in the stampede at the start of a race. So a secondary goal was not to run faster than an average pace of 7:10 mins per mile. That would be a 3:10 marathon pace. Contain yourself was my message!
That’s it. Plan formed. Now to enjoy the weekend…Arriving Saturday AM I bullied my way through the mayhem of what is the biggest race expo I’d ever experienced. I was in and out. Nice and easy. I met up with various members of the group to watch the football and later again for pasta. Spirits were high. Everyone was ready to attack their race. By this point though I’d already made my one ‘mistake’. As I’d run a faster time since I obtained a place at the marathon, I’d had my starting block moved up a place. I’d now be running with 1,000s of other runners capable of a 3:00-3:15 marathon.
Pasta eaten, it was time for bed. Bobby and I were staying on the 6th floor of the Wombats hostel. There is a roof top party every night till 3am. Great. This was our concern. Turned out it wouldn’t be a problem at all. The sudden awakening we got at 4am to the incredibly loud sound of “Achtung!!” Would be our problem. What’s this? What the fuck?! After listening to the German message, we eventually received the English translation. Something along the lines of “Attention. This is the hotel manager. Due to an emergency in the building we request that all guests make their way outside of the building immediately”. A fire alarm. Oh bollocks. We got up and started compiling our race kit. Who knew how long this could go on for! As we were doing so the hotel manager entered our room and started questioning us. Apparently it was our room that had sounded the alarm! “We’ve been sleeping!!” we told him.
After about 30 mins of standing around outside I had to laugh as a couple belatedly came out of the lift, with all their luggage and even their bed sheets?! Err OK. Talk about a sense of urgency! We were finally then let back into our rooms. False alarm. Time to try and get some more sleep before we really have to wake up!
Eventually we really did have too wake up. I was ready for the morning. I knew what was needed. One lingering thought from Limassol was that I hadn’t fueled sufficiently. So I’d planned to get 1500kcals into me before I left the flat. That was mostly done trough 4 Quaker porridge oat bars. I’ve recently found these and they are far easier to consume than the equivalent amount in bowls of porridge. I wasn’t going to be caught out this time!
What then felt like way too soon after being woken in the night we were at the event village. Holy smoke this place was massive. It felt like I’d walked for an eternity trying to find my bag drop and subsequent starting block. Penned in, the block started to fill up, it was a busy one! In front of us the ‘elites’ and pros were warming up and the wheelchair racers were setting off. The atmosphere was electric and we were whipped into a frenzy as the front runners were introduced and the count down begun.
In a flash we were off. The heavy footsteps of 1,000s of runners pounding the tarmac. The thumping built as the crowd gained momentum. Within a minute we were over the line, split into two masses either side of the road, we were off!
The effect of my ‘mistake’ became immediately apparent. Everyone here was fast. We accelerate and were at a sub 7 Min per mile pace in no time. Weaving around the bends and roundabouts the mass of runners stuck together. We wouldn’t be splitting and spreading out anytime soon if at all. This was it. I was in this. I was overtaking people. People were over taking me. I kept checking my watch as the pace fluctuated between 6:40 and 6:55 Min Miles. Over the first 2-3 miles I kept telling myself “run your race”. “Don’t worry about the others”. Despite it all, I felt good. My legs were lethargic, but my body felt strong. My breathing was easy and my heart felt calm. Sod this. Sod my ‘aims’. I’m going for it. My plan was out the window. Sub 3 hours was the goal. If I didn’t get it, it didn’t matter. No pressure. But if I could maintain a 6:50 average pace then I’d do it. If I didn’t then hell, there might be a new PB involved or at any point I could slow it meet my original aims. It was all good. Absolutely zero pressure.
I went for consistency. This was a big difference to my last attempt where I heavily overloaded the first 10 and then second 10 miles with an unsustainable pace. There would be no letting up today. No room to slow. Just keep going. One thing I’ve learnt from the trails is consistency. Over a long duration your current pace doesn’t matter. The average pace over the distance is what defines your time. So for 26.2 miles I would try to be as consistent as I possibly could.
The downside of my change in approach was that I was focused. Ok, yes that’s a positive. But it meant I cannot recall much of the run. I was constantly checking my watch and monitoring my pace. Constantly processing my thoughts to step up or slow down. Maintenance was critical. Going too fast would burn me out. Going to slow could mean I would struggle to recover the time as the fatigue kicks in later on.
The main disruption to my focus was the water stations. I knew they’d be cups. However, I didn’t want to wear a hydration pack trough out the race. Despite being so far forward in the progression of runners though, each station was an apocalyptic scene. Plastic everywhere. The water areas were flooded with puddles. People crashing into each other and spilling water all over the place. None of that compared to the sound – The noise as thousands of plastic cups were dropped and trampled. Cracking and splitting. It was a horrific sound. It also highlighted the shitty-ness of runners. Come on people, have some tact. It’s not hard to put your empties in the bin or move to the side of the road to drop/throw them. Multiple times this day I was hit by flying cups of water or nearly covered in a persons spit. People really are selfish dicks. My challenge at each water station was to drink enough (without choking myself as I threw the water down my throat) and get back up to target pace as soon as possible. Each stop would be a repetition of this challenge. Some harder than others as the crowds and fatigue varied.
The miles counted down. Things I saw (or remember seeing) were few. Eventually the halfway point was passed. Half a marathon to go. 1hr 29mins elapsed. Same again. It felt like an age for that first half. My thoughts were dominated by nothing else. Rarely did my mind wander from the constant calculations and visitations of that sub 3. I recall thinking back to Vallorcine during the CCC. At that point there was also about a half marathon to go. A mammoth half. This would be nothing by comparison. I could do this. The mental challenge of the CCC was different. Here I could rest in the knowledge of it being over in another hour and a half. That was a real boost.
The second half went by so much quicker. The atmosphere was incredible. The crowd was constant. The noise high and the music amazing. So many jazz and sax bands entertaining the runners and crowds, really lifting the runner’s morale. Berlin nailed it.
I was using all the usual tricks in my head to keep it going, keep maintaining. Counting down the kms. Converting the miles. Planning what I’d drink and when. I took a pack of Cliff shot blocks and took one every 5km from 22kms. I presume they helped. The flavour certainly did. I had a gel on hand (which I never ended up using) and 250ml of High 5 isotonic drink in a soft flask. I was saving the isontonic for the last 10km and to save me from the carnage of the water stations. My mind was focused and planned. 20 miles done. 6 miles to go. Just a morning run commute to work left.
There were two mental boosts for me at mile 20. Firstly an announcement that the world record had been broken. The crowd and the runners went mad. That’s insane! Everyone wanted to know the time. What a day this was. Secondly, another runner started shouting. “Who’s doing this?! Who’s breaking sub 3 today?!”. No one responded. Inside me though I started to believe even more. I wasn’t alone. I realised I was surrounded by other determined people chasing their goals, chasing their sub 3 dreams. I had a brief chat with the guy. We were doing this. We spurred each other on. I kept him in my sights for the rest of the run. He seemed determined enough that he’d make it.
I kept going. Kept adjusting and maintaining the pace. The miles passed by. I knew Louise and Becca would be at 38km waiting with the loudest of cheers. I was ready to look out for them. But first came the Adidas runners cheer zone at 37km. Wow. Just wow. There were hundreds of them. It’s a huge community but amplified at an Adidas sponsored world major marathon. The noise was insane. The roar as runners ran through was so uplifting. I’d now caught up with the 3 hour pacers too. They’d set off before me and I thought that, if I get in front of them and finish, then sub 3 will be certain. So I did. I slipped by and settled back into the rhythm. By the time I reached the girls I was in a strong mental place. I saw them and yelled. They went wild. Lou later told me that, on the trackers they’d been saying “Dai is going too fast. He’s going to fast” before realising “Dai is going for sub 3. He’s not going too fast, he’s on target'”. This made me chuckle. Setting myself some goals and changing them mid-run was clearly misleading for others!
After seeing the girls I powered on. Last 5km. Three miles. Don’t drop it now. But, here came my biggest challenge. I couldn’t tell myself this was happening. I couldn’t rest up. I’d been this close before. 1 mile from the finish it all went wrong in Limassol. Mile 25. I had to get passed mile 25. I had to feel strong at mile 24 (my last memory at Limassol!). I did. Keep at it. Keep believing. Keep focused. My watch ticked over, 25 miles done.
Now. Now is the time! My mind went into some sort of automatic self-diagnostic mode. My brain was sending signals to every part of my body. I could feel the information flowing back and my brain ticking them off. Check. Check. Check. It felt almost surreal as I acknowledged that my breathing was good. In and out through my nose. Deep and easy breathing. My lungs were good. My legs told me they were good too. Heavy, as they’d been all morning. But good. They wouldn’t let me down. My toe hurt. That was the worst response back. It was telling me there would be a blister at the end. A small price to pay. My heart was good. Not pounding. Just pumping rhythmically. My fingers clenching and relaxing by my side. My abs tight and holding me up right. My form felt good. My stride was consistent. My mind was clear. I was focused. 1 mile and a bit to go. Maybe 10mins max. This was on. I checked my watch and did the maths. Don’t drop the pace. Keep at 6:50ish for one more mile and this was mine. Soon I’d be at the Bradenburg Gate. Soon I’d be on the home stretch. That small insignificant bit of distance at the end of a 26 mile run. I told myself it’s nothing. It’s just that ‘extra’ bit runners do in training to round up to an even number. Go. Go.
Under the gate I went. The crowds lined both sides of the road. Huge numbers. Huge cheers. Runners everywhere either powering on or succumbing to the moment and stopping. Cramping. Walking. I felt for them. But this was me and my time. I crossed the line. Stopped the watch. It was under 3 hours (2:59:27. Officially). It was close. I’d done it. Everything I’d said to myself to keep going was right. So close. One bad mile, One prolonged period of not focusing and those 30 seconds would have evaporated away. But it was done. And that was it. I went into some kind of blurred, subdued state immediately. Inside I was so happy. But I don’t recall much or the emotions. I don’t know if I screamed or jumped or anything as I crossed the line. I do know I was chuffed to bits though.
It was a long walk to the medals, to the water. I savoured it all. I saw the Runner who’d powered us on and we hugged it out. The long walk continued and I found Jordan ahead. I thought she must have also done it also as she was ahead of me. She’d come so close at 3:01 but had smashed her target and Pb. She was calling Chris. He was coming in just behind us at 3:07. He’d finished. He’d stopped at the medical tent to steady his legs. We walked back and met him after he’d collected his medals. Big hugs All round. He’d smashed his 3:10 target. We said we’d sign up to Boston in 2020. Here we go again…
Over the next few hours the rest of the group finished one by one. We regrouped and celebrated each other’s achievements. Before going our separate ways until later.
I met and saw so many other friends and familiar faces out there that day (and weekend). PBs were shattered all over the place. What a day to be a part of. We celebrated that night. We laughed a lot.
I might seem subdued to those I’ve spoken to since the race. Truth is, I don’t think the realisation has set in yet. I’ve played the sub 3 down so much this year that it probably hasn’t fully registered in my mind just how big of an achievement it is. I am though absolutely ecstatic with the outcome. Not just because of the time and achievement. But happy with the relief that the demons of the past have been put to the sword. The shadow lifted and the mouthy pratt of a monkey no longer is on my back trying to fill me with doubts.
I don’t feel that roads are my place anymore. I’ve nothing to achieve from them. I don’t need, nor want, to improve that time. It won’t provide me with any greater satisfaction. I’ll run road races again for the reasons of it being a world major (one day I’ll do the 6), for covering a marathon on each continent (although that doesn’t mean it has to be a road!) or if I get a place somehow. I won’t be looking for them.
My heart and feet belong in the trails. They’ve consumed me now. I enjoy the challenge more. The freedom and experience more. The camaraderie and more relaxed nature of them. I can go back to the trails now knowing that I’ve redeemed myself. Limassol has well and truly been assigned to the history books and a time of learning and self realisation.
I will take pride in opening my copy of the Berliner Morgenpost and seeing my name written in the newspaper. The time etched as part of my own history on this very historical day for sport.
So it turns out that I’ve been nominated for the personal blog category with the Running Awards. I’d love your support and votes. If you like what you read and you’d like to vote for me you can click this link and find “RunWithDai” in the nominees. Thanks!