Monday, October 12, 2015

First International Marathon: Berlin Marathon 2015 Recap

I'm very much aware that the Berlin Marathon was two weeks ago. But I had to take my post-race vacation, travel halfway around the world (and adjust from the jet lag), process everything, and then put it all into something that sounds coherent. It takes time, people! Rome wasn't built in a day. (Nor can it be seen in a day. Trust me, I tried. Horrible travel planning on my part.)

So Berlin. I entered my name into the lottery last year on a whim, because the race was on my bucket list and "What did I have to lose?" I ended up getting a spot, and as luck would have it, Meredith ended up scoring a spot in the race too. Yay for finding out that other runner friends would be running the race!

Now to get from the Western US to Europe requires a long-ass flight, and I wasn't about to make that trek for a 4-5 day trip. So I decided to go to Italy after the race (because I've always wanted to go there), and with that, the marathon trip became a two-week European adventure. To top it off, my mom had planned her own trip to Italy for around the same time. So with a little adjusting, our trips overlapped. Germany with friends and Italy with family?? Woot!

But since you're reading this blog, you probably care more about the running portion of this trip, so that's what I'll discuss (at least first).


As with my last few marathons, I used the Pfitzinger 55/12 plan (i.e., 12 weeks of training, with a peak weekly mileage of 55 miles). Everything (for the most part) about this training cycle just felt right. No, I'm not saying that this was the most amazing and perfect training cycle EVER. But compared to Boston and even previous marathons, it was great. So what went right?

Scheduling - With some help, I figured out that what works best for me for getting workouts done is to put them on my calendar at specific days and times. Given how type A I am and how much of a slave I am to my calendar, I'm kind of surprised I didn't figure this out sooner. But having someone else suggest it helped tremendously. As a result of that, I logged most of the required miles for my training plan.

Strength training - One of my friends at my now-previous job encouraged me to get a Groupon for 20 Crossfit classes. I know, I know -- I'm sure you've heard the rumors about crazy Crossfitters, and how this type of exertion can easily lead to injury. I capped my visits at about 1 per week, and scaled the workouts based on my capabilities (since my upper body strength is sorely lacking). Also, the workouts had a good amount of cardio (e.g., running, rowing), some leg stuff (e.g., squats), and circuit training, which could definitely be beneficial for running.

Nutrition - Between Boston and the start of this training, my focus on nutrition waned quite a bit. Gluten and dairy returned to my diet, and after weeks of that, I just wasn't feeling optimally. Around the time my training started, another friend mentioned that she was going to cut out gluten from her diet, which opened my eyes and made me think that I should get back on the wagon if I wanted to feel better. After making a more concerted effort to avoid those, I noticed that I had more energy, which definitely helped my workouts.

Workouts - I would be lying if I said that every single run was pleasant and delightful (like the 16 miles of hills I ran with Meredith two weeks before race day). But I had more good runs than bad, and I generally remained injury free. And my VO2 max workouts were way better than I would have expected (i.e., sub 6:00/mi pace for most intervals 1K and less).

Race Week

Because I was dealing with a 9 hour time difference and a 20+ hour journey, I decided to leave on Tuesday and arrive on Wednesday. Having 3-4 days to readjust seems reasonable, right? Well... we'll get to that in a moment.

I arrived on Wednesday evening, tired and very hungry. Doner sounded super tasty, so I opted for a doner salad with fries on the side. I was so hungry and tired that I didn't even bother asking if it were GF. (Their English seemed limited, and I had no idea how to ask about GF in German.)
After dinner, I went for a short walk, during which I seemed to gain a second wind. I contemplated visiting a bar for a drink, but I decided the responsible thing to do would be to go home and try getting some sleep. So I returned to my Airbnb around 9:30, popped some melatonin, and was asleep by 10:30.

I wasn't planning on meeting up with Meredith until about 2pm on Thursday, so I had all of Thursday morning to myself. So I went for a solo shakeout run, and found the Brandenburg Tor (the marathon finish line is about 500m from there), the Tiergarten, and a random riverfront path! Nice run.

Brandenburg Tor


River Path


The search for a suitable breakfast afterward - not so nice. You see, a common German breakfast consists of coffee and a pastry. The coffee is obviously okay. The pastry is not. After checking out several places (and seriously considering just nixing the GF thing), I found a place that served a potato salad with some steamed veggies. Seemed safe enough.

Did some sightseeing, grabbed lunch (at a place that was advertising GF food!), and then met Meredith at her hotel. We then tried to find the expo. Apple Maps told me it was on the south side of the Tiergarten, and since we were on the east side, we just decided to walk there. Unfortunately, Apple Maps led us to the marathon press conference, which was nowhere near the expo. Navigation fail. I'm still surprised Meredith didn't kill me after that one. So we just cabbed it from there to the expo. While at the expo, we met up with Shokofeh and Keith, who Meredith had met during The San Francisco Marathon.

Friday morning, I prepped my race day breakfast while Meredith went for a short run, and then we met up at her hotel for breakfast. (She had a buffet breakfast for two included with her reservation, so I just played the role of plus-one.) Good options, though I definitely overloaded on smoked salmon. After that, we proceeded to do all of the sightseeing (Holocaust Memorial, Potsdamer Platz, etc), and walk all of the miles. In hindsight, it was too much walking. But live and learn.

Holocaust Memorial

Potsdamer Platz

The urban beach we found

Us at said beach

Checkpoint Charlie

Saturday could be summed up with "shake out run, buffet breakfast (with less smoked salmon), heaps of sightseeing, and pre-race dinner with fellow dailymiler Darren". But I would be remiss if I left out how Meredith and I grabbed liter bottles of still water, only to find out that they were still carbonated. Also, "bratwurst with no bread" apparently means that you should have two bratwursts.

East Side Gallery

Drink all the fluids!

Bratwurst no bread = two brats without bread?

Darren (right) and I

The Race

The race started at 9am, which ultimately meant that I didn't need to wake up at WTF o'clock (like with Santa Rosa). So I woke up at 5, putzed around and had my usual pre-race breakfast (millet porridge with dried fruit, and coffee). Around 6:30, I left to go meet Meredith at her hotel (which was super close to the start/finish line) for coffee and more food (and by food, I mean fruit). I think we ended up leaving there around 8ish (after a stop in her room, so I could drop off everything except my warm-up gear/post-race clothing).

Bag check was a shitshow, just because it wasn't clear how to get to the baggage area. Seriously, at least 15 other runners were confused at the same time as me. Again, I'm surprised Meredith didn't kill me for deciding to check items. (Thanks for your patience!)

By some good grace, we made it to bag check, through the bathroom line, and to the starting area before the gun went off. Of course, we ended up in start block H, and I was supposed to be in D. So I parted ways with Meredith (she was content in that block), and I dashed along the sides up to E, before saying, "This is fine." (Starting one corral back from your assigned one isn't so bad, right?)

The start seemed anticlimactic, but I think that's because they didn't play a national anthem (or maybe they did, and I just didn't notice/understand it). Before I continue this story, I should say that because this was an international marathon, mile markers were nowhere to be seen, and the marathon distance is only reported in kilometers. So instead of 26.2 miles, it's 42.195 km. Also, the water stations were set up based on kilometers. (Remember this. It'll come up later in the story.)

For the first few miles (or several kilometers), I just felt really bottlenecked. It was like a repeat of Boston, where the first 5 miles were wall-to-wall (or would it be curb-to-curb?) runners. I had to weave through quite a few people (since I was so worried they were going to keep me away from my goal time of 3:00).

Since most of these runners are from countries that use the metric system, they all had their watches set to km. So every 0.62 miles, I heard a chorus of beeps indicating a new lap. Marginally entertaining to hear beeping every 4-5 minutes.

I ended up settling into a zone early on. The good news about this was that I wasn't distracted by the other runners. The bad news was that I wasn't taking in the sights of the course. (From what I recall, it was a bunch of cute neighborhoods.) For the first half of the race, I was hitting my target splits, and everything seemed to be going fine. My usual fueling strategy is to take my first gel at mile 8, subsequent gels every 5 miles after that, and wash all gels down with water. Unfortunately, I had to adjust that (slightly on the fly) because the water stations were at specific kilometers and not miles. So somewhere around 12 km (between 7-8 mi), I saw a water station and took my first gel (salted caramel Gu). It was a little earlier than I would've liked, but given the circumstances, there wasn't much I could do. I told myself I'd take the next one whenever my watch said I was at 12-13 mi. So when I thought my watch said 12(ish) miles and I saw a water station, I sucked down my second gel (caramel macchiato Gu). As I was washing it down with water, I realized that I was only at 11(ish) miles. Fuck! Too early!

I recall my watch beeping for 13 miles at 1:29, because I thought, "Oh, I'm right on track for my goal." However, a half-marathon is 13.1 miles, and the official half-marathon marker was off in the distance. By the time I crossed that, my watch said 1:30:46 and 13.2-13.3 miles. At that point, my thought was, "Crap! I ran long, and now I'm off of my goal time."

Somewhere between here and mile 15, I could feel myself getting tired. All I could tell myself was, "No, this is too early to hit the wall." I grabbed some sports drink at the next aid station, and managed to keep trucking along until mile 17(ish), when it was time to take my third gel. I had a chocolate espresso Pocket Fuel gel, and even though I hadn't used that flavor before, I thought it'd be okay because I had used that brand. Plus, it had more caffeine than any gel I brought with me, so I just figured I'd suck it up and use it. Bad idea. This gel had the consistency of almond butter (i.e., way too thick), and immediately after finishing it and drinking some water, I felt like I had to shit. (Fortunately, I didn't have to stop for that.) I realized that I had dropped one of my gels, so when I spotted the PowerBar gel station around 30 km (or wherever it was), I grabbed a vanilla flavor gel. (It seemed like the most basic of the flavors.)

From here on out, I was giving it what I had, and focusing on nothing else except getting this race over with. I was still passing people, but by this point, my splits were above 7:00/mi. I knew that 32 km was roughly 20 miles, so I was looking for that marker so I could tell myself I just had 10 km left. Once I hit the 32 km marker, I decided to just count down kilometers. I figured it would be easy to do because I could see the markers. However, counting down from 10 instead of 6 just made it seem so. Much. Longer.

Somewhere during that 10 km march, it was time to take that vanilla gel. This gel was way too sweet. I could barely finish it, and the only reason I did was because I needed all the help I could get. Soon after that, I recall hitting the 38 km marker, and just telling myself, "Almost there, almost there..." It also helped that we had reached Potsdamer Platz, and for the first time since starting the race, I knew where in Berlin we were. At 41 km, I reminded myself of all of those 1 km repeats, and attempted to put it in the next gear. At 42 km, my watch read 3:03, and I just went as fast as I could to try to snag that BQ. I crossed the finish line, stopped my watch, saw that it said "3:05:16", and just said "Fuck!" I missed my A goal (sub-3), my B goal (PR/sub-3:01:41), and I missed qualifying for Boston by 16 SECONDS. At that point, I wanted nothing more than to reunite with Meredith, because I knew that as a runner, she would understand my frustrations. But until then, it was just time to smile for photos and revel in the fact that I finished marathon #12 and World Marathon Major #4.

Until I saw these photos, I had no idea I crossed the finish line making the "4" sign (for 4 majors)


On my way out of the finisher area, I got my official time, which was 3:05:14. I actually missed qualifying by less than I thought! AND I ended up running an extra 0.2 miles. I was slightly more pissed at that point.


When any marathon (good or bad) ends, there are two things that need to be dealt with. One is all of the emotions. You spend months training for this one event, and when it finally ends, there are bound to be some unexpected emotions that rise to the surface. The other is trying to extract all of the possible lessons you can learn from that particular marathon, so that you don't make the same mistakes again. I'm going to start with the emotional issues, and then hit the technical issues (partially because this is how I experienced them in Germany).


When this race first ended, I honestly wanted to just forget it ever happened. I was in a zone for the first half, and hating life for the second half. And for the better part of both of those halves, I was ignoring everything and everyone around me. As a result, the three hours and five minutes I spent on the course are a giant blur. My most vivid memory is the last 1K, when I gave it everything that I had left in the tank and STILL came up short. Well, okay, that's my second most vivid memory. My most vivid memory is the heartbreak I felt after crossing the finish line, and simply wanting to drink all of the booze, eat none of the things, and commiserate with Meredith (because I know that as a runner, she would understand why I was disappointed).

After two weeks (one of which was my post-race vacation to Italy), I'm no longer wishing that the race didn't happen. But I'm still unsure how to describe Berlin. Aside from being my first international marathon and fourth major, there's nothing else notable about it in my mind. It's just the race that was. Between the months of training and the disappointing results, I just feel emotionally drained. And thinking about that makes me NOT want to sign up for another marathon. (However, not having one on the calendar to train for makes my running feel purposeless. It's a catch-22!)

To be honest, part of me still has these "What ifs" in my mind. Like, "What if my best days as a runner are behind me?" "What if I can't go faster than 3:01?" "What if I never qualify for Boston again?" Maybe I'm being a little dramatic, but I'm being honest here. And worse than having those thoughts is the fact that I have no idea how to silence them.


A good runner friend is one who will help you brainstorm (over some booze, of course) all of the possible reasons why your race didn't go according to plan. A great runner friend is one who, in the midst of this brainstorming, will point out all of the idiot/rooking mistakes that you made during your race. Meredith falls into the latter category.


Post-race currywurst! (Now would be a good time to say that I had been itching to try that since I arrived)

More wine! (Because any good debrief requires multiple bottles)

Anyway, with her help, we came up with the following:

1. Too much walking in the days leading up to the race

2. Traveling and adjusting to a completely different time zone. Even though I arrived four days before the race, I hadn't had a night of quality, uninterrupted sleep between when I arrived and race morning. Also, at the risk of TMI, it took my GI system three days after traveling to normalize. Meredith's suggestion was to try targeting a hometown race. (Though after having run Portland twice, running the hometown race a third time has little appeal.)

3. The food I ate in the days leading up to the race. Given my issues, I should've conducted a "GF Berlin" search before I left Portland. But in classic Austin fashion, I assumed everything would work out and decided to wing it. Also, smoked salmon and bratwurst the day before the race would've probably only worked if I ate those foods on a regular basis. I also broke from my usual routine and had coffee and wine the night before the race. Maybe that had some impact?

4. Fueling strategy. I looked at the course map and knew that the water stations would be at specific kilometers, but I never adjusted my fueling strategy to say, "At kilometer x, I will take gel y." When I told Meredith this, she gave me that look of "What the hell were you thinking? No wonder why you were thrown off!"Another gem from this conversation:

Her: Did you even read the program?
Me: No, it was in German.
Her: There was an English section too!
Me: Oh.

Also, my last two gels were completely new to me. I broke the age-old adage of "Nothing new on race day!"

5. The kilometer conversion. This messed me up to an extent, specifically in the second half. It also messed up my fueling strategy too. (See #4)

6. My mental breakdown in the second half. This breakdown started when I couldn't brush off the fact that I was off of my goal pace at the halfway point. According to Meredith, I can hit my targets just fine in the first half (because I've run the first half of my last 4 marathons between 1:29 and 1:31), but the back is another story. Her idea was that I need to have a better idea of my target times in the back half (e.g., target at 20M).

With all of that feedback, I need to figure out how to incorporate it into my training and racing. Any thoughts? And/or do you have anything else to add?