The Berlin Marathon 2017

This Sunday will be three weeks since running the Berlin Marathon. The race feels decades away, especially since many friends have run marathons since, and also because my body feels absolutely fine and has since the Wednesday after the race. As the post-race days tick off, my experience continues settling into my body, mind and heart and I gain perspective and new insights into my training, race preparation and myself. I recommend the Berlin Marathon to anyone looking for her or his next destination marathon. It is big, exciting, historic, international, and very organized, not to mention incredibly powerful to run through a city with such a challenging past. The course is wonderful and the crowds are, well, just plain cool because Berlin is, well, just plain cool. The weather was horrible: 98% humidity with rain or drizzle most of the time, which made for deep, long and unavoidable puddles. Though far from desirable race conditions, the fog and misty air created an evocative atmosphere at the start village; walking to the corrals was like walking through an enchanted forest.

I was very early to the start so I sat on my trash bag and meditated. While concentrating on going inward, the surrounding atmosphere and energy tried pulling me outwards, to the exhilaration, suspense and growing excitement. On several large screens that were strategically placed throughout the start corrals, a short film was played on a loop, highlighting the anticipated world-record attempt at this race by Eliud Kipchoge, Wilson Kipsang and Kenenisa Bekele. By this time though, we all suspected that the weather would unlikely assist a new world-record attempt. The film was intense and it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement. With this hype, the starting gun blared and before I knew it I was moving forward in a crowd of men as my race began. Early on it was clear that the race had a relentless intensity and I started repeating to myself, “stay within yourself”. I found the first 10k unexpectedly stressful as I vied for space, resisted the urge to get sucked into the flowing sea of people passing, and tried to avoid as many puddles as possible, to no avail. By the 3K-mark I was already dripping with sweat and my feet were drenched, as if someone put a spigot into my sock.

After this hectic first 10k I realized I was settled into my marathon pace and generally feeling good though I also knew it was still way too early to know for sure. Around the 14-mile mark, the first of two race-defining moments occurred: the calf muscles in both of my legs seized up and would remain this way for the duration of the race. It felt like metal brackets grabbed both calves and were tightening their grip with every step. I could not believe it. Just like that the race turned into something else entirely. “What am I going to do about this?” was the one thought swirling around my mind as I continued to put one foot in front of the other. I needed to switch mental gears and deal with what was happening but I didn’t want to, damn it! I wanted to have the race I trained for not the race that was unfolding. I was beyond disappointed. If I hadn’t already been stomping my feet, I would have. So, I just kept running, knowing that if I stopped that I would be unable to start again.

I continued on, completely frustrated by this turn of events. I still did not want to accept what had happened but I had no choice; I had to adjust my race goals. Instead of trying to negative split for a 3:10 finish, I sought that tenuous place between racing at a pace just shy of precluding my ability to run across the finish line, and not letting 3:10 slip away too much. I started bargaining with my calves while simultaneously going down a futile spiral of negative thinking: “I’ve wasted all my training”, “this race sucks”, “maybe the marathon is not for me”, “I’m sticking to 5ks” despite vowing to never do another one during the 5k I ran in the summer, and did I mention “this race sucks”?  I was soaked and already uncomfortable and it was only mile 15! As I unnecessarily scolded myself for the various possible and imagined reasons for my current situation, I didn’t even realize that the valuable training I did for 12 weeks, and which I thought was wasted by my current predicament, actually facilitated me ticking off mile after mile. Mile 16…17…18…19…20…21… How funny in hindsight.

Similar to my experience at the Chicago Marathon last year, miles 22-25 were the most challenging. At this point it felt like I was dragging cinder blocks for legs and the race felt endless. I was soaking wet and just wanted to finish. I understand now that “just wanting to finish” kept me from being present to the race experience, even if it wasn’t the race experience I wanted. To alleviate my discomfort I started looking for someone who was running slightly faster than I, to whom I could mentally tether myself and let them do the work. Unfortunately I picked someone who was running quite slower than I was and I didn’t realize it for almost a mile. Maybe I needed the rest. As I pulled away from her it dawned on me that the race would inevitably end, I would survive and that the rest of the day would still exist, as would everything else in the world (not necessarily an inspiring thought these days).

The second defining moment in my race occurred just past the 41k mark. Out of the corner of my right eye I saw the 3:15 pace group pulling up alongside me. Without a millisecond of delay I thought “oh hell no!”  I came to Berlin in 3:10 shape and there was no way I was letting the 3:15 pace group pass me. I had no other logical reason for this bottom line, but seeing them jaunting next to me ignited that fire in my heart that very few things ignite. I had less than a mile to go and I knew that I would be able to run through the finish so I stopped worrying about my calves once and for all and ran as fast as I possibly could in that moment, racing the 3:15ers to the finish. I gained almost an entire minute on my projected finish time in that last half-mile, coming in at 3:14:15.

When I finished the race I was incredibly exuberant about my results, especially considering what I contended with, yet as the days passed so too did my excitement. Questions, doubts and frustration crept in but why? I beat my best marathon time by more than 7 minutes, toughed it out through an unexpected physical issue AND found motivation for a solid finish. By these standards it was a great race so why did I feel so despondent? I suspect that the reason lies in the gulf between anticipation and reality. This race meant so much to me for all of the people who helped me to the starting line, for the challenges overcome during training, and for the dedication I put into my preparation. Now, three weeks later, I will say that I think the combination of these factors led me to ask too much of myself and too much from the race. In addition, and despite consciously knowing not to, and being adamantly against it, I unintentionally made a time goal determine my race success. I thought that I had avoided this but it snuck in somehow and in doing so robbed me of the post-race joy and sense of accomplishment for finishing a marathon that could have entirely broken me but didn’t.

When I told my running coach that I raced the 3:15 pace group his response was “yeah, because 3:15 would be so slow for someone who’s personal record is 3:22:39”. Remembering these words alerts me to the fact that I was focusing on a clock rather than appreciating how far I had come from my last marathon, as well as what I had overcome during the race. These are the unquantifiable prizes that make running worthwhile but which can, and did in my case, get lost in the quest for the perfect race. As I become a more experienced runner, continuing to push my own edges, I recognize that for me, running is more and more a spiritual practice that highlights the obstacles, joys, traps, and areas within myself that could use increased compassion. This race experience, similar to most life experiences, reminds me that who I am as a runner, and a person, is not defined by external stats, approval or kudos. It must come from within. Running continues to point to the cracks in my heart and for this, the Berlin Marathon is my most valuable race yet. I will train for the Boston Marathon enriched by the reminder of these important truths. Thank you to everyone helping me along the way.

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