On Sunday, I ran my last long training run before the Royal Parks Ultra, which is this weekend. This. Weekend. THIS WEEKEND! PEOPLE, I’M SCARED!
This particular training run was to be a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the ultra marathon, and I was advised by my coach, Phoebe, to run slow and steady, wearing the kit I plan to wear during the ultra race, and to stick to the fuel and hydration strategies I have meticulously prepared my body for during the last three months of Operation Ultra. All in all, this training run was like every other long Sunday run in my training schedule.
Well, except that I was in Berlin. And I was running 26.2 miles exactly. And there were 39,999 other runners. Oh, and there were over 1 million spectators lining the streets and live music to keep me entertained..
I ran the Berlin marathon with my best friend, Priscilla. It was her first marathon and her plan was ‘to just get round’, so it was a perfect opportunity to run at a steady pace and stay by her side, whilst absorbing the magnificent backdrop of a cool and crisp Berlin morning.
Running without a time goal was a completely new experience for me. It felt liberating, to just run, to just keep on putting one foot in front of the other, shoulder to shoulder with my best friend. I wore my Garmin watch, but more out of habit, and several kilometres in, I stopped looking at it. There was no point. I wasn’t interested in my pace, as long as I felt like I was running steady, that’s all that mattered.
The atmosphere of the race was electrifying. At the race start, as we huddled closely in our thousands, awaiting the countdown, I could feel the excitement and apprehension forming, like an enormous blanket that weaved and wrapped around us all. The connection between runners, especially at race starts, is such a beautiful sensation. There’s a connection, a knowing, and it shows, in our eyes and gestures to each other that we are one.
I watched as hundreds of blue balloons were released into the sky to signal the start of the race. My heart soared skywards, just like the balloons, and I had to pinch myself – I felt so happy and grateful to be part of such an iconic race in this magnificent and historical city.
The initial stage of the race led us through Tiergarten, passing the Angel of Peace statue and out towards Mitte. We saw Vicky, Priscilla’s girlfriend, at kilometre 7 and she took photos of us as we ran towards her. It’s always so motivating, to see someone you know in the crowds, it brings you back somehow; it’s easy to get lost in the carousel of a marathon, you’re so acutely aware of your breathing and how your legs feel, yet everything around you becomes a blur.
Crossing the river towards Neukölln, in the southeastern part of the city, I turned to Priscilla and smiled. “We’re running the Berlin marathon”, I shouted to her. “I know, I can’t quite believe it!”, she replied.
Berlin is a kaleidoscope of colour and sights and smells. Graffiti covers the sides of buildings that are shadowed by grandiose landmarks such as Reichstag, the Berliner Dom, and the ultra-modern glass and steel structures in Potsdamer Platz. Each district is so very different to the next, and they each breathe life into the lungs of the city, channeling an eclectic energy that you can almost reach out and touch.
As the kilometres moved into the twenties, I noticed that Priscilla was starting to tire. I encouraged her to just concentrate on the now, to look towards the next kilometre but not beyond it, and to keep at a steady pace. Marathons are such a test of character, they push and pull and square up to you like a boxer in the ring. Limits are tested to the maximum, and it becomes a tug-o-war of mental and physical perseverance. Priscilla had bags of it. Just when I thought she was fading, she’d fight back, her fists clenched in defiance.
Every 5 kilometres or so, I’d ask Priscilla to hand me an energy gel or rice-crispie bar from my rucksack. I ate on the run, something I have practiced time and time again in my ultra marathon training, and I felt relieved that the fueling was working, my energy levels rarely dipped, and thirty kilometres in, I still felt strong. At this point however, it occurred to me that in the ultra marathon, I’d still have the equivalent of nearly half a marathon ahead of me. I suddenly became scared of what lay ahead for the following weekend. I quickly struck up conversation with Priscilla, so that I didn’t have to think about it.
At kilometre 36, Kristin and her friend, Mareike, were waiting to cheer us on. Knowing that I’d see her soon brought a much-needed spring to my step. Kristin is loud and proud. She screams and shouts and dances and encourages everyone as they pass her. She is already planning her support strategies for the 2013 London Marathon. She is going to hang around, long after most of the runners have received their medals and are on their way home, for the slower runners who come in around 8 hours, as she feels that they’re the people who need the most support. As Priscilla and I ran past, Kristin and Mareike screamed our names out and gestured manically, and we laughed and waved back at them. Priscilla has joined me for 3 of the 4 races I have run this year, and so she’s also become accustomed to Kristin’s overexuberance!
The last 6 kilometres were tough for Priscilla. She had started to tire, and her calves were tightening. “I need this marathon to end right now”, she said through gritted teeth. We walked, on and off, for the next few kilometres, and I encouraged her to stretch. At kilometre 38, in the Potsdamer Platz district, I asked Priscilla if it would be ok for me to run ahead for a while, promising that I would wait for her near to the finish. My hamstrings were starting to hurt when we slowed down or stopped, and I knew that if I just ran consistently for a few kilometres, without stopping, they’d ease up again. “Sure! Go ahead”, Priscilla replied.
Off I went.
As I settled into a steady pace, I was surprised at how my legs responded to the faster speed I was travelling at. Running Kenyan hill repeats on a Saturday night, before my Sunday long runs had done the trick. “Getting used to running on fatigued legs is an important part of ultra marathon training”, my coach, Phoebe, had once told me. She was right. And it was working.
The kilometres passed quickly, and I again looked out for Kristin and Mareike, as they had told me they were waiting close to the finish, just before the majestic Brandenburg Gate. I sped up even more, knowing I could wait with them for Priscilla to arrive, wanting to cross the finish line with her. I didn’t have to wait long. I filmed her as she ran towards us. I felt so proud. She was less than a kilometre away from completing her very first marathon, something she had spent months training for. I thought back to the email exchanges we had shared throughout the summer, updating each other on how we were getting on and delighting in each others training milestones. I remember when she ran her last long run of 32 kilometres, several weeks before the marathon, and she’d expressed concern that she just wouldn’t be able to run another 10. I assured her she would. And here she was, running towards me, having run the furthest she had ever run before, well beyond those last 10 kilometres she had so feared.
The person screaming in the background and waving her arm as the camera pans away? Yup, that’s Kristin!
As the finish line neared, I started to cry. Priscilla ran in front of me and I stared at the Mind charity logo on the back of her running vest. I thought back to the three other races I had completed this year, and the generosity of the people who had sponsored me in my 4races4cities project. I couldn’t quite believe that I had done it. I’d set out to run two half marathons and 2 full marathons, and it was all nearly over. As we crossed the finishing line, I felt numb. Priscilla and I hugged each other tightly, as the marathon carousel slowed down to a final stop. Medals were placed around our necks and we were congratulated by volunteers as we walked, dazed, amongst the hoards of other runners.
5 hours and 4 minutes and 30 seconds was our official marathon finish time.