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Hitting the wall

Berlin marathon 2016

“Berlin is a city on the move…60,000 participants will celebrate a festival of diversity and open-mindedness that brings together young and old and recreational and top-ranking athletes alike. Neither their origin nor their social or cultural background is important. What matters is the joy of sport and its values in action – tolerance, inclusion and integration, as well as stamina and performance”.

To me these words, written by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perfectly summed up my experience of Berlin, both the run and the city. It was my first visit to the German capital, and following a really good summer of training I arrived feeling ready and confident for the race ahead. But first, there were a couple of days for exploring Berlin the place.

Races past, present and future

First stop was the Marathon Expo for the usual number pick-up and purchasing of t-shirts, jackets and a whole range of other running things I didn’t really need. Whilst extremely busy, it was great to wander around and see the stands for other events from across the world – plenty of races in really interesting places to add to my ‘must do’ list (although perhaps not for a year or two!). I also spent a bit of time at the Abbott World Majors stand, reflecting on my Timmyslam journey so far, and talking to other runners about their marathon major challenges.

Then it was time to hit the streets and explore the city. Berlin is a fascinating place and I would recommend it to anyone thinking about visiting. It is very easy to fall into the trap (as we did) to focus on the city’s tragic twentieth century past and there is certainly much to see and experience on that front. But the city has a much longer history, stretching back almost 800 years, and taking a bus and boat tour revealed a much wider and richer culture and history than perhaps I was expecting (they also afford a good opportunity to get off your feet in the days before the race!). There is also much that is modern about Berlin, with significant rebuilding following reunification in 1990 and the re-establishment of Berlin as Germany’s capital city. Particularly impressive is the new government centre, with modern architecture sitting aside the River Spree, and dominated by the Reichstag, burnt to a shell by the Nazis in 1933, and redeveloped by British architect Sir Norman Foster in the 1990s. A visit to the spectacular glass dome is highly recommended.

A stark reminder of a not too distant past

That said, Berlin is dominated by its recent past, and there remain many obvious signs of this today. Our hotel was situated in what was East Berlin, and it was still clear to see Soviet influences in architecture and city planning (wide straight boulevards, large concrete buildings and big open squares). There are a number of places where you can still see parts of the Berlin Wall, which painfully divided the city between 1961 and 1989, with markers in the road indicating the path of the wall, encircling the whole of West Berlin within the confines of East Germany. It was difficult to comprehend just what it must have been like to live in the city during those times, and I suppose it was particularly poignant for me as this was very much history within my own lifetime. In its first few years the Berlin Marathon was confined to West Berlin and it much have been an incredible experience in 1990 when for the first time the race took in the reunified city and runners were able to run through the famous Brandenburg Gate.

And so to the race itself, which started with a particularly difficult and rushed journey to the start as road closures and cancelled trains and trams made a mockery of well thought out travel plans. The chaos continued within the race village as the sheer scale of the place (London is helpfully split across three different start areas) left me struggling to find my allotted baggage area. Finally sorted, it was then a bit of a jog to get to my designated starting pen, which, being surrounded by a woody park area, made queuing for the toilets optional!

A fantastic way to finish a race

And then we were off, 42 kilometres (we are still in Europe) around the wide tree-line streets of Berlin. The flat streets. The fast streets. It is easy to see why this course has boasted six world records since 2003, it was simply so easy to run on, even the bridges had inclines that were barely noticeable. The great crowds along the way also helped, as did the sheer momentum of the other runners taking advantage of the fast conditions. A continuous selection of bands and live music around the course also helped keep us all going and provided something of a distraction (although I’m informed that standing next to a band playing the same three songs for over an hour gets a little monotonous!). I knew I was in great shape coming into the race, and felt strong and comfortable all the way round, reminding myself that it was all those tough training runs and painful track sessions that were helping me cruise around the course. And so it is with enormous thanks to my club mates who have pushed me on this summer that I was able to complete the race in my second fastest ever time, beating my own expectations for the day (and theirs apparently – “Is this our Tim?” being posted on Facebook!).

Important post-race nutrition

A final word on the finish: just spectacular. To run through the Brandenburg Gate, surrounded by thousands of cheering spectators and with the finish line in sight was one of the most memorable moments I’ve ever experienced. Unfortunately, Liz missed it as she was supporting (and running with!) our friend and clubmate Sunny at the 35km point – although it didn’t stop her shouting and cheering at her mobile phone as she saw my icon running across the finish line. Must have drawn some strange looks…

Then it was time to relax in the sun and have a celebratory ice-cream before finding a tram that would take us back to the hotel, a hot bath and an ice-cold beer. It had been a great run and a lovely weekend – and I shall definitely be back, either to run or just to visit.