Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Berlin Marathon

The Berlin Marathon is an event I've wanted to do for several years. This was in large part due to the fact that the world's record is often broken at the Berlin Marathon. It's not that I hoped to run a good time in Berlin, its that I wanted to have an understanding of why this course is a world record course. It's also a part of what is known as one of the 5 World Marathon Majors. The World Marathon Majors is a championship-style competition amongst the elite marathoners. It is comprised of the five most prestigious marathons in the world: Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City. Having run Boston, Chicago and NYC, Berlin was a natural selection. Running buddy John had also done London, so this event would complete his tour of the World Marathon Majors.

Before heading over to Berlin, we tried to figure out an extended stay after the marathon. I love the city of Munich and wanted to go there for Octoberfest. John, having previously experienced Octoberfest, wanted to go to another destination. As we could never work out an agreement, we eventually ended up booking a shortened trip that only encompassed Berlin. Our return flights would be the day after the marathon.

We flew out on Wednesday afternoon, getting us into Berlin on Thursday morning. After checking into our hotel located in the southwestern section of Berlin near the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church and the Berlin Zoo. I head out into the neighborhood and locate a bank that will exchange money. In walking around the area, I come across a protest by hospital workers. It was a very peaceful demonstration. More like a concert gathering than anything else.

A hospital workers protest/parade

I return to the hotel to pick up John for a walk to the Brandenburg Gate. To get to the gate, we walk through Tiergarten, the Berlin equivalent to Central Park in New York City. Tiergarten is bisected by a wide multi-lane street running east-west called Strasse de 17 June, named after a the day in 1953 when worker in East Berlin protested against GDR reforms that cut worker's pay in which numerous protesters where shot. At the midpoint of the street is a Victory Column called Siegessaule, which contains the goddess of victory atop the 154 foot column.

We come across more protesters as we walk east up Strasse de 17 June. There is a stage set up near the Brandenburg Gate and politicians speak to the crowd of protesters. John & I work our way around the crowd to cross through the Brandenburg Gate and take some pictures. We then try to decipher the subway maps in German to figure out how to get to the Expo to pick up our race numbers. Our inability to properly figure out which stop to get off the subway is rewarded with a couple mile walk to the expo location near the airport. The expo is OK, but the official race merchandise is nothing to write home about. The official shirts that we can purchase have the word "Finisher" promptly displayed on the shirt, which I always dislike. Why would I wear a shirt if I didn't finish the marathon? The Euro/Dollar exchange rate doesn't help either.

Bill at the Brandenburg Gates.

After returning to our hotel, we head out into the neighborhood and find a large traditional German food restaurant, that I jokingly call TGI Berlin. However, the food is authentic and very good. The German beer also helps.

Then next day, we meet up with the group from Marathon Tours for a bus tour of Berlin. Our contact from Marathon Tours, Cliff Jennings, is a friendly and informative guy. Our German tour guide is also pretty good. We meet several runners from other parts of the us. A couple from New York seem to have done all of the Marathon Tours offerings, having just traveled to Iceland for the Reykjavik marathon in August. A bubbly Mexican American runner, Rosa, from LA talks up the LA Marathon. Linda from Chicago brought along her friend Peggy to act as her travel companion and Sherpa. Peggy plans to subway hop the marathon course to hand off special drink bottles to Linda along the course. Now, that's service. There are a couple of young guys from Boston who are running their first marathons and expecting to tear up the course. As we stop outside the Reichstag I meet an Asian American wheel-chair participant who is a very upbeat, positive guy.

Bill & John outside the Reichstag

As we travel around the city having various site pointed out, John is glued to his "crackberry" seeking news on what is happening to his job back home with Wachovia Bank. This is during the wild downward speculation in bank and security stocks. He is justifiably trying to keep abreast of what's going on, but come on, we are in Berlin. Pay attention dude.

John focusing on the meltdown back home instead of the interesting wall art outside the bus window.

We pass by several sites that make me feel a bit strange: Checkpoint Charlie, remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, the plaza were books were burned in the 30s, the street where Gestapo headquarters used to exist, the parking lot above Hitler's Bunker, the Holocaust Memorial Plaza. I get the feeling that we are in an alternative reality in which all the tourist attractions are about dark periods in world history. So much bad stuff happened here and the places they took place become the attractions. Luckily, there are other periods of German history and some very beautiful architecture, both medieval and modern. The tour ends by dropping everyone at the expo, so John & I revisit the expo. I take a picture of our new running friends with a goofy shoe mascot.
Linda, Peggy & Rosa with New Balance "Shoe Guy"

That night our MT contact Cliff invites everyone to a German food restaurant. It turns out to be about 6 of us, all guys, and we end up back at TGI Berlin. No complaint from me as I loved the food. One of the guys is Eric Johnson, an endowment administrator for Tuffs University in Boston. He gives me a couple of good running book recommendations.

The next day, I go on a walking architectural tour with Linda, Peggy and Rosa, while John goes to the Berlin Zoo. We go back to the Reichstag to climb the glass dome constructed atop the nineteenth century building. The interior structure of the dome reminds me of a Star Trek warp drive.
The interior of the glass dome atop the Reichstag. "Beam me up Scotty."

We walk around the Potsdam area and end up at the Sony Center, a building with an open air plaza. The building is designed to look like Mt. Fugimori in Japan.

On my way back to the hotel, I pick up water bottles for hydration during the rest of the day. I get back to the hotel and take a much need nap. I've not caught up with my jet lag and go down hard for a couple of hours. John comes in just before dinner time. He had a great day at the Berlin Zoo and capped it off by watching the Rollerbladers zipping by on the marathon course. Unlike most marathons, Berlin has a separate event the day before for Rollerbladers. His pictures and video of these guys drafting off one another as they speed by made me jealous that I missed out on seeing them.

We meet for a group dinner, at the hotel. At our table is a guy in his 70s name Wes, who has run a bunch of marathons. He tells us he is honored to sit with us; we tell him that the honor is ours. We revere his dedication to running. After setting out our running gear, John & I turn in for the night.

The next morning, we dress and meet our group and Cliff in the lobby. Cliff set the time for the walkover to Tiergarten so that we would be at the start in time. As we arrive at the start area, we all split up to drop our bags with extra clothes for the finish. We agree to meet at a tree in the park. As I wonder further away from the start area, I realize my bag drop is in an out of the way part of the staging area, one with a whole bunch of people trying to get in and out of at the same time. I'm in a human traffic jam with no where to go. I finally make it to my drop of location and have to jog a good ways back to where we agreed to meet. No one is around. I realize I've taken too long getting my bag dropped and will not be able to find my group. We were all looking to run about the same pace, so I was a bit miffed that I would not likely find John, Linda and Rosa to run a controlled pace. Getting separated just before a marathon with the package drop off happened to me in Dublin the year before. I chalk it up to karma and that the big man upstairs wants me to do these events alone.

It's now getting late and the crowds trying to get through the bushes at the side of Strasse de 17 June and into the proper time corrals is inducing a sense of near panic. I finally break through the narrow gate and into my corral. My running friends are nowhere to be found. I figure to simply run my proper pace and hope to come across my friends. With some 30,000 plus people running, I realize I'm once again on a solo run. I figure I'll strike up conversations along the way until I realize most of the runners speak either German, Italian or French. As the gun goes off, I vow to simply enjoy the race.

The race itself is a very pleasant tour of the city of Berlin. Given the large numbers, the crowd of runners never thins out. Fortunately, neither do the crowds cheering along the sides of the road. Peggy, Linda's friend and sherpa, told us she would have a cow bell with her that she would ring. Thus, whenever I hear a cow bell, I turn to look for Peggy. Of course, since this is Germany, many of the small children ring cow bells as a way of cheering. I laugh thinking about the Christopher Walken skit in which he keeps asking for "More Cowbell." Next time Peggy, bring a whistle.

I keep passing and getting past by the same runners. I think I'm running fairly even splits, but I feel like my pace is slipping. Its a nice course, flat and scenic. The crowds are plentiful and enthusiastic. Around mile 20, we pass near our hotel and I see Cliff, who cheers me as I go past. Well, I figure, at least I saw someone from our group on the course.

Near mile 24, I end up feeling some cramping in my hamstrings. I'm forced to stop and stretch. I stop and start as the hams keep threatening to freeze up. I keep watching my time and realize its going to be tight for me to get finished in under 4 hours: my benchmark for a good marathon. As I run the last mile coming toward the Brandenberg Gate, I see a guy dressed up in a frozen lasagna package. He's holding a giant knife and fork. The sponsor of the race is a grocery chain and he is one of the company mascots. I vow not to let lasagna guy beat me. I pick up the pace and beat him through the Brandenberg Gates.

The last half mile to the finish is jam packed with crowds of supporters in bleachers. They are signing German songs. I feel great and pick up the pace. I pass over the finish line in 3:59:52, needing almost every second to get under the 4 hour mark. Not my best performance, but one I'll take.

I get my medal and wonder back to the gear pickup area to get my extra clothes. Again, with the large crowd, I don't meet any of my friends. I get in line at the free beer truck and take two glasses of German beer in the hopes I'll meet up with some of my friends. I finally run into Linda and Peggy and give them one of the beers. Linda ran a good time, somewhere in the low 3:40s. She had started with John and Rosa, but they all broke apart from each other early in the race. John ran a 3:50 or there abouts. Rosa broke down a bit and came in well over 4 hours, but did manage to dance with some cheerleaders around mile 18. When you're not having a good time, you might as well have a good time.

As Linda, Peggy & I walk/hobble back towards our hotel, we come across a beer garden. We sit down and order some beers and food. Other runners are mixed around the crowded beer garden. As we all get deeper into our beers, another marathoner comes in. We clap for our new arrival. We start clapping louder and more excitedly for each new marathoner that arrives. The atmosphere has turned into a party. I may not make it down to Octoberfest, but this afternoon Octoberfest has come to me.

That night, our group meets at an Irish Pub Cliff knows of to celebrate. Being part Irish, I have no objections going to an Irish pub in Germany. In the pub, a German rock band sings American rock with a heavy German accent. Rosa's brother, shows up with a bottle of taquilla. Against John's warnings, a bunch of us do taquilla shots. We get up and dance to a couple of songs. A German girl joins our crowd and makes us dance some more. Afterwards, we go back to the hotel and make a stop in the hotel bar for a couple of rounds of schnaps. John declines the offer and goes out to a McDonald's to pick up a couple of smoothies. For a single guy, John keeps a very level head. I accept the smoothie he offers on his return and we turn in for the night.

The next morning, John & I pack quickly and head out to the airport. The flights back home were a bit of a problem. I stiffened on the flight to NY, which only got worse on the second flight from JFK to Fort Lauderdale. John & I got seated in a section that was a boarderline insane assylum. There was a family of extremely pushy and loud Russians that spoke little to no English. They were only matched by the overaged hippy that wouldn't leave me alone trying to get free legal advice on how to save his mother's condo from Medicaid claims; or the guy who dyed what was supposed to be a soccer ball design in his head that looked like a yahmicka. Meanwhile, my legs are screaming for more leg room to move around. Lesson learned. Next time I take the train to Munich for Octoberfest.

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