Posted by: pointlenana | October 8, 2015

Berlin Marathon – 9/27/2015: Que Sera Sera

“If you feel bad during the race, give up.” – Advice from the Berlin Marathon medical director, before the start.

Starting towards the Victory Column.

Starting towards the Victory Column.

Rather than the usual really long post about how my race went, I’m going to summarize my race quickly and then write something (really long) about Berlin for someone who is thinking of doing it, or already signed up.  Plus, some advice on how to have a good day based on my experiences travelling a long way to a race on a different continent.

My race:

  • Beautiful weather
  • Decent logistics for a race with 40,000 people
  • In spite of my various injuries and fatigue, I managed to run with my friend Paul for about 2/3 of the race
  • And then it was ugly…
  • But, we were not attacked by wild boars.
  • My day is documented in all its splendor in this movie on YouTube.
Approaching the Brandenburg Gate, at mile 26.

Approaching the Brandenburg Gate, at mile 26.

Overall, I’d only recommend doing this race if one of four things is true for you: 1) you want to run the World Marathon Majors 2) you want to have an excuse to visit Berlin 3) you are quite fast (like sub-3) and want to run on a fast course 4) you live close by and it’s a local race for you.  For me, it was a fine event but the good things didn’t really offset the logistical challenges and of all the races I’ve done it’s one of the few where I have no desire to repeat it.  I’ve had the good fortune to do 4 big runs in Europe (marathons in London, Paris, and Berlin, plus UTMB) and while Berlin was again fine, the others were more fun for me.  Perhaps my opinion is colored by my day being in the “ugly” category of marathon races – major fade, unpleasant last hour.  But even factoring that in, I still can’t see telling someone “you should do it!” just for the race.

Anyway, starting from before the race to afterwards:

Pre-race:  Once you arrive, most of the info you get is only in German.  It’s their country, they can do what they want.  But for example, unless you speak German don’t expect to find much of interest in the race program.  (This begs the question of whether any race program is interesting.)  I should have done more online research beforehand to find out basics, let alone tips and tricks.  The expo was fine, and quite efficient once you reached the business parts, but they routed us through the entire shopping section (on purpose no doubt) before we finally reached the business parts.  This is probably an exaggeration, but it felt like a mile from entrance to bib pickup.  Oh, and it turned out that the entry fee does not include any shirt.  I heard several Americans grumbling about this.  Of the Majors’ shirts, Boston has the best shirt, NYC is pretty good, Chicago was weak (tech shirt with the sponsor more prominent than the race), London was bad (one size fits all cotton finisher shirt that fits people who are men’s M or smaller), and Berlin was a zero.

Getting to the start: This was really easy.  The start is in the Tiergarten in the center of Berlin.  Unless you are staying a ways out, it’s probably a pretty easy walk to get there.  I wasn’t sure what moving through a crowd of 40,000 people would be like, but it went pretty smoothly and only got really slow as we neared the corrals.  The park’s bushes took quite a beating from guys relieving themselves, and the lines (mostly women) for the portapotties were quite long.  Bag check was scattered a bit around the waiting area, depending upon bib numbers, but that was one aspect that was covered in English and there were signs overhead.

The Start:  First of all, the start is at 9am.  Combined with not having to ride a bus (loop course, not point to point), this made for a really pleasant morning, definitely not the Big Sur 3am wakeup.  Although we all lined up for the 9am start, they actually had waves (at least 2) – they let out Corrals A-D and then held the rest of us until 9:15.  We were in F, so we didn’t cross the start line until ~18 minutes after the official start.  It was chip timed, so not really a problem, but the expected ETAs we gave friends/family were all off by 15 minutes as a result and it caused some anxiety until we appeared the first time.

The Race:

My GoPro footage doesn’t really support this, but I remember the entire race being very very congested.  I ran with my friend Paul, and it was easier to let him go around people and run behind him than it was to try to stay at his side.  This is another race where after 2, 5, or even 8 miles I was astonished to come across people running way way slower than we were.  Apparently there’s something funky about the seeding for the people in corrals A-D, who got a 15 minute head start.  Boston has the best seeding.  This is why I say that it’s only a good race to run fast at if you are pretty fast – there’s a lot of chaos back in the 3:30+ crowd.

Tracking Pace:  For the metrically-challenged, this race does not have markers on the mile, only kilometers.  I never run by kilometers, and panicked around mile 3 kilometer 5 when I realized we were running blind or had to trust our watches.  I spent about a mile doing pace conversion from miles to kilometers, trying to figure out whether my .62/1 conversion was going to make us a little under or a little over.  Amazingly, I figured it out in spite of race brain and found out we were about on plan.  Anyway, know your pace in kilometers if you want to validate against markers.  Oh, and the markers are kind of small and easy to miss.  I saw maybe half of them.

Spectator support:  There were a lot of enthusiastic people out cheering for us.  Certainly there was way more energy than we saw in Paris.  However – and this may be unique to me – there is some German word/phrase/cheer that sounds like Mark.  (Nach?)  That was pretty distracting, and I didn’t understand a lot of what I heard.  I might wear music if I were to do it again, which seems wrong for a race like that.  The race is always within 2 or 3 miles of the center of Berlin, so it’s pretty easy for spectators to see their runners 3 or even 4 times during the race.  But there are some surprisingly quiet areas, e.g. the movie above shows an empty street just 1km from the finish.

Water/food stations:  I found these to be difficult.  There was the typical big race congestion, which I’m used to.  But the water came in hard plastic cups that crunched underfoot and the water stations were somewhat unpredictable (sometimes volunteers would hand you a cup, sometimes you had to pick one up off the table, sometimes there was a long line of tables and sometimes it was short).  There were food stations along the way, again at unpredictable points.  I never saw anything like Gatorade – maybe it was at the food stations, most of which I missed?

Sights/Music/Etc:  This should be an amazing race – in the middle of a very historic place, and the race passes most of the big sights.  The streets are tree-lined, and they claim 80 bands along the way.  But it felt like I spent a lot of time running in non-descript streets that could be in any major city, or even somewhere in Silicon Valley.  And the music was disappointing at best – Paul and I wondered if the 10 guys all blowing on horns that make one tone counted as a band.  The international group of runners was fun, and I especially liked the shirt one woman was wearing – “It’s Just A Big Big Jogging.”

The Finish:  For some reason they had blue sponsor balloon gates up on Unter den Linden just before the Brandenburg Gate.  At Boston, when you turn onto Boylston, you see the finish way ahead.  In Berlin, when you make the turn you see those sponsor gates and hear Europop.  Once you pass through the sponsor festivities, you see the Gate for a couple minutes, and then it turns out the real finish is a few minutes beyond that.  The long chute to the finish was great – lots of people and energy and music (including “Que Sera Sera”, which is how I approached the last 10 miles).  The finish area was well-organized – it was easy to find everything, including family/friends.  By the time I dragged myself across the line, it was very crowded and yet I still found Paul quickly and then our families.  I had been worried about how we’d cross the course from north to south, but they do one of those “split course” things I saw in London, where they route runners one way around an island for a while, and then the other way, so that pedestrians can cross the race via the island.

If you are planning to run it, the best way to have a great race there is to abandon time goals, run conservatively, and make the most of time in Berlin before and after the race.  I didn’t quite do that at London or Paris, but I was running enough off my capability that it worked out.  In Berlin, I was hoping I was taking the same approach but it turned out I was tired (for many reasons) so it turned into a race implosion and not the experience I wanted.

Things that “went wrong” for me (in quotes because I caused several of them, they didn’t just happen magically):

Racing beforehand: I tried to run a PR race at Tunnel 2 weeks before, which turned into another failure probably because I was already tired.  Only real dummies need this but don’t run a hard marathon 2 weeks before if you want Berlin to go well.

Time zones:  Berlin is 9 hours ahead of Seattle.  For London, I eased my way into that time zone over the course of 9 days (stopping in Boston and then Iceland beforehand).  For Paris, we arrived 4 days before the race and I was fine.  For UTMB, we had two weeks to adjust.  This time we arrived 6 days before and I think I was at the peak of jet lag/bad sleep exhaustion when we ran the race.  I’d try to arrive way before or just before so that either the time change is not an issue or you’re not tired yet.

Bad sleep/hotels:  A couple nights before the race we were kept awake most of the night by some crazy hotel guests slamming doors periodically.  I’d say this is just bad luck, but Berlin is known for its nightlife so it may not totally be luck.  Maybe we were too close to Friedrichschain.

Weird nutrition:  I’m not too picky about food, but a week of restaurant meals isn’t my ideal pre-race nutrition plan.  I’m not sure what to do about this – maybe an AirBnB so we could cook more?  And I picked breakfast on the day before the race to try a lot of the cheese and protein-heavy stuff at the hotel buffet.  Protein-loading?

Sightseeing:  Between daily runs and sightseeing, I think we were on our feet for 12-15 miles most days before the race.  Stupid, I know.  But there is a lot to see there – the Nazi era, the Wall and its impact, the Soviet period, amazing Old Masters and Contemporary art collections, old and new architecture, etc..  We didn’t see it all but we saw a lot, and I’ll take that over 20 minutes less in my race time.

Hydration:  Um… We were in Prague first, where there’s good beer.  And we found a good microbrewery a block from our hotel in Berlin.  My hydration may not have been perfect race day.

So, I think Berlin would be great for a fun race.  I had the right attitude actually, but I was also trying to run with my friend at a pace that is normally fine for me but not fine with all the other issues/mistakes I was dealing with.  Travelling to Berlin to run fast seems… like not the best use of the trip there.  But as a reason to go to Berlin/Europe, the Berlin Marathon would be a good fun run.

Rehydrating with Paul.

Rehydrating with Paul.


  1. Not the race you wanted, but the RR is very informative. I’m starting to contemplate marathons/places I want to run, both as goal races and as travel opportunities. Looks like this one would fit into the latter. Thanks for posting!

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