Domingo, 29 de Septiembre, 2019 – Sparknotes: Berlin Marathon, 2’22’03 (67’40, 74’23). Felt solid until the half and completely fell apart after 25km. Went for it!
08:20: Woke up to a beautiful morning in Berlin. No wind yet, nice and cool. Seemed like we were going to get that perfect Berlin day after all! Had a cup of black coffee and a NV bar and relaxed until we left.
Matt and I ubered to the start and got there in plenty of time even with a long walk to navigate to the elite starting area. Ran into Matt (Rand) right as I was walking in and set up shop next to him to wait a bit before warming up. Ended up walking into Jameson Mora as I was heading out, so warmed up together, just easy out/back on short stretch of fenced off bike bath, maybe 200m. Jogged about 10’ and then came back, put on racing kit, etc., and did drills.
Wind had already picked up a bit but didn’t feel as bad as I’d expected. It was actually quite sunny when I first got there but still not too warm and was starting to cloud over as we were called to the start.
Had time for maybe 3 or 4 strides and some more drills in the start area before heading to the line. Pretty cool to be standing behind Bekele and surrounded by tons of fast dude. I don’t think I’ve ever been that far back (maybe 3rd row) and felt like I really shouldn’t be any farther up. I heard Matt (W) shout my name and saw him maybe 10 rows back. A lot of bodies were very close together and then we were off.
My main goal for the first kilometer was to not get sucked out too fast and not get trampled! And I think I accomplished those well. Didn’t fall and hit 1km on my garmin in 3’13.5, which I think was pretty close to what the actual km marker said (they had every 200m marked in the first 2K, so no one had any excuses for going out too fast).
Within that first K, our 2h15 pace group formed behind our pacer, Tobias. Honestly, it was pretty cool to have this huge group of dudes to run with and have an official pacer (i.e. with the black/white striped singlet) to run behind.
Quickly, we made the first real turn around 2km and entered the long stretch from about 2-11km where we’d mostly have the wind behind us. In my mind, I’d broken the race up into 3 parts: this first 11km, 11km-30km (where we’d mostly have the wind in our faces and would reach the highest elevation on the route) and 30km to the finish (where we’d mostly have the wind behind us until the last 2km).
I found myself very comfortable and running at the front of our group. I tried to tuck behind Tobias and not not look at my watch or worry about splits. The course wound through a few neighborhoods but I honestly don’t remember too much from this part. I remember we were a tiny bit behind pace (16’05) at 5K and then right even at 10K (31’59). I also remember being surprised that I manged to get all my bottles in these early miles. I also remember my gels, which I’d tucked in my comp shorts liner, were being annoying and I wasted a bit of energy making sure they were tucked in.
Somewhere around that 10 or 11km point we headed south/south-west and were running into the wind now. I still felt fine and actively moved a bit father back in the pack in order to try to draft a bit more on this windier stretch. At 15km (48’10), I still felt great and was tucked in well.
5km later (20km in 64’11), I had started to feel a bit off. Just like the pace all of a suddent felt harder. It’s odd, running with a pacer and a big group, because what it really felt like was that everyone else was speeding up. Really, of course, I was just getting tired and everyone else was running the same pace, but at the time it definitely felt like the pack was running away a bit.
Still, I took my second gel at the 1 hour mark and also took a caffeine pill and seemed to bounce back somewhere in that 5km stretch from 20-25km and was still with the group. I figured I’d weathered a rough patch and would continue with my original race plan to wait until 30km and then try to accelerate.
But that was not to be. My recovery from the rough patch only lasted until somewhere after that 25km point and all of a sudden it was like the pack was speeding up again and I was working so hard to not get dropped and then a tiny gap appeared and then it grew and grew and very quickly things started to fall apart.
I could see that the pack had put 10 seconds on me in the first km I was dropped which I figured was not good as I knew they’d likely run very consistently, but I tried not to look at my watch and just focus on the group in front of me and hanging tough.
It was to no avail, though. They pulled away more and more until I realized that this was no longer about working back up to the pack, but now about just resetting my own goals and working as hard as I could for these last 15km or so.
At 30K, I saw my split and some quick mental math told me I’d run over 17 minutes for that 5K. That was a pretty disheartening moment, but I also knew that 30K was the point where we’d have the wind with us for the next 10K, so I tried to stay positive and just focus on the guys around me and in front of me.
By now, I was getting passed by a fair number of people and I knew I must not be too far in front of the elite women as I could see people looking back behind me and see their bottle hand-off people biking by me. Still, I tried to just stay positive and focus on running as hard as I could. I knew I had to finish this race and that was my focus at this point.
It’s really hard to describe what it feels like in the last stages of a bad marathon. You would think that running that slowly would be easy, or at least wouldn’t feel that bad. But the truth is that in my fastest marathons, I’ve felt way better in the last 15K than I have in these rough days out. It feels like you’re running so hard, like your body can’t possibly work in a higher gear, but the time on the watch must be wrong or something because there’s no way you’re running that slowly at this effort.
And so that’s pretty much what the last 15km felt like. Like I was pushing harder and harder and running slower and slower. I didn’t rebound with the tail-wind at 30km, but slowed down every 5km until the last 2.2km where I sped up a tiny bit. I did get passed by the top 4 women and almost got hit by their camera truck (and, while I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, almost wished it had actually hit me and put me out of my misery or at least so I could drop out.
I hit the last turn with about 800m to go and really did try to pick it up but my garmin still had my last 780m at 3’36 pace. Yikes. Coming in, I saw I was probably going to run over 2h22 but honestly didn’t really care about the time at this point. It was all over.
With a few days to think about this race, I’ve got a few takeaways
The bad news
I wasn’t as marathon-fit as I thought. There’s a difference between being fit and being marathon-fit (and the many, many runners at the amateur and professional level who have run similarly positive splits can probably empathize here). Being in shape doesn’t mean you’re ready to run a fast, time-trial type marathon. Especially for me, I’ve run all my best marathons off of build-ups featuring tons of running right around goal race pace. This build-up (which wasn’t really focused on the marathon at all until the last 3 weeks) was completely different and that was the big missing piece. I was extremely fit, but I clearly wasn’t ready to run 3’12/km pace for 42.2km.
The Marathon leaves very little margin for error. This builds off of that first point which is to say that if you’re really fit, it’s very easy to over-estimate your marathon ability. And the consequence of that over-estimation is brutal. I overestimated my 10K fitness a week before this race and positive split by about 30 seconds. Here, I positive split by about 8 minutes. Going out a tiny bit too fast in the half can cause a really spectacular blow-up in the second half. And the crazy thing is that, in the moment, it doesn’t even feel like you’re going out too fast. At least, it didn’t for me in this race. I felt great for the first 20km. Once it starts to feel hard (at least if it’s before 30 or 35km), it’s all over.
The good news
But that leads me to the good news. The race did feel really good through about 20km. I felt like I was running marathon pace. I felt like this was a pace that I could run for 42K. But I hadn’t put in the work I needed in order to do that. And what that tells me is that this kind of race, the race I thought I was ready to run, is in me. I can run that A+ race that I thought I was ready for.
And at least I f***ng finished. I’ve had a tough year. I’ve dropped out of a lot of big races and it doesn’t ever feel good. I didn’t care if I was going to run 2h12 or 2h22 or 2h52, I wanted to finish this one.
Finally, this was (yet another) hugely positive learning experience for me and (yet another) really joyful race trip as a whole. I learned a lot about what I want to try to do in this sport and how to (try to) do those things, and moreover I had an incredible week in Berlin, spent with two of my dearest friends, and was able to run in one of the world’s biggest and fastest marathons (a race where one of my first running heroes, Kenenisa Bekele, ran the most impressive marathon of all time (yes, it was more impressive than Kipchoge in 2018). Even with a bad, a disappointing, race, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I am always amazed and grateful that this is what I get to do for a living. Thank you to all of you who make that possible.
Now, I’m heading home after a few days in the mountains to clear my head. I’m not sure what’s next. I’ve got the US Olympic Marathon Trials in about 4 months (Feb 29, 2020). I’ve got to continue doing some soul-searching and consulting with those that I trust most in the sport to see what my focus will be on leading up to that race, whether I try to really peak and race again this fall and, if I do, what distance would make sense to focus on.
Thank you to all of you who have followed along thus far. It’s been a long road and I’m happy to say that I’m still learning, still figuring things out, and still excited about what lies beyond the horizon.
Stay with us.
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