I’d flown into Berlin the day before, leaving home at 0400, finding my hotel overbooked, being sent to another one a few miles away, heading back into central Berlin to
register for the race, then back to the hotel for a couple of hours sleep before heading back to central Berlin for a pasta party and race briefing. The pasta party was kind of cool, I met a couple of other Brits there (Ash and Daniel) and we chatted a bit over dinner, before heading into the TWO HOUR race briefing. It seemed overkill to be honest, but the weirdest thing was the timing – who runs a briefing until 2130 the night before a race starting at 0600? I really felt for the locals who hadn’t booked into a hotel in the city who then had to travel home, before coming back again at the crack of dawn.
With the briefing finally over I made it back to my hotel for about 2200 for a fitful night’s sleep, before dragging myself (in a cab) to the start line at the athletics stadium at Lobeck Strasse. Not sure if it was my dodgy German, the early hour, or the idiocy of what I was about to do, but the taxi driver seemed extremely amused by what I was telling him on the way there. I was feeling a bit sick
at the start, mostly nerves, but managed to get a bit of breakfast, deposit my three drop bags, and start to think about the day and night’s running ahead of me. Just before the start I spotted a chap with a union jack buff and Centurion shirt on so I figured him for British – and he was. Not only that, he was marathon running legend Traviss Willcox, who I’d seen was on the start list. We had a bit of a chat, found we’d both done the South Downs 100 last year, and made our way to the start.
At 0600 we were off on our anti-clockwise route, heading north through the city for the first 10km or so, stopping every few hundred yards at traffic lights. We’d been told crossing at red lights would
mean a DQ, and at least in the early stages people seemed to be taking that seriously. Although it was a bit stop/start, it did help keep the pace down a bit. At about 20km we hit what would be the pattern for most of the rest of the race, long stretches of semi-rural/forest on either good trail or horrible cobblestones, broken up with shorter bits running on tarmac through more residential areas.
To the first major checkpoint and drop bag at 43km, it was all uneventful. I was aiming to be there at around 5 hours and was dead on time. The only worry I had at that point was that the nausea hadn’t really cleared since the start line, and as a result I’d only taken on around 150 calories an hour which I knew wasn’t really enough and could cause me problems later.
Then it was off along the Tegeler See and south through Spandau Forest and Gatow down to Sacrow and the second major checkpoint at 80km. I was still feeling good and making good, comfortable progress, hitting halfway (in distance at least) in 9:39, but I had a strong sense of impending doom building.
The heat at this stage was starting to get to me, it was around 29*c, which although not unbearable in the grand scheme of things, was way hotter than anything I’d trained in for weeks. Despite drinking plenty and filling my hat with water regularly I could feel myself starting to struggle and at around 1900 at 110km I was in a pretty bad way. As the temperature started to drop I started to feel even hotter and threw up a few times, a pretty sure sign of heatstroke. Mentally I still felt ok, was coherent and not feeling dizzy, so I just dropped the pace, threw in a lot of walking stretches, and tried to let myself cool down for a while.
The next few hours were grim. Each time I started to run I was fine, legs and feet were good, I felt tired, but strong with no major pain, in fact better than I had any right to feel after what I’d run so far. Then within a few minutes my temperature would spike, the nausea would hit and I’d throw up. After 20km of that malarkey, at around 130km I did my sums, and reckoned if I kept power walking at 10min/km pace for the next 6-7 hours, I was still on for a sub-24 finish. That relaxed me a bit, and the thought of not being sick again was really appealing, so I got my marching trousers on, gritted my teeth, and refocused on getting to the end.
That worked pretty well for me for a few hours, until I started noticing a few 11min/kms, then a 12 min/km pass by, so I forced myself to run some more stretches just to keep my average pace at around 10min/km for that sub-24 pace. I was feeling worse again, the combination of the heatstroke, and at this point a massive calorie deficit having not eaten anything since 90km really starting to hurt. But the determination to maintain my pace paid off in an unexpected way – I caught up with Traviss.
This had three massive benefits. Firstly, seeing a friendly face at this point was a real boost. Although there’d been a few thumbs up and brief words of encouragement, the combination of language barriers and my decreasing pace, had made it a really solitary experience to this point. Secondly, and most importantly, Traviss, despite having fallen quite badly and hurt his arm, still had a functioning brain. I nearly cried with joy when he said all we could go as slow as 25min/kms from that point (about 140km) and still break 24 hours. Knowing my main goal was in reach and that all I really had to do was stay awake and not get run over was almost overwhelming. The third benefit was his company – we decided to stick together for the last 20km or so, chatting about life the universe and everything, and it really helped that gruesome 0200-0500 stage of the race pass much more quickly than it would have had I still been trudging and vomiting along on my own.
After some interesting encounters with the locals going through the city, we finally made it back to the sports stadium, crossed the line together at 23 hours and 16 minutes and 71st out of 232 finishers. At which point we were presented with our finisher t-shirts, but no buckle or medal. We were told that we’d get them at 1400 at the presentation back in the city centre. Traviss had to leave for an earlier flight than me, so I said I’d hang around and try to get both of ours before the presentation started, as I had to leave around 1430 for my flight. I spoke to Ronald the race director who seemed quite annoyed at first, but then after I’d waited 7 hours at the sports stadium (with nowhere to sleep), and another 2 hours at the Ramada in the city centre, he secretively shuffled me out of the room we were all in and gave me my buckle and medal. At that point I thanked him, grabbed my bag and legged it (ok, shuffled really slowly) for the airport.
As far as the race organisation went, it was ok. The race briefing was overkill, and not giving out buckles until after a two hour presentation in a location separate to the finish, hours after the race is over just seems ridiculous. The aid stations, although there were 27 of them, were really samey, and didn’t really have anything that floated my (admittedly sinking) boat – apart from the two that had potatoes. The course markings were pretty good though – I only took two wrong turns, realised both quickly, and only ran an extra 4km or so all in which is pretty good for me.
For me though, this wasn’t really about the race, it was about the route. I don’t care that I ran the race – the aid stations, the organisations, the markings, the drop bags, all that stuff just helped me to run the Berlin Wall. It was impossible, even when I was really suffering, not to feel the weight of
history around that trail, of what led to the construction of the wall, and what it took and what it meant to break it down. I run marathons because I like running, but I run ultras for the adventure, and this was my best one yet.