Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Marathon #3 - Berlin, Germany

3) Berlin

   I ran my third marathon in Berlin on September 26, 2010. My finishing time was 3:43:17. When I crossed the Finish Line, I was a physical and emotional wreck.

  I got out of bed at 4:00 am on race day. The hotel was quiet and still when I left the room thirty minutes later. The race was scheduled to start at 9:00 am.

   I went down to the lobby to get some coffee, and eat breakfast. I sat down at a small table near the window that looked out on the cool rain that was washing the East Berlin street, and I wrote in my notebook:

   "I feel good about the race. I went for a run on Friday morning and my legs felt fresh and strong. And it felt great to run in the cool air. It's been a long, hot summer in Chicago. I've got the same picture of Kevin in my pocket that I carried in each of the first two marathons. I'll also have dad in my thoughts. He ran a 5k yesterday which included a free prostate screening among its goodie bag items. He (and of course we) is hoping that the cancer has receded and that he'll be able to avoid invasive surgery. Aside from how much I want to qualify for Boston today for myself, I'd also love for him to see me enjoy that level of success with my running. I know he'd get a lot from that."

   When the first trickle of runners spread into the lobby, I packed up my things and began making my way to the Start Line in Tiergarten Park. I remembered the crowds for the Chicago Marathon, and while I had the benefit of a seeded corral this time, I also had a language barrier to work through and I was in a city that was unfamiliar to me. So rather than risk the frustration of a last minute scramble to find my corral, I decided to get an early start.

   The rain had eased up when I left the hotel, so I walked for a bit. It was cold out that morning, and I found myself wishing that I'd brought some throw-away sweats from a thrift store. There were tall rectangular apartment buildings lining the streets. They were all still dark. The only noticeable sign of life was the occasional Saturday night bar patron, shuffling their way home before the daylight made Sunday morning official. I saw a train approaching, and I hopped on.

   I had done everything I'd set out to do in the months leading up to the race. Everything that I did in July, August, and September revolved around this marathon. I put my social life on hold. I organized my work schedule to fit my training schedule. I followed strict dietary rules. For three months, there wasn't a half an hour that went by without me thinking about Berlin.

   I felt good as I made my way through the park. The rain had picked back up though, and there wasn't any shelter to be had. So I told myself to just accept the fact that I'd be cold and wet, and to put it out of my mind and move on. Once the race got started, I'd be running hard, and I'd get warmed up, and everything would be fine.

   In the meantime, I waited. I stretched. I stood under trees. I watched other runners mill around. I waited. I tried not to think about the rain that had been falling off and on for the last 24 hours. I tried to ignore the standing water in the streets and in the lawns of the park. I tried to put my cold and wet body, and my wet and heavy clothes, out of my head.

   I tried all of that in vain. As 9:00 am approached, I was spending far too much time wishing that things were other than they were.

   And then the starting gun went off.

   We started off so fast. Seven minute miles right out of the gate. I'd never felt a starting pace like that in any race that was longer than a 10k. I was in a corral near the front and this was an all business crowd. I quickly shed my thoughts about the weather and all of the other factors that were out of my control, and I just ran. I had every intention of proving that this was were I belonged.

Me in the white shirt and dark shorts.
About Mile 6.
   But in the back of my mind, I was already worried. My legs were heavy. The strong and fresh feeling that I'd had just a couple of days before, wasn't there that morning. Early on, I told myself that I'd warm up after a couple of miles. But the first few miles of the race came and went, and nothing changed. By the 10k mark, I knew in my head that I couldn't hold the pace that I was at. I knew that if I didn't slow down, I was going to crash.

   I didn't slow down though. I'd put in too much work to get ready for that race. And I'd tied every bit of that preparation to the idea of qualifying for Boston. I told myself that I'd find a way to push through.

   I didn't push through though. By the half way point I was already unraveling. My legs were on fire and I was slowing down. I watched other runners pass me by. First by the dozens, then by the hundreds. By the time I hit the 25k mark, it was over. I had another 17k to go, I was in a lot of pain, and Boston was out of the question.

   I went through a wide range of emotions over that final ninety minutes. Initially, I was frustrated and angry, and I felt sorry for myself. And then I tried to shift my focus. I wasn't going to qualify for Boston, but I could still beat my Chicago time. I could still PR. And I reminded myself that I was still running the Berlin Marathon, and that I should be embracing that experience, because I probably wouldn't ever do it again.

   But as the race wore on, the pain became more severe, and I couldn't find a way to keep my focus positive.  I shuffled along, but I was desperate for it to be over.

   And then, finally, it was over. I turned the last corner and I saw the Finish Line from several blocks away. My legs were stiff, but I pushed them as hard as I could. I crossed the Finish Line more than thirty minutes past the time that I'd hoped for, and my eyes filled up with tears as I accepted the Finisher's Medal. I'd given everything that I had to that race, and somehow I'd actually gotten slower.

   I spent the better part of the next 24 hours feeling sorry for myself. I went through the post race motions. I ate delicious greasy food. I drank cold beer. I had ice cream for breakfast the next day. But I wasn't happy with the way things had gone. I did eventually snap out of it, and enjoy the rest of my trip. But I had a lot to reflect upon. I knew that I had a lot to take from the experience, and I knew that it was important that I do that.

   Some of the problems that I encountered were out of my control. And in hindsight, I don't think that there was any scenario in which I would have qualified for Boston that day. That is a longer and more difficult process than I had recognized. However, there were things that were within my control. There were things that I could have done differently, that would have made the experience a more enjoyable one.

   Most notably, I knew that I needed to change my mental approach. I can't limit my ideas of success and failure to the numbers on a clock. The clock can help me in my assessment of myself, but that's all it's there for. It's just a tool. It's not a goal in and of itself. And I knew that I needed to be more honest with myself about my ability. Even if I'd been warm and dry and had fresh legs, I wasn't physically ready to qualify for Boston. And I knew that I needed to make better decisions during the race. Had I slowed down early in the race, I would have lasted longer, finished faster, and had a more enjoyable overall experience.

   So I tried to take those lessons with me, while setting everything else down and moving on. Berlin was finished, and I had more races on the horizon.