Thursday, September 20, 2018

My Berlin Marathon (Day 4,277)

My Jerry Maguire moment: That's me in the lower right hand side trucking to the finish.
BERLIN -- It was only after I reached mile 25 that I told myself, "There's no way you can fuck this up now."

All day I'd been experiencing a race in less-than ideal conditions, whether it was the warm weather, a congested start, a left shin injury and even the gastrointestinal foibles of racing on the road. And yet, here I was, only a mile to go and had yet to have the other shoe drop, experiencing the painful calf cramps that have marked my previous seven marathons and other long races.

The first thing that should be noted is the relatively late starting time for the race compared to other marathons I've run in. I was to run in the second wave at 9:35 a.m. Already in the morning it was to be in the mid-50s and by wave start, up into the low 60s.

There was nothing I could do about this and so I settled into the extravagant complimentary breakfast provided by my hotel, the Westin Grand (really convenient near the Brandenburg Gate, on the direct bus line to the airport and pretty near the last mile or so of the race course, so it helped to be in familiar surroundings late in the race).

Normally I would eat something like a slice of bread with peanut butter and maybe a banana before my race but since I actually ate something closer to a real breakfast before I ran in the March 3 Snickers Marathon, I decided doing this breakfast wasn't a bad thing, provided I stuck to things I might eat before a long run. So I chose a slice of bread with jelly on it, a banana and just a little bit of egg (I ate part of an omelette before the Snickers Marathon) before going back to my room to get ready.

I headed out toward the Brandenburg Gate at about 8:45 a.m., giving me plenty of time (or so I thought). I hadn't ventured in the Tiergarten where the race starts and ends because of all the fencing for the marathon, and so really did not realize how vast -- and forested -- it was. I just decided to blindly follow the masses of runners all headed toward the corrals.

Because I'd heard from a blog account of last year's race that they did not check corrals, I headed toward Group F (3:30 to 3:50 finish) instead of my actual Group (G, 3:50 to 4:15). When I applied for the race last year, my last marathon time was the 3:59:30 that I ran the 2016 Chicago Marathon in with a stress fracture in my shin. They had no idea I'd run 3:40 just this past March and the smaller race had no certificates that I could bring to the expo to try to change my corral.

Near the race corrals it started to get extremely congested. At one point I followed a bunch of runners off the asphalt road/path of the park along some single-track dirt road, thinking how funny it was that I was going off-road in a brand-new pair of Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% shoes. At any event, I made my way to the corrals. I passed huge crushing lines to portapotties, thinking people in these lines would not possibly be starting the race on time.

It turned out that Wave 2 (Groups F and G) were starting at 9:35 a.m., not 9:45 a.m. as I'd thought the informational guide said. I also learned that Group G was starting 10 minutes later after Group F. Because I didn't want to run 10 minutes later (and have the course be warmer) I approached Group F. But people were checking bibs at the gate. I wandered back towards the start a few yards and followed many others who were climbing over the waist-high gate into Group F. On the other side of the path, people were just standing up next to the taller fencing next to the forest, openly urinating just feet from runners in corrals.

Here it was a jam of people and I could not see the 3:30 (or 3:45) pacers anywhere. It seemed like Group F just started right after Group E and we were off. The start, and maybe the first few miles were extremely congested, partially because of the narrow roads. I was running somewhere in between 8:20 and 8:30/mile and way off what I thought I would run. There was nothing I could do about it, so I decided to just think this was a fun run in Germany.

One thing I did to pass the time was to follow the blue lines. I'd heard about these before, the marathon paints a line to show the exact shortest route. It basically follows the tangents and as I paid attention to this line on this extremely crowded course I found that when the line turned it many times almost brought me right into crowds of runners who did not pay attention to it at all. (Later on, after the 20K mark, I no longer paid attention to the line but found that the roads were narrow enough that if I had extended my arms out I was often no farther from the blue line than that).

At one point in the first few miles the 3:30 pacer came by, holding a flag that said 3:30 on it with a few black balloons. Following him were several young women. Some guy near me commented to someone else that these women were trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I thought about trying to pick up my pace to stay up with them but decided not to since it was that congested. When I saw them weave their way forward it looked like they were doing so in a crowded concert hall instead of one of the six World Marathon Majors.

I had my first gel at 7K. It was past the first water station (at 5K) so I brought a small bottle of Dasani I'd been given on the plane over a few days prior. The next few miles I really was starting to get uncomfortable. I hadn't needed to use the porta-potty prior to the race but now I really needed to. I tried to hold off as long as I could but after Mile 7 I dashed into one. I hadn't needed to use one since my first marathon in 2000 (Portland).

Back on the course I even thought I could make up the time lost and ran the next mile at an 8:08 pace, having my next gel shortly thereafter at 15K. I kept going and felt good but then after the 20K mark I ducked into a porta-potty again. I was glad I did this, as it appeared that I was extremely dehydrated, something I didn't feel at the time. So for the rest of the race, I grabbed two cups of water instead of one that I'd been doing at every water station.

About a month ago, on Aug. 18, I injured my left shin after doing my last long run of the training cycle in Henderson, Nevada. For all intents and purposes it was a shin splint that came on as I ran. So I wouldn't aggravate it, I drastically lowered my mileage the last three weeks before the race (running 26, 22 and 23 miles) and my longest run during that time was 9 miles.

It was starting to be clear to me that I had a propensity to become injured doing two training cycles in a row, just as I'd done when I had a stress fracture in my right shin before the 2016 Chicago Marathon. During that time I'd also cut back my mileage severely and started to get calf cramps after Mile 13 of that race.

So as Mile 13 approached I braced for the worst. I knew I wouldn't be surprised if the calf cramps came. I knew that I could end up with an extremely slow race time -- it's one thing to run at a 7:50/mile pace for 16 miles, get calf cramps and suffer the rest of the way and still run a 3:40. It's another to start running at what looked like no better than an 8:30/mile pace and then ...

But nothing happened. I kept going merrily on my way. When Mile 16 came, I knew that this would be where I'd get calf cramps, since this traditionally has been the spot where I'd always get them, no matter what pace I ran. Portland, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, Honolulu and even tiny Albany, Ga.

Yet my calves were unscathed. This training cycle I'd sought the help of a personal trainer, who helped me work on getting stronger. She also introduced me to her physical therapist, who gave me a few dry needling sessions and extra exercises to help my calves and my hips.

But the one thing I focused on during this race was using a higher than normal pump of the arms with each stride to help me use my glutes instead of my calves for running. The theory is when you don't run with your glutes other muscles including your calves take the brunt of the race, causing them to fatigue and cramp. And just doing this, for hours on end in a crowd of strangers, seemed to be working.

My next goal was 30K. When I passed that, I wanted the record -- 20 miles, the longest I've run in a race without getting them. I went that distance in the 2010 Chicago Marathon before my calves gave out on me right before Chinatown. After getting calf cramps that spring in the ING Georgia Marathon at Mile 14, I trained for Chicago by running 20 miles every five days to try to build my endurance. I can't imagine what I'd do if I ever saw that on my training schedule. (I finished Chicago that year in 4:06, crushed thinking that at age 39, my best chance at a sub-4 race was over).

Twenty miles passed and with that I had given myself permission to run as hard as I wanted to the finish but at that point I was slowing down with my pace closer to 9 minute miles.

"There is no wall," I told myself at Mile 21. Often I would feel myself hit the wall right after getting calf cramps in previous races, so I was always unsure if one was related to the other.

I felt a slight tinge behind my right ankle at mile 23 but nothing else. A warning light that disappeared. A slightly larger 3:45 pacing group passed me but I didn't try to match their pace. A mile later I decided to just skip water stations every now and then. This race was excellent as the water stations appeared in greater frequency the last half of the race.

Then Mile 25 came. I knew at this point there was nothing that could really happen that would prevent me from finishing the race and finishing it in under 4 hours. That wasn't really a goal of mine but at that point it was motivating enough. I was in a familiar neighborhood and just focused on running strong until the next turn, the next turn and ...

Finally the Brandenburg Gate appeared. It looked like it literally was 26 miles, the race continued for a few tenths of a mile more to the finish, reminding me of Tenth Street after Mile 6 in the Peachtree Road Race.

I finished in 3:53, which was not nearly the time I was looking for but probably the best I could have done on this historic day where the world record was broken on this course. It still, as my wife points out, is my second fastest marathon time. I was extremely pleased that my legs had gone the distance without my calves giving out.

I still have lots to work on. I would love if this all was a matter of running form and actually have  more marathon PRs ahead. It was hard to train through the heat this summer, so maybe I'll forego fall marathons in the future.

Even this is an improvement in thinking as I recently wanted to walk away from 26.2. After the 2016 Chicago Marathon, calves cramping while I hobbled through Millennium Park, I told my wife, "Maybe this is not a good distance for me."

Marathon #8 in the books.