It is 7am on a Sunday morning. The Underground trains would usually be empty at this early hour. Today they are packed. The biggest annual event to hit Berlin has arrived, the Berlin Marathon. There is the smell of excitement in the air, nerves, deep heat, anticipation. Runners make small talk quietly, nervously trying to reassure each other (and themselves). When I walk onto the train, people stop talking. Everywhere my gaze falls, people are trying not to stare at me, and failing.
I am 5ft7, 9st10 and 37 years old. Not particularly impressive stats in any other walk of life. But, right now, in the midst of hundreds of marathon runners, I look like an elite marathon runner. I am in the best shape of my life; my cheekbones are protruding, my muscles are ripped and I am wearing boxfresh tracksuit and trainers from my sponsors. More than all this, I am exuding confidence. I turn on my headphones, I am calm, focused and ready. Think, demi-God.
Every time I catch someones eye, they instantly look away. And every time that happens, I grow an inch. I look like a guy who can run a marathon really fast, like way faster than everyone else here. I am intimidating. When we exit the train, the crowd give me a wide berth. They all turn right, to join the 40,000 others on the mass start. I turn left, to join Eliud Kipchoge and the elite field of less than 100 athletes.
8 hours later. I get back to the same underground station. The train is full of glowing, happy, joyous runners. People from all over the world are talking, laughing, sharing stories; punctuated with high fives, and selfies. Everyone, without fail, proudly displaying their well-earned Berlin medals.
I am not exuding confidence any more. I cannot find a seat, but I NEED to sit down, so I crumple pathetically on the floor. Everyone is still giving me a wide birth, but not because they are intimidated.
I am bent over my aching stomach. I am pale, gaunt, have lost 11lbs in fluids. Worse, I stink. Flies are circling around me. I didn’t even know there were flies on the Underground. I look up and appreciate how much this scene has changed from the one I observed this very morning. I have gone from ethereal presence, to embarrassment. If anyone is unlucky enough to catch my eye, they look away, slightly disgusted. I have a little laugh, but it hurts my tummy.
I think to myself; what the fuck just happened?….
I wake up Sunday morning, 6am, having slept deeply. I have had a really vivid dream about running 2.18 in Berlin. So, it takes me a while to realise that I haven’t done it yet. When the reality sets in, that I have still to actually go and do it, I am excited, rather than deflated.
I jump out of bed and do all the routine stuff. When I get to the elite tent, I am feeling much more at home, having done it all before a year ago. Eliud Kipchoge is there, looking super-human, but I knew he would be, it doesn’t come as a surprise. My warm up goes as well as it possibly could go. Just feel totally ready to go. A guy, Rob Murphy, stops me to shake my hand a say he reads my blog, that feels really nice. I talk briefly with Patrick Sang, Eliud’s coach, who I have met several times in Iten, Kenya. My Kiswahili is pretty damn good.
20min before race starts, it is time to take on some caffeine. I have avoided it for a week, and now I have a high caffeine drink at my lips. I think to myself, do I need this? I am so focused and zoned in right now. I down it anyway, can’t hurt.
They play the same Shakira song as last year (Try Everything) on the start line. My plan is to start at around 5.15miling, and see what kind of company I can work with.
As we get going, I am relaxed but ready. The weather is beautiful, the crowds are great. I am holding myself back. I feel like I am running on carpet, it is so soft and easy. I am pretty bang on pace for the first 3 miles. There isn’t a great deal of help around me, but I am happy to clip along on my own.
I hear loud cheers coming from behind, I look back and there is a mass of vehicles and runners approaching, led by Tirunesh Dibaba and her pacemakers. This big group of runners is acting like Jupiter, sucking up all the meteorites around. The noise and influence of this group means the runners slightly ahead or behind all end up running together. There could be 30 of us in here. With Dibaba and her pacer at the head. The group is so big there are inevitable clashes and trips. I say to myself, ‘this is my family now’, ‘this is where I live’. I get familiar with my new reality quickly.
In my build up, I had often visualised myself running with Dibaba, one of my top 3 favourite female athletes of all time (next to Allyson Felix and Kelly Holmes). But then I heard she might have a crack at Paula Radcliffe’s record, 2.15, too quick for me. The pacer car is displaying estimated finish time of 2.18, which suits me fine. The pacemaker is rubbish, going from 5.18 one mile to 4.56 the next, but nothing phases me. After very little drama, all of a sudden I am at 10 miles, I let myself smile. This is going to happen. One mile at a time. I am going to do this.
Just after 12 miles, I get my first stomach cramp. It goes from slight discomfort to pain very quickly. I am falling off the back of the group. I don’t panic, there is still a long way to go, this could just be a bad patch. We get through halfway in 69.29. It is OK, I was hoping for slightly faster, but right now I have bigger problems. I can still run, but I’m not flowing anymore.
Then things start to get messy. I don’t need to go into detail here, I’m sure you know what I mean.
I have made some massive errors. And now I am paying for them quite dramatically. Hindsight is always 20-20. I have created a perfect storm by not listening to my own advice. Keep things simple, don’t change anything, take care of business.
- Doing a carb-deplete, then 3 day carb-load is a risky strategy, especially for someone who generally eats very little carbs anyway
- Coming back onto caffeine when very sensitive to it can over-stimulate the intestines
- Making a late decision to change shorts, which have no pockets, so have to shove gels in waistband, then tie VERY tight to prevent them slipping. There is an actual thing called Tight Pants Syndrome, which can cause unwanted bowel movements
I had not been doing any of these things in my training. I did 7 long runs in this Berlin buildup, with zero toilet stops. I don’t have a weak stomach. I have just tried to be extra, find some small advantage, when the training was advantage enough.
I pass Scott Overall at around mile 15, he has just dropped out, I try and encourage him to jump back in. He tells me he is having ‘stomach issues’, I have to laugh as I point to my legs. He runs with me for a while, then steps off again shouting in frustration, some things I can’t repeat, but are very funny.
It is just me and the long road home. I am getting slower, I am a mess, there is nowhere to hide.
I am forced to stop at a portaloo somewhere around mile 18. It is full on diarrhea now. When all of this is coming out of me, there is no way I can have enough energy stored inside me. It takes 3 minutes. Do you know how long 3 minutes feels like in the middle of a race? It is a lifetime. Sitting there, I have all the time in the world to contemplate the universe. I think about my family at home tracking me, what they must be thinking. I don’t consider myself to be a vain person, I don’t want to feel this pride and shame. But I do. What an idiot.
Coming out of that portaloo, and getting back out infront of the crowds, is one of the harder things I have had to do. I have loosened my shorts but my stomach is still killing me. Thankfully, my kids are always enough. They are more important than a million spectators I have never met. I promised my little girl a medal. It is the same medal Kipchoge and every other finisher gets. I just need to finish.
I stop to go to the toilet again 3 miles later. I then need to stop again, but I will never bloody finish at this rate. People are flying past me, some friends offer words of encouragement. In the final mile I realise if I get my shit together (pun kindof intended) I can still finish in under 2hrs30. Well, if you are going through hell, keep going. I change gear, ignore my tummy, and really enjoy it in some sort of masochistic way.
As soon as I finish, the pain all comes flooding in. I have never been so proud of a medal in my life. There is a massive buzz in the elite area as Kipchoge has smashed the world record. I just want to get out of there.
I sponge down and go somewhere quiet to change out of smelly kit, it is all feeling remarkably similar to last year, but without that glowing elation of a personal best. John and Belal see me doubled over and come to console me, it means a lot.
I have to lie in the park for over an hour until my tummy stops hurting. I call Nina. She has tried to explain to my kids that I might not be entirely happy with my race. But it falls on deaf ears to them. I got them a medal and I will always be their daddy.
My tummy prevented me from hammering my legs, so the next morning I go for 3 miles easy, because I feel like it. I spend the day sunbathing and trying to respond to all the kind messages from everyone. I have got so many I can’t reply to all of them. But I am so grateful to everyone for the support.
Ofcourse there is immense disappointment. Throwing away such a fantastic opportunity. If this were a half marathon, none of these problems would have arisen. But the marathon is littered with stories just like mine. The marathon is humbling. And my lesson came relatively cheap. I have walked away without any lasting damage. I will be back.
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Experimenting with new techniques to recover from the marathon – not sure this one will take off! 🤣🙃💦 Massive thank you to everyone for all the kind words and support. Feel much better about things today, and my legs and tummy all good. Nice easy picnic in the sun before heading back to see my beautiful little family, can't wait! #boysnevergrowup #berlinmarathon #berlin42 #berlinbuildup #berlinmarathon2018 #onrunning #runnersofinstagram #runonclouds #runfastliveslow #runningdads