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Destination Marathon: Berlin

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At times it seemed that I was not meant to run the Berlin marathon. When I signed up back in 2014, I mistakenly had noted the wrong deadline and missed it by
a couple of days. I decided to sign up with a charity, Médecins Sans Frontières
, and secured my spot for 2015. But a couple of months before the race,
my brother-in-law announced he would be having his wedding the same weekend and I had to cancel. 

Luckily, I was able to defer my place to 2016. I was determined to run it as part of my goal to run all six marathon majors (Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York, Tokyo). So far I had run Los Angeles twice, Dubai, and Paris, but none of the majors.

What is the big deal with the majors? Well, it is the running world’s equivalent of climbing the seven summits. It is considered an achievement and upon completion, you are awarded with a Six Star Finisher certificate and medal. It also is not easy to get into all six, many of which have lotteries and qualification times.

Boston is perhaps the most coveted of the bunch, given that one must qualify with a competitive time. Getting a Boston qualifier (BQ) time was my main goal for Berlin. That also had been my goal in Paris in April. The BQ time for my age group is 3:40, but for 2016 there were so many entries the cut-off was 3:37:28. My Paris time of 3:39:18 was not fast enough for 2017, so Berlin was my chance for 2018.

The Training
For more than a year now I have been training with the Desert Road Runners club in Dubai. The challenge for Berlin was that most of the training fell in summer. When I started training in June, not only was it in 40C degree heat and extreme humidity, it was while fasting for the month of Ramadan. I worked around that by breaking my fast with dates just before a speed workout and doing my longer runs late at night.

The rest of the summer I was travelling, so I was able to escape the heat of Dubai. In July, I was in the north coast of Egypt, mainly doing my runs back and forth on a one-kilometre path along the beach. I hit a snag in my training schedule, though, when I was injured – not during running incidentally. I fell on my knee on the sharp edge of marble stairs, leaving me with stitches and instructions not to run, exercise, or swim for two weeks.

Undeterred, I got back on schedule in Los Angeles in August. I joined a running club there, which helped with motivation and enjoyment. My longest run at 32 km was in Seattle, a great way to see the entire city. By the time I arrived back in Dubai in September, the majority of the training was behind me and I felt ready for the big day in Berlin on Sunday, September 25.

The Day Before The Race
I took a flight from Paris (where I was for a conference) to Berlin on Saturday morning. The girl sitting next to me on the plane was wearing a Garmin watch and a Chicago Marathon jacket. I took a wild guess, “Are you running the Berlin marathon?”

Of course she was. She was flying all the way from Guatemala to run her second of the marathon majors. Like me, her goal is to complete all of them.

I asked her if she was going to head to the expo right away. The email from the organizers said the peak would be 10 am – 2 pm, so I was debating whether it would be wiser to wait and go late afternoon. “Oh no, I’ll go right away. Otherwise, it’s too risky,” she responded.

I can certainly relate to that feeling. Anxiety takes over and I think such irrational thoughts as, “I better go buy bananas now or else the supermarket might run out of them, and then what will I do??”

But I opted to stick to my original plan of going to the expo later. After I got to the hotel, I went for a slow jog to the start at the Brandenburg Gate, which turned out to be only 15 minutes away. The city was buzzing with crowds and excitement, and runners everywhere.

It was a good call to go to the expo later in the day. As I emerged from the underground, there were droves of people leaving. I walked straight to the race packet pick-up area, which was virtually empty. The goodie bag was definitely a disappointment, though. The woman in front of me in line could not believe there was no T-shirt included. “Are you kidding me?” she said, as her jaw dropped.

Considering entry to the Berlin marathon is 100 euros, I was even more surprised that our “race kit” consisted of a sponge, beef jerky, and Adidas shower gel (which I had to give away anyway because I only had carry-on luggage).I still decided to buy a T-shirt as a souvenir (not the official race T-shirt, though, because that was supposed to have been pre-ordered). It certainly made me appreciate the Eiffel Tower “Finisher” shirt that I got at the end of the Paris marathon.

After stocking up on energy bars and other runner essentials, I headed to the ASICS pace band stand to print out a wrist bracelet with one’s projected 5km split times. My strategy was to go for a five-minute per kilometre pace, which would get me a time of 3:30:58. Factoring in slowing down for water/food, hitting the wall, and other unexpected problems, I was really aiming for around 3:35.

To get my mind off the race, I left the expo to walk down Kurfürstendamm street for some shopping. As I exited the H&M store across from the famous Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was bombed during World War II, a nationalistic, anti-Merkel, anti-refugee, anti-Islam parade passed by, flanked by police cars.

This made me feel sad. Here I was, a Muslim woman running the Berlin marathon, camouflaged in a sea of runners, while my religion is being misrepresented by terrorists. Then I saw some on-lookers booing and giving the thumbs-down sign, and I realised that a small parade of a few dozen people was not the true spirit of Berlin. I would see the true spirit the next day, at the marathon.

But running is more about pasta than politics, and carbo-loading was the next item on the agenda. Although my husband and kids could not come with me to Berlin, several members of my Dubai running club were there. We stuffed ourselves and talked race strategy, calling it a night at 8 p.m. so that everyone could get back to their hotels.
As I lay in bed I took another look at the race information guide and realised that no headphones would be allowed. That surprised me, but I figured I better not risk it and ditched the plan to take my iPod. There was nothing left to do, but try to sleep, which is always near impossible for me.

Race Day
I woke up at 6:45 a.m. on race day to have oatmeal, a banana, and a cup of tea. I met my running club buddies for a pre-race photo and then to the most time-consuming part: waiting in line for the toilets. That took 40 minutes, giving me just enough time to jump into my pen, ready for the start at 9:15 a.m.

I felt as if I could see nothing around me and I could not tell where we were in relation to the starting line. I looked to the big screen to see family and friends of runners sending heart-warming good-luck messages. Then, as energetic music began blaring and the start gun went off, I could see thousands of people running on the screen until finally people around me started running too.
We were very lucky with beautiful, sunny weather, starting at 10C and warming up to around 20C. The course began in the Tiergarten park running towards the Victory Column. The Berlin marathon is known for being a flat course and indeed there was not even a slight incline the entire race.

I started off strong, sticking to my five-minute per kilometre pace. I looked forward to the 10km mark when I would see a German friend, who had moved back to Berlin from Dubai. When I spotted her and her red “GO” sign with the Desert Road Runners logo, I waved my arms and was all smiles.

The atmosphere and spectators were amazing. There were bands, people clapping in sync and whirling noisemakers, and plenty of young children holding out their hands for high fives. While in Paris, the signs read “Allez! Allez!” (Go! Go!), in Berlin they read “Lauf! Lauf!” (Run! Run!).

Meanwhile, I was having my GU gel or Clifbloks every 10km, water and sports drinks along the way, and everything was going fine until the 20km mark. I decided to quickly use the toilet and from that point onwards I had a painful side cramp that would just not go away. I significantly slowed down the second half of the race, sometimes clocking 5:30 per kilometre.

Towards the end all I could think about was seeing the Brandenburg Gate. When I finally saw it in view, I glanced at my watch, thinking that I could maybe still break 3:37. I raced toward the gate and put up my arms in victory. I did not realise, though, that the finish line was actually past that point. I kept going and finished in 3:37:55.Watch movie online The Transporter Refueled (2015)

A few days later, upon returning to Dubai, I got my rejection e-mail for Boston 2017. The cut-off time was 3:37:51. While I do not know what it will be for 2018, I am certainly cutting it close. Nevertheless, I was so happy to have completed my first marathon major and Berlin should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Words by: Nada El Sawy
Photos by: Anja Schwerin

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