Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Running off the Cheddar

The Berlin Marathon at the end of September is a lot like the New York City Marathon at the beginning of November. They're both large, world-class marathons that fortuitously fall on beautiful Sundays in autumn. The big difference in Berlin is that you don't have to get to friggin' Staten Island for the start!

The Berlin Marathon starts and ends right in the heart of the city, in front of the restored Reichstag. Such a convenient location meant that I didn't have to get up until the civilized hour of 7 a.m. for the 9 a.m. start and that I could take mein bananen and me right there by public transportation. No queuing for a bus at 5 a.m. or worrying about bridge closures was involved, only the U-Bahn 2 (yes, U2!) from Senefelderplatz in Mitte to Potsdamer Platz. It was a bit of walk from there to Platz der Republik, the large, grassy area accessible only to the runners, but it was easy. I wish that I had had my camera to take pictures of my fellow runners walking by the rows of evenly spaced trees with leaves that had already turned completely yellow. On the way to the starting area, I went past other runners peeing at the edge of the Tiergarten (I was soon to join them) and the temporary food stalls set up at the finish, just beyond the Brandenburg Gate. I could have gotten myself a chocolate-covered XXL pretzel or a Red Bull & Coke, but decided that pleasure now would mean pain later. The kuerbiskerne mit kase brotchen (a roll with pumpkin seeds and cheese) I ate on the U-bahn was a better, Teutonic bet, even with the very American peanut butter and honey I glooped onto it.

It's a joke with my running team that I show up at the very last minute to our races. This race was no different. I arrived with just over half an hour to spare, but it was enough time to find where to drop off my bag (though I did get into a bit of panic because my section didn't seem to be where it was on the map of the start/finish area), stretch atop the yellow plastic sack that was given to all the runners, courtesy of adidas, keep warm at the start, drink several cups of wasser in my starting area (there are six areas, based on your time and marathon experience; I had been placed in H, the last group, but I officially negotiated my way to the next group), cheer for Haile Gebrselassie from inside the port-a-john when his name was announced, and get a little teary that I was about to run one of the five major marathons.

I think we were the third or fourth group to start. And it was a majestic start--though not quite the Verrazano Bridge--along Strasse des 17 Juni, the major thoroughfare in the Tiergarten, toward the gilded victory column. Not even five minutes into the race, I stopped to pee in the park again. I suppose that takes away some of the majesty. Even though the New York Times reported that the temperature at the start wasn't even 50 degrees, it felt warm in the glow of the morning sun, but there was definitely an autumnal chill in the air. The scar that I got from running into a mailbox on a training run on the Jersey Shore (I am sure I had the right of way!) was raised and pink on my goose-pimpled arm, but soon the paper cuts on my fingers stung with sweat. I got them when my friend Becca here in Berlin accidentally slipped some documents for my German cell phone into my bag and my plump fingers got in the way.

Of course, more typical pains set in, and much too early. Well before the halfway point, the hamstrings in both my legs got super-tight, and I worried that they would cramp later on. What didn't set in were the pains that I was most fearing, the ones in my right knee and Achilles tendon, the ones that had sidelined me for half a year of running and made me cut back my marathon training in the summer. Throughout the first half of the race, I was anxiously expecting the searing pain in my Achilles to return; it had made me yelp out loud during a training run along the East River in early August. But it never came. But I myself inflicted pain on it later, after the marathon, when I took the preventive measure of icing it, but for too long. I gave myself freezer burn!

All this pain is self-inflicted. I don't have to run. I want to, but I don't have to. And if the pain is too great, I can simply stop. Walking past the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (a name shockingly direct and different from the euphemistic Final Solution that caused it) on the way to the start in the morning and then running by Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirsche, the church bombed during World War II later in the afternoon, put all this into perspective. I would be disappointed if I couldn't complete the marathon, but it certainly wouldn't be the end of the world. There are greater catastrophes. With this in mind, I could do as my teammates urged me to do and just enjoy the experience of running one of the top marathons in the world.

At the halfway point, my hamstrings were tight and I was a bit worried about them, but I was barely huffing and puffing and I felt no other pain. My time was 2.01. If I kept going at this pace, I would finish in just over four hours, which is totally respectable, epecially given my interrupted training, but I knew that I was capable of a faster time on such a flat, forgiving course. I made a decision. I was going to finish under four hours. I told myself, No more walking at the overly crowded water stops. No more talking to friendly Finns. No more peeing behind bushes on the course. Just go! And I did. I got my burly legs in motion and I picked up the pace.

It was an uplifting feeling, and one that I am not sure I had experienced in my other two marathons, to know well into the race that I would finish (unless I had another run-in with a mailbox!). I probably wouldn't have had this confidence if the course had any hills, but it didn't. Initially I thought that the flat course was wasted on me since I was so under-trained and accordingly incapable of a fast time, but in the end I was thankful for it. I knew that once my legs got going, there wasn't much, but a finish line to stop them. From kilometer 24, I counted down the kilometers two at a time, striving to complete the distance in about 11 minutes. If I did that, I was on track for a sub-four-hour marathon. I completed the second 21 kilometers in 1.54, a whopping seven minutes faster than the first 21, and I finished all 42.195 km. in 3.56.49, just 13 seconds slower than my personal record in New York City in 2005. Not bloody bad for someone who lost three weeks of training (out of 16) for a wedding in Montana, an injury, and a fainting spell on the E train in Queens!

My goal wasn't necessarily to finish the marathon in any particular time (though my ultimate goal, I must confess, is to qualify for Boston one day), but to get back into shape. Half a year of not running had taken its toll. I was heavy and slow. At km. 10, I passed Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, the U2 stop close to where I had stayed in Berlin back in March to celebrate my friend Alec's 40th birthday. It was a hedonistic trip. My belly was never empty and my head was rarely sober. I made a plan then to return to Berlin in the fall for the marathon, as a way to get back in shape after months of indulgence and inactivity. Six months later I had lost several pounds, gained muscle, and found my six-pack abs (well, maybe just a fourpack. I didn’t totally give up drinking!). Too bad I am going to lose that four-pack when I start the Cheddar portion of my trip!

For these reasons, Berlin was a happy triumph. I raised my hands with joy and a few tears at the end. I was so proud of myself for finishing and pushing myself during the second half to meet my modest time goal. It was a solitary triumph, however. I had no friends along the route or at the end (Becca had to work that day, cooking brunch for Brangelina and their six kinder). There didn't seem to be any other Americans, either in the crowd or among the runners. But these aren't the days for waving an American flag. It was just the Danes and the rest of the field. I swear, half of Denmark was either running or cheering. I learned later, while waiting for my free massage, that more Danes run the Berlin Marathon than the one in Copenhagen! No one yelled out my name, like they do in New York City, or even commented on my Hellgate singlet. But maybe they feared that with my race number of 6669, I was actually running with the Devil! There were plenty of shout-outs, however, to Wolfgang, Jens, and Bjorn. All this was OK. It was a race for myself, and there was enough of a crowd to keep my energy up and make me feel like a part of something bigger (and very European).

The music and sounds from the spectators along the course were great, except for the guy who made a noise that sounded eerily like an air-raid siren. You don't want to hear that in Berlin! There were an inexplicably large number of samba bands. I love that energetic music and even wasted some of my own precious energy wiggling to it. My favorite music came from a bunch of twentysomethings blaring the menancing industrial sounds of Rammstein from a balcony. Now, that's what I expected in Berlin! I didn't expect, however, Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," in Berlin or anywhere else in a marathon. It's not exactly the most uplifting running song. But the oompa band that followed made up for it.

There were also several 70s bands, including some middle-aged Frauen in neon outfits singing to ABBA. The theme of this marathon was celebrating the 70s and the marathon's 35th anniversary. I thought this was strange since I didn't think that the 70s had ever left Eastern Europe! What I think they should have celebrated instead was the participation of women. I don't think 35 years ago, women were allowed to run in the marathon, and today only 7,429 women finished compared with 28,357 men. I can't get over this. Where are you fellow Frauen?

I've run marathons in only two cities, but I think I can safely say that NYC is the best, even if you don't get free beer and a massage afterwards (and you have to get to Staten Island far too early in the morning), but Berlin is great too. I'd like to run here again when I'm in better shape and to nail the 3.45 that I'm after, a time that would be hard for me in NYC. I am still high from the experience and can sum it up with the words of teammate Fast Phil, Wow. Cool.


Jessica said...

Congrats Diana! I'm so proud of you and happy for you! I noticed quite quickly how you picked it up the 2nd half and that is an amazing feat after running 13.1miles! Unbelievable! I was also thinking that the lack of hills may have helped your achilles possibly (but not from freezer burn). Great write up, great marathon and I miss you tons already!! Keep blogging, posting on the message board and my facing (I call it my face...)! Lots of love, Jessica

Yvonne said...

Great job and great write up Diana!

You make me really want to try Berlin one day. But in the meantime, wanna do London with me? That's flat too!

Enjoy the rest of your travels, keep us updated, and bask in the glory of your sub-4 on sub-par training!
We miss you!

anne said...

Congrats Diana! That's really great. And matched by a terrific write-up. I am very happy to see you blogging again and to vicariously be in Europe with you. More please!

msdeemc said...

I wish I could have been there on the sidelines as I've been both times in NYC. I nearly teared up myself reading your piece. I'm so proud of you.

Diana Pittet said...

Yes, Yvonne, I'd love to run London with you! Maybe 2010?

Sorry to make some of you teary. I was hoping for more laughs than tears. What should have made you cry were all my spelling and grammatical mistakes. Yikes!

But thanks for all your kind and supportive words. It means a lot. XO

Jules said...

Congrats Diana.
I tried to text you from Austin, TX to see how you did - not thinking you may not even be using the same cell # while away.
Great job in Berlin!