It came three weeks earlier than planned, but I finally achieved my 2017 goal of running a sub-3:30 marathon! Even better: my finishing time meant I qualified for Boston Marathon with 6:19 buffer, meaning that I will get to run it in 2019! I’ve been dreaming of qualifying for Boston ever since I finished my first marathon in Melbourne, October 2015 so it is a complete dream come true. And even better, it all came about because of pizza 🍕
The original plan for Berlin Marathon was to run it as a final test-run before Amsterdam, to try out my race strategy and get the confidence in being able to achieve my goal. It had been eight weeks of intense marathon-specific training to get to this point, and honestly I was feeling tired. The night before the race I realised that I couldn’t face another three weeks of doing everything ‘right’ – running, cross-training, nutrition, massages/yoga etc.. I missed pizza and wine and having the option to indulge in food or sleep-ins if I want to. I knew my training so far had been solid and probably was already in a place where running sub-3:30 was possible – so I decided to go for it!
Based on how I’d run Reykjavik Marathon, my race strategy broke the marathon into four parts:
- SLOW: 0 to 5km. Run way under pace and slowly build
- STEADY: 5 to 25km. Metronomic marathon pace kilometres
- SUSTAIN: 25 to 35km. Increase pace by 5-10sec/km and maintain
- SPEED: 35 to 42.2km. Open the flood gates and bring it home!
I’d teamed up with the Adidas Runners London crew which meant that before the race I could meet up with friends in a special Adidas Runners area. Here there was a bag drop, coffee, food and lots of runners from around the world mingling together. After a group photo I decided not to join one of the Adidas pace groups, but rather head to the start pen to run my own race.
I starte in Section F, crammed in with thousands of other runners – similar to how it was in Paris. I hadn’t realised that there were multiple start times and so my section wouldn’t go until 9:35am. With 30min to wait I passed the time by chatting to an English guy called Clive who was running his 24th marathon. He named the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland as his favourite, I will have to look it up!
It still took a few minutes to cross the start line, and of course people all around sped off. I had to hold back and maintain a slower speed as per the plan, but it felt strange. In my more detailed kilometre breakdown I had written that I should start at 5:25/km and increase 5sec per kilometre, but in practise it wasn’t that simple. There were a lot of people around and I ran on the pavement quite a bit because there was more space. I was also slightly stressing because the first kilometre was slower than my plan – but thankfully I was smart enough to just turn my watch onto the clock face and run on feel a bit more.
There were two official 3:45 pacers who I had started behind, and each had a sizeable group following them. I broke through the first group at ~5km and it became slightly easier to move. This was now Phase 2 of the plan, and I just needed to steadily keep moving forward. I caught the second 3:45 pace group at ~10km and things were going well. I had cleared 5km in 26:27 and 10km in 51:38 so my pace was not far off where I wanted it to be. I remember thinking at 15km that it hadn’t felt like I had been running for very long at all.
I had run the first third of the race in 1:11:40 – on target according to my plan but honestly it felt a bit strange. When you’re trying to run a negative split you need to be slower in the first part of the race, but it can do your head in a bit. I knew that I would make the 1:40 back in the later stages of the race – but I had to have faith in my abilities. I needed to trust the plan.
The nice thing about my strategy is that Phase 2 is the longest and when it is complete you are already over halfway. More so, you need to approach the plan with the desire to get to Phase 4: in the first three phases you have to want to be running faster than you are. While in Phase 2, you want to get to Phase 3 so that you can pick up the pace a bit, instead of holding yourself back.
Unfortunately, I can’t say much about the Berlin Marathon course because I wasn’t paying much attention to it. It runs mostly on big roads and the buildings either side aren’t particularly pretty. There are some sections with trees, but I can’t remember if that was at 8km or 28km. Possibly both. It was raining a little in the first hour which caused puddles and I got splashed a few times, but I think it dried out after that. (The damage was done though seeing as my bib tore off from three of its pins and at one stage was flapping all over the place). I know that’s a pathetic description but my mind was somewhere else.
There were lots of spectators though along the route – many of whom called my name in a variety of languages and accents. I realised that ‘Julia’ actually sounds pretty cool in Spanish, French, English and German – thanks parents! There weren’t many sections of the course without spectators, but the last 5-10km was chock-full with support. I wanted to acknowledge them but at that point in the race couldn’t out of sheer focus and concentration so my apologies – you were great!
I had arranged to see Sye at 19km where the course passed our AirBnB, but although I was looking out for him from ~18km I didn’t see him. By 19.5km I realised I had missed him, but thankfully this was also something we had discussed and I just kept running. I did briefly think to send a text message but opted not to. He can figure it out himself.
That probably sounds quite robotic and honestly it was. I had a goal, I wanted to – needed to achieve it. To do so I needed to keep ticking off the kilometres and not let anything get in the way. There were musicians playing along the course who I could have appreciated more. Seeing photos afterwards I know I missed out on a whole lot of awesome cheer stations too. No regrets though!
The pace on my watch was hovering around 4:55, but it was also out with the kilometre markers so I couldn’t get too excited. I was slowly clawing back some seconds though. 20km in 1:41:25, halfway in 1:46:47 but by 25km it was down to 2:06:05. I got a bit excited to start Phase 3 and picked up the speed already at 24km. But when 25km did roll around I knew it was only 10km in this section, and then 7km of fast to finish. It all feels much more manageable when you break it down!
I was pushing it a bit now though, and I could feel it. As the kilometres ticked by I started to realise that my last 7km ‘kick’ wouldn’t be much of a kick. But that didn’t matter – even if I could just keep sustaining this ~4:50 pace I would be able to reach my goal.
I was also running fast enough that I could afford to stop and drink water at the aid stations. It was never more than 10sec but it makes such a big difference, as opposed to just throwing water at your face. The water stations came every ~3km, with electrolyte drink at some in the second half. When I stopped at one at ~32km I felt my legs seizing a little, so that break wasn’t long at all. Had to keep moving!
My feet really ached and it was getting tough – but I just kept reminding myself that PBs are meant to be tough. I also kept thinking about pizza and how achieving this goal today would mean that I could eat pizza again without feeling builty. That pizza set me straight whenever I needed a push to keep going. I never reached a dark patch in my mind where I didn’t think my goal was possible or where I wanted to stop. I unfailingly knew I would achieve it – but when I needed a reminder about why it mattered, pizza was there. FOR THE PIZZA!
The Adidas cheer station was at ~36km, and just after this I saw Sye for 2 seconds as I ran past. I had thought he would be further down the course, but getting a special personal cheer from him was a great boost to smash the last 5km.
We were now in Phase 4. I had succeeded in whittling my time down to 2:30:15 at 30km and 2:54:25 at 35km – meaning that my negative split strategy had worked. If I could maintain pace to the end even without increasing speed then I would have it – but it would be close. I didn’t feel like I had much more to give, but could at least keep ticking along at the pace I had been maintaining for the last 10km. That was going to have to do.
I kept counting down and counting down, knowing that by just continuing to move forwards we would eventually pass under the Brandenburg Gate and only have 200m to go. Somewhere in amongst the last 2km I even started to speed up a bit. I knew it was close, even if I couldn’t see it yet. And then I could – but there were still two other archways and a chunk of distance before the Gate. Argh! People were yelling on both sides but I had my blinkers on – I needed to get to the end.
Finally passed through the Gate and there were 200m to go. My watch said 3:27:49 – time to SPRINT! I now wanted under 3:29 and my legs obeyed. I gave it everything I had and even managed to raise my arms for a photo just before I crossed the line.
I had done it.
I believed in myself and my training and went out there and did it. I did not falter. I ran a stunning negative split (1:46:47 vs 1:41:54), a beautiful race and finally, finally got my goal. I am so PROUD of myself! It shows what hard work and dedication can do – and also that there is probably a whole lot more in store for me…
And now I can eat pizza and stop training for a while.
Sweet, delicious, victory pizza.