Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What went wrong in Berlin

A blog post a long time coming.  Sorry that it's taken me nearly six months to gather and share my thoughts on the 2013 Berlin Marathon.  I think I'm finally ready to discuss.

One of my 2013 resolutions included a marathon PR in Berlin.  Actually, I didn't just want a PR, I wanted a certain magical goal time.

And I didn't get it.  I got a PR, and I got a re-Q, but I missed the goal by close to ten minutes.  A lot, considering my goal was eleven minutes faster than my prior PR.  Haha.  Oops.

So what went wrong? 

The short answer -- math and kilometers and GPS. 

As is generally recommended, I set multiple goals for the marathon.

A Goal = goal time
B Goal = goal time plus about 6 minutes
C Goal = PR (goal time plus about 11 minutes)
D Goal = sub-4
E Goal = "have fun"

I knew the marathon would be marked in kilometers, but I decided to leave my watch in miles, since that was how I trained.  My compromise was to do a pace band that showed all 26 mile splits, plus every 5k split. 

I wasn't sure if they'd actually mark all of the kilometers, or just every 5.  And I didn't know if there would be any mile markers (I didn't expect it, but at the same time, marathons here usually have every mile marked, as well as many 5k splits, so I thought there was a chance at least some mile splits would be marked). 

The weather was completely perfect.  Started in the 40s, warmed to the low 50s.  (According to my Garmin, it was 45, with 7 mph winds and 93% humidity.)  I wore shorts and a tank, and I had gloves and an earband that I ditched with my husband when I stopped for kisses around mile 8.  I also had a long sleeved t-shirt that I wore at the start and peeled off before I got moving. 

I took the subway a couple stops to the start of the race but there was still a fair amount of pre-race walking.  I got into my corral fairly early and I actually peed in the bushes.  The start is in a large park (right by the Brandenburg Gate) and there were tons of bushes, shrubs and trees, and nearly every one of them had a guy standing there or a woman squatting.  It was very funny.  But it worked out really well! 

Next thing I knew, it was time to go.  I fell into pace pretty easily and basically kept my head down and just stayed in it.  I felt like I didn't notice much around me, but I did find my husband around mile 8, which was a huge thrill.  Overall, I was struck by how flat the course was, and I noticed how shady it was.  Lots of big trees even along some of the wider streets.  Some fountains, some bridges, lots of spectators, especially the Dutch. 

I had a solid 16 miles.  Ticking along.  A couple miles were a bit too fast, but holding tight within about 10 seconds of goal pace on all of them. 

Along the course, I realized every kilometer was marked.  I checked my splits at 5k, 10k, and 20k.  I missed the 15k marker.  At every one of those three splits, my pace was "off" by the same amount that I was "off" on the mile marker.  So if I was 1 minute ahead of planned pace at mile 6, I was 1 minute ahead at 10k. 

It may have been just because it was more crowded the first half, but it was kind of amusing because you would hear an audible set of beeps at the mile splits.  Mine was right in there with the others.  Of course, there were tons of beeps around the kilometer splits, but I felt a bit of kinship with the other mile-based runners out there. 

As of the halfway point, all of my average 5k paces were within a 10 second spread, centered right on goal pace.  At the half, I was about 20 seconds TOTAL faster than planned.  I was very happy with it, but of course, those mental demons were there, asking me if I could sustain it for another half marathon.  But I did my best to shut them down and just keep on running. 

At 16, I was getting tired.  I thought I was slowing down, but I figured it was okay, I had a bit of cushion.  Amazing how quickly you can piss away a 20 second cushion though!  Haha. 

The first "fatal" mistake was not keeping the hammer down.  Giving myself permission to ease up, just for 20 seconds. 

I held on for a couple more miles, but at mile 18, my pace slipped off goal pace about 30 seconds in the mile.  And just like that, I needed to hold goal pace exactly for the remainder of the race to make it happen. 

I was pretty much back and forth for the next several miles.  I'd be fairly close to goal pace (10 or so seconds slow) for one mile, then about 30 seconds off for another mile.

Somewhere around mile 21 or so, the math in my head was going crazy. 

The second fatal mistake was giving myself permission to be content with my B goal.  Pretty similar to the first mistake, but at this point, it was a conscious decision to go with the B goal. 

Now, here is where things really fell apart.  I had two miles over a 9 minute pace -- miles 21 and 24.  Oops.  (Don't get me wrong, a 9 minute mile would have been thrilling to me in a marathon not that many years ago, but now, it's more than 60 seconds off my goal mile pace.  Not good, not good at all.)

But I was watching my splits.  My other miles were decent and I was pretty certain that I could clear by B goal by a few minutes.  I was confident that I'd miss my goal time by less than 5 minutes. 

Unfortunately, my third fatal mistake was probably one of the worst.  I had stopped focusing on my 5k splits. 

In my mind, there was no reason to worry about this.  All the 5k splits I'd checked before matched up with where I needed to be according to my mile-based pace chart. 

And honestly, there were just so many kilometer markers!  It wasn't really a conscious decision to, for example, not check my 35k split.  But I never saw 35k.  The same as I never saw 15k, 25k, 30k, and 40k.  Instead, I'd see 34k, or 36k.  But of course, those splits weren't on my pace band. 

And here's the rub.  My fourth and final fatal mistake, I couldn't have told you exactly how many kilometers were in a marathon.  I mean, I knew it was something like 42.  I knew for sure it was over 40.  And I knew for sure it was under 50.  I was pretty sure it was somewhere between 41 and 44.  But after hours of running, I wasn't going to swear to anything more specific than 41-44. 

But I was watching the miles, and trust me, I know EXACTLY how many miles are in a marathon. 

But around mile 24.5 or so, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.  I knew it should be less than 15 more minutes of running, but something was wrong. 

I felt like we were going the wrong way.  I hadn't paid attention to any of the turn by turn directions because I knew I'd be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other runners at all times, and of course there were gates and spectators delineating the course as well.

I knew this was generally what the route looked like (start at the green, finish at the red):

I pressed on, along with all of the runners in front of me.  Hit mile 25, then 25.5, then a left turn.  I tried to hit the gas a bit, trying to do a final 1200 meter press. 

My watch hit mile 26, and I still had that feeling.  No finish line in sight either. 

We kept running.  26.2 on my watch, still going the wrong way, though we'd made another left turn from the direction we'd been going earlier. 

26.3, wrong way.

26.4, wrong way.  B goal is now slipping out of sight. 

Finally, we made another left-hand turn.  We essentially made a u-turn from where we'd been at 24.5 and the finish line was finally in sight. 

Ugh.  B goal time has come and gone. 

I ran, I crossed the line, I stopped my watch. 

My total distance was more than half a mile longer than a marathon should have been.

Of course, more than an hour earlier, Wilson Kipsang had run that exact same course and he had set a world record. 

There was no way the course was long.  No way.  So how on earth did I get stuck with an extra half mile on my watch??? 

The most obvious explanation is tangents.  On a marathon course, you always want to take the tightest turns possible, because the course is measured on the inside of the turn.  In a major marathon like New York, Boston or Berlin, there is actually a blue line that traces the course as measured from the start to the finish.

Brace yourself, I know how lame this sounds, but you know, I'm being honest.  During the first half of the marathon, I ran on that blue line a lot.  In my head, one of the things I told myself was that when I was on that blue line, my body wasn't paying the price for those miles.  Instead, I was channeling leftover energy from the elites who'd run on that line half an hour, an hour, whatever, before me. 

And not only did I run the blue line a lot, it also wasn't a course with a lot of turns.  It's a world record course.  It's a loop course, but not a lot of sharp turns.  One of the many things that makes it awesome. 

So I was confident I hadn't f-ed up the tangents. 

The second most obvious explanation is buildings.  Anyone who has run the Chicago marathon knows that tall buildings in a downtown area can mess up your satellite signal.  It happens in downtown Dallas, and I'd expect many major cities. 

But Berlin's marathon course is never "downtown."  Most European downtowns aren't filled with skyscrapers anyway.  We'd passed some buildings that were big, but nothing I'd consider a skyscraper or even close -- 10 stories or so maybe?  Maybe more, but nothing significant.  And it was never a cluster of them really, like a downtown. 

And usually, when you run through a downtown and have satellite issues, it's woefully obvious from your mile split.  During our local Thanksgiving race, you run a mile downtown.  Some years, according to my Garmin, I've run a sub-4:00 mile pace downtown.  For the entire mile.  It might be downhill, but it would take literal wheels to get me to a sub-4:00 mile pace.  Wheels might not even be enough -- maybe a jet pack along with my roller skates.  Or a pick-up truck pulling me on a skateboard a la Back to the Future. 

But no, during the Berlin marathon, there was no downtown with skyscrapers and no telltale "error" mile split that showed up on my watch. 

After the race, I got my beer and walked to the designated meet up spot with my husband.  I tried desperately to find an American with a cell phone so I could call him to tell him I was there, but no luck.  I found a woman from Columbia who was waiting at the same spot for her husband (but she was the spectator).  I was sitting/laying on the grass and I'd told her what my husband was wearing, so she kept a look-out.  Just as she was telling me she saw a green jacket, I heard my name being shouted -- and there he was!  He helped me up and treated me to perhaps the best money we spent in 2013 -- 20 euros for a pedicab back to our hotel.  We snuggled into the seat under a bunch of blankets, I drank my beer and we watched the city go by as some poor fool had to pedal, pedal, pedal us all the way to the hotel.  As the crow flies, it was just a couple miles, but because of street closures for the race, he had to go much further. 

One of my favorite things after any marathon is when I move with minimal to no effort on my part.  It always floors a certain part of my braing -- like here we go, flying past these buildings, and not because of my legs working hard, just sailing along (yes, I also get this feeling when I drive after a marathon, I am shocked and thrilled by how little effort it takes to push harder on the gas and go even faster). 

So in the end, I had no good answer for myself as to why I'd run more than 26.7 miles according to my watch and therefore missed the B goal I'd been so satisfied with the idea of getting.  I just kind of came to peace with the fact that something must have somehow happened to my watch in the second half of the marathon.  I was happy with my race.  Happy with a PR -- even a couple hard fought minutes is better than no PR at all.  Happy to know I can run Boston again if I want. 

We went from Berlin to Oktoberfest, then down to southern Italy for some time with my husband's family, then up to Venice for a few days on our own, then a short stop in Amsterdam to enjoy a direct flight home.

It wasn't until I synched up my watch to the Garmin connect site that I saw exactly how screwed up my data was over the last six miles or so.

One of the reasons that they always set the world record in Berlin so often (always breaking the prior record that had also been set in Berlin) is because the elevation profile is great.  It's pretty flat. 

This is the elevation chart I reviewed prior to the race:

That actually looks mildly not flat -- until you look closely at the scale on the left side.  The change between the lowest and highest points is less than 20 meters -- as in less than 65 feet.  And that big spike around 38k definitely isn't in the course.  I read about the course and found some total elevation change data indicating it was about 250 feet.  Total.  Over the course of 26.2 (hahahahaha) miles, that's nothing.  Many of my weekday runs in flat Dallas will have about 250 feet of total elevation change over 10 miles.  A hilly run will be significantly more than 250 feet of change, even if that hilly run is just 8 miles.  So spreading that out for a marathon, I knew I didn't have to worry about hills.

But this is what my Garmin elevation chart showed:

So it's safe to say that somehow my watch got messed up somewhere.  I assure you, I was never running 800 feet above sea level or 400 feet below it.  According to my Garmin, mile 23 cotained 1497 feet of climbing and 2039 feet of descent.  Mile 26 was apparently flatter, but still nothing to sneeze at:  1014 feet of ascent, 1005 feet of descent. 

It might have felt like the course got tougher around mile 20, but not anything like what this chart would show.  Instead, I recall no elevation changes of any significance anywhere in the course. 

It is what it is.  Honestly, I'd eased up on the pace anyway, and that was what cost me my A goal.  I can blame missing my B goal on the satellites and not catching all of my 5k splits.  Instead of getting a PR by about 6-8 minutes as I predicted around mile 22, I got a PR by about 2 minutes.  Better than nothing certainly, but I do wish that when I'd decided to relax and confidently get my B goal, I'd known how much longer actually remained on the course (instead of on my watch), so I would have known I was going to have to work very hard for the B goal. 

I really can't say enough good things about the race.  The organization was spot on.  The expo was awesome.  The start line was well-organized.  Having ample bushes nearby was a huge bonus.  Tons of people (men and women) were relieving themselves, and the area was very wooded -- in the end, that made for a stress-free start for me.  No waiting in lines, no crowds.  It was really smooth sailing.  The course was great.  Flat, shaded, straight, wide, lined with spectators throughout.  Perfect weather conditions for me.  Actually just so much fun.  And what could be better than a marathon start to a trip to Europe, particularly a marathon immediately followed by Oktoberfest! 

If this ends up being my lifetime PR, it would be something I can live with.  I'd much rather get the 9 more minutes I want for my goal time, and I think I'll probably work on it for a couple more years to see if I can do it, but if it never happens, honestly, it wouldn't be the end of the world.  I've worked hard to get to my current PR and it's far beyond what I would have ever dreamed I could accomplish.  But for my own sake (and for anyone who's interested), I really wanted to lay out what went wrong. 

That's it -- math, kilometers and satellites. 


  1. What a great post! I love reading honest reviews like this. GPS is such a blessing and a curse ... I know I get SO tied to it that I rely on it more than feeling my own body. And the mental "step down" to a B goal is something that I also do far too often. I love that your E goal is "have fun" in quotes, because I always set that one too but I don't really believe it :).

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write this up! Very interesting.

    I have to say your fatal mistake number 2 is the mistake I make the most. Particularly when your A goal is much better than your current PR, it's too easy to give in and say... but, I can still get a PR!

    I know you'll get your magical time goal... sometimes I think those come when you train hard and aren't necessarily expecting that particular time, ya know? (I'm hoping at least)!

  3. I have to admit, I don't understand a lot of this, but I did learn from it. I love how detailed you are in your analysis.

  4. So sorry you missed you’re A goal by so much. I can only imagine how frustrating that can be. I’m not the same kind of runner as you. While I would absolutely love to be able to run 9 minute miles, I’m happy at the 11 minute mark with the occasional short run where I run 10 minute miles…but I can’t sustain that. I don’t know, maybe by accident I’ll get faster, but I doubt it. I don’t do any speed or hill work. I don’t have access to a quarter mile track…if I did, then I would be doing some Yasso’s here and there and if I want to do hill work, I’m going to have to drive at least 5 miles to find hills. I did, however, PR by 20 minutes (exactly!) on the Austin half marathon last week from the RNRSA in November…but then, I actually trained for this one…haha.