by Jen Herr
On September 24th, I accomplished the impossible (and perhaps foolish) by completing the Berlin Marathon with a yet-to-be diagnosed knee injury. My story in achieving this starts in February of 2015, when training for another destination marathon and being stricken by a sacral stress fracture. After 8 weeks of rest and recovery, I was physically able to start the 2015 Salzburg Austria Marathon and ran 8 miles of it before dropping out. I was thankful for my health, the race experience in a beautiful setting, and the vacation that followed – yet was still bummed I didn’t finish what I had originally set out to accomplish. Upon my return stateside, I began a slow and healthy return to a rigorous running regime which lead to 2 full years of racing PR's at nearly every distance … except for the marathon.
In 2016, I trained hard and attempted twice to beat my marathon best time. At the Spring Copenhagen Marathon, it was 85 degrees on race day, and in our hometown race, the NYC Marathon, knee pain plagued me around mile 20, preventing me from running the final 10k. Feeling deflated by the hard and time consuming training I’d put in for a year, which only led to sub-par results, I vowed not to run anymore marathons. I stuck to racing half-marathons (and shorter distances) for seven months, continuing on my PR streak. Then, the hilarious occurred …
An email informed me I was selected in the lottery for the 2017 Berlin Marathon. Had I even signed up for the race? Was I drunk or half asleep when I did so? Though I had pledged not to take on another marathon, and had no recollection of signing up for the challenge, the opportunity to run the famed, fast course in the wonderful city of Berlin that I had previously visited & loved was not one which could easily be dismissed. My adventurous spirit kicked in, I asked my boyfriend “any interest in going to Berlin?” and next thing I knew, I was registered to run the marathon with a flight and hotel booked. YIKES.
Training for the big day in Berlin started in May as soon as the Brooklyn Half-Marathon was over. (Or as soon as I recovered from the flu which plagued me on Brooklyn Half day.) As I had been consistently improving my pace and weekly mileage for the previous 6 months, I decided to go hard in my training with the Advanced Hal Higdon Marathon plan as my course of action. This included 6 days a week of running, speed & hill work, and a total three 20 mile long runs. As always, I enjoyed the discipline of getting my training done alongside my NBR Teammates early on Tuesday mornings with the “Just Central” crew, at Thursday Night Track, the Saturday morning Bridge Run and the Sunday Funday long runs. Disaster struck in June, however, when I stupidly chose to do a solo 16 mile long run to Coney Island on a very hot day, while wearing RACING FLATS. By the following Tuesday, I was diagnosed with peroneal tendonitis, had my foot in a boot and took a 2 week hiatus from training. When I returned to running in July, I managed to finish the first of my 20 mile long runs alongside some wonderful NBR-iors at Sunday Funday, but was overcompensating on my right leg for the left foot which had tendonitis. During the week, I felt pain in my knee as I walked up and down stairs, or depending on how I stood or adjusted my weight when walking. I managed one more 12 mile run to Ikea alongside my Berlin Marathon-mate H.J Kim, then could no longer push past the pain – I had trouble even slowly jogging a mile. In late August, with a few weeks left to Berlin, I stopped running entirely.
Instead of running, I joined a new gym, and began a rigorous schedule of stretching, yoga and weight training (particularly on my quads and glutes.) I did sets of running drills, telling myself not to touch the treadmill, hit the pavement or even jog the track until I could get through a full set of drills without pain. Thanks to the recommendation by fellow NBR-ior, Heather Elgin, I also got a particularly violent sports massage that involved Chinese methods of torturously scraping the flesh of my right quad and calf in the weekend prior to race day. With all the cross training and treatment, days off from running turned into weeks - the Berlin Marathon was days away and I had not run in nearly a month. I confided in my NBR teammates and family that I had no intention of finishing the marathon, but would merely start, do an easy few miles and then enjoy my time in Berlin, similar to my experience in Salzburg, Austria.
In the last couple days before heading out to Germany, my boyfriend Maurice, who’s usually unphased and unconcerned by my running escapades, asked me if I would still get a race medal if I did not finish the Marathon – of course I wouldn’t. The medal itself didn’t mean much to me, but his question was symbolic. Would I feel satisfied by my experience of the marathon if I did not finish? It occurred to me that I hadn’t had knee pain while walking for several weeks. And since I hadn’t actually done any running in a while, who was to say I COULDN’T run a good portion of the race? The smallest kernel of hope was planted within me, that I could potentially finish the race, and we flew out to Germany.
Once in Berlin, Maurice and I celebrated the start of our vacation with a fancy seven course dinner and a fantastic night out dancing in East Berlin. This involved LOTS of drinking and expended a lot of energy less than 36 hours before the marathon start gun, but still having limited expectations of the race, I threw caution to the wind.
On Saturday morning, possibly while still drunk, I met my NBR teammates Gregg, Alissa, Bev and H.J. for the marathon sponsored Breakfast run to the Olympic Stadium. This ended up being the highlight of my marathon weekend. Running at a very slow 10:00-11:00 minute pace alongside H.J. and Alissa, I ran for the first time in a month - 4 miles (uphill) through the beautiful Berlin cityscape. The magnitude of running into the stadium, and encountering all its surrounding history (Jesse Owens’ track records inscribed in the stadium walls just a few hundred feet away from the relic of Hitler’s spectator box from the 1930s,) along with the delicious German pastries served at the end, might have been enough to satisfy my need for running greatness on the trip. But … later on at our team carb-loading dinner, Maurice again asked about that marathon medal. And NBR teammate Alissa told me “you can definitely finish!” We went back to our hotel room for an early night, and I dozed off still unsure of what I would accomplish in the morning.
Race morning was fantastic! I woke up and quietly got dressed and bibbed-up, social media'd that I’d be heading out to start the race with limited expectations, enjoyed a small healthy German breakfast of muesli and fruit in our hotel and then trekked through the beautiful Tiergarten to my start corral. I didn’t even mind the rain showers which came and went. The start of the Berlin marathon is a lot like attending a Football game. There were organized cheers, chants, music and claps that blasted out on humongous screens set up in the corrals to keep the crowd pumped and motivated in spite of having to wait around for the start. It was hard not to feel inspired.
When my Wave 3 start came around, I slowly jogged the first miles out of the Tiergarten at 10:00-11:00 minute pace. I didn’t feel knee pain, but also didn’t feel capable of going any faster. I knew I needed to maintain a 14:00 minute pace or better the stay in the race, as the finish cut-off time was 6 hours, so felt confident and a bit shocked when I was able to maintain the 10:00-11:00 minute pace for the first 5k … then the first 10k … then the first 15k … then a half-marathon! Knee pain was starting to set in before the half-marathon mark, but every time I hit one of the 5k mat markers, I envisioned my Mom at home in New Jersey at 5:00 AM, tracking me on her computer. It occurred to me that I was giving her a small thrill every time I hit one of those mats. This idea of making my Mom happy and proud convinced me that it was worth trying to finish the second half of the race by any means necessary, even if it meant walking the remaining 13.1 miles in the rain.
I did a bit of run-walking up to mile 14 until my knee pain was persistent, then slowed down fully to a walk. For a few miles, I didn’t pay attention to the pace of my walking, or the crowds yelling at me to run. I chatted with fellow Americans at the back of the pack from Atlanta and Harlem, as well as a runner from the Caribbean and an ex-pat originally from Boston (we talked sports rivalries.) We all commiserated that we were not quite up to the task of running the whole race, but would get to the finish somehow! Most of those other racers did manage to pick their pace back up into a run, leaving me in the dust, but I continued on …
Around mile 18, it occurred to me that my walked miles were too slow, and in order to finish the race in under 6 hours, I needed to pick up the pace and complete each remaining kilometer in 14 minutes or less. Anyone who thinks quickly walking half a marathon is any easier than running … please understand, you are actually taking more steps when you walk. I still hit a wall around mile 20 when it started to feel like I had no flesh left on the soles of my feet and was power walking on bloody stumps. And yet, I persisted. The Berlin marathon has markers at every kilometer, and I was managing to tick them off at almost EXACTLY 14 minutes a piece. Scared that I was cutting it too close, I focused intently on 1 kilometer at a time and achingly picked up the walk pace to around 13:45. As I finally made it to the last 5k and into the Potsdamer Platz neighborhood, I started getting emotional, realizing that finishing was in reach, yet was still pretty far away by both time and distance as a walker. I promised myself that no matter how terrible it felt, I would RUN the final distance of the race, through the iconic Brandenburg Gate and into the finish line back in the Tiergarten. The course marshalls started breaking down the course, opening the roads back up to cars, and I pushed on.
Eventually, I rounded the corner in the fancy shopping district of Berlin, and could see the Brandenburg gate. On numb and bleeding feet and a still sore right knee, I managed to pick up and start RUNNING back at 10:00 minute pace with a huge smile on my face. The crowds leading into the finish of the race were now severely diminished, but I fist pumped, smiled and waved at everyone still there to see me race the best that I could into the finish. (My race photos came out pretty fantastic thanks to that final push!) I finally crossed the finish line around 4:00 PM, in five hours and fifty-five minutes – just five minutes shy of the 6 hour cut off. There was minimal support staff at the finish, a single person was left to drape me with my race medal and there were no ponchos left to give me warmth, and yet I had never felt happier, higher or prouder of finishing a marathon!
Upon finally meeting up with my fellow NBR marathon racers (who all had stellar performances!) at a Beer Garden for some well-earned celebrations with pints, currywursts and stuffed-baked potatoes, I remarked that my marathon experience felt a little ridiculous, but also that I would not have been able to sit with my teammates to enjoy the post-race festivities if I didn’t also have that medal around my neck (Maurice had been right.)
My completion of the Berlin marathon will serve as continued motivation to me in all aspects of my life, in a way that no other running or race experience has before. When I set goals, the process to achieving them does not always work out as planned. But I’ve now proven to myself in spades, that when I am determined to accomplish something, I will find a way to get it done one way or another.
I am extremely thankful to have shared the trip to Berlin with Maurice and my incredible NBR Teammates. The marathon there and all it’s surrounding events and cultural opportunities are not to be missed – I highly recommend that if you ever have the opportunity to participate in this race (hopefully healthier and better trained than I was,) YOU SHOULD DO IT! ☺