Race Report: Berlin Marathon 2017

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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! 

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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! ☺

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A Race for Women's Wellness

by Erica Silbiger

As mentioned in several prior blog posts, I was training to run the Vermont 50 miler last September. My training was going relatively well but early in the summer I started to feel a weird pain down my left leg. Thinking it was just because I run so much and that I had started training for the ultra so soon after running the Paris Marathon, I thought I was fine. By mid-August the pain was so unbearable that I went to an orthopedic surgeon and he confirmed what I already knew: Vermont wasn’t happening.

We switched up my exercises at Finish Line Physical Therapy and I did strength training almost everyday. I was definitely getting better but then I started to plateau and could barely get past 2 miles without the pain coming back and then having a hard time walking the rest of the day. I was scheduled for a hip procedure and had all of these big dreams of how I was going to come back in a few short weeks with a bang. Everyone around me seemed really hopeful, which was helpful but part of me really didn’t think this was going to get better.   Anyone who would ask I would tell them “I have complete faith that I’ll be back to normal in just a few short weeks.” Unfortunately I think I was just saying that because I was hoping that if I said it out loud so many times I would eventually believe it.

The day before New Year’s Eve I had the hip procedure done and I was so excited because I knew that after only 10 more days of rest and recovery I was going to be back to normal. No more major FOMO watching my friends post about their long runs, missing out on opportunities to rep NBR at races, or not fully being able to do the workouts with November Project. Right before the procedure started the radiologist told me that it was a waste of time as this wasn’t going to help. In addition to that there were a few complications and it set me back at least another 4 weeks.

I used to think that taking two rest days in a row was too much rest. I went crazy by the second day. But now I was approaching four months and I couldn’t even wrap my head around another 4 weeks.

It was really hard being sidelined for so long. I hated that I couldn’t run with my team and was already starting to feel left out of so much just because I couldn’t go to the runs with NBR. I’ve always loved going to FLPT every week but I loved going now more than ever because I could walk in there with no judgements and be treated like family. To still be treated like an athlete on days when I truly doubted if I still was. Even on the days where I had the least amount of hope, just a simple hug or a coffee made by the bossman himself was enough to turn my mood around.

I started going to November Project more often because they never made me feel pressured to do any of the running or any exercises that my doctor said I shouldn’t do. I was progressing so fast that my doctor practically begged me to keep going to November Project. But mostly because of how it kept me sane during those soon to be five months of not running. Because of NP, I am able to train with NBR again. Because of NP, I never felt alone during my work trips that sometimes last for weeks since they now have tribes in 30 cities around the country (#talk30tome). Because of NP, I was able to keep relatively sane while not being able to do the one thing I consider defines me the most for five months.

Because of November Project, the support of my family, friends, and NBR teammates, and most importantly, because of Finish Line Physical Therapy and the Hospital for Special Surgery I am able to write this race report.

This morning I ran a half marathon in my hometown of Coral Springs called the Race for Women’s Wellness that benefits breast cancer research. I believe everything happens for a reason but it was a very interesting coincidence that this specific race happened to be the first test of whether I can truly get back to running again.

I was dead set on running it this year after running it last year and having an absolute blast. I put it on my calendar and booked my flight once my travel schedule for work was set, but didn’t register for the race because at that point I was now injured and it seemed highly unlikely I would be able to run a half marathon. It’s been six years since I’ve said something like that and it broke my heart. I struggled for awhile on whether I was trying to come back too soon just for the nostalgia I’d have running past my old house and high school.

I kept going to the website to register and then logging out. That happened a few times and I knew there was another reason I felt so determined to run this year whether I was ready or not. Unfortunately that reason presented itself a few weeks ago.

My first marathon was dedicated to my grandfather who we had just lost under two years prior from kidney cancer and to my dad who had non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma as I was specifically running with Team in Training to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I feel my grandfather with me at every single race I run and I especially know he’s with me when I’m heading out of the Bronx towards mile 21 of the NYC Marathon every year.

While on a ski trip with some friends a few weeks ago I found out my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remembered this half marathon was a fundraiser for breast cancer research and immediately got on my phone and registered for the race without hesitation. This race was no longer about me, it was about her. I got back to NYC and heard the surgery was scheduled for three days before the race. I threw out all my anxieties about whether on not I could do this. It no longer had anything to do with whether I could do it. I had to do it. And it might not be pretty and it might not be a PR, but I was going to show up to the start line at 6am and find a way to make it to the finish line.

I started out too fast, as per usual, until I reminded myself that there is no reason to push it too hard and that it didn’t even take until mile 3 to realize that it was nasty hot out with 95% humidity. Running 7-somethings would not be sustainable if my goal was to finish and without re-injuring myself. The annoying part was that my leg was feeling pretty good minus some twinges here and there but that I was so nauseous the whole time and my legs felt like lead. Part of it was the heat and humidity, part of it was reacquainting myself with long distance, but a lot of it was from the muscle relaxers I had taken the day before for a different procedure I had to have done at the hospital. Not smart.

Even though I felt like crap, my left leg felt good so I slowed it down a tad more and decided to channel an NBR teammate of mine who likes to tell you what USED to be on that street instead of the street name while giving the run route directions. He grew up in Greenpoint so it’s always fun hearing him describe the run route and learning about the old moovie theatah that yousta be a laundromat before it turnt into ah macdahnald’s…on llama street. We love you, Slaski!! (The best direction giver ever).

So I ran past the house I grew up in, I passed the shopping center that used to be a dollar theater where I had my first date with David Levinson, which was across the street from some spa that used to be a Kinkos that was next to a Verizon store that used to be a Little Caesar’s pizza where my parents and I would walk to for $5 pizzas that we would eat while they made us watch X-files and Star Trek. Then turning right onto the street that has a Mexican restaurant that used to be RJ Gators where I had pie thrown in my face on my 10th birthday and sang Celine Dion karaoke with my dad. I passed the running park where I first started running, which was behind the physical therapy office I went to after my first injury in high school where my doctor told me I would never run again. It’s no coincidence my PT’s name was Angel and I’ll never forget him.

A few miles down that street until we passed the dermatology office that used to be a Miami Subs which was where my friends and I went after every football game in high school. Across the street from the surgical center where I had my four impacted wisdom teeth removed. Passed the shopping center that used to have a Blockbuster where we would rent all our movies on family night (or later date night…the original Netflix and chill!). Passed Bru’s Room where my friend Amy used to work which was the block before the Arby’s where my friend Mike worked. Then we turned onto the street where I used to do my six mile loop on Thursdays for track practice on recovery days. Farther down until we ran right into the parking lot of my alma mater, JP Taravella! Where the P stands for Pride!!

Oh and by the way JPTers… They repainted the new (now very old) building to blue and silver which is what it should have been in the first place instead of looking like MSD…weird. Oh and to all my track sisters, STILL NO RUBBER TRACK. STILL. COME ON.

I mentally pointed out all the houses my friends used to live in and thought about all of the fun times we had there. Also at some point got to see and wave to the parents of one of my best friends. Totally wasn’t expecting to see them! So it was a nice surprise to see some friendly faces considering I was really struggling at that point.

After JPT we headed back to the sports complex where I used to swim with my mom after school that is now the finish line. I have a love-hate relationship with miles 11 and 12 of a half marathon. You’re almost done…but still feels like it will never end. But meanwhile, that’s also when you realize that endurance running isn’t always an individualized sport. That’s when it becomes a team sport. Everyone is pushing each other to the finish. Since I was repping my NBR singlet I got a nice little “Come on, Brooklyn!” and I paid it forward with a few “you got it, girl!” Some high fives here and there and then a kick to the finish.

As soon as I rounded the corner for the last .1 to the finish line, I saw my grandma standing right in front of the final sensors, camera in hand, only three days after her surgery. I blew her a kiss and crossed the finish line with all the feels.

After chugging an entire bottle of water and some cold compresses from the fantastic volunteers, I went to go find her. When I crossed the finish line and one of the volunteers gave me the medal, I just couldn’t put it on. I knew it really wasn’t for me. When I found my grandma and she came up to me with the biggest, proudest smile on her face, I knew it was for her. I put the medal around her neck and told her that her race is much harder than mine and she deserves it more than me.

The Race for Women’s Wellness started out as a test of my own wellness, but turned into something so much more. Thinking back on how much pain I was in last August and how much doubt I had about being able to really run again, I can’t tell you the feeling I had crossing that finish line six months later without leg pain. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t a tiny bit sore in the area and I am absolutely nowhere near done with my workouts at Finish Line PT (THEY CAN’T GET RID OF ME THAT FAST!), but I will say that my patience and good faith (although sometimes faked) paid off. Thank you, Finish Line, for getting me back on my feet in time to honor my grandmother in the only way I know how.