By Jen Wilson
Normally when a course is described as “flat” it’s in an aspirational way, much like tiny homes are called “cozy.” But when it comes to the Berlin Marathon, flat really does mean pancake, making it the easiest marathon I have ever run.
My husband and I decided to register for the Berlin Marathon as our first anniversary celebration. With our goal races for the year behind us, this was a sightseeing trip and a chance to experience a World Marathon Major.
I’d already completed four marathons, and am on my way to Boston 2017, so I thought I knew what was in store for Berlin. I was wrong. With more than 40,000 runners from 122 countries, this was a race on steroids. Packet pickup was a bustling and well-organized event, while the sprawling expo was a little overwhelming for me after flying all night. I still managed to score a souvenir tank from the massive Adidas pop-up — a worthy stop for any visitor.
It felt like the whole city was involved in the marathon lead-up. There were race wristbands and jackets and tees on every street, and on Saturday we even saw a little of the roller-blading race – an event I hadn’t realized I existed, but was really cool to watch, with the fastest skater finishing the 42.2 in just under an hour!
Race day was overwhelming, in a good way. Walking through the Brandenburg Gates to the bag check area and stopping for photos in front of the Reichstag felt absolutely surreal. The weather was crisp and sunny, and as an added perk, the race organizers were even handing out plastic blankets and ponchos to keep runners warm for the start. Massive television screens broadcast the start line festivities way off in the distance. The music swelled, the elites took off, and we slowly inched our way to the start. By the time we were actually beginning our race, the lead pack had already covered more than 5K.
Runners speed toward the Grosser Stern, a large victory tower in the middle of a roundabout in the Tiergarten, a massive public green space. The race splits in half around it, with a seemingly never-ending stream of runners in both directions.
While the flat course made it easy on the legs, the crowds were another story. With no concrete goal in mind other than fun, I hadn’t changed our corral to reflect my most recent PB. This was a mistake. Turns out that even at the front of the corral, you will always end up running at the pace of the back of the corral. The first few kilometres were a slow slog, with the entire pack actually coming to a standstill at one point. It was nearly impossible to break free and hit my goal pace without being bumped, tripped or coming up against a sudden walker.
After a few more kilometres of fighting the current, I finally gave up any dreams of a speedy time and instead focused on enjoying the race — and there was lots to enjoy. There wasn’t a single stretch without enthusiastic crowds cheering in many languages, with many yelling “Lauf, Jennifer!” You couldn’t pass a music station before hearing the next one. There were runners repping crews from all over the world, and some really inventive costumes, including a presumably sponsored guy wearing a beer bottle. There was even a Red Bull station (the race guide promised it was diluted, but I didn’t try it) which was a new, and very sticky, race experience for me. The energy was high, the crowds were fantastic and the route wound through tree-lined streets and past historic buildings and high-end shopping.
The first few kilometres of the Berlin Marathon are truly special. Of course, the finish line was something extra special. Clearing the last corner and seeing the horses on top of the Brandenburg Gates – the first landmark I spied at the finish line – was an amazing final energy boost. I didn’t expect to be emotional at the finish line, but I couldn’t help but tear up as I came through the historic landmark, past bleachers of crowds, and finished with tens of thousands of other runners. Then it was on to the medals, which are the perfect souvenir thanks to ribbons the colours of the German flag.
It’s easy to see why Berlin is considered one of the world’s best marathons. A great course, enthusiastic crowds and impeccable organization make it truly a bucket-list-worthy trip. (Registration for 2017 opens on Oct. 19).