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Tuesday, 4 December 2012

#28: Starter for 26.2 -- Part I

Running a marathon is a major undertaking. A serious commitment. One which requires dedication, determination and monk-like discipline. And that's just getting to the start-line.

I know this, first-hand, having negotiated 18 of the 26.2-mile puppies to date; and I’m now in training for #19 – Boston – next April.

The fabled Massachusetts race is one of now six Major Marathons (welcome, Tokyo). And it was at one of the others – Berlin (the previous newbie to the pack) – that I encountered the perfect example of why the actual running portion of the marathon is the easy part.

OK, the final 6.2 miles also takes a healthy dose of grit & vigour. But the real fun-&-games? That takes place pre-race on marathon morning.

Which takes me back. To united Germany’s capital city. September the 20th, 2009…

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

My three alarm clocks – watch, old cellphone and new cellphone – all went off in quick succession surrounding 5:30am. Compared to 0350 in New York, a relative lie-in. On the first stroke of the third, I peeled back the duvet and sat up in my ETAP budget hotel bed. Berlin Marathon Race-day 2009 was officially open for business.

Marathon race morning is all about managing the nervous anticipation and excitement swirling around your mind; the fear as to what lies in store. Will I achieve my goals? Or will it be 'one of those days' where I end up with nothing but another mentally toughening experience.

For me, the biggest thing about any race is getting to the start-line on-time; fully prepped with every I dotted and T crossed. At the Big-City marathons, this is more easily said than done. Especially in a foreign country where you speak about four words of the language.

Of course, it would have made things simpler if I’d been staying in the centre of Berlin – or at least within an antsy 10-minute jog of the start. But balancing a budget, I had to suck up an ‘out of town’ commute.

After jumping out of bed and doing a starfish stretch (to get the blood pumping around my body), I gnashed on a banana and washed it down with two cups of pineapple juice. I then hit the shower to warm up the muscles. I rose at 4am in April, 2008 to perform the same ritual in Boston.

With band aids firmly in place – to avoid any ‘chest chafing’ – I applied Bodyglide to the areas other muscles can’t reach and meticulously donned my race kit, including a new Velcro-pouched gel belt I'd bought at the expo. Before departing at bang-on 6:30am, I quaffed a small cup of instant coffee – costing a Euro – from the hotel vending machine.

Word on the street was that there wouldn’t be a full service of trains running into the centre of Berlin on marathon day – an expert piece of scheduling by the city's rail authorities… NOT! So I was a little apprehensive about getting to the start on-time.

It was only a 10-minute amble to Springpfuhl station, but it seemed to take longer today. Despite the fact I was walking twice as fast as I normally did. As I crossed the final bridge before descending three flights of steps onto the platform, a train pulled into the station.

If I’d sprinted, I’d likely have caught it. But I wasn’t sure it was the right train. And the last thing I wanted to do was board the wrong one – or pull a muscle in the process. So I relaxed and lightly jogged down onto the platform, hoping the train was patient and in sync with my desired destination.

Well, it was going the right way, but a little impatient; moving off while I negotiated the second flight. No matter. It was now 6:40am and I was sure another train would follow within 10 minutes.

Twenty minutes later I boarded a train which travelled just two stops, to Lichtenberg. There, we had to alight and switch trains to get to Potsdamer Platz – one of the stations  closest to the start area.

I followed the swarming crowd (or rather got sucked into it) down to the U5 (underground) platform, where we picked up the service bound for PP. There were eight stops between Lichtenberg and PP. And, of course, clumps of antsy marathoners tried to squeeze on at each one, as available space accordingly diminished.

With four of the stops made, we were absolutely jam-packed. Like unnecessary clothes crammed into an old suitcase. For those in the least bit claustrophobic, this wasn’t a good place to be.

As is customary at this stage of marathon morning – something of a tradition, in fact – I was now also desperate for a pee. I tried every twist and turn, dance, squeeze and stretch in the book to ease the yearning – or at least keep it at bay. Nothing seemed to work. Damn that half-sized cup of ETAP hotel machine coffee I’d drained at 5:30am.

Finally we arrived at Potsdamer Platz and I squeezed myself out of the train, before weaving between runners at about a five-minute/mile pace; then bounding up the stairs two-by-two in a bid to get back up to street level ASAP and locate a toilet/washroom. Man did I need a wash.

Springing up and out onto Potsdamer Platz square, I feverishly scanned the area left and right for a likely lavatory location. Bingo! I spied a coffee shop to my left and made a beeline for its doors.

“Excuse me, speaken ze Engli—Oh SCREW THAT! Do you have a toilet, please? I’m busting to go (like they were really going to understand any of that).

“Nine,” said one of the servers.

“Nine? WOOHOO! I’ve hit the jackpot! I only need one, but I’m all for having options!”

The server, her assistant and the janitor continued staring straight at me, without so much as a flicker of emotion change. Until a waft of realization washed over me like a bucket of ice-cold water.

“Wait a minute. ‘Nine’ in German means… Oh CRAP!”

My grasp of the German language was looser than my bowels. Which, at this particular moment in time, was really saying something.


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