Friday, January 27, 2017

Race Report: BMW Berlin Marathon

As one of the World Marathon Majors, the BMW Berlin Marathon is a very popular destination race that attracts runners the world over.  So much that the race employs a lottery to select its participants. First run in 1974, the race ended up with 36,000 finishers from 122 countries, and more than one million spectators.  So you can guess I was super excited to be one of those chosen on December 1, 2015 to run in the 2016 edition of the race.

Planning went into full effect in March, effectively deciding I'd spend a little over a week in Europe, running the EDP Rock 'n' Roll Lisbon Marathon the following weekend.  With family also in Germany (in the city of Karlsruhe, south of Frankfurt near the France/Germany border), I also needed to plan some time to visit with them.  So that month, I booked a series of flights that took me to Germany and Portugal through the Portuguese national carrier, TAP Portugal.  After a few days in Berlin, I'd fly down to Frankfurt and spend a couple days with family near Karlsruhe before proceeding to Lisbon for the rest of the trip.  It had been ten years since I was last in Germany, having  stopped in Berlin for a couple days toward the tail end of a month-long European tour right after graduating college.

September quickly came, and I had just returned from a whirlwind trip to Denmark when I'd be turning around on Thursday and heading right back to Europe.  Having packed well for my weeklong sojourn and the international flight, I left the office with more than enough time to spare to take both the LIRR and the NJTransit to get to Newark airport (yes, all the way from Jamaica) but then promptly realized just as I was heading out... shit, my passport is on the couch at home.  Whatever spare time I had was gone after I had to stop home first, but luckily found my passport, and rushed over to Penn Station to catch the train over the Newark. I made it to the terminal, and picked up my ticket at the airline counter, as they measured my bag which I intended on flying with as a carryon/hand baggage.  The scale measured it at 1 kg over the limit (max is 8 kg/17 lbs), but thankfully, the gate agent let me keep it. It would've still been free if I checked it, but with a connection to still make in Lisbon, I'd rather have it with me. I got through a relatively small security line to get to the gate with just under two hours til departure, and then we were off, heading across the Atlantic into the night air.

It just so happened that my flight to Lisbon also had a "celebrity" on board; the brand new president of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, was on board with a heavy security detail and government entourage, as he had just addressed the United Nations General Assembly. I was surrounded by his security folks in the front section of coach, and of course had to wait for all of them to disembark upon landing in Lisbon early Friday morning.  After a LONG walk from the gate to passport control, and seemingly standing in a long line (what, you couldn't have more people working during this morning hour, Portuguese airport authority?) I had a three hour layover before my flight to Berlin, so I grabbed some breakfast and changed some dollars into Euros to bide my time.

My Berlin flight was without much fanfare, and upon arrival at Schonefeld Airport, decided to get a Berlin WelcomeCard, an unlimited transportation ticket valid for a certain number of hours (I decided on the 72 hour card) with a handy coupon book with savings of up to 50% on more than 200 tourist and cultural highlights. This allowed me, upon validation, to travel on any forms of public transportation within a specified tariff zone within the 72 hour period. I boarded the train from Schoenefeld Airport straight into Berlin proper, taking the train to Zoologischer Garten, a short walk from my Airbnb in the borough of Schöneberg, near Nollendorfplatz station. My Airbnb host was still on his way home for work when I arrived so I stopped into a bar around the corner for my first beer of the trip, but after he arrived and I had settled in, I hopped back onto the train and headed straight to the expo at Station Berlin, the 19th-century former Dresdener Bahnhof railway station turned into a massive events center, which used to serve as a terminus for one of the most important arteries that connected West Berlin to West Germany.  This was a new location for the marathon's expo, which in previous years had been held at the former Tempelhof Airport.

Fun photo at the expo!
The expo was like a maze.  We retrieved special fabric wristbands from a machine that was specifically designed to wrap it snug around our wrists and stitch it into place, then headed to bib pickup where we would also retrieve a rented small plastic transponder chip that was to be fastened to our running shoe that would measure your personal race time.  Apparently in Germany, many runners own their own chips that are registered through the timing company that handles the Berlin Marathon, so us foreign runners are required to rent a chip for the race in order to receive a race time.   After retrieving my bib I had to go through several halls housing booths of different race paraphernalia and promoting races in other countries in Europe and around the world before getting my official race shirt.  There was also the official merchandise section in the center of the big hall that was getting mobbed by runners trying to find jackets and finisher shirts in the proper size.  It was quite overwhelming, so after feeling like I checked everything out, I left to go get dinner at Potsdamer Platz before heading back to my Airbnb to get a proper night's sleep after a long day of travel.

Making my mark at the expo

The next morning, I decided to head out to check out as much of Berlin as I could that I hadn't seen in the quick trip through the city I went on ten years ago.  First stop was the Olympiastadion, the old Olympic Stadium built for the 1936 Olympics.  Now utilized for international football matches, the stadium is notable for having been the site of where Jesse Owens won his four gold medals for the United States in the wake of Adolf Hitler's rise to power on his platform of racial supremacy and anti-Semitism. I neglected to realize that on this Saturday morning, Berlin Marathon-related events would be happening - namely, the 6km Breakfast Run, starting at the Schloss Charlottenburg and ending at the Olympiastadion.  What would normally require an entrance fee was free of charge because of the informal race!  So I got to see the inside of the old stadium and walk around the Olympiapark grounds without having to pay a thing :)

Schloss Charlottenburg
I decided to do at least one tourist thing, and for today, I decided to head to the Schloss Charlottenburg, the largest surviving royal palace in Berlin, and one of the city's major tourist attractions.  The palace was built at the end of the 17th century and was greatly expanded during the 18th century, including much exotic internal decoration in baroque and rococo styles. On its grounds are a large formal garden surrounded by woodlands, a belvedere, a mausoleum, a theatre and a pavilion. During World War II, the palace was badly damaged but has since been reconstructed.

With Front Runners from all over the world!
Afterward, I grabbed lunch in Friederichstrasse, grabbing a beer and Berlin-style fried sausage as I watched a parade of boats float down the Spree.  Later that afternoon, I headed to Alexanderplatz where I would go to meet with my cousin Michael, who came up for the weekend from Karlsruhe just to see me, since I was going to head down there to Karlsruhe after the race, but he would have to go to Milan for work.  It had been about six years since we last saw each other, so this was a nice reunion - we stopped to have a quick bite to eat at a coffee bar nearby before I headed back to Schöneberg for a planned pre-race dinner and meet and greet at the home of one of the members of Berlin Front Runners.  At the dinner, I met other Front Runners from all over the world who were in town to participate in the race - from San Francisco, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Oslo, to name a few. I headed home shortly thereafter, still a little jet lagged, to grab some z's before the big race the next morning.

Early the following morning, I woke up early to head to the Tiergarten, where the race would start on Straße des 17. Juni.  It was a long walk, but I wasn't alone, as many others were heading up to the race start by starting the morning with the not too harried trot over to the start area. Like in many other major marathons, the place was PACKED.  I was in the last possible wave, in starting block H, as racers were organized by finish time, and if your marathon finish was anything slower than 4:15:01, you'd be placed in this large group.  We watched humongous jumbotrons placed along the start route as we prepared for the start of the race, the announcers speaking mostly in German but also in English, and videos played to welcome the participants of the 43rd running of the Berlin Marathon.

The startline
Just about to start... in the distance is the Siegessaule
Our first kilometer!
Exiting the Tiergarten,
passing Charlottenburg Gate
After the wheelchair athletes and hand bikers started just before the hour, but the elite runners started the race for all of us at 9:15. Slowly, the rest of the field began their race.  It was 28 minutes later at 9:43 when I finally crossed the start mats of the marathon, and just before, we had observed the leaders of the marathon approach the 10K mark on the big screens!  Blazing fast - after all, this is the fairly flat race course that holds the current world record in the marathon distance.  Just before we were given the go, I managed to get myself near the front of the wave, and I took off, registering a 9 1/2 minute first mile as we ran down the long stretch of medianed road through the Tiergarten, making our way around the roundabout holding the Siegessäule monument.  We would pass under the Berlin Stadtbahn rail line as we progressed further west, then through the Charlottenburg Gate, the 1907 counterpart to the Brandenburg Gate on the eastern part of the Tiergarten.  We had crossed into the Charlottenburg locality of Berlin, and into the main urban campus of the Technical University of Berlin, and it wouldn't be til about 1.75 miles along Straße des 17. Juni when I would make my first turn on Marchstraße, heading northeast into Moabit.

The first of many churches we'd be running by. This one is the Heilandskirche
Leaving Spreebogenpark at the 7K mark
Crossing the Spree with the Reichstag in the distance.
We crossed a small canal and the Spree River as we continued along the course route, taking us down the Alt-Moabit, a distinct thoroughfare through this working class and mostly immigrant neighborhood.  The Moabit is also known for housing a criminal court building and one of Berlin's detention centres, which I wasn't aware of until after the race; we actually ran right by this prison on the course.  We also passed several churches that survived the war; one being the Heilandskirche, which was built between 1892 and 1894, and suffered serious damage during World War II, but was restored and rebuilt in the 1950s.  As we headed further east along the Alt-Moabit, we'd pass the massive Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the city's ten year old main railway station and Europe's largest two level railway station, where the east-west and the north-south railway axis meet.  Ten years ago on my last and only other trip to Berlin, I had traveled through this station less than three months after it opened on a train coming from Prague, as my last stop on a Eurail pass before I flew to London for my transatlantic flight home.  We passed the 4 mile mark as we continued on, recrossing the Spree back into the Tiergarten, but into the open park area known as the Spreebogenpark, as we passed the Swiss Embassy, and several government buildings including the German Chancellery and one of the parliamentary buildings serving the Bundestag, with the noticeable dome of the Reichstag in the distance.  We recrossed the Spree, but this time into the Mitte, as we took Reinhardstraße in a northeasterly direction.

Friederichstadt Palast
Passing the Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz
We continued along this road, passing by the Friedrichstraße Rail Bunker, a former Nazi-built civilian air raid shelter turned Soviet prison turned warehouse turned techno dance hall turned contemporary art exhibit space.  Further to the street's end, we ran toward the massive Friederichstadt Palast - the largest and most modern show palace in Europe, showcasing children's shows, guest performances, festival galas, and more, as well as complex and fantastical shows that use state-of-the-art lighting and stage technology, over a hundred performers, and highly stylized acrobatic numbers.  We turned right onto a short stretch on Friederichstraße before turning right onto Torstraße and continuing on this road for 1.5 miles.  We made a right turn onto Otto-Braun-Straße, running directly into Alexanderplatz, with the famous Fernsehturm TV tower looming overhead.

Karl-Marx-Allee, surrounded by grand buildings.

St. Michael's Church
We hit the 7 mile mark when we turned left onto Karl-Marx-Allee, a massive wide boulevard lined with grand multi-story buildings.  We ran only a half mile down this street before making our way around the roundabout (complete with fountain water feature) at Strausberger Platz, then continued southward along the treelined Lichtenberger Straße back over the Spree. In the near distance we could see St. Michael's Church, a Roman Catholic church completed in 1851, later serving as garrison church for Catholic soldiers. It was also heavily damaged in World War II, partially reconstructed in the 1950s.  After a right turn onto Köpenicker Straße, we were on Heinrich-Heine-Straße, another long street lined with massive buildings, but this time, with an endless facade of apartment buildings that stretched for a 1/4 mile.  We continued on southward, past the mile 9 marker, and onto Moritzplatz, as we entered the eclectic counterculture stronghold of Berlin, Kreuzberg.

Another church

Enjoying some shade in Kreuzberg.
We turned left onto Ritterstraße, which turned into Reichenberger Straße, before running underneath the Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn station, which originally served as the southern city gate into Berlin. We then took a nice mile long stretch down Kottbusser Damm, hugging the boundary between Kreuzberg and Neukölln.  We took this straight to an area considered to be one of the most densely populated parts of the city, the area around Hermannplatz.  We turned right, heading down Hasenheide, reaching the 11 mile mark and running toward the Church at Südstern (South Star), a Protestant garrison church in Kreuzberg, before continuing down the same street, now called Gneisenaustraße.  This was a 1 3/4 mile long stretch through the charismatic neighborhood of Bergmannkiez before we turned onto the tree covered Yorckstrauße, an area surrounded by parks.  This was also where we would be passing the halfway point of the race.  I settled into a nice rhythm, very conservatively completing the first half in just over 2:20.

The Königskollonaden

Rathaus, where JFK spoke
We then crossed into Schöneberg, and before long we were running past the Königskollonaden in front of the Kammergericht, the highest state court for the state of Berlin, along Potsdamer Straße. We turned onto Grunewaldstraße, embarking on a 3/4 mile long run before making yet another turn, onto Martin-Luther-Straße, and passing the Rathaus Schöneberg, city hall for the borough of Tempelhof-Schöneberg. This famous building is the site where John F. Kennedy spoke in 1963, proclaiming "Ich bin ein Berliner."

Drum group along the course!
As we continued south, we headed down Hauptstraße into Friedenau, and continued to see more cool churches, like the Church of the Good Shepherd in Friederich-Wilhelm-Platz.  Around every corner was some church that had been restored after the war; or (sometimes jarringly) a new building that was built after reunification.  In this neighborhood especially, new construction after World War II gave little consideration to the preservation of architectural uniformity.  It was also around this area that I made a huge mistake that would slow me down until the end of the race - notably, the aid stations at the Berlin Marathon not only served water and taxofit energy drink (which, to be honest, I didn't care much for), a number of stations, starting near the 10k mark, began to also serve hot tea.  This apparently is a thing at European races -- especially when weather is colder.  But notably, this race started off at a quite warm 59ºF.  At around the 16 mile mark, I tried the tea for the first time, but ended up drinking it right after I had taken a chocolate GU.  That mix completely messed with my system, and I began to develop some stomach issues for the last ten miles that slowed me down considerably.

I continued to trudge along for the remainder of the race, honestly not remembering too much of the residential areas of Wilmersdorf and Schmargendorf; though, on an otherwise nondescript street, the Lentzeallee, we did pass the modern looking building that housed the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, an internationally renowned social science research organization.  At mile 19, we would encounter a unique architectural building, the Kreuzkirche on Hohenzollerndamm - a rare expressionist religious building.

A highrise over the Hohenzollerndamm
As we continued up the Hohenzollerndamm, much of the typology of the buildings remained the same - but the landscape would also be pockmarked by more recent construction, in the form of blocky apartment buildings that seemed to "update" the more brutalist style favored by Soviet architecture.  We continued our trek on a mostly northeastern course, eventually making our way onto the Kurfürstendamm, better known as the Ku'damm, one of the most famous avenues in Berlin, known for the high fashion stores that dot the wide boulevard, sometimes nicknamed, the "Champs-Elysées of Berlin."  Along this route, I stopped to take a picture with one of Berlin's ubiquitous Buddy Bear statues, a part of Berlin's streetscape since 2001.

Heading toward the Ku'damm

A Buddy Bear on the Ku'damm
Heading to the home stretch!

The Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz, as we head up Potsdamer Straße
Finding friends in Nollendorfplatz
After a slight turn onto Tauentzienstraße, we crossed back into Schöneberg, and happened to run past the street that housed my Airbnb.  Between the 36 and 37k, mark there was a station sponsored by Red Bull, providing an energy kick to the runners.  However, all of the drinks tasted nasty because it was watered down!  We continued through the Nollendorfplatz area along Kleiststraße, before turning left onto Potsdamer Straße, heading straight into the public square of Potsdamer Platz, a site of some major redevelopment projects.

Potsdamer Platz in the distance.

Running past the Bundesrat
We headed east along Leipzigerstraße, running past the Bundesrat at the former Prussian House of Lords Building, completed in 1904, heavily damaged during World War II, and restored after the war.  As I funnily and slightly dishearteningly ran past a guy dressed up as a "sport dusche" body wash sponsor, I reached the 40k mark at the corner of Leipzigerstraße and Jerusalemer Straße, where a friend who shares a mutual friend with me was waiting to cheer me on as I made my way to the finish.  Michael was there with his friends, in Berlin for vacation, and happening to be here at the same time as the marathon.

I thought I had seen it all... until a guy dressed up as bodywash "sport dusche" ran past me.
Seeing Michael at the 40km mark!

Brandenburg to the finish!
Over the final 2k, we weaved our way through the grid of city streets in the Mitte, ultimately running past the Gendarmenmarkt, a square in Berlin holding the German and French churches, Deutscher Dom and Französischer Dom.  After turning the corner onto Glinkastraße and one more turn onto Unter den Linden, the Brandenburg Gate was within our sights as our finish line!  I crossed in 5:26:01, which wasn't great, but considering my stomach was in knots after consuming the tea, I'm happy I crossed the finish line.  Before leaving the area, I made sure to get my victory headstand... my "Sieg Kopfstand" as you could say in German... in front of the Reichstag building!  I headed back to my Airbnb for a much needed shower and some rest, and then went out for dinner and drinks with Front Runners that night.

The Deutscher Dom and Französischer Dom in the last kilometer of the race.

With the Buddy Bear in Nollendorfplatz on my way back to my Airbnb
Sieg Kopfstand #victoryheadstand in front of the Reichstag!
With my cousins in Karlsruhe
The remainder of my trip to Germany included flying down to Frankfurt, and heading to the hexagonal main terminal building of Tegel Airport for my flight to Frankfurt.  I would spend the next two nights with my dad's cousin and two of her four kids (Michael, who met up with me in Berlin is the oldest), who live an hour south of Frankfurt in Karlsruhe - we'd spend my time there exploring much of what Karlsruhe and its neighbor Durlach, has to offer - as well as visit the nearby French/German city of Strasbourg.  I even had us go out of our way to head to the city of Bitche, France, just so I could get a picture with a sign, which we ended up doing on the road to the city rather than going all the way there.  I made the most of my trip to Germany, exploring the wonders of Baden-Württemberg, before heading out for the second half of my European vacation... to Lisbon!

Seriously, there's a place in France called "Bitche."

With my aunt Nida (my dad's first cousin) and two of her sons.

A quick trip through Strasbourg!

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