‘Would you like a sausage?’ asked the guy at the aid station. ‘We have cold sausages here and also hot sausages cooking. Maybe some beer, coke or apple juice? We have cheese, meat, water (still or sparkling), biscuits, lots of other things.’ He gestured at the all you can eat buffet that was masquerading as an aid station. ‘Have a look. I’m sure there will be something you want.’ I passed on the sausage and went for some pretzels, coke, apple juice and a handful of haribo. I thanked him and his team and headed off on the next section. The Berlin Wall 100 was not disappointing.
I love Berlin. It’s one of my favourite cities. There’s such a sense of vibrancy and history to the place. I ran my first marathon there a few years ago. I vividly remember watching the Berlin Wall come down on TV (I was 16 at the time). I was looking for a hundred mile race for summer 2017 and the Berlin Wall 100 looked like a perfect choice.
The course follows the Wall Trail (der Mauerweglauf) on a hundred mile loop round the old West Berlin, starting and finishing in a sport stadium near the centre of Berlin. There are twenty seven (27!) aid stations over the course, each of which was incredibly well-stocked. Several had beer and some of those offered three types – lager, weissbier and non-alcoholic. If your stomach hadn’t gone south then this was a race where you would not go hungry or thirsty. If you worked really hard at it you could probably make your entry fee back in food and drink.
The race started at 6am, which is a start time that has its pluses and minuses. On a positive note, you get 15 hours of daylight from the start before you go into the night. On the negative side, a 6am start can play havoc with a runner’s bowels. It’s the eternal tension between pre-race nerves and an early start and disrupted morning routine. For most people the nerves seem to triumph. For the others there were toilets at all 27 aid stations, so it was a win-win situation.
At the race briefing the day before, one point that was emphasised was that if there was a red light on a road crossing then you stopped. End of. Green man = cross road and red man = stop. Coming from a nation that treats red men and green men fairly equally when deciding whether to cross the road, this was a bit of a culture shock. The first time I went to Berlin I made the mistake of crossing when the red man was up. No cars around in any direction, so I crossed the road. The Berliners waiting patiently at the crossing tutted at me as one. It just isn’t done. They are more likely to crap in the street than they are to cross the road on a red light. In the race it was a DQ offence. Fair enough – it’s the law and you couldn’t say you weren’t warned. It did make me a bit paranoid all race though about red men and crossings.
Training had gone really well for this race. I’d set a 50 mile PB a few weeks before and all my training for this race had been on the flat. The race was flat, so I trained on the flat. I put in more miles in training for this race than I ever had before and I felt in great shape. The key thing now was to execute and run a great race. There are so many things that can go wrong in a hundred and so much of running one is about minimising them. My race strategy came down to three things: make sure I ate and drink enough, stay strong mentally throughout and enjoy myself. This is a hobby after all! Three words summarised this – Fuel, Focus and Fun.
The first few miles of the race passed really easily. At around 10K into the race, we arrived at a small memorial. This was the place that Dorit Schmiel was shot in 1962 while trying to escape to West Berlin. Each year the race commemorates one of the 138 people who were killed between 1961 and 1989 at the Berlin Wall. This year it was Dorit, who was 21 when she was shot and killed. Each of the runners was given a rose to lay at the memorial. It was a poignant moment which for me really connected the race to the history of this formerly divided city.
The miles continued to pass, as did the aid stations. The selection of food was amazing and the first half of my race was mostly fuelled by waffles, which was a first for me. Washed down with coke, they really hit the spot. I felt really strong. This was my sixth hundred mile or 24 hour race, so I had a bit of experience to draw on now – both good and bad. Pacing was fundamental, as was staying strong in the second half. I went with a fifty five minute run / five minute walk strategy pretty much from the beginning, using the five minute walk break every hour to reset and focus on the next hour.
The course itself was beautiful. From its start in the city centre it heads out of Berlin through long sections of forest and along riverside paths. Sometimes trails, sometimes tarmac, sometimes cobbles, always flat. It was superbly marked, with arrows painted on the ground to show you where to go. It was all as efficient as you would expect.
My goal for the race, if everything went well, was to finish in under eighteen hours. This was tough (I’d run just over eighteen hours in a 24 hour track race the year before) but achievable. I was aiming to get to fifty miles in around eight hours, leaving around ten hours for the second half. I’d brought my iPod shuffle with me and promised myself that if I got to half way on target pace then I would listen to music for a few hours until I got back to the city (wearing headphones in the city being against the rules).
I got to fifty miles in eight hours and eight minutes, so I’d earned my music. The iPod obviously had a strong sense of irony, as after fifty unremittingly flat miles the first song it played was ‘Run to the Hills’ by Iron Maiden. This was the first hill I’d seen or heard in fifty miles.
The next thirty miles or so followed a pattern. Run, aid station, politely decline a sausage, drink coke, eat pretzels and haribo and press on. The aid stations arrived every five or six kilometres or so. Without exception, the volunteers were amazing and nothing was too much trouble. I was slightly concerned before the race at my lack of German, but I found that a combination of ‘danke’, ‘bitte’, ‘ja’, ‘nein’ and ‘wasser’ covers most situations in an ultra. That and the fact that at every aid station at least two people seemed to speak perfect English.
Just before nine o’clock I stopped to put on my reflective vest and my headtorch. The race took a very relaxed attitude to compulsory kit (probably because of the sheer number of aid stations) but they were very clear that by nine o’clock it was headtorch and reflective vest time. By this stage I was back in Berlin itself. I had been running for fifteen hours and had around twelve miles to go.
The next section was hard. I was back in the city. Finding painted arrows on the ground and reflective arrows stuck to various street furniture was proving difficult, even with a powerful headtorch. I got to one intersection and could not see which way to go. A group of young lads was sat on a bench nearby drinking, chatting and hanging out on a Saturday evening. One of them saw me flailing about, shouted me over and pointed at the arrow that was right in front of their bench. With my best ‘danke’ I breathed a sigh of relief and pressed on.
The red men came out to play in force at the road crossings at this stage, asserting their superiority over their welcoming green brethren. This wasn’t doing wonders for the little rhythm I had left, but it was part of the challenge. Another couple of hard-won aid stations passed and I was at the East Side Gallery, which is the largest section of wall still remaining. It’s the longest open air art gallery in the world at over 1,300 metres in length and gave me a real lift, partly because it was impossible to get lost while following a massive wall.
At the end of the East Side Gallery was aid station 25. It was here I met Katrin and Matthias Grieger. Katrin was the first lady and as such the organisers had supplied a lead cyclist for her to lead the way. I realised that I had a massive opportunity here. All I needed to do was stick with Katrin and Matthias and the lead cyclist and navigation was no longer an issue. The cyclist had a course map and knew where he was going, in stark contrast to me.
We left the aid station and headed off. Matthias and Katrin were looking really strong but I was determined to hold their pace. The lead cyclist was a godsend and chugged along through Berlin as I chatted to Matthias, getting closer and closer to the finish.
It was soon after this we ran into one of the relay teams (you could also run the race as a two person, four person or ten person relay). It was the Sri Chinmoy peace run team, who had been carrying their peace torch along the course as they ran it as a ten person relay. Several of the Sri Chinmoy team were running the last leg, so our little group of three runners and one cyclist suddenly swelled to around eight or nine runners, one cyclist and one torch. After running ninety odd miles this was all starting to get a bit weird, as lovely as the Sri Chinmoy team were.
The Sri Chinmoy team were much fresher than the three of us, and we seemed to speed up, at one point hitting the dizzy heights of a ten minute mile. The red men were now becoming a welcome sight, as they offered a brief respite from a pace that was becoming a bit lively at this stage of the race.
We continued our tour in the footsteps of history, stopping at Checkpoint Charlie (the old border crossing between East and West Berlin, which tonight was aid station 26) and then running round the Reichstag and the Chancellery building. Only a parkrun to go! The last five kilometres passed agonisingly slowly. We were still moving well, although I doubt my parkrun PB was under any threat.
Finally, we were approaching the track and the finish line. Matthias and Katrin had helped me so much over the last few miles and this was their moment – she was about to win the ladies’ race. They entered the track and I followed a few seconds later. And then, seventeen hours twenty minutes and thirty seconds after I started the race, I crossed the finish line.
It was a time and a performance that were near the outer limits of my ability on that day, one of those rare days over that distance when pretty much everything goes well. I had stuck to my ‘Fuel, Focus, Fun’ strategy throughout and for the first time in a race of this distance I stayed strong and kept running until the very end.
I couldn’t believe it. My first hundred was less than three years ago and it had taken me over twenty six hours – a complete and utter sufferfest. I had just run nearly nine hours quicker over the same distance. That improvement was hard won; the result of making multiple mistakes and learning from them. It was also due to a lot of hard work and making running a priority in my life, which is something I’d never done before the last three years. Not above everything by any means, but embracing it, enjoying it and finding ways to fit it into my life rather than finding excuses why I couldn’t run.
Finally, a few thank yous. Thank you to the organisers and volunteers at the Berlin Wall 100. It’s a fabulous race with a real social conscience. Thank you to James Elson at Centurion Running for the coaching and support along the way – it’s incredible to think how much my running has improved over the two and a half years we’ve been working together. And thank you to my wife Natasha, who makes all of this possible.