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Bruised Not Beaten: A Berlin Retrospective

Just over a year ago, my sister Tracy (@running4twv) and I announced our entry into the 2019 Berlin Marathon. And last Sunday marked the 6 month anniversary of the race itself. It seems somehow impossibly distant and remarkably recent at the same time. And, aside from writing a letter to my supporters at the end of the year, I have really taken very little time to reflect on the experience. Probably to an unhealthy degree. Because if I'm honest with myself, Berlin nearly got the best of me.

That's hard for me to grapple with. I had a great training season. The Summer was mild, I wasn't really pushing for a pace goal - instead I was really enjoying running with friends and family. And yet, my long runs continued to improve and I was feeling great! For the first time since I started running, I got into the rhythm of hitting negative splits, sometimes managing to put in a final 2-3 miles that would get me winded in a 10k. I found that I really enjoyed the feeling of keeping something in the tank for a strong finish. Then a little carelessness knocked me down a few pegs.

I had been dealing with some hip pain, which was unusual for me. I had noticed more blistering and callus building on my left foot than my right, particularly after a wipeout I had on the sidewalk one day.* It didn't keep my from finishing off my 8-miler, but it did send me to the chiropractor for the first time in several years. In any case, that wasn't the fateful occasion that haunts my runs to this day. No, that came a couple months later when I was finishing up a mid-distance run on a weekday evening. I usually end my mid-week runs on a bridge not far from my home, which also happens to be the outlet of a subway train station. My run had been great and, wanting to finish strong and not lose my pace, I was pushing hard over the bridge. But to my dismay, a train had unloaded a brief moment earlier. Unable to run in the street due to the dangers of the bridge, I was trucking down the sidewalk when suddenly blockaded by commuters. Rather than slowing at all, I gave a shout and made to pass the pedestrians on a narrow leeway of curb. But I lost my balance (or maybe I was shoved, that makes the story sound more exciting...) and had to catch myself from falling into the street. In doing so, I took a couple of awkward steps half on the curb and half in the street. I felt my lower back twinge and my first thought was that my chiropractor was going to kill me when I came in with my hips all out of whack again. But the next morning, getting out of bed, I could hardly bare to put weight on my left foot.

*Side note: I haven't done any research into this, but I really hope the average runner is as accident prone as I am. Because I think I trip and fall an average of 1-2 times per marathon season - and when I say fall, I don't mean I misstep and have to catch myself. No, when I fall while running, I'm like a sturdy tree hacked down at the base. And I land hard. But I have that runner's instinct to spare my knees at all costs... the costs usually being my hips, arms and shoulders.

At this point, dear reader, you're likely to be drifting into apathy at the apparent irrelevance to my Berlin run. So let me skip through a few nail-biting months and tell you that several doctor visits, an x-ray and an MRI eventually revealed a Morton's neuroma (pain from an inflamed nerve between my toe joints). I didn't go see a doctor prior to the Marathon, because I knew the answer would likely be "running is making it worse." But approaching Berlin, though I still had a couple of great long-distance training runs despite the foot pain, I was still getting sharp pains every time I ran. I had even been forced to switch out some of my runs for time on a stationary bike to try to give my foot more rest.

So going into race weekend, I really didn't know what to expect. But I still hoped for a PR because, well, I thought I had it in me. Now, there's a lot more to running a race for Team World Vision than getting a PR, for sure. I had been "putting in the miles" on my fundraising efforts as well, and I had managed to secure sponsors for 20 kids in impoverished, disadvantaged communities - a number that still astounds and humbles me. So I had something to celebrate, whether I finished the race or not. But I didn't want to just finish, I wanted to perform.

Now, I'm a fairly regimented person, and the week leading up to a race I border on religious adherence to diet and activity guidelines. But spending a couple days in Berlin before a race. I had to give myself a little latitude. There were some meals out. But I didn't splurge - no beer and pretzels, and that took willpower! We did take a bike tour around the city, in a downpour; of course there was the race expo; and there may have been one meal of pork knuckle two nights before race day (a guy's gotta eat!) Tracy and I took ourselves on a little tour of downtown, but that was mostly conducted by scooter (which we definitely didn't have way too much fun with). All told I was darn-well behaved, and decently rested.

So race morning came. Chilly, misty weather. I had actually packed shoe covers in my water bottle pouch, because I was afraid of getting wet shoes before the race even started. Little did I know... I believe it was in the low 50's. We checked our gear, stood in crazy long lines for porta-potties (which a decent number of people we skipping in favor of trees and bushes), and fought our way into our corral. I had my buddy Al with me at the start, though we didn't plan to run together. We barely managed to get into the corral, with shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic along the way, before the race kicked off. In fact Al was enjoying some pre-race nutrition as we started slowly moving, unaware that the starting line was seconds away. And then we were off. The first half of the race was awe-inspiring: the architecture and history, the crowds, the runners... Easily one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

And then the weather turned. All season I had been practicing my pacing, and my first half of the race was almost perfect. I started easy, gradually increased my pace - what I remember having a hard time with was passing. The field of runners was so dense that it was nearly impossible to go faster than the crowd. People were jumping up onto sidewalks to pass. I never did this; I tried to be smart and only take opportunities when they arose. But in general, my starting pace was spot on. Then it was right around the halfway point that the rain picked up, the winds started to blow, and a chill started to set in. I remember at one point, still trying to keep my pace, I tried to step off to the side of the pack and pass some people on the outside. As soon as I reached the edge, the wind hit me with force, like an attack of cold and fatigue. I quickly moved back inward. Gradually the fatigue increased, along with the self-pity. I was no longer appreciating my situation - this magical, incredible experience only made more surreal and exciting by the sheets of rain. No, I allowed myself to feel miserable, to let the water dripping from my cap and soaking into my shoes determine my mood. And I started to lower my expectations. With lower expectations came slower paces. By km 24, I slowed beyond my starting pace, never to recover.

The race only got harder from there. I'm not going to say there was no more enjoyment. The experience was still incredible, but in the way someone can laugh at a joke while enduring a migraine, then go back to feeling miserable. This continued, my pace ever worsening, until around km 35 I was struck with foot pain from my neuroma - pain so sudden and severe that it made me grimace, and question if I would be able to continue - each step like hitting a bruise. My one saving grace was that I was about to hit a milestone, one that is only meaningful to a World Vision runner: km 36. At the Chicago Marathon, Team World Vision has a tradition of setting up a cheering station at km 36 (even though km markers aren't a thing in the US). They do this because 6 km is the average distance a child in sub-Saharan Africa must walk each day (sometimes multiple times a day) to fetch water for their family. That selfsame daily struggle is the very thing World Vision is out to put an end to, and the reason we run. So to reach km 36 is to understand that there are only 6 km to go. As I hit that mark, I took a long hard look at the faces on my water bottle. See, before I left the States, I knew this wasn't going to be an easy race, and I knew I would need to remind myself of why I was putting my body through this. So I attached pictures of 10 of those 20 sponsored children that I had fought for directly to the water bottle I would be carrying through the course. And when I crossed the mark for km 36, I looked at each of their faces, their names, and I said to myself: "I'm taking these 6 km from you."

That's what carried me to the finish line. Those 6 km were not easy. In fact km 35 through 41 were my slowest of the race. But it was the knowledge of the life change those 6 km represented - I knew if they endured and overcame 6 km day after day, month after month, year after year, I could endure those 6 km to make it stop, to remove that burden from them. It was making those 6 km about someone other than myself that allowed me to overlook my pain, fatigue, and physical discomfort.

Because this article hasn't been long enough (appropriate for a Marathon recap, I suppose), I'll include my experience of the next hour for posterity. My last mile was actually phenomenal. It was my fastest of the entire back half of my race - partially because the end of the course has several turns and I kept being convinced that each one was the last! But the experience of getting to run through the Brandenburg Gate, with all its significance, was in no way exaggerated. The post-race area felt like chaos, not near as streamlined as Chicago. People were desperate to get their blanket wraps and cover up, but they were being distributed out of sight of the finish line, around a corner and down a path. Eventually I got mine, along with snacks, and made my way to the bag check area. That's where I ran into trouble. My hips were aching intensely by that time, so I found a bench and had a seat. I have a problem after long runs where I have to keep my legs extended to avoid getting severe calf cramps. (I had this problem acutely following the 2017 Chicago Marathon, where I made the mistake of sitting on the ground after the finish, and both calves seized into a cramp so intense and so long-lasting that I considered calling for a medic.) I felt the cramps coming while seated on the bench, so I was forced to get back up and keep walking. Meanwhile I was starting to shiver intensely even though I was wrapped up with the plastic blanket provided. Then a new problem came along - I had an immediate need to visit a porta-potty. Reluctantly, I left my blanket behind and stepped into the sort of confined space one would only visit in desperation. And let me remind you that, seated, I was dangerously close to debilitating calf cramps. The only benefit was the temporary windbreak. As soon as I stepped back outside, my shivering intensified to an unbearable level. The CDC lists warning signs of hypothermia to include: "shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, drowsiness"... I'm not sure how many were merely related to having just run 26.2 miles, but I definitely exhibited 5-7 of those symptoms. But the shivering was the worst. I felt so uncontrollable that I didn't think I could get myself to the gear check and dressed. So I found another place to sit, I enclosed my entire head and torso entirely within the blanket, and I shivered. I must have sat that way for 20 minutes before I felt like I had enough control over my legs to get my clothes. Putting on pants and long sleeves at that point changed everything. This is probably no surprise, but again I was suffering from most if not all of the symptoms above. But with that, I was somewhat back to normal, at least able to function and make my way out to the friend who had been waiting outside the restricted area for about 40 minutes wondering what was going on. I also inhaled an apple and grabbed my complementary alcohol-free beer to replenish much-needed carbs.

So that's my race. After meeting up with my friend, we were actually able to get close enough to the finish to cheer my sister in as she herself ran through the Brandenburg Gate. It was indescribable. And the rest of the trip - well I could go on for another 2,300 words or likely more. But if you haven't given up reading by now, I won't take for granted your commitment. Suffice it to say that the rest of the trip was nothing short of a gift, a celebration of those 20 kids sponsored through World Vision. I'm so thankful for all those who stepped up as my teammates on this adventure and made it possible to bring those kids hope for a greater fullness of life. This is why I carry on. That is why: Today I Run.

What's next in this journey? That's been announced elsewhere and will be featured at length in later posts. I'm sure you'll hear from me soon. What I do know is that, despite continued foot pain, despite the punishment of a Chicago winter, heck, despite the scourge of COVID-19 keeping me under house arrest, I will press on for the opportunity to continue bringing hope and joy and love to children I will never meet but care about just the same.


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