Running Through Walls – The Berlin 2014 Marathon By Omar Agoes

“Struggling to be better at something makes us better people; parenting, graduating from college, running a marathon, building a house with your own hands ?
these are difficult activities that no one should talk us out of just because they’re difficult”

James Freeman wrote this in his book about how difficult, time consuming,
and expensive it is to make a perfect espresso.

After doing my first marathon six months ago in Seoul, I eventually got hooked and did another one.
However this time, it is my first World Marathon Major; the 2014 BMW Berlin Marathon.
There are six marathons, which are designated as the “marathon majors”; they are New York, Chicago, Boston, London, Berlin, and the recent addition last year was Tokyo.
Below that are the Gold events like the one I did in Seoul.

Getting into a marathon major is not easy, marathon majors are hugely popular and your entry is based on a lottery.
In Berlin, Over 76,00 people register, but there is a limit of 40,000 that can join.
Despite not having an entry yet, I was already training for it; I find joy living in a training plan.
It gives me a sense of order, or the illusion of it.

I owe it to a German colleague at work who many believe is a reincarnation of Elvis Presley.
He hooked me up with his friend who was so kind to help me get my entry.
Thank you both for doing me this big favor.

There is a very big difference between a “marathon major” and a regular one. Although Seoul was a “gold class” rated marathon and just a level below a major,
it felt like a no frills experience. The Berlin marathon was an event like I have never experienced.
They had a very large expo the size of three aircraft hangars.
This expo had so many running gears and gadgets from all over the world that would convert a normal man into a hopeless shopaholic.

My four year old son took part in the 500m Bambini run which had over 1,300 kids participating.
His race pack was better than mine, for a EUR 3 registration fee, he got a bag, a t-shirt, a bottle of apple spritzer,
and a Lego toy from BMW! I was a bit upset because I preferred getting a Lego than a strawberry flavored Power Bar gel that tasted more like shampoo than strawberries.

Time Machine

The expo was held at the old Tempelhoff airport. This airport has become my favorite building in Berlin, it is like a time machine taking you back to traveling days in the 1950s.
There are no air-bridges, a curved structure and hallways that were really taking you back in time. On the tarmac was a troop carrier from the second world war, all it was missing to complete the picture is a zeppelin. I hope they never tear this site down.
It is a real experience to be in it.

As you would expect with Germans, getting the race pack was so efficient, it was so quick as they printed your bib number on site.
It took no less than two minutes to get the race pack.
It would have been faster if the staffs weren’t so friendly and excited to see an entry that had a Singapore address and started chatting you up and telling you how much they love Singapore.
Europeans love to talk about Asia. As an extreme reference to this efficiency, I paid someone to stand over 5 hours to get my race pack at last year’s Jakarta marathon.

I don’t mean to bash, but at Seoul, all the instructions were in Korean and you had to look for this little office that resembled a closet to collect your race kit along with other confused foreigners who all got lost getting there.
Seoul didn’t even give you a finisher’s t-shirt. With all this lavish and festive display at Berlin, I was so hyped to race the next day.

Put on your face

The race starts in the middle of the Tiergarten, and the atmosphere was electric.
For a tropical dude like me, it was a chilly 7 degrees but fortunately the sun came out later to warm up the start.

As usual on any run races; my first finish line is the long queue to pee before the start. I have tried so many techniques to prevent this, but no matter what I did I will always have the urge to pee at least three times before a start.
Holding my bladder in this line was an epic feat itself. Everyone at the toilet queue was so focused in trying not to wet their compression pants.
And their “about to vomit” expression coming out of the portable toilet says it all, I thank God that I was born Indonesian and had a lifetime’s worth of seeing disaster toilets.
I am sorry but you will hear more about toilets later on as well.

On the start line a spectator held up this sign that made me smile; “forget the race, forget the pace, and put on your face J”.

World’s fastest marathon course

The Berlin marathon is famous for breaking world records. Its a flat course and last year the world record was broken here by a Kenyan named Wilson Kipsang who finished in 2:03:23.
This year was historic as well, because another Kenyan named Dennis Kimetto broke his record to finish in 2:02:57!

To put that in perspective, this guy Dennis was running an average speed of 20.6 km/h, or in runner’s speak, a pace of 2:55 minutes per kilometer!
The next time you are on a treadmill ? try to set that speed and see how many seconds you can last.
This guy did it for over two hours!

Here’s something about Dennis Kimetto from a BBC News article written by Ben Carter:

“Kimetto became the first man to run a marathon in under two hours and three minutes and this has led to renewed speculation about when, not if, we will see the magical two-hour barrier broken.
Kimetto seems to have the world at his feet. In 2008 he was a subsistence farmer in Eldoret, Kenya running four miles a day.
A chance encounter with Geoffrey Mutai, a winner of the Berlin, Boston and New York marathons resulted in Kimetto going to train with Mutai and he ran his first competitive race in 2011.”

Another reminder that we sometimes live by chance!

Running through walls and cellulite

For the younger readers, 25 years ago Berlin was a city that was split in half by a heavily guarded wall.
The fall of this wall marked the end of the cold war and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
Throughout the city you can see a brick line that marks where the wall used to stand. The course takes you to see both sides of this former wall.
In 1990, it was the first time the marathon ran its course through the former East German side, people were crying when they passed the finish at Brandenburg Gate, which for a long time you could only see behind the wall but not pass through.

There were over a million spectators cheering you on through out the 42 Km course.
The course had over 70 live bands of all types of music playing for you as you pass.
There were rock bands, Caribbean steel drums, rock music, house music, lots of jazz, and a whole symphony orchestra all on the roadside.

While running I heard people calling my name and cheering…”GO OMAR!!!”, for a while I was wandering how did they know my name.
Then I realize that my number bib had my first name printed on it.
It was such a smart way to motivate runners by making the cheering more personal.

Close to the 2 km mark, I see a large sign “Indonesia”. It was touching to run in Germany with your fellow countrymen cheering you on the roadside.
Two days before the start, the Indonesian Ambassador hosted a carbo-loading dinner at his residence.
Unfortunately I found out a bit too late. There were 41 Indonesian runners who finished the Berlin marathon this year.
And by a pleasant coincidence, two of them were my dear cousins.

It was such a big event and there were so many things to observe, the fast runners, the costumes (which included Jesus carrying a large cross on his back, a fireman with breathing tank, the crazy spectators, and cellulite.

I feel its essential to make this point; there were cellulite everywhere.
People train hard and burn lots of calories during marathon training.
But despite this, there was cellulite everywhere. So ladies, the conclusion is cellulite is part of the human condition – learn to embrace this fact and learn to live with it.
Trust me, if running hundreds of kilometers doesn’t make it go away, nothing will. Be kind to yourself by loving them.

Last push to the finish line

Text Box: Last push to the finish line

Eat, Train, Love

The truth is that most everyone can complete marathon. Any normal person can walk 42 km and so much more if they had to do it.
You can run walk run alternatively and you will finish that distance. A more experienced runner told me; “Omar you can do a marathon with zero training, but you will suffer.”
So my motivation to train and do 82 runs totaling 102 hours and 850 kilometers in the past ten months had nothing to do with commitment, it was self interest to avoid suffering.

You notice some things as you become a long distance runner, one of them is your body plays mind games with you, your body starts telling you to do things when you do a long run, it tells you that you are hungry and you should stop to eat, it tells you that you need to go do the toilet as your tummy is unwell, it tells you that you should stop because you feel sick, and so on.
My own personal definition of long distance running is the art of pushing pain away.
I passed a lady that had this written on the back of her shirt: “pain is only weakness leaving you”

You also learn about things that you should not do. During a training run after work, at 17km I felt hungry and stopped at a store to eat a whole banana.
This turned out to be a big mistake. By three minutes, my stomach has staged a revolution and by 18 km I needed a toilet in a hurry.
I discover that night that some toilets at East Coast Park in Singapore were the squatting type.
As it was the only cubicle open, I jumped in and used it.

I discovered mistake number 2 (in the attempt to do a “number two”). After running 18 km, squatting is a very very very stupid thing to do!
So there I was, inside a cubicle getting an epic leg cramp and an upset stomach at the same time with my pants down.
It was one of the most unglamorous and shameful moments in my life to crawl back out from that cubicle.
I barely made it out.

Sights, sounds and the devil

You see a lot of Berlin in the 42 kilometers, very open roads to smaller residential streets shaded by large trees and beautiful iconic monuments.

This marathon is the ultimate city tour. The atmosphere of the city was all out for this event.
People came out on the street, on the balconies blaring their music loud, and at one point I swear I saw this lady topless on the balcony cheering us male runners on.

You also witness touching moments, like a mother greeted by her two kids in the course. She stopped to give them a big hug.
Another was a guy stopping at an Italian restaurant waving his hands, and comes out a bald guy with an apron excitedly running out from the restaurant kitchen shouting in Italian to give what appeared to be his loyal customer a very big tight hug.

I was intent to do better than my last run, so by the 30 km mark I pushed a bit harder.
I was running a faster pace by this point, so I have more juice to push harder now. I was wrong. Five kilometers later, I was living in the Twilight Zone and seeing things fuzzy and some point seeing double vision. I can feel that my pace was much slower.

Then I remembered what someone said to me; “chasing PB is the devil”.
PB stands for personal best, it means finishing faster than your previous record. Many wont admit it, but every single one of those 40,000 runners on the course has a devil on its back. In my last marathon in Seoul, the devil had a face, it was a bus driver that picked up runners who can’t finish in 5 hours.

I was down to my last energy gel, I felt my stomach was hungry and I needed more fuel.
Then there it was a table full of bananas and cut apples floating on cold water. It was so refreshing.
I took the risk of eating a bit of that banana despite my last tummy experience, and fortunately it was OK.
One great thing the organizers did was they wore latex gloves and peeled the bananas and broke them in little pieces for runners to pick up.
This was brilliant and efficient.

Roadside massage

After the 30 km mark you start seeing stretchers on the left hand side for people to get massages!
It was unreal and very tempting to stop and get one. And yes, your mind tells you to stop for one. Mind request DENIED!

I have been very fortunate to not ever experience cramps while running.
The only one I had was the one in that toilet! Kevin, my sports massage therapist said if you get a cramp don’t stretch it, walk it.
Stretching it will weaken the muscles and your cramp will come back and will make your race more difficult to finish.

There was this myth that massages were nice, that was until I met Kevin who is the human embodiment of pain.
He has made me scream and can make the strongest athlete cry in pain. Sport massages help greatly, but they are painful.

As I pass Potsdamer Platz on the 38 km mark you knew you were close to the finish, but had to do a longer route to get there.
Here, you ran through the wall again to the former West Berlin.
The sun was out and I felt a bit warm in my long sleeve top, but I am used to the wearing skintight outfits in the strong heat from my laser sailing days.
It didn’t bother me that much other than looking out of place, because that was better than freezing in the morning.

We pass the Berlin Operahouse and you can feel the energy lifting. The crowd was building and the spectators were getting dense again.
Then a turn to the left towards the Brandenburg Gate, you were in this last stretch where the last kilometer was full of people fenced off by advertising boards.
This is the red carpet that elite athletes pass when they hit the finish and the photographers’ flashes left and right.
But for most of us, there were no photoflash, just tired spectators who have been there for many hours, yet still cheering on.

When I saw the line, I took all the energy I had left and ran as fast as I could for the last 300 meters.
As you pass the finish line, one word described the feeling; heaven.

Although it’s not my first marathon, this one was a beautiful one. It did not end with me saying “I did it!”, but it made me say “I’m gonna get more of this.”
On a happy note, I beat the devil and completed in 5 hours and 15 seconds, which was faster than my last marathon.

I can’t help to think what those 15 seconds was worth to making me a sub 5 hour runner.
But that’s sports, it is real and as is. Long distance running is an honest sport, you have to train and clock the miles, and the only thing that limits you is yourself.
No amount of money, gear, shoes, will guarantee better performance, only training does.
Some people do it easily, and some like me struggle to just get below five hours.

A hilarious observation in this event was after the race was over; people in the hotel lobby were wearing their finisher medals.
I thought that was just a fluke, but in the evening I still see people were wearing them, and even two days later I see them walking around showing off their medals in restaurants, malls, and around the streets. I guess to them, it’s hard to let go of the marathon.
I just think they look like idiots wearing them in public.

I also have a feeling these wierdos also wear their medals to sleep.

Photos: Dex after his Bambini Run & Last push to the Finish at Brandenburg Gate