from mile to marathon

The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


I am aware that crossing the ocean and spending thousands of dollars to run in a circle doesn't make a marathon more marathon than the other. Nevertheless my expectations of Berlin must have been high, because the race felt a bit anti-climactic. Awesome finish aside, it was just another long, boring, hurting 26 miles.

It is true the audience was fantastic. Spectators, alert and festive, were crowding the sidewalks, as if all of Berlin were out on the streets, celebrating that we were running. Only during Royal Victoria have I seen support that came close in being so massive - there it was a staunch persistence to watch us pass by through sheets of rain; here the atmosphere was exuberant, enthusiastic, almost electric.

What I liked most was the music. More music bands were enlivening the course than in a Rock'n'Roll marathon. As soon as the sound of a band receded behind, you could start hearing the beat from the next corner. I loved the drum bands - vigorous, eager, untiring, they punctuated the run for hours, at a pace that combined the effervescence of the day with what could have been only a deep passion for what they were doing. They were each dressed in their own colors, a thrill to behold. I remember a group of big, blonde women in red and black, moving with such stunning synchronism, precision, and verve I wanted to stop just to watch them for a while.

Aid stations looked as if they were ready to hydrate an army. Not entirely suprising - this is the biggest marathon I ever ran, and one of the top five in the world. I am used though to see aid stations somewhat depleted. And since this is also the fastest marathon in the world (every two years or so someone breaks the world record here), I expected to find myself toward the end of the crowd. The website though says I finished in the first 7,000 out of over 40,000, which means there were tens of thousands still coming.

I didn't know this, and even now it makes little sense to me. I felt as if I was late for an important appointment at the finish line. I tried hard to run with ease, to make this special, at the very least to finish under my usual average of five hours. I wasn't getting anywhere fast. It wasn't one thing or the other that held me back - just everything converging into a leaden advance through this scintillating Sunday in Berlin.

Towards the end of the race they had tea at the aid stations. I hadn't seen this before. I didn't think it was tea I needed, so I skipped it once or twice before trying it out. It was warm, and the taste (sugar and lemon, which I normally dislike) came with a small shock of surprise - this was heavenly, an unexpected pleasure. If you don't like tea, try it during a marathon.

Then, finally, I could see the finish. One last time I turned left, after so many other disappointing turns, and there was the Brandenburger Gate, majestic in the distance. I started sprinting again, and this time I didn't slow down anymore. The crowd, inexplicably, thinned at this point, and I was running alone. Whatever had held me back before, it didn't matter anymore, it had no power no more.

I doubted this once or twice, the use of a sprint at the end of a five-hour marathon, although, as much as possible, I always went for it. Now, more than ever. I wanted to finish strong. I wanted to be strong. I wanted not to cry. I was running for the miserable lives we lived, for how we survived the long night of the dictatorship. I didn't want to get emotional. I wanted to run this marathon and have it over with.

The Germans set up these enclosers at the finish (and the start), so that the runners are separated from spectators, as well as friends and family. It took me such a long time to negotiate the fenced-in area, the medal heavy around my neck, I started to feel alone in the world.

I had planned to use the shower tent, but hadn't brought soap or even a towel. What was I thinking, they would give out 40,000 towels at the finish? Over the fence, I asked for my boyfriend's handkerchief - he always carries around a huge one he never uses. I showered with hot water, wiped myself dry with that piece of cloth, and changed.

While powdering my nose I checked my face in the compact mirror. I looked pretty. Marathons must be good for me. Then we went to see the Pergamon.


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