I wasn’t planning on writing a race report for the Berlin Marathon, and really, I’m still not going to. Ok sort of, but the main topic of this post is my experience of a weekend where I was running with no competitive goal, no time target, just running for the pure joy of running and experiencing a new place. It’s such a seemingly simple thing, but remarkably important and incredibly easy to lose sight of no matter what level of competition we’re at.
The Berlin Marathon came two weeks after Tor Des Geants. When I signed up for it nearly a year ago I wasn’t sure if I would get into TDG. The last time I pulled a move like that was in 2016, when I ran the Boston Marathon dressed as Link two weeks after the Barkley Marathons. At that race, though, I still had a goal: set a Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon dressed as a videogame character (success, with a 2:57).
This time around, I had a coach (David Roche), who has been working with me to try to get me to actually recover so I can perform at my peak for the big ones. At some point I’ll add a “why a stubborn loner like myself picked up a coach” post, but for now I’ll just say that he is one of the most enthusiastically positive and eternally optimistic people on earth. I, am not. I think the dynamic works quite well and it’s the counter I need. (To be clear, it’s not that I’m negative… I’m pretty even-keeled and don’t have extremes in either direction, but I also don’t really filter anything and if I’m not feeling like rainbows and unicorns I’m dang sure not gonna act like I am.)
For this race my primary instruction was to run with joy. So I did. And I even expanded on that to include the whole weekend. I hadn’t actually thought about it being Oktoberfest until I got there, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying not one, but both of Berlin’s main Oktoberfest celebrations. I think I can now check Germany off my “do the biggest cliche / stereotypical thing in each European country while I’m here” list? I was sad that my family wasn’t able to join me for this one due to travel logistics, but I was quick to use my American baseball skills to win them souvenirs and myself some Oktoberfest company.
Then I went out to try to catch Ally Beaven and Karen McIntyre in the skate marathon – thousands of people roller blading through Berlin on the marathon route. Ally and I had somehow managed to both be in Courmayeur and Berlin two weeks apart, but doing different races.
So after a couple days of wandering around Berlin, eating brats, and doing zero fretting about the race, I headed to the starting line. It was a far cry from my usual pre-race activities.
I tried to meet a few people at the start and was going to help pace them to their goal times, but it turns out that in a crowd of nearly 50K people it’s kind of hard to find anyone. Still, I had every intention of running around 8 min / mile for a 3:30.
I ran the first half of the race fully relaxed. A tad faster than planned, but it felt right. Close enough that I could use the excuse that my pacing was off because all the course markings were in km. 😛 Along the way I high-fived every kid in sight (even turned and went back a couple of times when I missed some), danced with pretty much every drum band (and there were a lot of drum bands), and had a goofy smile on my face the whole time. AND I got my son a Mime Jr. about 5 miles in. Boom! (he has a small Pokemon obsession, the game rewards running… it’s basically like if he had a baseball obsession and I were in the Majors).
Around halfway I still felt great and I decided to gradually pick it up little by little and then back off completely if I felt like I was pushing at all. Plus by that time the massive 3:15 pace group had caught up to me and kept nipping at my heels. I felt a bit like Simba running from the herd of wildebeests.
But still, the high fives and the dancing and the smile continued. If there’s a flu outbreak in Berlin this week I should probably apologize, because I think I made hand-to-hand contact with half the city’s population. Also at about that time Ally messaged me with Bekele’s time. So I mean, he ran a bit faster than he planned on so maybe it was ok for me to do it too?
So gradually I went faster. And it felt good, and it was fun. So I went faster. I came up with about half a dozen joking excuses I could tell David after the race for why I ended up going faster. But no matter what, I followed that primary instruction. I ran with joy all the way to the finish line. I wasn’t going faster because I wanted a faster time, or because I was racing someone, it just felt fun. And maybe the high-fives and all those little mushroom power-up signs that people hold actually worked. Rather than mile to mile or even km to km it became one kid’s outstretched hand to the next. Before I knew it, where had the miles gone?
I crossed the line still smiling in 3:11 (1:40 for first half, 1:31 for second), did my best Desiree Linden impression in the rain, then met Ally and Karen for one last bit of German fare before heading home.
I’ve written a lot before about setting goals, personal challenges, and coming up short on those, but that’s not the only reason I do these things. I do them because they’re fun. It’s so important to remember that and that’s something I often come up short on myself. Challenging goals and fun are not mutually exclusive, far from it. But I’m not gonna lie, when I’m out there doing some of the things I do and at my absolute limit, it hurts. A lot. And it’s not always fun. Type II fun maybe at best.
Also, deep down inside I’m about as competitive they come, have been since I was 2. That’s true whether I’m competing with myself or with others. I’m genuinely happy for others when they succeed and actually even enjoy the extra excitement it can bring in certain situations when that success involves beating me, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let it happen or not immediately be plotting how to prevent it the next time. Even if I go into a race not planning on racing it, usually at some point that competitive switch flips in my head.
But this time it didn’t (I mean, I did have Bekele right in my sights… at the starting line on the big screen). It was a 26.2 mile celebration. It was so refreshing and so needed. We hear a lot in endurance sports about how important it is for our bodies to get a chance to recover and recharge after hard efforts, but often times the mind needs it just as much.
I basically see three main reasons for doing the types of races I do: 1) for the personal challenge and growth, 2) for the competition, or 3) just for the sheer joy of it. Lately I’ve come to realize that number 3 must be the most important by virtue of the fact that 1 and 2 can’t exist long-term without it. On the other hand, 3 can exist just fine on its own and to not lose sight of it sometimes it’s valuable to go out there with nothing other than 3 in mind.
Personal challenges and growth are important, and competition can be a great way of spurring that growth and measuring it, but a huge factor in determining what those challenges look like should be joy. I enjoy running. Others might not, and can seek their challenges and growth doing the things that they actually do enjoy. In any case, at the end of the day the worst case outcome should be that you’re still doing something you love and you’re still motivated to continue challenging yourself.
Maybe taking the time to pause and remember that every once in a while could be key to actually progressing towards goals. After reaching a low point at Tor Des Geants where the thought of quitting running altogether briefly entered my mind I’m excited to see what the coming weeks, months, and years bring for me. Next up I have the NYC Marathon. Assuming training over the next month goes well I’ll actually be racing that one. But even if I do, the kids in New York had better start working on their high-five form immediately.