I can give numerous reasons for wanting to run the Berlin Wall 100 (when we weren’t successful in the CCC ballot we wanted an alternative European race in August, Mark Perkins’ excellent blog had seeded the race to me, our German tent mates in Ecuador had run it and sold it to me, and we love Berlin) and all these are true….but the overarching reason for wanting to run it was that I was gunning for a 100 mile PB.
I sometimes think I’m a bit of a ‘fake ultra runner’, in that I have no interest in slogging out the ‘toughest’ and ‘hardest’ ultras….I like races where the majority of the course is ‘runnable’ and the thing I love most about training is trying to run faster over every distance from 5k to 100 miles. Ask me whether I’d rather complete the world’s ‘toughest’ ultra 5 minutes within the cut-off or whether I’d rather run a sub 40 minute 10k, and the 10k would win hands down!
I’d been hoping to PB at the SDW100 but that ended up as a puking death march disaster, so the time I was looking to beat in Berlin was my 19:47 from the A100 last year (which remains as the best race I’ve ever run). Despite me having an awful SDW100, the one (and only!) positive which I could take from it was that if I could finish in 20:42 when I had to spend the last 25 miles walking and losing count of the number of times I was sick, then on a good day I must surely have a quicker 100 mile time in me.
With just 2,000 feet of ascent and on well defined paths and trails once you’ve left the centre of Berlin, the race definitely has the potential to be a ‘fast 100’. One thing I’d learnt though from my only other experience of a flat 100 miler (the TP100) is that flat 100s are definitely not easy (personally I found the TP100 harder than the A100 and SDW100, obviously in part due to it being my first 100, but also because of the relentless nature of using the same muscles over and over again for 100 miles). Therefore, I knew that if I wanted to run a good race in Berlin, I needed a solid race plan to deal with the constant flat, so I was going to bring in short walking breaks every 30 minutes from the start and maintain this up until at least mile 50. From mile 50, I’d increase the walking breaks as necessary, but ultimately I wanted to run as much of this race as I could (I ran about 95% of the A100 so I knew this was possible if I had the perfect race).
We’ve been to Berlin several times in the past so race logistics were straightforward with an early morning flight out from Gatwick on Friday, and staying in the official race hotel (the Ramada in Alexanderplatz) meant registration, the race briefing and Sunday’s awards ceremony were all no more than 2 minutes walk away.
The main thing I took from the pre-race briefing was that runners MUST obey traffic signals (or you’ll be shot – well maybe not shot as we’re not in America, but it’s something they take very seriously and would result in disqualification) – this didn’t bother me in the slightest as it’s only really the first few miles where there’s roads to cross before you leave the centre of Berlin, and also as I was run over when I was younger, I’m the most law abiding person in the world when it comes to crossing roads, so there was absolutely no chance of me sneaking through a green light to save a few seconds!
There’s a minimal mandatory kit list (headtorch, reflective vest and mobile) so I wasn’t bothering with drop bags (but if you were, three numbered drop bags were given to you at registration which you then took to the race start and they’d be taken to one of three different aid stations) – as you’d expect, everything was done with typical German efficiency! We were also given a piece of the Wall as a momento at registration which was a really nice touch.
I had a sub 18:45 target from James so I wanted to get to the half way point in 7:45 – 8:00 which would leave me with a (relatively) doable 10:45 hours to complete the second half. However, I knew from painful first-hand experience that the best-laid 100 mile plans can quite easily fall disastrously apart! But I was definitely going into the race quietly confident that I could come away with a finish time that started in 18 if I had the perfect day.
The race starts and ends on the track at the Jahn Sportpark, so we lined up ready for the 6am start, I said goodbye to Tom and told him that I’d see him at the finish (but if I happened to catch him up and overtake him a la A100, then he would get 30 seconds of wifely attention from me and not a second more – always good to set the ground rules out pre-race!)
Miles 1 – 25 (A perfect start)
My race plan saw me setting off at 8:45 – 9:00 minute pace, and one of the benefits of all the speedwork I’d done earlier this year is that this pace feels positively pedestrian, but this is exactly what I wanted – I firmly believe that the secret to running a good 100 is to take the first half ‘easy’, so you get to the half way point feeling like your race is only just about to start.
From the moment I set off, all was right in the (running) world – it was going to get warm later in the day (highs of 30 degrees were forecast) but I knew I’d have a few hours of running in cooler conditions before that, my legs felt super fresh from taper and I was enjoying just being in my own little world. The race attracts quite an international field with about thirty nationalities represented across a field of 350 runners, so there was less chatting than you’d get in a UK race, but as I’m quite unsociable when I run, this suited me to a tee.
After suffering with a lot of sickness in races this year, I’d decided to go back to basics with nutrition and had ditched the gels and Tailwind which I’d only started taking this year, and was going to mainly use ‘proper’ food throughout the race, which had always worked for me in the past, and would coincide my eating with my walking breaks every 30 minutes.
I knew in the first half I didn’t need to get caught up with anyone else’s race and should just follow my own race plan. This was demonstrated with my first walking break at 30 minutes – I was running with a small group of men and the leading lady from Russia, and with freshly tapered legs, the last thing you feel like doing is walking only 30 minutes in, but I religiously stuck to the plan whilst they all speeded off into the distance and I wistfully waved them goodbye as I tucked into half a Chia bar – 100 milers are definitely a game of patience!
The first 8 miles are on pavement as you leave the centre of Berlin, including running through Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, and then after this we started running through the countryside so lots of parks and wooded trails, so you get to see everything that Berlin and the surrounding area has to offer on foot!
There are 27 checkpoints every 3 – 5 miles and I like to keep my aid station time to an absolute minimum, so I’d planned to carry mostly my own food and just use every third aid station for drinks and any food top-ups, however it was already so warm that I ended up stopping at virtually every aid station for drinks. The aid stations were superb (I was worried they were going to be meat heavy with lots of bratwurst and German meat ‘delicacies’, but there were plenty of veggie options), with everything you could want and more (including beer – yes really, which the Germans love mid-race!).
I got to mile 25 bang on target in 3:52, but more importantly it had felt super easy. I knew it was very early days but it had been the perfect start for me, in fact the only thing that wasn’t playing ball 100% was the weather as it wasn’t yet 10am, but it was proving to be an absolute scorcher.
Miles 25 – 50 (Readjusting the race plan)
I’d been obsessing over the weather forecast for Berlin for the 2 weeks leading up to the race, and every day was a pretty much perfect 20 degrees for running. However as the race got closer, a bizarre one day heatwave appeared out of nowhere for the Saturday, and as the week went on it got hotter and hotter until it was forecasting 30 degrees. This was NOT on the race plan!
I’d planned to run the second 25 miles at 9:00 – 9:30 minute pace to get me to the half way point in 7:45 – 8:00 hours, however as I started it felt like way too high effort level in the heat, and I started to think that if I pushed too hard now, it would leave me with nothing left for the 50 miles that really matter in a 100.
I made the conscious decision to slow my pace down in this section and run it 30 seconds to a minute a mile slower. Although this would mean I’d get to the half way point behind schedule, it would mean I’d hopefully go into the second half feeling strong. Within minutes I could feel the benefits, I realised this was a gamble that could backfire as I might not make up the time, but I thought it was worth it to hopefully give me a strong second half.
I’d been in second place since the start, and one of the volunteers on a bike started frantically alerting me to ‘dritte Frau’ coming up behind. I think he thought I was going to get involved in a race-off to try and hold onto my second place, but I had zero interest in this so early on in the race, so when on one of my scheduled walking breaks, she overtook me (and was the eventual female winner in a phenomenal 17:03), I think he thought I’d just given up!
The miles were still passing quickly despite the relentless sunshine, and I got to mile 50 in 8:10, a bit behind schedule, but the most important thing was I felt brilliant and certainly not like I’d covered 50 miles.
Miles 50 – 68 (Being rewarded for my patience)
I’d obviously not recced the course so had no idea what was coming up, but pretty much straight after mile 50 I was rewarded with a lovely long wooded stretch with lots of shelter from the afternoon sun. These were my favourite miles of the race, I felt like I was flying and was overtaking a number of runners. Patience in the previous section had definitely paid off!
At about mile 60 I arrived at Pagel checkpoint (THE best aid station I’ve ever seen which was in someone’s house with lots of supporters drinking beer and cheering everyone in in the garden) and spotted the strong female Russian runner who’d led at the start – I certainly wasn’t expecting to see her again! She left the aid station just before me, but within half a mile I’d caught her up. I tried to do the sporting thing and asked how she was, but her English was about on a par with my Russian, so we agreed on ‘hot!’ and then I passed her, but she was never more than about 400 metres behind me, so I was fully expecting her to pounce at any time. Up to mile 50, I’d been meticulous with my walking breaks every 30 minutes, which had definitely saved my legs, but from mile 50 I was more flexible with them and if I felt good, which I did for all this section, I would push on, so there was no walking during these miles – it was a case of making hay whilst the sun shines (or making hay whilst you could run in the shade would be a more apt description!).
It was still early days in 100 mile terms but I was starting to feel that the sub 18:45 was within my grasp.
Miles 68 – 75 (The slump)
This was my only really low section of the whole race, both physically and mentally. After the reprieve of the tree cover, I was subjected to running in direct sunlight again. I glared consistently at the sun, was it ever going to go down?! I felt myself wilting and my pace noticeably slowed and these were my slowest miles of the race, and I had to introduce short walking breaks just to cool myself down. Only a few minutes previously I’d felt pretty confident that I was on track for sub 18:45, but as my pace slowed I felt it slipping away. At this point negative thoughts kept creeping in, I knew a PB was pretty much a shoe-in unless I had a disastrous final quarter, and I started thinking does it really matter if I say run a 18:45 vs a 19:22, who actually cares?!
I lost my second lady place in this section, not to the Russian, but to another lady who appeared out of seemingly nowhere, but the Russian was still relatively hot on my heels, so all of sudden it looked like there was going to be a fight for these podium places and it was down to me to fight for it if I wanted it.
Miles 75 – 90 (The Realisation that I REALLY wanted sub 18:45 and a podium place)
Prior to the race, the main thing I wanted from it was to run a race and time that I was pleased and proud of, and position was secondary. Of course, it’s nice to place well, but after a string of bad races, I just wanted to get a good race under my belt. However, going into the final quarter and knowing a podium place was within touching distance if I pushed hard, definitely spurred me on.
A combination of Appletizer (I drank litres of it during the race), new potatoes and watermelon at the mile 75 aid station hit the spot, I was back on track mentally, and I wasn’t giving up this race without a fight! This was another of my favourite sections – the sun had finally gone down, and although conditions were still warm, there was none of the debilitating direct sunlight, and these next miles passed quickly and I still felt like I was running strong. The sub 18:45 was back on!
Miles 90 – 100 (Having to dig deeper than I’ve ever dug in a race before)
At mile 90, my maths told me that I could go sub 18:45, but I literally could not afford to sit on my laurels for 30 seconds. If I wanted this, I was definitely going to be made to work for it!
Everything was starting to ache now, I’d run 90 miles harder and faster than ever before, in less than perfect conditions, but I just blocked the hurting out. I craved a waking break, but knew I couldn’t afford the ‘luxury’ and I ran straight through aid stations, grabbing something to eat on the run, not daring to waste vital seconds anywhere.
With 3 miles to go, a female runner came out of nowhere and was running so fast that I initially thought she must be one of the relay runners who cover the same course in teams of 2, 4 or 10, but her bib confirmed she was also a solo runner.
There was no disappointment that I’d slipped down to third lady, I’d spent equal amounts of the day flitting between second and third, and I knew I couldn’t have run this section any harder. But I was determined not to let anyone else catch me.
3 miles, 2 miles, 1 mile, I could see the sports stadium, but it seemed like we had to run around the houses to enter it, and then I reached the track, which seemed twice as long as an English track! 200 metres covered and I had a sneaky look behind, if I saw another woman on the track come up behind me, then I was quite up for a ‘sprint’ finish. I could see a man behind me, giving it everything and my initial reaction was ‘oh here’s some testosterone driven idiot who wants to beat me to the finish line!’. And then I realised it was Tom – where on earth had he come from?! When I hadn’t seen him all day, I’d just assumed he was way out in front, but it turned out he’d had a shocker from mile 22 and unbeknown to me I had been slowly catching him all day. Then with 1 mile to go, he’d managed to go off track, at which point I’d overtaken him, and it was only when he arrived at the track he saw me half a lap ahead of him. So I dutifully acted like a nice wife and waited for him, and we crossed the finish line together in a time of 18:39:44 (3rd female and 15th overall out of 350 starters), although I’m technically claiming it as my win, so it’s 2-0 to me in the Sawyer 100 mile standings!
As soon as I’d crossed the line, my body just gave up on me. I’d had to push so hard in the final 10 miles and it said ‘no more’ and I was unable to move or speak for a good 15 minutes! At one point I thought I was going to have to go on Google translate and find out what ‘Can I have some first aid please?!’ in German was! But there are few things more satisfying in (running) life than knowing you’d given it your everything, and I definitely feel like there are little pieces of me scattered along the Wall, but the end result was worth every bit of hurt.
I had pretty much the perfect day out there – I ate little and often throughout the entire race and suffered no sickness whatsoever, my legs felt strong, yes they were tired and aching at the end but no more than you’d expect them to be after running 100 miles, and my pacing was spot-on (my average pace over the 100 miles was just over 11 minute mile pace, and that included a lot more aid station stops than I’d usually have). If I look back on the whole race there’s not a thing I’d do differently….well except change the weather, but that’s something you have no control over, so it’s a case of managing what the weather gods throw at you the best you can.
As races go, I cannot think of one negative to say about the whole race – the pre-race organisation was exemplary, the course is fantastic, the navigation is completely idiot-proof (if I say even I couldn’t get lost, you realise how good it is!), the aid stations were up there with the best, the volunteers couldn’t do enough for you, there was so much encouragement from spectators at every aid station and on the course, and fellow runners were so supportive. I sometimes think 100 miles on the flat are perceived by some as ‘easy’ in 100 mile terms, but this was anything but, and personally I would take 100 miles on rolling hills over 100 miles on flat, as it really is relentless pounding the same muscles over and over again on the flat.
Thank you to everyone involved in the Berlin Wall 100 – we shall definitely be back! The race reverses direction each year so I’d like to do it in the opposite direction, which I think has the potential to be a bit quicker (you’d be running the final trail wooded section in daylight at the start, and you’d get the traffic lights at the end when you’d be glad of a little rest!).
Thank you to my wonderful physio/Pilates teacher, Dawn @ Body Rehab, who yet again has got me through training and a race completely niggle and injury-free.
And thank you as always to James for being a superb coach, for turning me into a runner that can run a 100 mile time that starts with a 18 (I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of saying that!), and for picking me up after a string of bad races this year and giving me the confidence that I could go out and run like this.
Ever since I started running 100 milers 15 months ago, I’ve questioned where it’s my distance, mainly for the simple reason I love to run too much. I have no interest and get no satisfaction grinding out 18 minute walking miles in ultras. However, I ran virtually the whole of this race (I’d estimate my walking breaks in the entire race came to less than 2 miles in total) so my anti-100 mile walking argument doesn’t really stack up! So maybe it’s more a case of choosing my 100 milers wisely – I definitely want to return to the TP and SDW as they’re both runnable 100s, I’ve got my eye on Rocky Raccoon in the States, which is known for being a fast, runnable course, and a 12/24 hour track race has my name written all over it.
That’s it for me for 100s for this year though (I still stand by my sentiment that two 100s a year are more than enough!), and I feel it well and truly finished on a (running) high, and was as close to a perfect race as I’ll get….now onto other important running matters like trying to get my 10k time down!