Well, that was a fun little weekend in Berlin. My last blog post was about my desire to find more fun in my running endeavors. I can safely safe mission accomplished. This weekend was definitely one of the most enjoyable experiences of my running career.
A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from brother Pete, he had been talking to Shalane Flanagan’s husband Steve and her agent Tom. The Flanagan camp was in search of some capable pacers to help Shalane at the Berlin Marathon. She would be attempting to break the American record and she was looking for some escorts to help her along the way. My name came up and Pete contacted me to see if I was interested. I pretty much accepted immediately.
I am a decent runner, but more than anything I am just a huge fan of this sport. So when the opportunity came about to be a personal pacer for one of my favourite runners, at one of the biggest marathons in the world, there was really no other choice than to pack my bags, dust off my 10th grade German skills and get on the plane.
It was a quick little trip, but man was it ever rad. I arrived in Berlin late Thursday after a long and arduous travel day. I love going to all sorts of different places, but good god, the process of getting there grinds my gears. It may be a pretty big 1st world problem, and I’m sure Louie CK would disapprove but man the travel process may be my least favourite thing in the world. Elon Musk has gotta get going on that Hyper Loop thing.
After the combination of delayed flights, a missed connection and some other snafu’s I arrived at my hotel at 10pm Berlin time. A nice little 18hr travel shit show. I was kinda wired so I snuck in a quick 45min jog to try to shake the travel. I ran through the Tiergarten, around the Brandenburg gate and down the barren Berlin streets. By the time I was done my jog I was happy, refreshed and excited to partake in this adventure.
Early Friday morning I met up with the other pacer, Ryan Vail and Coach Jerry Schumacher. We ran the last 12km of the course. It was immediately obvious as to why this course has had so many world records set on it. Sucker is flat as a pancake, the roads are smooth and the turns are gentle. It is a marathon runners dream.
The energy and atmosphere around the meet hotel was pretty electric. Berlin in one of the 6 World Marathon Majors, and it has a tendency to produce some special races. I was feeling super excited to get going, but I was also feeling a bit of pressure. There was a lot of media buzzing around, and the internet was quite active with pre-race thoughts and analysis. This race was clearly a big deal and I didn’t wanna be the knob that screws things up! It was super comforting knowing that I would have Ryan Vail right there helping as well. Dude is a stud marathoner in his own right with a 2:10:57 PB.
On Saturday I met again with Ryan and Jerry as we covered the first 10km of the course. Again, flat, fast and awesome. As the race drew closer the nerves began to increase. I knew I was fit enough to get the job done, but at the same time there was a very small tinge of doubt. To break the American record of 2:19:36 we would have to average 3:18/km, and I was committed to a minimum of 35km at that pace. As I was thinking about the numbers behind this effort I got kinda scared, holy hell this was going to be a pisser of a long run!
Sunday morning arrived and we were presented with a perfect day to do some marathon running. This was the most nervous I had been before a race in a long while. I have missed that pre-race emotion and anxiety. Man, I was fired up. Ryan and I warmed up together, reconfirmed the strategies and laced up our boots, we were ready to take our girl on a little tour of Berlin.
I have met Shalane several times before this race, and each time I have been so impressed with how down to earth and genuine she is. She is literally the sweetheart of American distance running. She has an Olympic medal, several American records and an endless list of other accolades. And now here she is on the start line of the Berlin Marathon, she has a ridiculous amount of expectation and external pressure on her, yet as the starter announces one minute to start time, she turns to Ryan and myself and expresses her sincere thanks to us for rabbiting for her. It was quite humbling.
The gun goes and it’s on.
Ryan and I immediately went to the front and established the pace. We were also joined by a Belgian runner whom was there to pace the Japanese runner. What I was not expecting was the hordes of other dudes whom decided to latch on to our pack. Fair enough, sub 2:20 is a pretty big milestone, so ya can’t fault them for getting in the pack. Still, they were kinda annoying at times. All those dudes owe Ryan and myself a beer at very least.
After the chaos and confusion of the 1st few km dissipated we were able to settle in and get to work, 33:00 at 10km, 66:00 at 20km, 69:38 for the half. The Belgian was long gone, the pack had settled, and the record attempt was on, Shalane was looking great and rolling strong.
But like it has happened to thousands of other runners, in thousands of other marathons, at around 32km the pace began taking its toll. We backed off briefly in attempts to regroup. Just as that was happening a train of Ethiopian women came streaming by. For a lot of runners this would be pretty demoralizing- Shalane was already in her own little world of hurt, then these ladies just show up and float on by. This is when Shalane showed just why she is one of the best in the world. She kept completely calm and focused, she didn’t flinch. She waited, regrouped and then she dug the hell down! she began to fight back! (I have no idea where this strength came from, when this happens to me I usually start whimpering and drooling on myself.)
Over the course of the next few km’s we caught the girl in 3rd (Bekele), then at around 38km we caught the girl in 2nd (Tadese). It was awesome man, Shalane was suffering, but she was competing so damn hard, she was even attacking. I couldn’t help but get excited, my fandom started to emerge. I was running and cheering at the same time. I have to apologize to Shalane for anything I said here, I was getting a little worked up.
Shalane and Tadese locked on to each other and for a good 2km these girls fought each other tooth and nail. Finally the toll of the early pace caught up and Shalane was bankrupt. Shalane ended up finishing 3rd overall in 2:21:14. A big PB and 2nd fastest American woman ever. It was an amazing effort. When you come into a race like this looking to do something so special it can be easy to become demoralized and give in when it starts to unravel. Shalane ran until she physically broke, but at no point did she ever mentally waver. It really was an amazing thing to see.
Ryan and I ended up taking Shalane 41km (we were strictly instructed to step off there). It was great having Ryan there, because that was a friggen hard effort. It got quite difficult at times, hell I even doubted my ability to keep going at points. At 32km I was really cursing my decision to not taper just a little for the race. Shit man, that really stung. It was so damn good to have another guy there to help monitor the pace and keep things steady.
The physical exertion was hard. but the most difficult part for myself was the mental side of the effort. Usually during long runs and long races it is nice to just shut off the brain and run. The less thinking the better. We didn’t have that luxury on Sunday, we had to be aware and alert the whole time. It was kind of exhausting, but I that was my job, so no complaints there and in the end that was a really cool experience.
Gotta give a huge thanks to Shalane, Steve, Tom and Jerry for inviting me to this event. I was honored to be given such responsibility. They are an awesome group of people, The Bowerman Track Club really has a special thing going there in Portland.
Also huge thanks to the Berlin marathon for being such great hosts.
Kudos to Ryan Vail for being a cool dude and great co-worker, best of luck to him at the NYC Marathon, hope he kills it!
Also shout out to Shalane’s Dad, Steve Flanagan and the rest of her support squad, such nice people.
Finally big ups to the fine folks at the Boston Marathon (Mary Kate), London Marathon (Dave Bedford) and Mr. Tim Hutchings for the delicious post run Pilsners. Always great to hang out with these people. One of the highlights of this trip was a heated, 4pint deep debate on the prospects of the 2hr marathon.
Okay, so that whole endeavour was awesome.
I have heard a bit of criticism, and it is apparent that a few folks had their reservations as to whether it was a good idea for me to do this 3weeks out from my own marathon in Toronto. Fair enough, but the run itself was not an issue, sure it was quite a hard effort, but got in a great long effort out there, I would have been doing something very similar back in Vancouver anyways. It also allowed for perfect practice for race day planning; I did my exact pre-race routine, experienced race day emotions (I was friggen nervous man) and was able to get to practice race fueling and get a taste of that atmosphere.
I was able to roll a couple steady runs on Monday. No worse for wear there. It was the travel that beat me up a bit. But to be honest I’ll take 3 or 4 days of heavy legs and slight fatigue in exchange for the HUGE mental and emotional shift that has occurred as a result of this weekend. I needed that and now I can’t friggen wait to line up and give it a go of my own in Toronto. Onward to STWM my friends.