I’ve started running again recently and it sure does feel good. I never stopped completely, but I let my fitness levels dip and as a result going for runs stopped being fun. And they are fun usually (I’m not just saying that, I promise), and also essential, I’ve come to realise, not only to my health but my happiness too.
I haven’t always been a runner, but I signed up to do the Berlin half marathon last year and once I got into it, I was hooked. I suspect many people are put off signing up for fitness challenges through needlessly terrifying experiences during school sports, but if you’re tempted to sign up for something, just go for it. Tonnes of people take on half marathons, marathons and triathlons, and I can promise you they aren’t all natural-born athletes – most of them are averagely equipped humans who are willing to challenge themselves.
Doing a race abroad I think is a brilliant way of making more of a special occasion out of it, plus it gives you an excuse for an extra holiday (for me with a best pal I don’t get to see that often)! Read on to discover whether it’s the right thing for you and to find out why I think Berlin is an ace place to race.
Why race abroad?
It might be the case that you want to tackle a challenge, but you can’t find one at a suitable time of year, that’s tailored to your level and that has free places. Berlin was perfect for me, as when I decided to run a half marathon, I didn’t want to give myself any wiggle room in case I backed out, so I signed up with only 12-13 weeks to go (I don’t necessarily recommend this – I couldn’t run to the end of the street when I started and I was really pushing it).
The second thing that attracted to me Berlin was the route. Not only was it completely flat (massive bonus), but it cut through some of the most beautiful and interesting areas of the city and allowed me to run under the Brandenburg Gate, which was pretty special. It’s a fairly unique way to see the sights, but because I don’t know Berlin all that well it helped to keep me distracted from the pain and engaged with my surroundings
The larger races can seem intimidating, but if you’re a novice, that’s actually better. Bigger events draw bigger crowds, have more entertainment, give you more advice, have more money poured into them and therefore are better organised. You will be nervous, so you’ll want to know that your stuff is safe and that you’re going to get a cheesy warm up and have people encouraging you and heralding you with drums and trumpets all along the route.
I hate to stereotype, but the Germans were stupendously efficient. We were told to pick up our numbers and tags the day before at Tempelhof and were given bags with our numbers on to put our things in, which were then held in vans with those numbers on. At the end of the race we were funnelled through and handed space blankets, bananas, medals and a pint of Erdinger (alkoholfrei, but yum all the same).
Oh yeah, and threw us a special half marathon party in a penthouse club with super-toned athletes from all over the world. Need I say more?
We made an error. We spent three nights in Berlin and rocked up two nights before our half marathon, promising ourselves we would remain teetotal until after the race. Berlin might be the worst place in the world to have to be teetotal. To make matters worse our hostel was right by Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichschain, which was basically torture because it is crammed full of pretty awesome bars. All the discipline and strength of mind we had demonstrated during training fell to pieces. The lure of the beer was too strong for us to resist (and it didn’t affect our athletic performance in the end anyway).
Beer anecdotes aside, do give yourself plenty of time to do everything you need to do before the race – this might include registering in person the day before – and also on the day. It’s nerve-wracking enough an experience without wondering if you’re actually going to make it to the start line.
Hunt down places to carb-load the day and night before the race, and make sure you’ve got what you need to eat for breakfast. Even if the place you’re staying serves breakfast, if your race is in the morning you might need to wake up earlier than they start serving in order to give yourself time to digest.
One thing to keep in mind if you’re going to race abroad is cost. Obviously, you’re probably hoping to make it into a holiday too, but just as with any race, there’s always the chance you won’t make it over. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but injury can strike at any time during training (this happened to my running partner the week before her marathon earlier this year), so make sure you choose somewhere you’re happy to go anyway, or keep it cheap so that you don’t lose too much if you’re forced to cancel altogether.
Berlin is pretty cheap by European standards anyway, but we flew easyJet and stayed at the All In Hostel. Competition among hostels in Berlin is fierce, and so there are some seriously smart places to choose from and standards are fairly high across the board. Try and steer clear of anywhere that has its own bar or a party vibe, though, as you will need your sleep. Obviously if you’re going to stay in a hostel, it’s best to go for a private ensuite room — again so you can get some decent shut-eye the night before, but also so you can rest and recuperate in peace afterwards.
All In was great for us, although there were quite a lot of schoolchildren running up and down the corridors. The location was ideal – only a couple of metro stops from the start line, surrounded by bars and not too far from the East Side Gallery. On our first night we also had dinner at a gorgeous little Thai place called Papaya that has nearly all its ingredients imported from Bangkok. The smoothies were to die for (that was before we fell off the wagon).
Finally, think about what you’re going to do after the race. Arrange a meeting place and agreed time, and if that doesn’t work out, agree another time at which you’ll both head back to your lodgings. Also agree on somewhere to celebrate. We went to the seriously cheesy Haus der 100 Biere (the Mommsenstasse one) for schnitzel and more Erdinger (mit alcohol this time) and it was just perfect.
The main benefit of racing abroad is, perhaps obviously, being abroad. Berlin really is the most intriguing of places, and there’s plenty of fun to be had for very little money. I don’t know the city as well I’d like, or as well as I will (I’m back there next week, albeit for work), but I do know some things about how to have a good time in Berlin (five, if you’re counting), and here they be:
- Dolores – I recommend this place to everyone, but seriously, it does the best burritos I’ve ever had. I dream about them sometimes.
- The Holocaust Memorial – The most remarkable and moving monument I have ever seen. Concrete slabs are arranged across a sloping field and as you walk through between them they range from knee-high to twice your height, even though from outside they all look the same. It’s an utterly bewildering and unnerving experience getting lost in them and I don’t think I’ve ever been so affected by a piece of architecture.
- A rave in Kreuzberg – I don’t know how you find them, but I had a friend who had a friend and then we were there and it was brill. We also had a smashing kebab afterwards from Mustafa’s by Kreuzberg station.
- A walk from the Reichstag under the Brangenburg Tor and through the park
- The East Side Gallery – A section of the Berlin Wall left standing covered in murals painted by 105 artists, which serves as an international memorial for freedom (see my pictures below).