Michelle on running the Berlin Marathon 2018
I was lucky enough to participate in the Berlin Marathon a couple weekends ago, and I am still buzzing from it. Berlin is a city I have been regularly visiting since 2003, and at the time, I was living in another German city, one that was large but fairly homogenous. When they weren't ignoring me, people were happy to point out that I wasn’t from there. Berlin, in comparison, was a diverse and dynamic city. Like New York, it's multicultural. And like New York, it’s a city I don’t live in but know fairly well. There are parts of Berlin that feel comforting and familiar. Maybe it’s because it’s always housed various communities, and I’ve always found myself more at ease in areas with several diasporas. Much of its modern population is comprised of waves of immigrants (including Gastarbeiter / "Guest workers" from Turkey in the 60s and 70s, Jewish settlers and more recently immigrants from Italy, Spain, Romania and Bulgaria who were drawn to the economic opportunities as well as refugees from Syria, Iraq and other war-torn countries.) It has always been a bastion of liberal and philosophical thought attracting musicians, artists and the culturally-minded.
Unlike other German cities (Munich, Hamburg, Cologne), what is beautiful about Berlin is not immediately apparent. On the surface, it is gritty, dirty and crowded, but give it some time and what its beauty will reveal itself. The city is pockmarked with the scars of war and doesn’t hide from its past. In many ways, it embraces it. Part of the city’s coolness stems from its traumatic history and the innovation that comes out of the necessity of survival. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, people were left in a state of confusion, upheaval and euphoria. What developed from the chaos was a newfound freedom and a collective ecstasy, one that is still evident today.
The metropolis remains a city in motion, a place for re-inventions, new beginnings and dreams.
Along with 44,000 other runners, I ferried my running dreams with me to Brandenburger Tor, where the marathon begins and ends. Besides dreams, Berlin is also a city that makes history, and the 45th Berlin Marathon was no exception. This year, the world marathon record was broken by none other than Eliud Kipchoge, a Berlin marathon favorite and plausibly, the world’s best marathoner. He smashed his previous time, completing 42.2km in an astonishing 2:01:39. The women’s winner, Kenyan runner Gladys Cherono set a new course record with a blistering time of 2:18:11.
The course is spectacular. There are many exceptional things about this race including the flat and fast course. You are ushered along like a school of fish. The asphalt feels bouncier and more cushioned than North American roads with fewer cracks, dents and dips. The race atmosphere along the course were unreal. The crowds not only showed up, but they brought their guitars, drums, pianos and microphones. Musicians serenaded the runners along the way. I could not believe the quality of the bands — if I hadn't been running a race, I would have stopped to listen to the songs and soak in the vibes. There was also a personal refreshments service the marathon offers, so you can have your bottles of energy drinks available at various distances.
I count myself lucky to have been present at this marathon and to say that I shared the same air as these champions. I have been blessed with the ability and means to travel and participate in a sport that is both individual and international at the same time. I am grateful for the opportunity to watch the city change over the years just as I have witnessed myself evolve through running. I count myself lucky to be part of a running community that spans the globe and offers support no matter where I land.
I am also thankful for this body.
It has carried me places and gifted me my goals. For a long time, I showed it little love. I hated its size, shape and color. And for all of my criticisms, it has done nothing but delivered what I’ve asked, loving me despite my neglect. I wish I had learned earlier to show it the kindness it has shown me. This body has taken me around the world, moved me, humbled me. I learned these lessons of love and appreciation through sport. Like Berlin, its beauty was not immediately apparent. It took time and patience.
Berlin is a city that was carved up and put back together. I write this with sore muscles and aching limbs. My body was carved up and put back together through the training process. Running demands that you break your body and mind apart and build it back up. It is grueling, it is gritty and it is worth it.
Running a marathon is an experience that changes you. Traveling is an experience that changes you. When you put the two together, it leaves a profound effect, transforming you whether you want it to or not. You never know how either will turn out. The marathon distance is the ultimate test, a delicate balance of going fast enough for long enough. It's hard work to even get to the start line in the first place, but once you’re there, there are no guarantees. The outcome is unknown but surrendering to that uncertainty while maintaining faith is liberating as well.
In JFK's Ich bin ein Berliner speech, he also said, “Lasst sie nach Berlin kommen!”, which translates to, “Let them come to Berlin!” And come, we did. In droves. The city has always been popular with tourists, students and young creative types, and for a weekend in September, runners too.