We arrived in Berlin the Thursday afternoon before the race. When we went to do some sightseeing, the first thing we encountered was the finish area of the course. At the end of the race, you run through the Brandenburg Gate then to the finish line chute. The Brandenburg Gate, originally a city entrance gate, ended up in no man’s land when the Berlin Wall was in place. It’s now the National Monument and a symbol of the reunification.
When we passed by, the video screen showed footage of the top three men running: Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge, Tokyo Marathon winner and course record holder Wilson Kipsang and defending champion, Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele. Each was aiming to set a new world record at this year’s Berlin Marathon. Unfortunately, conditions were less than ideal on race day, and a new world record was not set.
On Friday afternoon, we went the race expo. Whoa, was it chaotic. When you arrive, participants are directed in one direction and non-participants in another. Thankfully, Jay and I were able to find each other after I picked up my bib and race packet.
The first thing they do after entering the participant area is give you your athlete wristband. It’s cloth, which so much more comfortable than the plastic wristbands used by most races. The wristband is sewn around your wrist. It was pretty cool.
Next, we reconnected with Jay and took advantage of a few photo ops.
Then we headed to the Adidas store to check out the official race merchandise. The racks were half empty and they were out my size in the items I liked. I ended up just getting a running hat.
Out front of the Expo there were the BMW race vehicles. BMW is the official sponsor of the race.
The morning before the race, we did a shake out run together as a group. We are used to spending our Saturday mornings together running, but this morning was extra special because we were running together in Berlin!!! The excitement for the marathon was building.
That afternoon, we went to a special screening of the documentary film “Skid Row Marathon”. The film’s synopsis: When a criminal court judge starts a running club on LA’s notorious skid row and begins training a motley group of addicts and criminals to run marathons, lives begin to change.”
Judge Craig Mitchell started the club 5 years now. They run at 6:00 AM three days a week from the Midnight Mission. Each year, funds are raised to send members of the running club to an overseas marathon. Judge Mitchell, along with a couple members of the Skid Row Running Club, were in Berlin for the screening and to run the marathon.
After the film, we went to the pre-race dinner. Judge Mitchell was the guest speaker and encouraged us to step up our game and do more in our communities. He said many are willing to donate their time a couple of times a year, such as serving meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it doesn’t provide an opportunity to build relationships. Judge Mitchell emphasized that the biggest impact you can have is to show up consistently in the lives of others, week after week. I left that night inspired to do more in my own community.
Race morning, we all met in the hotel lobby to walk to the start of the race together.
Although our hotel was close by, it took us a solid 30 minutes to get to the starting blocks because of all the barricades. As we approached, the wheelchair race was starting. Nerves kicked in as they played the start music and did the countdown for that race.
When we got to the starting blocks, I was excited to see that there were large video screens facing us, so we could see all the action.
They introduced the top 3 male and female runners, and they each waved to the camera. One of the thrilling things about racing at a marathon like Berlin, is that you share the course with some of the best in the sport. I was in the first wave, starting block E, and we started at 9:15, crossing that starting line just minutes behind the top runners.
At the start, I saw Jay on the sideline to my left and he captured some photos. The energy and enthusiasm of the start was overwhelming. My eyes filled up with tears as we ran toward the Arc of Triumph.
It was a wet, rainy morning and the Arc of Triumph was slightly obscured behind fog. The course split at the arc and you could go through the roundabout either to the left or to right. There were several parts of the course like this.
The first hour, the course was really crowded and I was in a dense pack of runners. Humidity was at 99% and each breath was full of the smell of sweaty runners. That evening, we would laugh that it would have been nice to have snorkels to get some fresh air from above the pack. There is one upside to being in a large pack – there can be this sense of getting pulled along by those in front of you.
There are 40,000+ participants and over one million spectators for the marathon! Along the course, there is a live band performing every 500 meters. Even with the dismal weather, the energy on the course was something else.
After about an hour of running, the course started to get less crowded and that’s when I started talking with more and more runners…conversations sparked by the back bib I was wearing with the picture of my dad. So many of the runners were wearing clothing that indicated which country they were from, so I immediately knew where people were from. I loved that here we were, 40,000 of us from countries all around the globe, running alongside each other and encouraging one another. Each of us carrying our own reasons for being here, and our own motivations that help us reach the finish line.
This was my 17th marathon. I did my first marathon 10 years ago, at the 2007 Chicago Marathon. Over the years, I’ve learned that each race is different. I never quite know how I will feel or how it will go until I’m out on the course on race day. I resolve that I will give my best on race day, and what is my best on a given day will vary.
I struggled during this race. The weather conditions were challenging. It was raining on and off, and the wet streets made for lots of puddles. I tried to avoid the puddles when I could, but my socks and shoes were drenched and I was soaked from head to toe. A little before the halfway point, my calves started cramping and my right Achilles started acting up. I was hurting and still had a long way to go. I thought of how symbolic it was that today would not be easy, that it would be a struggle. My dad lived a full life, but it was not an easy life. I thought of how many times he faced adversity and no matter how many times life knocked him down, he got back up, he kept the faith, and he kept moving forward.
I thought about how the pain I was feeling was temporary. When my dad was about my age, he had a horrible motorcycle accident. It almost took his life. He broke over 50 bones and it left him with aches and pains for the rest of his life. The momentary pain and struggle I was facing on this course was nothing in comparison.
I thought about my dad’s relentless drive and work ethic. I thought about his determination and perseverance. He would never give up, and neither would I today. I would keep putting one foot in front of the other. And in my struggle, I would force myself to turn my focus away from myself. To fix my eyes on Jesus, to turn my attention to those around me, to gain inspiration and encouragement from my fellow runners and the spectators along the course. In those final miles, I prayed for so many people around me. And I looked out toward the spectators, making eye contact with those cheering me on by name (with all sorts of accents and ways of pronouncing the name on my bib). I can still visualize some of those faces in my mind.
I took my training very seriously this season. If I was going to run in honor of my dad, I wanted to be prepared to give my best. I was definitely disappointed that this wasn’t a fast day for me. I finished in 3:47, which is the slowest marathon I’ve run in years. It was humbling. And deep down, I know that this is what was meant to be for this day. As I reflect on the whole experience, my heart is filled with gratitude.
It was an honor to run the Berlin Marathon in memory of my dad. It combined our shared love for traveling with the German heritage of the Stark family. I thought a lot about my dad out there on the course. I thought of his determination to always give his best, and of his perseverance despite the difficulties he faced. I reflected on his enduring faith throughout his life, his pursuit of Christ, and his love for people. My dad would have loved that this bib I wore on my back sparked conversations with so many today, I must have talked with people from over 20 countries out there on the course. Thankful for my dad and all he taught me through the way he lived his life.
2 Timothy 4:7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”