A conglomeration of 25,000 people stood together early on a Sunday morning, working to process a complicated set of emotions which only they could really understand or feel. Any attempt to explain what was going through their minds at that precise moment would most definitely fall short.
There was excitement, for sure, unlike any they had ever experienced before. Nerves, equally strong, stubbornly battling with it, in a warning to remain unoptimistic. Exhaustion, most definitely, it had taken months of mental and physical work to get to where they were now. Worry, absolutely. 42 kilometers of uncertainty ahead means a lot of time for the mind to wander off into places it’s never been before. These and more unnamable feelings came together in an unruly little package, and inhabited their homes in the hearts of the 25,000 racers standing together at the starting line that Sunday.
I was one of the many nervous faces standing still and looking forward through the sea of heads.
Music played loudly, people sang, others closed their eyes in concentration, preferring not to be distracted by their neighbors’ uncoordinated dancing. Last minute stretches were performed by some, giving idle bodies something to do in these last minutes of anticipated waiting. Nervous jumping, heavy breathing. The multitude seemed to be moving together, held together by a goal, and motivated by a seemingly unattainable purpose.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t quite know what pushed me to be one in 25,000 on that sunny late summer day to run the Berlin Marathon. Even at that moment standing before the starting line, I was unsure about the journey I was about to embark on. Only a few months back, before I turned 20, I decided to celebrate with a symbolic run, a milestone birthday to be marked by a milestone run: 20 kilometers for 20 years. The running club, which I started at BCB, joined me and ran as well. Some biked behind us, some walked part of the route, and some ran with me for the whole thing; but everyone found some way to get involved. We pushed each other through the streets of Berlin, kilometer after kilometer, year after year, until we reached the twentieth. As soon as I took my final steps, all I could think about was my mom, a veteran marathon runner who at that point had completed 21 marathons in her lifetime. Breathless, already sore, and completely exhausted, I bent over and tried to catch my breath, incapable of understanding how she could’ve run more than double that distance so many times, so perfectly and effortlessly, as I had seen her do all my life. Running a marathon could not have been further from my mind at this point in time.
I stumbled blindly through the next few months, somehow along the way deciding that a marathon was to be my next step. This goal seemed more abstract than anything else; an unreachable destination located somewhere far from myself that pulled me through a summer of training, long weekend runs, and early morning wake ups. I told people around me I was to run a marathon, they congratulated me, wished me luck, and sent me motivational messages and calls; it was more materialized in their minds than it ever was in mine. I didn’t quite know what I was doing, and looking back on it now, I was so far from seeing the big picture, even on that morning waiting at the starting line.
I would be lying if I said I could remember what I thought at exactly that point in time, but my mind was completely blank, giving me a clarity that allowed me to be fully present in an almost meditative state. The starting gun went off as if in a dream, and by then I was too involved in my own racing thoughts to do much more than hit the start button on my watch and slowly break into an easy run. The first few steps I took were determined, and the ease with which I advanced gave me hope that what lay ahead would be bearable. The confidence rose from my feet and up to the rest of my body, I looked ahead, careful not to trip as I maneuvered through the ocean of people that had by now crashed against the shore; after that starting line we were one no more.
Throughout the next 42 kilometers, the steps began to falter and the fatigue crept into every step as I pushed forward, but somehow, the confidence never died. Running many kilometers ahead was my mom, passing other runners at an almost superhuman speed, pulling me from her position at the front of the pack. She ran and ran, as she is so used to doing and had done countless times before, an experienced winner of this strange new world I had spontaneously decided to make a part of my life. Inexperienced and naive, I remained unsure of what I was doing pretty much since I began training. No matter how many times I had to wake up at 7 am on a Sunday to run, or how many times the pain in my knees threatened to stay, nothing ever seemed so bad, it never seemed so difficult, and it was never unattainable in my head. Without even knowing she was doing so, she kept me safe under her wing, as mothers usually do, as I became a part of her world, running through the streets of Berlin. She shielded me from the reality of what I had in front of me in a way that only a child can be shielded from the hard truths of living by a loving parent. As much as this was my race, she shared the burden of its painful moments with me, and by doing so allowed me to take one step at a time, proudly seeing the signs of each kilometer pass by.
Every feeling I thought myself possible of experiencing condensed itself into a neat three hour forty nine minute package, and ran rampant in my head for the duration of my run. Although from the outside it might seem like a mostly physical feat, the marathon has been one of the most emotional experiences of my life. I wondered countless times why I was putting myself through this, as I felt the ache in my joints and pain I never exactly thought I could feel, blindly holding on to thoughts of family and friends to get me through.
It’s hard to put the feelings of the last 10 kilometers into words because in many ways I feel like they could never truly do it justice. No amount of training could have prepared me for this final stretch, and no words of advice could ever cover the reality. It was the worst, mentally and physically exhausting; but it is probably this exact pain that has made the memory of them so vivid in my mind. I can replay it now, over and over again, and still feel everything as if I were running through Kudamm and into Potsdamer Platz. The unbelievable emotion when I saw my friends waiting for me at the start of the 38th kilometer. I’ll always remember how overwhelmed with emotion I was when I saw their faces cheering me on when I felt like I had no more left to give. And how that excitement gave me enough to keep up my pace and arrive at the 41st kilometer, where my mom, already done with her own race, was yelling my name from the sidelines. Tears of joy and pain streamed down my face when I ran to her and stopped for a hug that got me where I needed to go. Just around the corner from where she was, I made my way onto Unter den Linden, lined with more people I’ve ever seen there at once, and saw the Brandenburger Tor at the end of the crowd of people. As if in a trance, pulled solely by the image of the symbol of the finish line, I picked up my pace as much as my tired legs allowed me to. There was the finish line, everything that I had been working towards for months, waiting for me with open arms inviting me to cross it. I was breathless as soon as I came to a stop, and collected my medal with proud tears streaming down my face and blurring my vision. As I put it on, I allowed myself to let everything I had just lived sink in. Even now, a month later, I still don’t think it fully has.