The Berlin Marathon is one of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors, and it’s best-known for being a world record course. In fact, 12 marathon world records have been broken at Berlin!
On September 24, 2023, I joined 47,000 other runners on the streets of Berlin for a 42.2km run. Here’s my recap of the experience, so you know what to expect in future years, plus a reflection on my performance.
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Like most of the other World Marathon Majors, you can either get into Berlin by lottery or by qualifying. I entered the lottery as a team with my friend, and we got in.
We were supposed to run in 2022, but I deferred and ran this year instead. I did have to repay the registration fees minus a 40 euro deferral credit, but I had a guaranteed spot for 2023.
The expo was at Tempelhof Airport, a pre-WWII airport that is now an urban space and public park. The terminal is preserved, so it’s pretty cool to walk through that to get to the expo.
I’d heard in the Berlin Marathon Facebook group that there had been long lines at the expo. I got there around 2pm on Saturday, however, and I got my bib within 15 minutes—most of which was walking since the airport is massive.
The expo was crowded of course, and there were short lines to get your bracelet and bib, but each time I only had 1-2 people in front of me. Since the bibs were printed in front of you, you also didn’t have to go to a specific stand to get your bib, which was pretty convenient.
The only thing I would recommend is to pre-order race merch with registration if you want your size (there is no shirt included). The expo ran out of smaller sizes quickly, and it was chaos in the Adidas merch area because it was so crowded.
I’m superstitious haha and didn’t want a shirt before the race happened, and I also don’t love Adidas as a company, so I didn’t buy one. But, my friend wanted a specific style men’s shirt in size small since he couldn’t get one last year, and I couldn’t find it at the expo or the Adidas flagship store.
Outside of merch, there were several other running vendors, photo ops, and a bunch of food trucks. I didn’t see many freebies, but it was still fun to walk around. There were long lines for the photo backdrops in the expo/hangar area, but no lines for those outside the hangar. The designs were different, but I preferred the simple ones outside the hangar.
The start area was near the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gates, two of Berlin’s famous landmarks. I took the train to Berlin Central station, and it was a short walk to the start area.
The official entrance to the start area was across from the Reichstag. It took me a bit of navigating and asking volunteers to get there. You showed your bracelet to get in, and then you could access bag drop and the corrals. Bag drop was super efficient since it was separated by bib numbers, and I didn’t have to wait at all to hand off my bag.
There were port-a-potties before the corrals, but I heard that the lines were super long, and that those near the corrals didn’t have much of a wait. I also did see a bunch of people just peeing in the forest. You gotta do what you gotta do haha.
Getting to the corrals was bit of a walk from bag drop, but there were volunteers telling you where to go. I was in corral F, which started at 9:40, the second wave (the first was at 9:15). I had put my estimated finish time down as 3:45, but the corral organization was a bit weird, and there were 3:45 pacing groups in corrals behind me as well. It was kind of based on finish time, but also not.
There was great energy at the start, and it got me excited to run the next 42km/26.2 miles!
I wore a tech tee from a previous half marathon, bike shorts, and Brooks Hyperion Elite 2 shoes.
It was maybe 55°F at the start (13°C) and 65°F by the end (18°C), probably even getting up to 70°F (20°C) by the later afternoon. It did start to feel a little toasty around the half marathon mark, but I wouldn’t say it was a warm race overall.
You could wear sweats to the start and discard them to be donated. It was warm enough that I didn’t feel like I needed it, plus I didn’t have anything to discard since I’d spent the last 2 months in Europe and had to pack light.
Before the race, I made sure to apply Bodyglide to all the pesky spots that usually chafe. I also carried a kid’s CamelBak (linked similar) with a small amount of water specifically for drinking between water stops.
For gels, I brought 2 Huma gels and 4 SiS gels. I had a French fruit chew before the race as well. There were Maurten electrolyte drinks along the course, and one stop near the end with gel, but I find Maurten kind of gross. It tastes just like pure sugar and the gel is thick. Definitely test it out beforehand if you plan to rely on the electrolyte drinks during the race.
Also, mentally prepare yourself for the sticky roads after the aid stations with Maurten. You could hear everyone’s shoes sticking to the pavement with each step for a couple hundred meters afterwards. It wasn’t sticky enough to really slow you down, but it was enough to be noticeable.
The course is super flat, with only around 250ft (76m) of gain. There were a few bridges with some inclines, but they were not that noticeable, even towards the end of the race were I was exhausted. There’s a reason that so many world records are broken on this course!
The race goes through several neighborhoods in the city of Berlin, but I honestly don’t remember many landmarks, other than those in the start/finish area and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (and I only registered this probably because it was close to where I was staying).
There are a bunch of turns, but if you follow the blue line, you shouldn’t run too much extra. I ended up with around 26.5mi or 42.65km, which is pretty decent for such a big race (I actually ran with 2 GPS watches haha since I was comparing COROS and Garmin, and they got 26.45mi and 26.59mi, respectively).
Because there are so many runners, just keep in mind that there may be some weaving around, and you might get elbowed or have your heel stepped on accidentally. I generally felt like I could run my pace, but there were slowdowns at the aid stations.
There were spectators throughout the entire race, as well as bands. I thought the crowd support was quite good and sometimes even too loud, but I did see others complain in the Facebook group that it wasn’t as good as races like Chicago. There are some “quieter” areas, but there was always people cheering.
You get to run under the Brandenburg Gates near the finish, which signals the last few hundred meters. Definitely save some energy for after the gates. There were a few turns in the last kilometer or so, and I kept hoping that the next one would be the gates haha.
Once you finish, you get your medal and a snack bag that had some fruit, pretzels, a pastry, and sweet treats. Only the fruit and pretzels were vegan, so plan ahead to bring more fuel if you’re vegan. There was also non-alcoholic beer, but I don’t like beer, so I skipped it.
Getting my bag back was easy with no wait. I had a change of clothes, but there are also showers at the finish line. I was so tired that I had to sit down multiple times as I meandered out of the racers’ area. Luckily, there’s a large, grassy field in front of the Reichstag where many people were sitting, lying down, and taking photos.
There are some food vendors outside of the finish area, but they were mostly pretzels and bratwursts. If you want that, make sure to bring cash.
I will also add that my phone signal was spotty in the finish area, so if you’re meeting with someone, arrange a specific spot afterwards. There was a handy area with lettered signs that you could use.
Like I mentioned, there was no free shirt with race entry, but there was a wide variety of race merch for purchase.
The medal was nice, with landmarks on one side and Berlin champions on the other side. I found the metal engravings of people a little creepy-looking, but it’s nice to include the champs in the designs as recognition.
I knew going into this race that I wasn’t in PR shape. I had a rough year of running and health in 2022, since I was recovering from a B12 deficiency. After I got back into running, I also got a bone stress injury in late January 2023 and couldn’t run at all in February. Once I got back into it, running felt awful for a couple months.
I also started lifting weights again to build bone density, and that changed my body in unexpected ways. I somehow ended up bulking up, even though the last time I strength trained, I lost weight.
My last long run, the 20-miler, was also a big mess—I’d gotten food poisoning less than a week before, but I didn’t want to delay the run any more so I’d have enough time to recover before the race. I felt fine for the first 8 miles, but then crashed and burned and had to run/walk the last 10 miles.
Because of all this, I really wasn’t sure what I was going to run. The watches I’d been using also didn’t help much—Garmin predicted a 3:54:14 specifically for the race (3:51:29 for the marathon distance) and COROS predicted 4:13:35 (though their race predictor had been buggy the last few months). These were super different times!
Either way, I was glad to have made it to the start line in one piece, and just wanted it to be as fun of a race as possible, and to do my best.
I wanted to go sub-4 if possible, but wasn’t sure it was realistic, so I planned to go out slightly slower than that. I was worried about crashing like I did during my 20-miler.
I felt decent in the beginning miles, and did the first half in 2:00:17. I usually add around 8 minutes to the second half of my marathon split, so realistically I thought I might finish in 4:08, but I also hoped maybe I could speed up and go sub-4 (also note that the course only has kilometer markers, but it’s easier for me to talk about miles since I’m American and we’re still on the darned imperial system haha).
Around mile 16, the fatigue started to creep in, and I started slowing down by mile 18. These last 8 miles were very rough, and I lost my momentum. I wasn’t having trouble breathing, but my heart rate was still in the 170s, and my legs burned. As usual, my quads felt like they might seize up if I pushed too hard (I was hopeful that strength training would’ve prevented this, but I was wrong).
I did a handful of miles over 10:00/mile, and I knew sub-4 wasn’t going to happen. I would’ve also loved sub-4:05, but that also wasn’t going to happen with my pace. I even gave up on sub-4:10 and made it my goal to just finish and not walk.
I realized with about half a kilometer left that sub-4:10 was actually still possible, so after passing under the Brandenburg Gates, I dug and found a little more speed in my legs.
I finished in 4:09:34, which wasn’t my best time, nor my worst. I was extremely grateful to have been able to do another marathon, and grateful that I didn’t crash and burn during the race. I would’ve loved to have run a steadier race, but it’s very typical for me to slow down 7-8 minutes in the second half, so this wasn’t too far off that.
After some recovery, I’m looking forward to rebuilding some speed and tackling the next one 🙂
Overall, the Berlin Marathon is a fun event, and it’s well-organized. I would love to come back and do it again when I’m in better shape. It felt like a shame to not be in PR shape on a PR course, though to be fair, it was quite crowded.
If you have any questions about the event, or want to let us know how you did, please do so in the comments! You may also want to check out my post dedicated to Berlin Marathon tips, with all the crucial things I think you should know going into the race.