Neil Featherby: When I had to tackle a very different kind of wall in Berlin

Runners after the finish of the race. Picture: Neil Featherby

Runners after the finish of the race. Picture: Neil Featherby


Thirty-two years ago today was probably the highlight of what I consider to be my average running career.

Neil Featherby's race number with pre-planned splits and certificate. Picture: Neil FeatherbyNeil Featherby's race number with pre-planned splits and certificate. Picture: Neil Featherby

Having received a very late invitation to run in the Berlin Marathon and having ran there the year before in 2:19:07, I thought what the heck and why not?

However, I didn’t really stop to think about what I had just agreed to do and it really was a case of throwing my kit in my bags exactly one week later and heading off to Heathrow. I also had to stop on the way to pick up a brand new pair of shoes from my then sponsor Reebok.

Whilst wearing new shoes for a marathon is frowned upon, these really were brand new on my feet when I toed the start line.

Needless to say I also missed the plane having arrived at the airport late (that won’t surprise anyone who knows me).

Looking over the Berlin Wall into the East. Picture: Neil FeatherbyLooking over the Berlin Wall into the East. Picture: Neil Featherby

Nevertheless and after several hours of hanging around, I managed to get on the evening flight and despite my fears that no one would be there to meet me upon arriving in Berlin, in true organised German fashion, there was a car and driver waiting for me.

I was handed the customary brown envelope (expenses) and taken to where I would be staying and told I would be able to get some food.

As we pulled up at the hotel which was just outside of Spandau, I couldn’t help noticing how very dark it was which soon became obvious why. Everything was shut for the night and the only food I was now able to obtain was that from the girl on reception who I chatted up to go steal five rounds of bread and a knob of butter out of the kitchen for me.

To make matters worse after unpacking my bags in my room I was horrified to find that my brown envelope only contained a race number and no expenses as promised.

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With very little money in my wallet and very little food in my stomach, I just thought ‘right get your head down and try to get some sleep as whatever happens, I have a marathon to run in the morning’.

If nothing else at least the room was really nice and I had a big double bed. Looking back on it, what with the way things had gone up to that point, I should have realised what was about to happen next because just as I started to doze off I was awoken by the rustle of someone getting into the bed.

I opened my eyes and after a moment of just laying there perfectly still, I sat up and looked round only to see this guy in the same bed as me. “Hello,” he said. “I stay here.”

After that, his English was very limited, but the gist of the matter was pretty apparent that the organisers had allocated us the same room. In other words the joys of being on the B List of invited international athletes. Anyway, he politely said goodnight and whilst he stayed very firmly tucked up on his side of the bed, I did the same on my side.

The next morning I awoke thinking right let’s get some food as I am now really hungry and I have over 26 miles to run.

As I left the room, my German colleague was still very much asleep so I quietly shut the door to only wander down and find that the clocks had gone back an hour during the night and was told to go back to bed for an hour. I really was now thinking that I had made a big mistake coming out to Berlin, but nevertheless that extra hour soon passed whilst I went back to the hotel and tried my brand new shoes.

Come breakfast time, I was straight in and I did indeed tuck into cereal, fruit and the usual continental style rolls and jams so as to get some much needed calories into me.

An hour or so later, I noticed that athletes were now starting to leave the hotel and decided to casually get on a bus which just happened to be the official bus for the Polish athletes.

They looked at me and I stared back at them before very nicely saying ‘hi’ to all of them in my ignorance.

Nothing more was said and before I knew it I was standing on the start line thinking ‘right let’s just get this done and get the hell out of here’. Strangely enough at this point I wasn’t sure how I felt with regards to how it was going to go.

I had planned my splits which were written down on my race number to run 2:17. The gun went and I soon settled in to a decent group which were running around 5mins 15 secs a mile pace.

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At the same time I also noticed some very well-known names around me which gave me a boost as they seemed to be working harder than I was.

Halfway passed in 69:12 and at 15 miles, I still felt absolutely full of running thinking to myself that if the last 11.2 miles take me an hour I will still run 2:18.

I went through 20 miles in 1:45:28 and still feeling really strong, I decided to go for it.

The last 10k was brilliant as I passed a lot of runners, including that of fellow Brit Mick Thompson, who had earlier that year won the Inter Counties 20 in a really fast time and by 25 miles I knew that my planned 2:17 was going to happen.

I flew down the long finishing straight and whilst I could see another top British runner by the name of Kevin Capper coming back at me, I just ran out of road before catching him and crossing the finish line. My official race time was 2:17:35 which was not only a PB, but I had also finished in 21st place and second Brit.

Looking back on it, I do now know how and why I PB’d that day, but at the same time there was no real structure or build up to running a marathon which just over a week before I hadn’t even planned for.

Training and racing had been good that year, winning several races from 10k up to the half marathon during the summer months, after running three marathons between April and May, which also included my first ever England call up.

However, all other preparations were ridiculous, which perhaps also summed up the chaos of my trip to Berlin that weekend.

The chaos didn’t stop there either as the taxi which the race director put me into after the race to get me back to my hotel, got bogged down in traffic which culminated with a five-mile walk back to the hotel albeit with a stop off on route to have a look at the then Berlin Wall and the very famous 1936 Olympic Stadium.

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Later that evening we were all summoned to the post-race reception where all the invited athletes were paid out and whilst I was satisfied with what I got, I decided to save what I had in my pocket and once again make another five-mile walk back to the hotel under the street lights whilst intently studying and following my map of Berlin.

Realising that by the time I was going to get back, everything would be shut, I stopped off at a filling station supermarket for what was indeed my post race meal of German chocolate bars and biscuits. Needless to say not exactly ideal, but they tasted good and I didn’t really care as I had indeed run 2:17 earlier that day.

Final foot note as always…… yes I did once again have to share a bed with the same German Athlete that night, but while he was sleeping on his side of the bed content with his 2:19, I was probably a little more content with my race time especially after everything else which had taken place that weekend.

Thankfully neither of us cramped up during the night, but he did offer me an apple the next morning or in German as he put it…..Mochtest du einen apfel?

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