I’m still not convinced everything is bigger in Texas, but the Chevron Houston Marathon with its exceptionally well-organized 5k, half marathon, and full marathon events certainly is. I won’t soon forget the thousands of helpful volunteers, the flat, looping course, and the many articles of Texas flag-themed running clothes I saw. But staying with my sister and her family had to be the highlight of the whole trip.
My sister was a fantastic host during my stay in Houston. Not only did she open up her house to me so I’d have a comfortable, familiar place to stay while visiting Houston, she also drove me all over creation. On Friday, after my last four-mile tune-up run, she took me downtown to the George R. Brown Convention Center so I could pick up my race packet. We wandered around the expo picking up cowbells (so she could cheer me on), mini Chevron cars (for the nieces), but not a signed photo of the Houston Rockets cheerleaders, which I insisted my brother-in-law would have appreciated. We also looked for a pair of shoes for her in case, you know, she might want to kick her half marathon training up a notch. My goody bag full, we headed back to her house where I spent the next day and a half watching playoff football, horsing around with my little nieces, and trying not to think too much about the upcoming race.
When my alarm went off Sunday morning, though, I jumped out of bed and was ready. I threw on my running attire, grabbed my sweats bag, and bundled myself into my sister’s truck for the drive back into town to the convention center. By the time I got there the huge space was packed with folks stretching, dropping off their sweats bags, or attending either the Protestant or Catholic church services. Soon the time came to head back out into the pre-sunrise chill to line up in the starting corral. I always love these pre-race moments where the excited voice of the race announcer echoes off the surrounding buildings, the sun is starting to color the sky, and dozens of runners quietly run by doing their warm-ups. I found the 3:20 pace group, cheered as the wheelchair group started off, listened to a too-high rendition of our National Anthem, and waited for the boom of the cannon which sent us on our way.
I was floored by the crowd support this event generates. Immediately after crossing the starting line, folks lined the course to cheer us runners on, and the signs, music, and even belly dancing would accompany us along almost every block of the course. I don’t think I’ve heard the phrases, “Keep it up!” and “You look great!” so many times in one day. I loved the bagpipe player around mile 11 (after all among other things I am Scottish), the non-traditional blue jumpsuit-clad Elvis impersonator, and the trio of girls who got me to smile when they broke out their impromptu version of Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi. I even got sprinkled with holy water.
Last month’s race in Sacramento is notable for its rolling downhill course. This race by comparison is flat, flat, flat. We had to tough it out over a couple of highway over and underpasses, but, unless you want to work on your speed, there is no need to do any hillwork when preparing for this race.
What I should have worked on prior to this race was my counting skills as I’ll discuss shortly.
After qualifying for Boston last month, I wanted to run a qualifying time again in Houston to show myself I could repeat my performance on a course which lacked Sacramento’s downhill profile. Of course, I told myself, if the going got tough I could always slow down and relax knowing I’d already punched my ticket to Boston. So, after the initial mile with all its jostling and jockeying for space, I went out a little faster than I normally do. In running circles this is a big no-no, but I feel I’m eventually going to have to learn how to go out fast and maintain that pace. Certainly I can use my training runs to test myself, and there may be a little more treadmill work in my future to help me learn to stay at the same pace over distance. But there’s nothing like race day conditions to really work on this.
What I didn’t count on though, despite all the time, training, and planning that goes into getting ready for a race is how much little intangibles come into play. Early on, I could already tell I just didn’t have “it” and this race was going to be a little difficult to run. Even after a few miles, when I normally feel I’ve warmed up, I still felt tired and I was having trouble breathing properly. Yet I persisted with my strategy of staying slightly ahead of the 3:20 pace group which I hoped to happily tuck into and join if they eventually reeled me in. My splits for the first 11 miles were pretty good, but begin a slow, inexorable upward trend at about the halfway point.
And, as I mentioned earlier, it didn’t help I had apparently lost the ability to count.
It’s important to have a good hydration and nutrition plan to get you through a race, and through much trial and error I’ve determined I need four GUs (Lemon Lime if you’re interested) to get through 26.2 miles. At the start of the race I hit the interval timer on my stop watch, and every forty minutes thereafter I downed a pouch of GU. I got through packets one and two just fine, but missed taking number three on time. To make matters worse, when I dug through the pockets of my shorts I only came across one packet which made me wonder, “Did I already have the third GU?”
As we turned to enter Memorial Park, I was starting to slow down more, and even though I made it through the dreaded mile 20 wall, I felt my energy flagging. When the 3:20s caught me right at mile 22, I tried to match their pace for a few strides before I pulled up and started to walk for a bit. My legs had stiffened, and while it just seemed too difficult to maintain a quick pace, overall I felt pretty good physically. At that moment, however, I felt drained of energy and would have killed for an orange slice, or, say, a GU, which unbeknownst to me was nestled deep in the bottom of one of my pockets. Walking along catching my breath I told myself I already had my Boston qualifier, and I could slow down and enjoy the end of this marathon. As I walked forward, however, a lot of folks called out encouragement, and quickly I started running the last few miles to the finish.
One last little jolt of energy when I passed my sister before mile 23 and then the shock of mile 26.
I had crossed the start line shortly after the gun went off, and, as I passed the clock at mile 26 it read 3:19:56. It looked like I could still run a qualifying time! I don’t know where the energy came from, but I picked up my pace and lengthened my stride and made it to the finish line as fast as I could. I crossed and moments later stopped my watch and looked down: 3:21:01. My watch time was unofficial, but I had obviously either run or missed a qualifying time by mere seconds. I didn’t care though, and I was pretty giddy as I headed into the convention center to stretch, down some water and ice cream (!), and pickup my swag. When I met up with my beaming, proud sister, she had the good news. The marathon web site listed my time at 3:20:55; not a PR, but definitely a bit of an ego boost!
I might not have given all I had out there on the race course, but I think the picture below shows I gave a lot.