I learn something from every marathon, usually something about myself and always something about the city and race. This time I learned a bad lesson – I can finish a full marathon with only a 12-mile long training run and then not running (and being sick) for 3 weeks. It won’t be fast, it won’t be pretty, and only works if it’s a flat, easy course with perfect weather, but still – I felt no worse immediately after this race than usual, and the day after I felt mildly stiff and my joints clicked like castanets, but that’s typical (and I felt loads better than after Vermont when I pushed hard to beat 5 hours and could barely walk the next day). Houston wasn’t even my Personal Worst. Really, it’s a terrible lesson for me to learn, since what I love about running is all the jazz around it (the clothes, the gear, the travel, the people) and not the actual training.
I’ve already posted about the expo on Friday, the 5K on Saturday (and the sightseeing I did in Houston), so now for marathon Sunday: I was seeded into the last corral (D) which didn’t have a closure time, and my hotel (the Westin Houston Downtown) was so close to the start I only had to walk a couple blocks to reach my corral. So I left my room at 6:58 for the 7:00 start time, knowing that it would take some time for corrals A, B, and C to clear before we were released. It ended up being too much time, actually! (So much time that I used one of the many porta potties located in the corral – in general this race gets an A+ for all the porta potties along the course. There were a few stretches that didn’t have any but I noticed more potties than usual, plus when they did have them there were a lot, so you didn’t have to wait.)
I didn’t cross the start until 7:30, and I was far from the last person to start. I tried my best to start at the proper pace area (13 min miles or 5:40 finish time) to avoid the 6-hour sag wagon and so I didn’t have to weave around too many walkers nor be swept away by faster runners. My plan was to aim for 13 minute miles and save enough energy to attempt a finish, but be smart enough and willing to let go of any ego and embrace a DNF if I felt terrible.
Apologies for not having pictures of the actual race – it was all about game day decisions so I made a last minute switch and left my phone in my room. That freed me from my SPI belt (I wore a Level Flip Belt to hold my gels as I had left my Gas Cap Hat in NYC since I had no real intention to run the full when I left) and it freed me from the psychological pressure to take photos during the race. There were a couple of times during the run that I wished I had a camera but ultimately not having my phone helped me focus on covering the miles and not worrying about anything else.
The course overall was blessedly flat (the biggest “hills” coming at a handful of highway underpasses) but most of it was on concrete which was pretty punishing on the joints. It was a bit congested until the half/full split at mile 7.5. That was by far my favorite part of the race. I was trying to hold myself back to leave gas in the tank to finish the full (Chevron pun not intended), and was hitting about 12:35 min miles. At the split, 70% of the runners crammed into the half lane, leaving a sweet open field for the full runners. It was glorious.
The full’ers were also rewarded with an incredibly beautiful tree-lined street next to Rice’s campus. The trees touched overhead to form a living canopy for about a full mile – really beautiful and shady. The course continued through some tony neighborhoods and featured American flags lining the course for several miles. Clearly Texas owns 90% of the American flags in America and they want runners to know that.
I think there was some highway running after that, then we went through a fancy shopping area, then more highway, and then back to and through the downtown to the finish. I had definitely slowed down and was feeling every step after about mile 15. I had some beer at mile 21 (I skipped the beer at mile 25), and felt pretty good because I knew I could walk the last 5 miles and still finish in time. But I hit the wall at mile 24, when I suddenly felt totally exhausted. I didn’t even realize it was “the wall” until now – my brain clearly wasn’t working that well because I couldn’t understand why I suddenly felt soooooo tired.
I actually did walk the final two miles – I could not make my legs or knees manage even a slow run (but I did manage a fairly brisk walk). I thought I might even finish waking, but I gritted my teeth and ran the .1 mile through the chute for the finish. I was laughing like a crazy person the whole time because I couldn’t believe I had actually finished the entire marathon. Ridiculous. Crazy. Not possible.
The area immediately past the finish line was weirdly deserted (or it was for people who finished near the end) – you got your medal (the full finisher’s medal was plain but ok) and you got your picture taken, but you had to enter the convention center for water, bananas, finisher shirt (white for full and blue for half – dammit!), “extra” medal for running both the 5K and half/full (the “extra” medal was super chintzy) and surprise commemorative glass (the wisdom of giving a large heavy glass to exhausted runners is questionable). There was no food bag or heat sheet, but they did have a hot breakfast (powdered scrambled eggs, sausages, a biscuit and white gravy – not terrible and not great), soda, hot cocoa, yogurt, and ice cream sandwiches (which I had been craving during the run and which was one of the greatest things I’ve ever eaten).
So, I finished! I ended up averaging 13 minute miles (walking the final two miles), and I feel ok now, although I pulled my left calf muscle this week and I’m not sure if it’s related to my inadvisable marathon completion last Sunday. But my Houston success did spur me to sign up for TWO marathons this spring/summer – the Wisconsin Marathon on May 2nd and the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon on June 7th. I can almost promise I will train more for those than I did for Houston. Almost.
Thinking of Running Houston?
It was fun, but if you want to run Houston I recommend signing up early!
All categories on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best. Note that this review is based on running as a “back of the packer” with a finish time approaching 6 hours (the cutoff). Your experience may vary.
- Getting There (Transportation & Walkability) – 8/10 – Very easy to fly there (IAH is a big airport, RT tickets from NYC were $300 but would have been cheaper if I bought them at the right time). I didn’t need to rent a car to get around the city but the taxi to/from the airport was surprisingly expensive for a 20-minute ride (about $60-65 with tip each way). (Airport Super Shuttle was $23 one-way without tip.) If you’re staying downtown and want to explore the Museums, the Metrorail is easy to use and only $1.50 per ride.
- Staying There – 7/10 – There are several hotels in downtown Houston that would have worked, but I stayed at the Westin Houston Downtown which was a perfect location (a couple blocks from the Expo/finish line, a couple blocks from the start). This category only loses a couple points because all the prime hotels were a little expensive (again because you’re in a big city).
- Cost & Registration – 7/10 – The Houston Marathon ($125) sells out really fast – it opens for early registration right after the race and sells out in a couple days, so it’s best to be ready to register a year before (or try to get a spot during regular registration in June). But, if you remember to register early, it was pretty simple, painless, and not a bad value for a big-city race. The expo had a lot of great free stuff, the finishing food was ok, the glass is nice, but that damn see-thru white finishers shirt & short-sleeve cotton race t-shirt are annoying.
- Organization – 7/10 – The race itself was well-organized – plenty of Gatorade and water (although the beverages were spaced too far apart – sometimes a couple blocks between the Gatorade and the water, which would have been a bigger problem had I wanted to run more and get into a rhythm), plenty of potties, and only slight congestion (and no congestion after the half split off). The expo, however, was crazy on Friday morning with the aforementioned long and slow lines. Also if you wanted to check a bag you had to do it at the convention center/finish area, then walk to the start several blocks away instead of checking your bag near the start itself. But overall the weekend went smoothly.
- Course – 7/10 – It was wonderfully flat and you got a good tour of the city, but there was a lot of concrete and a fair amount of exposed (aka non-shaded) areas.
- Crowd – 6/10 – Not a huge crowd for a big city, but there were enough that it didn’t feel deserted. The volunteers were great.
- Other Factors – 7/10 – If you live in the Midwest or Northeast, going to Houston in January is a real treat. I also loved the Houston Museum of Natural Science (especially the Butterfly Center) and the Phoenicia Grocery Store, and heard good things about the Art Museum (and wished I had time to visit the downtown Aquarium and the Space Center 40 minutes outside of town).
- Overall Rating – 7/10 – The marathon was totally fine, but Houston gets an extra point because I had such a fun weekend and actually finished. Finished!
Finally, a plea to the Houston Marathon organizers: please get rid of those damnable kilometer signs at every kilometer. Do you realize how disheartening it is to see a big “20” ahead of you, then notice the little “k” next to it and be reminded that you’re actually only at mile 12? I was not the only runner who was complaining about all those signs. Thanks for the bonding opportunity but we’d prefer if you just scrapped those signs.
Have you ever run Houston? Do you ever improperly train? How do you feel about measuring 26.2 miles in kilometers? Share in the comments!