Monday, January 16, 2023

Race Report: 2023 Houston Marathon

On January 15, I ran the Houston Marathon.  Of the 10 largest marathons in the United States, this was the only one I had never run before.  The main reason I never ran it before is that I wasn’t willing to commit to it several months in advance.  I usually wanted to keep my plans for that weekend open, because it was the same weekend as Bermuda, The Bahamas, Charleston, and the Aloha Series, among others.

I flew to Houston on Saturday.  I was able to get a direct flight, so I arrived in the early afternoon.  I stayed at a downtown hotel that was within walking distance of the start and finish, as well as the expo.

The expo was held at the George R. Brown Convention Center.  We had to reserve our packet pickup times.  That’s something other large races have started doing recently to manage traffic flow at the expo.  I chose a time that was late enough to give me time to get to check into my hotel, yet early enough that I would have time to go back to the hotel before dinner.

After picking up my race packet, I stopped by the Marathon Tours booth and the pace team booth.  Then I met my friend Stefanie, and we talked for about half an hour.  Several years ago, I traveled to Costa Rica with a large group of runners from Houston.  Stefanie was one of the runners I met on that trip.

For dinner, I went to Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, where I could pair pizza with a beer flight.

I didn’t sleep perfectly that night, but I got as much sleep as I usually do the night before a race.

When I get up, my legs are always stiff.  I need a warm bath or shower to not only loosen up my muscles, but also stimulate circulation in my legs.  When I tried to take a shower, I discovered the faucet wasn’t working properly.

When I turned it on, the water was ice cold.  I couldn’t get any hot water until I turned it all the way to the hot position.  Then it was scalding hot.  When I tried to turn it down, it was still just as hot.  The only way to get colder water was to turn it all the way off.  When I turned it on again, it was ice cold.  There was no in between

I tried this a few times, and I gave it time for the water temperature to change.  I finally concluded that the valve that’s supposed to mix hot and cold water was sticking.  It was either all hot or all cold.

I like hot showers, but this was too hot.  If I stood under the shower, I would burn myself.  By standing outside the stream of water and occasionally ducking my head under it for just a second, I was able to wash my hair.  What I really wanted to do was to use the shower to warm up my legs.  I couldn’t do that without burning myself.

After my aborted attempt to shower, I finished getting ready for the race.  Before leaving the hotel, I notified the front desk, so they could have someone from maintenance fix it before I got back from the race.

My hotel was only three blocks from the starting line, and it was even closer to where I needed to enter the start corral.  I had to be in the corral by 6:45, but I didn’t need to leave the hotel until after 6:30.

Corral assignments were based on your estimated finish time.  To get into corral A, you had to submit a recent race result that was faster than four hours.  I had a qualifying time for corral A, but I lined up near the back.  I was hoping to break four hours, but it was an optimistic goal.  If I did it, it wouldn’t be by much.

I met Stefanie near the back of the corral, so we could run together.  Neither of us is in peak shape right now.  We’ve both had our training curtailed by injuries.  We lined up next to the 4:00 pace group.  While we were there, Stef bumped into a few friends who were also starting with the 4:00 group.

Because of all the tall buildings, it took an unusually long time for my watch to find the GPS satellites.  Fortunately, I put watch in run mode about 15 minutes before the race started.

The temperature at the start was 55 degrees, and I expected it to get up to 70 by the time I finished.  Stef warned me that the humidity was high, so even the conditions at the start weren’t ideal.

From where we lined up, I couldn’t actually see the starting line.  I also never heard the gun go off.  Eventually, the runners in front of us started moving forward.  We had to walk two blocks and around a corner before I finally saw the banner over the starting line.

In large races, the first few miles can be congested, making it hard to establish the right pace in the first miles.  Our pace leaders nailed it.  We were right on pace from the very first mile.  Unfortunately, the pace was too fast for me.

The pace felt OK for the first two miles, but after that I felt like I was working too hard.  I probably should’ve slowed down to a pace that felt sustainable, but I didn’t want to be overly pessimistic.  I decided to keep running with the group until it was obvious the pace was unsustainable.

By the time we finished two miles, I was starting to notice the humidity.  It didn’t seem to be bothering me, but the air felt sticky, and I was definitely sweating more than I usually do this early in a race.

Stefanie and the pace leaders had all done this race many times, so they were familiar with every detail.  One thing that surprised me was learning how many fast runners there were who had to start in corral B, because they didn’t submit a qualifying time for corral A.  They were so many that there were pace groups for them.  The pacers warned our group in advance when to expect fast runners to start coming up from behind on one side of the street.

I don’t remember if there was a 3:00 pace group in corral B, but I remember being passed by a 3:10 pace group.

In the early miles, Stef was my tour guide.  She pointed out the different landmarks and the neighborhoods we were going through.

This is a flat course.  When I looked at the elevation profile, I only noticed one thing that looked like a hill.  That was a bridge that comes shortly before the halfway point.  Stef told me to also expect a couple of underpasses in the late miles.  That’s it.  Otherwise, the course is flat.

Stef also warmed me that the course is mostly concrete.  There were a few sections of asphalt, but the vast majority of the course was concrete.  That didn’t bother me, but runners who don’t like hard surfaces might be bothered by that.

I started to feel like I was working much harder than I should be to keep up with the group.  By 10K, I noticed I was breathing hard.  That’s normal in a shorter race like a 10K, but I don’t usually feel like I’m close to my aerobic limit in a marathon.  I’m more apt to feel the fatigue in other ways.  That was a clear sign that the pace of the group was too fast for me.

The marathon and half marathon started together, but eventually we separated.  After the split, the course was less crowded.  The 4:00 pace group, however, was a large group.  We not only filled the road, but the group extended back 50 feet at times.  As long as I was running with this pace group, it was still going to feel crowded.

The aid stations were all laid out the same way.  The Gatorade tables came first.  Then there was a small gap before the water tables.  I always drank the Gatorade.  I took it on the run, so I wouldn’t fall behind the group.

Sometimes, the cups didn’t have as much Gatorade as I wanted.  When that happened, I would either grab a second cup of Gatorade or wait for the water tables and grab a cup of water.  When I did that, it caused me to fall behind the group.  Getting back to the front of the group took extra effort, so I found myself running near the back of the group.

The course was marked in both miles and kilometers.  Earlier in the race, when I was at the front of the group, I always noticed the mile markers.  That’s probably because I could hear the pace leaders calling out our times.  Now that I was at the back of the group, I didn’t always notice every mile marker.  For some reason, I always noticed the kilometer markers.

At 14K, we were roughly one third of the way through the race.  That’s a good time to ask myself how I’m feeling.  I realized that there was no way I could keep up this pace for the entire race.  I had to decided if I would slow down voluntarily or if I would hold out as long as possible and then crash and burn badly.

It took some effort, but I worked my way to the front of the group, so I could tell Stef that it was only a matter of time before I slowed down.  After that, I gradually dropped to the back of the group.

At 17K, I was still running near the back of the group.  The leaders were half a block ahead of me, but I was still mostly keeping pace with them.  I wasn’t quite willing to let go yet.

The group was running at an average pace of 9:09 per mile.  If I had gone out a little slower from the beginning of the race, I might have found a pace of 9:20 or 9:30 to be more sustainable.  Having run too fast for this many miles, I realized that even 9:30 would not feel sustainable.

I feared that once I unhitched myself from the group and started running on my own, I would need to slow down all the way to 10-minute miles before the pace would feel more comfortable.  Slowing down that much would be demoralizing even if it was later in the race.  I didn’t want to slow down that much when I still had more than half of the race to go.

For one kilometer at a time, I stayed close to the group.  I knew I’d eventually have to slow down and run by myself, but I wanted to get to the halfway mark first.

After passing the 12 mile sign, I started moving around some of the other runners who were falling off the back of the group.  It took effort, but I gradually clawed my way back until I was only about 10 feet behind the leaders.  At that point, I noticed Stef was no longer with the group.  She had gone ahead on here own and was now almost a block ahead of the group.  I saw at least one of her friends had gone with her.

I knew I’d regret it later, but I lifted my effort enough to catch up to the 4:00 pace leaders.  Then we turned a corner and reached at aid station at the 20K mark.

After drinking at the aid station, I briefly fell behind again.  I could see the bridge just ahead of us.  I worked hard to catch up to the leaders and managed to stay with them on the uphill side of the bridge.  Then I surged ahead of them on the downhill side of the bridge.

At the 13 mile sign, there was a U-turn, followed by a sharp left.  It was only after making that turn that I saw the halfway mark.  I got there in 1:59:43.  Then I finally slowed down.

It took a few more minutes before the 4:00 group caught up to me. Then they went past me.  I made no effort to keep up with them.  For the rest of the race, I was on my own.

When I saw my split for the 14th mile, I was surprised to have already slowed down to 9:30.  It didn’t seem like the 4:00 group was that far in front of me.  Then I remembered that I was at least 10 seconds ahead of them after the bridge.  Now, I was about 10 seconds behind them.

Mile 15 was much slower.  I slower down to 9:58.  I expected to eventually slow down to a 10 minute pace, but I didn’t think it would happen that quickly.  It still wasn’t a comfortable pace.

For the first half of the race, we usually had cloud cover.  In the second half, it was sunnier.  It wasn’t until I could feel the sun on me that I started to feel hot.  Before that, it just felt sticky.  Thankfully, the sun sometimes went behind the clouds.  We also sometimes got a cool breeze.  It was getting warmer, but it wasn’t as hot as it could’ve been.

In mile 16, I slowed to 10:07.  If I only had a few miles to go, I might have been able to dig deep and stabilize my pace.  With more than 10 miles to go, I couldn’t do that.  I had a long way to go, and I had to ration my energy.  By now, I was noticing soreness in my legs.

My pace continued to deteriorate.  I slowed to 10:25 and then 10:34.  All I could do was drag myself through each remaining mile.  It was only a matter of time before I slowed all the way to 11 minutes per mile.

I wish I could say that I was taking it easy in the second half, but I wasn’t.  Even though I had slowed down, it was still difficult.  The first half of the race had broken me, and now I was struggling just to keep moving.

I had about 10K to go when I saw a row of port-o-potties.  I realized by now that I would eventually need a bathroom stop, but I wanted to wait as long as I could.  After I stopped, it might be tough to get going again.  I wanted to wait until I only had a few miles left.

With five miles to go, running suddenly felt more even more difficult.  I felt like my legs just couldn’t do it anymore.  I didn’t know how much I actually slowed down, but I felt like my gait changed to something more like a shuffle.  That was the first mile that was slower than 11 minutes.

I started to regret not making a bathroom stop earlier.  I assumed there would be more port-o-potties, but I didn’t actually know that.  Not every aid station had them.

After running mile 21 in 11:03, I ran the next one in 11:01.  My pace had finally stabilized.  Shortly after the 23 mile sign, I turned a corner and saw a row of port-o-potties.  They were across the street from an aid station.

I moved to one side of the street to drink a cup of Gatorade, and then I moved to the other side to use a port-o-potty.  I didn’t actually pee all that much, but I no longer felt the urgent need to go.  Now I just had to drag myself through three more miles.

As I resumed running, I noticed a pace group had gone by while I was in the port-o-potty.  They were almost a block in front of me.  I couldn’t read the sign the pacer was carrying, but the last pace group I had seen was the 3:55 group from corral B.  I knew there was a  4:00 group in corral B, so this must have been them.

Interestingly enough, I had yet to be passed by a pace group that was slower than the one I started with.  The 4:00 group was the slowest group in corral A.  There were slower groups in the other corrals, but we had a big head start on them.  All of the faster groups in corral B had passed me, but the slower groups were still behind me.

With about two miles to go, I saw a beer stop on my left.  By now, my race was already a train wreck, so I saw no reason not to pause and have a small sample of a beer from a local brewery.  Just after the beer stop, I saw a little girl offering a small cup of Gatorade.  I drank that too.  I saw another beer stop, but I skipped that one.  I didn’t want to go crazy.  I still had two miles to go, and at this point it would feel more like four miles.

At 25 miles, I checked my watch.  At the pace I was currently running, it looked like I would finish in 4:21.  When I realized I could still keep my average pace below 10 minutes per mile, I finally had a goal.  To keep my pace under 10, I just needed to finish in 4:22.  I picked up my effort as much as I could.  I didn’t know how much I could speed up, but at the very least, I wasn’t going to slow down.

For the previous 12 miles, everyone around me had been passing me.  Now, I was passing other runners.  To motivate myself to push harder, I just needed to have a goal that I knew was attainable.

In the last mile, I entered the downtown area.  I knew I would finish at the convention center, but I didn’t know our approach or how many turns there were.  I had no sense of direction.

I made a sharp left, followed by a sharp right.  A spectator at the corner said it was the last turn.  That wasn’t almost true.  It was the last sharp turn, but we would go around a bend just before the convention center.

The street was divided now.  On the other side f the street, I could see people walking.  They were the back-of-the-pack runners in the half marathon.

I kept up my effort as I passed the 41K sign.  When my watch recorded a split for mile 26, it was 8:55.  There was no longer any doubt that I was going to break 4:22.  I sped up by two minutes in that last full mile.

My watch had been recording splits too early for most of the race.  My watch said 26 miles, but it was really more like 25.6.  I still had more than half a mile to go.

They had signs for a half mile to go and a quarter mile to go.  Then I reached the 26 mile sign.  Farther ahead, I could see the 13 mile sign for the half marathon, but I couldn’t see the finish yet.  It was around the bend.

The finish line was right in front of the convention center.  I finished in 4:19:59.  Then I continued through the chute and into the convention center.  The first volunteer I encountered gave me a water bottle.  I immediately started drinking.  Just before entering the convention center, I received my finisher medal.

They used the entire ground floor of the convention center for post-race recovery.  As I entered the building, I took a banana from one of the volunteers.

After finishing my water and eating the banana, I made my way to the T-shirt tables.  This race is old school.  The shirt is a finisher shirt.  You don’t get it until after you finish.  Along with my shirt, I also received a beer mug.

I spotted Stefanie and went over to see how she did.  She had a good race.  She ran the second half a minute faster than the first half.  By contrast, I was 20 minutes slower in the second half.

I talked with several other runners after the race, and they all mentioned what a tough day it was.  I seldom felt hot, but I think I greatly underestimated how much the humidity was affecting me.

I saw an area labeled “Food Court,” and I went inside.  On our race bibs, we each had a food coupon.  I was surprised how much post-race food they gave us.  They had scrambled eggs, sausages, pancakes, and biscuits.  They also had hot and cold beverages.  It was more food than I could eat.  I regretted eating that banana.  When I was done eating, I made another bathroom stop.  Then I walked back to the hotel.

When I got back to the hotel, I stopped at the front desk to ask about my shower.  I was told the maintenance guy had fixed it.  Shortly after I got back to my room, there was a knock on the door.  It was the maintenance guy.  He had been to the room earlier to diagnose the problem.  Now he was back to install a new valve.  I couldn’t shower until he finished.  Fortunately, it only took him a few minutes.  Then I was finally able to take a shower.

My friend Devin, who lives in the Houston area, invited me to a post-race party at NettBar.  I first met Devin twelve years ago on a trip to Iceland.  I met his wife, Alida, a few years later on as trip to Costa Rica.  That was the same trip where I met Stefanie.  Nettbar was about three miles from my hotel.  I could’ve driven there, but I decided to walk.  Walking took longer, but it probably helped me to recover from the race.  The walk was tiring, but my legs weren’t as stiff afterwards.

I was at the party for about three hours.  I was able to spend time with Devin, Alida, and Stefanie, and I met several runners from their running club.

After the party, Devin and Alida gave me a ride back to my hotel.  It was only 6:00 PM, but it felt much later.  I was too tired to go anywhere for dinner, so I had dinner at the hotel restaurant.

I didn’t fly home until Monday afternoon, so I had time to have lunch with Devin and Alida before driving to the airport.

Race statistics:
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  4:19:59
Average Pace:  9:55 
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  474

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