Sunday, January 30, 2011

2011 Aramco Houston Half Marathon

Yesterday afternoon I packed a small bag with all of my running stuff, a frozen dinner, and some snacks and got into my car for the 6 mile drive up 288 to the Holiday Inn Express that sits just two blocks from the George R. Brown Convention Center and 3 blocks from the start line of Sunday's race. What could I do at home that I couldn't do sitting in a comfortable hotel room? Absolutely nothing! Mini fridge? Check. Microwave? Check. Laptop computer? Check. TV? Check. Kindle? Check.

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This morning my little travel alarm raised its usual ruckus at 6:00 AM and I laid in bed for a few minutes until my eyes adjusted to the dark. A quick peek through the curtains confirmed that the rains had indeed moved in during the night.

No need to get out there until I absolutely had to. No hurry, since the start line was just a 5 minute walk and I am in the second wave of runners, turned loose onto the course at 7:10 AM. It was already quite warm - over 60 degrees - and muggy. Far from perfect conditions for a marathon and half marathon. It will be a challenging run this year.

I didn't have long to wait before our wave started moving forward toward the start line, more than one block away. It took me a full 10 minutes to cross the start line, but folks started running and jogging immediately once past that mark.

The first mile of this race course is a long uphill grade, up the Elysian Viaduct. The one mile mark is at the crest of this bridge that crosses over railroad tracks, roads, and I-10. It always takes the starch out of my legs, but never more so than this year. A check of my watch and I realized I had started out too fast, which could come back to haunt me later in the race. It's so easy to do this, as the adrenaline pushes the massive throng of runners forward and up that long hill. The mood is ebullient and fun. Husbands and wives, girlfriend and girlfriend, mother and daughter, father and son...obviously many, many small nuclei of running partners are starting off together on this big adventure.

I came upon a mom running with her two sons, ages 8 and 10. I slowed a bit to run alongside them, wishing the boys a good run and congratulating the mom on getting them involved. "I'll see you boys at the finish line, right?" They gave me an enthusiastic "YES" and I moved ahead, picking my pace up a little and working my way around the slower folks as we headed down the backside of the Elysian Viaduct hill.

It's damp out, but not uncomfortably so, yet the crowds along the "flats" of the Fifth Ward in Houston are noticeably quieter with fewer spectators than in years past. Every year this portion of the route is a blur, as the pack of runners is still large and it's hard to look around for fear of tripping up, getting run over, or running over someone else. But there was a large and noisy group of folks cheering us along on Quitman Street.

Another long uphill grade occurs between miles 3 and 4 and it runs along White Oak Bayou. A bit more "starch" is consumed here and some years I've walked part of this stretch, just to save my legs. This stretch west of I-45 is really pretty and I enjoy running the section of the route through the Houston Heights district of the city. Beautiful Craftsman homes, restored to their early 1900's beauty. A few "gingerbreads" mixed in and lots of spectators along the route through here. The Heights has very active neighborhood organizations and many of them plan marathon lawn parties, serving brunch and pumping music out of speakers set up on front porches and in open windows.



At mile 5 in the Heights, I scanned the sparse spectator crowd for friend Keith, but didn't see him. I had sent out a message to a couple of friends with my ETA's at a couple of prime race viewing spots. I expected to be at this spot at around 8:15 and in fact reached that point at just a little past 8:15 AM. But...alas....I did not see him as I ran through this stretch and then turned south on to Studewood.

At one point along Studewood we reach the 6.2 mile mark (10K) and at that point we run under the Washington St bridge. There's always a fun crowd of spectators up there on that bridge, including a group of folks promoting the Houston Live Stock and Rodeo 10K race in February. I love their large banner which says, "If you were running the Live Stock and Rodeo 10K you'd be finished by now." It always makes me smile. A camera up there on that bridge caught us running by.


At the beverage station at mile 6 I moved over to the curb to grab a cup of water but realized this group of tables had Gatorade, not water. In every previous Houston event, the first tables were serving water; the Gatorade would always be half a block further down the course. Could I have been so zoned out that I ran right past the water tables? Could be. I grabbed a cup of Gatorade, something I never do, and it no sooner hit my stomach and I felt a pang of heartburn.

The pangs got sharper with each beat of my running gait. At mile 7 I had to stop running and start walking. Every time I broke into a run, the pangs stabbed me in the gut. The best I could do was to run about 1/2 mile then walk 1/2 mile for the next 2 miles. Friend Keith was at mile 8 and he walked along side me for a bit, until we parted and I continued on to the 9 mile turnaround point.

It had been raining lightly all morning but coinciding with the Gatorade-heartburn was a brief bit of heavy rains. It stayed with us until near the 9 mile turnaround. By this point the heartburn had resolved itself somewhat through a series of burps and I was able to start jogging a bit, but here's the thing....if I ever stop running - for any reason at all - it's very hard for me to start back up again. The longer I walk, the harder it is to get back to a running pace again. Two miles of mostly walking and I had walked myself down a path of no return. There was no regaining my running rhythm again, no matter how hard I tried.

But even at a fast walk pace I was still passing many, many other participants. My stats show that I had passed 110 other runners in the last 3.8 miles (running chips and statistics are a really cool thing!).


That turn onto Allen Parkway at around mile 11 is always a big boost. I can see the marathon runners in the lane to my left. This is the front of the pack, the elite, and they move along so gracefully and with so little effort. How do they do that?! At one point one of them stopped, and leaned over to massage out a cramp in his hamstring. I caught up with him and then passed him as he started to walk it out. How often can I say that I'm locomoting faster than an elite marathoner?? Eventually, though, he worked out that cramp and quickly passed me leaving me in his wake.


For the whole distance along Allen Parkway we are heading into Houston's downtown and have the most scenic and spectacular view of her towering skyline in front of us. The clouds were very low, hanging in among the tops of the skyscrapers, sometimes enfolding them completely until a breeze pushes the along, revealing the skyscraper once again.


The hardest part of the race is that last mile straight through downtown, where the blocks just seem to stretch in front of me forever, until the street and sidewalks diminish to a single point in the distance. This year they returned the finish line to it's original location in front of the convention center. This means a 90-degree left turn in front of the Hilton Hotel and no finish line visibility until nearly upon it. Psychologically, this is dreadful. At one point, along this miserable long straight stretch a couple of women passed me and, as they did, they tried to urge me to join them. But by this point I was in energy conservation mode, saving it up for the last 200 yards and the finish line.

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Not my best effort, but still in the top 50% of my age/gender group.


It was a hard race, one of the hardest. Maui was hard, as well. So two mediocre performances after a super performance at the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati last May (in the top 15% for my age/gender group). Still...I did it. And in warm, muggy, rainy conditions.

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