The Chevron Houston Marathon has been around since before I was born. The inaugural year, 1972, boasted just 113 runners who repeated a 5-mile loop at Memorial Park. Memorial Park is situated on the grounds of Camp Logan, a WWI military training facility in what is now downtown Houston. The first female finisher in 1972 was a 14-year old; she crossed the finish line in 5:11:55.
In 1973, fewer than half of the 130 entrants actually finished the Houston Marathon, and the women’s record was broken with a 4:29:07 marathon time. It wasn’t until 1975 that a woman ran the race in less than four hours; the winning female that year finished in 3:31:24.
In 1976 the course was expanded to include areas next to Memorial Park, for a loop that only had to be repeated three times. It wasn’t until 1978 that more than 500 people entered (and completed) the race. In the 1980s, the leaderboards reflected more cultural diversity, with winners coming from Ethiopia, Norway, Great Britian, Sweden, Canada, South Africa, and Kenya.
The Kenyan runner Richard Kaitany set a course record in 1989, with a finish time of 2:10:04. Two Ethiopians set the last course records during the 2012 race, with finish times of 2:06:51 (men’s) and 2:23:14 (women’s). This year, Ethiopian runners claimed three of the four titles between the half and full marathons.
The Houston Marathon is a mostly flat course that winds its way south and west out of downtown Houston, past Rice University and the Galleria (full of upscale shopping opportunities… too upscale for the likes of me!) and then (my favorite part of the course) along some streets lined with tall, tall pine trees. I was raised in Michigan; central Texas offers a lot of shrubs that folks here like to call “trees,” so it was nice to run underneath some truly tall trees, again.
The day was finally here… I had repeated my affirmations, and I believed them. I was strong, and I was ready. The weather could not have been better. We runners were allowed to hang out in the convention center, which was well-heated and full of porta potties, until it was time to line up at the corrals. The fast girl and I found each other at gear-check. She was slated to begin the race in Corral A, and I was assigned to Corral B. Chamomile was lined up somewhere just behind the elite runners, running with the sub-elite group. She’s unbelievably fast.
Fast girl and I headed out the to corrals. I really wanted to run with the 3:40 pace group, and I knew I could keep up with them the whole way, but they were starting from corral A. My plan was to sneak into corral A if I could and line up with fast girl and the 3:40 group. It was about 6:40, and the corral was supposed to close at 6:50. They closed it early! We were jogging our way there when a wave of other runners came past us the opposite direction, shouting that the corral was closed and we had to head to corral B. We turned around and ran to the B corral, which was quickly filling up. Fast girl and I are both small, so we excuse-me‘d, pardon-me‘d, and sorry‘d our way toward the front. We squeezed past the 4:10 pace group, and then up past the 4:00 pace group. “Look, you PR’d already,” she told me. The last marathon I ran was my first, the Austin Marathon in 2014, which I finished in 4:05:44. We kept pushing up, but couldn’t get to the front of the corral where the 3:50 pacers were. Everyone was dropping their clothes already, it was a perfect 40-something-degree morning, so I tossed my long-sleeve shirt to the side. In doing so, I dropped three of my five honey packets and couldn’t get them back from under the feet of other runners.
I was taking honey because I’ve had some really mad bouts of post-run IBS, and I can’t seem to stomach any of the commercial products. I had been training my long runs with Gatorade since I knew that’s what would be available at the aid stations. Gatorade chews made me sick, but regular old Gatorade, cut half and half with water, had proven sustainable. I just hoped it was going to work for this marathon.
The gun went off and the fast girl and I worked our way past the 3:50 pace group and stayed together until I lost her at the first aid station. I knew I had to run my own race after that. I was well-trained, well-rested, and I felt great. No problem. I was holding my own by the time I hit the 10K mark, sticking with about an 8:07 pace (I needed 8:20, and hadn’t trained for anything faster). I actually got a 10K PR, beating my 2013 10K PR by a mere five seconds.
I don’t think you’re supposed to get a 10K PR in a marathon. That should have been my first clue.
My pulled left hamstring hurt, and I had done something weird to the outside of my left calf. I didn’t mind. I’ve been reading Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, which had taught me that pain only hurts, and that sometimes you just do things. I didn’t mind that it hurt. It wasn’t debilitating, and I had gone in knowing the hammy was injured, so it was just like an old friend saying hello. I’ve had the same blister on my right foot for years, too. The Body Glide I had applied so liberally that morning just made it move up and down more smoothly against the side of my shoe. I greeted that blister like an old friend as well. That was the blister that caused me to stop at mile-17 of the Austin Marathon and apply Vasoline, surely costing me at least a couple of minutes. This time, Mr. Blister and I went in with the understanding that it was okay if it hurt, but we weren’t making any Vasoline stops.
I was feeling good, and feeling strong. At mile-9 I sucked on a honey packet. I was saving the other one for mile-18. I was still maintaining a strong pace of about 8:13. I thought I had caught a glimpse of the balloons being carried by a pace group up ahead, it could only be the 3:40 pacers, I was in front of the other groups and they hadn’t passed me. I kept trying to see them, but there were so many white, blue and red beanies that kept tricking me into thinking they were part of the little trio of balloons that I nearly gave up. I pulled up alongside a quite tall gentleman with no headphones in his ears around mile-10, and I said, “So, you’re tall.” I paused for dramatic effect, just in case I was introducing him to a self-revelation. I let him soak in the fact of his tallness for a moment while I caught my breath. I figured running next to all five-foot-three of me would help bring the point home. When I was certain that I had given him enough time to consider his height, I continued, “Can you see the pace balloons up ahead anywhere?” He bobbed his head around for a few minutes, and eventually said he couldn’t see them. I thanked him, told him to have a good run, and continued on my way.
It was mile-11 when I was certain that I could see the pace group up ahead. I could see the 3:40 pace group up ahead! I was catching them! I let myself take a little break, maintaining the distance between me and the pacers. I had crossed the starting line with about 5-minutes on the clock. I knew that if I just kept them in sight, I could still hit that 3:40 and qualify for Boston. Then I decided I wanted the support of running with a group of people trying to accomplish the same time as me. So I started creeping up to the pace group, and by the half-marathon marker I had almost caught them.
By the way, at that point I was only off my half-marathon PR by ten seconds. That should have been my second clue.
I was on pace for a 3:34 marathon. That would not only get me a BQ, but it was also enough cushion to make sure I could make it in well underneath the cutoff times. I was going to be running Boston in 2017.
The fast girl must have made a pit stop somewhere, because she passed me at mile-14. She tried to convince me to catch the balloons, they were just right up ahead, after all. I told her to go, and assured her that I was right there. I was holding my own, but just barely. I kept running at the same effort, but the balloons pulled away. By mile-16 I could barely see them. I was hanging on, and I told myself to go faster. I put in more effort, but unfortunately my pace didn’t change. I had dropped my second honey packet somewhere when my hands had gotten all slippery from eating part of a banana a kind spectator had given me. I was well-fueled, alternating Gatorade and water at most of the aid stations. And I was trying. My leg still hurt, but I was totally okay with that. Later, my husband would ask me if that had affected my race. It was around mile-17, when I couldn’t see the pace group any more, that I asked myself the same thing. I wanted to blame my failing pace on the injury. But I had accepted the discomfort so fully, embraced it even, used it to stay focused, that I knew it wasn’t slowing me down. I had to confess to him that, while I wished I could say it had, my leg had not slowed me down.
I was simply gassed. I went out a little too fast, but that was okay. I was running hard at the half, but even that felt fine. It was when I decided I wanted to catch the balloons somewhere between mile-13 and mile-15 that I poured too much of myself into it. I felt fine, I felt strong, but I had to face the music. Between miles 17 and 18, I had to talk myself into giving my best effort, regardless of where that left me. I could still pull it in somewhere in the 3:40s, maybe even still BQ, but my pace continued to slip and I fell farther an father behind. Damn.
At mile-20, I took stock and realized that I actually felt really good. I was trying, but I could breathe, and unlike my first marathon in 2014, I did not have tunnel vision, I wasn’t light-headed, and I didn’t feel like my legs were betraying me. I stayed tuned-in through miles 21 and 22, enjoying the scenery and the crowds, and marveling at what a neat experience it was to not be totally tuned out during the last stretch. I was ready to be done, I was tired, and I knew I had asked everything of my body that I could. I felt happy.
In the home stretch, when I could see the clock above the finish line, it was approaching 3:55. I knew I was just about five minutes ahead of the gun time. I poured my heart and soul into the last sprint. I thought I was going to have to push some runners out of my way who were clogging the chute, cramping my style. When I last saw the clock, as I went under it, it read 3:54:59.
I finished the Houston marathon in 3:49:30. I went out too fast and put too much emphasis into trying to catch the pace group. I have every confidence that I tried my best, and I have every confidence that if I had started with the 3:40 pace group, I would have finished with them. This was a practice run. Luckily, I think I may have secured myself a spot in the A corral for next year, so that I can start and finish where I belong.