Running up, over and through the cogs

The 2012 Houston Marathon Race Report

“You will feel so good, for so long.”

–Anonymous, quoted by Rachel Toor, Running Times, Feb/Mar ’12

Nothing beats the pure satisfaction of setting a high goal, working hard to reach it, then kicking some serious asphalt ass.  On Sunday, January 15th, 2012 — one of the single greatest days of my life — I put the exclamation mark on all of the above.  As a result, the Houston Marathon will be running on a forever-loop in my mind.

After clocking a 3:20:49 finish at the Chicago Marathon in October, on an unseasonably warm day in my first legitimately speedy attempt (read: not running to just finish) at the distance that killed Pheidippides, I realized that the potential for logging a 3:15 was probably there if I was willing to work for it.

I know that every runner has his or her own personal reason for running these stupid long distances; one of mine just happens to be an incurable curiosity to see exactly what my body is capable of doing.

So with 12 weeks to prepare, I upped my mileage, learned to love the tempo run and swallowed intervals in massively uncomfortable gulps.  I was gonna run 3:15 in Houston.  No doubt.

My dad lives in a Houston suburb and I knew having him along for my PR attempt was going to be a plus.  I blame him for my running addiction (he’s been running his whole life) so I felt it fitting that I try to go faster than I’ve ever gone before right in his back yard.  If I blew up and looked stupid, at least he would be there to make me feel better.  Dad has been my strongest supporter in everything I set out to do, and I know that for him, watching my transformation over the last few years from an unhealthy smoker to fit distance runner has been something he’s taken a bit of pride in.

I wanted to continue that streak.

When I told him goodbye and entered the starting corral, it was dark and chilly.  I gave him a hug, walked inside the gates and tried to quell the butterflies in my stomach by jumping up and down for a bit.  I can’t help but get nervous for all the mega races, but this one in particular, where I was attempting to run at least a solid 7:25 pace for the entire 26.2 miles gave me a few more jitters because it was something I hadn’t ever done before.  Tempo runs from 6:30 to 7:00 pace were common, as were even faster intervals, but to string it all together — without stopping and despite all the intangibles — sorta freaked me out.

But then the gun went off and no more thinking.  Just run.

The weather was perfect — mid 40s at the start and dry.  As we runners crossed the start line, I couldn’t help but find some bit of peace in the relative quiet of the first overpass (Houston’s course has a lot of them).  Contrary to the loud and fiery start of Chicago, Houston’s first few miles were virtually spectatorless and serene.  The only noise I could hear was the orchestra of feet pounding the pavement.  Before I knew it, I was already at 5K.

I went out a little fast — around 7:15 for the first three miles, but I felt okay — or rather, I didn’t feel awful.  In fact, this would be the physical theme of the race.  I never felt “good”.  In other races or training runs I have felt good, like “I FEEL GREAT!”, but in Houston, that would not be the case.  I had several bouts of feeling gross, feeling leg-heavy, just feeling blah.  But through the first 5 miles I was still hitting 7:15 splits on the dot and feeling fine enough to keep going.

So I did.

My right piriformis was achey.  Stop, it would say.  Shut up, I would reply.  Kept on going.

The crowd started to pick up and the song in my head (M83’s “Midnight City”) continued to get louder so I wasn’t able to hear myself think (was I even thinking?) about what exactly I was doing, but I was cruising right along.  Drinking on the run.  Gelling on the run.  High-fivin’ folks on the run.  Through 10 miles I looked down at my watch and noticed I’d built a nice, comfortable 2-minute cushion under a 3:15 finish pace. If I kept that up I was going to beat my goal and then some!

Of course, I wasn’t naive enough to think I was going to keep up at that pace without issue.  I was already beginning to feel quite fatigued and I knew I had a long way to go.  But before I could really worry about any of that, I reached the halfway mark and my pea-sized bladder decided to bring me back down to earth.

I’d been holding it, but holding it for 13 more miles could mean disaster.  So for the first time in an hour and thirty-four minutes, I stopped.  To take a leak.

Maybe it was the leak that saved me, because after that 30 second break, I surged out of the port-a-john with a renewed sense of purpose.  I’m gonna PR by at least five minutes today, I told myself.  I have some cushion.  I don’t have to kill myself.  Just keep running.  And enjoy it.

So I did.  I took pleasure in knowing I was in the middle of a 26-mile journey, that I was covering more ground in one day on my feet than most people do in a week, that I was being treated to the honor of running in one of the country’s biggest cities, without traffic, in the middle of the street.  I noticed my surroundings, the beautiful buildings all around, the kind folks cheering me on, making me smile with goofy signs, handing me Gatorade.

I sucked in the air.  I looked up into the blue sky.  I smiled knowing that this was an honor, and I was doing some pretty seriously honorable shit.

Running does that for me.  It gets me high on BEING ALIVE.

I slowed up a little, not as a sign of retreat, but rather as a tip of the cap to the sport.  I wanted to be sure that I finished with enough juice to get to the end strong.  So I knocked it down to about a 7:25 pace and decided to keep it there until I got to Mile 20.  From there I’d see how I felt.

From my research on the course, I learned that the biggest physical obstacle it had to offer was the big overpass hill at Mile 14.  I knew it was coming so mentally, I was prepared for it.  I made sure to hit the aid station at the bottom of the hill pretty good before charging up and over.  I found a guy who looked a little stronger than me and tucked into his wind blockage as we went up.  He flew and I just hung on.

On the down hill, I flew by him.  We did this dance with each other a couple times throughout the second half of the race.  It was pretty cool and we both knew it.  I eventually passed him for good in the last mile.

But before I got that far, I had to get to Mile 20, and when I did, reality hit.  I wasn’t feeling so hot.  My stomach was acting weird.  My bowels were messing with me.  Another six miles of hard racing looked a bit intimidating, especially after I realized I’d given back those two minutes now.  I was gonna have to kick it hard to the end at some point if I wanted 3:15. I took an extra gel, took two Gatorades, a water and then I doused my body in more water.

A few minutes later, I was fine.

This happened a couple of times.  I felt bad at Mile 22 and again at Mile 24, but I bounced back quickly each time.

To me, that’s what the marathon is: just see if you can go 20 miles before you have to really crawl into your own head and see what’s in there.  Those last six miles had me battling myself, over and over.  Take it easy, dude.  You’ve come this far.  It’s all good.  Just relax, while the other guy is saying: No! Don’t stop now. GO!!! You’re gonna feel so good for so long if you just do this!!!

This is gonna sound stupid but it’s true.  With about a mile and a half to go they had the Rocky theme song blaring on the loudspeakers.  And it worked.  I picked it up.  I started to move.

I zipped by one, two, three, four-five-six, seven… more.  The streets were all so full of carnage, people blowing up and walking and sitting on their butts.  I heard a guy blazing in front of me tell his buddy: “From this exact spot we are one mile away. Let’s do this.”

And boom.  They were off.

I chased them.

They were faster than me but I got to the last section where the crowd was fantastic and the last few minutes were run on someone else’s legs.  I guy in a Luke’s Locker singlet, actually.  Dude reeled me in and I thanked him for it at the finish.

When I crossed that line and saw 3:15:19 on my watch I tried to scream victory but nothing came out.  I’d given it all I had.  And some tears fell out of my face.

Yikes!

Now, the vitals:

The course was flat and fast with easy hills that can really be utilized for speed on the down sections.  I think being prepared for this was helpful to me in the first half because I was able to get some early speed and build a cushion.  There aren’t many turns.  It was well marked, accurate with my readings.  The big hill is at Mile 14 and then Miles 21-24 are all downhill (which is awesome!!!).  In the last couple miles there are some smaller ones too.

The crowd was awesome.  While not the size of those in Chicago (which are the best I’ve ever experienced), they were very vocal.  I can’t tell you how many kind people read my name on my bib and encouraged me in a very genuine manner.  Hearing your name all throughout the race, for me, is a HUGE help in staying in the moment and remembering why you are actually there.

Aid stations were well stocked and the volunteers were stupendous.  They were such kind people.  Southern comfort definitely has its place in a mega race.

But for me, the 2012 Houston Marathon will always be about learning that even when I don’t feel good, I know I’m still capable of doing wonderful things.

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12 responses

  1. mike lung

    Very well said my son

    January 18, 2012 at 22:46

  2. Inspirational and exciting recap. I always love hearing about the voices in people’s heads during that last 10k. In marathons, I am visited by several demons, most of which try and get me to slow down – unfortunately, they work most of the time. I regret signing up, feel shame at going so slowly, wonder why I do this in the first place …

    … and then at mile 25, they all vanish. Like your surge with the Rocky Theme Song, just knowing I’m one paltry mile away sends a fire into my feet that turns my lurch into a legitimate dash. It’s great and it’s probably why I run that beastly distance in the first place.

    Congratulations on that epic time too!

    January 19, 2012 at 10:10

  3. Thanks! It’s always good to know that we aren’t “crazy”, that there are lots of folks like us who find this sort of hobby equally as exhilarating. You’re right about that last mile. For me, it’s close to an out of body experience.

    January 19, 2012 at 10:49

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