When I had registered for this race, I hoped it'd be a new PR - I've PR'd at Houston before - it's a fast course with good competition. I knew it'd be a somewhat quick turnaround from Indy to get back into full fitness (I usually need about 12 weeks post-marathon to get back to where I was pre-race), but I thought I had just enough time to make it work.
Then of course, Indy didn't happen. Running Richmond a week later took a week of training away, and swapping to One City as my goal spring marathon (another result of missing Indy) meant that Houston was now a tune-up race, though I still had hopes of PRing. And then I had to miss another week of training last week when a hamstring issue flared. All less than ideal.
But...Houston is a great race, and so I hadn't ruled out the possibility of PRing - I honestly had no idea what I'd run. I wasn't as fit as I would like, but I was certainly well rested. Plus...I fervently believe that a half-marathon, raced all out, is the ultimate in tempo runs and a great marathon training workout, so there was benefit in going to Houston for that reason.
I did watch the weather carefully all of the week before. The long term forecasts showed morning temperatures in the 70s with high humidity every day of the week until a front rolled through on Saturday night. I had no interest in running a hot and humid half-marathon on a recently healed hamstring - just too much risk. But...the forecast held steady, so I hopped on a plane on Friday afternoon to journey to Houston.
Once there, I fell into a regular routine - bib pick-up, Chipotle, stretching, and internet surfing, (plus watching the cold weather roll in on Saturday night) before waking a bit before 4 am on Sunday morning for my pre-race meal and mobilization routine. Around 5:35 am I left my hotel to walk my gear bag over to the Houston Convention Center, before heading out for my warm-up.
The cold weather front brought strong winds with it - as I stepped out of my hotel I was buffeted around. It reminded me of Richmond last fall, or Shamrock on any one of several years. My goal marathon, One City, has a solid chance of being windy, so I didn't mind the opportunity to race in gusty conditions for my tune-up.
On the other hand, the wind was coming from the north, meaning a tailwind earlier in the course, and then a solid headwind for most of the second half, with miles 8-11 being run directly into it. It's almost always preferable to get any headwind early in the course when runners are packed up and have the tailwind when one is isolated and able to make full use of it.
|When lapping my watch, I missed Miles 4 and 7|
But it was what it was, and the air temperature was perfect (mid-40s). I made a mental note to ride the tailwind early on, but save mental and physical energy for the late miles.
I was running Houston in the "Athlete Development Program" (ADP) which meant a separate corral just ahead of the A corral. I checked out the entrance to the ADP corral (accessed by walking to the side of the A corral, which was right behind the ADP corral) and then found some empty streets to warm-up. I went with 15 minutes of jogging, 3 minutes at half-marathon effort, followed by 4x30 seconds at 5K effort. This brought me to a bit over 2 miles of running. It was just before 6:30, and time to get into my corral, which closed at 6:35.
So I jogged to where the entrance of the ADP corral should have been, only to see a new metal gate blocking my way. Whoops. Apparently I needed to go through the A corral in order to get into the ADP corral
Annoyed about the extra running (and worried about cutting it so close), I jogged the two and a half blocks back to the entrance of the A corral, showed my bib, and entered the A corral. I then jogged another two plus blocks, weaving past others, to the front of the A corral. Only to be met by another metal fence, rather than the ADP corral.
And then I looked around me, and saw all the race bibs with "B" on them. And I realized I was in the B corral.
Cue more jogging, upstream against a growing mass of B corral runners, before I managed to exit that corral, jog/sprint (yes, that's a term) my way to the A corral entrance. Where I confirmed that the entrance to the ADP corral was still properly accessed via going around the A corral. A few more blocks of jogging, managing neither to trip on a cord or a curb, nor to cause anyone else to do the same, and then I was squeezing into the ADP corral at 6:39 - extremely grateful that there was a little leeway on when the corral closed.
Once properly in my corral, I chatted with some friends, retied my shoelaces (of course), and mentally collected myself for the race. I knew that the corral was almost entirely filled with either those going for the Olympics trial qualifier (OTQ) standard, or those who already had it and were trying to run faster. So I seeded myself at the very back of the corral, with a few others who had the same idea. As I slotted myself in, we gave each other knowing smiles.
I wondered briefly if I should have moved myself back to the A corral, but decided I was in the right place. The ADP corral had been the right place for me two years ago, and I was in better shape now.
At 6:58 we were moved up to the starting line, with the elites in front of us, and the A corral right behind. I glanced back at the A corral, and saw the front of it packed with what looked like really fast people. Really fast people. And I remembered that a lot of people chasing the OTQ (this was the last day to get it) had been relegated to corral A after missing the deadline for the ADP corral.
And then the gun went off. Usually, once one crosses the start line of a big race, there's a few moments of chaos as people maneuver around each other before settling into pace. Not this time.
The chaos started well before the start line, as all the OTQ hopefuls behind me sprinted and pushed and shoved their way to the start line, so as to cross the start line as quickly as possible after the gun. This was because, for purposes of qualifying, it was gun time that mattered, not chip time.
The first two minutes or so of the race were insane - reminiscent of some of the most active mosh pits from an earlier phase of my life. But with a few key differences. There was no sense of community or rhythm, just every runner for him or herself. Arms were swinging, instead of pulled in. There were plenty of safety pins around, but they were all securing race bibs. And my Vaporflies were considerably less stable than what I normally wore to shows.
I ended up slowly jogging, as far off to the side as I could manage (which wasn't very far) for a few moments to avoid being trampled, before getting enough clear space to start ramping into race effort. Not ideal, but it was what it was, and I just needed to move on and start racing.
From there, I worked my way into a steady effort. The wind gusted and buffeted us mostly from the side, but it was variable in its strength, which made it easier to manage.
After the first 2 miles, we turned south, and I could feel the wind helping, though it still ebbed and flowed. I opened up a bit more, trying to find half-marathon effort, but I had to work at it, and it felt awkward when I hit it. Not surprising. Four and five mile tempos are my bread and butter workout for half-marathons, and I've done exactly one of those in the past few months. Marathon pace workouts and intervals just don't quite get the job done.
So I just worked on, trying to nudge myself to give a bit more.
As we approached the split between the half and full marathon after the 7 mile mark (where the marathoners turned right), I hung to the left and tried to locate other runners doing the same. My problem was that I was still picking up steam and pace, and so instead of finding a pack to run with, I kept pulling past them.
Just before we turned into the headwind, I took a highly caffeinated gel, hoping that it would kick in right during the headwind. Running into a headwind is mental as well as physical, and a well timed caffeine blast would help with both.
I also noted a pair of women a bit ahead - not ideal windblocks, since each was only slightly taller than myself. But they were the best I could do right now, so I tucked in as we turned north.
Unfortunately, the pattern repeated itself, and both women shortly fell behind me. I forged on, passing as people continued to fade. It seemed like most had gone with an alternate strategy - hammer with the tailwind, and then try not to lose too much into the headwind. Which gave me no one to work with. Oh well.
The good news is that the wind was still variable. Sometimes it pushed hard enough that I felt like I was running in place; at other times it would ease. I tried to work as much as I could with it - taking advantage when it eased, and staying patient when it pressed. A Houston based friend had warned me about one stretch near a tall building where the wind would be REALLY bad, and sure enough it was. But, being forewarned made it easier to stay patient and gut it out.
When we turned right for the final two miles back into downtown Houston, I hoped that the wind would ease, since it was no longer in our faces. However, it remained strong, gusting across and forcing me to twist into it at times, like a crosswind landing. One of the benefits of being small is that though I was being buffeted, it seems like others were being pushed more, and so I was able to pass a few more.
As we approached the finish, I emptied the tank as best I could. As I crossed, I noted a time in the mid-85s. Meh. I wasn't crazy about the time, but I felt like I had run a solid race. I had no idea what my fitness was coming into this race, and now I knew.
Mile 1: 7:03 (starting chaos)
Mile 2: 6:35
Mile 3: 6:28
Miles 4-5: 12:57 (6:28 pace)
Mile 6: 6:17
Miles 7-8:12:46 (6:23 pace)
Mile 9: 6:39
Mile 10: 6:31
Mile 11: 6:39
Mile 12: 6:29
Mile 13: 6:28
last bit: 41 seconds (6:13 pace)
Looking at these, I'm fairly happy with them. While I do like a slow first 1-2 miles in a half, Mile 1 here was unquestionably the outlier, and way too slow. But, again, not intentional, just what I had to do not to get trampled. And since I wasn't in PR shape anyway, it didn't cost me anything.
I ended up third in my age group of 45-49. In contrast to 2018, when I ran 20 seconds slower and won the 40-44 age group. But...this race was simply much much deeper than 2018, and I'm pretty happy to have gotten some hardware out of it.
- The official weather ended up being perfect temps - 45 degrees with a dewpoint of 20. The wind was sustained at 15 MPH out of the NNE, with gusts significantly stronger. So great temperatures, just wish we had less wind or it had been coming out of the southwest.
- I ended up running 3.5 miles for my warm-up - much more than I intended. The good news is that I don't think it affected my race at all, and I did feel good at the start. Perhaps I need to test a longer pre-half warm-up next time?
- My left hamstring, the source of so much concern last week, held up great for this race. I'm a bit stiff and sore all over, but the left hamstring feels no worse than the right. Woo.
- I entered One City with the hopes of going sub-2:55 there, but this race shows I'm not in that sort of shape yet. The good news is that I have a few more weeks to get there, so we'll see.
- After the race, I showered, checked out, and then headed over to cheer the marathon. After seeing friends come through, I walked over to a coffee shop a half mile away (recommended by a friend), and hung out there for the next few hours while friends stopped by. It ended up being a great time.
- Two years ago, I was really happy to just barely break 86 minutes here. So it's nice to be meh about a time a bit faster, and attribute it to not being in my best shape.