Picking up the Pace…or not…
I always have a hard time racing marathons. At first, it was because I was inexperienced and was happy for whatever time I felt like running that particular day. More recently, it’s because I never taper properly because there is always “something” around the corner that makes it a “training run”. This year’s Houston Marathon was no different.
Marathon season in Houston is so tricky for me to get “right”. There are so many races to choose from, it’s hard to focus on one particular event over another. Typically, I’ve been taken to running the Texas Marathon (1/1), Houston Marathon (1/17) and then use whatever energy I have left for Rocky Raccoon 100 (2/6-7). This year, I wanted to make sure I didn’t burn out for RR100, as I have a score to settle from last year (see race report). With that in mind, I decided to run the Texas and Houston marathons on the “tired legs” philosophy that has led to success at RR100 in the past. Both weeks, I was well on my way to logging 65+ miles and incorporated some element of targeted speed work into my training those weeks.
Then the weather forecast started coming into focus.
For the first time in my running career, the weather was looking fan-freaking-tastic for not only the Texas Marathon but Houston as well. I had run a great race at the Texas Marathon (race report) and had rebounded nicely from the evenly paced effort, therefore, I had high hopes for Houston (and RR100). I decided to go for it at Houston. I didn’t only want to PR, but I also wanted to try to hit my first 3:25 marathon. I was confident I could hit a 3:25 marathon on relatively fresh legs, but it would be a challenge on not-as-fresh legs near the end of a 100M training cycle.
Pacing strategy kept me up at night, as there is no official 3:25 pace group. Should I go out with the 3:30 group and unlatch from them at some point in time? Should I go out on my own for the whole thing? Should I go out fast and pray that I hold onto my pace?
It was clear to me to eliminate the option to go out fast. It’s never been a good strategy for me. Going out on my own works sometimes, but I sometimes lack confidence in myself to keep myself honest in the early miles of a race. I decided to chat with the 3:30 pace group leaders and start off with them. It wasn’t clear when I would detach from them, but it would be smart to hang with them for at least the first couple of miles to keep my pace in check.
The first miles were just as they should be, relaxed and easy. I clicked off just over 8 min for the first mile and just under for the second. As I approached the first water stop, I removed my throw-away long sleeved t and dropped it off before the first set of tables. Exiting the first water stop, I noticed I had gotten a bit ahead of the pace group. I looked over my shoulder and decided to slowly pull away at that point and see what pace I settled into for the race.
I mentally prepared myself for the course, breaking it into manageable chunks. The first chunk is the shared course with the half marathon. This is where the bulk majority of the supporters are lined up and the course is most crowded. I’m not a big fan of this section of the course, too crowded for my taste, but it is entertaining. A bit over 7 miles into the course, in the West University neighborhood, the half marathoners head left back into town and the marathon heads right towards Rice University.
In West University is when I started feeling a little off. It was becoming clear that I had a major choice to make regarding whether or not to seek out a porta-pot. I started bargaining with myself. Should I or shouldn’t I? It would take some time, but I may go faster if I make my pit stop.
Around mile 10, I decided the pit stop was worth it, for better or worse!
As I approached the porta-pots, I noticed there were only 2 at this aid station. They both were occupied! I cussed, cussed and cussed some more. At that point, after stopping, I had to wait for one to free up. That killed ~1:30-2 min of my race. *sigh* I’d do my best to gradually pick up the lost time over the next couple of miles in order to help keep my time goal.
The next ~5k to the half marathon point were relatively uneventful. Clicking off miles and picking up a little bit of my lost time. The half marathon point of the marathon occurs on a short (and boring) out and back on a highway feeder ramp. This is the only time you can see your fellow athletes and get a chance to see whereabouts you are in the pack. As I headed out, I saw the 3:20 pace group making the turn off of the out and back. I noticed my friend, Ryan, was still hanging with them strongly and it gave me a bit of encouragement to try to slowly catch up with their group.
As I made the turn, I saw the 3:30 pace group ~1 min behind me. Not bad, but not great either. I was hoping to be a couple minutes ahead at this point. Darn potty stop!
No worries though, I kept on clicking off miles in the 7:35-7:45 range as I assessed what I had left on the course. Two major hurdles, a long stretch on Chimney Rock that has historically been soul-crushing and the long trek on Memorial Drive into Memorial Park. Those would be the hardest mentally for me, they always have been the hardest on the new Houston Marathon course for me to date.
I started picking up my pace through Tanglewood and onto the dreaded stretch along Chimney Rock. I felt pretty good and my Garmin’s average pace was now saying I had dropped back down to ~7:49-7:50 pace, spot on for a prediction of 3:25 for the marathon (with running perfect tangents, trusting precise satellite positioning, with a side of unicorns and rainbows to guide the way). I decided my goal was to keep my Garmin to keep the average pace reading of 7:50 the rest of the way and see what I had for the final 2km of the race.
The run along Memorial Park was my low spot this year. I run in and out of Memorial Park at least once a week, most times multiple times a week. I know pretty much every landmark along that stretch and should be able to run that stretch of the course in my sleep (tangents included). My legs got a little heavier and it seemed like the landmarks I was looking out for had moved. The Clif Shot tent seemed like it was at least 1/2 mile further down the road this year and the other hoopla through the park itself seemed a little subdued this year as well. Normally, I’m not one to complain about such things, I’m totally into running alone and within myself without needing or wanting much fanfare. My pace started slowing into the 7:50+ range. I figured I would get a second surge when I got to Allen Parkway, the final stretch before hitting downtown Houston.
With the turn onto Allen Parkway, I had more than a few landmarks of which to anticipate. Most of the Houston-area running clubs set up shop along Allen Parkway and at last count, there are at least 4 places I know of which that supply beer to runners. Looking out for these landmarks helps with the anguish of the few “hills” on the marathon course (I did not partake in beer this year).
My slowest 5k of the race (minus potty-stop 5k) was from 35-40k, however, I was having fun picking off runners and chasing rabbits. A few pictures my friends were able to get of me at this point show me in the zone. I was focused on the finish and hopefully reaching my goal!
The 40k point of the marathon occurs just before hitting downtown Houston. I mentally prepared myself for the final 2k, only 1.2 miles to go, I can do anything for 1.2 miles! I was feeling remarkably good at this point. I continued to pick off runners one by one, moving up in the field. For the first time, very few runners passed me in this final stretch.
The half mile point came, then the quarter mile to go. Only 400m to go and I still had a kick left in me! As I kicked in the last 400m, I passed a local friendly rival, Suzy Seeley. Suzy is a local elite that I’ve been chasing down the past several years. The finish line announcer was stating that people were rushing in to get the clock to read under 3:30 and that time was running out. That lit another fire under my ass and got me to kick even faster (final peaks near end were at ~6:30 pace).
My watch read 3:26:49. This was misleading though, I accidentally had lost some time due to me inadvertently stopping watch as some point (whoops, see the break just after 1:23 above). I would have to wait until I got my phone to check the unofficial results online for my chip time.
I gave my regards to Suzy for a great race and headed through the finisher’s chute to pick up my drop bag and get my results.
I packed the bare minimum into my drop bag, just the essentials, post-race strawberry lemonade nuun and my water bottle for the recovery trek back up Allen Parkway.
Walking back up Allen Parkway is my favorite way to cool-down from the Houston Marathon. A large group of my friends from FrontRunners Houston set up a cheer station at Allen Parkway and Dunlavy. This gives me over 3 miles of a cool down after the race.
Along the way, I am able to make a positive impact on those still out on the course and encourage them to keep their pace strong and make relentless forward progress to the finish. This year was no different. I got to see and support a number of my friends, whether it was a shout-out, gentle encouragement or a much-needed impromptu stretch session. It was perfect way to cap off my PR-effort race!
After arriving at the FrontRunners tent, I decided to look into my “official” time online more closely. Not only did I PR by ~2 minutes, I also achieved a negative split for the marathon! I believe this was the first time I’ve accomplished an honest negative split marathon.
Finally a time to relax and enjoy my taper to RR100 on Feb. 6…
I’ll hit 3:25 soon, I have no doubts about that. Then the question is, where to from there???