Houston Marathon report (long)


Bert Duplessis

Even though I missed my target time by a few minutes last Sunday (Jan 18) at the hp Houston
Marathon, more things went right than wrong and I finished strong. More remarkably, not even once
could I be heard muttering that this was going to be my last marathon ever, or cursing the day I
took up long-distance running. I had done both of those things before in other marathons, more than
just a few times. Is there a veteran marathon runner who hasn’t?

Kathleen and I decided that this year we would avoid the mad early morning dash into downtown, never
knowing quite which roads would be closed and where or when. As fine a job as the Houston traffic
cops do to protect the runners once they are underway, they seem to strive just as hard to prevent
them from making it to the start in the first place! We took advantage of the special marathon
discount at the new Hilton Americas adjacent to the downtown Convention Center, spending both Friday
and Saturday night there. From our room on the 6th floor, we had a nice view of the start/end line,
and watched all the preparations and activities until just before 7 am, and later the stragglers
limping in until about 2 pm. We'll be back there next year; definitely the way to do it!

As always, the Houston Marathon Expo had tons of stuff for sale and many interesting exhibitors. It
is better and less crowded than some other marathon expos I have been to over the last couple of
years, such as at Grandma’s and the Marine Corps Marathon. I had a long chat with one of the
vendors, Bob Fletcher, the Texan who ran 50 marathons over 50 consecutive weeks the year he turned
50 (in the mid 1980’s). Of course, I had to buy his book, ‘Spaghetti every Friday’, which
turned out to be a good pre-marathon read, except for his insistence that one needs to run about 70
or 80 miles per week to run a ‘good’ marathon. Had me worried there for a while… Bob and I
compared notes on stupid non-running things we had done over the years, resulting in injuries. Mine
included a party trick of lifting my entire body up and down repeatedly on one leg, from a squatting
position with the other leg fully extended, hands elevated. His two best ones were falling off the
roof of his house one time, and on another occasion he dove up and back onto the diving board, at a
water-running demo. Took him more than a year to fully recover from that injury.

On Sunday morning, I left the hotel room barely 5 minutes before the start and couldn't get through
to the 4-hr pace group which I had signed up for and had every intention to run with. I ended up
starting almost at the back of the crowd - which was a mistake. I never could catch up; by 6 miles I
was still averaging only about 10:30/mile and that was that. I caught and passed the 4:30 pace group
and also the 4:15 group, but missed my sub-4 hr. goal by just over 4 minutes. I figure had it in me
to run under 4 hours - I just needed to plan & execute a little better. Since Houston added a
simultaneous half marathon it is no longer possible to easily weave your way through the throng at
the start. Chip time for the full distance was 04:04:08. From the 30k mark (18.6 miles) until the
end my average pace per minute was under 9:00/mile and I was passing hundreds of runners, many of
whom were just barely shuffling along or walking. Having been in their position more times than I
care to remember, I experienced an occasional flash of déjà vu, especially when witnessing some
poor devil battling leg cramps. Is there anything more excruciatingly painful than a full-blown
hamstring cramp which can fell a grown man as surely as if he had been shot right through the heart?
I don’t think so.

Although I have run a 3:42 marathon, it seemed like an endless struggle compared with this one. My
‘usual’ marathon is very predictable: tightening up in the quads and groin from about the
halfway mark, followed by calf (and the occasional dreaded hamstring) cramps from about 30 km
onwards. With more training this year, including regular weekly speedwork sessions & more strength
workouts with the Kenyan Way program, I have pretty much banished these gremlins. Last year (Houston
2003) was my first ever negative split and this year it was more of the same. I have never felt
better after a marathon, either.

A few words about the course: Houston is very flat and very fast - usually pretty cold at the start
(in the low 40's) but naturally that could be different on any given day. This year the temperature
stayed in the 50’s for the duration. The humidity is usually very high. This year it was
apparently lower – I didn’t notice. The only 'hills' on the Houston marathon route are one
highway overpass around mile 13 (it used to be right at the halfway mark until they modified the
course) and a few minor ups and downs along Allen Parkway, around Mile 22/23 or so. The hp Houston
Marathon is known for its excellent organization with more than 5,000 volunteers, and superb
start/end arrangements at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Runners can stay inside the
centrally heated center until literally just minutes before the start. It is a massive area with
much less of the congestion usually associated with 'big city' marathons. Ditto at the finish. In
2003 the first few miles of the run were congested due to the presence of the half marathon crowd,
and this year it was worse – a matter of concern for some of us old-time Houston runners. The hp
Houston marathon boasts a sizeable 'hoopla' brigade, and runners are never too far from very
enthusiastic spectators in various neighborhoods, with lots of music, bands, belly dancers,
cheerleaders etc. Practically the entire race is on concrete so strap on some fairly fresh shoes.
The route is not uninteresting. The start may not be the best time to admire Houston’s skyline,
but the downtown area has some striking examples of postmodern skyscraper architecture, designed by
such architectural luminaries as I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson. My personal favorite is the 52-story
Texaco Heritage Plaza with its Mayan temple-inspired crown. But I digress. After crossing a viaduct
a mile or so from its downtown start, the route intersects an inner-city neighborhood and meanders
through a part of the Heights, past Montrose and then into the oak-lined streets around Rice
University & West University Place. From there, runners make their way through the Galleria &
Tanglewood area, eventually turning back towards town. At the intersection of Woodway and the Loop
(610) they reach the 20-mile point and then run (or try to) along Memorial Park before veering off
onto Allen Parkway. Over the last couple of miles the route enters a downtown ‘canyon’ with a
last gasp left turn which puts you within 200 meters of triumph or deliverance, or somewhere in-
between, depending upon the kind of day you’re having.

Bert Houston
[email protected] (Bert Duplessis) wrote in
news:[email protected]:

> Even though I missed my target time by a few minutes last Sunday (Jan
> 18) at the hp Houston Marathon, more things went right than wrong and I finished strong.

Bert, thanks for the report and congrats on your strong finish. This is one of the marathons I'm
considering for a few reasons: 1) flat and fast, 2) a January marathon puts the 18-week marathon
prep during Atlanta's cooler months, 3) relatives in town (cheap shelter). The crowded start is a
concern. Do you think that if you arrived at the start sooner, you could have placed yourself

>Do you think that if you arrived at the start sooner, you could have placed yourself appropriately?

Definitely yes; I just did not leave myself enough time to work my way through or around the crowd.
If I had arrived even 5 minutes sooner, I would have been able to start with the 4-hr pace group.