After a solid but underwhelming performance at UTMB last September, I was forced to ponder the future of my running. I was emotional fatigued from three years of intense training, and was lacking an obvious or compelling “why” to sustain it. But at 36 years-old, I recognized that it’d be easier (and probably more fruitful) to work through my remaining bucket list now than to circle back later.
At least for a little while longer, in October I decided to double-down. The Boston Marathon in April would have been ideal: it’s my most favorite race, it doubles as a family visit, and I would have had 6.5 months to prepare. But I missed the registration window. PSA: It’s open for just a day or two, and if you miss it you’re SOL.
So for another shot at sub-2:30 I settled on the Houston Marathon, which has a flat course and an elite field. My running and hunting partner, Steve, whose wife Emma is from Houston, agreed to register as well.
The single downside to Houston was its timing: I had just 3.5 months to redevelop my marathon speed, which had gone away while while training for 100-mile mountain ultras. Moreover, in early-October my body was still residually fatigued from UTMB, which was a massive effort — 104 miles with 31,000 vertical feet of climbing.
For more in-depth training details, read this recent interview with coach David Roche and view my training on Strava. Here’s the synopsis: it was a rough transition, with many workouts that felt harder than they should have and that were slower than I wanted them to be. But as David predicted, in the last few weeks I finally started to feel good — great, actually — and it was clear that I was “riding the wave” into Houston.
Based on the final workouts (notably a solo sub-max 10K in 34:00), David put me at 2:29:XX, assuming that the race day weather was cooperative and that there were no last-minute surprises (e.g. the flu). He said that a 2:27:XX was possible, but not a recommended race plan. I’ve never asked to see David’s calculators, but intuitively these goal times felt about right.
The first half
At the 7 AM start I felt prepared and confident. My legs were fresh and spritely. I was hydrated and nourished. My bowels were empty. And the forecast was ideal: temperatures in the mid- and high-30’s, with a mild east wind.
The starting line at Houston felt like a free-for-all. Entries with a confirmed result of 4 hours or less are placed in the A corral. Signage helps the field to self-sort (e.g. “If your goal pace is 8:00 minutes per mile, line up here.), but it’s not enforced. Thankfully, I was able to position myself just behind the elite and development fields, and didn’t have to dodge many runners wearing basketball shoes or Superman costumes who had pushed their way to the front in the hopes of getting on TV.
Within 800 yards I had caught Sarah Crouch, who like me was aiming for sub-2:30 and who was being paced by her husband, Michael, who had offered me his pacing services, too. I ran with them for about a mile, but it felt pokey and I slowly pulled away, wondering if i would regret it later.
Even for someone who runs 100-mile races, I consider the marathon a long effort that demands respect. The first half needs to feel easy, or else the second half will probably be really ugly. Essentially, you’re a frog in a pot of increasingly hotter water, and it’s imperative to not boil too soon.
After the first mile or two, I settled into a natural pace in the mid- and high-5:30’s. Whereas at altitude this would be my 10-mile or half-marathon race pace, at sea level it’s just below my lactate threshold, making it much more sustainable. I tried to stay mentally relaxed, and saved additional energy by drafting behind other runners. My heart rate was purring around 160 bpm.
My Suunto Ambit3 Peak GPS watch showed a gradual drop in my average pace, eventually bottoming out at 5:37 minutes per mile. I figured my actual pace was slightly slower, maybe 5:38 or 5:39 — it’s difficult to hit each course apex perfectly, so you actually run longer than 26.2, resulting in a slower official pace. Even though the effort felt comfortable, I debated if I was naively succumbing to the race’s early excitement and momentum.
When the marathon and half-marathon courses split near the 8-mile marker, two-thirds of the runners within sight disappeared, increasing the individual pacing duties at first. But we slowly regrouped, and even had a six-man pack for a while around Mi 20 before it splintered in the final 10K.
I didn’t ask for names, but I’ve since learned some of them. Brian Hurley was third in my 35-39 age division. Bobby Zeller finished in 2:28:55, and Steve Heagy just behind me in 2:28:29. And Chris Maxwell closed best, in 2:27:57.
I ran my fastest 5K of the day between 15K and 20K, in 17:22 (5:35 pace), and hit the halfway mark in exactly 1:14:00.
Hold, hold, hold
As I made the sharp 180-degree turn immediately after the halfway mark, I gave up a stride on a three-man pack to delegate the wind-breaking and pace-setting responsibilities. It was a cowardly but prudent move. The effort felt sustainable, but barely so; a negative split seemed unlikely at this rate. Plus, I was on track to break my goal time by two minutes, and I saw little sense in pushing now at the risk of losing everything later. Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered.
Our small pack steadily rolled north past The Galleria and towards the northwestern corner of the route. Frankly, I don’t remember much of it — with my body locked into a pace and onto two other sets of heels, I mentally checked out, suspecting I would need the bandwidth later. I was described as looking “very focused” on the eastern boundary of Memorial Park at Mi 22, where Emma’s parents were spectating. Almost subconsciously, I returned a raised fist.
Our pace slowed, but not dramatically: from 20 to 25K, 25 to 30K, and 30 to 35K, we averaged 5:41, 5:40, and 5:40 pace, respectively. Indeed, it was a steady roll. A few runners joined us from the back, increasing our group to six. I was thankful for the camaraderie and momentum.
The most significant “hills” on the course are punchy rollers where the course climbs over I-610 at Mi 12.8 (21K) and drops under it at Mi 20.0 (32K). In the final 6.2 miles (10K) along Memorial Blvd, a few others catch attention from those whose legs are giving out on them.
I was falling into that group. While climbing back up to grade after the second I-610 crossing, both hamstrings began to lock up. So close yet still so far from the finish, it was a terrifying feeling.
Interestingly, the exact same thing had happened to me at Boston. I felt the first twinges around Mi 17, and then had moderate cramping in my hamstrings and calves between Mi 18.6 to 21.7 (30 to 35K) through the Newton Hills. Due to the 70-degree temperatures at Boston, I had suspected heat and hydration as the culprits, but I’m thinking now that it’s a muscle fatigue issue that I can possibly rectify with strength building.
Since the halfway mark I thought I would probably have to slow down in order to finish, and finally I was being forced to. My 5K split from Mi 21.7 to 24.9 (35 to 40K) was the slowest of the day, in 17:56 (5:46 pace), and my heart rate dropped from the low-160’s into the high-150’s. I was just trying to hold on and not give up too much time.
The mile-markers could not come fast enough, but eventually I hit Mi 25.0 and decided it was time to go again. Over the final 1.2 miles (2K) I averaged 5:25 pace and picked up two spots. I passed under the finish in 2:28:31, for a gun-adjusted official time of 2:28:24. Woot, woot!
On the return to the expo hall, I was ecstatic but also reflective. This life milestone represented not just 3.5 months of work, but three years of solid commitment, and over two decades of training, since the age of 14. At the moment I may be without an inspiring “why” and may feel more content with riding into the sunset after Houston than UTMB. But, running, can I quit you? I can’t imagine.