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Race report: Houston Marathon || 2:28:24, 33rd place

Boom, in the sub-2:30 Club. And checking the clock just to make sure!

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.

Training

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.

Pre-race with Steve in our “warm up clothes,” which we’d purchased at Goodwill the day before and tossed over the corral fence 5 minutes before the start.

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.

Fresh and relaxed at around Mi 7, just before the marathon and half-marathon courses split.

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 first half felt sustainable, but just barely so. Between Mi 13 and 20 I pulled in behind other runners and simply tried to hold on.

Final 10K

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 hurt finally arrives, especially between 35 and 40K (Mi 22 to 25). I still managed to keep moving at 5:46 pace, though.

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!

Rolling down the homestretch in downtown Houston. After a rough 5K between 35 and 40K, I closed well for the final 1.2 mi (2K), averaging 5:25 and passing two.

A half-tear

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.

Lots of smiles! I joined the sub-2:30 club, and Steve ran 2:50 (10 minutes faster than his goal time) with a flying final 10K.

Posted in on January 20, 2018
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14 Comments

  1. Rich on January 21, 2018 at 11:29 am

    Congrats on your well executed race plan and PR!!! I learn so much just reading your race summaries, road and trail ultras alike. Thanks for sharing them with us;)

    • Andrew Skurka on January 21, 2018 at 11:44 am

      Thanks.

      My primary motivation is writing the race and trip reports is personal — they are life milestones. But I’m glad that they have enough depth to be somewhat valuable for readers, too.

  2. Doug K on January 21, 2018 at 12:27 pm

    congratulations !
    well done indeed. My marathon goal was 2:36 but the closest I got was 2:41 then life intervened..

    I think Dave is going to be a legendary coach..

    on cramps, Corrine Malcolm has an excellent review of the latest research at irunfar,
    http://www.irunfar.com/2018/01/holy-cramp-the-science-of-exercise-associated-cramping.html

    • PS on January 21, 2018 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks for linking to that article. It’s a useful read.

  3. R Smith on January 21, 2018 at 12:58 pm

    Absolute pleasure following the journey. Thanks for sharing it, and congrats on the achievement. “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.”

  4. Scott on January 21, 2018 at 5:36 pm

    Congrats, Andrew – awesome to hear how you crushed it!

    Re: hamstring cramping – would love to hear what David Roche says about it and strength training, if you do a follow up with him. Thanks again for sharing.

  5. Brian on January 21, 2018 at 6:02 pm

    Excellent report, and congrats on the strong race and PR! I love following your training and appreciate how much analysis you offer up of your performance and week in week out work.

    One thing I’m curious about is the hamstring cramp/suffering you experience towards the end of your marathons. You guess that it might possibly be strength related rather than hydration/nutrition. Do you do much strength work in your training? If so, what does that look like?

  6. Xuefeng on January 22, 2018 at 5:38 am

    Awesome! Really, really awesome! Huge congratulations on your new lifetime membership to the sub-2:30 Club. After your second place finish at Leadville back in 2008, I remember thinking how the heck did he do that, he is a hiker not a runner. Clearly, you always have and always will be a runner, even if you never never lace up those racing flats again. Good luck enjoying some untimed mountain adventures. I am not and have never been a runner, although I stumbled through the full Leadville experience in 2004. I am about your age and am now trying to really run – ok, jog for the first time in my life as I train for the Boston marathon this spring. I am only planning to go under 3 hours, but that is about the potential I have. Anyways, many thanks for sharing all of your inspirational stories and a huge congrats on your success.

    • Andrew Skurka on January 22, 2018 at 8:04 am

      Not sure what you have done since Leadville, but if have continued with an occasional ultra and are now training for Boston, you would probably see huge gains by improving your running economy, i.e. reducing the effort necessary to run at various speeds. Read my interviews with David, especially the first one from March 11 of last year, https://andrewskurka.com/tag/david-roche/.

      • xuefeng on January 23, 2018 at 4:09 am

        Thanks, Andrew! Yes, I am definitely trying to upgrade. Fantastic interviews. “…An ultrarunner doing a 45-minute tempo run without the tools to run fast is like asking a school bus to hold 80 miles per hour for 45 minutes. Instead of forcing the bus to go fast, I’d rather upgrade to a Porsche.” I have also been taking my slow runs way too slow. I enjoy the easy hike jogs on trails at 12 minute mile pace. I am slowly realizing those outing dont do much mure than build a tougher school bus.

  7. Steve on January 22, 2018 at 8:16 am

    Great race report and congrats on hitting that goal!!! I wanted to follow up with you on the vaporflys from your previous report going into the marathon. What did you think? I mean, how much credit goes to the shoes for your amazing PR? 🙂 Thanks and continued success!

    • Andrew Skurka on January 22, 2018 at 8:42 am

      Trying to determine how much of the credit goes to the shoes is like trying to determine the exact role of climate change in a hurricane. You’d need some extremely rich data sets to compute it, and even then it seems like a reach.

      David thought that 2:27:XX was possible, and I felt about the same. Last year I ran 2:32:01 at Boston (a tougher course than Houston) on a 70-degree day, beating several guys who have run mid-2:20’s. Also, another guy from town ran 2:26:38 at CIM (under ideal conditions) in December, and our workouts were about on par. The Houston conditions were ideal, too, so it follows that I could be near the low end of possible, assuming I run a good race, which I did.

      At worst, the VaporFly’s are at least as fast as any other racing flat. At best, they’re as good as several labs (Nike’s internal lab, and an independent lab at CU) have found, which would suggest a 4% increase in running economy on average among runners.

      • Steven on January 22, 2018 at 12:58 pm

        Well said, I guess I will just save the cash and stick to what has been working for me and just continue to concentrate on what is my biggest hurdle, the weight haha.

        Again, amazing race Andrew!

  8. April on January 22, 2018 at 1:34 pm

    I’ve had hamstring cramping issues in the ultras I’ve run in the past few years. Always seemed to creep up around 4hrs into the race. Added hamstring training which seemed to help.

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