Monday Runday: Houston Marathon Recap & Race Review

This is incredibly long--epic races deserve an epic recap--so I've organized it into sections for better scan-ability. How We Got Here: The Grudge Match

I signed up almost three years ago for the 2016 Houston Marathon, excited to run through my hometown. Then I developed a stress fracture and had to cancel. I’ve since completed every major race I had to defer that year, including the Marine Corps Marathon, but this was the last piece of the puzzle—the final grudge match.

Houston is a relatively flat and fast course, with great support, so I’ve been training hard for a big personal best. My previous marathon PR was at Marine Corps in 2016. It was only my second marathon, and it was hhhhhhhhhot that day. So I had a lot of room for improvement, especially if conditions broke my way.

After Hurricane Harvey I was even more excited to run in the Bayou City. I didn’t register for the race as an official charity runner, but I did sign up to raise money for the Houston Food Bank, which was and is instrumental in supporting people impacted by Harvey. I raised almost $700, and it’s not too late to contribute.

Taper Town Be Crazy

My running friends know I’m an obsessive weather-stalker before a race. Houston’s weather is a complete crap shoot in January—it can be 70 and muggy or perfect PR conditions. Amazingly, all the weather models began to coalesce around the latter—race start in the 30s, warming to about 50. I was super excited, but that meant no excuses not to go for broke. I remembered one of my favorite mantras: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

Taper madness began last Tuesday after a race-pace run, a workout I’ve done eleventy times this training cycle without incident. Soon after I finished, my leg started aching at the exact spot of my injury 2 1/2 years ago. I felt it while walking, climbing and descending stairs, and sometimes, just when sitting.

The taper must have a way of knowing what our most vulnerable spots are. Intellectually, I know it’s very rare to reinjure a stress fracture site, especially during taper when your training volume is way down. But of all the aches and pains that could have flared up, this is the one that would throw the most doubt into my race preparation. Last time I felt that ache, it meant a 3 month-break from running and starting completely over. In consultation with my coach and friend Lena Steiner, I decided to rest the leg for the remainder of the week—no running, nor exercise of any kind really. The next time I would run was Sunday at marathon start.

My leg ached off and on all week, driving me nuts. I had several pity parties, and one big bout of imposter syndrome (“Why did you ever think you could do this? You come this far, only to whiff it in the last few days? You’ll never be a ‘real’ runner.”)

Like I said, Taper Town be crazy.

I woke up Friday morning and decided I had to “go until no.” If the injury flared up during the marathon, I would immediately walk off the course, because no race is worth what I went through last time. On the other hand, it might be the race of a lifetime. It was PR or DNF and nothing in between.

In retrospect, the injury scare invited me to “hold it lightly,” tune into my body, and embrace the mystery of not knowing what would happen. And also appreciate the simple joy of running. I get to do this.

So… I readied myself:

(I got a LOT of “Go ‘Stros!!!” in that outfit. Excellent life choice on my part.

Race Day

Mom had come into town, along with my daughters, and they were an amazing pit crew, assisted by my brother, who lives in Houston. Mom dropped me at the race 90 minutes before start—plenty of time to visit the portapotty 2-3 times, as is my custom. *cough* It did mean an early alarm though:

I’ve always been very motivated by music, but I’m racing headphone-free now, and I love it. I was a little worried I’d get bored by myself during a whole marathon, but it turned out to be fine. Instead I used the music to get pumped up ahead of time. I sat on the floor for about an hour beforehand, channeling my inner Michael Phelps:

OK not really, but I was FOCUSED. My last song before turning in my gear:

Around this time, Robert sent me just the GIF I needed:

And then it was time to go to the corral! The corrals at Houston are huge, and were so crowded that a bunch of us jumped a temporary fence so we wouldn’t have to go all the way to the back and fight our way upstream.

And then it was go time!


The Race Itself: A Run Down Memory Lane

The marathon course starts downtown and goes through some of Houston’s most beautiful (and swanky) neighborhoods. That makes for a picturesque race. But it’s hard to convey just what a trip down memory lane this was for me personally. We ran by countless old haunts, most notably Rice University (with the Marching Owl Band to entertain us), the house Robert and I shared when we first got married, my elementary school, our family’s church growing up, the street I grew up on, and within a block of the church where Robert and I got married and where I was ordained as a minister nine years later.

Needless to say, yesterday was an experience I will cherish forever.

I started out slightly slower than race pace, just to get warmed up and also to test the leg. Within a half mile it became clear that it would be totally fine, but it wasn’t until mile 2 that I really embraced that yes, I needed to run 26.2 miles now. (I thought of that Aaron Burr line in Hamilton when he deadpans, “OK so, we’re doing this.”)

The crowds and the landmarks kept me entertained, and I really felt good and strong and happy. Robert was tracking me and would send texts at key moments, which I could read on my Garmin without fumbling with the phone (great feature). Every time I touched a timing mat I got excited because I knew I’d hear from him soon. My race pace was hard, but felt sustainable—so glad I’d practiced it so much.

I saw my family three times. I saw Mom and Margaret at mile 9 at Rice Village, and Margaret gave me the baby from our king cake this weekend, for luck. Then at mile 14, near the Galleria, they showed up again to switch out fuel belts with me, so I could continue drinking my Nuun electrolyte without fumbling with tablets and refills at water stations. Huge support, especially since it was chilly enough that my fingers were stiff. I then saw them one more time, with Caroline and my brother, at mile 21.

Around mile 18, we turned onto Memorial Drive for the long winding trek back to downtown. Mile 18 of a marathon is no Club Med vacation even in the best of circumstances, but several additional things happened:

  • The rollers started. They weren’t bad, just unrelenting.
  • Headwind.
  • MAMD was all out of significant landmarks to bask in.

In addition to the gradual rollers, there were some more significant elevation shifts—not like Virginia’s finest, but enough to feel it. And instead of traditional hills, they were underpasses, which means you go down and THEN up. That’s just mean. As a result of all this, miles 21-25 were 20-30 seconds slower than my average pace up to that point, and it took a lot of concentration not to slow even further.

Mentally, I had several mantras I cycled through:

  • Sky above, earth beneath, fire within. A phrase I picked up at the Richmond half.
  • One good _________. [one good mile, minute, 30 seconds, whatever]. Helped me stay in the moment.
  • Trust your training. An oldie but goodie.
  • Execute. Weird mantra, but a reminder to stick to my race plan.
  • Keep doing this. Rather blunt and inelegant I admit, but I picked this one up late in the race, when I was tempted to slow down. It was my reminder not to get fancy or change things up, just to keep doing exactly what I was doing, which I knew I could do because… I was doing it. (Marathon logic.)
  • Pace yourself, push yourself. My reminder to find the balance between keeping the pace strong but not overreaching and flaming out.
  • Around mile 24 I saw a sign that said, Focus, breathe, believe. I have no doubt the woman who held it was a runner herself, because that was the perfect mantra to carry me through the last couple of miles.

Crossing the finish line is never the elated experience for me that it seems to be for others. I think I’m so in the zone that it feels surreal. That was true in Houston. It wasn’t until I got through the chute and was able to sit down, stretch, and see the texts from Lena and Robert that it all flooded in.