The Houston Half Marathon: Erm, am I an elite runner now?

Forgive the lack of posts in recent days, but it’s been for a good reason: I’ve just returned from a short trip to Houston, Texas. It was a chance to take in two family birthdays and the Houston Half Marathon – ideal preparation for my forthcoming return there to tackle the Chevron Houston Marathon.

Taking in the Houston Half proved an invaluable experience in my preparation for running a marathon there, and I gleaned plenty of lessons about running in Texas, and the difference between races and running culture in the USA and UK.

More of that in the coming days. But first, a reflection on the most surprising takeaway from the Houston Half… it turns out that I’m an elite runner. That’s right: an elite runner. An elite runner! Yes, this was news to me too.

I discovered my new-found elite runner status when I rocked up to collect my race pack, and the organisers pulled my envelope out of the box marked elite runners. It was reinforced by my low race number (14), and special bright yellow race bib (compared with the ‘normal’ white bib), which marked me out as an elite entrant.


So… apparently I’m an elite runner. Well, there you go.

Okay, some caveats here. First, and most importantly, by most definitions of the phrase, I’m not an elite runner. I’m really not.

That’s not false modesty or anything like that. Grudgingly, with all the enthusiasm that a self-effacing and reserved Englishman can muster, I will acknowledge that I’m a pretty decent amateur runner. I’m capable of running 5k in less than 20 minutes, doing a sub-1h 30m half-marathon and surviving a sub-3h 30m marathon. That puts me well above average in terms of amateur runners – but it definitely doesn’t make me elite.

Of course, it depends on what your definition of ‘elite runner’ is. To me, elite runners are the ones who make a career out of it, the ultra-ultra-ultra quick guys who challenge for race wins and aspire to go to the Olympics and win shiny bits of medal.

That’s the definition of ‘elite runner’ used by, for example, the London Marathon. Just look at this news story about their 2016 elite field: almost all of them were sub-2h 20m marathon runners. Clearly, I’m not an elite runner in the eyes of London Marathon organisers. The London organisers also offer entries to Championship Runners (sub-2h 45m marathoners), and Good For Age runners (for my age group, sub-3h 05m marathon runners). I don’t qualify for either of those groups.

Here’s the thing though: the Houston Half Marathon organisers define an elite athlete differently: it’s simply anyone who, when entering the race, indicates they’re likely to run at a sub 7:00 per mile pace – that’s under 1h 31m 42s for a half-marathon. My half-marathon best is 1h 27m 51s – or 6:42 per mile. And so, by that definition, for that race, I was, technically (and reluctantly), an elite runner.

Oh, and that information was clearly written in the pre-race notes. I just clearly had missed it, hence my surprise when I picked up my elite race number.

What did elite runner status mean? In the grand scheme of things, aside from challenging my sink-into-the-background modesty, not much: my flashy yellow number allowed me to use an elite runner start corral – essentially, it allowed me to start near the front of the field. Which was useful in helping to ensure I didn’t get caught up behind lots of slower people near the start. But did make me feel a bit of pressure as I did my pre-run warm-up in the spacious elite corral while looking back at the non-elite runners packed in the ‘normal’ start area behind me.

Oh, and the strange moment when, walking through the pre-race village, I heard one runner look at my flashy yellow bib and remark to the person sitting next to her: “Look, it’s an elite runner.” I tried to look cool. I failed.

After 13.1 miles of fairly sweaty running in Texan humidity and mist, I reached the finish in 1h 30m 33s – good enough for 91st place and firmly within the ‘elite’ time the organisers had set out. Which, I guess, reinforced that I am an elite runner. In that race, anyway.

But it’s clearly just a race terminology thing. Other events might simply have called it a start corral for ‘competitive runners’, or a ‘time-based’ start zone. I’m under no illusion that I’m an elite runner in any other sense of the word.

Oh, and just to check it wasn’t a Texan thing, I looked up the elite runner entry requirements for the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon: it’s by invite only, and you have to be capable of a sub-2h 11m marathon. Well, I’ve only got to improve my marathon PB by an hour and 17 minutes to qualify…

More reflections on the Houston Half Marathon coming soon!



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