The intersection of Congress Avenue and Austin Street isn’t exactly the most salubrious part of downtown Houston, especially at just after six am on a Sunday morning.
On one side of the street is the Harris County Civil Courthouse; every other business on the block feeds off it. There are car parks offering discount parking to jurors, the sort of small law firm offices you imagine seeing in noir detective films, and all manner of bail bond firms. The brightest light at this intersection is bright, red and spells out ‘BAIL BONDS’. It glows in the window of Action Bail Bonds, just underneath a big red banner standing in for proper signage. In short, they’re the sort of businesses you hope you’re never going to need.
Staring at that stark red light in the early morning twilight, it was hard not to contrast the scene with the space and splendour of Greenwich Park in south London. A strange comparison, no doubt, but it came to mind as I questioned whether the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon I was about to embark on could possibly match the splendour, majesty and experience of running the 2016 Virgin Money London Marathon.
I shouldn’t have worried. The line of businesses that lined the A Corral might have played to the stereotype of Houston as a vast, sprawling, dirty, automobile-filled city built on the back of Big Oil money, but it simply created a false impression.
The 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon was a slickly organised, well-run affair on a course lined with friendly and cheerful volunteers and spectators. The crowd wasn’t as large as London, but they made up for that with enthusiastic and vocal support that showcased the very best of Texan hospitality. And while the course could never hope to match the iconic locations and landmarks that dotted the London course, it firmly showcased that Houston is a vast, varied and vibrant city.
Even the bail bond-lined start corral made perfect sense, in the context of making life easy for the runners. The start line was a block further up Congress Avenue, beside the lovely Court of Appeals building. The A Corral fed back down Congress towards Minute Maid Park – home of the Houston Astros – with the B, C, D and E corrals stretching down consecutive cross streets. When the A Corral cleared, the B runners were fed into the start zone, and so on.
The corrals were placed so the entrance to all five was within a short walk of the George R Brown Convention Center, which doubled as the race HQ and housed the pre-race meeting area and post-race recovery zone.
The start was placed to take runners out of the downtown area on Washington Avenue, which is now home to the sort of fun-looking bars and restaurants that I’m not sure I’m trendy enough to visit. Even at just after seven am, this part of the course was lined with cheering spectators, who waved banners, jiggled cow bells and wore fancy dress. Across the course of 26.2 miles, I reckon I saw more spectators in fancy dress than I did runners. They cheered for friends, family and strangers. Most runners had their names on their race bibs, and the spectators weren’t shy at shouting them.
“Come on James!”
“You got this, James! You can do this!”
“Looking strong, James!”
I’m not sure I was looking strong – my head-wobbling, lolloping running-style rarely looks strong – but it was a huge boost to have so much support. As with the London Marathon, I found myself almost compelled to interact with the spectators: waving or shouting thanks, detouring to the road side to dispense high fives to kids, trying to remember all the signs people were waving. And I found it more fun: unlike the wall of noise and people on the London course, I could pick out the signs, and hear individual people shouting. It somehow felt more human. It was smaller… and in a very good way.
That said, smaller doesn’t necessarily make it easier to remember everything. As with London, my memories of the Houston Marathon are still a mess of little details and moments. So, rather than ramble uncontrollably for another 26 miles or so – especially since I’m writing this in the hours after getting off an overnight transatlantic flight – I’m going to stop here for now. I’ll write more about the moments and memories, and how my race went (spoiler alert: quite well!), in the coming days. In other words…
Read part two of my Houston Marathon reflections, on the sights and signs from the race, here.