As the wheelchair, handcycle and athletes with disabilities began the Chevron Housron Marathon at 6.45am, to rousing applause from the other runners, it took me a few moments to recognise the music being played over the speakers: Do it Anyway by the Ben Folds Five.
I was so busy humming along and reflecting on the song’s title making it a clever choice to recognise such incredible athletes, that it took a while before I remembered to be surprised at hearing the Ben Folds Five being played at such a big occasion. The Ben Folds Five. The Ben Folds Five!
The piano-rock three-piece is among my favourite bands, but they’re hardly in regular rotation on mainstream radio, hence my surprise – and delight (As an aside, if you’ve never heard of them, head straight to Spotify…).
Fifteen minutes later, the musical choice to send the first wave of runners across the line was Come on Eileen, by Dexys Midnight Runners. It was defintely a more mainstream choice – if still not an entirely obvious one – and while I did struggle to find a particular reason for it (other than to support the three runners named Eileen who started the half marathon), it was a suitably jaunty number to set the field on its way. Although the ever-changing tempo did make it hard to slip into a running rhythm.
Of course, that does mean I’ll never be able to listen to Come on Eileen again without some vague flashback to crossing the illuminated start line in the early hours of Sunday January 15, 2017.
Do it Anyway and Come on Eileen were just the first of many tunes I heard while running the Houston Marathon, which combined with many other noises to form a rich tapestry of sound that was a truly spectacular assault on the sense.
But it wasn’t just sound: turns out that marathon running also exposes you to plenty of smellls, too. Smells? Want to know more? Read on…
You’re never that far from music on the Houston Marathon course, and a key reason for that is all the ‘Hoopla’ zones the organisers set up and support. Once you’ve left the start behind and hit Washington St, numerous bars have live musical acts performing for the runners. And that was a trend that continued round the course. Rock, jazz, blues… it seemed every musical type was covered.
Going past Rice Stadium, runners were entertained by a section of the Rice University Marching Owl Band. There were belly dancers doing their thing to some suitable music.
Occasionally, radio stations were set up on the route, playing tunes and reading out messages of support.
The sound didn’t just come from the music, of course. There were the frequent shouts of encouragement from the spectators (read more about that in the first of my series of reflections here). There was more shouting at many of the drinks stations:
It was a duelling drinks chant to help ensure you could find the right fluid. Even once I’d realised that the Gatorade was always offered out before the water at the drinks stations (and that the two drinks came in different coloured cups), the regular calls added a spot of familiarity approaching each drinks station – and was just another example of how great the organisers and volunteers were.
But neither the music, nor the cheers of the crowd, provided the sound I’ll remember most from the Houston Marathon. Because, permeating everything, was the sound of cowbells.
Now, cowbells aren’t a particularly big thing in Britain, but they were hugely popular among spectators on the course (including my mum, niece and nephew). That could have been because at least two event sponsors – Skechers and Geico – were handing them out to fans, or it could be because Texans just like cowbells.
Regardless of the reason, the small bells can make a tremendous noise, especially when there are lots of them being rung together. And, strangely, it never really got annoying. I’d kinda expected hearing cowbells ringing virtually non-stop for just over three hours would be annoying. But it wasn’t. So there you go…
One of the more unusual moments I remember from the London Marathon was passing a KFC about an hour into the route. As I approached, I was hit by the distinctive whiff of fried chicken. I couldn’t decide – I still can’t – if it smelt glorious or terrible. It both made me want to eat friend chicken, and unsettled my disposition mid-marathon run.
Regardless, it demonstrated that the effort of running a marathon heightens all your sense. And the Houston Marathon course passed a lot of restaurants and bars. And Texas didn’t disappoint.
A few miles into the course, a Jack In The Box smelled particularly tasty, while a handful of taquerias gave me a desire for Mexican (frequently my post-race dining of choice, of course). I was a little surprised not to smell fried chicken when the course passed a Chick Fil-A, until I remembered that chain doesn’t open on Sundays…
Not every smell was quite so pleasant. Just after half-distance the course briefly traversed an access road to Interstate 610 (aka Houston’s inner loop), and perhaps unsurprisingly there was a generally unpleasant sort-of eggy smell in the air. It was hard to resist speeding up to try and escape the smell quicker.
But let’s finish on a positive note, and the most glorious thing I smelt on the marathon route – and by a wide margin. And it was something very, very Texas: smoked meat.
Heading down Kirby Drive, the course went past Goode Company Barbeque, and even though it was several hours before it opened for business the meat smokers were clearly already in action. And it smelled… glorious. Just glorious.
You’ll find the glorious, distinctive smell of a wood smoker whenever you get near Texas BBQ, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered any that smelled that good before. Perhaps that was just because my senses were being heightened by the marathon. Or perhaps it was just really good quality BBQ.
Alas, I didn’t get to find out: not only was Goode Company BBQ not open, but I was busy running a marathon. But here’s the thing. It smelt so good that, had it been open, I may well have been tempted to take a break from the marathon and sample some brisket…