Spectators, signs, sounds and smells: memories from the 2018 Houston Marathon

Running the Chevron Houston Marathon for the second time did involve the occasional moment of déjà vu. The signing Elvis impersonators were at the same point on the course as last year – and, as in 2017, were breaking into their rendition of Suspicious Minds when I reached them.

The glorious smell of the smoked meats wafting from Goode Company BBQ on Kirby Drive was just as wonderfully, deliciously amazing as I remembered them last year.

The Rice Marching Band were not far from the university’s stadium. The person with a donut on a stick to tempt runners was in the same place as last year. The cowbells handed out by sponsor Chevron were as jingly and jaunty as in 2017. And yes, the bit of the course that traversed an interstate access road still smelt somewhat unpleasant.

But for all that familiarity, it’s amazing how different and fresh the experience of running the same marathon course in the same city on the same weekend of the year really is. So as I relax and admire my 2018 medal and T-shirt, what will I remember from the race?

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First, I was expecting to see a mix of encouraging, witty and vaguely insulting signs this time. But for every reprise of a sign saying ‘world’s worst parade’, or ‘hit me for power’ with a picture of the mushroom from Super Mario Kart, there was a fresh one – such as the sign saying ‘hit me for power’ with a picture of Donald Trump on it. Would be interested to know what condition that sign was in after the field had passed…

There were also a lot of signs – more than I remember – with variants of ‘run? I thought you said rum’ on. Is rum in fashion in Houston at the moment, or did I just miss that play on words in 2017? I’m not sure.

Another big change were the conditions. Last year’s run took place in hot, humid conditions – classic Houston weather, and hardly ideal for a Brit who’d done his training in Britain in winter. By contrast, this year it was… well, cold. And that’s cold by British standards, let alone Texan. The local news got quite excited…

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It was a beautifully clear, still day, which meant it barely above freezing at the 7am start. So instead of being able to saunter to the start in just my technical running T-shirt and a pair of shorts, this year I wore long- and short-sleeved running tops, and began with a hair and a pair of gloves. I also entered the start pen wearing a bright orange thin jumper I’d bought in Walmart for a bargain $3. I abandoned it just before the start, so it cost around $1 per ten minutes of wear I got from it – but that was money well spent to keep warm before the off. The other surreal moment was clocking someone else in the start corral with exactly the same top on. We both nodded sagely at each other, in sly acknowledgement of our bargain shopping.

That wasn’t the only clothing I discarded: my gloves and hat survived until just after half-distance, when they were tossed to the side of the road (should point out that the marathon round up all the discarded clothing and passes onto charity…). Don’t fret: it wasn’t the end of the Hat I Can’t Throw Away – I didn’t actually bring that one with me from Britain, so instead I dumped one of my brother’s old hats.

By the time I finished at just gone 10.15am, it was around 7C, gloriously sunny and with just the merest hint of wind. It was hard to imagine better conditions for running a marathon in: in fact, I’m not sure I’ll ever encounter such perfect weather for one again. And not just for the actual running bit: Houston is normally humid, muggy and sticky. But on this January weekend it was gloriously clear: the views of downtown Houston from various bits of the course were clearer than I’ve ever seen before, having regularly visited on and off since 2008. I’m lucky I don’t run with a phone, else I genuinely would have been tempted to slow down and take photos…

Returning to the crowds on the course, another memory that was similar to different than 2017 was having random spectators cheer me on by name. Which, of course, they could only do because you can choose a name to put on your Houston Marathon race numbers. Last year, I went by my first name: James. This year, I decided to stick with that, but in honour of my niece and nephew added on the name they call me: (Uncle) Jimbo. Why Jimbo? It’s a long story, but you can blame my brother and distant, long-held memories of the glorious, yet mostly forgotten kids cartoon Jimbo and the Jet Set, with its excellent theme tune…

Anyhow, as a result of appealing to two Texan-based little people, the name on my race number read: James / Jimbo. Which, frankly, confused the crowd a bit. A few people shouted James. A few people shouted Jimbo. A few people didn’t quite know what to shout.

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Early on, one spectator shouted: “Go James, er, Jimbo. Yeah, Jimbo. Go Jimbo!” Several seemed to find Jimbo suitably hilarious, likely because I didn’t really have time to stop and explain it (I was running a marathon, you know…).

But my favourite effort came from one of the enthusiastic volunteers at a drinks station late on who, at the top of his voice, yelled: “YEAH! GO ON JUMBO!” Jumbo? Now, four years ago, before I took up this daft thing called running and doing marathons, that would definitely have applied to 15-stone me (aka: Fatters). But surely not now? Perhaps he mis-read it and thought it deliberately ironic.

Still, I appreciated the support. As I did from all the people who shouted my name, or just yelled ‘go on’, or just clapped, or held up signs. You always hear sportspeople talk about feeding off the crowd, but I’m never sure I fully understood it until tackling a marathon or three. But it’s real: whether it was my family near the finish line or random strangers on the way, it’s amazing how much motivational support spectators – and, indeed, other runners – provide. So to anyone who was out on the streets of Houston a few weeks back, a very sincere thanks.

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But the most amusing marathon moment happened on a part of the course when the crowd was a little sparse. It was late in the race, somewhere around the 22nd mile when the course meandered through Houston’s Memorial Park. There’s a speaker system in there, and it was used to play music to entertain the runners. In between the music there were a few adverts and the like – including one that loudly and excitedly noted entry was now open for the 2019 Chevron Houston Marathon was now open.

It was likely useful public service, but that deep into a marathon the last thing you want to think about is entering another. Every runner around me shook their heads, laughed or both.

And, I must confess, it did get me thinking about the next one. Which was significant in itself: 22 miles or so into a marathon is normally the point I’m telling myself I’ll never run another…

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