I’ve just returned from a holiday in Texas. The Lone Star State isn’t exactly a new destination for me – my brother and his family live there, and as a result I’ve spent plenty of time doing runs, races and marathons there.
But this year’s trip took me in a different direction: my brother has moved from The Woodlands, a slightly surreal town not far from Houston, to Forth Worth. And while I’ve passed through Cowtown before, spending some extended time there gave me a chance to really explore the city – both as a tourist and a runner.
First thing to note: Fort Worth is hot. Actually, that undersells it a bit.
Let’s try again. Fort Worth is hot. Actually, that still undersells it.
Let’s try again. Fort Worth is darn hot. There. There’s better.
For a good chunk of the time I was there, there were daytime highs above 100F (that’s 38 and up, Celsius fans). But it was the nature of the heat that struck: it built up and just stayed around – it could still be above 100F at 7pm or so, and would stay in the 80s well past 10pm. See, darn hot.
That said, it is, as the saying goes, a dry heat. The humidity is far lower than the Houston area. And, frankly, I’ll happily take 100F of dry heat in Fort Worth ahead of 90F of stick, sweaty, humid filled Houston heat.
Still, in such heat the trick to running was to go early, or go late. Especially when you’re a pasty-faced Brit who’s just arrived in the country. So on my first morning there, I went out for an early-ish run, and in doing so accidentally stumbled across a rather fantastic running store – which, in turn, led to one of the most interesting challenges I’ve encountered as a runner.
My brother lives close to Camp Bowie Boulevard, and it was running down there early on that Sunday morning that I passed the Lone Star Walking and Running Store. I can’t remember the exact time, but it was early enough that none of the shops were open. So it was with some confusion that I noticed a group of people – runners, clearly – outside the shop. There was a tin bath full of cold-looking water, too. Oh, and some of them were drinking beer, despite it being the hour of the day when coffee would be a more common drink.
Brilliantly, a few of the people milling around actually cheered me on as I ran past, looking all very confused. What was going on?
It took a quick search on Google to unearth the store’s website, and to determine that I’d accidentally stumbled across its ‘Sunday Funday’ event – a two-part group fun run that starts and finishes at the store. Finishers could enjoy free beer at the finish, along with an ice bath, if the mood took them.
It was also clear that, even by the high standards of many independent running stores, Lone Star Running was a little different. It offered free beer to shoppers every Friday, for one thing. And it also has a ‘City Titty Club’, where people who bring in dislodged examples of what I’d known until then as Cat’s Eyes get free energy gels.
As well as the Sunday Funday, there was another event: a weekly Wednesday evening ‘Running Man’, which took place on a 3.8-mile loop from the store. So, to reward them for cheering me on during my jetlag-shaking effort, I figured I’d go along that week, dragging my brother with me.
It turned out I picked a good week, because the Running Man event featured an innovative competition element. Anyone who ran the course was given the chance to guess their finishing time. The person who finished the run closest to their time would win a pair of New Balance shoes. Simple, right?
Actually, it was pretty difficult. For a start, a condition of entry meant running without my Garmin satnav – which would, fairly obviously, have made the whole thing a bit easy. The biggest challenge was trying to work out a tactic. Did I try and work out the fastest time I thought you could do on the course, and really attack it? Or should I pick a time well within my capability, and attempt to measure my pace?
Adding to the difficulty in predicting a time was the unusual distance – 3.8 miles is around 6k, not a distance I run with regularity – and a complete lack of course knowledge. There was a map, but that wasn’t much help since I’d only been in the city a few days. And there was talk of a steep downhill section at the start, and an even steeper uphill kick near the end.
Now, for the most part Texas is pretty flat. So, to try and glean some knowledge I asked Wayne, who owns the shop, whether ‘steep uphill’ meant steep by Texas standards, or just plain steep. He told me it was pretty steep by any standard. Followed by a laugh that suggested I was in for something tougher than I could imagine.
In the end, I stopped trying to overthink it and just plucked a time off the top of my head. I roughly worked out my max pace over 6k, then added in a bit of extra time to account for the hill and the darn hot Texan heat. I think I went for 26m 30s or so.
I encountered another challenge fairly early in proceedings: trying to work out where I was going. The course was unmarked, and I found my natural pace carried me into the front group – maybe because runners who would be quicker than me were trying to run at a steady, measured pace. But, unsure where to go and with the route taking in a maze of residential streets and river trails, I was sort of forced to back off and let someone who did know where they were going lead the way.
That meant I probably took things easier than I’d have chosen to on the downhill stretch, and that may have been a bit of a blessing. After all, Forth Worth is darn hot, and with little cooling breeze going too fast, too soon could easily have led to overheating.
Still, my natural pace did eventually take me to the front just past the halfway point, when the route was running along one of the many Trinity River trails in Fort Worth. Just before the climbing began.
Now, remember that mention of a steep uphill? Well, it definitely wasn’t just steep by Texan standards. It was steep. Really, it was steep. It was darn steep. It will definitely be a contender for the ‘Toughest Uphill’ prize should I reprise my 2016 Running Awards this year.
It started with a long, steady uphill stretch that was tough enough in the heat. Then there was a sharp left turn before the road suddenly ramped up with a brutally steep incline on a sharp right-hander. I just about reached the top of that and enjoyed a brief moment of gentle downhill before the road suddenly turned and rose up sharply again.
I just about reached the top still running, although such was the severity of the climb walking the last bit may have been easier and quicker. After that came the final flat run back to the running store, with the biggest challenge trying to find a clear moment to cross Camp Bowie Boulevard.
Another runner went past me on that final stretch, so I was the second to arrive back at the running shop, with absolutely no real idea how long I’d been running for. In between trying to stop myself sweating (a process that took the best part of an hour), I learned I’d completed the course 23 seconds slower than my predicted time. Which was… close. Impressively close.
Not prize-winningly close, however. Someone managed to complete the course within ten seconds of their estimated time. But, frankly, I really didn’t mind about missing out on the prize. I simply enjoyed the challenge of the competition: running without a Garmin and trying to work out my pace from pure gut feel. It was a fresh challenge, and a pleasant change from a straightforward race.
And, well, conquering that hill was reward enough. I returned to Lone Star’s Running Man the following Wednesday, even though the temperature had risen substantially and it was above 100F when the run started – yes, at 6.30pm. That’s darn hot. Why? Well, without a prize on offer I was able to run with my Garmin, and I wanted to do that simply so I could find out exactly how tough that hill had been.
The answer: 44 metres of uphill in the space of 0.56km. Ouch.
And I ran that in 100F+ heat. I’m not ashamed to admit that I walked the last little bit of the hill on that second week…
Someone I know has recently signed up to run their first marathon. Since I’m now a veteran of two of the things, he suggested he might have a few questions to ask. And one of them got me thinking: what do you talk to yourself about when you’re in the late stages of a marathon? Hmmm, good question…
There’s a reason why marathon running is considered a mental challenge as well as a not inconsiderable one. Whether it’s during a long training run or in a race, you’re likely to be left to your own devices and thoughts. Of course, in a big city marathon you’re likely to be surrounded by plenty of other runners and a load of spectators – but unless you have a friend running alongside you, your journey from start to finish is an individual one. Which leaves quite a bit of thinking time.
So what do you think about when running a marathon? Frankly, I have no idea. What I do have an idea about is what I thought about when running a marathon.
Now, it’s now like I stopped down to note every single thought I had during a 3h 16m 40s run around Houston. That would be silly. And running a marathon is a pretty overwhelming experience, so sometimes I likely just zoned out and now can’t really remember what I was thinking.
But I tried to think back and remember what I talked to myself about during the race, and then grouped them into some key subject areas. I then guesstimated roughly how long I spent thinking about each area. And, for ease of presentation, I used that to create an entirely unscientific (and, since it’s highly possible my memory is playing tricks on me, possibly entirely inaccurate) pie chart. Because of course I did.
Let’s delve into the segments a bit.
Race pace and strategy: Pretty obvious stuff. I spent a lot of time staring at my average lap pace on my Garmin trying to work out if I was going too fast, too slow or just about right. In the early stages, this also includes trying to work out when my legs would start aching. More about that in a bit.
Hydration and refuelling: Another thought occupier, especially given the Texan humidity. Trying to think about how often to eat and drink – and how to actually get the drink from cup into my mouth – was a real focus.
Enjoying the crowds and other runners: When I wanted to distract myself from my pacing or hydration strategies, I’d try to take in the crowds, both on and off the course. After all, taking all of that in one of the truly amazing opportunities you get running a marathon…
Taking in the scenery: …and this is another one. Sure, you can visit a city, drive and walk all around it and take in all the districts and sights. But you’ll never see it in quite the same way you do while running a marathon.
Thinking about family and friends: Would my mum, niece, nephew, sister-in-law and her family get to the finish? How was my brother faring on the half marathon? I talked to myself about those questions quite a bit. Plus, as previously explained, every time I crossed a timing mat I’d end up thinking about the various people I knew who’d be tracking my run. Family and friends are good motivation.
Considering post-race dining options: I’ve explained this before as well. If you want to distract yourself from aches, pains and fears while running a marathon, I thoroughly recommend thinking about food. Mmmmmmm, food.
OUCH!: There’s no getting around this. At some point in the late stages of a marathon, it’s going to start hurting. And no matter how much you try to deny it, talk to yourself, or attempt to distract yourself by visualising peaceful mountains, you’re going to feel the pain. I’m actually remarkably pleased by how little time I spent thinking about being in pain on Houston. On the London Marathon, when I struggled far more in the latter stages, this figure would have been a lot high. Like, lots and lots higher.
Do I need to go to the toilet?: Having to stop to go to the toilet would have ruined my time. But at various points, I felt like I needed the toilet. Of course I did, because I drank loads of water pre-race to hydrate. I held off but, let’s be honest, the harder you try not to think about going to the toilet, the more you think you need to go to the toilet.
Right, so all that’s left to consider is the category I called ‘random other thoughts’. Basically, this category comprised anything else that popped into and out of my head during that run. There’s no way I can list, or even remember, every thought that passed through my head during the marathon. Here are a few I can just about remember:
- Trying to remember the lyrics to Come on Eileen
- Wondering how many British runners were taking part in the Houston Marathon (There were 11 British finishers, if you were wondering. I was the fourth)
- Thinking if there was anything else American I needed to buy before flying back to the UK (no, which was just as well given how heavy my suitcase proved to be…)
- Humming the ‘woah, we’re halfway there’ bit of Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer bit, on the approach to the halfway point
- Work. Yes, actual work (this may sound above and beyond the call of duty, but I do some of my best job-based thinking while running…)
- Contemplating whether the Vancouver Canucks will make the NHL playoffs this year
- Trying to count how many fast food restaurants I passed on the route (lost count, sorry)
- Pondering how the good people of Houston were coping after the Texans were knocked out of the NFL Playoffs
- Picturing what I’d be doing on a January Sunday in Richmond-upon-Thames if I wasn’t running a marathon in Houston
- Deciding on my favourite Paw Patrol member (I may have been hanging around with my four-year-old nephew in the build-up to the marathon… Oh, and it’s Rubble, since you asked)
Random, right? Yup. But I reckon it’s all part of the marathon coping strategy: you try to think as little as possible about the pain. To do that, you focus as much on your race strategy (pace and hydration) as possible, while also making sure you remember why you’re running (the atmosphere and scenery, family and post-race food). And when all else fails, you just think about any old random shit.
Oh, there were two other things I realised I talked to myself about during the marathon…
- Trying to convince myself I don’t want to run a third marathon…
- …but realising I probably do