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…
Waking up and drawing the curtains to find light skies and benign weather is normally a pretty good start to a day when you’re doing a race. Not this morning – because today it meant the bad weather hadn’t arrived yet.
Sure enough, 20 minutes after I’d first looked out the window, it actually began to get darker, as the bank of heavy rain that had been assuredly forecast closed in. By the time I left my house an hour later, bound for Wimbledon Common to take part in the Wimbledon 10k, it was raining hard.
You can’t control the weather, of course, and bad weather is an occupational hazard any time you enter a race in Britain (even if, as the forecasters harked on about this week, meteorological Spring has, erm, sprung). Still, it’s always a little off-putting when, the night before a run, you know that a nasty weather front is likely to be right over your head right about the time the start gun goes off.
Twenty minutes after leaving home I parked up near Wimbledon Common, and set off to collect my number from the race start. Wimbledon Common is, as you might expect, a pretty beautiful and well-kept place, but it loses it’s appeal somewhat when there’s a heavy wind, squally rain and mud underfoot. Still, that bracing wind did make it easy to spot the flags fluttering near the race start, largely by keeping them at quite the angle.
Having picked up my number, and braved a wobbly portable toilet (the wobble seemed to be partly the wind, and partly the fact it didn’t seem to be fixed to the ground properly. Either way, I was very careful while going, to avoid some unthinkable and unpleasant toppling toilet incident…), I retreated to the safety of my car until as late as humanly possible before the start. Oh, and added an extra long-sleeved running top, having realised my optimistic T-shirt set-up would clearly offer inadequate warmth.
Amazingly, come the time to decamp from my car and head to the start, the rain was beginning to ease. It was relatively light for the first few kilometres, and had actually stopped before half-distance. The wind and cold were more persistent challenges, but with the weather less of an issue I could focus a bit on what I figured the main challenge of the event: the hills.
Wimbledon Common is at the top of a hill: the race started with a plunge downhill, before then working it’s way back up through the residential streets of the not-coincidentally named Wimbledon Hill. When I decided to enter the event, it was partly because of the hills. So far this year, I’ve mostly done races this year on relatively flat courses, and I wanted to take in some races that would be charitably described as ‘undulating’ in order to force myself to push more on hills.
The challenge was pushing hard enough to make the most of the early downhill section, without using up all the energy for the subsequent uphill. I seemed to get my pacing sorted pretty well, although it was a bit humbling to watch some of the quick runners doing the simultaneously run Wimbledon Half Marathon pull away from me, despite knowing they’d have to do a second lap. But, once I’d completed most of the climbing, and was running along The Ridgway (so called, you’ll be amazed to know, because it’s a road that runs along a ridge), I discovered that the biggest challenge of the Wimbledon 10k wasn’t the weather, or the hills: it was the traffic.
Yes, the traffic – and both automotive and pedestrian. The Ridgway is a fairly major thoroughfare in South West London, and at just before 1000hrs on a Sunday morning plenty of people were setting off on Sunday morning jaunts. Which made it a bit of a challenge when the runners needed to cross from one side of the road to the other. The only tactic was to run along one pavement, trying to focus on your normal pace, while also keeping an eye out for a break in the traffic to make a crossing. It wasn’t easy, especially because some drivers – both on the main roads and those traversing the residential roads the event went down – seemed determined not to make any allowance for the runners.
It got more challenging too: the final kilometrres of the course ran directly up Wimbledon High Street, in the quite posh part of town known as Wimbledon Village. At one level, it’s a lovely place to run: there were lots of posh shops and cafes to admire, for one thing. Except, of course, those cafes were attracting plenty of people for a Sunday brunch, using the same pavements the runners were charging down. It wasn’t exactly an ideal combination, especially because a small minority of pedestrians strolling in Wimbledon Village seemed put out there was a run going on, and pointedly made no effort to create a bit of room.
Now, they’re shared roads and pavements, and it’s not like the runners had any particular priority or right of way over cars or pedestrians – something that was made clear in the pre-race notes. But still, a little bit of courtesy wouldn’t go amiss at times.
Again, this was only a small minority of people; several others took the time to clap or shout encouragement, which is always hugely welcome.
Thankfully, since the race field was relatively small, it was pretty spaced out as I ran the High Street section – but I imagine things might have been interesting for the half-marathoners on their second lap, when the shops would have been open as well as the cafes.
Nothing cost me too much time either, and if 41m 21s was the slowest of the five 10k races I’ve done so far this year, in the circumstances it felt like one of my stronger efforts.
Even better, in a fit of great timing, the sun was almost peeking through the clouds by the time I finished. Which made it a pleasant day to walk back to Wimbledon for a post-run coffee. And don’t worry: I gave the runners still gamely plugging on plenty of space – and plenty of encouragement as well…
Clevedon, my hometown, is located on the coast of North Somerset, not that far from Bristol. It’s a pleasant place, with a population of just over 20,000 or so and a lovely seafront including an award-winning Victorian-era pier (National Piers Society Pier of the Year 1999 and 2013, fact fans).
A lovely town then, and having headed back there to visit the family for Christmas, it was also the location for my final pre-Houston Marathon training run. Having decided not to do a long run on Christmas Day, this meant an early Boxing Day start, in order to fit in 17 miles of running and still enable some family time. Thankfully, it was a beautifully clear, if slightly fresh, British winter’s day.
Since I only took up running three years ago, long after I’d left Clevedon for the bright lights of the Greater London area, I’ve never actually done that much running around my hometown. So a 17-mile run was a good chance to see it in a way I never had before – and I revelled in some of the lovely scenery and terrain that Clevedon and the North Somerset countryside has to offer.
My run started with a sharp downhill descent to Clevedon seafront, went past the aforementioned pier, then down to the marina and across a bit of moorland, looping back through the town centre and past the Clock Tower, before heading for several miles down a quiet country road on the edge of Swiss Valley. Yes, it’s a valley, and while I’ve never seen a cuckoo clock or yodeller there, it probably does feel a little bit Swiss. The country lane is, however, very definitely classic Somerset countryside, albeit with the nearby hum of the M5 motorway, which runs on an elevated viaduct along one side of the valley.
All very nice then. But Clevedon is, very definitely, not at all like anything I’m going to encounter when doing a marathon in Houston, Texas, in just under three weeks time. You know, Houston, population of 2.239 million, one of the biggest cities in the USA.
During the course of my run, I made a mental note of all the obstacles I faced in Somerset that I’m unlikely to have to contend with in Houston. So, in chronological order…
- A steep down hill section (some of the sharpest downhills on the Houston Marathon course seem to be the dips of underpasses)
- A bracing coastal headwind
- A narrow country lane with barely enough room for cars to pass and thorns sticking out of the hedges
- Horse poo in the road (really, it’s pretty treacherous. It’s slippery, and if the prospect of falling over three weeks from a marathon isn’t bad enough, the concept of slipping on and falling over into a pile of horse poo is certainly off-putting…)
- Horses walking down the road (they were being walked along. The people guiding them were kind enough to make room for me, but running past a big horse with legs that could kick is a bit scary)
- The smell of fresh cow manure (Because nothing says Somerset countryside like a farmer stirring a big pile of cow manure)
- A tractor crossing the road, dragging mud and cow manure in its path (really, someone was piling up all the Somerset cliches on me this morning. If I’d rounded a corner and found The Wurzels playing a concert, I’d only have been mildly surprised)
- Someone riding a horse down a road
- More horse poo, this time freshly deposited from the previously spotted horse (Mmmm, fragrant)
- A cycling club time trial event, which happened to be starting on a road I was running down that didn’t have a pavement for around 100 metres
- A very, very steep uphill section in the final mile of my run (it was a 40-metre incline, in less than quarter-of-a-mile. Again, a bit steeper than the rise out of a Houston highway underpass…)
In short, it hardly seems ideal prep for Houston. But, in many ways, it was perfect. It was sunny, cool and quiet, and a wonderful contrast from everything I’ll encounter on my forthcoming trip to Texas.
Although I could very happily do without the smell of horse poo and cow manure. I won’t miss that running through Downtown Houston…
Sometimes running is all about contrasts. Getting a bit of variety in the places and types of running you do is a great way to keep things interesting. Just as well, because after a few weeks running around Texas while on holiday, on my first weekend back in Britain I found myself heading for Cornwall.
When it comes to running (and, indeed, lots of other things), Texas – at least the area near Houston I visited – and Cornwall don’t have that much in common. Texas is hot and humid; Cornwall is prone to grey skies and rain (yes, even on the last weekend in August…). Houston is swampy; Cornwall is windswept. And, perhaps most significantly when it comes to running, Texas is largely flat; Cornwall is most definitely not.
The last two weekends provided a vivid illustration of that. As previously mentioned, on my final weekend in Texas I tackled the Run the Woodlands 5k. The course for that race was pretty much flat: over five kilometres there was ten metres of elevation. And most of that was due to the footpath dipping down to run over a footbridge. That’s basically flat.
I started last weekend by tackling the Lanhydrock Parkrun, which takes place in the grounds of a stunning National Trust-run 19th-century stately home near Bodmin. It was an absolutely beautiful place for a parkrun, with the course going past the imposing house, and along a variety of trails in the grounds. And the route was very definitely not flat.
How not flat? Well, I can’t tell you exactly for reasons I’ll get to in a bit, but over the five kilometre route there’s around 100 metres of elevation. And most of that was contained in a gruelling second half of the course.
I couldn’t tell you exactly how much elevation change was on the course because I forgot to wear my Garmin GPS watch on. This seemed like a major set-up error, but was probably a blessing: without a constant update on my pace, I couldn’t compare my efforts to any previous 5k run I’ve done. Which was probably just as well, because with the hills this was unlike any other 5k I’d done. So I just had to judge my pace to the hills.
My eventual time of 22m 05s was more than two minutes slower than I’d managed in Texas the previous week, but given the leg-burning climbs involved, it actually felt like more of an accomplishment.
And the Lanhydrock Parkrun was just a warm-up for a bigger, hillier challenge the following day. I was in Cornwall at the urging of my friend (and foolish fellow London Marathon finisher) Matt, who was proudly born and raised in Kernow. For several years, he’s been urging me to join him in tackling the Treggy 7, a run based in the town of Launceston.
It’s one of those truly brilliant and very British events, covering a slightly odd distance – seven miles – run by wonderfully enthusiastic organisers and volunteers. The route started from the centre of Launceston and took in some beautiful Cornish countryside. Oh, and a big hill. A very big hill. A massive, challenging, gruelling, painful hill.
The race route featured 135 metres of climbing. One hill, just before the halfway point of the race, accounted for around 85 metres of that elevation. All in the space of about a kilometre. And it was utterly brutal – a largely relentless grind up a tight country lane. It hurt. It really hurt.
It was the kind of hurt that briefly made me question why I was running up that hill, that made me question if I was actually taking any enjoyment out of it. The sort of hurt that made me want to stop and walk. Many did. Somehow, I kept going and ran the whole way up. Just. By the time I was approaching the top, I was running so slowly I might as well have been walking. That said, I counted that I overtook 11 runners going up the hill – and only one runner overtook me. That felt good.
The finish felt good too. It was in the grounds of Launceston castle, with an enthusiastic crowd cheering all the runners home. And that uphill struggle was rewarded with a bulging goody bag. Instead of a medal, there was a Treggy 7 thermal mug. And, thanks to Ambrosia sponsoring the race, the bag also included a pot of custard and a four-pack of rice pudding.
Granted, a travel mug and some rice pudding might not have eased my aching legs over the last few days, but as the pain slowly subsides the satisfaction of conquering serious elevation on two tough runs has kicked in. As has a realisation. I’d previous written about the challenge of running in Texas humidity. I now realise a spot of humidity is nothing compared to running up Cornish climbs…
As you may have noticed from my previous post, taking part in the Ware 10-mile race this weekend was an excuse for me and a few friends to spend a whole seeking making Ware/where gags. Even we were had to admit the joke was Ware-ing thin (sorry…) by the end of the weekend.
So it was probably a fitting revenge for my continued overuse of the ‘joke’ that I spent much of the first half of the Ware race trying to work out Ware (really sorry…) exactly on the course I was. And the moral of the story: always play close attention to both the course map and route description.
The weekend trip to Hertfordshire started with my third attempt at the Panshanger parkrun, which I completed in a thoroughly decent 12th place in 20m 26s. That was seven seconds slower than my first – and fastest – effort at the course, but I was still pretty happy.
The rest of the day was spent touring Hertfordshire, making Ware gags (‘Ware are we going tomorrow?’, repeated ad infinitum), and eating, er, savoury waffles and Mexican street food. Ideal pre-race dining, clearly: I’m sure I’ve read in a ten-mile training guide that waffles and Mexican are perfect for the day before a run. Really. Honestly.
Okay, I made that last bit up.
I’m moving on now. Moving on? To where? Yes, exactly, to Ware.
Sorry. I really will stop this soon. I promise.
The Ware 10 Festival featured both a 10k and ten-mile race. I knew bits of the route that pass through The Meads between Ware and Hertford, and I tried to get a gauge of the rest of the route by studying the map on the website, and even watching the helpful video the organisers stuck on YouTube.
Having looked at the map, I read the accompanying description of the route. It describes the run leaving the start (on the cricket ground next to the GlaxoSmithKline site in Ware), and doing a loop to Hartham Common and back along the towpath. I missed this bit near the finish: ‘This is then repeated before returning back to the GSK cricket ground’.
In other words, this race was a two-lapper.
Having missed that crucial information, I set off from the GSK cricket ground on a murky, muggy day, and hit the first challenge: two big steep hills in the first two miles. They were at least followed by decent downhill sections, but they still burned up the legs.
Before long, I was passing some of the tail of the 10k race, and found myself heading through Hartham Common and onto the towpath heading from Hertford to Ware. Since I’d somehow though the course I’d seen was a singular ten-mile loop, I was on my way back to Ware far sooner than expected. And then I saw a board that read ‘eight miles’.
I suddenly began to panic: had I missed a turn for the ten-mile race? Had I missed the point where I split from the 10k route? Was I somehow on the wrong course? For a good three-quarters of a mile or so, I was in a bit of a panic – until I finally spotted a marker board that read ‘four miles’.
Okay, calm down – I was on the right route. Which left me confused about exactly Ware, I mean, where (really sorry…) I was going.
It was only when I got back to the edges of the GSK site at Ware that I began to realise exactly where I was going: for a second lap around the course I’d just done.
Which was, in itself, not a problem. It was a lovely pleasant route, and two-lap races are quite useful in that you know better where you can push and attack on the second loop. But I also knew it meant tackling those two long uphill stretches again – and after I’d topped the second one I’d somehow convinced myself the rest of the race would be relatively flat.
I was quite a bit slower up the hills the second time around. That could be because, knowing how much they would hurt with tired legs, I was a bit Ware-y of them.
Sorry. Really sorry.
The hills definitely sapped the power, and I was quite a bit slower in the second half of the race than the first. That meant I dropped off the time I’d hoped to achieve, and given my 1h 09m 41s was enough for 18th place out of 244 runners I can’t exactly complain.
Still, it did prove a valuable lesson: when you’re doing a run, it’s important to know exactly Ware you’re going.
Before the race, on our way to Ware, me and my friends agreed that we’d thoroughly worn out the Ware gags, and decided on a moratorium of them at the end of race day. Which, I promise you, I will now heed. So the Ware gags will finish with this post. And not return.
But I would happily return to the Ware 10 Festival. It was one of those really enjoyable club runs, which a bunch of largely friendly runners, and enthusiastic and helpful marshals and organisers. Oh, and a very purple finishers’ T-Shirt, plus a fabulous range of home-cooked cakes to choose from at the finish.
It’s definitely somewhere I’d go back to. Especially if I knew exactly Ware I was going in the race.
Sorry. That was the last one. Honest.
My hometown, Clevedon in North Somerset, is built on and around a big hill. I grew up living in a lovely house near the top of that hill.
My current home, the ultra-stylish* Richmond-upon-Thames suburb of Ham, is next to the River Thames. As long as you steer clear of nearby Richmond Park, Ham is basically flat.
I mention this because I took a trip back to Clevedon last weekend, and that meant the weekend’s long marathon training runs (ten miles Saturday, five Sunday) involved running up and down steep Clevedon hills. And running up and down hills hurts. It’s hard work.
Honestly, had I been forced to take on steep hills on a regular basis when I started my running kick two years ago, I don’t know I’d have stuck with it. Some genuine advice: if you’re starting out, find somewhere flat to run.
Running up a big hill saps the power from your legs amazingly quickly – and it can sap your willpower even faster. That happens when your lungs start to burn and your leg muscles begin to ache – and you look ahead to realise you haven’t even reached the steep bit yet.
And yet, that said… now I’ve been running for a few years, hills are a challenge. They’re an obstacle to be scaled, a proving ground of my stamina and willpower. I wouldn’t necessarily say I look forward to running up a steep hill, but… well… I look forward to the challenge of it. I think. Plus, apparently running up hills is good training.
It still hurts, of course. Running up a steep hill is going to hurt. And running up a steep hill is going to slow you down. But when I see a hill approaching, and run towards it excited by the challenge rather than daunted by the prospect – well, I’ll take that as a sign that I actually must quite like this running malarky…
*This may be an exaggeration