A week or so back I took part in my final race of the year, the Richmond Park 10k. And last weekend I tackled what is very likely to be my final parkrun of the year. Which kinda makes this the end of my 2016 running season.
Erm, not that I’m going to stop running between now and December 31. Quite the opposite. The Houston Marathon is less than four weeks away (eek!) – so I’ve got a good chunk of training mileage to go. But that’s effectively prep work for my first planned outing of 2017.
Still, it seemed a good excuse to do what everyone else does at this time of year – look back at the year and hand out some awards. Although when I say ‘hand out’, I mean that only in a metaphorical sense. Clearly, I’m not giving out any actual trophies or awards. What I’m handing out is some recognition, awarded entirely arbitrarily on my own whims among the 19 races I tackled this year.
So no trophies. But hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?
So, without further ado, metaphorically don your tuxedos, sit down, quaff champagne and settle back for the inaugural Atters Goes Running Awards 2016. Ooooh, aaaaah, etc.
The ‘blimey, I’m on the podium’ finish of the year: Luke’s Locker Run The Woodlands 5k (The Woodlands, Texas, August 27)
Okay, this gets the nod since it was the only time I’ve ever claimed a top three finish in a race. And given it was a friendly, $1 entry fortnightly event, it’s not like I was competing against a world-class, highly motivated field. Still, a podium’s a podium, right?
Let’s just not mention how I ran in second for most of the race before being outsprinted in the final 100 metres. I consoled myself that I only dropped the spot because as a Brit I was disadvantaged in the Texan humidity – until I learned the person who beat me was also from the UK…
Also nominated: Erm…
Best organised race: London Marathon (London, April 24)
Given this is one of the biggest races in the world, it’s hardly surprising it’s superbly well organised. But it’s not until you see it up-close and first-hand that you really appreciate just what a great job the London Marathon team do to ensure virtually every one of the 40,000 or so runners feels cared for and looked after.
Aside from the cheery, supportive and enthusiastic marshals and volunteers, the best example was this: before the start I handed my bag in to my assigned bag drop – one of nine lorries in my start zone in Greenwich. Around four hours and 26.2 miles later, I was staggering down The Mall past a big group of lorries. By the time I was within 20 feet of ‘mine’, a volunteer had spotted my number, found my bag and was holding it out for me.
Best organised race (non-London Marathon edition): Cabbage Patch 10 (Twickenham, October 16)
Exclude the London Marathon and picking a winner is really tough. Most running events in the UK are organised by volunteers from clubs, who put in hours of painstaking work and effort to make them happen.
I’ll narrowly give the nod to the team from the Cabbage Patch 10 (organised by the Stragglers and BeaRCat running clubs). Despite a year off from running the event, it went faultlessly, despite a difficult start that effectively involved stopping the traffic in Twickenham town centre, and a open road course that required plenty of traffic control.
Also nominated: the volunteer organisers of pretty much every race, ever.
Strangest venue: East Malling Research Station (Larkfield 10k – East Malling, Kent, May 8)
East Malling Research Station is almost certainly somewhere I’d never have been if it wasn’t for running. It’s an agricultural research station in the Kent countryside. Unusual, sure, but a good place to have a 10k race. Plenty of parking, and lovely countryside.
Still, running past Sainsbury’s experimental pear orchard was certainly odd.
Toughest uphill: rise out of the Embankment underpass (London Marathon – London, April 24)
The Embankment? A tough hill? Really?
Yes. Yes indeed. Okay, I doubt the total vertical climbing involved in a short uphill section on the Embankment reached double figures in metres. Most days, it probably wouldn’t feel like a slope. But in the 24th mile of a marathon, when exhaustion was setting in and my legs achieved the seemingly impossible state of simultaneously feeling as wobbly as a jelly and as heavy as lead weights… in those conditions, it was tough.
It wasn’t just a small rise. It was a mountain.
Toughest uphill (non-London Marathon edition): the climb to Tregadillett (Treggy 7 – Launceston, September 4)
This hill shouldn’t have been a surprise. I was warned about it. Heck, my mate Matt had been bugging me to head to Cornwall for the Treggy 7 since I’d taken up running, specifically for the challenge of taking on the hill.
And what a hill. After a largely downhill run out of the town of Launceston into the Cornish countryside, the course suddenly turns sharply left – and starts to go up. And up. And then up some more.
It is brutal: something approach 85 metres of climbing in little more than a kilometre, on a tight, twisting road with little false flat to provide any relief. Somehow I ran the whole thing. Although run was a relative term – by the end my effort at running was so ungainly, it may have been quicker to walk…
Toughest downhill: Ware Park Road (Ware 10 – Ware, July 10)
Running downhill? That’s easy, isn’t it? Not really.
Not when the downhill is particularly steep.
Not when the road has several sharp turns in it.
Not when the road is slippery underfoot.
Not when there are unmarked speedbumps right after a tight turn.
The downhill section of the Ware 10 had all of those things in one tight, twisty descent. It was fun, but utterly nerve-wracking.
Tedious running gag of the year: Ware/where (Ware 10 – Ware, July 10)
Running gag of the year? See what I did there?
I did a race in Ware. Where? Yes, Ware. But where? Ware, that’s where. Sorry, where? Yes, Ware.
Repeat ad infinitum.
If you can bear it, you can read a full drawn-out version of Ware/where obfuscation here.
Best start location: Greenwich Park (London Marathon – London, April 24)
The perfect place to start a big marathon: plenty of space so it never felt crowded, lots of drinks, and lots and lots and lots of portable toilets. And a huge, wide road for the pre-start holding area, along with a big wide road for the first section of the race.
Best start location (non-London Marathon edition): National pit straight, Silverstone (Silverstone 10k, May 4)
What’s not to love about starting a race on the start/finish line of Britain’s biggest race circuit?
This gets the nod for the excitement. The fact the wide track just helps accommodate the thousands of runners only adds to the genius of the location.
Best finish location: The Mall (London Marathon – London, April 24)
Come on, it’s The Mall! It’s in central London! It’s in front of Buckingham Palace! It had grandstands!
Yes, it’s a predictable pick, but still.
Best finish location (non-London Marathon edition): Sam Houston Park, downtown Houston (Houston Half Marathon – Houston, October 30)
This one’s also kinda predictable, but for a person used to running in little old Britain, finishing under the shadow of Houston’s downtown skyscrapers was a real thrill. Plus, the park was a perfect place for the post-race party and free taco stand.
Best post-race free Mexican food: Houston Half Marathon (Houston, October 30)
Okay, this was the only race of the year I did that offered free Mexican food at the finish, courtesy of the lovely people at Taco Cabana. All I had to do was redeem the free taco ticket on my race number.
One small point of order though… it may have been a free taco ticket, but the choice was actually from a range of burritos. Not that I’m complaining: they were proper tasty after a 13.1-mile run…
Best post-race baked goods: Ware 10 (Ware, July 10)
Take a race, and stick The Great British Bake-Off at the end of it. That’s what the organisers of the Ware 10 did, with volunteers cooking up all manner of cakes which were sold to runners and spectators at the finish. And the choice was simply incredible. The hardest part was choosing…
Strangest finisher’s goody bag contents: The Treggy 7 (Launceston, Cornwall, September 4)
The Treggy 7 was sponsored by Ambrosia, so I guess the inclusion of pots of rice pudding and custard in the post-race perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise. But when you compare it to the pile of bananas and chocolate bars most races proffer, it was an odd but welcome change. Bonus points to the event for also handing out thermal travel mugs instead of medals.
Best medal of the year: London Marathon – London, April 24
Yup, utterly predictable. Other medals may be funnier, shinier and bigger, but there’s no other medal I’m as proud of. And likely never will be.
Best medal of the year (non-London Marathon edition): Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon – Hampton Court, March 20
It was big, shiny and featured a cartoon King Henry VIII doing a Usain Bolt impression. Genius.
Also nominated: Houston Half Marathon (a seasonally appropriate sparkly halloween pumpkin with the outline of Texas in its eyes).
And, finally, it’s time for the big one…
Race of the year
Woah, woah, woah. Just hang on a moment. This is probably going to be a bit predictable, so let’s do this in reverse. You know, to build the tension or something.
Race of the year (non-London Marathon edition): Cabbage Patch 10 (Twickenham, October 16)
Maybe I’m a bit biased towards any run that starts near the office I work, passes right by my house and is rooted in the roads I train on every day. But the Cabbage Patch 10 was a simply brilliant club event.
It had the wonderful vibe of a club-level run put on by enthusiasts, yet mixed with a big event feel that befits the race’s long history. Simply great fun.
Also nominated: Houston Half Marathon, Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon, Treggy 7
Race of the year: London Marathon
I’ve written about some of the cultural differences between running in Britain and Texas, and there’s another big area where the running experience is difference: the language.
This isn’t just about the difference in British English and US English spelling (just to settle this: colour has a ‘u’ in and that’s the end of it): it’s the running jargon, lingo and terminology.
So, in the spirit of running jargon busting, here’s an entirely arbitrary guide to some differences in running terminology on both sides of the Atlantic – well, at least ones I’ve encountered.
As ever, a disclaimer: this list is cobbled together based purely on my own personal experiences, so it’s entirely subjective (running terminology varies enough within Britain), and I’ve likely missed a few.
Personal Best (UK) vs Personal Record (USA)
Aka PB vs PR. This one pretty much explains itself. Whether you set a PB or PR doesn’t really matter: it’s definitely worth celebrating.
Start zone/Start pen (UK) vs Start corral (USA)
Start corral is a term used in most American races, but to a Brit, it does seem particularly fitting for Texan events. When I think corrals I think somewhere to round up herds of cows after vast cattle drives. Or cowboys having gunfights in OK ones.
The start corral of the Texan Half Marathon there didn’t feature any cows or cowboys. I didn’t even see a Stetson. Just lots of runners. Probably for the best.
Race numbers (UK) vs Race bibs (USA)
When I think of bibs, I tend to think of the things you stick on babies to stop them spilling food and drink their food all down their clothes. Which, on the surface, bears nothing in common with the bit of paper you pin to your chest showing your race number.
And then I remember what actually happens in the latter stages of a long race, when I’ve been known to spill energy gels and drink all over myself when trying to refuel without stopping. So… maybe race bib is quite fitting after all.
Race registration (UK) vs Packet pick-up (USA)
The place you go before the race to pick up your race number/race bib. The American terminology actually seems better suited here, because most race registration is done online when you enter these days. Because of that, there’s no usually need to actually register for the race at race registration any more – you just head to the desk to pick up your number. Which, as it happens, often comes in a packet.
Bag drop (UK) vs Gear check (USA)
These terms describe the place where you leave your belongings during a race. Frankly, neither seems perfect to me.
When I put a bag into a bag store at a British race, I try not to actually drop it. Something might break. I try to place it down gently.
But ask me about a gear check, and I’d be inclined to check my gear: make sure my shoelaces are done up, ensure my Garmin is turned on, that sort of thing…
And yes, I may well be applying entirely excessive levels of pedantry in both cases here. Deal with it.
Portable toilet/Portable loo (UK) vs Portapotty/Port-a-can (USA)
Whatever you call them, they still smell bad and are generally unpleasant places to spend much time. But when you’ve got to go…
As an aside, and to further confuse linguistic matters, many people know these by other names: the Portaloo in Britain, and Porta-John in America. These are, of course, specific brand names of portable toilet units, and should absolutely, definitely, only be used when the portable toilet in question is actually one of those specific brands.
Otherwise you might receive a cease-and-desist letter from Portakabin telling you not to write Portaloo unless you can prove the portable toilet in question actually was a Portaloo product. A publication I worked on may once actually have received such a letter.
Hitting the wall (UK and USA) vs Bonking (USA)
Hitting the wall is a concept familiar to both British and American runners. Bonking in a race? Not so much.
Although… a quick internet search suggests the term bonk was first used to describe the sudden onset of fatigue in the very English Daily Mail in the 1950s. Still, in my experience it’s firmly crossed the Atlantic and left these shores behind.
Which is why, when I read the phrase ‘bonking in a race’, it’s hard to suppress a very childish chuckle.
Trainers (UK) vs Sneakers (USA)
Actually, this one doesn’t seem to apply to running so much. Most shops in both countries use the term ‘running shoes’ to label the footwear ‘proper’ runners actually use. Most of the terminology attached to running shoes – cushioned, flat arch, stability, zero drop, etc – seems the same in both countries too. And I still don’t really understand much of it.
Streaker (UK) vs Streaker (USA)
There are two meaning of streaker. In American running parlance, a streaker is someone who runs every day for a long period of time, or who does the same race multiple years in a row.
Perhaps unfortunately, that usage isn’t common in Britain. But the other meaning is. So when I first read about a streaker appearing in a race, well, I pictured someone very different.
So there you go: some examples of how running terms vary in Britain and America. Do let me know if I’ve missed anything…
Read more running jargon busting here
Running is among the most universal of all physical activity. No matter where you go in the world, running is, well, running. You can run in the hot and cold, in cities and in the country, on paved roads and muddy trails, and many other variations – but it’s essentially the same thing. It’s running.
But there’s also a culture attached to running – and that culture varies massively around the world. The culture, customs and idiosyncrasies that are involved in taking part in a race in Britain are very different from those in, say, Texas.
I’d realised some of the differences in the process of entering the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon – and I’d also picked up some details from my Texas-domiciled brother, who has taken part in a handful of races and triathlons.
But you can’t beat first-hand experience, and that was part of the appeal of tackling the Houston Half Marathon on a recent trip to Texas. I was able to pick up some useful details both about doing a race in Houston, and about the culture of running in the Texas and the USA.
I’ve already written about the oddity of being classified an elite runner – at least by the Houston Half organisers. Here are some other differences I noted.
1: Texan races start early
This wasn’t technically a surprise – the 0700hrs start time of both the Houston Half and the Houston Marathon are clearly noted on their websites. Given that Texas can get quite hot (of which more later), it makes sense. And while I’ve done races in Britain that start early, I’ve never done one that started before it was properly light.
Aside from the early alarm call necessitated by start time, it was a cool experience: running between huge skyscrapers through downtown Houston as the sky began to lighten was a fantastic experience.
2: Texan runners aren’t afraid to go topless
Well, male runners at least. And the practice did seem largely confined to a number of the runners in the elite start corral. You do see the occasional runner training without a shirt on when temperatures soar in the UK, but it’s not a common sight in races.
Still, without wishing to repeat myself, given that Texas can get quite hot (of which yet more later), it makes sense. Although as a pasty-skinned British bloke, I won’t be joining them any time soon.
3: You get the T-Shirt before you run
Plenty of races hand out T-shirts as a souvenir/reward for taking part – usually featuring a big event logo and lots of sponsor logos, and often in a pretty lurid colour. The Houston Half Marathon T-shirt fitted the bill, especially coming in a fetching shade of luminous green. But there was a difference – when you were given the T-shirt.
In Britain, every run I’ve done that’s featured a reward shirt has handed them out at the finish – in effect, they’re a finishers’ prize. Don’t finish the race? Sorry, you don’t get a T-shirt. Harsh, but kinda fair.
The Houston Half Marathon (and, from checking, lots of American races) gave the T-shirt out at ‘packet pick-up’. Which led to the unusual – to me, anyway – sight of people doing the race in the official event T-shirt. It seemed… odd.
4: Drinks come in paper cups
Now, this could be a big issue. For me, at least. Most races in Britain that feature water stations offer up the water in plastic cups. The London Marathon, and a few of the bigger races I’ve done, hand out bottles of water and Lucozade Sport. Given my struggles to effectively drink out of plastic cups while running (previously documented here), I like bottles. You can grab a drink, and take your time consuming it, with far less risk of spilling it all down yourself.
The Houston Half Marathon had regular water stations on the course, with a choice of water or Gatorade Endurance Formula. But those stations didn’t feature bottles. And they didn’t feature plastic cups. They featured… paper cups. They were lovingly brands Gatorade cups, but they were still relatively flimsy paper cups.
This was a challenge. Grabbing a cup off one of the wonderful volunteers without slowing down or spilling the drink everywhere by squeezing too hard was difficult. Hoisting that cup up to my mouth without slowing down or spilling the drink everywhere was difficult. Actually getting the drink down my throat without slowing down or pouring it down my top was difficult.
In short, in my attempts to consume water or Gatorade I probably spilled more drink over me or the volunteers than I actually managed to drink. And given the humidity in Houston – even at 7am on a misty morning – I really needed that drink. Late on, I actually had to briefly slow to a gentle jog to ensure I took a decent drink. That was time lost.
I’ve checked, and it seems the Houston Marathon is also likely to provide drinks in paper cups. This could require some practice…
5: The race number – sorry, bib – came with coupons
Leaving aside the terminology difference for now (I say race number, you say race bib; I say tomato, you say tomato, etc, etc. I’ll return to this in a future post…), my Houston Half Marathon race number featured something I’ve never seen on a run in Britain: coupons.
I’ve done a couple of races in Britain that have featured a detachable bag drop tag, but when most events have post-race freebies, the usual form in Britain is just to scribble a mark on your race number. Not on the Houston Half Marathon.
My race number (yes, the bright yellow elite one) featured three tear-off coupons that could be handed in after the race. Two of them were for free beer, the other was for free tacos (courtesy of the good folks at Taco Cabana). Being the non-drinking type, I didn’t partake in the beer (my brother, who also ran, didn’t either, but largely because he couldn’t face the lengthy queue. Free beer is apparently quite popular after a half-marathon. Who knew?), but I did very much enjoy some free tacos. Which brings me to…
6: The free food at the post-race party
Most races in Britain hand out some level of free food and drink after a race. That ranges from the basic (water and bananas), to a bit of a choice (water, banana, energy bars, chocolate bars), to the pleasingly British (free home-made cake – oh, and water and bananas), to the downright odd (free Ambrosia custard and rice pudding).
But it’s usually a fairly limited thing. Heck, even the London Marathon free food was limited to a bag full of goodies (including energy bars, chocolate, Lucozade Sport, crisps, beef jerky – and water and a banana).
The Houston Half Marathon? Well, you could exchange your taco token for a bounty of food, including those Taco Cabana hot tacos (well, they said tacos: they were actually burritos) and IHOP pancakes, a host of biscuits and energy bars and oranges. Oh, and bananas. Because every good run has free bananas.
That wasn’t all. There were ice buckets full of soft drinks, the aforementioned free beer, and free shaved ice and other goodies on offer. With the finish in a lovely park on the edge of downtown Houston, all the runners were really encouraged to stick around and indulge, giving the post-race party a lovely atmosphere.
Okay, so those were the major differences. But the biggest thing I picked up was actually a similarity:
A half-marathon is a half-marathon
I’ve now done four half-marathons in 2016: in Wokingham, Hampton Court, Bristol and Houston. All four of them were entirely different events in different locations, with different courses and different vibes. But, ultimately, they all involved running 13.1 miles.
And that’s the thing. The scenery, topography and culture might change, and the course might change, but as I noted at the start of this post, running is running. And that’s what I need to remember as I build up to the Houston Marathon.
Running a marathon in Houston, Texas seems a very different proposition to running a marathon in London, England. Which is something I’ve spent a lot of time pondering. But those differences are only around the edges. Once the race starts, the challenge is the same: run 26.2 miles. And I proved earlier this year that I know how to do that…
Oh, something else I’ll take away from the Houston Half Marathon: the scenery. Well, a bit of it. It was a ridiculously misty morning in Houston, and I spent much of the event with little to look at but the road ahead of me and fog-shrouded buildings. But as I reached the final mile or so, heading back to downtown Houston, the mist began to break – while still hanging on low to the ground. That created the amazing sight of the seeing Houston’s skyscrapers gleaming in blue sky and morning sun, while seemingly rising out of the mist still clinging to their bases.
It was a beautiful sight. It’s probably just as well I don’t run with my phone – I’m not sure I’d have been able to resist stopping to take a picture.
Forgive the lack of posts in recent days, but it’s been for a good reason: I’ve just returned from a short trip to Houston, Texas. It was a chance to take in two family birthdays and the Houston Half Marathon – ideal preparation for my forthcoming return there to tackle the Chevron Houston Marathon.
Taking in the Houston Half proved an invaluable experience in my preparation for running a marathon there, and I gleaned plenty of lessons about running in Texas, and the difference between races and running culture in the USA and UK.
More of that in the coming days. But first, a reflection on the most surprising takeaway from the Houston Half… it turns out that I’m an elite runner. That’s right: an elite runner. An elite runner! Yes, this was news to me too.
I discovered my new-found elite runner status when I rocked up to collect my race pack, and the organisers pulled my envelope out of the box marked elite runners. It was reinforced by my low race number (14), and special bright yellow race bib (compared with the ‘normal’ white bib), which marked me out as an elite entrant.
So… apparently I’m an elite runner. Well, there you go.
Okay, some caveats here. First, and most importantly, by most definitions of the phrase, I’m not an elite runner. I’m really not.
That’s not false modesty or anything like that. Grudgingly, with all the enthusiasm that a self-effacing and reserved Englishman can muster, I will acknowledge that I’m a pretty decent amateur runner. I’m capable of running 5k in less than 20 minutes, doing a sub-1h 30m half-marathon and surviving a sub-3h 30m marathon. That puts me well above average in terms of amateur runners – but it definitely doesn’t make me elite.
Of course, it depends on what your definition of ‘elite runner’ is. To me, elite runners are the ones who make a career out of it, the ultra-ultra-ultra quick guys who challenge for race wins and aspire to go to the Olympics and win shiny bits of medal.
That’s the definition of ‘elite runner’ used by, for example, the London Marathon. Just look at this news story about their 2016 elite field: almost all of them were sub-2h 20m marathon runners. Clearly, I’m not an elite runner in the eyes of London Marathon organisers. The London organisers also offer entries to Championship Runners (sub-2h 45m marathoners), and Good For Age runners (for my age group, sub-3h 05m marathon runners). I don’t qualify for either of those groups.
Here’s the thing though: the Houston Half Marathon organisers define an elite athlete differently: it’s simply anyone who, when entering the race, indicates they’re likely to run at a sub 7:00 per mile pace – that’s under 1h 31m 42s for a half-marathon. My half-marathon best is 1h 27m 51s – or 6:42 per mile. And so, by that definition, for that race, I was, technically (and reluctantly), an elite runner.
Oh, and that information was clearly written in the pre-race notes. I just clearly had missed it, hence my surprise when I picked up my elite race number.
What did elite runner status mean? In the grand scheme of things, aside from challenging my sink-into-the-background modesty, not much: my flashy yellow number allowed me to use an elite runner start corral – essentially, it allowed me to start near the front of the field. Which was useful in helping to ensure I didn’t get caught up behind lots of slower people near the start. But did make me feel a bit of pressure as I did my pre-run warm-up in the spacious elite corral while looking back at the non-elite runners packed in the ‘normal’ start area behind me.
Oh, and the strange moment when, walking through the pre-race village, I heard one runner look at my flashy yellow bib and remark to the person sitting next to her: “Look, it’s an elite runner.” I tried to look cool. I failed.
After 13.1 miles of fairly sweaty running in Texan humidity and mist, I reached the finish in 1h 30m 33s – good enough for 91st place and firmly within the ‘elite’ time the organisers had set out. Which, I guess, reinforced that I am an elite runner. In that race, anyway.
But it’s clearly just a race terminology thing. Other events might simply have called it a start corral for ‘competitive runners’, or a ‘time-based’ start zone. I’m under no illusion that I’m an elite runner in any other sense of the word.
Oh, and just to check it wasn’t a Texan thing, I looked up the elite runner entry requirements for the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon: it’s by invite only, and you have to be capable of a sub-2h 11m marathon. Well, I’ve only got to improve my marathon PB by an hour and 17 minutes to qualify…
More reflections on the Houston Half Marathon coming soon!