After weeks of anticipation – and with some dread – last weekend it was finally time to head back down to Cornwall to take part in the Treggy 7 for the second year in a row.
Now, the dread, it must be noted, was not caused by visiting Cornwall. It’s a lovely place, tempered only by being a flipping long way from where I live in London. But Cornwall is, as previously noted, also quite a hilly place. And those hills are big. And steep. And Cornish race organisers seem to delight in coming up with routes that go up them.
The weekend followed the pattern of my previous trip: it started with the Lanhydrock Parkrun on Saturday, followed by the Treggy 7 the next morning. The Lanhydrock Parkrun, which takes place on the grounds of a beautiful National Trust property near Bodmin, also features a course dominated by hills.
It begins with a fast downhill sweep past Lanhydrock House, a castle-like Victorian mansion, before a short, steep climb uphill into the woods. Then the fun begins: a frankly terrifying, dizzying, steep descent on a bumpy, rock-strewn, tree root-lined dirt track. There’s a brief bit of flat at mid-distance, before the climbing begins: a series of steep, steep, steep uphill slogs across uneven fields and lanes. Finally, the race finishes with a final bit of steep downhill on grass to the finish.
It packs a lot of elevation change into 5k: 122 metres of elevation gain and 143 metres of elevation loss – reflecting the fact the finish is just past the start line.
Still, on a fresh, clear, lovely Cornish morning it was worth the effort. When I first tackled Lanhydrock last year I stupidly forgot to take my Garmin, so perhaps mercifully I didn’t have any kilometre split times from then to try and compare my times to. But knowing the second half featured the bulk of the climbing, I realised the key to improving my form was to give myself plenty of wiggle room in the second half of the race. Having set a 22m 05s last year, I reckoned I needed to aim to complete the first 2.5k in 10m or so, giving me 12m to complete the second half.
Of course, the key to going fast in the first half was attacking that treacherous downhill, which was a big challenge in and of itself. I pushed as much as I dared, until I was at the limits of being in control. To paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, I wasn’t so much running as falling with style.
And, despite going as fast I dared – fearing that any quicker would likely pitch me rolling into the Cornish undergrowth – I was passed on all sides by fearsomely brave Cornish runners. I caught many of them on the flat bit – and then came the climbing.
It was tough. Seriously tough. Tougher than I remembered, in all honesty. It was a slog and I only just managed to run all of it. I say run, but on the steepest bit near the end it was more of a quick trudge.
Eventually, I crossed the line in 21m 55s, an improvement of 10 seconds on the previous year. A good result.
Now, my day of climbing hills wasn’t over. On a beautiful, clear day, my Cornish running buddy Matt decided we should do a spot of tourism and visit Rough Tor (pronounced like an internet router), which involved a somewhat hilly, but very pleasant walk.
It was hilly, but far more relaxed than the parkrun and offered some lovely views of Cornish countryside, the Davidstow Cheddar creamery and Brown Willy. Which, as you all know, is the highest point in Cornwall.
Stop sniggering at the back there. You wouldn’t catch me laughing at a hill with ‘Willy’ in its title.
Of course, the weather can change fast in Cornwall. And, sure enough, the clear skies clouded over late in the day and, late in the evening, it began to rain. A lot. And then it rained some more. A lot more.
It was still raining heavily on Sunday morning when it came time to leave for Launceston, the home of the Treggy 7. It was still raining when we got there. The rain eased up when we went to collect our race numbers an hour or so before the start. And then, when we returned to the car, it started to rain heavily again. And then it got heavier.
Around 15 minutes before the start it was raining faster than the drains could cope with. And harder than seemed at all sensible to go and do a seven-mile run in. But, displaying commitment that still seems questionable, we set off from the car and sprinted to the start. That involved descending a steep hill from Launceston’s car park to its town centre – and water was cascading down that hill at an alarming rate.
Mercifully, the rain actually eased up again as the runners assembled for the start – but it wasn’t long until it picked up again and, besides, by that point the roads were sodden. In places there were pools of water across the road; in others there were veritable streams running down the Tarmac. But it wasn’t cold and, in some ways, the conditions only added to the general merriment and challenge, even when the rain soon began to fall harder again.
It also took my mind off the mighty hill that comes almost halfway through the Treggy 7, a monster slog that lasts for around a kilometre and feature 85 metres of climbing. But, once on that hill, there wasn’t much that was going to take my mind off it.
Having tackled it last year, I knew what I was in for – but strangely, unlike the previous day’s Lanhydrock hills, it wasn’t actually as bad as anticipated. I don’t quite know what that was. It was probably because it wasn’t as out and out steep in places as I’d remembered – it’s a fairly consistent climb, which meant I could lock into a pace and stick to it.
Bizarrely, as with last year, I also drew strength by seeing other people struggle. That’s not meant to sound cruel, honest. It’s just that every time I did think about walking I found myself catching a runner ahead of me who was already doing so – and the fact I had more energy than them gave me the strength to keep on going.
Once I’d finally crested the top of the hill I was in fine spirits. The hardest part of the run was done, and now I could press on. Well, that was the theory. Turns out the weather had other ideas. For a start, the rain got heavier, and predictably the roads became wetter. There was a stretch of around 20 metres or so when the road was flooded with ankle-deep water. There was no way round, so runners just had to plough through it. Of course, doing so gets your trainers soaked, and horribly squidgy for the rest of the race.
At the top of the hill the wind picked up too – an occasionally fierce headwind that slowed my significantly. Visibility was also an issue as well, with all that water splashing and smudging my glasses. That made it difficult to really push on the wet roads on the downhill run back into the town.
In the end, I reached the finish in the grounds of Launceston Castle in 49m 22s. That was nine seconds slower than I managed last year, although my 61st place was 17 positions higher (and it’s worth noting that, despite the conditions, more runners took part in the event this year).
As previously noted, the Treggy 7 organisers like to give out slightly unusual prizes – this year there was a metal Treggy 7 water flask and a four-pack of Ambrosia Rice Pudding. I will savour that rice pudding, for I definitely felt I earned it.
There was a weird lesson too: having been dreading the hill on the Treggy 7 course, it turned out to be the rain I should have been worried about all that time. It’s a lesson that, even when you go back to a race, the challenge is never the same twice.
* * *
Tackling a race on a particularly wet Cornish September day might not be pleasant, but recent events in Texas do give a sense of perspective. However wet I got, my temporary discomfort was absolutely nothing compared to what thousands of people in Texas went through with Tropical Storm Harvey recently.
Thanks to visiting my brother and his family living there for years, I know Houston very well – not least from tackling this year’s Chevron Houston Marathon. Seeing pictures of roads I ran along for that event transformed into rivers of deep water has been a surreal experience.
Texans are a tough bunch though, and I have no doubt the people of Houston will recover. This British runner will be thinking of them while they do.
Ac occupational hazard of taking part in lots of races is that you’ll inevitably collect a lot of medals. While a handful of races offer the likes of T-shirts, mugs or glasses as prizes for finishers, most still hand out a pleasing lump of metal attached to a ribbon.
The trouble with collecting loads of medals is trying to work out what to do with them. I’ve got a handful on display – both my London and Houston Marathon medals are framed with my race numbers, and a handful of the more distinctive or memorable ones are on show around my desk – but the bulk of them are shoved somewhat unglamorously into a pot.
The vast majority of my medal collection are finisher’s medals – you get them, fairly obviously, for finishing a race. Now, that’s all very nice, but if I get the medal regardless of whether I set a PB or do my slowest race ever, the sense of accomplishment is separated from the lump of metal. It’s certainly not in keeping with how medals are dished out at top-level sporting events.
Now, of my not inconsiderable pile of bling (as I believe the kids call it), two of my medals were actually earned for performance reasons. And, curiously, I earned both of them in Texas.
The first came on New Year’s Day this year, when as part of my build-up to the Houston Marathon I competed in the Run Houston Race Series 10k event at Sam Houston Park – and promptly won the male 35-39 category.
The second came during my recent trip to Fort Worth. I was visiting in July, when the Texan weather is predictably hot – sorry, darn hot – and, as a result, not that many races take place. But after some web scouring I happened upon the Trinity 5000 Summer Series – a weekly series of 5k races held on 12 Thursday evenings during the summer.
It seemed perfect: the 7.30pm start time meant that, in theory, the intense heat should have subsided a bit, and the course was on the footpaths by the Trinity River – which meant it was pretty much flat. Having experienced Fort Worth’s surprisingly steep hills, this was a very good thing. So I signed up for one.
Now, the course was everything I’d hoped for: Fort Worth’s Trinity River trails system is utterly brilliant, creating a wonderful network of pleasant walking/running/cycling paths through the heart of the city. The section used by the Trinity 5000 events reminded me an awful lot of the paths that run alongside the River Thames near my house – albeit with a brilliant view of Fort Worth’s downtown.
The event was everything I’d hoped for too: it felt very much like a parkrun. Lots of the runners knew each other, and the organisers, and it was all very friendly and relaxed.
The weather, on the other hand, didn’t quite do what I expected. On the day of the race, the temperature in Fort Worth really built up – going some way past 100F (37.7C). And it kept on building, even into the late afternoon and early evening. According to my Garmin, which somehow keeps track of such things, it was 95F (35C) when the race started – although the heat index apparently took it over 100. At 7.30pm! It was ridiculous. Most of the Texans were struck by the evening heat – and if the locals reckon it was hot, imagine how it felt for the random British guy entered.
The organisers went out of their way to help though. There was water available before the start, and they laid out an extra water station. That meant there were two on the out-and-back course, which meant there were four opportunities to grab water in a 5k race. Now, I wouldn’t normally dream of taking a drink on a 5k race usually. On this occasion, I grabbed water on three occasions – partly to drink, and partly to throw over myself in a desperate bid to limit the heat build-up.
The problem with running in such heat is that there’s just no way to cool down. There was only the merest of breezes and even the air was just plain hot, so even aiming for shade to get out of the sun didn’t really help.
Normally, a 5k wouldn’t really faze me at all – thanks to parkrun, I do one pretty much every weekend, and it’s the minimum distance I’d class as a good training run. But in such heat, working out how best to run 5k was a really tough challenge.
For one thing, I was sweating standing around before the start, let alone when I started running. Then, once I’d started, the challenge was trying to keep up a decent pace without overheating. Because once you got too hot to function, there was basically no way back. That meant I had to apply a much greater discipline than usual, trying to control my pace to ensure I didn’t just collapse into a red-faced, sweat-covered, pasty-faced British heap in the second half of the run.
That said, the usual excitement of taking part in a race, and the desire to find a bit of clear space, meant that my first kilometre was a 3m 57s – not quite on my 5k best pace, but definitely not steady by my standards. I calmed down a bit in the second k, running a more controlled 4m 10s, and pretty much settled into that pace for the rest of the run.
The plan was to stay at that relatively steady pace (compared to my 5k PB of 19m 26s), and then try and pick up the pace in the final kilometre, if I could.
Spoiler alert: I couldn’t.
Really, I couldn’t. As the heat built up, the challenge was just to maintain my pace. I was actually surprised when, looking at my split times later, I realised I hadn’t actually slowed dramatically in the final stages.
My eventual time was 20m 51s. Not slow, but nearly 90s down on my fastest-ever 5k – and yet, it felt like a major achievement in the circumstances. Then came the bonus surprise. I hung around at the finish for a while, mostly because I was too busy sweating to do much else, and was still there when the provisional results were posted. I’d finished 12th, which was a solid effort. And I’d also finished third in the male 35-39 class. I was on the class podium.
There wasn’t actually a podium to stand on, but there were medals for the top three in each class. Which meant, for the second time, I earned a medal on merit (let’s not mention the class winner doing an incredible job to finish more than three minutes ahead of me…). And, for the second time, it came in Texas. What are the odds?
Well, actually, there’s likely a fairly simple reason – classes. Most British runs I’ve done have a very limited number of classes, and I’m usually grouped into the ‘senior’ category which spans everyone between the ages of 18 and 39. The two Texas races I’ve taken class podiums in divide the classes into five-year age groups, making my route to the podium substantially easier. Yes, I’m a sort-of Texan running pothunter.
But, well, it would be churlish to hang on that technicality too much, because, well, medals! Shiny medals!
Of course, that still doesn’t quite answer the question of where to stash the things…
One of the best bits about taking part in races is the crowd. Whether it’s the millions who turn out to spectate on a big city event such as the London Marathon, or the small smattering of friends and family that show up for a Saturday morning parkrun, crowd support is always uplifting, motivating and welcome.
But race crowds don’t stop at just cheering you on: some of the most enthusiastic spectators you’ll find in events are the kids, and they’re particularly keen on offering up some high fives.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t think I’d enjoy randomly high fiving strangers while I was running. It seemed a bit daft, possibly a bit indulgent and, well, a little odd. I started running for myself, and didn’t really feel I needed the support of a crowd.
That changed on last year’s London Marathon. In the early stages, I found myself running at the side of the road in a bid to escape the masses of runners packing the middle. And that put me within near-touching distance of masses of outstreched hands. And, well, I got caught up in the moment, and started joining in the high five action.
And you know what? It’s great fun, and gives you a tremendous amount of energy. But there’s a catch. Because you need to do it right. And so, in the spirit of my running technique thread of breaking down seemingly simple things with an excessive amount of detail, here’s my guide.
To understand how to do something, you need to understand why you’re doing something. Here are the main objectives for the in-race high five:
- To successfully pull off one, or more, high fives with one or more spectators during a race
- To help make running a fun, vibrant spectator event by engaging with the crowd that are cheering you on
- To temporarily distract yourself from the pain and effort of tackling a race with a spot of crowd interaction
- To ensure every attempted high five is a success so you don’t look stupid
- To avoid accidentally hitting, striking or otherwise swatting a spectator with a badly timed high five attempt
- Got that? Right, let’s get into the how then…
1. Pick your target
Offering an unreciprocated high five is a little embarrassing at the best of times, but when it happens mid-run you’ll just end up looking utterly stupid.
The first step is to identify willing high five participants. This is, as you’d expect, fairly straightforward. Look for someone at the side of the road with their arms outstretched. These will usually, but not always, be kids. Try and pick the ones who look eager.
2. The approach
Next step: get into position. You’ll want to do this early: you don’t want to be swerving across the course in the path of your fellow runners and having to slow dramatically, just for the sake of a high five. So work your way to the side of the course, so you’re in close proximity to the crowd.
The next bit is to make sure your intended high five targets know you’re coming. Try for eye contact, since you don’t want to surprise anyone. And, when you’re closing in, extend your arm into the high five offering position.
Now, the accepted running high five arm position is a little different from usual. Raise your armco about mid-chest level, elbow-bent, and then extend your arm with palm facing forward. Remember, most of the in-race high fiving action will come from junior spectators, so you don’t actually want to make your high five that high. They won’t reach, and you’ll look stupid.
3. It’s high five time
Okay, arm extended, eye contact hopefully established. The rest is fairly simple. Keep running towards then, without adjusting your pace, and when you’re close adjust the height of your hand to match theirs. Then you may proceed with the high five.
Another pro tip though: don’t put any extra effort into your high five gesture. Remember, you’re running relatively quickly, so your arm already has plenty of latent momentum. If you adapt the traditional arm thrust that you would with a traditional, non-running high five, you’ll hit your high five target with a fair degree of momentum. Frankly, you don’t want to be that guy who bowls a kid over during a run. Nobody wants to be that guy.
Instead, let your running momentum propel the high five. Keep your hand flat and relaxed.
4. Never look back
Now, this bit sounds harsh, but it’s a necessary evil. If you realise you’re going to miss a high five, just miss it. Sometimes kids move their hands inadvertently, sometimes you get your angle wrong. But while a missed high five is always disappointing, it’s going to happen. But if you ease up and try to correct the error, you’ll only slow your pace and cause problems. Try to forget it and move on.
Advanced high fiving: The next level
Okay, that’s the basics covered. You can now proceed with mid-race high five action. And, frankly, it’s quite fun. It really can give you a motivational boost, if only because it’s something to distract you from the pain and grind of a particularly long race.
But if you want to take your mid-race high fiving to the next level, here are some advanced high five techniques to work on.
The high five chain
This is when you approach a line of people, all holding out their hands to offer high fives. The basics apply, but you’ll need to make sure you keep adjusting the height of your hand as you work through the group. Unfortunately, kids and other high five fans don’t tend to be the same height, and they don’t tend to hold their hands out at the same point. It’ll be up to you to adjust as you go. It takes effort, but it’s better than the alternative: missing out the smallest kid in the group. They’ll only get upset.
The ‘hit for power’ board
This seems to be a somewhat American running thing: there were a lot of people on the Houston Marathon holding out boards with messages such as ‘hit for power’ – frequently adorned with pics by Super Mario World mushrooms and the like.
Again, it seems a simple proposition, possibly even a bit easier than your standard high five. After all, a big bit of cardboard is a far larger target area than a hand. But beware!
For starters, it’s hard to tell exactly what the signs are made out of. You don’t want to smack a poster hard and then discover it’s actually thin paper that you’ve just ripped through. Conversely, it can genuinely hurt if you put too much momentum behind hitting a board that’s made of seemingly indestructible cardboard.
The tactic is to make sure you don’t punch it, but tap it with your palm, before swinging your hand out the way to ensure you don’t accidentally knock the board out of the holder’s hands.
This technique is difficult to master, but is a huge tool to stop yourself looking daft if you miss a high five, or realise you’re offering one that’s going to be unreciprocated.
If you spot that happening, you’ll have a few precious moments to adjust your gaze from the first line of spectators by the road to those a little further away. Be quick. What you’re looking for is someone waving. Then, raise your outstretched high five arm and quickly convert it into a wave. Pull it off, and you’ll be able to maintain your styling as an enthused runner grateful for the crowd, rather than looking like a numpty who just plain missed…
So that’s what you need to know about mid-race high fives. Get it right, and it’s a fun bit of crowd interaction. It’ll keep the spectators happy and, if done well, will distract you from the pain and slog of a long race without slowing you down at all. Frankly, it’s worth doing just for that…
Here’s a really quite random list of places. Your challenge: to work out what they have in common (this is a bit like Only Connect, except with more options and not quite as difficult…).
Barwell Business Park, across the road from Chessington World of Adventure.
The Sprat and Winkle Line trail, Hampshire.
Sam Houston Race Park horse racing course, Houston, Texas.
Panshanger Park, Hertfordshire.
Parque de el Retiro, Madrid, Spain.
Leith waterfront, Edinburgh.
Sainsbury’s experimental pear orchard in East Malling, Kent.
Any idea? Alright, given the subject matter of this site you’ve probably been able to give it a good guess – so you’ve probably figured out that they’re just some of the places that I went running – either in a race or just for fun – in 2016.
Some of those places were lovely: The Sprat and Winkle Line was a pleasant trot through lovely English woods. The Parque de el Retiro was an amazing tour through a grand Spanish park. Some of them weren’t: sorry Barwell Business Park, but you are, and always will be, an anonymous collection of semi-industrial units. Although you do have that in common with the scenery surrounding Sam Houston Race Park.
But whether beautiful or bland, scenic or smelly (hello parts of Leith…), they’re all places that I was able to explore because of running. And for every place I’ve run that would make for a lovely tourist trip, there are plenty of others that I wouldn’t ever have gone to if I hadn’t been running in, through or past them. In a way, that makes running in such random and odd places – and yes, we’re talking business parks, industrial estates, schools, country backroads and so on here – really quite special.
Think about it. A joy of running a big city event like the London Marathon is that you get to see some world-famous landmarks from a different perspective. Running over Tower Bridge, or passing Buckingham Palace as I turned onto The Mall, during the marathon was a really cool experience. But it wasn’t like I’d never been across Tower Bridge, or visited Buckingham Palace, before.
But before I tackled the Larkfield 10k last year, I’d never been near East Malling Research Station. I may well never go back there again. But, thanks to running, I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it.
So there you go. I love getting the chance to run in some beautiful, scenic and spectacular locations – the centre of London, downtown Houston, heck, even just the Thames path near where I live in Richmond-upon-Thames. But I also love getting the chance to run in places that I might never think of visiting otherwise, no matter how unusual, odd, ugly or drab.
Previous Random Running Loves…
When I made my way through through the start arch of the Chevron Houston Marathon course at just gone 0700hrs on a humid, misty Texan morning on Sunday January 15, it was just gone 1300hrs in Britain. And while I was beginning to run my dad, and several of my friends, were settling down after a spot of lunch to follow my progress.
While I was the one who actually had to run 26.2 miles, I think I had the easy job. I was responsible for my race; my friends and family could only watch the split times unfold. And while I was utterly aware of how well I was feeling (or otherwise), they were left to guess from the times.
That could be why, when I finished my second marathon in 3h 16m 40s, and 266th out of 7132 finishers, I was perhaps the person who was least impressed. That’s not a #humblebrag – I’m fully aware that’s a pretty handy marathon time, especially for someone who hadn’t taken up running three years ago. And I’m also aware it was nearly 12 minutes quicker than the 3h 28m 17s I set in last year’s London Marathon. It’s just that I set out with a plan and a target time, and I executed it. The only real surprise for me was that everything went so well.
My finish time was pretty much exactly what I was aiming for. Of course, one reason my friends and family might have been surprised was because I didn’t actually tell anyone else my pacing strategy or target time before the event. That was partly because I don’t like adding to the pressure I put on myself by creating expectations – and partly because I didn’t really decide on my target time and pacing strategy until the night before the event. No, really, I was scribbling out different pacing strategies on the free notepad provided in my hotel room at 2200hrs on Saturday evening…
That scrappy bit of paper ultimately provided my strategy. I worked out the average minutes per mile pace I’d need to hit my target time, and tried to run each mile close to that: I had the first date screen of my Garmin watch set to show the distance travelled, my total time and my average lap pace (with my auto lap set to one mile, obviously). I had my second data set to show the overall average pace, and at various points I’d check to see I was within that.
There are, admittedly, more precise ways of doing pacing, but I was wary of them. At last year’s London Marathon expo there were ‘pacing bands’ you could pick up, paper bracelets that told you how long you should take to hit each mile market to run a marathon in a certain time. I picked up five different versions, and only decided which to use when I was in the Greenwich Park start area.
I didn’t actually refer to it much during the race. Worse, when my pace started to falter late on, and I knew my (admittedly optimistic) target time was slipping away, it became painful and frustrating to even look at it – it was a reminder of my over-optimistic folly. I ripped it off somewhere around 22 miles in.
To give me options, I did pick up what I thought were some pace bands, courtesy of Dick’s Sporting Goods, at the Houston expo. But I abandoned any vague thoughts I had of putting one on just in case when I discovered they were actually temporary tattoo transfers. Yeah, couldn’t tip those off during a marathon… they would remain firmly unused.
Instead, I just tried to run to an average pace, a task made easier by Houston’s flat course. Seriously, it was flat. Just look at how flat it was!
A flat course made my planning much easier. I could essentially divide the race into 26 (and a bit) parts, and know that each mile was effectively going to be the same. All I had to do was leave something in hand for the latter portions of the race when my legs were likely to be sore. That was a lesson I learned hard from London, when I set out a little bit faster than I meant to, and – possibly due to a recent illness, possibly due to a lack of marathon experience – really, really struggled in the final few miles. Like, really struggled. Really, I struggled.
In Houston, I was more disciplined. I avoided getting sucked into the atmosphere and speeding up. I tried not to get pulled along faster than I wanted by quicker runners. I just tired to make sure that, near the end of every mile split, I tried to make sure my pace for that mile was somewhere around 7m 25s.
Another factor that helped my discipline was the weather. There were some pretty serious pre-event warnings about the energy-sapping humidity forecast for race day, and I was particularly cautious to ensure I was running with a bit of reserve. I also really planned out my mid-race refuelling and hydration strategy – I drank early and often from the Gatorade and water stations, and also started out with a bottle to guarantee I could get decent fluid on board. And after my previous struggles I finally cracked how to drink out of paper cups while running – a subject I’ll return to in the near-future.
During the race, I tried to stick to my plan and focus on enjoying the experience. I tried not to worry about how far I had left, or what my legs felt like. I just tried to take in all the sights and experiences, letting them distract me from the task at hand. Of course, people tracking me online didn’t have the luxury of being distracted by the awesome spectators.
After last year’s London Marathon, I wrote about the slightly surreal realisation, every time I approached a timing mat (which were placed at 5k intervals, plus half-distance) that friends and family were charting my progress, and studying my splits and times. I had exactly the same feeling during the Houston Marathon, with the added amusement of a six-hour time difference to consider. Even in this connected age, the ability of people to track my progress on a marathon amazes me.
In Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, my dad was hitting refresh on his computer, flicking between the split times for me and my brother (who did the half marathon) and the live feed of the finish line. In various other parts of the UK, friends and colleagues (some known to me, others I’ve only found out about since) were routinely clicking on the website to see how I was faring.
Back in Texas, in the Hampton Inn Houston Downtown, my mum was tracking my split times on her mobile phone to work out when to leave her hotel room to find a spot at the finish.
And, in perhaps the most surreal example of all, while running the Aramco Houston Half Marathon, my brother was able to keep track of my progress through push notification splits sent to his watch by the Houston Marathon app.
Knowing people are tracking your split times creates a strange form of pressure: I couldn’t help but think about what conclusions they might be drawing. Would they think I was going too fast? Or too slow? Would they think I had adopted a good pacing strategy?
In the end, I tried to put such thoughts out of my mind, and focused on my own race. I’d find out after the marathon what they all thought.
In brief: my mum thought I was going a bit too fast. My dad thought I was pacing it superbly. My brother found motivation in his running from my split times. And, back in the UK, one of my friends later confessed to amazement by the fact I ran the first 5k of a marathon quicker than he’d ever run a 5k…
As an uptight Brit, such compliments are pretty hard to receive. Honest. I tried not to think about where my time would sit among other marathon runners, or in terms of how fast other people can or can’t run. I just wanted to run the marathon to the best of my ability.
I had a plan. A last-minute, relatively loose plan scribbled out on a scrap of paper, but it was a plan. And I stuck to it, and delivered. And that’s what I’m most happy about…
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…
This is the second in a series reflecting on the 2017 Houston Marathon. You can read the first part here.
The key to motivation, at least according to Homer Simpson, is donuts – and, of course, the possibility of more donuts to come. And that profound advice clearly struck one spectator on the Chevron Houston Marathon course.
Around 11-and-a-half miles into the course, running along Wesleyan St, I noticed a man by the side of the road waggling a big, long stick in the direction of the runners ahead of me. From a distance it seemed a little concerning, until I noticed what had been shoved onto the end of the stick: a donut. A big ring donut. He was offering runners a motivational donut.
It was, admittedly, a tempting proposition. Donuts are, after all, quite tasty. They’re also incredibly bad for you, although an excessive amount of calories isn’t really something that need concern runners approaching the halfway point of a marathon. But I declined: I’d carefully plotted out my mid-race hydration and refuelling strategy and it didn’t include donuts.
Still, a man waving a donut on a stick was just one of many memories I’ll take away from my 26.2-mile running tour of Houston. For the second in my randomly meandering series of Houston Marathon reflections (you can read the first here), I’m going to look back at some of the memorable spectator sights and signs from the event.
Before we begin, a quick note: you might notice a lack of images of the sights and signs on this page. That’s because I don’t run with my phone, so had no way of capturing them. So, er, sorry about that. You’ll just have to take my word for it…
The spectator sights
Dressing up is a big thing on the London Marathon. It’s a huge charity event, and thousands of runners raise amazing amounts of cash by completing the 26.2 miles in all manner of outlandish costumes.
The Houston Marathon couldn’t possibly live up to such fancy dress action, and it didn’t – at least among the runners. While there was some fancy dress action going on, it was on a far smaller scale (at least where I was running). But, bizarrely, what particularly stuck with me was the number of spectators wearing fancy dress. It seemed a pretty big thing, and it certainly wasn’t a trend I noticed in London (although I possibly missed it among the wall of people).
There were dancing Elvis impersonators. There were people dressed up as dinosaurs. I’m pretty sure I remember people randomly dressed up as two parts of a sandwich, for reasons I’m still not entirely clear about.
Plenty of the companies with shops and restaurants along the route also got involved. There was actual Ronald McDonald (outside a McDonald’s, obviously). The Chick fil-A cows were dancing along with a charity group. There were more, but I can’t recall them now. But to anyone who was dressed up and cheering on runners during the marathon: thanks. It really did make a difference.
Aaah, the signs. There were lots of signs. At the expo, event sponsor Chevron was giving out big card signs with ‘go!’ written on and a space to write a message underneath. I saw hundreds of them on the course, many made out to the friends or family of spectators.
Some of the spectators without a proverbial horse in the race settled for ‘go random stranger’. At one point I even managed to shout ‘that’s me’s!’ to someone holding up such a sign. She just stared at me like I was a bit odd.
There were also plenty of homemade signs, stretching from the humorous to the crude and a little bit rude. I spotted some slogans multiple times, others were very much one-offs. The Houston Chronicle has done a gallery of some signs here, but these are some examples I can recall:
You’re almost halfway there! [This was being held up about two miles into the course. Who says Americans don’t get irony?]
I bet you need to pee right now!
You’re beating all the runners behind you!
Remeber, you paid to do this! [This once was a bit cruel, so I left in the typo I spotted. Hey, I’m a professional editor, you can’t expect me to stop subbing when I’m running…]
May the course be with you [Star Wars puns never go out of fashion]
Worst parade ever!
I trained for months to hold this sign
If a marathon was easy, it would be called your mother [Yup, I did say they weren’t all classy…]
Hit this sign for star power!
I saw multiple versions of the latter being held out by various people – but I only had the opportunity to actually reach out and hit one. It was such a well-constructed sign that it actually hurt quite a bit. More notable was that the boy holding it called out a number to his mum – around 100 or so, if my memory is right. Given that this was after the half marathon split and I finished 265th in the marathon, that’s a mightily impressive interaction rate (well, assuming his counting and my memory were accurate…).
As with the fancy dress, some of the companies with shops and restaurants got in the spirit of things when it came to signage as well. Bike Barn on Wesleyan Plaza (close to where the guy was waggling a donut on a stick) really got into the spirit of things, sticking signage up for several hundred metres of the route. With messages such as ‘If you had a bike, 26.2 miles would only take 90 minutes’ they weren’t exactly pro-running, but they did make me laugh.
Another sign that made me laugh was the bar sign outside a bar on Washington Avenue: ‘Liberty Station loves chafed nipples’.
But, if you’ll forgive me for a rare touch of sentimental sincerity, there’s one marathon sign I’ll remember more than all the others: the one my eight-year-old niece made for me. I didn’t see it on the course – my brother ran the half marathon and finished around half-an-hour before me, so my niece was busy congratulating him when I crossed the line. But the thought was there, and my ‘go! Jimbo’ sign (yup, my niece calls me Uncle Jimbo – it’s a long story…) not only survived the flight back to Britain, but is something I’ll treasure.
Coming soon: Houston Marathon sounds and smells (yes, smells…)
The intersection of Congress Avenue and Austin Street isn’t exactly the most salubrious part of downtown Houston, especially at just after six am on a Sunday morning.
On one side of the street is the Harris County Civil Courthouse; every other business on the block feeds off it. There are car parks offering discount parking to jurors, the sort of small law firm offices you imagine seeing in noir detective films, and all manner of bail bond firms. The brightest light at this intersection is bright, red and spells out ‘BAIL BONDS’. It glows in the window of Action Bail Bonds, just underneath a big red banner standing in for proper signage. In short, they’re the sort of businesses you hope you’re never going to need.
Staring at that stark red light in the early morning twilight, it was hard not to contrast the scene with the space and splendour of Greenwich Park in south London. A strange comparison, no doubt, but it came to mind as I questioned whether the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon I was about to embark on could possibly match the splendour, majesty and experience of running the 2016 Virgin Money London Marathon.
I shouldn’t have worried. The line of businesses that lined the A Corral might have played to the stereotype of Houston as a vast, sprawling, dirty, automobile-filled city built on the back of Big Oil money, but it simply created a false impression.
The 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon was a slickly organised, well-run affair on a course lined with friendly and cheerful volunteers and spectators. The crowd wasn’t as large as London, but they made up for that with enthusiastic and vocal support that showcased the very best of Texan hospitality. And while the course could never hope to match the iconic locations and landmarks that dotted the London course, it firmly showcased that Houston is a vast, varied and vibrant city.
Even the bail bond-lined start corral made perfect sense, in the context of making life easy for the runners. The start line was a block further up Congress Avenue, beside the lovely Court of Appeals building. The A Corral fed back down Congress towards Minute Maid Park – home of the Houston Astros – with the B, C, D and E corrals stretching down consecutive cross streets. When the A Corral cleared, the B runners were fed into the start zone, and so on.
The corrals were placed so the entrance to all five was within a short walk of the George R Brown Convention Center, which doubled as the race HQ and housed the pre-race meeting area and post-race recovery zone.
The start was placed to take runners out of the downtown area on Washington Avenue, which is now home to the sort of fun-looking bars and restaurants that I’m not sure I’m trendy enough to visit. Even at just after seven am, this part of the course was lined with cheering spectators, who waved banners, jiggled cow bells and wore fancy dress. Across the course of 26.2 miles, I reckon I saw more spectators in fancy dress than I did runners. They cheered for friends, family and strangers. Most runners had their names on their race bibs, and the spectators weren’t shy at shouting them.
“Come on James!”
“You got this, James! You can do this!”
“Looking strong, James!”
I’m not sure I was looking strong – my head-wobbling, lolloping running-style rarely looks strong – but it was a huge boost to have so much support. As with the London Marathon, I found myself almost compelled to interact with the spectators: waving or shouting thanks, detouring to the road side to dispense high fives to kids, trying to remember all the signs people were waving. And I found it more fun: unlike the wall of noise and people on the London course, I could pick out the signs, and hear individual people shouting. It somehow felt more human. It was smaller… and in a very good way.
That said, smaller doesn’t necessarily make it easier to remember everything. As with London, my memories of the Houston Marathon are still a mess of little details and moments. So, rather than ramble uncontrollably for another 26 miles or so – especially since I’m writing this in the hours after getting off an overnight transatlantic flight – I’m going to stop here for now. I’ll write more about the moments and memories, and how my race went (spoiler alert: quite well!), in the coming days. In other words…
Read part two of my Houston Marathon reflections, on the sights and signs from the race, here.
A short update this. Basically, just to say that it’s all over. Marathon number two: done. And the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon went about as well as I could have hoped.
If you read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that the weather was my biggest concern in the lead-up to the race. And while it wasn’t out and out hot, Houston was shrouded under a murky fog that trapped in high levels of humidity. It was the sort of sticky, warm and humid weather that even had some Texans I talked to concerned about running – so as a Brit who’d done most of my long-distance training in somewhat colder conditions it was a major worry.
But I kept in control, stuck to my pace plan and took advantage of the plentiful drink stations, and the occasional wet towels and sponges being handed out. I did fade a bit towards the end, but that was as much to do with fatigue in my legs as it was the heat – and I didn’t fade anywhere near as dramatically as I did on last year’s London Marathon.
The end result was a finish time of 3h 16m 40s – enough for 265th out of 7109 finishers and, more importantly, a good chunk faster than my 3h 28m 17s time on last year’s London Marathon. Unfortunately, I failed to find the DICK’S Sporting Goods PR Bell in the post-race zone, so I was unable to ring it.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 15, 2017
Perhaps more important than the time was the fact that, apart from a very slight wobble when the legs really began to ache with just under three miles to go, I enjoyed myself throughout. That was a different experience from London, when I spent much of the latter part of the event genuinely not really enjoying myself (until the glow of post-race satisfaction arrived).
The two events were very different events, of course but, as it was after the London Marathon, my mind is currently a blur of sights, sounds, smells and sensations from my 26.2-mile jaunt around the streets of Houston.
That’s why this is a short update: it’s going to take a bit of time for me to process the memories into coherent word-based form. But I will say this: it was a great event – slickly organised and well-run, with the course lined with enthusiastic spectators, volunteers, police and support staff. If you’ve ever had a hankering to do a marathon in Texas, I’d thoroughly recommend it.
And, coincidentally, early entries for 2018 have already opened. I’m tempted – and it’s scary to think that on the day of marathon number two I’m even contemplating the prospect of doing a third…
I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: for a mass participation event, running a marathon is a lonely pursuit.
That sounds contradictory, until you consider that preparing for a marathon involves month of training, preparation and planning – which you’ll largely be doing by yourself. It’s only when race week arrives that running a marathon turns from an individual exercise into a large shared experience. And the event that kicks off race week for most marathons is the pre-event expo. Walking into the 2016 London Marathon expo to collect my race number was the moment where I fully grasped quite how big the event I’d signed up for was. Walking round an exhibition hall buzzing with the anticipation and nervous excitement of a mass of would-be marathon runners made me realise that I was just one runner among many, one small story of an epic tale.
If my experience of the London Marathon expo lessened the surprise element of attending the Houston Marathon expo – sorry, the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Exercise Institute EXPO, to give it the correct, on-brand name – the event still provided a big injection of excitement and energy ahead of Sunday’s race.
The Houston expo was a slightly smaller affair than London – which figures, given there are fewer runners in the event – but it also felt a bit more relaxed and less overwhelming. It was a fun place to wander round.
Actually, having stayed in downtown Houston close to the race HQ in order to be close to the expo, it was great to see how the city is embracing the marathon. There was loads of signage up for it on lampposts downtown, and plenty of hotels and businesses had marathon signage up to. A nice touch.
The basic elements were the same – race registration and packet pick-up desk, an event merchandise stand, sponsor stands with random freebies and a bunch of stalls from running groups, shops, events and purveyors of assorted products. But there were also some further examples of the differences in running culture in the UK and America.
For starters, as with other American races, the Houston Marathon features a T-shirt that’s given to you pre-event. British races, including the London Marathon, generally only offer finisher’s shirts. Although it’s worth noting that the Houston Marathon also features finisher’s shirts – so every runner who completes the course gets TWO T-shirts.
Well, I’ve got three, if you count the ‘in training’ top my brother bought me for a present a few months back. And, actually, I’ve now got four, since I couldn’t resist buying one of the classy official shirts at the Expo. Is four T-shirts for one event excessive? Probably, but that’s for British Airways to decide when they weigh my suitcase at check-in on the flight home…
There were also plenty of freebies to pick up, which could also cause trouble for the BA scales. Some of the corporate-badged freebies were similar to those on offer in the UK – such as fridge magnets, stickers and those inflatable ‘bang bang’ sticks (my niece and nephew will doubtless ensure they don’t survive to join me on the flight back to Britain).
But some of the freebies aren’t so common in Britain: half-marathon sponsor Aramco was handing out bandanas with the 13.1-mile race route on them. And capes (which, again, my niece and nephew are likely to be taking off my hands very soon). And Skechers was offering free dog tags and cow bells (I’m almost scared to contemplate the wall of noise my niece and nephew will generate with the latter…).
There were plenty of other nice touches at the Expo, including a wall that featured the name of every runner in the event. Since it was in alphabetical order, it was a nice touch to find me and my brother (who got me into this mess, then chickened out and switched to the half) right next to each other.
There was also a great collection showcasing every event T-Shirt offered by race organisers.
And there were also plenty of adverts highlighting a photo opportunity to ring the ‘PR’ bell if you set a new Personal Record (or Personal Best, if you’re British) on the event. The bell is sponsored by a sporting goods chain, which caused the very immature Brit in me to chuckle.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 13, 2017
The most important thing to pick up, of course, was my race number – A1960. The timing chip is already on the back of the number, safety pins were included with my pack and, basically, I’m now all ready to go.
The one note of concern coming out of the expo was based around a familiar theme: the weather. While having breakfast this morning, I received an email from the organisers issuing a ‘yellow’ weather advisory. The headline: ‘Organizers urge runners to slow down and adjust pace for Sunday’s race’. That was a worry – backed up by a big, yellow warning flag in the expo hall.
The forecast is now for temperatures to exceed 74 degrees Fahrenheit (around 23C) on race day. More worrying is that humidity is expected to exceed 90 per cent. The Houston Half Marathon taught me about running in high humidity, and it’s not all that pleasant. It could well cause issues, especially for a Brit who isn’t used to running in such temperatures on a regular basis. Oh, and given my struggles to collect drinks from paper cups.
Wandering around Houston this morning you could definitely feel the humidity, even though a thick fog doused the city early on. It was a reminder that you don’t need direct sun to feel the heat out here.
The weather warning also highlighted one more cultural difference between running in Texas and Britain. One board in the expo highlighted the ‘event alert system table’, which lists the various warnings the organisers might issue for various conditions. The yellow warning – in effect for this weekend – is labelled moderate. But the bit that made me chuckle was at the bottom: the ‘<50F Cold Weather Alert.’
So anything under 50 degrees Fahrenheit is classed as cold weather worth issuing a cold weather warning for. 50 Fahrenheit? That’s 10 degrees Celsius. That’s… positively mild compared to the English winter in which I did much of my training… And, frankly, I’d probably take icy cold conditions over 90 per cent humidity.
But, hey, you can only run in the conditions you have, and all that. And this is Texas, where the weather is bonkers and the forecast seems prone to changing by the hour. All I can do is rest up and see what things look like on Sunday morning…