Tagged: reflections

An open letter to anyone running the London Marathon

Dear runner,

So you’re running the London Marathon. Good for you.

You’re about to do something incredible. Incredible, and painful. But mostly incredible. Although don’t forget painful.

Anyway, forget the pain for a moment. Really, forget the pain. Because you’re in for an utterly unforgettable experience. And I’m a little jealous. Okay, I’m a lot jealous.

I ran the London Marathon last year, raising money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle (a very worthy cause, which, if so minded, you could support by donating here). It was intense, exhilarating, exhausting, incredible, overwhelming, exciting, incomprehensible, enjoyable, unenjoyable, and a whole lot of other adjectives. But, above all else, it was brilliant.

And also painful. Let’s not forget the pain. I’m sorry to confirm this to you but, yes, running a marathon is going to hurt.

But let’s not dwell on the bad stuff. That whole thing about pain being temporary, and all that? It’s true. Honest. In the closing stages of last year’s London Marathon I was in pain. Serious pain. So much pain. I ached so much I swore I’d never run a marathon again. And I meant it.

I meant it when I crossed the finish line, more mentally and physically exhausted than I’d ever been. I meant it that evening, when my legs barely walked. I meant it in the following days, when I couldn’t walk in a straight line, or without feeling the dull ache in my legs. I was never, I told myself repeatedly, running a marathon again.

I lied to myself. Less than two weeks later, I’d entered the ballot to run this year’s London Marathon.

I didn’t get in. And while I’ve since run the Houston Marathon, I’m still gutted that I won’t be out on the streets of London on April 23. Which is why I’m jealous of you. Not in a bad way, you understand. I’m genuinely happy for you. I’d just love to be there with you. Because, genuinely, running the London Marathon is everything that you dream and hope it will be.

Here’s the thing: I could offer you some sage advice and marathon tips right now. But I’m not going to. If you’re like me, you’ll be sick of hearing advice about pacing, timing, running technique, hydration strategies and all that sort of stuff. And, if you’re not, you can easily find advice from plenty of people far more qualified than me to offer it.

So I want to say a few things to reassure you. Because, if you’re anything like me, right now you’re probably thinking of little else other than the London Marathon. It will be consuming your every thought, at the back of your mind no matter what you’re doing. You’ll be nervous. You’ll be excited. You’ll probably be a little bit scared.

That’s all okay. Keep this in mind: you got this.

Seriously, you’ve got this. You. Have. Got. This. Really, you have. Just keep those conflicting emotions in balance and you’ll be fine. Be excited, but don’t get carried away. And be nervous, but don’t let it scare you.

Plus, it might not seem like it with the race yet to be run, but you’ve already done the hard bit.

All those months of training? All those long, long runs on freezing cold mornings, with nothing but your own thoughts and a clutch of energy gels for company? That’s the hard stuff. You’ve done that now. You’ve only got 26.2 miles left to run. And it’s the fun 26.2 miles. Enjoy it.

It will be a lot of fun. Remember that when the nerves start to take over. Take a deep breath, forget the nerves and enjoy it. Enjoy going to the Expo to pick up your number. Enjoy the nervous trip to the start in Greenwich on an early morning train full of equally nervous fellow runners. Enjoy heading into the start zone, and realising just how big the London Marathon really is. Enjoy dropping off your bag, enjoy your final pre-race pee (actually, here’s my one bit of sage advice: don’t forget your final pre-race pee).

Enjoy lining up in the start zone. Enjoy trying to fathom how big the race is, and how many runners are ahead or behind of you. Enjoy the nervous anticipation before the start. Enjoy the moment when you cross that start line and realise, at the same time as everyone around you, that you’re actually running the London Marathon.

After that? Well, there are a whole host of things to enjoy. 26.2 miles worth, stretching out over the course of the next several hours. I won’t spoil all the surprises. There’ll be things you’ll expect – running over Tower Bridge really is as exciting as you’d anticipated – and things you won’t. The wafting smell from a nearby KFC, anyone?

Most of all, no matter how prepared you are, no matter how big a race you’ve done before, you’ll struggle to comprehend the scale of the marathon. It’s huge. There are so many runners. There’s so much organisation.

And then there the spectators. Lots of spectators. So many spectators. They form a virtually never-ending wall of noise, cheering, motions and support. Enjoy the spectators. Enjoy the support. It’s amazing. It’s inspiring. It’s, well, a little overwhelming. Sometimes, you’ll wish there were fewer spectators and fewer runners, a little more space so you could get away from the constant noise, and get back to running by yourself, just like you did on those long, cold training runs.

But try not to be overwhelmed by the spectators. Let them carry you along, but don’t let them push you into going too fast. High five kids when you want a distraction, read the signs people are holding up when you want to stop thinking about your pacing. Even chat to them if you want. But stick to your plan. When you need to, just focus on your running, your time, your pace plan, yourself. Head down, and picture what it will be like when you cross that finish line on The Mall. Picture being given that medal (actually, one other bit of sage advice: when they put the medal round your neck, be careful you don’t topple over with the extra weight when you’re in a post-marathon exhausted state. It’s a really heavy medal…).

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And remember, that’s what you’re aiming for: reaching the finish. Sure, set yourself a timing goal. I did. And push yourself to meet it. I did. I pushed myself harder than I thought possible. And, in doing so, I learned new things about myself.

Crucially, though, don’t let your target time consume you. If you miss it, you’ll be a bit disappointed. That’s natural. But don’t be upset: it’s okay. You’ll come to realise finishing is success in a marathon. The simple fact you’ll have done one is what will impress your friends and family.

And hey, if you really want to meet that target time, that can wait until the next marathon. Because, no matter how painful it is, no matter how much your legs hurt, no matter how much you doubt whether you’ll actually reach that finish, eventually you’ll want to do another one.

Honestly, you will. Running – well, limping, really – through the last few miles of last year’s London Marathon was the most painful, difficult, intense thing I’ve ever done. I still wince thinking of it now. It hurt. Lordy, it hurt.

But that hurt fades. Your legs will recover. You won’t forget the pain, but it will become part of the massive mix of emotions, feeling and experiences that make up the marathon experience. And you’ll look back at the whole event, on all those sensations, as one of the great experiences of your life.

That’s why I’m gutted I’m not running it again this weekend, and why I’m jealous that you are.

But I’m really happy for you. Your experience will be very different from mine, because every person’s marathon experience is different. A weird truth about a marathon is that, for such a big, communal event, it’s also an incredibly individual challenge. No two people will ever have the same experience. So go out there, and enjoy yours.

I’ll be cheering every single one of you on. Where I’ll be cheering from, I don’t know. I’m tempted to head into London, to join the crowds and cheers you on. But I’m not sure if I can. I’m not sure I could face being so close to it all, without getting really jealous that I wasn’t out there running myself.

But I’m happy you will be. Honest. So I’ll end with this: good luck. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Live it.

You’re about to run the London Marathon. The London Marathon! It’s going to be incredible.

And, yes, it’s going to hurt.

But it will be incredible.

And painful.

But mostly incredible.

Honest.

James

London Marathon 2016 runner 47812

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The other side of the barriers: spectating on the Brighton Marathon

Running a marathon is tough. That won’t be news to anyone, obviously. So anything that can make such a tough task a little bit easier is always welcome.

When one of my good friends signed up to run this year’s Brighton Marathon, it seemed only right to go and cheer him on. So, along with my other friend (and fellow 2016 London Marathon runner Matt) last weekend I headed to the south coast to take part in a spot of marathon spectating. It was a great experience – and it also taught me a lot about what it’s like to experience a marathon from the sidelines.

The first lesson: if you think the logistical planning involved in running a marathon is tough, try spectating. No, really, it’s complicated!

When you’re running a marathon, your biggest challenge is getting to the start on time, dropping off your bag and kit, and then getting ready to run. Most big marathons will take care of the rest: dump your kit bag in the right place at the start of the London Marathon, and it will be magically handed to you after you finish.

Spectators have a lot more to consider. You’ve got to work out how to get there, where you’re going to spectate and, if you’re cheering on a friend, what time you need to be there to make sure you see them. And you’ve got to work out how to do all that while trying to account for an unknown number of other spectators, and the disruption in the city you’re heading to due to road closures because, you know, there’s a marathon taking place.

It’s not easy, and requires lots of planning. On last year’s London Marathon, my brother managed to head to the start with me, saw me three times out on the course and made it to the finish – while also finding time for a Gregg’s sausage roll. I have a new-found respect for his efforts.

Me and Matt spent much of Saturday evening poring over maps and spectator information from the Brighton Marathon website, while poring over train timetables and parking options.

1A plan

Brighton is about an hour’s drive from my house, but with the city limited parking at the best of times, let alone on an unseasonably sunny weekend during the school holidays with a marathon on, the train seemed a better option. Well, aside from having to work our way around the inevitable line closures caused by weekend engineering works in the London area. And it was while delving into train timetables that we stumbled across a brilliant plan: don’t get the train to Brighton at all.

Eh?

Eager to avoid the huge crowds we anticipated around the start and finish areas and the centre of Brighton, me and Matt had identified a chunk of the course a few miles west of the town centre, in Hove. We reckoned the crowd would be a bit thinner there, and the twists and turns of the course would make it possible for us to see our friend four times in relatively quick succession at miles 15, 17, 18 and 24. And, almost by accident, we discovered a train route that went from Clapham Junction to Hove, without going near Brighton.

This turned out to be a genius move. The train was much quieter than ones heading to Brighton on the way down – and the difference was even more marked on the way back (a Twitter search for #brightonmarathon results in lots of pics of a massively overcrowded Brighton Station on Sunday evening).

The other great benefit of heading straight to Hove was that it made for a far more relaxed start. Because our first spectating point was at around mile 15, we had a few extra hours to play with to get in position.

Mind you, it was a bit surreal being stood on a platform at Clapham Junction at 0915hrs, contemplating that the marathon was starting some 50 miles south of us. And even more odd checking my friend’s split times through the Brighton Marathon app while on the train to Hove.

Those split times taught me another important lesson of marathon spectating: following someone’s split times is much more stressful than actually running one yourself! Seriously, every time check provided more questions than answers. Was my friend going too fast? Was he going to slow? Was that slight drop in pace planned? Trouble is, the only information we had to go on were the split times every 5k or so – a hugely incomplete picture. At least when you’re running a marathon, you know how you’re faring.

Still, our stress at interpreting split times was more than tempered by our relaxed start. We even arrived in Hove with an hour or so to spare before we needed to be in position, giving us time for an absolutely lovely cooked breakfast. If you’re ever in Hove and need a quality breakfast, I can wholeheartedly recommend Wolfies Kitchen.

2 breakfast

Fortified by breakfast, we then headed down to the course, and got in position. The Brighton course featured a section which involved running down one side of a street, doing a small loop and then running back the other. That meant we got two viewing chances for the price of one. We duly spotted our friend going past, shouted enough until he spotted us and gave us a pained wave, and then waited for him to return. I think we even did our part by giving him a bottle of water.

3 sign

We then dropped down a street and saw him again five minutes later, before heading further down to the seafront, where a stream of marathon runners were making their way along the final few miles of the course on the promenade. It was all wonderfully English seaside: blue skies, a pebble beach, brightly coloured beach huts – and an ice cream shop.

Wait, did somebody say ice cream? And Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at that? Is it wrong to sit eating an ice cream while watching people run a marathon? Probably. Maybe. But, well, it was a darn tasty ice cream…

4 BJ sign

Now, contrary to these tales of breakfast and ice cream (and I haven’t even got into the ma-hoosive sandwich I munched at Hove Station while waiting for the train home…), my Brighton trip wasn’t all about food. It was a chance to get caught up in the wonderful vibe and atmosphere of a big city marathon. And, in a way, it was payback time.

On both the London and Houston marathons I completed, the crowd played a huge role. The encouragement, clapping, cheering and support really did help me push on in moments when the pain kicked in and I began to doubt myself. So I didn’t stop at cheering on my friend in Brighton.

I’m not exactly the world’s most outgoing person, and I’m certainly not the whooping and hollering type. But I spent an awful lot of time last Sunday clapping, cheering and yelling encouragement at random strangers running the Brighton Marathon. And it was a lot of fun.

There was even some utterly random chat. Since it was a warm, sunny day I stuck on a cap in a desperate attempt to protect my pasty, fast-burning English skin. It just so happened to be a Houston Texans cap, which actually caught the attention of one runner, who somehow had the resolve to shout some Tony Romo-based banter at me as he passed.

A particular memory of the Houston Marathon was the encouragement that came from having complete strangers call my name – a benefit of having it emblazoned on my race bib. Plenty of Brighton marathoners had their names written on their shirts, and where possible I took to shouting their name in encouragement.

5 huts

Mind you, I learned there was some balance to it, especially when we were stood at our final spectating point on mile 24. There was an art to reading the body language of a runner as they approached: some were pushing on strong to the finish, some were gritting their teeth and hanging in there. A few looked utterly defeated.

I eventually began to read from a runner’s body language how receptive to cheering they might be. And, contrary to what you’d expect, those runners who were really struggling often didn’t take too well to it. Perhaps they were just exhausted; perhaps their time plan was out the window. Many just seemed to want to get to the finish quietly.

By contrast, many of the middle group of runners – those clearly struggling but still pushing on – really did seem to feed off the crowd support. And if, in some small way, my being there to clap and cheer played some small part in getting them to the finish, it was worth the aching hands that resulted in clapping almost non-stop for several hours.

With my marathon running friend having his family in town, and with our train home departing from Hove, once we’d seen him head past mile 24 we set out for Hove Station. By the time I was back home late on Sunday afternoon, I was strangely, well, exhausted. Spectating on a marathon, it turns out, is hard work.

That said, it’s nowhere near as hard as running one. Despite that, as much fun as my day was, it would have been even more fun to be racing, not spectating.

Wait, what’s that, you say? Entries for the 2018 Brighton Marathon are now open? Hmmmm…

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A thought starter: what do you think about when running a marathon?

Someone I know has recently signed up to run their first marathon. Since I’m now a veteran of two of the things, he suggested he might have a few questions to ask. And one of them got me thinking: what do you talk to yourself about when you’re in the late stages of a marathon? Hmmm, good question…

There’s a reason why marathon running is considered a mental challenge as well as a not inconsiderable one. Whether it’s during a long training run or in a race, you’re likely to be left to your own devices and thoughts. Of course, in a big city marathon you’re likely to be surrounded by plenty of other runners and a load of spectators – but unless you have a friend running alongside you, your journey from start to finish is an individual one. Which leaves quite a bit of thinking time.

So what do you think about when running a marathon? Frankly, I have no idea. What I do have an idea about is what I thought about when running a marathon.

Now, it’s now like I stopped down to note every single thought I had during a 3h 16m 40s run around Houston. That would be silly. And running a marathon is a pretty overwhelming experience, so sometimes I likely just zoned out and now can’t really remember what I was thinking.

But I tried to think back and remember what I talked to myself about during the race, and then grouped them into some key subject areas. I then guesstimated roughly how long I spent thinking about each area. And, for ease of presentation, I used that to create an entirely unscientific (and, since it’s highly possible my memory is playing tricks on me, possibly entirely inaccurate) pie chart. Because of course I did.

marathon-pie

Let’s delve into the segments a bit.

Race pace and strategy: Pretty obvious stuff. I spent a lot of time staring at my average lap pace on my Garmin trying to work out if I was going too fast, too slow or just about right. In the early stages, this also includes trying to work out when my legs would start aching. More about that in a bit.

Hydration and refuelling: Another thought occupier, especially given the Texan humidity. Trying to think about how often to eat and drink – and how to actually get the drink from cup into my mouth – was a real focus.

Enjoying the crowds and other runners: When I wanted to distract myself from my pacing or hydration strategies, I’d try to take in the crowds, both on and off the course. After all, taking all of that in one of the truly amazing opportunities you get running a marathon…

Taking in the scenery: …and this is another one. Sure, you can visit a city, drive and walk all around it and take in all the districts and sights. But you’ll never see it in quite the same way you do while running a marathon.

Thinking about family and friends: Would my mum, niece, nephew, sister-in-law and her family get to the finish? How was my brother faring on the half marathon? I talked to myself about those questions quite a bit. Plus, as previously explained, every time I crossed a timing mat I’d end up thinking about the various people I knew who’d be tracking my run. Family and friends are good motivation.

Considering post-race dining options: I’ve explained this before as well. If you want to distract yourself from aches, pains and fears while running a marathon, I thoroughly recommend thinking about food. Mmmmmmm, food.

OUCH!: There’s no getting around this. At some point in the late stages of a marathon, it’s going to start hurting. And no matter how much you try to deny it, talk to yourself, or attempt to distract yourself by visualising peaceful mountains, you’re going to feel the pain. I’m actually remarkably pleased by how little time I spent thinking about being in pain on Houston. On the London Marathon, when I struggled far more in the latter stages, this figure would have been a lot high. Like, lots and lots higher.

Do I need to go to the toilet?: Having to stop to go to the toilet would have ruined my time. But at various points, I felt like I needed the toilet.  Of course I did, because I drank loads of water pre-race to hydrate. I held off but, let’s be honest, the harder you try not to think about going to the toilet, the more you think you need to go to the toilet.

Right, so all that’s left to consider is the category I called ‘random other thoughts’. Basically, this category comprised anything else that popped into and out of my head during that run. There’s no way I can list, or even remember, every thought that passed through my head during the marathon. Here are a few I can just about remember:

  • Trying to remember the lyrics to Come on Eileen
  • Wondering how many British runners were taking part in the Houston Marathon (There were 11 British finishers, if you were wondering. I was the fourth)
  • Thinking if there was anything else American I needed to buy before flying back to the UK (no, which was just as well given how heavy my suitcase proved to be…)
  • Humming the ‘woah, we’re halfway there’  bit of Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer bit, on the approach to the halfway point
  • Work. Yes, actual work (this may sound above and beyond the call of duty, but I do some of my best job-based thinking while running…)
  • Contemplating whether the Vancouver Canucks will make the NHL playoffs this year
  • Trying to count how many fast food restaurants I passed on the route (lost count, sorry)
  • Pondering how the good people of Houston were coping after the Texans were knocked out of the NFL Playoffs
  • Picturing what I’d be doing on a January Sunday in Richmond-upon-Thames if I wasn’t running a marathon in Houston
  • Deciding on my favourite Paw Patrol member (I may have been hanging around with my four-year-old nephew in the build-up to the marathon… Oh, and it’s Rubble, since you asked)

Random, right? Yup. But I reckon it’s all part of the marathon coping strategy: you try to think as little as possible about the pain. To do that, you focus as much on your race strategy (pace and hydration) as possible, while also making sure you remember why you’re running (the atmosphere and scenery, family and post-race food). And when all else fails, you just think about any old random shit.

Oh, there were two other things I realised I talked to myself about during the marathon…

  • Trying to convince myself I don’t want to run a third marathon…
  • …but realising I probably do

Shit.

Houston Marathon reflections, part three: the sounds and smells

This is the third in a series reflecting on my 2017 Houston Marathon experience. You can read the first part here, and the second part here.

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…

The sounds

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:

“Water!”

“Gatorade!”

“Water!”

“Gatorade!”

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…

The smells

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…

Houston Marathon reflections, part two: spectator sights and signs

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.

The signs

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.

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Coming soon: Houston Marathon sounds and smells (yes, smells…)

Houston Marathon reflections, part one: first impressions

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.

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