Okay, to be clear: this will be one of the more random entries on this blog, largely because it essentially consists of lots of photos of a water bottle with London landmarks in the background. There is a sort of good reason for this, honest. Well, sort of.
A few months back, when visiting my brother in Fort Worth, Texas, I took part in a few communal events organised by the Lone Star Walking and Running shop – and just about survived the ridiculous heat and even more ridiculous hills.
Anyway, as a souvenir, I decided to see if the shop had any branded merchandise before heading home and, while buying a drinks bottle had a long chat with Wayne, the store owner. He was pretty pleased by my promise to showcase his shop through my branded bottle on events in Britain, even if it seemed unlikely to result in my increased trade for him.
Still, he asked me if I might take some photos of the water bottle next to some London landmarks. Of course, this was a bit of a challenge for me: despite living within the M25 I don’t venture into central London – you know, where all the famous landmarks are – to run that often. But a month or so back I was looking for a race to do on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning, and couldn’t find anything that close to my Richmond-upon-Thames home. But I could find a 10k race in Regents Park. And so, on a glorious, fresh English summer morning I got up early and commuted into London on the tube to take in a run in the beautiful – and wonderfully flat – royal park.
And, of course, I took my Lone Star Walking and Running water bottle with me. And I took some photos. And, well, I’d taken the photos, so it seems daft not to share them here. So, well, here you go.
For the uninitiated, Regents Park is right next to London Zoo – in fact, the event was the first I’ve ever done in which I’ve been able to spot a camel while running. And my pre-race warm-up took me past the exterior fence of the giraffe enclosure. So, well, I took a photo of a water bottle with some giraffe.
I also snapped the photo on a bridge while crossing one of the park’s beautiful ponds.
But it was after the race that I had the most fun. Having taken the trouble to head into central London I decided to head to a few other places post-run, and while doing so took a few detours to get some photos of the bottle with some ‘proper’ London sights in. Like, for example, a double-decker New Routemaster bus.
Or a bright red letterbox on Regent St – with another bus in as a bonus.
My meandering London route also took me past Broadcasting House, the home of the BBC. So, of course, I took a photo there.
Then I remembered that the paving stones outside of Broadcasting House all feature the names of cities, states and countries around the world. So I did a bit of hunting and, well howdy and how y’all doing, there was the Great State of Texas.
But I figured there was still something missing: one of the really big, key London landmarks. Like, say, Buckingham Palace. So I took the Lone Star Walking and Running sports bottle to meet the Queen.
And… there you have it. Photos of a Texan water bottle with London landmarks in the background. For no reason other than it amused me, keep a promise I made to Wayne, and show how running is something that can be celebrated around the world.
Also, it’s a reminder that hydration is important. So if you’re going running, invest in a good sports bottle. I know a good shop in Texas that sells them. Although other, closer, shops may be available.
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.
My first paid-for race of 2016 was the Richmond Park 10k, way back on January 10. So it was kind of fitting that today I completed my 19th and final race of the year… on the Richmond Park 10k.
In January, I completed the hilly course in 41m 55s. Today my time was… 41m 59s. Four seconds different. Over ten kilometres. Actually, the difference came over less distance than that: according to my Garmin, I set identical times of 21m 01s over the first 5k of each run.
I can’t even blame the conditions for my disgraceful collapse in pace by four whole seconds. The weather records on my Garmin data showed the temperature on both days was an identical 6.1 Celsius.
The course was the same. The weather was the same. And my time was, give or take four seconds, the same. So… have I made any running progress at all this year?
Well yes. Of course I have. It’s been quite a year, in fact.
I’ve competed in 19 paid-for races – 20 if you could the Run the Woodlands 5k (which I tend to leave out because it only costs a dollar to enter…) – in two countries.
At the start of this year I’d never run a half marathon. Now I’ve done four.
So those 19 races included four half marathons, ten 10ks, three ten-milers and one random seven-miler.
I ran my first sub-40 minute 10k race (just: it was a 39m 58s on the flat, fast Chilly 10k at Castle Combe race circuit).
I also set a new ten-mile race PB.
I tackled my first big overseas race, the Houston Half Marathon.
That’s a pretty good list. Anything else? Oh yes, almost forgot…
I ran the London Marathon. I ran a marathon! The London Marathon. The actual London Marathon! In 3h 28m 17s.
I still sometimes can’t quite believe I did that…
In other words, I’ve done quite a lot when it comes to running this year. And this post isn’t an excuse so I can show off my achievements in a #humblebrag sense or anything. Honest.
No, I merely list my 2016 progress as a way of illustrating one of the strange contradictions of running. Running a race is a battle between you and the clock. The clock doesn’t lie. Your finish time is the ultimate record of how well you’ve run, and finish times are the easiest way to chart progress and form.
So being able to compare two race times set on the same course in the same conditions 11 months apart should give me a sense of my running progress, form and achievements. But… it really doesn’t. My running efforts in 2016 really shouldn’t be judged on dropping four seconds on a 10k course around Richmond Park.
In other words… the clock does lie, after all. Well, that’s my excuse anyway, and I’m sticking to it…
As mentioned yesterday, it’s quite difficult to really encapsulate the experience of running the London Marathon into a flowing narrative. Instead, there are a number of moments and experiences that stand out – and here are some more of them.
If you missed it, you can read the first part of this post here.
A lot of bottles
The London Marathon featured water stations roughly every mile, and stations offering Lucozade Sport every five miles or so. That meant a lot of bottles being discarded at the side of the road (don’t worry, they were all scooped up and recycled, or something).
There was tremendous discipline from most runners in at least trying to throw their bottles to the side of the road, and it was quite surreal to see some of the piles that built up. It was also surreal to see volunteers occasionally try to scoop them up using a snow shovel.
Oh, and I should apologise here to the poor volunteer I accidentally splashed with water, a consequence of throwing a bottle away without pushing the sport cap back into place. Luckily she was wearing one of those water poncho things as a precaution. Even so… sorry!
Over the bridge
Despite never having run the London Marathon before, it was still quite surreal how much of the route seemed familiar – because I know it so well from watching on television. So it was quite hard not to get exited when you reached the famous bits of the course, such as the Cutty Sark or the final drag up Embankment towards the Houses of Parliament.
The best bit? Crossing Tower Bridge. You take a sharp right turn, and then suddenly hit an incline. Looking up, the famous towers fill your view. It’s also a hugely popular spectator point, so the road truly was lined with cheering fans. A real ‘I’m doing the London Marathon’ moment. And also a popular place for the next thing I recall…
I don’t run with my phone. I dislike running with my phone. But lots of people do run with their phones, and on the marathon it was amazing to see how many of them used them to take selfies and photos on the route.
This largely happened around the major landmarks, such as Tower Bridge and the final run down The Mall. It still seemed a bit weird. Apparently, some people even ran with selfie sticks, which is… just plain odd. That said, those people have photos of themselves running the marathon. I don’t.
My loss. Or not: I think I look particularly stupid when I run…
Fried chicken, anyone?
Relatively early in the run, the marathon route went past a relatively new branch of KFC. I knew this before I could see it, because of the waft of deep fried chicken that passed over the course. I was pressing on at the time. There’s a time and a place for the Colonel’s finest poultry, but a few miles into a marathon definitely wasn’t it.
Remember those plastic bottles? Well, a mass of discarded Lucozade Sport bottles contributed to my nearest miss of the marathon. I was on the side of the road at a drinks station when someone drifted over to grab a bottle of Lucozade in front of me. They slowed to take a drink, leaving me blocked in by another runner to my left. I ended up moving further right, before suddenly finding myself having to tip-toe through hundreds of half-empty bottles of Lucozade Sport.
It was my fault for putting myself in that position. Still, tripping over plastic bottles would have been a terrible retirement reason for the marathon…
Oh, the other potentially hazardous moment involving mid-race nutrition? When a runner just ahead of me trod on a packet of energy gel someone else had dropped. I narrowly missed having energy gel sprayed all over my legs. That wouldn’t have been pleasant.
The charity runners
The London Marathon is one of the biggest fundraising events of the year in Britain, and it was really demonstrated by the huge variety of runners wearing tops promoting a huge range of charities (and yes, that included my top for the South West Children’s Heart Circle).
It’s amazing to think how many people were running the marathon to help improve the lives of others. Heroes, every single one of them.
Even at the reasonably competitive end of the marathon where I was running, there were still plenty of runners in fancy dress. I passed a spaceman making an official Guinness World Record bid, for one thing.
In the late stages I was also beaten to the line by someone dressed as Elvis and a man dressed as a beer bottle. Given that I now know how hard it is to run a marathon in just under three-and-a-half hours in normal running kit, I have nothing but respect for their efforts. Amazing.
Spotting the leaders
Around the halfway point, the marathon route runs down one side of a dual carriageway heading towards the Docklands area – with the return route running on the other side of the road. I got to that bit just in time to see the leading elite men heading in the other direction.
Two things stuck out. One: they run really, really fast. Two: they looked in a lot less pain than me.
Speaking of which…
The pain barrier
A marathon is a gruelling race of attrition, and particularly in the latter stages there were runners slowing, limping, walking, resting and generally looking in a lot of pain everywhere you looked. It is a tough event, and the displays of grit and determination from runners to keep going when their body was telling them to stop was inspiring to see up close.
Yup, I hit it. Somewhere in the Docklands, my legs began to feel heavy. By the time I was heading along Embankment towards the finish, I was feeling the pain. I slowed fairly dramatically, but somehow kept running – albeit at greatly reduced pace. Perhaps I might have benefitted from a quick rest, but I managed to keep running for all 26.2 miles without stopping, and that felt good after the race – even if my legs didn’t.
Like Tower Bridge, this was a bit of the course I’d seen on television so many times. Running down The Mall towards the finish was a truly great feeling – especially because my mum and brother (who’d flown in from Texas) were in the grandstands cheering me on. I didn’t spot them, but I did my best to look fresh as I headed towards the line.
Crossing the finish line of the London Marathon? Amazing feeling. Excitement. Relief. Exhaustion. Joy. Pain.
Shortly after the line were the volunteers with the medals. They insisted on putting it around my neck, which was nearly disastrous. It was all I could do to stand at that point – the weighty medal nearly tipped me over the edge.
The finish area
Like the start, this was unbelievably well organised. Exhausted, emotional and slightly disorientated, the most impressive moment to me was staggering down the row of lorries containing all the kit bags, trying to find the one that match up with my number. By the time I did, a volunteer had already retrieved my bag and was dangling it over the railing. Unbelievably efficient.
It’s finally over
After catching my breath for a little while (okay, quite a long while), I limped out of the finish area to meet my family in the ‘meet and greet’ area in Horseguards Parade. That’s where the emotion really set in. It was all over – both the 3h 28m 17s of effort, and the months of preparation.
How best to celebrate finishing a marathon? Simple: I met up with my family, friends and fellow South West Children’s Heart Circle marathon runner Matt – and then we went to Wahaca. Because nothing says I’ve run a marathon like eating unbelievably good Mexican food.
I ran the London Marathon to raise money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle, a small charity that helps children undergoing heart surgery. The marathon is over, but it’s not too late to donate – click the ‘Just Giving’ button below for details. Thanks!