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…
I’ve just returned from a holiday in Texas. The Lone Star State isn’t exactly a new destination for me – my brother and his family live there, and as a result I’ve spent plenty of time doing runs, races and marathons there.
But this year’s trip took me in a different direction: my brother has moved from The Woodlands, a slightly surreal town not far from Houston, to Forth Worth. And while I’ve passed through Cowtown before, spending some extended time there gave me a chance to really explore the city – both as a tourist and a runner.
First thing to note: Fort Worth is hot. Actually, that undersells it a bit.
Let’s try again. Fort Worth is hot. Actually, that still undersells it.
Let’s try again. Fort Worth is darn hot. There. There’s better.
For a good chunk of the time I was there, there were daytime highs above 100F (that’s 38 and up, Celsius fans). But it was the nature of the heat that struck: it built up and just stayed around – it could still be above 100F at 7pm or so, and would stay in the 80s well past 10pm. See, darn hot.
That said, it is, as the saying goes, a dry heat. The humidity is far lower than the Houston area. And, frankly, I’ll happily take 100F of dry heat in Fort Worth ahead of 90F of stick, sweaty, humid filled Houston heat.
Still, in such heat the trick to running was to go early, or go late. Especially when you’re a pasty-faced Brit who’s just arrived in the country. So on my first morning there, I went out for an early-ish run, and in doing so accidentally stumbled across a rather fantastic running store – which, in turn, led to one of the most interesting challenges I’ve encountered as a runner.
My brother lives close to Camp Bowie Boulevard, and it was running down there early on that Sunday morning that I passed the Lone Star Walking and Running Store. I can’t remember the exact time, but it was early enough that none of the shops were open. So it was with some confusion that I noticed a group of people – runners, clearly – outside the shop. There was a tin bath full of cold-looking water, too. Oh, and some of them were drinking beer, despite it being the hour of the day when coffee would be a more common drink.
Brilliantly, a few of the people milling around actually cheered me on as I ran past, looking all very confused. What was going on?
It took a quick search on Google to unearth the store’s website, and to determine that I’d accidentally stumbled across its ‘Sunday Funday’ event – a two-part group fun run that starts and finishes at the store. Finishers could enjoy free beer at the finish, along with an ice bath, if the mood took them.
It was also clear that, even by the high standards of many independent running stores, Lone Star Running was a little different. It offered free beer to shoppers every Friday, for one thing. And it also has a ‘City Titty Club’, where people who bring in dislodged examples of what I’d known until then as Cat’s Eyes get free energy gels.
As well as the Sunday Funday, there was another event: a weekly Wednesday evening ‘Running Man’, which took place on a 3.8-mile loop from the store. So, to reward them for cheering me on during my jetlag-shaking effort, I figured I’d go along that week, dragging my brother with me.
It turned out I picked a good week, because the Running Man event featured an innovative competition element. Anyone who ran the course was given the chance to guess their finishing time. The person who finished the run closest to their time would win a pair of New Balance shoes. Simple, right?
Actually, it was pretty difficult. For a start, a condition of entry meant running without my Garmin satnav – which would, fairly obviously, have made the whole thing a bit easy. The biggest challenge was trying to work out a tactic. Did I try and work out the fastest time I thought you could do on the course, and really attack it? Or should I pick a time well within my capability, and attempt to measure my pace?
Adding to the difficulty in predicting a time was the unusual distance – 3.8 miles is around 6k, not a distance I run with regularity – and a complete lack of course knowledge. There was a map, but that wasn’t much help since I’d only been in the city a few days. And there was talk of a steep downhill section at the start, and an even steeper uphill kick near the end.
Now, for the most part Texas is pretty flat. So, to try and glean some knowledge I asked Wayne, who owns the shop, whether ‘steep uphill’ meant steep by Texas standards, or just plain steep. He told me it was pretty steep by any standard. Followed by a laugh that suggested I was in for something tougher than I could imagine.
In the end, I stopped trying to overthink it and just plucked a time off the top of my head. I roughly worked out my max pace over 6k, then added in a bit of extra time to account for the hill and the darn hot Texan heat. I think I went for 26m 30s or so.
I encountered another challenge fairly early in proceedings: trying to work out where I was going. The course was unmarked, and I found my natural pace carried me into the front group – maybe because runners who would be quicker than me were trying to run at a steady, measured pace. But, unsure where to go and with the route taking in a maze of residential streets and river trails, I was sort of forced to back off and let someone who did know where they were going lead the way.
That meant I probably took things easier than I’d have chosen to on the downhill stretch, and that may have been a bit of a blessing. After all, Forth Worth is darn hot, and with little cooling breeze going too fast, too soon could easily have led to overheating.
Still, my natural pace did eventually take me to the front just past the halfway point, when the route was running along one of the many Trinity River trails in Fort Worth. Just before the climbing began.
Now, remember that mention of a steep uphill? Well, it definitely wasn’t just steep by Texan standards. It was steep. Really, it was steep. It was darn steep. It will definitely be a contender for the ‘Toughest Uphill’ prize should I reprise my 2016 Running Awards this year.
It started with a long, steady uphill stretch that was tough enough in the heat. Then there was a sharp left turn before the road suddenly ramped up with a brutally steep incline on a sharp right-hander. I just about reached the top of that and enjoyed a brief moment of gentle downhill before the road suddenly turned and rose up sharply again.
I just about reached the top still running, although such was the severity of the climb walking the last bit may have been easier and quicker. After that came the final flat run back to the running store, with the biggest challenge trying to find a clear moment to cross Camp Bowie Boulevard.
Another runner went past me on that final stretch, so I was the second to arrive back at the running shop, with absolutely no real idea how long I’d been running for. In between trying to stop myself sweating (a process that took the best part of an hour), I learned I’d completed the course 23 seconds slower than my predicted time. Which was… close. Impressively close.
Not prize-winningly close, however. Someone managed to complete the course within ten seconds of their estimated time. But, frankly, I really didn’t mind about missing out on the prize. I simply enjoyed the challenge of the competition: running without a Garmin and trying to work out my pace from pure gut feel. It was a fresh challenge, and a pleasant change from a straightforward race.
And, well, conquering that hill was reward enough. I returned to Lone Star’s Running Man the following Wednesday, even though the temperature had risen substantially and it was above 100F when the run started – yes, at 6.30pm. That’s darn hot. Why? Well, without a prize on offer I was able to run with my Garmin, and I wanted to do that simply so I could find out exactly how tough that hill had been.
The answer: 44 metres of uphill in the space of 0.56km. Ouch.
And I ran that in 100F+ heat. I’m not ashamed to admit that I walked the last little bit of the hill on that second week…
I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve always thought they’re kind of silly. But I’ve always thought it’s important to start off a New Year in a positive fashion. And I’ve managed to start 2017 in real style – with my first-ever running class win.
With the Houston Marathon fast approaching, and an understanding boss in work, I pieced together the time off to travel out to stay with my brother in Texas just after Christmas, giving me a few weeks to party on New Year’s Eve and fill up on smoked Texas brisket. No, hang on, let’s try that again… giving me a few weeks to adjust to the Texas climate and finish my marathon training. Yes, that’s better.
It was in that spirit that me and my brother decided to enter the first round of the 2017 Run Houston 10k race series – which was held on New Year’s Day at Sam Houston Race Park, a horse racing course about 30 minutes from my brother’s humble abode in The Woodlands.
Now, that did mean an early start on January 1 to get to the venue in time for the 9.30am start, but since I don’t drink and I’m not exactly a wild party animal, it wasn’t like I had to peg back my NYE partying too much. And the race start time was a full hour later than the 5k element of the race, so we got a positive lie-in compared to many.
Having studied the results of the 2016 event, I knew I had a reasonable chance of a relatively high overall finish if I could produce something approaching my best 10k race time – somewhere just over the 40-minute mark, depending on course. Although I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull that off, given that I was a few days removed from a long flight, and in my short time in Texas I’d already chomped through some smoked beef brisket, pizza (topped with smoked sausage) and plenty of other meat-based delights…
Still, the flat, fast course was just about perfect for producing a good time, and despite my excess meat consumption I felt in good form. It began and finished in the race course car park, but was essentially two loops of an out and back course held along a nearby road. It pretty much comprised two long straights, with a hairpin at each end.
There wasn’t much in the way of scenery – think warehouses and corporate buildings rather than parkland or stunning views – but for a 10k run it was just about ideal.
I’d plotted myself a relatively conservative pace, but found myself with plenty in reserve and was able to run a bit faster than I’d intended – but still feeling very comfortable. With the course design I could see the people ahead of my, so I knew I was somewhere just outside the top ten after the first kilometre or so. And I thought I’d probably overtaken enough people to move into the top ten by the halfway point of the race.
One runner went past me with just over a kilometre to go, but I was able to up my pace and hold onto him for a while, before he pulled clear with a mega kick on the final straight. I held on to cross the line in 40m 03s, which is right up there with my best 10k race times.
So I knew I was pretty high up the field. So while waiting for my brother to finish I retrieved my phone from my hire car, found some free Wi-Fi (the better to avoid expensive roaming data charges…) and fired up the results (helpfully, I could scan a QR code on my race number). And there it was… eighth overall. But that wasn’t even the bit that caught my eye.It was the bit that read: Male 35 to 39: 1.
The number 1. That meant first. First. First! I was first. In my class. First in my class. That’s a win. A win. That’s never happened before. I’d won my class. I’d won. I’d only flippin’ won my class!
I’ve topped the male 35-39 year-old class on the odd Parkrun, but this was my first class win on a proper, paid-for race. A class win! Now, there is one caveat. Most races I’ve done in Britain don’t have that many classes. I’m usually in a ‘senior’ category that covers males from the ages of 18 to 39 or so. The Run Houston event has far more classes, and so I ‘only’ had to beat other runners aged 35-39.
Still, even as someone who isn’t a fan of boasting or self-promotion, it’s kinda a pretty decent achievement. I was eighth overall in a field of 616 runners, and topped 53 people in the male 35-39 class. Even if everyone else was simply off-form because it was New Year’s Day and they’d been out partying harder than I did, I’m pretty thrilled.
Winning my class on a Texas race also seemed to involve a bit more razzmatazz than on many British runs. I hung around for the awards, during which I got to stand on the top step of a podium showing off my bonus, super-shiny first place medal (with about as much enthusiasm as an introverted Brit could muster…). Yup, I got a second medal for the run. Both of which are so chunky and weighty I fear excess weight baggage issues when the time comes to fly home…
All in all, a great way to start the year – and a great way to prepare for the Houston Marathon. Well, almost. There was one slight issue: the drinks stations.
There were four chances to grab a drink on the course, with the stations featuring the paper cups that are common in the USA – which, you may remember, I struggled somewhat to use effectively during the Houston Half Marathon.
In order to practice for the marathon, I’d planned to grab a few drinks on the course. But once the race started and I knew I was in with a shot at a decent finish, I sort of forgot that idea. I did grab one drink just after half-distance, and once again struggled to get even a half-decent percentage of the contents of the cup into my mouth.
And so, while I’ve got a shiny first-place medal to admire, I’ve still got a slight worry that keeping hydrated on the marathon could be a surprisingly big challenge…
Clevedon, my hometown, is located on the coast of North Somerset, not that far from Bristol. It’s a pleasant place, with a population of just over 20,000 or so and a lovely seafront including an award-winning Victorian-era pier (National Piers Society Pier of the Year 1999 and 2013, fact fans).
A lovely town then, and having headed back there to visit the family for Christmas, it was also the location for my final pre-Houston Marathon training run. Having decided not to do a long run on Christmas Day, this meant an early Boxing Day start, in order to fit in 17 miles of running and still enable some family time. Thankfully, it was a beautifully clear, if slightly fresh, British winter’s day.
Since I only took up running three years ago, long after I’d left Clevedon for the bright lights of the Greater London area, I’ve never actually done that much running around my hometown. So a 17-mile run was a good chance to see it in a way I never had before – and I revelled in some of the lovely scenery and terrain that Clevedon and the North Somerset countryside has to offer.
My run started with a sharp downhill descent to Clevedon seafront, went past the aforementioned pier, then down to the marina and across a bit of moorland, looping back through the town centre and past the Clock Tower, before heading for several miles down a quiet country road on the edge of Swiss Valley. Yes, it’s a valley, and while I’ve never seen a cuckoo clock or yodeller there, it probably does feel a little bit Swiss. The country lane is, however, very definitely classic Somerset countryside, albeit with the nearby hum of the M5 motorway, which runs on an elevated viaduct along one side of the valley.
All very nice then. But Clevedon is, very definitely, not at all like anything I’m going to encounter when doing a marathon in Houston, Texas, in just under three weeks time. You know, Houston, population of 2.239 million, one of the biggest cities in the USA.
During the course of my run, I made a mental note of all the obstacles I faced in Somerset that I’m unlikely to have to contend with in Houston. So, in chronological order…
- A steep down hill section (some of the sharpest downhills on the Houston Marathon course seem to be the dips of underpasses)
- A bracing coastal headwind
- A narrow country lane with barely enough room for cars to pass and thorns sticking out of the hedges
- Horse poo in the road (really, it’s pretty treacherous. It’s slippery, and if the prospect of falling over three weeks from a marathon isn’t bad enough, the concept of slipping on and falling over into a pile of horse poo is certainly off-putting…)
- Horses walking down the road (they were being walked along. The people guiding them were kind enough to make room for me, but running past a big horse with legs that could kick is a bit scary)
- The smell of fresh cow manure (Because nothing says Somerset countryside like a farmer stirring a big pile of cow manure)
- A tractor crossing the road, dragging mud and cow manure in its path (really, someone was piling up all the Somerset cliches on me this morning. If I’d rounded a corner and found The Wurzels playing a concert, I’d only have been mildly surprised)
- Someone riding a horse down a road
- More horse poo, this time freshly deposited from the previously spotted horse (Mmmm, fragrant)
- A cycling club time trial event, which happened to be starting on a road I was running down that didn’t have a pavement for around 100 metres
- A very, very steep uphill section in the final mile of my run (it was a 40-metre incline, in less than quarter-of-a-mile. Again, a bit steeper than the rise out of a Houston highway underpass…)
In short, it hardly seems ideal prep for Houston. But, in many ways, it was perfect. It was sunny, cool and quiet, and a wonderful contrast from everything I’ll encounter on my forthcoming trip to Texas.
Although I could very happily do without the smell of horse poo and cow manure. I won’t miss that running through Downtown Houston…
I’ve written about some of the cultural differences between running in Britain and Texas, and there’s another big area where the running experience is difference: the language.
This isn’t just about the difference in British English and US English spelling (just to settle this: colour has a ‘u’ in and that’s the end of it): it’s the running jargon, lingo and terminology.
So, in the spirit of running jargon busting, here’s an entirely arbitrary guide to some differences in running terminology on both sides of the Atlantic – well, at least ones I’ve encountered.
As ever, a disclaimer: this list is cobbled together based purely on my own personal experiences, so it’s entirely subjective (running terminology varies enough within Britain), and I’ve likely missed a few.
Personal Best (UK) vs Personal Record (USA)
Aka PB vs PR. This one pretty much explains itself. Whether you set a PB or PR doesn’t really matter: it’s definitely worth celebrating.
Start zone/Start pen (UK) vs Start corral (USA)
Start corral is a term used in most American races, but to a Brit, it does seem particularly fitting for Texan events. When I think corrals I think somewhere to round up herds of cows after vast cattle drives. Or cowboys having gunfights in OK ones.
The start corral of the Texan Half Marathon there didn’t feature any cows or cowboys. I didn’t even see a Stetson. Just lots of runners. Probably for the best.
Race numbers (UK) vs Race bibs (USA)
When I think of bibs, I tend to think of the things you stick on babies to stop them spilling food and drink their food all down their clothes. Which, on the surface, bears nothing in common with the bit of paper you pin to your chest showing your race number.
And then I remember what actually happens in the latter stages of a long race, when I’ve been known to spill energy gels and drink all over myself when trying to refuel without stopping. So… maybe race bib is quite fitting after all.
Race registration (UK) vs Packet pick-up (USA)
The place you go before the race to pick up your race number/race bib. The American terminology actually seems better suited here, because most race registration is done online when you enter these days. Because of that, there’s no usually need to actually register for the race at race registration any more – you just head to the desk to pick up your number. Which, as it happens, often comes in a packet.
Bag drop (UK) vs Gear check (USA)
These terms describe the place where you leave your belongings during a race. Frankly, neither seems perfect to me.
When I put a bag into a bag store at a British race, I try not to actually drop it. Something might break. I try to place it down gently.
But ask me about a gear check, and I’d be inclined to check my gear: make sure my shoelaces are done up, ensure my Garmin is turned on, that sort of thing…
And yes, I may well be applying entirely excessive levels of pedantry in both cases here. Deal with it.
Portable toilet/Portable loo (UK) vs Portapotty/Port-a-can (USA)
Whatever you call them, they still smell bad and are generally unpleasant places to spend much time. But when you’ve got to go…
As an aside, and to further confuse linguistic matters, many people know these by other names: the Portaloo in Britain, and Porta-John in America. These are, of course, specific brand names of portable toilet units, and should absolutely, definitely, only be used when the portable toilet in question is actually one of those specific brands.
Otherwise you might receive a cease-and-desist letter from Portakabin telling you not to write Portaloo unless you can prove the portable toilet in question actually was a Portaloo product. A publication I worked on may once actually have received such a letter.
Hitting the wall (UK and USA) vs Bonking (USA)
Hitting the wall is a concept familiar to both British and American runners. Bonking in a race? Not so much.
Although… a quick internet search suggests the term bonk was first used to describe the sudden onset of fatigue in the very English Daily Mail in the 1950s. Still, in my experience it’s firmly crossed the Atlantic and left these shores behind.
Which is why, when I read the phrase ‘bonking in a race’, it’s hard to suppress a very childish chuckle.
Trainers (UK) vs Sneakers (USA)
Actually, this one doesn’t seem to apply to running so much. Most shops in both countries use the term ‘running shoes’ to label the footwear ‘proper’ runners actually use. Most of the terminology attached to running shoes – cushioned, flat arch, stability, zero drop, etc – seems the same in both countries too. And I still don’t really understand much of it.
Streaker (UK) vs Streaker (USA)
There are two meaning of streaker. In American running parlance, a streaker is someone who runs every day for a long period of time, or who does the same race multiple years in a row.
Perhaps unfortunately, that usage isn’t common in Britain. But the other meaning is. So when I first read about a streaker appearing in a race, well, I pictured someone very different.
So there you go: some examples of how running terms vary in Britain and America. Do let me know if I’ve missed anything…
Read more running jargon busting here
Running is among the most universal of all physical activity. No matter where you go in the world, running is, well, running. You can run in the hot and cold, in cities and in the country, on paved roads and muddy trails, and many other variations – but it’s essentially the same thing. It’s running.
But there’s also a culture attached to running – and that culture varies massively around the world. The culture, customs and idiosyncrasies that are involved in taking part in a race in Britain are very different from those in, say, Texas.
I’d realised some of the differences in the process of entering the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon – and I’d also picked up some details from my Texas-domiciled brother, who has taken part in a handful of races and triathlons.
But you can’t beat first-hand experience, and that was part of the appeal of tackling the Houston Half Marathon on a recent trip to Texas. I was able to pick up some useful details both about doing a race in Houston, and about the culture of running in the Texas and the USA.
I’ve already written about the oddity of being classified an elite runner – at least by the Houston Half organisers. Here are some other differences I noted.
1: Texan races start early
This wasn’t technically a surprise – the 0700hrs start time of both the Houston Half and the Houston Marathon are clearly noted on their websites. Given that Texas can get quite hot (of which more later), it makes sense. And while I’ve done races in Britain that start early, I’ve never done one that started before it was properly light.
Aside from the early alarm call necessitated by start time, it was a cool experience: running between huge skyscrapers through downtown Houston as the sky began to lighten was a fantastic experience.
2: Texan runners aren’t afraid to go topless
Well, male runners at least. And the practice did seem largely confined to a number of the runners in the elite start corral. You do see the occasional runner training without a shirt on when temperatures soar in the UK, but it’s not a common sight in races.
Still, without wishing to repeat myself, given that Texas can get quite hot (of which yet more later), it makes sense. Although as a pasty-skinned British bloke, I won’t be joining them any time soon.
3: You get the T-Shirt before you run
Plenty of races hand out T-shirts as a souvenir/reward for taking part – usually featuring a big event logo and lots of sponsor logos, and often in a pretty lurid colour. The Houston Half Marathon T-shirt fitted the bill, especially coming in a fetching shade of luminous green. But there was a difference – when you were given the T-shirt.
In Britain, every run I’ve done that’s featured a reward shirt has handed them out at the finish – in effect, they’re a finishers’ prize. Don’t finish the race? Sorry, you don’t get a T-shirt. Harsh, but kinda fair.
The Houston Half Marathon (and, from checking, lots of American races) gave the T-shirt out at ‘packet pick-up’. Which led to the unusual – to me, anyway – sight of people doing the race in the official event T-shirt. It seemed… odd.
4: Drinks come in paper cups
Now, this could be a big issue. For me, at least. Most races in Britain that feature water stations offer up the water in plastic cups. The London Marathon, and a few of the bigger races I’ve done, hand out bottles of water and Lucozade Sport. Given my struggles to effectively drink out of plastic cups while running (previously documented here), I like bottles. You can grab a drink, and take your time consuming it, with far less risk of spilling it all down yourself.
The Houston Half Marathon had regular water stations on the course, with a choice of water or Gatorade Endurance Formula. But those stations didn’t feature bottles. And they didn’t feature plastic cups. They featured… paper cups. They were lovingly brands Gatorade cups, but they were still relatively flimsy paper cups.
This was a challenge. Grabbing a cup off one of the wonderful volunteers without slowing down or spilling the drink everywhere by squeezing too hard was difficult. Hoisting that cup up to my mouth without slowing down or spilling the drink everywhere was difficult. Actually getting the drink down my throat without slowing down or pouring it down my top was difficult.
In short, in my attempts to consume water or Gatorade I probably spilled more drink over me or the volunteers than I actually managed to drink. And given the humidity in Houston – even at 7am on a misty morning – I really needed that drink. Late on, I actually had to briefly slow to a gentle jog to ensure I took a decent drink. That was time lost.
I’ve checked, and it seems the Houston Marathon is also likely to provide drinks in paper cups. This could require some practice…
5: The race number – sorry, bib – came with coupons
Leaving aside the terminology difference for now (I say race number, you say race bib; I say tomato, you say tomato, etc, etc. I’ll return to this in a future post…), my Houston Half Marathon race number featured something I’ve never seen on a run in Britain: coupons.
I’ve done a couple of races in Britain that have featured a detachable bag drop tag, but when most events have post-race freebies, the usual form in Britain is just to scribble a mark on your race number. Not on the Houston Half Marathon.
My race number (yes, the bright yellow elite one) featured three tear-off coupons that could be handed in after the race. Two of them were for free beer, the other was for free tacos (courtesy of the good folks at Taco Cabana). Being the non-drinking type, I didn’t partake in the beer (my brother, who also ran, didn’t either, but largely because he couldn’t face the lengthy queue. Free beer is apparently quite popular after a half-marathon. Who knew?), but I did very much enjoy some free tacos. Which brings me to…
6: The free food at the post-race party
Most races in Britain hand out some level of free food and drink after a race. That ranges from the basic (water and bananas), to a bit of a choice (water, banana, energy bars, chocolate bars), to the pleasingly British (free home-made cake – oh, and water and bananas), to the downright odd (free Ambrosia custard and rice pudding).
But it’s usually a fairly limited thing. Heck, even the London Marathon free food was limited to a bag full of goodies (including energy bars, chocolate, Lucozade Sport, crisps, beef jerky – and water and a banana).
The Houston Half Marathon? Well, you could exchange your taco token for a bounty of food, including those Taco Cabana hot tacos (well, they said tacos: they were actually burritos) and IHOP pancakes, a host of biscuits and energy bars and oranges. Oh, and bananas. Because every good run has free bananas.
That wasn’t all. There were ice buckets full of soft drinks, the aforementioned free beer, and free shaved ice and other goodies on offer. With the finish in a lovely park on the edge of downtown Houston, all the runners were really encouraged to stick around and indulge, giving the post-race party a lovely atmosphere.
Okay, so those were the major differences. But the biggest thing I picked up was actually a similarity:
A half-marathon is a half-marathon
I’ve now done four half-marathons in 2016: in Wokingham, Hampton Court, Bristol and Houston. All four of them were entirely different events in different locations, with different courses and different vibes. But, ultimately, they all involved running 13.1 miles.
And that’s the thing. The scenery, topography and culture might change, and the course might change, but as I noted at the start of this post, running is running. And that’s what I need to remember as I build up to the Houston Marathon.
Running a marathon in Houston, Texas seems a very different proposition to running a marathon in London, England. Which is something I’ve spent a lot of time pondering. But those differences are only around the edges. Once the race starts, the challenge is the same: run 26.2 miles. And I proved earlier this year that I know how to do that…
Oh, something else I’ll take away from the Houston Half Marathon: the scenery. Well, a bit of it. It was a ridiculously misty morning in Houston, and I spent much of the event with little to look at but the road ahead of me and fog-shrouded buildings. But as I reached the final mile or so, heading back to downtown Houston, the mist began to break – while still hanging on low to the ground. That created the amazing sight of the seeing Houston’s skyscrapers gleaming in blue sky and morning sun, while seemingly rising out of the mist still clinging to their bases.
It was a beautiful sight. It’s probably just as well I don’t run with my phone – I’m not sure I’d have been able to resist stopping to take a picture.
It seems no major marathon website is complete without a countdown timer on the homepage. In the build-up to this year’s London Marathon I’d regularly check the event website, and seeing the countdown timer drawn inexorably closer to race day was exciting… and a little bit terrifying.
The Houston Marathon website also has a countdown timer on the homepage. And as that countdown timer draws inexorably closer to race day it’s exciting… and a little bit terrifying. Yup, one of the early lessons of running a second marathon is that the slight terror of running 26.2 miles isn’t lessened by the fact I’ve done it before.
If anything, it might be a little worse – because I know how tough the training will be. Especially looking at the countdown timer today, to show that there’s now 100 days to go until the 2017 Houston Marathon. About 14 weeks. In other words, it’s time to begin ramping up the training.
Which isn’t all good news – because Autumn has finally hit Britain. After a late September summer swoon, the weather has snapped back to normal. The evenings are drawing in, and it’s getting chilly. I had to break out a long-sleeve running top for my post-work run last night – which was also my first evening run for several months to finish in the dark. That seems a bit ironic, since I’m preparing to run a marathon in Texas – hardly known for cold weather…
It’s going to get worse from here, too. The clocks go back in a month or so, and the temperature is going to keep on dropping. It’s not going to stop me running – I’m quite stubborn about these things, and have managed to keep on running in all conditions – but it can be hard to find the motivation to go running on cold, dark nights.
Finishing last night’s training trek in the dark was a reminder that there are going to be a lot of cold, dark nights between now and January. And, with a marathon to prepare for, that’s a lot of cold, dark nights I’m going to have to wrap up and head out on a run.
Still, when I’m out running in the cold, I just need to think warm thoughts. Apparently, it was 32 degrees Celsius in Houston, Texas yesterday…
There has been a lack of activity here lately. And the reason for that is because I was off on holiday visiting my brother and his family in Texas. Which also, as you might expect, provided an opportunity to prepare for running a marathon in Texas.
Well, sort of. In January I’ll be tackling the Houston Marathon on a closed-road course that winds around the city. Most of my running in the past few weeks was along the footpaths of The Woodlands, the ‘master-planned community’ (i.e.: it didn’t exist until the 1970s, and now has a population of 100,000+ and growing) my brother lives in about an hour north. It’s all big houses, big trees and big lakes, with the slightly surreal air of artifice you’d expect from a place which has a capitalised ‘The’ in its title.
The roads and footpaths in The Woodlands are far quieter, and a fair bit more meandering, than those I’ll be tackling in downtown Houston. And since running in Texas is otherwise fairly similar to running in Britain, it’s not like I was gaining vital course knowledge or anything.
What I did get to practice was running in heat. Well, more specifically, humidity. In summer, Houston is hot. Houston is humid. This wasn’t really news, and I do have previous experience of Texan summer running from previous visits. Still, as a pasty-skinned Brit who doesn’t like sitting out in the sun, dealing with Texan humidity will always be a challenge. Really, there’s little you can do other than ensure you’ve taken on lots of fluid, pick your times to go running (early in the morning, late at night or after a humidity-dowsing thunderstorm…) and be prepared to sweat. A lot. Lots and lots.
So much sweat.
Oh, and pack plenty of running kit. Because you’ll need to change it regularly owning to the sweat. I even resorted to buying a running vest in a bid to beat the sweat. That was a big move for me: I don’t like running vests, because I’m not exactly the type who likes to show off his shoulders. Anyway, it didn’t really work, other than helping a bit near the end because having a sleeveless top meant I had marginally less sweat-soaked fabric clinging to my skin.
Handily, I’ve also found a regular race that takes place not far from my brother’s house: The Lukes Locker Run The Woodlands 5k. Run by a local running shop, it takes place twice a month, at 8am on Saturday morning.
It’s essentially the same as a parkrun, expect it starts an hour earlier, and instead of being free you have to pay one whole dollar to enter. Oh, and instead of getting a position barcode at the finish you’re handed a popsicle stick (that’s an ice lolly stick to British types).
So last weekend I contested the Run The Woodlands 5k for the third time. This was the source of some excitement, so on my previous outing (on Boxing Day last year) I finished third, my highest-ever overall finish position. Could I better that this time?
The early prospects looked good. I pushed hard, and was part of a three-runner lead pack that developed in the first few kilometres. While the leader began to pull clear, I moved up into second shortly before half-distance. This was going great!
Then it just started getting hotter and hotter. As the temperature shot up, so did the humidity, and the more sweaty I became, the less easy it was to cool down. Heading into the final kilometre the leader began to pull clear, and I knew I was struggling a bit. The runner in third had managed to stick with me, and I could hear him close in towards the end. He finally shot past at the three-mile marker, practically within sight of the finish.
I clung onto him, but had nothing to respond with. Third place again. And, I consoled myself, the guy sprinting past me was probably a Texan native who had grown up dealing with the humidity. Not quite. He was from Southampton. I’d been outsprinted by a fellow Brit.
Still, he’d lived in Texas for a year or so, so he was probably better prepared for the humidity than me. Besides, it’s hard to be that disappointed with a third place finish. To borrow the American vernacular, I podiumed! And that was worth sweating for.
Although there was a lot of sweat…