Today’s lesson: it turns out that not running a marathon might actually be harder than running one.
Now, that statement is, of course, almost entirely untrue. There are very few things I’ve done that are harder than running a marathon. Running a marathon is physically and mentally demanding. It’s a personal, physical and psychological challenge. And even in this age of mass participation marathons, only a very small percentage of people have ever managed to run one.
Not running a marathon, by contrast, is easy. After all, millions of people don’t run a marathon every day.
Here’s the thing though: the Virgin Money London Marathon took place today, with more than 40,000 runners taking part. I wasn’t one of them. Last year, I was. And, frankly, I wanted to be out there again. Far more than I expected.
Now, I entered the ballot for this year’s race, but didn’t get in. I chose not to pursue a charity entry again, and since I’ve already run the Houston Marathon this year, I didn’t think I’d miss it that much. Sure, running last year’s London Marathon was a thrilling experience, but it’s an experience I now have and will never forget. But as this year’s marathon approached, my feelings began to change.
I’ve written before about the experience of running FOMO: the fear of missing out. Today was a bit different. It was, if such an acronym exists, a case of running KOMO: the knowledge of missing out. I knew exactly what I was missing out on. I knew the intoxicating concoction of emotions and sensations that you encounter running one of the world’s great marathons.
As this year’s marathon drew closer, even small events began to bring the amazing memories of last year’s race to the front of my mind. Every time a weather forecasters briefly mentioned the likely conditions for the race in their reports, I’d remember how obsessive I became with checking the forecast last year. Every time a news bulletin featured a story about a charity runner, I’d remember the joy of fundraising last year, and the honour I felt the first time I pulled on my South West Children’s Heart Circle running top (by the way, if you’re in the mood to donate, it’s still a very worthy cause…).
As mentioned previously, I did toy with the idea of going into London and watching this year’s marathon. But, in the end, I thought that might be too close. So I decided to revert to an old family tradition: watching the marathon while eating sausage sandwiches.
Yes, one year after I was pounding the streets of London, this year I watched the race from my living room while eating sausage sandwiches. And they were very tasty sausage sandwiches too (the secret ingredient: Gran Luchito smoked chilli mayonnaise. Seriously, it makes pretty much anything taste better…).
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) April 23, 2017
But while the sausage sandwiches and freshly brewed coffee tasted good, the more I watched the TV, the more I wished I could trade them in for a clutch of energy gels and a bottle of Lucozade Sport.
Almost every time I looked at the television, I saw something that reminded me of last year: whether it was the mass start in Greenwich Park, an images of runners rounding the Cutty Sark or just an otherwise innocuous street that I vividly remembered running down.
It brought all the emotions, all the sensations, flooding back. Watching the elite women and men race up a small rise on Embankment and then past the Palace of Westminster brought back memories of just how much I hurt near the end of last year’s race. Watching them sprint down The Mall made me reflect on trying to spot my mum and brother in the grandstand last year (I miserably failed: I made the amateur error of looking in the stands on the wrong side of the course…).
It was hard, it really was. So I eventually decided I needed to break myself away from it. So, naturally, I went for a run.
Although this was a run with a difference. There’s no shortage of beautiful places to run near where I live, but since I covered most of them during marathon training runs, I decided it was time to head further out of London. I hopped in my car and headed for Virginia Water, at the southern end of Windsor Great Park.
I’d never been running before, so it was a complete change. And on a pleasantly sunny Sunday, I carved out a lovely route around the lake and up past The Totem Pole (a gift to the Queen from Canada back in 1958).
It was all really very lovely: a relaxing, stress-free, brilliant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. But it’s not where I’d really liked to have been running today…
In short, not running a marathon really is rather hard. But only because I know what I’m missing out on. And, frankly, it probably won’t seem so hard tomorrow when I wake up and my legs are working properly.
Because, clearly, running a marathon is absolutely, definitively, unarguably harder than running one. So if you were one of the 40,000 plus people who ran the London Marathon today, congratulations. You’ve just done something utterly amazing. Enjoy it.
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…).
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.
But mostly incredible.
London Marathon 2016 runner 47812
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.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: for a mass participation event, running a marathon is a lonely pursuit.
That sounds contradictory, until you consider that preparing for a marathon involves month of training, preparation and planning – which you’ll largely be doing by yourself. It’s only when race week arrives that running a marathon turns from an individual exercise into a large shared experience. And the event that kicks off race week for most marathons is the pre-event expo. Walking into the 2016 London Marathon expo to collect my race number was the moment where I fully grasped quite how big the event I’d signed up for was. Walking round an exhibition hall buzzing with the anticipation and nervous excitement of a mass of would-be marathon runners made me realise that I was just one runner among many, one small story of an epic tale.
If my experience of the London Marathon expo lessened the surprise element of attending the Houston Marathon expo – sorry, the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Exercise Institute EXPO, to give it the correct, on-brand name – the event still provided a big injection of excitement and energy ahead of Sunday’s race.
The Houston expo was a slightly smaller affair than London – which figures, given there are fewer runners in the event – but it also felt a bit more relaxed and less overwhelming. It was a fun place to wander round.
Actually, having stayed in downtown Houston close to the race HQ in order to be close to the expo, it was great to see how the city is embracing the marathon. There was loads of signage up for it on lampposts downtown, and plenty of hotels and businesses had marathon signage up to. A nice touch.
The basic elements were the same – race registration and packet pick-up desk, an event merchandise stand, sponsor stands with random freebies and a bunch of stalls from running groups, shops, events and purveyors of assorted products. But there were also some further examples of the differences in running culture in the UK and America.
For starters, as with other American races, the Houston Marathon features a T-shirt that’s given to you pre-event. British races, including the London Marathon, generally only offer finisher’s shirts. Although it’s worth noting that the Houston Marathon also features finisher’s shirts – so every runner who completes the course gets TWO T-shirts.
Well, I’ve got three, if you count the ‘in training’ top my brother bought me for a present a few months back. And, actually, I’ve now got four, since I couldn’t resist buying one of the classy official shirts at the Expo. Is four T-shirts for one event excessive? Probably, but that’s for British Airways to decide when they weigh my suitcase at check-in on the flight home…
There were also plenty of freebies to pick up, which could also cause trouble for the BA scales. Some of the corporate-badged freebies were similar to those on offer in the UK – such as fridge magnets, stickers and those inflatable ‘bang bang’ sticks (my niece and nephew will doubtless ensure they don’t survive to join me on the flight back to Britain).
But some of the freebies aren’t so common in Britain: half-marathon sponsor Aramco was handing out bandanas with the 13.1-mile race route on them. And capes (which, again, my niece and nephew are likely to be taking off my hands very soon). And Skechers was offering free dog tags and cow bells (I’m almost scared to contemplate the wall of noise my niece and nephew will generate with the latter…).
There were plenty of other nice touches at the Expo, including a wall that featured the name of every runner in the event. Since it was in alphabetical order, it was a nice touch to find me and my brother (who got me into this mess, then chickened out and switched to the half) right next to each other.
There was also a great collection showcasing every event T-Shirt offered by race organisers.
And there were also plenty of adverts highlighting a photo opportunity to ring the ‘PR’ bell if you set a new Personal Record (or Personal Best, if you’re British) on the event. The bell is sponsored by a sporting goods chain, which caused the very immature Brit in me to chuckle.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 13, 2017
The most important thing to pick up, of course, was my race number – A1960. The timing chip is already on the back of the number, safety pins were included with my pack and, basically, I’m now all ready to go.
The one note of concern coming out of the expo was based around a familiar theme: the weather. While having breakfast this morning, I received an email from the organisers issuing a ‘yellow’ weather advisory. The headline: ‘Organizers urge runners to slow down and adjust pace for Sunday’s race’. That was a worry – backed up by a big, yellow warning flag in the expo hall.
The forecast is now for temperatures to exceed 74 degrees Fahrenheit (around 23C) on race day. More worrying is that humidity is expected to exceed 90 per cent. The Houston Half Marathon taught me about running in high humidity, and it’s not all that pleasant. It could well cause issues, especially for a Brit who isn’t used to running in such temperatures on a regular basis. Oh, and given my struggles to collect drinks from paper cups.
Wandering around Houston this morning you could definitely feel the humidity, even though a thick fog doused the city early on. It was a reminder that you don’t need direct sun to feel the heat out here.
The weather warning also highlighted one more cultural difference between running in Texas and Britain. One board in the expo highlighted the ‘event alert system table’, which lists the various warnings the organisers might issue for various conditions. The yellow warning – in effect for this weekend – is labelled moderate. But the bit that made me chuckle was at the bottom: the ‘<50F Cold Weather Alert.’
So anything under 50 degrees Fahrenheit is classed as cold weather worth issuing a cold weather warning for. 50 Fahrenheit? That’s 10 degrees Celsius. That’s… positively mild compared to the English winter in which I did much of my training… And, frankly, I’d probably take icy cold conditions over 90 per cent humidity.
But, hey, you can only run in the conditions you have, and all that. And this is Texas, where the weather is bonkers and the forecast seems prone to changing by the hour. All I can do is rest up and see what things look like on Sunday morning…
With three days to go until the Chevron Houston Marathon, I did my final proper training run this morning (I’ll likely have a ‘shakedown’ outing the day before the race, but that’s purely to get my legs moving).
So far, my marathon training programme has taken me to some varied locations. I’ve tackled busy city half-marathons on the streets of Bristol, in the south west of England, and Houston, Texas. I’ve set a new 10k PB around Castle Combe Race Circuit in Wiltshire, and scored a first class win on the roads near Sam Houston Race Park in Texas. I’ve done long training runs on the seafront and country lanes of my hometown of Clevedon in Somerset, and also while dodging deer around Richmond Park near my home in greater London.
So it almost seemed fitting to do my final training run in a new location: along the seawall of Galveston, Texas. Well, why not?
The opportunity arose to spend a few days away from my brother’s place during my extended holiday/family visit/marathon-running trip to Texas, and hitting the coast seemed a great plan. So we decamped for a night to a seafront hotel on Galveston, the historic island and city on the Gulf Coast south of Houston.
That meant I could go for a morning run along the seawall, which is pretty much the perfect place for a final marathon training run. Why? Because it’s flat, wide and straight. In other words, as long as you can trust yourself not to run in a straight line, there’s very little risk of hitting, tripping or injuring yourself. And that’s what you want in a final training run, really.
The weather (yes, I’m already writing about the weather again…) helped: it was a beautiful warm morning, with clear blue skies. Well, apart from one thing: there was quite the sea breeze coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t the sort of crosswind that really causes problems while running – in fact, it helped keep me cool in the Texan warmth – but it did hamper long-range visibility a bit, with a haze of sea water being blown across the seawall.
Still, it was a lovely place for a run – and definitely warmer than the last time I ran along a seawall, when I went for a short run in the days after Christmas while visiting my dad in Burnham-on-Sea. There’s plenty to recommend the Somerset coast as a tourist destination, but I can attest that the Gulf of Mexico in mid-January is far more pleasant than the Bristol Channel in late December…
After a morning and lunch in Galveston (I opted for a turkey chilli with corn cake and rice, which ticked a lot of pre-run marathon dining boxes), we headed back inland to Houston for one more night away from the family. So now I’m staying downtown, within walking distance of the Convention Centre that will host the Houston Marathon expo tomorrow.
A late afternoon walk was a great chance for an early sample of the build-up for the big race. And the drive in even featured a course preview – the road to our hotel took us along the final stretch of the marathon route. There was even a late detour because the road we tried to drive along was actually shut due to the finish arch being built on it…
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 12, 2017
While that caused an unplanned detour, at least it means I’ve seen the finish line now. It’s going to be a lot harder to get to on Sunday when I won’t see it until I’ve done 26.2 miles of running…
Yes, I’m writing about the weather again. Look, I’m British, it’s what we do. We talk about the weather. Especially when a) the weather is really very odd, as it frequently seems to be in Texas, and b) my experience on the Houston Marathon will be largely dependent on the conditions I’ll encounter on the course.
When last I wrote about the weather, Texas was proving surprisingly cold, and I was wrapping up as warm as I possible could for training runs in temperatures of -3C. Well, funny story… it’s now warm again.
On Sunday evening I went for a 10k jog in beautiful sunshine but with the temperatures barely above freezing – cold enough for me to break out The Hat I Can’t Throw Away.
On Tuesday morning, less than 48 hours later, I went for a gentle training jog at around eight am – and, despite cloud cover and very light rain, found myself running in around 17C heat and a surprisingly amount of humidity. Instead of freezing, I was sweating.
It was… confusing, to say the least.
Still, it was also useful, since – for what it’s worth, at any rate – the current forecast is for temperatures to feature daytime highs of around 25-27C (that’s about 77-80F) between now and Sunday, with overnight lows of around 15-16C (60-62F). Yes, those are overnight lows that are 15C warmer than it was in the middle of the day just four days ago. Like I said, Texas weather in January is bonkers.
Anyway, at least the conditions right now should approximate what the runners in the Houston Marathon will encounter on Sunday – although there is a greater chance of rain showers come the weekend. Showers wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, as long as they don’t get too heavy, and there’s another current Texas weather condition worrying me a little more: the wind.
It’s been pretty gusty round here recently, with quite a breeze rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s creating the sort of potent gusts that occasionally cause your car to wobble when you’re driving down a highway. And while such a breeze can be quite cooling – useful on a marathon – it can also be really difficult if you end up caught running in a headwind.
But hey, you can’t control the weather on race day, so when the time comes to start the marathon I can only run in the conditions that I find. But that won’t stop me being confused and slightly obsessed by the forecast.
After all, Texas weather in January is bonkers and unpredictable, and I’m British. Talking about the weather is what we do…
There are now only five days – FIVE DAYS! – until the Chevron Houston Marathon, which means I’m in full-on taper mode (and tapering is difficult…). Right now, I’m all about trying to rest up, to ensure I’m on full form for when the race starts at 0700hrs on Sunday morning.
At this point in the build-up to last year’s London Marathon, I became incredibly boring. Well, more boring than usual, at least. If you ask people who know me, plenty would likely suggest I’m pretty boring anyway.
My boring behaviour involved not going out much, limiting what I did and sticking to a fairly boring discipline of eating simple, straightforward food. On the Sunday before the marathon, I cooked up a huge vat of turkey Bolognaise, which I ate with pasta virtually every night that week. The Bolognaise itself wasn’t boring – I added in spinach and squash and all sorts of healthy veg, so it was designed to be ideal marathon build-up food. But having it every night for a week? Yeah, that got a little boring.
But, at least in the context of preparing for a marathon, boring is good. Boring is routine. Routine is important. To be on top form for a marathon I wanted to stick to a disciplined routine and a disciplined, controlled diet.
That’s proving difficult ahead of the Houston Marathon. Here’s the problem: I’m in another country, and the food in the Great State of Texas is quite different to what I cook up on the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. It’s also really very good, and I don’t want to miss out on the local cuisine when I’m here. Have you tried real, proper Texan smoked beef brisket? If you have, you’ll know that nothing you can get in Britain that purports to be ‘Texan-style BBQ’ even comes close.
Another challenge: I’m also on holiday visiting family. That involves both eating out quite a bit and not bring in full control of exactly what I’m going to eat and when. All of which makes repeating my boring pre-London Marathon diet difficult.
It’s not really possible to be totally boring and disciplined in my dining and make the most of being on holiday.
After much internal debate on how to tackle this dilemma I settled on compromise. For the first week or so I was out here I ate largely what I wanted – albeit within reason. So I have had a few portions of lovely Texas smoked beef brisket, but I ordered lean brisket rather than fatty, and majored on the green beans and corn sides rather than a big dollop of gooey mac ’n’ cheese.
Another example: I headed from Houston up to Fort Worth for a few days on a family road trip. The hotel we were staying in provided a free breakfast, featuring some hot food, cereals, bagels, muffins and the like. On the first day I was disciplined and stuck to cereals and fruits. But then I noticed the breakfast buffet included a waffle maker – the sort you’ll find in lots of hotel breakfast buffets across America. Except the ones in Texas are frequently a little different, making it even harder to resist. And so, yes, I couldn’t resist…
…a waffle in the shape of the state of Texas. I mean, look at it. Look at it! How could I not? When life presents you with the chance to make a waffle in the shape of the state of Texas, it’s practically your duty to have one.
The compromise? I persuaded my mum to have half of it. So I sliced off East Texas, roughly from Corpus Christi up to the middle of the Panhandle, for her. Which left me with the rest of the Panhandle and West Texas to eat. And, may I say, El Paso was particularly crisp and tasty.
My compromise plan doesn’t seem to have had too many ill effects – heck, I only managed to win my class on a 10k race a few days into my trip after some BBQ! – but now I’m in the final stretch I’ve made a conscious effort to focus in on what I know.
So it’s cereal or porridge – sorry, oatmeal – for breakfast, along with some nice fresh fruit. And then I’ve been picking out relatively straightforward dishes that offer a good blend of all the things like carbs and protein and such that you’re supposed to eat before a marathon. And, as the event draws nearer, I’m moving away from what I want to eat, and focusing more and more on what I need to eat. Which, sadly, means a temporary break from the brisket.
But, that said, it doest mean a break from thinking about the brisket. After all, I’ve got the afternoon following the marathon and a few days afterwards to indulge in some well-earned post-race dining (which, as previously noted, I’ll end up feeling guilty about…). And I’m already beginning to picture what I might go for…
A few weeks back, I wrote a great big Houston Marathon FAQ, trying to answer lots of questions about the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon. One of the things I pondered was what the weather might be like on race day. In short, I had no real idea.
Well, I’ve now been in Texas for a week or so, and there’s about a week left until the Houston Marathon. So now I’ve had a chance to get a feel for the weather conditions it seemed a good time to have a second go at answering the question: what’s the weather going to be like on race day?
Well, in short… I have no real idea.
Really, I don’t. Because the last week has just demonstrated that Texas weather is bonkers. Really. Last Sunday, January 1, I tackled the Run Houston Sam Houston Race Park 10k on a fresh and cool morning. The sun broke through later that day, the heat rose to about 25C/77F and it was glorious, the sort of day when it was lovely to be outside wearing shorts and a T-shirt (although possibly not so lovely for people who had to see my legs…). On Monday there was an incredible overnight thunderstorm, with lightning and inches of rain… before it cleared quickly and turned into a simply beautiful day.
On Tuesday it clouded over, and the temperature dropped around 15F in, like, no time at all. Suddenly, it all felt a bit cold (at least compared to what you’d expect in Texas – it was still far nicer than January in Britain…). That wasn’t great for being out and about, but would probably make for far better marathon-running conditions. Except… the temperature kept dropping.
By Wednesday the wind had picked up and it was all getting very chilly. A short road trip north from Houston to Fort Worth didn’t help, since it’s a few degrees colder up there. But by Thursday the weather was hovering not that far above freezing. It wasn’t just ‘cold for Texas.’ It was properly cold.
And it kept on getting colder. On Friday the weather didn’t even get about freezing in Forth Worth, and there was snow. Yes, snow. In Texas. Alright, it was the lightest of light sprinkling of snowflakes, that were hard to spot as they flitted in the icily biting wind, but still. It was snow. In Texas.
I’m now back down near Houston, and things have changed again. The cloud has gone, replaced by a beautiful clear, blue sky. But it’s still cold. Blimey, is it cold. This morning’s 5k jog was a bracing affair in temperatures of -3C/26F. At around 9am.
Now, I’ve run in that sort of temperature in Britain quite regularly, but normally I have my pick of multiple wind-proof and thermal layers. I didn’t exactly think to pack them for Texas. Still, I bundled up as best I could, and in the glorious sunshine it was a beautiful morning to be out. Although I was glad to get back indoors soon after my 5k was done.
So what’s next for the weather? I really don’t know, although the forecast is for it to get warm – quickly. Here’s the forecast highs for the next few days:
Sunday (aka marathon day): 20C
Yup, it’s going to get warm again quite quickly. So it doesn’t look like I’ll be freezing on the marathon. Well, at least I don’t think I will be. Given the range of weather over the past week, and in the forecast for next week, I wouldn’t like to guess.
So, to conclude: what’s the weather going to be like on the day of the Houston Marathon?
I have absolutely no idea…
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…