On January 20th, 2019 thousands of runners lined up to race the Houston
Marathon. This event is listed as a Gold label race, meaning it attracts some
of the best distance runners in the world. This includes the same international
talent as the likes of New York, Boston, and other world marathon majors.
Unlike those races, Houston has a half marathon as well. The half is the most
competitive on U.S soil and perhaps one of the fastest courses in the world.
I decided to race the Houston Marathon early on in September of 2018. After
racing on the trails over the summer it was time to give the Marathon another
crack. My Debut was CIM in December of 2016. It was a terrible experience,
and from that point I wondered why anyone would want to race 26.2 miles on
pavement. In all honesty, I didn’t prepare as well as I could have, which
exposed a lot of weaknesses. Especially in someone who is naturally a middle
distance athlete. Sarah and I both were entered through the athlete
development program, which meant we received a free entry, and would able
to line up behind the invited elites. It’s very nice that Houston has this
program, as it gives athletes with good credentials a opportunity to perform on
a big stage.
My training plan for this build had three key components – These included a
lot of specificity training, neuromuscular adaptation, and nutrition. The
specificity training was achieved by doing a lot of work at Marathon effort.
Now this is where things get a little tricky. At altitude you simply cannot run at
sea level marathon pace for an extended period of time. If you tried it would
be closer to a threshold effort, and the workout would become too difficult. I
ran Marathon effort workouts every other long run, with the exception of two
half marathon races mixed in. These were tough sessions that were a lot
faster than marathon pace. The other weeks I would run for a specific time or
distance. Some examples of the Marathon effort workouts include – 5 miles
easy + 12 miles at Marathon effort + 3 miles easy, or 5 miles easy + a long
fartlek where I alternated running faster than Marathon pace, with half time
recovery float of 1 min/mi slower for 10 miles + 5 miles easy. This was a tough
session where I practiced nutrition and drinking water while running at pace. I
averaged around 5:30/mi for those 10 miles of varying pace. These were big
workouts so I would schedule at least three days of easy running before
another hard effort. The next session was typically some work faster than
Marathon pace. This included longer tempo runs, threshold K’s and miles, and
on occasion some 5k work. I don’t believe it’s critical to do a lot of work at
3k-5k pace during Marathon training. What I really enjoy doing is
implementing some fast 200’s with good rest following some threshold
intervals or longer tempo runs. An example of this type of workout included 8
X 1,000 meters @ 10k altitude adjusted pace W/ 90 sec jog + 6 X 30 sec @
mile pace W/ 90 sec rest. So as you can see, I never neglected speed
throughout the cycle. I just didn’t do much work at 3k-5k pace, which is better
known as Vo2 max intervals. These sessions place a lot of stress on the body,
especially at altitude. In my opinion, the risk wasn’t worth the reward.
This brings me to neuromuscular adaptation. It’s always my legs that fatigue
first in longer races. Not just the Marathon, but from 5k on up. It’s always
frustrating when you have more to give but the legs just don’t have it. Training
at altitude has made me tough, but often times I’ll race at sea level and my
legs are not prepared for the pace. Houston is a relatively flat course with
parts of it on concrete. Knowing the profile, I did all of my workouts on the
road, and tried finding loops that emulated the course profile. On easy days I
would run on dirt roads or trails. This helped my legs recover so that I was
ready to go again for the specific work. I started to notice my legs getting
stronger and recovering faster during these grueling sessions. My quads were
feeling stronger than ever towards the end of the training block.
Having a solid fueling plan if often overlooked. We all hear about the dreaded
wall. It’s crazy how many people put in months of hard work but tend to
neglect proper fueling while training, especially on race day. I really enjoyed
using Maurten during my longer trail runs over the summer. The sports drink
is highly concentrated with carbs, as it turns into a hydrogel and is easily
digested once it hits your gut. Only the invited elites would have bottles at
Houston so the sports drink would not be an option. Luckily Maurten recently
introduced a gel to the market. It works similarly to the mix, so I started to
practice with those early on. This took care of my nutritional needs but I would
still be grabbing water and Gatorade endurance cups since that would be the
sports drink available on the course. Throughout my build-up I practiced
grabbing cups of Gatorade Endurance and water during my Marathon specific
sessions. I used several loops where I’d set up a table with cups. I decided to
carry the Maurten gels since that’s what I’d be doing on race day. It took some
practice but I felt confident I could get down enough calories, water, and
electrolytes to keep me going for the duration of the race.
While preparing for this race I did most of my training alone. Living in Boulder,
CO there is always great people to train with. In the past I feel as though I’ve
sacrificed what was best for me in order to have others as training partners.
The Marathon is very unique, so I wanted to follow the plan as closely as
possible. I would still run with others on some of my easy days, but I started to
enjoy getting out on my own. Running is when I’m at my best. Not because I
view it as something I've had success at, but because I gives me time to think
and be present in the moment. Although I’m competitive and results driven,
I’ve been enjoying the process more than ever.
With that said, there were some really tough moments during this build. I
believe you should sign up for races that both excite and scare you. At the
beginning of a cycle everything sounds doable, and looks great on paper.
Things were progressing nicely at the beginning of the block but things like
fatigue, cold weather, sickness, injuries, the holidays, relationships, life stress
– all played a role on trying to derail me during this block. This is called life.
The better you can handle it, the more you grow, and the more enjoyable the
process will be. I try to remind myself that the result – whatever that may be,
is the celebration of the process.
I made it through sixteen tough weeks where I averaged 85 miles/wk and it
was now time for a gradual two week taper. Mastering a taper is not not an
exact science, but here are some things that I believe work best for me. I like
to gradually taper my training instead of really dropping the mileage and
intensity over the last week. Now my initial plan was interrupted since I got
sick just before racing 5 weeks out in San Diego. So not only did I drop down
the week of the race, I had to take another down week to recover from a head
cold. I would have preferred to work hard for three weeks then down for two
leading up to race day. I also believe in keeping the quality high during a
taper. I had a couple of key workouts where the distance was not as long, but
the pace was a bit quicker. My last long session was 14 days out from
Houston. This session was 10k easy + 8 miles at Marathon effort (avg
5:30/mi) + 4 miles easy. I haven’t figured this taper thing out entirely, but I do
know that my body likes consistency, so keeping a similar routine seems to
Houston - Prepare for Takeoff:
We pretty much had a seamless trip from Boulder to Houston early Thursday
morning. Sarah received some bad news 10 days out from the race. She had
been dealing with some calf pain since early November. It was manageable
for several weeks, but the pain became worse as the race grew closer. The
result from her MRI showed two stress fractures in the tibia of her left leg. This
was tough news for both of us. She was prepared to have one hell of a race in
Houston. Although she wasn’t racing she still wanted to support me and some
of our other friends. It was nice to arrive midday Thursday, as this gave us
plenty of time to settle and prepare for the race on Sunday.
The time spent over the next few days included some easy running, checking
out the city, picking up our race packets, relaxing, laughing, and planning out
the logistics for race day. I’m very particular with details, so I like being able to
control these situations, or at least having a solid plan of action. We had six of
us staying in a Airbnb so that made for a good time.
I don’t usually sleep all that well the night before an early race start. The
starting time was 7 am so I was up around 4. I like to be awake three hours
before the race. I had a bowl of oatmeal, a banana, and a cup of coffee first
thing. I don’t eat this much before shorter races, but I needed to tap off my
glycogen stores, as I was going to need every bit of energy to keep me going
throughout the race.
Although this was Houston, a cold front moved in the night before so it was
going to be cold and breezy for the race. I knew this was a possibility so I was
prepared with gloves, a hat, and arm warmers. I had throwaway warms-ups to
keep me warm before the start. Matt and Sarah dropped those of us racing off
at 6:15. We had to be in the athlete development corral by 6:30. This was the
first race I’ve run where I had to be at the start for such a long period of time.
It was cold, so I kept moving in order to generate body heat. The marathon
and half marathon runners had the same starting line, which made things a bit
more cluttered and unorganized. The invited athletes were just in front of us,
and we were eventually moved up just before the start.
Before I knew it we were shuffling up to the start as the gun sounded. The first
few miles were very confusing. I had no clue as to which race each person
was racing. I tried to relax, letting the pace come as naturally as possible. I
wanted to find a pack to run with, but I was only passing runners that were in
the half. The course is the same for both races through the first 7 miles. I had
lots of people around me, so I just focused on the task at hand. My first 5k
was 16:55, which was a little slower then I was planning on going out. I told
myself this was fine, as my body needed to warm up on such a cold morning.
My legs didn’t feel great, but the pace felt relatively relaxed in the early going.
Between 5 & 10k I grabbed my first water cup. I didn’t feel like drinking, but
knew it was important to hydrate early on. My second 5k was around 16:30,
which was nice to see. I took my first gel around 7 miles. It went down without
any issues. Soon there after the race split, as I went from running with a pack
to running alone. This was not what I imagined happening beforehand, but
going out much faster could have caused disaster in the later miles.
I remember miles 7-14 very well. Over this portion of the race I was focused
and aware of everything around me. I continued to run my own race,
remembering to grab water when available. I picked off a couple of runners
over these miles, but I could tell my body would not be able to handle 5:20
pace much longer. Miles 10-18 are run in a west, northwest direction. There
was a steady 10-15 mph wind, and the air temp was in the low 30’s. I tried to
staying positive throughout this stretch. Around mile 10 a cramp developed in
my right calf. I slowed a little and the cramp dissipated. Matt and Sarah were
at the half point, offering words of encouragement. This was after cresting a
overpass - one of the few climbs on the course. I believe my half split was just
Just after the half was the only u-turn on the course. Before the turn I could
see some of the runners heading back on the other side of the road. The next
pack was a good 90 seconds up on me. Although I had slowed slightly, my
energy was good and aerobically I felt comfortable. Once returning on the
same side I looked up and didn’t see a runner in sight. There was soon a
four-way intersection, and I wasn’t sure where to go. After briefly hesitating I
was directed to turn left. The next 5 miles were lonely and I experienced
moments of doubt. The headwind was cold, and the miles were lonely. I told
myself over and over that I had done this many times in training. This was just
another cold, breezy day in Boulder and I had prepared myself for this
situation. I knew the course changed directions at mile 18, which meant the
wind would be at my back or side for the final miles of the race.
I finally made it to mile 18, and although my legs were tired, my energy was
solid. My mentality now changed to getting to 20 miles. Once at 20 it changed
to getting my last gel down, and then to focus on one mile at a time. I was still
moving well, even picking off several runners over the final miles. I saw Matt
and Sarah again around mile 21, and my old college roommate cheering me
on in the final miles. I remember feeling a lot of emotions. Yes, I was going to
finish, but I had moments of disappointment. I knew I wasn’t going to break
2:20, which was my goal heading in. I came to that conclusion many miles
ago. It was the last 5k where my quads were beginning to go. I had to slow a
little, and although my mind wanted to pick it up, I knew this was all I could
give. These final miles were a little bit of a blur. Lots of people were lining the
streets, which helped immensely. My entire body was in pain as I approached
the final mile of the race. The half was finishing on the left side of the road, as
I was directed to stay on the right. I found a little bit of inner strength and
picked it up a bit as I approached the finish line. I crossed the line in 2:24:31,
good for 33rd overall. I was elated to be done, but stopping was just as
painful. I kept moving through the finish-line area. I was directed through the
convention center, and eventually ended up outside.
After five to ten minutes of walking around, I finally found Sarah. It was great
to see her and the timing was perfect because I needed some warm clothes. I
kept moving since we were waiting for the rest of our group to finish up. My
feet and calves were starting to ache, but overall I didn’t feel terrible.
Everyone as content with their performances, and happy to be done. We all
celebrated with a couple of drinks as we told our own personal stories of what
transpired throughout the race.
It’s been a couple of weeks since racing the Houston Marathon. Since then
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my performance. At first I was content, as I
knew I gave it everything I had on the day. That part is definitely true. I had
nothing left to give, and ran with heart and purpose the entire way. I still feel
like I’m figuring out the distance, and unfortunately I didn’t feel great on race
day. My build-up was decent, but I definitely have room for improvement.
Unlike my first attempt at the distance, my body has recovered quickly and it
seems to have handled to distance relatively well. So, what’s next? Well, after
giving it a lot of thought my goal race for the spring will be the Grandma’s half
marathon, which takes place in late June. Beyond that I’m looking to race the
Richmond Marathon in November. I believe in choosing races that excite you.
I’m smiling as I write this because my goal is not to only race my hometown
Marathon in November, but I want to win and qualify for the Olympic trials in
the process! Big goals, but I’m ready for the journey and I’m more excited than
ever to continue to learn and grow as both a athlete and coach!