Myself and John Sharp at the finish line with the finisher's "bat" and the monster medal
My 2009 started at 2 o'clock this morning when my alarm clock went off so I could drive the 180 miles to Kingwood, TX and run in the Texas marathon. My good buddy John Sharp had also entered the race and we'd planned on driving down together, but he'd gotten injured and was unable to run. John has a good heart and decided to come along anyway to volunteer at one of the aid stations and make sure I didn't fall asleep at the wheel. He stayed at our house Friday night, and we enjoyed an Italian "carb loading" feast I had prepared which included salad, sage and garlic Italian country bread, grilled pizza and lots of pasta followed by some yummy Tiramisu ice cream. Gavin was full of chatter and really took to John - the first thing he asked me when I got home today was where John had gone.
So we were on the road by 3am heading East. I was very nervous about encountering drunks coming home from the New Year's revelry, but the roads were largely empty. In fact, I have never driven through Houston with such ease. The time flew by as we caught up and talked our heads off the whole way there and back.
We got to Greentree Park in Kingwood in good time, and I was glad we'd arrived early as parking would have been a huge problem if we'd gotten there any later. It was cold and still - great running weather. I picked up my packet and John wandered off to work at the aid station we would pass through twice on each loop. The route was just over a 6.5 mile loop on private concrete greenbelt trails around the beautiful Lake Houston. Marathon participants would run the loop 4 times.
I love small races like this - things were so personal and done with a great degree of humor. Because this was the 10th anniversary of the race (and because "everything's bigger in Texas"), they had a special "monster" finisher's medal. Look at the photo to the right that compares this medal to the standard Austin marathon finisher's medal. I have never seen a medal this size before, and believe me it's heavy (2.2lbs - I weighed it).
The start was a little confused as the batteries in the bullhorn had failed so nobody heard the start order. Instead, word filtered through from the runners at the back that the race had started and we were off.
As the paths were quite narrow, it was a very congested start with 400 runners all trying to fit through a confined space. I didn't want to risk my ankle by passing on the leaf-covered side trail, so I was patient and slowly made my way through the pack. I eventually found my niche and settled down. About a mile in, I noticed a unique feature of this race. Stapled to the trees along the side of the path were personal messages of encouragement for each runner. I found mine on the way back on the first loop - it read "magnificent Mark Richards". I chuckled with delight - the personal and humorous touches such as this were very much appreciated by all the runners.
I passed through John's aid station and found I had my own cheering section. Another great idea they had was to put your name in big letters on your race bib, so spectators often cheered you on by name. Despite this, I wasn't feeling much of a rhythm during this first loop, and looking at my mile splits later I had quite a few in the 7:45 range, which is a bit fast for me so early in a marathon.
I'd settled down by the 2nd loop and found the elusive rhythm that has been missing since Sunmart. I was running very consistent 8:10 miles that felt very comfortable. A few people passed me on this loop, but I let them go, figuring that I would either reel them back in later or they were simply too fast for me. At one point I passed a group of girls, and two of them broke off from the group and came with me. We ran together for a few miles, and I tried a few conversation gambits, but they weren't very responsive so I just kept to myself (road runners are not like trail runners). When I finished out the loop I stopped to take a gel and some water, and the girls sped up and were soon out of sight. I was kinda glad to let them go.
My good rhythm continued into loop 3, and while I was passed one more time (by a very fit looking runner I dubbed "blue shirt") I was still hitting consistent mile splits and started passing up some of the folks who had gone out too fast and were now slowing down. It was a good feeling.
I finished out the 3rd loop at 2:41, did the math and figured out that I had a great chance of beating my marathon PR of 3:36:59, set in San Antonio back in November. I set off with a purpose, dusted off the fishing rod and started reeling in people who had passed me earlier in the race. About two miles into the loop I spotted the girls who weren't very talkative earlier. Suddenly I got it into my head that my mission in life was to catch them, pass them and put distance between us (yes, I really am that childish). I increased my pace slightly and slowly gained ground. It took about half a mile to catch up with them, but once I did I kicked hard and sailed past. By the time I reached the turnaround point they were nowhere in sight, but I had a new target. I'd spotted "blue shirt" within striking distance, so I went hunting and caught him half way around the lake. This was a good sign because he was still running strongly, but I'd started my kick for home and had plenty left in the tank.
Just after mile 24 I came across a runner who was half walking/half running in front of me and obviously struggling. He asked me if I was on my last loop and I said I was. He said he was too, and I told him to come with me and we could take it home together. He found his legs and took off with me. I soon realized that he was a faster runner than me and told him "you go, boy", but he couldn't hold the pace and started walking again. He waved me on and I told him I'd see him at the finish line and took off. I passed through John's aid station for the last time, got some great encouragement and set my sights on a sub-8 minute mile to finish up. I kicked it up again, relaxed into the run and took it into the finish line. Final mile - 7:50. Way to go.
As I crossed the finish line the timekeeper handed me a card with the number 22 on it. He then added my time below it - 3:34:19 (8:10 pace). Fantastic - another PR and a great start to 2009. I asked what the 22 meant, and he said I was 22nd overall. I handed in the card to get my finisher's goodies and received my "monster medal" along with a cuddly "bat" (of the flying kind) with my finishing position tied around its neck (I'm holding it in the picture at the top of this post). This was another funky touch (apparently last year they had a monkey) which you just don't find in the large marathons.
The after race eats were first rate. I drank my fill of mountain dew, and ate my fill of never-ending pizza (choice of 3 different types). I hung around chatting to various people I'd met on the course, including "blue shirt" who was a super nice guy and congratulated me on a strong finish. It turns out he used to be a member of Hill County Trail Runners and knew a lot of the same people I did. He asked me my name, and rather worryingly he'd heard about me. I assured him it was all lies :-) He told me his name, but I'm awful at remembering names and I'll have to wait for the results to come out to fill in that particular blank.
I congratulated a girl who finished a few minutes behind me and was super happy to have qualified for Boston, and helped out another girl who was having such bad calf cramps that she was in tears (salt tabs to the rescue). Having played Good Samaritan I ate more pizza.
What a great little race this was, and at $40 for early registration it was a fantastic deal (I paid $50 which was still a great deal). The course was very scenic and I loved the quirkiness of it all. On the technical side, I had a very consistent run with very even splits (I also ended up with a nice negative split). I stopped at the end of each loop to have a gel (I used 3 in total) and water. I should have worn my gel flask as it would have been easier (and faster), but it didn't really matter. What did matter was that this run rebuilt my confidence ahead of the Bandera 100k next week.
Absolutely no problems with cramping during or after the race and I'm not stiff or sore at all, even after the 3 hour drive home (just as well because I have a 30k with my road group on Saturday). I'm amazed at how I can set a PR in a marathon and not be sore. I can only put it down to the back-to-back long run weekends I've been doing.