Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
After a period of lackadaisical training, I'd started taking things seriously two weeks before the Austin Marathon...just in time to start tapering. Nevertheless, I felt good about the race going in.
At the same time, I had no idea what time I should be aiming for. Most of my training had been on trail, not pavement, and Wimberley is a hilly enough town that all of my routes - even the ones that intentionally avoid hills - have more climbing per distance than the Austin Marathon, which is known as a challenging course. I figured anything under 3:00 would make me happy, and failing that, a Boston-qualifying time of 3:05 would be good enough.
My dad came down for the weekend to watch and to deliver a bookshelf, which solved the problem of getting to the expo and to the race when I don't own a car. Still, the expo was a hassle. 1.5 hours in each direction, dealing with Austin traffic, and $5 for parking, all so I can pick up a piece of paper that I have to pin to my shirt. After blowing the entire afternoon, we stayed in, watched Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and went to bed early.
The Austin Marathon starts at 7:00 AM, before the sun comes up at that time of year. That meant waking up at 4:45 AM to get to the start area on time. Staying in a hotel in Austin was floated as an idea, but driving in Austin from here to there would take almost as much time as driving to Austin, so it wasn't worth it. A short morning routine meant we had the car parked in downtown shortly after 6:00 AM, only a few blocks from the start line. Plenty of time to get in some stretching and make my way over. There were markers indicating where you should line up based on your estimated finish time, and thankfully, people were good about doing so. As much as it sucks to bump past people in traffic during the first ten minutes, it's much worse to be "that guy" that everyone has to bump their way past.
It had rained the night before, and it was still humid, but cool. Near-ideal running conditions, except for the wet streets. That might've been a plus, because I have a habit of going out too fast at the beginning of races. Not being able to get a good grip on the road might've kept me from burning out in the first 5 km, which were almost entirely uphill.
To finish the race in exactly 3:00, I'd have to run each km in 4:15. My strategy was to hold a 4:10 pace as long as I could, and since the course was significantly flatter in the second half, it might be reasonable to hold the same pace even while wearing down. 5 km in, I was running a 4:03 pace, even after going uphill the whole way. OK, that wasn't ridiculously fast, but calm down and run easy.
The next 5 km, almost entirely downhill, I maintained the same pace, which was exactly what I'd hoped to do. 10 km in, still maintaining a 10 km pace. I waved to my dad as we made it back to downtown, then started running with a New Yorker for the next 5 km, on a long, straight, flat section. He meant to hold a pace faster than what I'd planned, but I was still feeling good, so I went along with it. When you have the opportunity to get ahead, take it!
The New Yorker got away from me, and I figured I wouldn't see him again, but I eventually passed him as he pulled over to the side towards a row of portable toilets. After that, it turned out, I didn't see him again. About the same time, I passed the first of two stations where you could pick up an energy gel on the course. I happily took one and ingested it immediately. I started running with a guy from Baton Rouge who was running the half and cramping up. When we took the first hill on Enfield, he dropped off my pace immediately. I barely slowed down. I love being a trail runner.
The most difficult hills of the previous course were in this same neighborhood, on Exposition Blvd. Now they're gone, but replaced with hills on Enfield Rd. None of them large, but some of them steep, and seemingly no end to them. Essentially all the way to the halfway point, the course was always either up or down, sometimes by a lot, but never flat. Seemed like I was more capable of "using" the downhills, changing my gait and cadence and letting the downhill pull me forward, while other runners had to hit the brakes. Funny, because during trail running, downhills are a notable weakness of mine.
Nearing the point where the full marathon course splits from the half, I was frequently passing and getting passed by a tall guy with probably the slowest cadence I've ever seen. It was less like he was running and more like he was repeatedly leaping forward. But since he was maintaining a fast pace, each stride must've been enormous. When he saw me moving to the left to stay on the marathon course, rather than moving to the right with him to finish the half, he flashed a smile and shouted a few words of encouragement.
A block or two later, I saw my dad again, and he passed me a gel and a small packet of almond butter, as we'd pre-arranged. The Austin Marathon uses a sugar-free sports drink, which I like, but that means if you want to finish the race without running out of energy, you'll have to eat something. There were two spots on the course handing out gels, but that wouldn't be enough. I don't enjoy carrying anything with me while running, so being able to pick it up halfway through the race was a nice luxury. Thanks, dad!
The halfway point occurred on Guadelupe, next to the University of Texas campus. It's strange to see the drag completely devoid of traffic, and stranger still to run down the middle of it. Sadly, no crowd support. 8:30 on a Sunday is a little early for college students, but it's hard to believe that of a population of 50,000 young, energetic people, not one of them was cheering us on.
This would remain a theme for the entire second half of the course. Less than a third of the runners were doing the marathon, and probably less than 10% of the crowds are there for the marathoners in the second half of their race. While running through Hyde Park, the UT campus area a second time, and a long loop through East Austin, there was a spectator here and there, but essentially no crowds.
The crowds were small enough that I noticed when I saw a small group on separate occassions. I might've seen them more than twice, but the two that stick out were both on uphills. One of them came about two-thirds of the way through the race, near the UT campus, on the last hill before the course would mostly flatten out for the next hour or so. I enjoyed their cheering enough that I smiled and jawed back at them. I got passed on the hill by a guy who was probably in his 50s, but I was still happy with the pace I was holding on the course's second-to-last hill. It still felt easy to run.
As we passed under I-35, there was a lone spectator under the overpass, decked out in a kilt, playing highland bagpipes.
The guy who passed me on the hill got away from me over the next 15 minutes or so, but he was always in my sights. Eventually, the two of us started reeling in a couple more runners ahead of us. With less than 10 km to go, I realized I still felt great and I was still running a 4:02/km pace! Perhaps, I thought to myself, I can finally try pushing the pace.
In a span of about 60 seconds, I passed three runners, who were relatiely close together, including the guy who passed me on the hill next to UT. I started bombing through East Austin, eventually recognizing parts of it again, particularly on Cesar Chavez, as we were running back towards downtown. I started counting off each individual km left to go, counting off minutes to go in between. With only about 15 minutes to go, we passed Juan In a Million, home of a giant friggin' great-tasting breakfast taco. That sounded good.
Crowd support finally picked up on Cesar Chavez, growing as the course approached downtown. Every so often, I saw someone in a half-marathon bib running on the sidewalk in the opposite direction. I assumed they were running backwards to find a friend running the half, then intended to bandit run with them for the last few km.
The course crossed under I-35 on 6th Street, but stayed on it for less than half a block, including essentially none of the part that makes it famous. Which might be just as well. Instead, we turned north on Red River, made our way to 11th St, then charged up one last hill to the Capitol, arguably the toughest hill of the entire course. I still wasn't tired! I sprinted up the hill, smiling the whole way, especially when I saw the same group that had cheered me up the hill at UT an hour before. They must have a friend who's pretty good.
The top of the hill put you in front of the Capitol, with nothing left to do but turn left and charge down Congress for a block and cross the finish line, throwin' up the 'W' for Wimberley.
There wasn't another marathon runner in sight, neither in front of nor behind me (the margin on both ends was more than a minute), but there were still masses of people finishing the half, in nearly three hours. You could speed walk 21.1 km in that time.
It almost felt weird crossing the finish line. I wasn't tired at all. I felt like I should keep going. But I stopped, because, well, I guess I was supposed to. A look at the data would later reveal that I'd run the second half faster than the first. I probably could've finished in a faster time if I'd known it would be that easy.
I hung around in the finish area for a while only to find a few of the people I'd run with and see how they did. Grabbed the finisher's snacks and a medal. Found my dad, and we made our way to the beer garden for free beer. Priorities, you know.
Finish time: 2:50:25. 15th overall, 3rd in my age division. Not nearly my fastest time, but almost my highest placing in a large urban marathon (best is still 14th, at San Francisco). But what made me happiest was I ran a near-perfect race. The only thing that could've possibly gone better would've been dry streets, but as I mentioned, if I'd had a perfect surface, I might've set a too-aggressive pace early on. But considering how strong I felt at the end, maybe I should've set off at a faster pace. Who knows?
The rest of the day consisted primarily of barbecue and watching bad movies, though my dad and I went for a hike in Wimberley that afternoon. A far cry from my first few marathons, when I had to limp everywhere afterwards and spent most of the rest of the day in bed.