Every January for the last several years I have stood on a curb along Allen Parkway, cheering for my friends in the early hours of a Sunday as they competed in the Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Half Marathon. I have handed out water, yelled the names on random strangers' bibs, buzzed with emotion when the first women elite runners come through around 8:40 a.m., along with the wheelchair athletes; later in the morning, the blind runners, the seas of purple Team in Training jerseys; and as the morning winds down, the walkers, and the "masters" athletes, those who are doing it just to finish.
I used to think my friends were crazy. My running club is a good cross-section of people of all running ability, from Ironmen to jog-walkers, and members from all skill-levels would run the race every year, while I stood on the curb thinking, "I have never in my life even wanted to do something this grueling." But you can only stand on the sidelines for so long before you begin to think to yourself, "If that person can do it, so can I." Last year, after volunteering at the 2009 Houston Marathon, I was bit by the bug. I signed up for my first race a few days later, the ConocoPhillips 2009 Rodeo Run 10K.
Let me start by saying that, until about six years ago, I had never in my life been an athletic person. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) introduced me to my running club and for the first two years I could barely get through three miles of jog-walking without collapsing. A few years ago, something clicked. I'd run with the club every Sunday, and running was no longer something I forced myself to do for exercise. Instead, it became a release, like meditation. I finally began to experience the elusive runner's high, and on days I couldn't run I got cranky. Towards the end of 2008 I started a run-walk training program to work my way up to 30 minutes of nonstop running. It took more than 10 weeks to get through the 10-week program for me. Then I started training towards running an hour non-stop. By the time the Rodeo Run 10K came along, the longest run I'd done was 5 miles, and I knew I'd have to walk part of the course.
But the race was easy, and the whole time I kept thinking "Ten kilometers in 6.2 miles. That's half of a half-marathon." So when signups for the Aramco Half opened last summer, I was one of the lucky 22,000 who got a slot.
I didn't take my training as seriously as I should have, but for the last six weeks I've been getting up at 7:30 a.m. every Saturday morning to run anywhere from eight to ten miles along Allen Parkway, Memorial Park, River Oaks and Downtown. Two Saturdays ago, in 20-degree weather, I met some friends at the George R. Brown Convention Center and ran the actual half-marathon course to prepare for the race. I kept telling myself that running it in the coldest weather Houston's had for 15 years would be far easier than running it on race day.
I rode my bike to the GRB yesterday morning, so I wouldn't have to contend with traffic. Woke up at 5 a.m., got to the GRB at 6, dropped off my post-race bag (with a beer wrapped inside my towel), then headed out to the start line. This being my second race, I run a slow mile, so I'm in the second wave of runners, who leave the corral at 7:10 a.m.. We hear the first start cannon go off, the whoops of the wave in front of us and the cheering crowd, and we're just a mass of nervous energy with nowhere to go for the next 10 minutes. The weather Sunday was projected to be beautiful and warm, but at 7 a.m. the sun hasn't even come up yet, so I try to wok off the adrenaline and keep warm by dancing and singing AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS to the Motown music playing at the start line. The security in front of us yells that they're about to remove the barriers and asks us, since we're at the very front of the wave, to calmly walk to the start line so they don't get trampled by the mob. A second shot rings out, and we're off.
The crowd is energetic at the start line but thins out was we approach the Elysian Viaduct, despite the fact that it's listed as one of thebest places to watch the race
on the official marathon website. I look to me right and see the full marathoners a block over. On the viaduct, the groups merge together, marathoners on the right of the median and half-ers on the left. I am running well faster than my average 11-minute mile and I know I should slow down so I don't get tired later, but it's difficult with the momentum of 21,999 other runners around you.
We turn at west Quitman and here the spectators pull out all the stops. Orange slices, water, cowbells, banners. If I see someone with a banner saying "Go Theresa!" I pretend for a moment my name is Theresa and they're cheering for me. It works. The spectators are the number one best thing about the race. I overhear one runner saying to another that although Houston might not be as prestigious as the Boston Marathon, the crowd makes the race a lot more fun.
The hill up White Oak to Michaux is hard. Michaux is narrow, so the runners kind of bottleneck and the spectators are right next to us. Kids offer us high-fives and it feels like a personal victory to them when someone accepts. We turn west again on 11th and here's where the fun really starts. The course through along Studewood/Studemont/Montrose is lines with screaming crowds and bands the whole way, which makes the straight-away pass a lot quicker. Just south of White Oak I see a sign that says "Warning: chicks overhead." I cannot for the life of me figure out what that might mean, until I get to Arne's Party Store and see a dozen people on the overpass in chicken costumes. For some reason it cracks me up and I can't stop laughing. It's one of the highlights of my day. Just after that we pass a really good band playing Beatles-esque music at Washington north of the Chevron. They don't have a banner or anything. Who were they?
Once we pass Buffalo Bayou I forget myself for a while and start scanning the northbound side of Montrose for the faces of my friends, who are running ahead of me. The course for the half-marathon turns around at Richmond, while the marathon continues down to University, west all the way to the Galleria-area and Chimney Rock, then back east on Memorial and Allen Parkway. Richmond comes quicker than I expect and I am really starting to get tired. I make a deal with myself -- I'll walk to the next light. I stretch my knees a bit. I take a cup of Gatorade, which is a mistake (I don't like the way it tastes). I run for another mile. I make another deal with myself -- I can walk until I get to Allen Parkway, then I'll run the rest of the way in. I allow myself to walk because I'm making good time, though I know I could run more if I pushed myself.
At Allen, when we turn east, I can see downtown in the distance and know I've only got a few more miles to go. This is the part of the course I have volunteered at for so many years. To my left, the elite marathoners are just coming in -- the first woman has already lapped me! "Wow!" I say, involuntarily. A fellow half-er says "Don't pay attention to them. Don't let that get you down." "No," I answer back. "It's inspiring." All I can think about now is seeing my friends on the curb a mile ahead.
I slow down a minute for a photo op and grab a Dixie Cup full of beer. I can't stop running now, I feel like I'm so close. When I think about crossing the finish line I feel like I'm about to cry so I just don't think about it. My friend John comes running up behind me, yelling my name. He was signed up to do the full marathon but switched to the half, and he's a strong runner. "I'll run you in," he says. He runs faster than I can but he will not let me slow down, not even for a second. A man is running next to us, and he sees his two sons, wife and little daughter, who yells "DADDY!" in a voice with so much pride I almost start to cry again. I am tired and sore but I am loving life, loving mankind, I am totally in awe of everyone and everything that is going on around me. I see the banner that says 1.5 miles to go and I feel so close, but then downtown seems to stretch on and on and on. Block after block, will it ever end?
On Rusk there is a huge crowd, runners and spectators alike. "We're almost there," John says. "You can see the finish line right there." I look up and it is SO. FAR. AWAY. But then it's not, because I am crossing it and thinking to myself at the same time I NEVER WANT TO RUN AGAIN. Later I meet up with my husband, eat a little breakfast, do some yoga stretches, and 30 minutes after finishing I feel pretty good. I ride my bike back to my running club's volunteer area and cheer on more of my friends who are running the full.
That afternoon, after racing 13.1 miles, I even do the club's weekly Sunday run, adding three more miles to my total for the day. At this point I am operating on pure arrogance because I did it, even though my brain is working kind of funny and I keep forgetting what I want to say.
I know I could have done better, but I did the race in 2:27, meeting my goal of 2½ hours or less. As my friend said, "Hey, it's your first time, so it's a PR!"
There are so many people who run for a reason, who run for someone they love, or who have worked a lot harder than me to get to where they were yesterday. I know 13.1 miles isn't much compared to what some of yesterday's runners have been through and those are the people who have inspired me. They are the people who make me want to keep racing. The spectators on yesterday's course, they were the ones who kept me going in the moment.
How do I feel today? My legs are sore and I'm dehydrated, but I'm already signed up for the Rodeo Run 10K on February 27 with a goal of beating my time from last year and finishing in under an hour. And I'm thinking about signing up for the Dallas Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon in March. If I can do it, anyone can.
For many more race photos, check out our slideshow.