The hysteria hit at a minute past midnight. Thousands of avid runners had stayed up well past their bedtimes Thursday night and into Friday morning to catch the start of registration for January's Houston Marathon, which had been aggressively advertised as 12:01 a.m. sharp. That's exactly when the sign-up site crashed, as anxious marathoners scrambled to fill the 22,000 spots. Their concern, it turns out, was justified.
Registration has proceeded at a leisurely pace in the past -- last year, it stretched for 12 weeks. Even the especially tardy could usually grab a spot down the line from someone who'd signed up but since become injured or otherwise engaged.
But people had also been auctioning those spots on eBay -- for more than five times the $90 registration fee, according to Steven Karpas, the marathon's managing director. So this year registration transfers were eliminated; once the spots were filled, they weren't changing hands. Even with the total number bumped from 18,000, people began to worry.
"This will be my 15th consecutive Houston marathon," says Ed Downs, who clicked refresh at his computer for 90 minutes before succumbing to a restless sleep (and missing his early-morning run). "Keeping my streak alive means a lot."
Mario Rios tried watching the news to stay awake as his 10 p.m. bedtime came and went. Then he took to the computer to pass time chatting with his running buddies. As the start time hit, the Houston Marathon's Facebook fan page filled with comments from worried runners who couldn't load the registration site.
Rios wasn't able to make the transaction and hit the sack until around 2 a.m., his adrenaline still running. He typically wakes at 4:30 a.m. to run but, like Downs, overslept. So did John Mark Noonon, who had a similar nerve-wracking experience.
"It's kind of like S&M for runners," Rios says. "We kind of like this pain and punishment."
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Downs -- who is tied for 64th with his streak and describes himself as a "Clydesdale" on the pavement and trails -- was able to wake up early the next morning and reserve a spot. For his first marathon, he says, he walked into a hotel across from the convention center and signed up the day before the race. This time around, by Sunday afternoon the event was full.
The marathon, now in its 38th year, has been growing quickly of late. There were 6,000 spots in 2001, and the number has increased for six consecutive years. With full marathons, half marathons and 5k's combined, there will be 26,000 runners from across the country in 2010.
Karpas says the 12:01 a.m. registration was designed to accommodate potential glitches at a time -- it was hoped -- most people would be asleep.
Late-comers still have a shot at the 1,200 spots allocated to the marathon's "Run for a Reason" charities.