Sunday, January 16, 2005

Houston Marathon

Since I couldn't run the marathon, I figured I'd go watch it as I have in other years. It's great living just a block from Mile 23. No worries about road closures or parking.

I thought I had calculated the best time to leave my apartment, but the lead runner was faster than in previous years and as soon as I was outside I heard the helicopter. Damn! Seeing the lead runner preceded by the time truck and camera crews, surrounded by police escort and with the helicopter hovering overhead is one of the best parts of the race!

So I dashed off toward the apartment gates and the road, feeling dizzy almost immediately from not being able to breathe properly. But hey, it's not far and I made it to the sidewalk and halfway to the corner just as the lead runner and his escort were turning from Memorial Drive onto Shepherd. There were a couple of runners a little ways behind him, but after that, no one. I paused on the sidewalk and watched them turn and head up Allen Parkway on the other side of the bayou. And then I walked to the corner, crossed the street and settled in to wait for the next runner.

It took a long time, but we finally started getting one, two runners. Then a few more. We clapped and cheered for all of them. Or rather, I just clapped. My sprint effort had set my lungs off and until the asthma meds finished clearing my lungs I was in no condition for yelling.

Finally the lead female came by, tall, thin, and looking very powerful. A little ways back was the second female looking spent, a short blonde with a gait that suggested she was either on the verge of collapse or she was trying to imitate Paula Radcliffe's famous head-bobbing style. From the glazed look in the woman's eyes I suspected the former.

Now there were runners coming by all the time and I had fun guessing about their finishing prospects. Here's an age-group winner. Here's the third place female, looking strong. First Clydesdale... first Athena... Hey! How come she's so fast and I'm so slow and at least thirty pounds lighter?

I hung out at my Mile 23 corner until about the time I would've come past had I been able to run. And then I decided to head up Allen Parkway and see the sights. I mostly wanted to see the Elvis impersonators. There were some pretty good ones, although I later learned that the best ones were further back around Mile 22.

The whole route down Allen Parkway was filled with music. No sooner would you be out of earshot of an Elvis when there would be Beatles blaring from some speakers, then an oldies band that had attracted its own crowd of groupies dancing like they were at a rave or something, then another Elvis, then some bagpipers. It was fun just to check it all out. Since when was the theme from "Star Wars" considered bagpipe music?

By the time some of my friends came along, the weather had warmed up a bit and the pace was slow enough that I could trot along. By the time I quit seeing people I knew on the course, I had run myself almost to the finish line. Oops. Better head back.

So I walked the two and a half miles back home, watching the stragglers who likely wouldn't make the finish line in time to get their medals. Some of them were upbeat, but most were just tired and a bit discouraged. The course was closing down and it was a long day for them.


Three men had chosen to wear Superman costumes for the race. They weren't racing together, either.

One spectator sprinted after her son shouting, "Slow down, I want to take a picture!" Geez lady, he's on track for a 3:30 marathon and you want him to stop for a photo op?

The Hashers seemed to have combined resources with the SCA for their infamous beer table near Mile 25. Beer, jesters, wenches and general weirdness.

Marathons sure bring out a taste for silly hats! I saw runners in grasshopper hats, propeller beanies, jester hats, cowboy hats, baseball caps with airplanes on them, hats with people's names in big glitter letters, hats that defy all description.

Many marathoners like to decorate themselves. I saw glitter, body paint, funky hair colors, wigs, ribbons and names written on shirts, an arm or even across the belly.

Elvis is a runner! One of the Elvii closed up shop early and ran in one of the back of the pack runners. Accompanying them both was a Little Elvis, about eight years old in satin, flares and rhinestone-studded glasses.

Wheelchair competitors are so cool.

General Thoughts
You can divide the character of the race almost along hour markers. Anyone coming in under three hours is going to be pushing hard, totally focused. These are the overall winners and age group winners. Money and prizes are on the line. These are strong, experienced runners.

In the sub-4 group, you see a mix of experience and talented inexperience. A lot of people in this crowd are suffering and have made mistakes. Some are struggling or limping off to the side of the road to stretch or rub out a calf or quad. These people aren't on track to win anything, but they are looking for Boston Marthon qualifying times and personal bests. They're driven, but many of them don't know their limits and blow up in the last few miles.

In the sub-5 group, you start to see more people racing within themselves. The mood starts to relax. No one here is going to qualify for anything and they know it. There are a few people who had hoped to be with the sub-4s and they're hurting bad, limping and in pain. But for the most part, the sub-5s know their limits and trot along with a sort of cheerful determination. They may stop and walk for a bit, but then they pick it up and start trotting again.

By the time the sub-6s come along, there is more walking and shuffling than running. You can tell the ones who are experienced but slow because they keep up a steady pace. But as this group moves through, more and more are just walking and often are just fine with that. They have cellphones and cameras and don't hesitate to use them. They're here to have a good time and just want to get across the finish line in time to get their medal. You see more wrapped knees, thighs and ankles here, too. Active injury or just a precautionary measure for one that is only newly healed? One always hopes it's the latter.

Finally come the ones who won't make the six-hour cutoff. They're slow, many are discouraged and many are either grim or simply dismayed that they've come so far and still have two or three miles to go. They straggle along past the cleanup crews, past Elvis wrapping up his mic, past the band putting up their instruments, trying not to get in the way of the cops and support vans. For them, just finishing will have to be enough.

In all, it's an interesting experience to watch the marathon. You see all ages, races and nationalities. Short, tall, fat, thin, everyone is out there. There are always suprises too, like the white-haired old lady who zips past looking strong and waving to her friends, on track for a 3:45 while two hours later a tall and healthy young man who looks every inch the athlete struggles in. Injury and illness can sap the strength of the most talented people out there. And even the mediocre can have a great day where it all comes together. A lot can happen in 26.2 miles and you just never know.

I'll be trying again for next year. In the meantime, the spring cycling season is getting started and for me it's back to triathlon!

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