Heard Around the Lake

January 21, 2016 at 1:11 pm

Heard Around the Lake: News, Notes and Idle Gossip (Jan. 21, 2016)

I was down in Houston last weekend for the marathon and there were so many Austinites in evidence cheering and running (more than 450 ran), felt like I never left home. I don’t know whether anyone from High Five Events was there taking notes, but hope someone was in Houston paying close attention. (High Five purchased the Austin Marathon last fall from John and Stacey Conley and will be taking over the race next year.)

That Houston is one of the premier events in the country is inarguable, but one of the many aspects that makes it special and an annual sell out is—in my humble opinion—simply the attention to detail it pays to every facet of big-city marathoning. It’s fast, flat course and typically good weather are the primary attractions, but it is also all the little things Houston does so well which makes it such an exceptional race.

Quite obviously, Houston is a much larger city with a more established marathon than Austin’s, which partially accounts for its huge numbers (27,000 combined in the marathon and half with another 6000 in Saturday’s 5-K). And while High Five is vastly experienced on the complex logistics of putting on triathlons (three races in one), it can learn a lot from how Houston pays so much attention to the less-than-obvious details. Here are a few of the nicer touches:

A finisher’s shirt. Every runner in every marathon gets a race shirt, but Houston rewards everyone who finishes with an additional shirt. (Austin used to do this too.) Aside from being a shirt that you are gifted for an actual accomplishment, a finisher’s shirt comes in awful handy to quickly change into even before getting your checked gear.

Kilometer markers. This doesn’t mean anything to most of us, but for the Euros who flock there, it does. Houston makes a concerted effort to attract international runners and this might not be a huge deal, but it must help Euros figure out their splits.

Weigh-ins. In the George Brown Convention Center on Sunday morning, a team of volunteers were weighing runners before the race. If you weighed-in, the volunteers then weighed you right after your race and if your weight was down any more than four pounds, you were escorted into medical for immediate fluid replacement until your weight went back up.

Indoor shelter. Houston’s Brown Convention Center is massive and the perfect venue for the expo, timing, medical, media and start and finish. If it’s cold or the weather is bad, having an indoor facility for the start and finish is especially welcome. Few races have this luxury, but in Houston, you finish right outside the Convention Center and are then directed inside which sure beats shivering outside. Once inside, there are plenty of tables and rows and rows of chairs set up where you can change into dry clothes and relax. Austin has had use of Palmer Auditorium at least once (the bitterly cold, windy ’03 marathon finished a few feet away from the entrance to Palmer and as soon as you finished, you went inside). In the ice year of ’06, runners were allowed to wait out the start delay in Freescale, but generally there hasn’t been any shelter (other than a few tents) at the start or finish. It would be ideal to have access to Palmer again or the Austin Convention Center, depending on where the ’17 race starts and finishes.

Pre-race church service. Inside the Convention Center, there was a non-demoninational service which was nice for runners who didn’t want to miss church.

Listen. The Houston organizers encourage feedback and when justified, react to it. In ’11, I covered the USATF Half Marathon Champs in Houston. It was a chance for the top Americans to test the Houston course in anticipation of the ’12 Olympic Trials. Some of the runners complained about two tight turns where they lost momentum. Not a problem. Houston altered its course in time for the Trials. In addition, there were some small overpasses in the regular marathon course that belied its flatness. By ’12, those were gone too.

Outreach to the training groups and running clubs. Houston is such a great race that nearly everyone in town runs or volunteers (more than 7000), but the marathon pushes its numbers by reaching out to all the groups in town, especially the mega Houston Area Road Runners Association. Here, we don’t have the same number of clubs and groups as Houston, but even so, High Five needs to open dialogue with the running clubs and training we do have to get their ideas. There’s no question that the Austin course has been so problematical for runners that one of the owners of Rogue told me that it has hurt its training business for newbies and seasoned runners who have looked to other races with more friendly courses. Same with Gilbert’s Gazelles and the Austin Runners Club. Last year a couple of weeks after Austin, I went to breakfast with 15 veteran marathoners and of the 15, only two (myself and one guy who paced some friends) had run Austin.

Crowds. Obviously, the more runners in a race, the greater the number of spectators along the course. Houston reaches out to neighborhoods to create HOOPLA stations where there are big clumps of spectators, holding up signs (some provided by the marathon). There are also cheerleading squads, belly dancers, Elvis and Robert Palmer impersonators, marching bands and even radio stations lining the course. In one of the upscale districts, many of the neighbors had their own aid stations and were passing out water bottles. The Houston crowds aren’t Boston-like, but there also aren’t long, empty stretches, devoid of any people. The highly visible Houston president—Brant Kotch—was even spotted at various points along the course, high-fiving and cheering runners and not just at the finish.

A legacy program. This is specifically for runners who have finished at least 5-9 Houstons (marathon or half). Those runners get a chance to register during the guaranteed registration period and also get a special newsletter which accounts for why many Houston marathoners have run it 20+ times.

Postrace breakfast. Houston offers a free breakfast (courtesy of HEB) right after you finish in the Convention Center when runners are starving. Austin used to do the same thing when a huge HEB truck/kitchen rolled into Auditorium Shores when Austin still finished there. Now, if you want a real breakfast, you must buy it from one of the food trucks in the finish area on Congress.

Value. The first registration period for the ’17 race in Houston opened on Monday and even though there are several, there is just one flat price for the marathon ($135) and half ($115) regardless of when you register. In Austin, registration is as low as $90 and $70, but escalates to to $150/$130 by February 8th and tops off at $160/$150 at the expo.

Instant results. There are computers set up in the Convention Center in Houston where within a few minutes of finishing, you can easily find out your official time and place.

All of these little touches add up and helps to explain Houston’s popularity. High Five will be out in force at the Austin Marathon on February 14th and I’m sure they’ll be trying to incorporate all the things that Austin does well with their own big-race expertise in next year’s race.

High Five is confident that a new course will make a huge difference in the perception of the Austin Marathon. (High Five won’t make any announcements until after this year’s race.) But, a new course is only one of the improvements High Five can make for next year.

As Houston has proven, it’s all the small things and attention to detail that add up into a world-class event.

*****

O Long-time Austin Marathon director John Conley will be honored for his contributions to Austin running on February 12th, two days before this year’s marathon. Back On My Feet will host a gala in John’s honor at the JW Marriott and the proceeds for the event will assist the non-profit in its work with homeless people in Austin. For info and/or to buy tickets go to austin.backonmyfeet.org/AustinBash2016.

O Thought one of the coolest things about Houston was the marathon debut of former UT steeplechase Austin Roth who ran 2:21:38. What made it so great was that his father Jeff also ran 2:21 when he ran his first marathon—also in Houston—when he was the same age (25).

O Drew Soucy and his girlfriend Jennifer Hall enjoyed a nice and profitable weekend in Bermuda. Even though Drew was outleaned at the finish of the Front Street Mile in Bermuda, he still ran 4:26.5 and took home $1100. Jenn ran 5:05, good for sixth in her division.

O Gilbert Tuhabonye, Burundi’s gift to Austin running, will be the keynote speaker on March 19th at the 58th annual Road Runners Club of America national convention up in Dallas. Hosted by the Dallas Running Club, the convention will be at the Crowne Plaza downtown. For more info or to buy tickets, go to rrca.org.

O Lance Phegley, the founding editor of Texas Runner & Triathlete, began having chest pains the day after the Houston Marathon (he didn’t run) and was admitted to Houston Methodist in Sugar Land. Good thing too. While in the hospital, Lance suffered what he described as a “mild heart attack.” Lance says he’ll be fine and there wasn’t any damage to his heart, but doctors have recommended that he alter his diet somewhat.

O The Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park (just east of Pleasant Valley Road at the east end of the Butler/Lady Bird Lake Trail) is a favorite long-run area which can be extended to the ACC campus in southeast Austin. I’ve never had any safety issues running there, but APD is hot after a 5-9 man, wearing a black hoodie, sexually assaulted a woman on Monday morning (at 9:54 a.m.) who was running just north of the ACC campus. She was attacked from behind by the cretin, but the woman fought back, got away and ran south on Grove Boulevard. Police have a surveillance tape of the man. Anyone with info should call 911 and reference APD case number 16-0180505.

O Livestrong is looking for a new CEO and president after Chandini Portteus abruptly resigned on Tuesday after nine months on the job. Portteus, who succeeded Doug Ulman, will be replaced as president of Livestrong, by Greg Lee who has been the chief financial officer there for 10 years.

O What I’m listening to this morning: “John Denver’s Greatest Hits” by John Denver. OK, sue me. What can I say? I like his simple, sparse music and his gorgeous lyrics. Even though he was an anathema to folks like me, this guy wrote and sang some of the most iconic songs of the 1970-80s. Some of them—Leaving on a Jet Plane, Annie’s Song, Rocky Mountain High—will live forever.

Have any news for me? If you have something, send it along to wish@texasrunningpost.com.

11 Comments

  1. Tracy Nelson says:

    Nice article, Wish.

    I’ve run the Motorola/Freezescale/Freescale/AT&T/Austin Marathon 9 times and after the last one, decided I just really didn’t want to do it anymore, as the (mostly-uphill) course was too challenging and just not fun. There was much to like about the race, but enough to not like to take it off my list. You covered much of it above, but one other thing that I noticed: One year, I counted live bands along the course, for a total of 28. 24 of those were before mile 13, and only four were in the second half of the course. Not cool for the Live Music Capital of the World…

    I remember hearing several times that less than 10% of the Austin Marathon participants come from the 512 area code. That would mean that about the same number are choosing Houston instead…

  2. Roger Dunham says:

    The difference is that Houston Marathon is run by a non profit entity while Austin is run by a for-profit entity (Conley/High Five), who would rather maximize their income rather than provide a better experience (course, finisher shirt,heated finish areas, weigh ins, more running club outreach to get feedback etc).

    It’s a shame that Austin cant get a better marathon to highlight our city. I train with a reasonably competitive group and I cannot remember the last time somebody in my group raced Austin.

  3. Amen to everything you said Wish. Houston is one of my favorites.

    Knowing that Austin is a highly-desired destination for football games, track meets, conventions, and festivals, it should also be the top destination for marathoners from around the state. Improvements to the course are very important, but all the “little” things you mentioned at Houston may be even more critical. High Five has a great opportunity to build something really special.

  4. Another plus for Houston, 2 hours of live TV coverage on a local channel. I was also down there for the weekend and enjoyed watching the marathon from the hotel. And it was not just perfunctory coverage. Good guests and the anchors were enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I have not run Austin since 2007, about killed me, but looking forward to 3M half Sunday, easily our best race.

  5. Wish, you’re so right about the importance of having a fast course! In this day of age where everyone is shooting for a BQ, or, more fittingly (but sadly), aiming to impress on social media, I don’t know why anyone would ever devise a course as grueling as Austin’s unless it was billed as “The Toughest Marathon in Texas” (although Waco may have that distinction, notwithstanding). So many people I know pitch out a lot of money to travel to much friendlier courses such as CIM or Philly just to get a good time and a slot into Boston. And, yes, you’re so right that so many people avoid Austin for the same reason!

    Let’s go back to the downhill, point-to-point course as the old Motorola Marathon used to have. Yes, it involves more logistics, but it’ll reap much higher participation numbers and make Austin a “destination marathon”, a title that Austin so desperately lacks.

  6. Wish, terrific as always. Austin Marathon (and High Five) can definitely learn a lot from Houston on how to throw a terrific race.

    To everyone else: What’s wrong with a tough course?! We don’t do marathons because they are easy! IF BQ or PR is your goal, then yeah…you should probably look somewhere else. But don’t ‘dumb down’ the course just to make it easier for more people to complete. If the course should be changed, it should be to showcase more of our beautiful city. And maybe skip Great Northern. It’s been done to death.

  7. Brigette Sparks says:

    You forgot…Houston also serves free beer at the finish area too!!! 🙂

  8. From the Oils a couple of weeks ago, to John Denver this week? You’re a man of eclectic taste, Wish!

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