February 16th will mark the 22nd year of the signature event in Central Texas: The Austin Marathon. The race began in 1992 and since then, the course has undergone all sorts of permutations. But the race has settled on a loop course for both the marathon and half marathon which begins near the Capitol and finishes on Congress.
About 17,000 marathoners and half marathoners will start this year’s race on Congress Avenue, just north of the Capitol, near the Bob Bullock Museum off MLK, and then finish back on Congress Avenue, near 10th Street, right in the heart of downtown Austin. The course is essentially the same one used for the past five years. That is, the course heads south on Congress Avenue, then turns around and climbs north to Northcross Mall before winding up back past the Capitol and the finish on Congress.
What has not changed is the difficulty factor of the Austin Marathon. The marathon and half-marathon courses are certainly not easy. But then, there is no such thing as an easy marathon course. Any run of 26.2 miles is long and hard which is a pretty fair description of the Austin course. The marathon course is charitably termed “challenging” and “fair” which are euphemisms for a arduous course with plenty of rugged uphills. This course certainly has its fair share of climbs, but there are also sweeping downhills, particularly in the first three miles and final three.
More than anything, Austin is a course which requires careful pacing because of the demands of the first 18 miles. You can’t go out too fast in any marathon and expect to run well, but especially not in the Austin Marathon. Because the first 18 miles includes the hardest, longest hills, it is a course which is best run with negative or even splits.
Negative splits means you run the first half of the marathon slower than the second half. Doing that, preserves your legs for the final six miles. It isn’t easy to hold back in the early miles of any marathon (especially on the downhills), but the second half of the Austin course isn’t as difficult and you can make up ground–if you can run a faster second half or close to even splits.
The course demands careful pacing and attention to the hills—but not just early uphills. The two huge downhills in the first eight miles (along South 1st) are nearly as key as the uphills.
With two full weekends before the marathon, you still have time to train on parts of the course and familiarize yourself with the idiosyncrasies of the unique, but tricky Austin course.
Here’s how to run it:
The Start of The Austin Marathon and Half Marathon
Both races begin together on Congress, north of the Capitol grounds in front of the Bob Bullock Museum. After three short blocks on Congress, the course turns east on MLK ( a short downhill) for two blocks before heading south on San Jacinto.
The stretch from MLK to 11th Street on San Jacinto is notable because it is capped with the notorious San Jac hills–the steep, three-pronged rise between 14th and 15th streets which has been a part of Austin Marathon courses for several years. The difficult climb has come during different parts of the marathon over the years. It used to come quite early near the halfway mark, but in later years it came at 20 miles and now comes in the first and final mile.
That’s right. The entire field of marathoners and half marathoners will hit the San Jac hills twice. The first climb is so early in the race it isn’t a big deal, but the final climb up and over San Jac is in the last mile and it’s never easy–especially with the finish line so close.
After crossing over Congress, there’s a long, steep descent to Cesar Chavez (at City Hall) where the course connects back to Congress.
South Congress – Heading south on Congress is the long, gradual uphill. Your legs are still fresh and you’re pumped so you might barely notice this grind to the top of Congress. Whether you notice the hills or not, take it easy as you climb through the cool SoCo section because these are the biggest hills on the course and if you go out too fast, you’ll pay for it later.
After climbing past St. Edward’s University and Opal Devine’s on your left, the course continues all the way south to near the Ben White frontage road (just past mile 5) which connects the course to 1st Street.
South 1st –By now, you should be thoroughly warmed up and into your race mindset. The turn south onto 1st is a long, straight downhill back to downtown along what is known as the Mexican Mile because of all the TexMex places along here such as La Mexicana, Polvo’s and El Mercado. The downhill can be pretty steep in places, especially opposite the Texas School for the Deaf athletic fields (between miles 7 and 8), but it is way too early to open up and put some fast miles in the bank. Resist that temptation and just roll down under control back to the South 1st Street Bridge (8 miles) where the course has a slight climb as you cross back over Lady Bird Lake for the second time.
Cesar Chavez—After crossing the lake, the course picks up Cesar Chavez—a familiar stretch to Austin racers. Going west on Cesar Chavez is one of the best parts of the course. Lady Bird Lake is on your left and the gentle downhills make for some easy running as you pass mile 9 at Lamar.
Austin HS—After passing by Austin High School and MoPac (mile 10), the course veers north for a mile along Winsted which borders MoPac. The road will be familiar to Capitol 10,000 veterans, but rather than a gentle downhill, it’s a modest uphill mile.
Enfield—After the mile stretch on Winsted, the marathoners go west along Enfield (mile 11), while the 12,000 half marathoners head east back toward downtown. The half marathoners have several monster uphills in the next two miles as they proceed to the finish on Congress. Meanwhile, the 5000 marathoners continue for a short way on Enfield before taking a right onto Exposition.
Exposition—The series of Expo hills are long and difficult, but for just about every uphill there is an equal downhill. Be forewarned: Don’t fly down these hills. It’s still early and you simply can’t afford to cut loose on the steep Expo downhills as you still have plenty of running left.
The nearly 2-mile stretch along Expo is one of the key sections of the race. The word here is to try and maintain your momentum and not push too hard going up or coming down. The final Expo hill is as you near 35th Street at Camp Mabry (the 13-mile mark) and it’s the steepest and hardest because you’re already tired and think you’re done climbing.
But you’re not. After finally getting up and over Expo, you bang a right onto 35th for a short climb and then cross over MoPac on a deceptively hard (but short) overpass.
Jackson/Bull Creek—After crossing MoPac, you take a quick left on Jackson and can relax a bit because you’re finally over the most difficult hills. Even so, Jackson and then Bull Creek are gradual uphills. Nothing too demanding, but you’re still climbing. The 15-mile mark is Bull Creek and Hancock.
Shoal Creek—After turning onto Hancock, there’s a nice, short downhill that takes you to Shoal Creek. Shoal Creek has long been part of most of the Austin Marathon courses, but 2006 was the last year it went south, not north. Heading north through this beautiful, well-shaded Allandale neighborhood, but it’s on another uphill grade which isn’t particularly hard. But the course is still rising.
Great Northern—After ascending Shoal Creek, there’s a short uphill on White Rock which connects the course to Great Northern. This 1½-mile stretch to Northcross Mall is on a gradual incline which isn’t extremely hard–if you were fresh. But at this point you’ve been doing so much climbing, this is when the fatigue can definitely set in. Great Northern parallels MoPac and seems to go on forever.
Northcross—After finishing Great Northern (a little past mile18), the course heads right and passes by the Northcross Mall. Congratulations, you have reached the northern most point of the course and almost all the toughest hills are behind you. (Well, almost.) This 2-mile stretch through neighborhoods is almost entirely flat and there are even a few very short downhills.
Even though it’s mostly flat, this is a dodgy part of the course with several turns. It’s also kind of lonely as there aren’t many spectators and chances are you are feeling pretty beat at this point and just want to get back to the finish.
Many runners are also beginning to feel the first effects of glycogen depletion here. All you can do is continue to eat your gels and GU’s and drink water and Gatorade. Try to shorten your stride, but maintain your pace.
North Loop—This is another familiar stretch of road to Austin runners who have run the 3M Half Marathon or earlier Austin Marathons. North Loop (mile 22) has a few short rolling hills, but nothing too taxing.
UT Intramural Fields—After the short stretch on North Loop, the course passes the UT Intramural Fields (mile 23) before taking a right onto Duval and the mile-long, gradual downhill through this funky part of Hyde Park. If you have anything left in the tank, now is the time to capitalize on the downhills. Since you’ll be sensing the finish, you probably won’t be looking at all the cool bungalows and houses at this point. Also, there are several speed bumps on Duval which, because of the fatigue, should be noted.
DKR and San Jac—After coming off Duval and crossing Dean Keaton (mile 25) on San Jacinto, you can almost smell the finish as you cruise a welcome downhill alongside DKR Memorial Stadium. You still have a ways to go and, like everyone else, you’ll be fighting the little voice inside of you that’s telling you it’s OK to walk. It isn’t OK.
The final stretch—You’ll cruise past Scholtz Beer Garten on San Jac and probably wish you could take a break. Not just yet. You still have to get up and over the devious San Jac hills one last time, just east of the Capitol grounds. But once over them, it’s clear sailing to the finish.
Congress Avenue—Once over the San Jac hills, you go left on 11th Street and have a short downhill to Congress and the glorious finish. The crowds here are the thickest—and the most boisterous. You’re beat and just glad to see the finish, but take a moment to acknowledge the applause and cheers you will receive from the large crowd.
You’ve earned it.