It has been almost a year since last year’s Austin Marathon. A race that if I try hard enough, I can run the course over and over again in my mind. Part of it is due to the fact that it was the first local marathon I had ever completed, allowing me to not only drive the course a few times prior to race day, but also allow me to run large sections of it beforehand.
If you race enough in Austin on some of our downtown courses, you are eventually going to run a majority of the marathon course miles.
The Run for the Water 10-miler, The Congress Avenue Mile, The 3M Half Marathon, The SI Labs Marathon Relay all feature portions of the marathon course – there are only a few areas of the race that go “untouched” by other local events throughout the year.
This year however on the road to Boston I am not running the full marathon, only the 13.1 mile Austin Half Marathon, which means that as runners head North to Exposition and on to the “top half” of the Marathon Course, I will be making a right turn off of Winsted Lane onto Enfield just before Mile 11 and running an area of the city I have never tackled before.
One of the hilliest and toughest areas to “race” in our city.
I wanted to get a firsthand look at these hills to help me finalize my race plan and start to visualize the opportunities I will have to push pace a bit on Sunday, where I need to run smart and reload and just how much I am going to have to “leave in the tank” for the closing 2+ miles of the race, which are as unforgiving as any I will have ever run at the end of a road race.
If I run a similar strategy to The Texas Half a few weeks ago, I am going to crash and burn in a big, big way on the Austin course.
That is not opinion, that is fact.
This is going to be the most technical of all of the three half-marathons I will be racing preparing for Boston – giving me a tremendous training opportunity to run smart and stick to my race plan mile after mile no matter what is happening around me. Exactly the type of race I will need to run if I am going to PR in Boston.
Once again, EXACTLY. So how does the race set up?
The Start: Runners will gather on the North Side of the State Capital on Congress Avenue. Flags flying in the pre-dawn light for a 7:00 a.m. gun time. Close to 20,000 runners between the marathoners and the half-marathoners, it will be quite the spectacle. I will need to be lined up with the first 150 runners or so to get out clean and fall into rhythm.
Miles 1 & 2: The start will take runners on a slight downhill stretch from 16th street to MLK Boulevard where the crowd will make a 90 degree right turn and then another right turn onto to San Jacinto just two blocks later. I will want to find a good spot on the righthand side of the road, careful to not get caught against the curb, but close enough to tangent tightly.
Things will start to spread out just a bit on San Jacinto as the road goes 6 lanes wide and the runners crest the hill up to 11th street.
This hill is the final climb on both the marathon and half-marathon courses before making the final turn to the finish line. It won’t seem like much of a climb over the opening mile – more of a nuisance than anything. But the second time the runners reach this spot at the end of their respective races, it is amazing how much “higher” it appears to have grown after 12 or 25 miles raced. It is cruel and somewhat brutal that late in the race.
On 11th street we will reach the 1 mile mark and make a quick left turn onto Guadalupe. This section will begin a long, steady, descent that lasts virtually the entire 2nd mile. This is the time when many runners are going to make their first mistake of the day. They are going to drop pace and try to “bank” some time while they can with long climbs up S. Congress (Miles 3-6) and the stretch from Winsted to Enfield (10-13) to come.
This is the part of the race where I am going to rein it in. Run smooth, let runners pass me by and just lock in on “effort”. 6:30 effort is going to be the name of the game, that might result in a mile split around 6:20 or 6:15 which will be o.k., but nothing faster. The smarter I run this part of the course, the better my finishing time is going to be.
:10 seconds slower here may very well gain runners :20 to :30 seconds late in the race.
Miles 3-6: This is where the initial excitement and downhill start begins to subside and the Austin Course starts to fight back. After reaching Cesar Chavez the runners will turn left for two blocks and make a right turn onto the Congress Avenue Bridge, immediately after crossing Town Lake (The Colorado River), the course starts to climb up, up, up for the next 2+ miles through the hip South Congress Area, past the Magnolia Cafe where my post-race breakfast will be, and up to Ben White.
After a right hand turn onto Ben White the runners will run up the exit ramp and make another right turn onto S. 1st. With the climbing done, it’s now time to drop the hammer and gain back some of the time lost climbing South Congress.
Miles 7-10: The next three miles are quite frankly a blast. If you were able to navigate the first half of the course to this point and stay within your limits, it’s time to run free and easy and make up some time. After a little bit of a rolling start to the first downhill stretch along S. 1st street the course just falls away from you.
A nice relaxed downhill grade, steep in some sections that deposit runners at a water stop on the right hand side of the course just past mile 8.
This will be a water-stop I skip actually, as I will start to work my way to the left side of the S. 1st Street Bridge and prepare for the left hand turn back on to Cesar Chavez. Mile 9 and most of mile 10 will provide a gentle downhill stretch as well, the only exception is where the road begins to climb as the course approaches the entrance to Mopac (Loop 1) in the last 1/4 mile of mile 10.
You better have enjoyed the ride down to this point, because there is nothing but climbing left until the finish.
Miles 11-13: Here we go. Legs are starting to feel heavy, 5 kilometers left to race. Lactic Acid has been slowly accumulating and your quads are starting to feel heavy. It’s go time and the course is about to get pretty gnarly.
At the start of mile 11 the course heads up a steady incline along Winsted Lane. There are no breaks, just up. At Enfield, just before the 11 mile mark the course turns to the right and you start to head towards the Capital and the finish line. But there is still more than 2 miles to go, and it is up, up, up.
Just before reaching Lamar Boulevard the course will provide one downhill stretch for you to gather yourself and get ready to climb again, it is steep and refreshing, but it is short-lived. One of the toughest parts of this stretch is the way the course actually “looks”. As you come thundering down the hill at the midpoint of mile 12 you can see nothing but the mountainous climb that is waiting for you on the other side of the bottom.
Pace is going to slow dramatically here, even fresh legs would struggle up this incline, dropping :30-:45 seconds per mile at this point would be a victory over this stretch of the course. It will more than likely push us into the 7:oo+ pace area as we fight to the top of 15th street and finally make the right hand turn back on to San Jacinto and retrace our steps to the finish line.
There will be that last, final hill to crest, the same hill we tackled at the end of the first mile of the race before we can then turn for home and let gravity pull us to the finish.
Finish: Outside of the Denver Half-Marathon I cannot remember a steeper close to a race course. Once the final right hand turn is made onto 11th Street at the top of the last hill it is time to empty the tank 100%. A fast city block will pass, followed by a 90 degree left-turn onto Congress Avenue and the finish line and chute will be there in the first 1/4 block.
Probably the greatest “Finish” to any Austin race held in the city. It is a well-deserved downhill respite after a long punishing race.
Goals for the Race: To me this is a tough course to estimate a finish time on without ever having run it before.
When a runner has previous race results to compare setting a goal-time becomes a function of training, the weather on race day and effort. It is easy to look back at a previous performance, drop :15-:45 from that finish time and set the bar. We just won’t have that luxury this time around.
That said, I am looking at 1:27:00 to 1:27:30 as the range which will be considered a “win”. That would put is in the 6:37/mile range vs. the 6:32 we ran at the Texas Half on January 28th.
Anything faster and I think we are running the risk of blowing up too early and having nothing left for the final 2+ miles of racing.
I expect to be passing a lot of runners on the way in if I can run a smart opening 6 miles. Again, this is really just a dress rehearsal for Boston, where running a smart opening 14 miles will be the goal. It takes a lot of patience to really “nail” a race on a technical course. We are going to be tested on Sunday, of that I am certain.
At the end of the day, this race is going to be about effort and feel more than sticking to an individual mile split on my watch. By 8:30 a.m. on Sunday morning we’ll find out just how well we are handling this training plan to date and whether or not we may be pushing things a bit too hard.
One thing for sure. It is going to be interesting out there.