Houston Chronicles

February 7th.  Well, this report on our Houston trip is only a week late – but better late than never! For me, Chris and Charlotte it was a long weekend – not as long as Rob Watson’s or Brett Gotcher’s perhaps, but we worked hard at the Expo and at the race, racking up 19 hour and 22 hour days, respectively, on Sunday. We arrived home at midnight Sunday, then went off to a 9am meeting Monday morning back in T.O. with Oasis regarding ZooRun and their partnership in CRS 2011. 

Our STWM booth at Houston 2011 Expo

But Houston is always a great weekend and well worth the extra hours. This year was no exception. Charlotte and I worked our STWM Expo booth on Friday and Saturday, while Chris assisted Course Director Stan Coburn in setting up the courses for both Saturday and Sunday races. Chris was clearly pleased to have his own course vehicle this year, as Stan’s assistant, a BIG F250 truck! On marathon day, Chris was Ops Supervisor for all on-course water stations, Charlotte assisted at the Volunteer Hub [something she manages at STWM/CRS] and I sat in the back of an increasingly wet, lead Press Truck!     

This year, we got a bonus in Houston, with two races instead of one. The US Half Marathon Championships for Men & Women were staged on SATURDAY morning at 8am, as a separate event, on a two-loop course that may be used for the US Olympic MARATHON Trials next January [then 4 loops, of course]. The marathon ran on SUNDAY at 7am as usual, on its regular course. 

 You can read about and watch the US Half marathon Championships in detail elsewhere, but a couple of things are perhaps worth noting. 

They're off! The Start of the US Half marathon Championships, Houston 2011

Owing to the date and course changes, the depth in both men’s and women’s championships was a little weaker than the last couple of years. While a fair number of the athletes remarked on the many turns on the “new, experimental” course, and it was a bit humid, the culprit was more-likely the move of the Houston race weekend to the end of January from its usual mid-January date [caused by availability of their venue at the George R. Brown convention Center]. This created more of a conflict with the US XC Championships staged in San Diego this past weekend. Last year’s women’s champ, Shalane Flanagan, for example, who trains with Simon Bairu in the Nike group in Oregon, and who had the outstanding marathon debut in New York last November, passed on the Half Championships in Houston in favour of the country this year.  Last January she hammered the field in Houston with a 69:41. On Saturday she outclassed the field in San Diego. So this year’s Women’s Half Championships ended up going to Jen Rhines [71:14], a 36-year-old 5,000m/10,000m athlete who won’t be moving up to the 2012 Trials on the Houston course next January.  In 2010 there were 7 women under 73 minutes; this year 5. In 2010 there were 14 women under 75 minutes; this year 11. The men’s trend was similar. While both 2010 and 2011 saw 6 guys under 63 minutes, last year there were an impressive 18 guys under 65 minutes, this year that number was down to 12.   

Serena Burla triumphantly finishes 2nd after her battle with cancer!

 But this year’s races were a LOT more exciting than just the numbers. They were the stories of the return of Serena Burla and Ryan Hall! 

Tears welled in Serena Burla’s eyes at the post-race Press Conference when discussing her battle with cancer. She’d placed 2nd to Shalane Flangan in last year’s Half Championships in a PR of 70:08. Then came the discovery of a malignant tumour in her right hamstring. It was removed at Sloane-Kettering in New York in February, and she was then able to return to racing against all odds at the New York City Marathon in November where she placed 4th American in 2:37:06 (19th overall). There were BIG smiles last weekend, as she was able to return to the Half Championships in Houston and place 2nd again in 71:38. Bravo, Serena!! 

For Ryan Hall, America’s 2:06 California/blue-eye guy, last year was turmoil. 

He left Coach Terrence McMahon [Jen Rhines’ coach and husband] and the Mammoth Lakes training centre to become self-coached. He scratched from the Chicago Marathon in October, citing lack of fitness, went travelling in South America, and grew a “mountain man” beard.    

At Friday’s pre-race Press Conference his full beard was still there, and Ryan told us he wasn’t fully self-coached as he had God, and the “Big Guy” was part of his programme. 

Beardless Ryan Hall pushes the pace at the end of lap one.

Mo Trafeh just gets away from Ryan Hall in the sprint to the line

 Then on Saturday morning the beard was gone. “It was a miracle,” he said tongue-in-cheek at the post-race Press Conference. “Sarah and I talked about it. Then I went to bed, woke up this morning, and it was gone!” Ryan pushed hard in the race, and battled Mo Trafeh to the end, only losing by 3 seconds in an exciting final, sprint.   

 Both guys are in the middle of high-mileage marathon training, so the times were still good (62:17; 62:20). Watch for Ryan in Boston (April 18th) – he’s coming back! And Mo at Virgin London Marathon, April 17th.    

The mid-packers pour across the finish line, undaunted by the rain.

After the great stories at the “preliminary bout” on Saturday, we looked to the 39th Houston Marathon on Sunday morning with excitement and expectation. Houston has always been a special place for Canadians as I wrote before the race. (apologies to Richard Lee and Westerners who pointed out that Vancouver’s Carey Nelson also ran well in Houston with a 2:12:28 victory in 1991). With Rob Watson’s much anticipated marathon debut, we were pumped.  Despite the dire weather warnings of possible gales and thunder and lightning, it wasn’t too bad. Only a light breeze and light rain at the 7am start. But then the rain got heavier, it got pretty ugly around 30k on the open Press Truck [my BlackBerry subsequently shorted-out ending my tweets for the day], and so did Rob’s race. It’s maybe best to read Rob’s own account, including an embedded video clip of him collapsing at the Finish Line.  

Rob Watson crosses the finish line: 2:16:17 for 4th.

 I saw him shortly after, heading to drug-testing.  “Wow! That was tough,” he said. “That was FAR! The training went well, but I never felt good today. I was on my own most of the way. It was TOUGH! It was FAR!” But it wasn’t all bad. The 2:16:17 debut (1:05:28 and 1:10:49 splits) was good for 4th place and $4,000 cash. Last year, Eric Gillis ran 2:13:52 in Houston and only placed 8th with no dough. It was also a good, positive learning experience for Rob, and already he seems to be bouncing back strong. He just wrote us today: 

Even though I hit the wall at 20 miles and didn’t quite run as well as I
wanted to, I have fallen in love with the event.  There is nothing else like it,
the training for the marathon is so much fun and the actual race was a blast. 
It hurts so bad, but with that pain you know you are pushing your body to its
limits and that is a great feeling.

And perhaps there’s always the knowledge that while you had a rough day, others shared the pain too. Brett Gotcher ran 2:10:36 at Houston last year; 2:19:30 this year, with splits of 1:04:18 and 1:15:12. Ouch! “It was a tough day at the office,” said Gotcher. “Definitely a learning experience. There was a whole lot of pain out there that I’ll remember for a long time. … Hopefully I’ll never have a day like this again.  Around 19, 20 miles the wheels came off and it got pretty ugly from there!” 

Bekana Bada sets impressive new Course Record of 2:07:04 at Houston 2011.

 At the very front, it was an all Ethiopian affair. Another of coach Haji Adilo’s relatively-unknown guys, Bekana Bada destroyed a thinner-than-usual field, made a pit stop at 25 miles, and still ran a new Course Record on his own in the rain, of 2:07:04. The women’s race came down to an Ethiopian duel between Coach Haji’s athletes Mamitu Daska and Ashu Kasim, with the former getting the “W” in 2:26:33, to 2:27:47. 

Houston 2011 was a great weekend as always, and it underscored the magic of the marathon distance; the marathon event with its drama, its contrasting highs and lows as elites and recreational runners alike push themselves to the limit and go places only the marathon can take you. As tough a day as Brett Gotcher had, he had to sit on stage at the post-race Press Conference with McMillan Team-mate Stephanie Rothstein, who had a HUGE, breakthrough performance, clocking a 2:29:35 for 3rd place overall. “Today was a day when all my dreams came true,” she said. And that’s perhaps the very best place to end this year’s Houston Chronicles!

"It was a day when all my dreams came true," Stephanie Rothstein's Houston Marathon 2011.

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