In its 26 years, the Austin Marathon that was begun by a handful of Motorola employees in 1991 went through many iterations: for 15 years, it continued under Motorola, and later, its spinoff division, Freescale. AT&T jumped in for 2007 and 2008, before the turn of the economy cut many sports marketing budgets. In 2009, there was no sponsor, but the marathon still had a fantastic year. Four years with Livestrong as a sponsor followed, before Freescale returned as a presenting sponsor in 2014 and 2015, continuing under the new NXP banner in 2016.
For 19 of those years, John Conley and his amazing team put together one of the best events around. Their care for the runner and city, and for important values like sustainability, were unmatched. I was proud to be part of that team, circle of friends, and family for ten years – the best job I’ve ever had. And, Team Spiridon was an important part of it all, too. This will be the first year of the race under its new ownership, High Five Events. I’m sure it’ll be good.
Now. Why the exhaustive and exhausting exercise of a course review? Whether you’re an elite half marathoner or a 6:30 marathoner, it helps to know what’s ahead, and to be able to segment and visualize the course. Nothing you can do now will flatten hills and shorten miles as well as familiarity and visualization.
If you’re from Austin, you should have run pretty much every inch of this course, at some point. If not, drop me a line, and let’s talk about your training strategy for future races…
First off, let’s cut the whining about the hills. People complain about Austin being too hilly. Old-timer runners gripe about wanting the course to return to the fast, point-to-point route. What a sad way to live. You’re challenging yourself over 26.2 miles, or 13.1. You’re going to do that, and try to find the easiest course? Whatever. Maybe, eventually, those people will get what they want from the race’s new leadership. But, I hope not. This is a pretty and very Austin route.
Actually, despite the hills, marathoners get faster times in Austin than on other, flatter Texas courses. But running the marathon well here is all about planning and some self-control – if you’re smart and patient, you won’t give up much time, and you’ll get enough long, faster stretches to recover and catch a little time back. Fail to manage the hills, and you’ll pay the price later. I really advise taking a look at the course elevation map.
When I first wrote a course strategy guide ten years ago, the first year of the looped course, I imagined this marathon course as a dragon, in three parts.
Mile 1-3: Enter the Dragon
For the third year in a row, the start line is on Congress, just a bit past 2nd Street. This is great in a lot of ways, but that means that after about half a mile, your first three miles are uphill. I think a lot of legs, particularly calves, get burned-up early on this course, if people aren’t smart.
The tendency of even some seasoned runners is to go out too fast, caught up in adrenaline, and fireworks, and what-not, fooled by fresh legs, and lured into the mob mentality of 18,000 people around them, most of them suffering from the same affliction. Add to that the fact that the first half-mile is downhill, and it is too easy to act like an amped-up warrior charging a dragon head-on. It looks cool until the warrior gets summarily bitten in half or burnt to a crisp.
Here, the dragon begins after crossing the Ann Richards Bridge, and running downhill to Riverside. After that, it’s an almost 200-foot climb in the next 2.5 miles.
So, your first keys: be patient with your pace, and warm up those calves. There’s not an incredible need to warm up before a half marathon or marathon, but for this course, I recommend doing some dynamic stretching, particularly for the calves and quads.
Get lined up with the right pace. You want to be with your friends, and you can be, but if you’re looking at 10:30 miles, do not line up with the 9 minute people – you will get sucked-in.
The start will be crowded, but not too bad. It’ll probably take a good 17-20 minutes for all the runners to clear the start line. Do not waste energy darting around people. It’s going to be a long morning, be patient.
Let the hill up South Congress take a little pace from you. For quicker runners, maybe that’s ten seconds per mile. For some it might be 30 seconds or more. If you’re huffing and puffing up Congress, do the math on how many miles you have left. The seconds you give up now may allow you to run faster splits at the end of the race, whereas burning too much energy now might make you lose minutes at the end of the race, or worse.
South Congress really breaks into several inclines, with short flats in between – use those recoveries. You’ll get up to the big wall in front of the School for the Deaf, and you’ll get a little break. Just past Snack Bar, you’ll climb again, up to the big brown church at Monroe.
Set an example for your hill-climbing form for the day – head up, hips under you, arms relaxed but setting the pace for your legs. At the first water stop, in front of Bird’s Barbershop, 1.4 miles in, it seems to level off, but you still have a very slight grade past Oltorf, through the second mile, up to Cumberland. Then, a bit more up to Ben White. If you don’t feel fantastic, that’s why – don’t worry about it. If you’re a marathoner, know that the course is going to give back to you – you’ll gain 14 feet a mile for the first 17 miles, then drop 33 feet per mile for the last 9 miles.
When a race starts with hills, it can be hard to find a groove. It’s easy to get down on yourself and think you’re not running well, and that you’ll never make pace. Don’t. You’ve got to do battle with those dragons of fear and doubt, too. Accept that there will be ups and downs, and be confident in all the work you’ve put in. Be patient.
The first turn isn’t until three miles in, at Ben White. Look ahead at the crowd – don’t get caught too far inside, where you might be forced over the curb, and don’t get pushed to the outside. Pick a line through the corner and stick with it. In any crowded turn, be light on your feet in case they bump someone, and if someone in front of you is pushing you in or out, give them a very light, quick touch on the elbow to let them know you’re there. The people wearing headphones are the worst about being oblivious. Beware.
You’ve got the downhill on the access road, then the steep uphill to the water stop at the beautiful new Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Just relax on the hill, and be part of the crowd – you’re about to get three miles of downhill.
Once you get to South First, if you’ve been disciplined, then you’ve bopped the dragon soundly on the head. Great. Here’s a special message for you.
Mile 3.4-6.3: Glide.
You turn right on South First, and start to drop elevation back off over three miles. Focus on settling into a smooth, relaxed pace. This is where you should start feeling like you’re running a race, which means getting your head together and settling into a rhythm.
Do not try to make up time. This is another stretch where people can ruin their entire day, by failing to be smart and mature. Run it properly, with some restraint, and you’ll get time back, and bank some energy, as well. On steeper downhills, you might even put the brakes on a bit, to control your pace, minimizing impact, and keeping your turnover (footspeed) rate from getting so quick that you’re actually taxing your lungs and legs. On the other hand, you don’t want to try to slow your descent too much, either, because that’ll use up your quadriceps muscles, and also tire you out. It’s about balance.
You’ll hit level ground at Barton Springs Road, then feel the slight incline over the South First Street bridge. Draw energy from the crowd and the amazing St. James Baptist Church men’s chorus as you turn left onto Cesar Chavez, but don’t let them affect your pace. Smile, wave, and store that energy away for later.
Miles 6.3-9.75 – The Part Where You Just Run
(The picture is just pretty. You’re not running that route.)
The next several miles are a matter of just running, and staying disciplined and patient about your pace. On Cesar Chavez, you’ll get some long slow downgrades, and a few short slight inclines. With the course becoming a little less crowded, start running the middle, flatter part of the road, when it’s possible. Most of Austin’s streets slope off at either side. You know how having a leg a quarter inch shorter than the other can cause issues. On some of our streets, the curbside leg might as well be an inch or two longer. Stay on the flats.
Just before Austin High, you’ll run down the left of Cesar Chavez, and down around the Austin High track. Just past eight miles, after you come out from under the Mopac Bridge, there’s a fairly steep hill up Veterans that goes up to Lake Austin Blvd. Shake out the arms and hands, relax, and roll easily into the hill. Think about your form again: keep your hips under you; roll through your toes; and move your arms.
The almost two-mile stretch down Lake Austin is straight, mostly flat, and occasionally windy – if you start feeling the wind giving you a lot of resistance, tuck in behind a group of runners, and draft. It makes a difference, and it makes you feel that much smarter than everyone else.
Just past Hula Hut, is a very sharp right turn into a hill – you’re hopping onto the dragon’s back…
Miles 9.7-12.5: The Dragon’s Back
Turning right off Lake Austin Blvd. onto Enfield, you enter the rolling portion of the course. You’re on the dragon’s back, but you can decide you’re in control. He’ll writhe up and down, but you’re going to hold on, maintain your form, keep your confidence, and ride the hills. Take each hill as an individual challenge – a lot of people like the hills in Austin, because it divides the course up into a series of tasks or challenges, and that makes the miles go by faster.
Remember, your day is going to be about winning a series of battles, and your job is to take them one at a time and win them. Marathoners – don’t worry about your time here – this hilly portion is just a couple of miles out of 26.2. Don’t burn yourself up now, when you could be conservative and have more in the tank later.
Over three-quarters of a mile on Enfield, you’ll get two gradual climbs, the first being the steepest, with a dip in between. This stretch only climbs a total of 60-70 feet, but it can wear on you. If the sun’s out, the middle of the pack will be running straight into it. It’s a pretty time of the morning in a nice, quiet, tree-lined neighborhood, with good crowd support.
At Exposition, 10.5 miles in, marathoners take a left, and half marathoners continue back into town (there’s a separate race guide for the half marathon). For the marathoners, in particular, it’ll get considerably less crowded. Now, you should really be able to run the flat part of the street.
On Exposition, there’s a short downhill, and a longer uphill to Windsor. There, it flattens out for a couple of blocks, before a long downhill leading into a hill that is going to look really intimidating. It is really not as bad as it looks, for some reason, so don’t let it shake you. Just get up the hill, balancing your pace and your energy output. Keep your head up, and your hips pressed into the hill. Roll all the way through your foot with every stride, and keep your arms moving –your legs will follow.
When you get to the top, relax, shake out your arms, relax your shoulders and neck. Most people agree that the stretch ahead, to 35th, and over Mopac, is worse than that big-looking hill. You’ve got a block of flat, then a downhill, and another challenging hill going up to the right turn onto 35th. I believe you’ll have a military band pumping you along like they usually do, at the gates to Camp Mabry. There’s an incline over the Mopac Expressway, but after that, it’s downhill to the left turn onto Jackson, and you’re through with hills for a while.
Miles 12.5-18: Where the Hell Am I, and What the Hell Am I Doing?
But… you are still going slightly uphill for the next three miles. And you’re in the tough “middle miles” of the race. By this time, the initial excitement of the race has worn off, and hopefully, you’ve gotten through the successive challenges of the hills without wasting too much energy. You can’t lose purpose or discipline here – your priority is to get back on pace. Don’t think you’re home-free. You won’t get long, significant flats or downhill slopes for another six miles. And, there’s that other thing – you’ve got almost 14 miles left to run. Yeah. That.
So, as you get your water immediately after turning onto Jackson, reset yourself, and decide to use these next three to four miles to see how you feel getting back on and staying on your marathon goal pace. If you dropped a bit of pace in the hills, that’s OK – be patient. If you can resume your pace here, you might be able to do a little better when the course starts giving you downhills.
You’ll turn right at 41st for a block, then left on Bull Creek, just shy of the halfway point. All the way to Hancock, this is mostly “false flat” – it seems flat, but is really just a very slight uphill. You’ll take a right on Hancock, into a nice downhill, then a short uphill, up to the left turn onto Shoal Creek.
Shoal Creek is a pretty stretch – decide to enjoy yourself. It the sun’s out, stay in the shade. Stay relaxed.
You’ll turn left on White Rock, running slightly uphill to Great Northern, where you enter what Douglas Adams would have called “the long, dark, teatime of the soul.” The mile-and-a-half of dead-straight road undulates very gently, with bits of uphill so slight you’ll feel, but not see, slight difficulty. And there’s a band at the baseball fields, early on, and a water stop, but otherwise, there’s usually very little crowd support.
This road can be numbing, even discouraging for some people. Decide that this is a little test zone, to determine how to approach the rest of your race. It is very much the prelude to you making your first move towards the finish. It’s also a good test of where you’re at with your pace. If you hold pace well here, and you get through mile 17 and up to the turn at Foster, and still feel just outstanding, then you’re really in pretty good shape.
On the other hand, you might start to doubt your ability to maintain your pace. If you’ve held on up to now, don’t let Great Northern decide the rest of your race. Just hold on, and try to run comfortably – a little past 18.5 miles, the course gets noticeably easier.
If you feel things tightening up, change things up a little – butt-kick lightly for a few strides, pull the knees a bit higher for a few, run slightly stiff-legged, kicking lightly out in front of you a bit.
After turning right on Foster, you should see some great crowds, and you’ll know that soon, you’ll be heading home. If you’re considering upping your pace a little, think back to your training runs, and ahead to the final miles, and carefully weigh your decision. If you feel like picking up the pace, do it by a reasonable increments, hold that pace up to mile 20, and reassess it then.
You do a slight bump – a left on Rockcreek, with a water stop there, then right on Anderson, then a right back onto Northcross. You’ve still got a slight uphill, but enjoy the crowds and the bands, and know that the big payoff is coming – the mostly flat-to-downhill stretch home.
Across Burnet Road, the straight-line street becomes St. Joseph’s, then Morrow (yay, Austin street planning). You’re still on a slight incline, but just ahead, you’ll make a right turn back downhill towards home, and the course starts to yield up its gifts.
Miles 18.7-25: Homeward Bound
At about 18.7, you turn the corner onto Woodrow, and you’re heading towards the finish. As you cut across the intersection to the right, you can absolutely feel the shift in your legs – you’re now going subtly, but truly and noticeably, downhill. You’re going to drop almost 250 feet to the finish, with very few uphills left.
This is a “go point” – time to hit the mental and physical “reset” button, and decide if you have enough in you to turn up the pace a little bit.
If you’re thinking ahead to the finish at this point, it might still seem improbably far. Break the remaining miles into manageable chunks, and focus on running the next two miles, or the next mile. If you’ve been struggling, let the downward slope help you regain a relaxed rhythm. If you’re feeling strong, and have easily maintained your pace, this is a good time to choose whether to just hold pace, or give it a little nudge.
Most runners are going to have felt discomfort and fatigue by now. If you’re hurting here, don’t dwell on it, but don’t just try to ignore it, either. Take an inventory, going through your body from head to toe. Think about how you feel. Go through it all, then put it back down and be done with it. If you want to stop to stretch, do it. But then, get moving again. Don’t dawdle and risk things tightening up, or losing your will.
If that zen stuff doesn’t work for you, then just don’t give up. That works, too.
You’ll make a right onto Arroyo Seco, as seen in the first scenes of “Boyhood”. You still get slight downhill grades and flats, then a left on Romeria. The neighborhood residents are great through this mile-long section, so you’ll get some good support – maybe the cookie table at Brentwood, just past the elementary school, and almost certainly oranges and Kleenex on Romeria, and cheers all the way.
You turn right back onto Woodrow, and still, it’s flat to very slight downhills all the way to North Loop.
North Loop is a little challenge. If you’ve really been struggling or just been holding on, let it take just a little pace from you – conserve your effort to get you to the finish, or for where it’s better used. If you’re feeling good, be confident and try to minimize how much it takes from your time, but don’t burn yourself up.
You get a nice downhill for about half a mile, from Aurora down to Epoch coffee house, and the cemetery. North Loop has become 53rd. For years, you would have gone right on Guadalupe to 51st, and climbed up 51st. 53rd is actually a much easier hill, though it is long.
But at the top, you have the best damned water stop on the course, put on by Team Spiridon. There’ll be music, and… Mile Twenty-Beer, with a keg of delicious Austin Beerworks Peacemaker Pale Ale. Celebrate killing that hill, and rejoice in what’s coming up, with a good swig of brew.
A few blocks up, you make a right turn on Duval, and it’s time to start wrapping this thing up…
Miles 22-24.6: The Big Payback
At Duval, you start 3.5 miles that steadily drop off 150 feet. This is another “go point”, where you might make a measured, smart decision to turn up the pace again. You’ll make a left turn onto 49th after about a quarter-mile, then a right on Red River. More slight downhill, then a right onto 41st, which will take you on a steepish downhill for about 200 meters, then up for another 220 meters.
You are less than three miles from finishing this thing, and there’s only one more hill after this. If you’ve held up until now, it’s too late to bother giving up. Run the hill. Focus on form – head up, hips under you, use the foot, move the arms.
At the top is a great reward – the left turn onto Duval, with its great, usable down-hills. You’re less than 2.5 miles from the finish, you’re out of the suburban and mental wilderness, and returning to center, where there’s going to be lots of people supporting you. That includes a Team Spiridon beer stop, with delicious, truly Austin beer from Austin Beerworks, at the bottom of Duval…
Miles 24.6-26.2: The Last Desert, the Last Hill, and the Flow to the Finish
You get a left turn onto San Jacinto, then things get quiet again in the University of Texas campus, at mile 25, just past Dean Keeton. It flattens out, and the campus can be a bit of a wasteland, spectator-wise, other than the water stop at the stadium. You’re a mile away – don’t let doubt or fatigue win now. Be determined, pull your form together, decide you’re going to look better and stronger than all the people dying around you. At the same time, this is where runners need to help each other out – encourage others to keep moving, to come with you. Lead and encourage – it’ll help you, too.
You come out of campus, around the talking oil rig, and you’re looking straight down half a mile of San Jacinto – wide-open, mostly flat, but with that last hill. If you feel good, start chasing runners. Find someone ahead of you, moving at about the same pace, or slightly slower, and slowly, patiently, catch and overtake them. You’re not being a jerk. Who know how their day has been? They may still have a faster time than you. You honor and respect them by competing with them. And, it’s another way to motivate and distract yourself, and who knows, they may see you pass them, and you may pull them in with you.
As for that one last hill… Spiridoners – you’ve run that thing so many times… It’s like in the Blues Brothers, when Jake asks how often the train goes right by their window, and Elwood says, “So often, you won’t even notice it.”
If you have not walked, or walked much, by now, then unless you get a cramp or something that really medically concerns you, you will not walk now.
The steepest part of the hill ends at 12th Street, then you have a more gradual rise to 11th.
Then, it’s a right turn on 11th, into a steep downhill. Move those feet, let the gravity help – you earned it.
A left on Congress, and you have 100 meters to go to the finish. If you decide to leave it all out there, be careful – don’t try to muscle yourself faster. Do strides – just relax and smoothly pick up your footspeed. Move your arms. When you hit the finish, don’t keel over to suck wind, because when you stand up, you’re just likely to go back down again. Keep moving, keep your head up, and collect your medal – congratulations on slaying the dragon, and completing the Austin Marathon!
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