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. 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 the old 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. Please view this important message.
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. 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, the marathoners take a left, and half marathoners continue back into town.
Enfield rises and falls slightly over the next half-mile, but is fairly easy running. If you feel great, this can be a “go point” – where you assess how you feel, and what you have ahead, and decide if you want to push the pace a little. But you’ve got a lot of hill ahead, so be smart. Enfield descends nicely to go underneath Mopac, but then, there’s a fairly steep climb, about 50 feet in a quarter-mile, coming up the other side of the underpass.
Enfield runs flattish for about a third of a mile, but then you get a long, steep drop of about 80 feet in just under half a mile. Yay? Well… No.
Ahead lies the toughest hill on either course. Stairway to Heaven. But here’s the thing – it’s only 50 feet in less than 400 meters. Many of you ran 4-6 Wilke repeats, and Wilke is 110 feet in about 300 meters. This hill is punishing, at this point in the race, but you Spiridoners are all well capable of it. You’ve done it, at the end of long, tough, even cold and rainy, training runs.
And, the team from lululemon is legendary for their support on this hill, and this year, they’ve got a DJ, and a nice surprise. And, Team Spiridon’s Mile Beerteen will be there, handing out delicious and refreshing, carb-loaded-for-power Austin Beerworks Peacemaker, just over the top of the hill – just before the end of mile 12.
You got this. The top of the hill, once you recover, is obviously a big “go point”.
Mile 13(.1): The Big, Squiggly Finish
After cresting the big, nasty hill, you’ve got a long drop. It’s fairly steep, so you still have to balance things out with some braking from your quads, but it’s a relief. There’s a water stop a few blocks down, at Nueces, but you just had some beer, so you’re fine.
Then, there’s some slightly unprecedented squiggling… Four turns in three blocks, including one that takes you away from the finish, briefly. But that’s OK – just run it a block at a time, and decide the direction doesn’t matter, because you’re soo close.
Right on San Antonio, at the Starbucks, for a block. Flat to slight downhill.
Right on 14th, for a block. Flat.
Left on Nueces, for a block. Slight downhill – you’ve always run up it.
Left on 13th, for just four blocks. The first couple of blocks are a little, slow uphill, to just past Guadalupe, and the hideous bunker of a building where I worked at the Texas Workforce Commission, about a dozen years ago. Blech. If ya gotta spit, turn to the right to spit at it when you pass it.
Now, you’re half a mile out, and it’s all usable downhill. Go point.
Right on Colorado, right by the Capitol grounds. Left on 11th, downhill, for just a block.
A right 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 cadence. 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 Half Marathon!
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