Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
2019 Austin Marathon
Austin is an hour away from Wimberley, and it’s a good idea to get to a marathon roughly an hour before it starts. Since the Austin Marathon begins at 7:00 AM, that meant leaving Wimberley at 5:00 AM, and waking up at 4:30 AM at the latest. The Austin Marathon has one of the earliest gun times I’ve ever seen; 8:00 AM is more typical. A better idea would be to wait until 7:30 AM (at least the sun would be up) and shorten the generous eight-hour cutoff by half an hour, thereby getting most of the roads opened at about the same time.
I only managed to sleep off-and-on, and got little, if any, deep sleep. It’s a good thing I never have caffeine and have a low tolerance for everything. Two Cokes worth of caffeine, in sport drink form, had me wide awake in no time.
My parents had come down for the weekend, and my mom, by some miracle, woke up early enough to come along. My dad did the driving, and the three of us managed to find a free parking space only a block away from Congress Avenue. Reasonable parking in Austin? Miracle #2.
Had a full hour to stretch, drink a few last gulps of water, visit the port-o-potty, and when I had to go again, visit an alley, since the lines for the toilets had predictably reached critical mass. 30 minutes before the race, it was clearly impossible to wait in line for the bathroom and expect to start on time. How is it possible for race directors to never learn??
Five minutes before the race, I kinda had to pee again, but there wasn’t even time to find an alley anymore. Hopped a barricade and took a place a few rows back from the front. Who happened to be next to me but Jeffrey, #2 in the Austin Distance Challenge standings. Eight minutes back, it seemed he’d already resigned to remaining in second place.
“What kind of time are you aiming for?”
“2:50 or so. Anything better than that is as good as I might expect. Anything under 3:00 would make me happy enough.”
“Yeah, I was going more for 3:00. Might change that. I dunno.”
“At least it’s not as warm as the forecast was earlier this week.”
“No kidding! If that’s what we were dealing with, I don’t think 3:00 would be possible.”
We kept talking a little more about races. He was planning on doing the Boston Marathon this year and was surprised I wasn’t.
“Not this year?”
“I’ve done it already.”
“And once was enough, huh?”
“I’d like to do it again, but that’s a lot of money to pay, flight, hotel, everything, to do a race you’ve already done before. And if I’m gonna spend that kind of money on a race, it might as well be scenic. Buildings don’t excite me.”
Jeffrey was also doing the Galveston Half-Ironman this April, the only triathlon I’ve done. As a triathlete and a personal trainer who’s paid to lead workouts all day, he may very well be in better shape than me, a teacher who runs as a hobby and has never been coached in any capacity. I’m only the better runner.
“If you’re ever in Wimberley, look me up. We’ll go for a run. Or a bike ride!”
“Oh man, Wimberley’s got some beautiful riding. And same to you, if you’re ever in Austin. I work at this gym,” he pointed to his jersey, “so you can always find me there.”
National Anthem, watch calibration, countdown, and we’re off. Less jockeying at the front this time. People must've self-selected well; there weren’t many oblivious jerks lined up at the front like they’re going to win, despite being average at best.
By the time we’d crossed Congress Bridge, I’d caught up with Justin, in his Flash outfit as always.
“How you expect to do today?”
“I was thinking 1:19.”
I’d forgotten he was doing the half marathon. “Ohhhh, that’s right! Half track! You know that teenager dropped out, right? Run a perfect race and you got a shot!”
Justin was in second place in the Austin Distance Challenge half track, the exact same series of races, but with the Austin Half Marathon replacing the Austin Marathon. As a result, three of the five races were half marathons, and another one was nearly the same distance. Great if you’re an excellent half marathon runner! Not-so-great if you like variety.
I got away from Justin and managed to catch up to Bryan, who was a pacer for the 2:45 group. 2:45?!? I didn’t believe I’d ever seen a pace group that fast, though I’d only ever run two races fast enough to see them. That’s unheard-of.
“So if you’re able to reliably pace 2:45, that means you could run faster. How fast could you go if you wanted to?”
“Uhh, I’m planning to run the Grandma Marathon this year in about 2:22.”
Goodness gracious. This guy’s got sponsors or something if he’s that fast. And he’s giving up logging a time like that to pace for other runners?
“Dang! 2:45 is something that’s a possibility today, but there’s no way I could go, ‘You can count on me, everyone!’”
There was a young woman running with the pacers, and she kept asking where all the hills were, what were the most difficult miles, what would be the miles with the fastest and slowest splits. She was probably one of the women’s elites.
Less than 2 km into the race, I definitely had to pee. Already.
Should I take care of it now? It’s not going to go away, and the earlier I go, the more distance I cover while comfortable instead of uncomfortable. It’s not like I’m gonna hold it for the next 40 km.
I decided to wait until the course turned around and headed downhill, somewhere between km 5 and 6. Not only would it be easier to get started again on a downhill, but if I stopped now, the masses would catch up and I’d have to weave my way through them. If I waited a little longer, there’d be more space between and I wouldn’t have to bother.
5.5 km in, I spied an aid station, cut through the volunteers, and jumped in the first port-o-potty I saw. Took care of business and flung the door back open. There was a volunteer there, holding out a sport drink.
“Here you go, man!”
“No thanks, I’m good!”
Dude, liquid was the problem, not the solution! If I drink one of those now, I’m gonna wind up right back in one of these things!
Still, cool that the volunteer went out of his way to make sure I had whatever I needed. Got back on the course having lost only about 30 seconds.
Despite the pee break and running uphill for the first 5 km, I was ahead of target pace! The previous year, I’d gotten tired over the course of the uphill that makes up the entire first 5 km. By the end of it, I was dying to turn around and head back down. But this year, I barely noticed. Was I that much better? That much more keyed up and delusional? Simply distracted by having to pee?
I vowed to take it easy on the downhill for the next 5 km, but despite taking it “easy”, speeding up on the downhill was inevitable.
Am I going too fast? Have I backed off too much? How fast should I be going? Should I take advantage of these fast km, or should I take the opportunity to rest? Later, would it pay off more to get further ahead of schedule, or to have fresher legs? How much more effort would it take to run at different paces anyway?
The marathon is a mind game.
The course bottomed out at the 10 km mark, in front of the largest crowd on the course, larger than both the start and the finish. After 10 km, the course doubles back to a spot only two blocks from the start, so it’s easy for spectators to walk over and see their favorite runners in the time it takes for the athletes to cover 10 km. By contrast, the start is in a location where it’s hard for crowds to gather, and by the end of the race, the runners are spread-out, meaning no spectators are going to hang around to see them all.
I managed to spot my parents and give them a nod and a smile. They were on the outside of the turn, or else I might’ve given them a high-five or shouted out how I was feeling at that point. 10 km down and kickin’ ass!
If I was ahead of pace after 5 km uphill and a pee break, I was now way ahead of pace, to the point of getting worried. I “tried” to make it a point to slow down, but almost unintentionally, if possible. You don’t want to overshoot and slow down too much, then have to speed back up. And besides, running should feel natural. If running at this pace felt normal, shouldn’t I keep doing it?
I finally took a sport drink after 12 km. I’d probably eaten too much the day before and had woken up still kinda full. At km 15, there were energy gels at an aid station, but I passed. My parents would be waiting at km 20 with an energy gel of my choosing (nothing new on race day!), right where I wanted it, halfway through the race. I wouldn’t need one both now and later.
Shortly thereafter began the most challenging part of the race: the Enfield hills. For the next 5 km, near-constant hills, punctuated by a particularly large down-and-up just before km 20. The two women’s leaders caught me as soon as the hills started, and the three of us leapfrogged each other throughout the hills until I finally got away from them on the long downhill at the end.
Like the first 5 km, the big hill didn’t seem as bad as last year. I went ahead and let it slow me down, but it didn’t take much out of me. The two courses split off and the roads got quiet. My big left turn approached. Where’s dad?
Km 20 came and went. No mom and dad. No gel. They had to cover 1.5 km in the time it took me to do 10 km, and they didn’t make it. I'd say I was surprised, but part of me wasn't. Last year, I was able to count on my dad, who said he’d easily made the walk with plenty of time to spare.
As usual, the crowds disappeared. Over two-thirds of the participants in the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon opt for the half marathon. For every marathon runner, there are two doing the half. As a result, the crowds in the second half of the race, where the marathoners run alone, are sparse.
Ran past the UT campus on Guadalupe. A few individual spectators and nothing more. A campus of 50,000 students, with over 1,000 student organizations, and not one of them came up with something to do for the Austin Marathon.
As it turned out, the Enfield hills weren’t the hardest part of the course today; that honor would go to Guadalupe. Not because of hills, but because of wind. Stiff and from the north, we were now running into the teeth of it. Not to mention Guadalupe is a wide, open street, unlike the narrower tree-lined streets in other parts of the course. We were taking on the wind in full force.
It wasn’t until about 25 km into the race that I finally saw another runner. One of the women’s leaders passed me from behind, breathing hard and sometimes grunting, but running strong.
“Oh, hey!” I exclaimed.
“Come with me!” She answered.
“We’ll see…” I was still well ahead of pace. Speeding up wasn’t in my plans.
For the rest of the race, she never got more than half a block away. I gladly took some free speed on the downhill to Duval, then let the Dean Keaton hill slow me down a little, but not too much. 29 km in, and essentially no hills or headwind to go. Less than an hour like this and we got it.
East Austin is the flattest part of the course, but considering how tired you probably are at that point, it’s hard to say it’s easy. I could feel things slowly tightening up. I wasn’t getting out of breath, nor was my pulse too high, and I wasn’t overheating. Strength wasn’t necessarily an issue, but my muscles were far from relaxed.
About 10 km from the finish, I got passed by the other women’s leader. We ran side-by-side for a few steps.
“She’s breathing harder than you,” I mentioned.
“OK, cool. I can’t go faster than this though, at least not the whole time. Gonna wait for a push in the last 1.5.”
“Well you’re gonna get away from me. I’m way ahead of pace. I was aiming for 2:50 and I dunno what I’m doing here. But my goals have changed!”
“Good for you!”
She eventually started pulling away. My watched beeped. 32 km.
“It’s only a 10k from here!” I called out. “How many times have you run a 10k?”
I hope she smiled.
After she passed, so did the truck filming the women’s leaders. For at least 1 km, the two women’s leaders and I were no more than 50 m apart from each other, total. I watched the replay of the broadcast later, and here’s what the announcer said:
“Behind her, we have Heather Lieberg, and we don't know who this is, but we see a person who has seemingly come out of nowhere. We have no clue who it is, we did a bunch of interviews yesterday, we're well-researched on the field, so to have a person we don't know and isn't appearing in our search over here is a little strange, but we'll get to the bottom of that as this race develops.”
That’s arguably the best compliment I’ve ever gotten as a runner.
Over the course of the final 10 km, muscles continued to tighten, and it wasn't clear how much longer I could hold this current pace. Which was, still, ahead of target pace. Since the race was nearly over, the strategy was now to hold as steady as possible, and if I slow down a little as it goes, so be it.
I spent most of the time counting how many km to go, how many miles to go, converting back and forth between the two, and calculating how much time to go. My pace sagged, barely, but it was still under 4:00/km, which had originally been the goal. When you’re still running under pace in the last few exhausted km of a marathon, you’ve had a good day.
Twice, the course passed a barbecue place that smelled so good, I vowed to look it up later.
Within a few blocks of I-35, the course made a turn and sent us up a slight hill. Almost worse than a bigger hill, because it was small enough you expect yourself to push through it without slowing down, and at this point in the race, that’s a tough thing to do.
I was within striking distance of the women’s leaders again. By now, they’d changed places. The one in the white shirt, who had asked me to come with her, was now in second place. I could tell I was inching closer, but the one in the red shirt might be harder to catch, especially if she was saving for a final push like she’d said earlier.
I finally caught up to White Shirt shortly after crossing under I-35 and heading north on Red River, into the wind one last time. I wish I could say I was happy to get the wind over with when the course turned to the left, but I knew what that meant. Hill. A big one.
The only good thing about this hill is it happens in the last half-km of the race. Late enough there’s no point planning for it. If it slows you down, fine. If it breaks you, fine! All you’d have to do is jog easy for a couple downhill blocks and you’re done.
For some reason, I didn’t push through the hill as hard as I could’ve. Sure, I made an effort, but didn’t dig down and deliver a gritty oomph to show the hill who’s boss. I was satisfied with conquering it methodically, then took the ensuing downhill like any other point in the race. Saw my parents at the last corner and smiled. Ran a fast and easy last minute and crossed the line flashing the Wimberley ‘W’, then a bit wobbly as I tried to walk for the first time in a few hours. Looked around. Where’s Red Shirt? I wanted to congratulate her. Nowhere to be seen. She was probably up ahead a little bit, getting interviewed or something. I walked on.
Never found Red Shirt. Never saw White Shirt either, for some reason, though she was right behind me. I stopped again and looked around. Nope, neither of them. I walked slowly. I took a bottle of water from a volunteer. I stopped again to open it and take a sip. I looked at the sidewalk for my parents. Didn’t see them. I walked slowly. Picked up a medal from another volunteer. Stopped to fiddle with it. I walked slowly. Stopped again to look for my parents on the sidewalk. Didn't see them. I walked slowly. I stopped to took a bag of goodies from a volunteer. I walked a few steps, then stopped again for a bag of chips. A few more steps. Stopped for a spoon and a napkin. I walked slowly. I stopped to look for my parents on the sidewalk. Didn’t see them. I put the spoon, napkin, and chips in the goody bag. I walked slowly. I stopped to drink some water. Looked for my parents on the sidewalk. Didn’t see them. I walked slowly. Finally made it to the exit of the finish area. Looked around for my parents. Considering how slowly I was walking, and how many times I stopped, they must be here by now. Didn't see them.
I sat on the curb next to a tree, in a spot where I’d be impossible to miss from the direction they were coming. Waited five minutes. Didn't see them. Wait, they probably went to the family meeting area. I walked over there. Didn't see them. I walked back to Congress, to the same spot on the curb by the tree. Another 3-4 minutes, and they arrived.
“Did you stop for lunch?”
2:42:51, much better than the 2:50:00 I was shooting for. My second-fastest marathon ever, after I never thought I’d run like that again. 13th overall. 2nd in my age division. Good enough for an award!
I made my way over to the awards tent, but they wouldn’t have the awards to give out until “about 10:30,” roughly a half hour from now. OK, fine. Walked through the finish area to take in a bunch of free samples, making it a point to visit the Austin Distance Challenge tent for a breakfast taco.
There was a beer garden with live music and free beer (!!!), but the line was so excessively long, it wasn’t worth it. At that point, thigns are only free if you don’t value your time. By now, it was only about five minutes before 10:30, so maybe we could head back and pick up the award and get outta here.
At almost exactly 10:30, I was told they still didn’t have the awards, so come back in 10 minutes. Did a full stretching routine and came back in 20 minutes. Was told to come back in another 20 minutes. “You said 10 minutes 20 minutes ago.” At that point, my dad and I decided to go get a beer.
The line was about 10% of its previous length. Over three hours after the start, there were still more people finishing the half than the marathon, but the majority of the half runners had finished earlier...which meant they’d been taking up the entire occupancy of the beer garden. By now, a lot of them had gone home. After only a couple minutes, my dad and I had beer in hand. After a beer and in better spirits, we gave the awards tent one more try. Fourth time was the charm.
The rest of the day was mostly relaxing and filled with barbecue, pizza, and blueberry pie. All in all, a good weekend.
Until now, when people asked what my “best marathon” was, I always gave two answers. My fastest was Berlin, in 2:42. But my “best” might’ve been San Francisco, in 2:44, on a much more difficult course. And while neither race was run 100% perfectly, you know when you come closer to running your best. Between the two, that was San Francisco.
Now I have a third option: Austin in 2:43. The course is obviously harder than Berlin, and probably a little easier than San Francisco, but by how much? A minute?
Funny thing is, in all three races, I stopped for the bathroom. All of them could’ve been better! Nevertheless, when a race goes better than expected, you’re happy about it.
Oh, and the Austin Distance Challenge? Won it by 47 minutes. More on that later.