The Aramco Houston Half, which is part of Chevron Houston Marathon weekend in January, is a race I was wanting to run for quite a few years. It is known for being very flat and fast and, not counting the World Majors, is one of the most hyped up races I’m familiar with in North America. The elite field is usually awesome and many of the pros run this one with goals of breaking various records. So exciting!! On that note, this year, the women’s American Record in both the full and half marathons were broken by Keira D’Amato and Sara Hall, respectively. The Canadian men’s half marathon record was also broken by Rory Linkletter. Incredible.
As a northern BC’er, ideally I didn’t want to travel all that way just for a weekend (though I would..) so I planned to head over to Cabo for five nights on Monday after race weekend. It was gonna be amazing regardless, but I reminded myself that Mexico would be even better if I was celebrating a great race.
I flew into Houston on Friday evening from Vancouver via Toronto. It was later than I’d like but not so late that I couldn’t walk from my AirBnB in the Montrose neighbourhood to Trader Joes for lots of snacks.
Late Saturday morning I did an easy 30 minute shakeout run towards the George R. Brown Convention Centre (GRBCC), which is where the expo is always held and also where the race starts and finishes. The expo was pretty awesome, and it’s been a long time since I was at a bigger one so I was excited. Bib and package pickup was very organized, and even though I didn’t actually get there right at my selected time, it seemed that the scheduling of time slots for participants really helped to spread out the crowd. There were some cool photo ops, great vendors, samples, the usual for a big expo. Excitement was building! The race shirts were only given out for finishers on Sunday, but everyone got a huge beach towel!! I think that’s a sweet piece of swag and it went well with my travel plans hehe..
I met up with my IG buddy John (@johnbreen_runner) and his lovely wife and we went for the most insane vegan Mexican late-lunch extravaganza. The place is called Cascabel and it was 11/10 sofa king good!!!
The rest of my night was spent laying out my gear, eating cereal in bed, listening to podcasts and praying that the wind would calm down. It was so windy that all the potted plants and the patio furniture in the AirBnb yard were strewn around and smashed and blown over! I was also quite surprised at the temperature – I didn’t expect hot or even warm, based on the history of the event, but it was zero degrees celsius!
My Uber was scheduled to pick me up just before 6am, and I was up a little before five to get cheerios and a banana into my gut, pound some water and green tea and then get ready. First race ever that I didn’t drink coffee before hand. Oh and side note, Uber is definitely surge pricing during COVID, holy shit.
It was so chilly I ended up layering a tank top and a Lululemon Swiftly tech t-shirt on top, shorts, gloves, and then a throw-away ear band, long sleeve old race shirt and zip hoodie. For afterwards I had a packable puffy jacket, a toque and some tights, just in case.
I think it was about 6:10 when I arrived at the GRBCCC, which is massive. At this race you get to stay inside until it’s time to go to the corrals. This gives the race serious bonus points! It was so cold and windy, and even though I brought those throw-away clothes, I now wanted to save the hoodie to layer under my puffy jacket after the race, so I stuffed it into my checked gear bag and did some of my initial warm-up jogging inside. The long sleeve would have to do! The place is so big that tons of people were jogging around in there on the carpet. I can’t explain how valuable this was, having the option to stay warm for a little longer.
At 6:35 I started jogging towards the A Corral (all signage was big and clear). The gate for that corral closed at 6:45 and I wanted my place in there, so I made sure not to be late. You can submit previous finish times when you register for this race which allows you to start further towards the front. Once in there, I jumped around to the music and kept warming up/staying warm, while looking for the 3:25 marathon pacer who I wanted to run with for a bit, at least at first, to hide from the NW wind that would come at us while running west for the first ~4 kilometres. There were tons of porto-potties inside the convention centre and along the way to the start corrals – no problems with pre-race bathroom visits.
This event doesn’t have half-marathon pace groups, but the half and full marathoners all run together til the courses split just before 8 miles (~12.5 km). But, you can do some simple math and join a marathon pace group for more than 50% of your half-marathon, if you want! I wanted a pack to tuck into if the wind was too aggressive.
The 3:25 pacer entered the corral pretty late, but I did see the 3:30 sign and positioned myself in front of it accordingly until the 3:25 guy showed up. Finally I saw him but I heard him telling another runner his strategy and I was no longer sure I wanted to run with that group. Hmm. But it was national anthem time and then we started moving forward to the start line! The gun and the elites went off at 7:01. There is a funnel-style set up before the start mat, so you can actually spread out a bit before crossing it and it made it far less congested than other large races I’ve run. It was good.
Some people don’t pay any attention to the course map or wind direction, but I studied the map as well as a YouTube course preview at least 50 times between October and January, and it was really helpful for me.
That pace group went out a bit hot, and after the first mile I basically just kept them in my sight but didn’t obsess about staying right in it. The NW wind wasn’t terrible and I was around enough people to tuck in if I needed.
My plan was to run as even as possible (super flat course) and then pick it up subtly in the last quarter of the race, depending on how I felt. I planned to manual-lap at the mile markers for both accuracy and a mind trick, and try not to look at my watch otherwise. Even though my goal pace was 4:50/km, I chose to think in 7:47/mile. Pace per mile has very minimal meaning to me – no emotion, no associations of any kind. I am a metric runner and though I’m pretty well-versed in converting, I train in metric only. Also, 13 laps vs. 21 laps feels more manageable. For anyone who is purely metric, a mile is 1.61km. I didn’t eliminate pace/km from my Garmin screen, but all I was looking for was 7:47s.
I must have gotten into a pretty good flow state because I definitely did not manual lap at every marker! Oops. But, the fact that at one point I had run 4 miles without hitting lap felt really good, plus I love math so I did some calculations and conversions in my head. “yay, you just ran 6.44km on pace and didn’t even notice” LOL. I was running extremely consistently and feeling fluid and focused.
The aid stations were fantastic. There were eight total, and they were set up long with tons of volunteers. There were so many opportunities to grab water and/or gatorade – it wasn’t too crowded and I was able to get what I needed and wanted at every one. I can’t comment on the gel station(s?), I don’t even know if they were separate or at one of the hydration stations, I didn’t notice and was using my own Maurten gels. As for spectators and cheering stations, I remember there were quite a bit but I don’t recall any specifics cause I was definitely in the zone.
Speaking of fuelling, one thing I need to step up my game on is remembering to take my gels! I don’t have a religious routine, but usually every 30-40 minutes. I was late on both in this race, but didn’t forget thankfully!
I hit lap seven times in the entire race, including the finish line. Each time I did I felt like I was sweeping away what I’d run up to that point, and could reset my focus. I liked doing this and I will use that method again. Working in miles kept my mind off how far I’d run and how much farther I had to go since it doesn’t come naturally to me to use that unit of distance. I was totally engaged in running in the moment and didn’t think about the finish line or time until I made the final turn.
The Aramco Houston 1/2 course is flat as a pancake, with only 7 or 8 turns in total and long, straight stretches. I found that it really allowed me to find good flow, save energy and compartmentalize. Divide and conquer. That final right turn at almost exactly 18km has a very tall building which I noted the first time I watched that course preview on YouTube back in October. When it came into my view while I ran the second-last (and windy) straight stretch north in the race, I felt so calm and happy like I’d been here before and I was picking up my pace a bit right as planned. Blow at High Dough by the Hip came on and I was like fuck yeah I am Canadian let’s do this! ahahaha!! I told myself “get to that turn and then get to the finish, that is all you have to do!” I knew there would be a tailwind, too, as we would finish running east to the finish. F yes!!!
I obviously wasn’t going to go balls deep for 3k, but I pressed a little and then just past the 12th mile marker and time clock, I hit lap and dug deeper for the final mile and a bit. My math brain was still working and I knew as long as I didn’t slow down my goal of 1:41:xx would be mine. Then Work It by Missy Elliot came on and that was it. I checked a few times and watched that final lap pace drop, knowing I would be able to celebrate in Mexico!
That was my best race execution ever, I believe. I stayed present and patient the whole time, negative split the thing and finished strong – and ran a very funny time, considering my goal. 01:40:59 haha!! I was so happy as I made my way through the finish chute, getting my medal and water and chocolate milk (my fave). What a way to begin 2022!
Another amazing thing about this race is the finish chute basically leads you back into the convention centre! I was getting warm and collecting my gear bag less than five minutes after crossing the finish line!
WOOOHOOOO!!!! I sat in the sun in the “Run Fest” area for a bit, just soaking in my race and rehydrating/stretching, and I’m glad I had the hoodie, jacket and toque cause it was still very chilly out, though a gorgeous day. John’s wife, B.A. and I met up and we drove to a cheering spot on the full marathon race course to see him, and then relocated again to watch him bring it home for his 8th full marathon! Then we went for more vegan Mexican at Taco Deli (also YUM) and everyone was full and happy.
They headed back towards Dallas, I headed into my bed, and then to the airport super early.
The Aramco Houston half rocks. Although a PR can cause some serious bias, I really feel like this event was amazing in so many ways. The overall logistics, the course itself, aid stations, spectator support, swag and the convention centre all made it fantastic. I’ve never been able to stay warm and dry right up until the race, in a building so large you can do your warm-up inside of it if you want. I’d highly recommend this race and hope to run it again some day myself!