Part one of three, this takes our stalwart heroes turn-by-turn, hill-by-hill, from the start line, through the “split” between the half marathon and marathon routes, and takes the half marathoners through The Stairway to Heaven….
For readers not part of Team Spiridon – welcome. Here’s the deal. Team Spiridon is a nonprofit group that raises money for local animal welfare organizations. I’m the author, Rob Hill, Team Spiridon’s head coach and Mostly Benevolent Dictator. I’ve also worked with the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon since 2007, and developed an overly intimate familiarity with this course. Maybe a creepy one.
If what you read is helpful to you, as it has been to thousands in the past when posted online, feel free to drop a buck or two as a donation. 100% of funds raised are distributed to our beneficiaries. Oh, and, the opinions here do not necessarily reflect those of the Austin Marathon’s organizers or sponsors, and this guide falls outside the scope of my work for the race. I’m just a huge geek.
The Austin Marathon and Half Marathon prides itself on improving every year, but this year, one of the greatest things will be something staying exactly the same… This is a landmark third year in a row with the exact same course. The course has changed, to some degree, 17 times in the last 22 years, almost always due to a combination of events outside the organizers’ control, and the desire to make improvements for the runners and the community at large.
While some runners avoid Austin because of its hills, and some running pundits even gripe and whine about the course, every year, thousands of runners return to the race, attracted by the city, the well-run event, and by what many believe to be a course that’s challenging, but fair, and continues to qualify more runners for the Boston Marathon than other, “flatter,” “faster” Texas races – something that the numbers bear out. I’ve even met countless runners who claim they consistently run faster marathon times in Austin than they do in Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio. So… no whining!
A lot of that probably comes down to a few things: softer, almost entirely asphalt streets, rather than the battering concrete streets of Houston or other cities; more variation in the muscles engaged during the race; and the significant paybacks in our course – plenty of long, gradual, usable downhills, in the right places.
The key to getting the most out of this course, or at least minimizing the chances of having a bad day, is having an intelligent plan of attack. Aside from proper training, nothing else will flatten hills and shorten miles like familiarity. This series of articles will hopefully give local runners a race-ready perspective on their home course, and will give visiting runners a vision and a plan for their race. I recommend following along on the course maps.
First off, make sure you’ve prepared well logistically. You might want to check out this article to catch anything you might have missed…
The almost 18,000 combined marathoners and half marathoners will stage by pace time from the start line at 16th and Congress, south around either side of the Capitol building. It is important to note that gear bag drop-off is south of the Capitol, on Congress, between 6th and 7th street. It may seem far because that big granite building is in the way, but it’s only about six tenths of a mile to where four-hour marathoners will queue up, so it’s in line with most other races. Plus, not having to transport bags means less opportunity for damage, and a quicker bag pick-up.
The race will be a joint marathon and half-marathon mass-start at 7:00am. From the start line, it’s three blocks on a very slight downhill to the first turn, a 90-degree right onto Martin Luther King Blvd. Some had concern last year that the first turn was be crowded… They (OK, me) were wrong.
Still, you should let any slow-down be to your advantage, to prevent the single biggest mistake you can make on this course (as on most) – going out too fast. The anticipation, the horn, the mass start, the fireworks – they are going to turn the opening mile into the streets of Pamplona. Let the crowd slow you down and calm you down – decide you’re going to be the calm runner in the crowd. Line up a bit on the left, so you’ll be on the outside-middle in the first, really tight turn, that comes just three blocks from the start line. You’ll be bunched up, but you don’t want to get pinched into the inside curb, or pushed too far out.
MLK is a good downhill, and a good place to start enforcing another rule for the day – be conservative on the downhills. You will see runners barrel down, actually burning more energy than they would on flat ground. Use the downhills – you can recover and relax and still pick up time, and you’ll end up seeing, and passing, those other runners. It just takes discipline, and proper form.
Those without that discipline and training are about to have their first rude shock, as they turn right onto San Jacinto, which is a long flat to “false-flat” – it looks flat, but really has just enough of a slope to make a difference. That leads into the first challenging uphill of the day, which all runners will see twice – now, and at the end. Going up the hill to 11th Street, feel solid and strong, and decide that you’re not intimidated by the hill. Remember how that resolve feels, because you’ll need it later.
11th pitches downhill to Congress, where you can see the massive finish line structure, a block to your left. There’s another good uphill for about a block and a half, and then the left turn onto Guadalupe. Guadalupe is a great, long downhill, for the better part of a mile. This is where you want to start thinking about settling into your pace, even though you’ll end up with slightly quicker times. The first water stop, staffed by Livestrong, is just past 5th Street, and runs down both sides of the block.
The course turns left at Cesar Chavez, past the fantastic St. James Men’s Chorus at City Hall, on to the right turn onto Congress. Over the bridge is a short downhill, and then the big, extended challenge of South Congress, which real Austinites do not call “SoCo.”
South Congress is really best seen as a series of climbs. The first is the steepest, up to the big beige wall of the Texas School for the Deaf. After that, it flattens a little for about a block or two – recover and relax. The next climb takes you up to about Monroe, even with the big brown church, before it levels out a bit again. The slope up to Live Oak is much more moderate, and then it’s a fairly moderate gradual climb to the right turn onto the access road of Ben White/Hwy 71.
The access road itself holds a sharp downhill, and a short, tough uphill that is often overlooked. At the top, however, about 5.5 miles in, you get the flipside of the long climb – the long downhill on South First. Just accept that the South Congress to South First portion of the course is going to take some time from you, much of which you’ll get back. South First is a rolling downhill with flat bits interspersed, but the descent will still be faster. These downhills are where those backwards-running and other quad-strengthening drills pay off…
You’ll cross over Lady Bird Lake again, turning left onto Cesar Chavez in front of City Hall, the only time you’ll see another part of the course coming at you. Think about what you’ve just beaten since you were last at this intersection, and work on settling into a comfortable rhythm. Cesar Chavez is mostly downhill, until you get to the climb up, the downhill, and the second climb on the ramp towards Lake Austin Blvd.
At Lake Austin Blvd., you’ll turn right onto Atlanta, which becomes Winstead – the southbound access road to Mopac. This involves a long, steady, tough climb up to West 10th, then a downhill and flat to where the course splits at mile 10.8, at Enfield Road, where the marathoners will go left, and the half marathoners will turn right.
If you’re a marathoner, I wouldn’t fight to keep pace on the ramp, or on the access road. I think it’s too early for all but the elites. If you’re running the half, you’ve got to see how you feel, with two to three miles left, keeping in mind that you’ve got one massive hill at mile 12, and another minor one about two tenths of a mile from the finish.
You fullsies, take a breath here – for the remainder of this installment, we’ll follow the half marathoners from “the split” to “the merge,” where the two courses meet again.
The half marathoners will see a long, gradual climb for about a quarter-mile, then some gently rolling terrain until a long downhill a little over half a mile from the split. At almost 12 miles in, any half marathoner that doesn’t feel incredibly energized and strong needs to reserve some energy for what is perhaps the toughest hill on either course, what I like to call, the Stairway to Heaven.
Someday, it is my fervent hope to have Austin resident and Odin of Rock Robert Plant at the top of that hill… Until then, we are very fortunate to have the lululemon Angels out there providing some of the most amazing crowd support at the most critical time.
Coming up from the overpass over Lamar, Enfield, which becomes 15th Street, rises over 80 feet in less than a quarter of a mile. That may not sound like much, but it’s eight stories, in a very short span. Going into it, relax, shake your arms and hands out, and focus on keeping your form together – hips under you, head up! Pick a point up ahead, just get to it, then pick another one and repeat. Many marathoners joke that they’d rather run the full than run this hill. It is quite likely the toughest steep hill on either course.
It’s time to assess how you feel. You’re going into a long downhill before a short, gradual uphill, but you do still have a little over a mile left. If you increase your pace, it needs to be by small increments.
15th takes you downhill to just past the last water stop, at Nueces. It then pitches back up to Congress, then, it’s a good downhill back to San Jacinto, where you’ll meet up with the marathon course for the final stretch.
Continued on Wednesday…