In the spirit of full disclosure, I was not actually an elite runner at the Chevron Houston Marathon. (I realize that may come as a surprise to many that read this.) Due to an unforeseen situation, I did have the opportunity to see what it is like to be an elite runner at a large running event in a big city. I will try to describe the experience as best I can here and I hope I do it justice because it is most likely something I will never get to do again.
It all started last summer when my friend, David, asked me if I was interested in running in Houston. The marathon weekend is in January but the lottery was closing that day. If I wanted to run one of the races, I needed to submit my registration online that day. I looked at the website and decided it looked like a fun event so I registered. It was six months or so until race weekend so I really did not think much more about it other than to add it to my race calendar. Little did I know, it would be a tremendous experience in every way. As time went on, I learned that two of our good friends would also be in Houston — Meb Keflezighi (the #1 distance runner in the U.S.) and his brother and agent, Merhawi. I was looking forward to spending some time with these guys.
Fast forward to January and it is finally the week of the race. I find out that Merhawi has moved David and I to the Hilton Americas Houston, which is the official race hotel where he and Meb are staying. It looks like we will get to spend a lot of time with them now. However, the night before we fly out, David calls me to say that Merhawi had a family matter come up and had asked if we would take care of Meb during the weekend. Meb had a number of appearances, book signings, etc., and Merhawi wanted us to make sure he got to the places where he needed to be. Of course, we were happy to help. Little did I realize that this turn of events would completely change my weekend experience in every way.
David and I flew out on an early flight on Friday morning and got to Houston well before lunchtime. It was good that we did not have any delays because we had to get going with Meb pretty early. We had just enough time to check into our room and drop off our luggage before meeting up with Meb. Of course, we had to pick up our credentials before we did anything else. He had to be at the press conference before lunch. It was interesting seeing all the press (TV and print) gathered for the press conference. Since Meb won the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, there was a lot of interest in what he had to say. Due to his schedule, he actually had to leave the press conference a little early to speak at a Bank of Texas luncheon. Because they were expecting just Meb and Merhawi, there was only a seat for two people. I told David to go with Meb. While they were gone, I went to the George R. Brown Convention Center to pick up our race packets. Since there was a little gap in Meb’s schedule after the luncheon, it gave me an opportunity to look around the expo and also get in a short run. When I met back up with David and Meb, we made a trip to the Elite Runners hospitality room. Of course, everyone recognized Meb immediately and that gave us an opportunity to meet the folks that worked the room. The guy in charge was Darrell Pye and he told us to let him know if Meb needed anything. He also said to tell him if we needed anything.
Later in the afternoon, Meb spoke on stage at the expo. There was a large group there to hear his story. He only had 30 minutes allotted to him and he did a great job. Everyone seemed very interested to hear his story. In fact, the questions had to be cut off because there was another speaker on the schedule. When he finished speaking, we sold his book (Run to Overcome) and he signed autographs for a while. One thing I noticed, Meb never turned down a request for an autograph or a picture. We, mainly David, may have to cut off the lines so we could get Meb to his next appearance but Meb was always extremely gracious. Once we wrapped up the autograph session, Meb had one more interview to do. We decided to go to the Skechers booth for the interview. After that, we were done for the day until dinner. Since we were with Meb, we got to eat at the Elite Runners dinner.
Saturday had a full schedule. It started with the ABB 5K. David and I ran the race and Meb was the official starter. He spoke to the crowd before the race. It was fun walking to the start with Meb. It was only about four blocks away but it was interesting to see people’s reaction when they realize that Meb is walking over with everyone else. As I learned is a normal occurrence, people would ask Meb if they could take a picture with him. He always accommodated them. There were almost 4,000 runners that finished the 5K. I ran it easy as a loosening up run the day before marathon. My finishing time was 26:22 which was actually faster than I expected. The finish line was right in front of the convention center by our hotel. After the race and breakfast, we got showered and ready for a busy day with Meb. After his run and stretching, Meb had an appointment to have coffee with someone from the New York Road Runners. After that, we took him over to the convention center where he was scheduled to sign autographs from 1pm to 3pm for Skechers, which is Meb’s shoe sponsor. The folks at Skechers gave David and me a nice Houston Marathon Skechers jacket to wear. There was two hours scheduled for the signing, but the line was very long as we approached 3pm. One of the girls from Skechers stopped the line but allowed everyone that was in line by 3pm to remain. Meb was content to sign autographs and take pictures as long as people were there. We also sold a lot of books. From there, we headed over to the Skechers booth where Meb took some pictures with the Skechers Performance Team.
While at the Skechers booth, I had the opportunity to speak one of the Territory Managers for the Skechers Performance Division named Josh Beisel. He asked if I had ever tried the Skechers running shoes. I told him I tried a pair on a couple of years ago at an expo but the shoes were too minimal and light for me. I like more cushioning. He showed a new model that is more like what I wear and I tried on a pair. They felt very comfortable. When I asked how much they cost, he told me $80. That’s cheaper than the shoes I normally purchase. He said the shoes there belonged to Academy Sports‘ inventory. Because of that, he could not give me a pair. However, he told me he would send me a pair since I was there helping Meb. I am looking forward to the opportunity to run in those shoes since they felt so good when I walked around in them.
After wrapping up things at the expo, Meb had a meeting with Tom McGlynn from RunCoach. That gave David and me a chance to roam around the expo some more. When we met back up with Meb, we had a chance to talk with Tom a little bit. He set up both up with a complementary account on RunCoach. I am interested to see how it works since I generally do my own thing and run. I am not certain whether I can actually follow a running plan. We then headed over to the Elite Runners hospitality room to relax. That night, we had a reception to attend that was sponsored by Skechers. Since Meb is their most high-profile athlete, he wanted to drop in for a little bit. While at the reception, Meb introduced us to Brant Kotch, Race Director and President of the Houston Marathon Committee, Inc. He was very nice and took a lot of time with us. Of course, I am sure that had as much to do with the fact we were with Meb, but it still made us feel just a little important. We left the reception because we had to get to the Elite Runners dinner before they stopped serving. While at dinner, we met Katie McGregor. She was very humble. It was several minutes into the conversation, with David asking questions, before she finally admitted that she had been a member of a number of teams representing the U.S. at world championships. That is one thing I noticed. The truly elite runners do not feel the need to brag about their accomplishments. In fact, they seemed more interested in my running. It was intimidating for me to talk to these runners about my running since what I consider fast would be considered slow to them. It did not seem to matter though. They were very supportive and encouraging. Of course, it was obvious before we even started talking that I was not an elite runner. It was interesting to hear their perspectives because it is so different from mine. I look for races that I think will be good, fun events. For them, it is all about making a living (or at least trying to).
When we returned to our room, we started getting ready for the next morning’s race. David was running the half marathon and I was running the marathon. (Meb was also running the half marathon because it was the USA Half Marathon Championship.) As we took our running gear out and got ready for bed, I was a little worried that I had done too much that day and would not be able to run the race that I wanted. I had trained hard for the previous three months with the single goal of running my first sub-four-hour marathon. My best marathon coming in to this race was the 2012 St. Jude Memphis Marathon where I ran 4:05:55. I had hoped to break the four-hour mark last year in Boston, but it did not quite happen. (You can read about my Boston Marathon experience here.)
As we awoke on Sunday morning, the first thing I did was check the weather. The temperature was 52 degrees and there was no chance of rain. It appeared that it would be a perfect day for running. At least that is what I hoped. We were supposed to meet Meb at 5:30am to get him to the car that would take him to the Elite Runners tent near the start line. We apparently missed him in the elevators as we headed up to his room. When we finally reached him, he was already in the car with Ian (one of the tremendous volunteers that worked with the elite runners). We told him to go on and we would meet up with him later. He told us to find Erin McGowan (Director, Legal Affairs and Participant Services) and she would get us on a bus to the Elite Runners tent. When we found Erin, she told us to get on Elite Bus #1 because it would get us to the tent first. Being the first elite bus meant it held the fastest runners. As David and I boarded the bus, we discovered the only available seats were at the very back. We had to walk past everyone to get there and they all looked at us like they could not figure out what we were doing there. When we got to the tent, Meb was already warming up so we relaxed. When it was finally time for the elite runners to line up, we were told we could line up right behind them. That put us in front of the runners in Corral A. When I looked back, all I saw was some antsy runners and a big sign that read “6:00 mile”. I told David there was no way I was going to start with those runners. That was way too fast.
I decided to wait for the four-hour pace group to come by and jump in with them. I did just that and the race was on. The pace group leaders were right on pace for the first mile. However, the second mile was fast. As was the third and fourth and fifth. Well, you get the point. Instead of running at around a 9:00 pace, they were clicking off the miles at closer to an 8:45 pace. I wanted to stay with them but also was concerned that the faster pace would hurt me later. I kept the pace leaders in sight as we ran. Early in the race, a girl named Amanda that had been at the book signing on Friday ran up beside me. We started talking and she told me it was her first marathon. She was also hoping for a four-hour marathon. She asked if she could run with me and I told her that was fine. It is usually easier to run with someone anyway so I thought it would help me too. At the Mile 12 mark, we went over an overpass. At that point, we also passed the pace leaders. She asked me if we were making a mistake by passing them and I told her that was a possibility. I felt like we had gotten into a rhythm at a pace in the 8:40s so I wanted to stay there. She agreed so we kept going. Somewhere past Mile 19 at a water stop, she took off. I was not ready to speed up at that point so I let her go. I tried to hold the pace with a goal to start speeding up at Mile 23. As I started heading back into the downtown area, I was amazed how good I felt. Once I got to Mile 23, I gradually increased the pace. I sped up a little more at Mile 24 and Mile 25. I got excited when I could see the convention center and knew I was almost at the finish line. As I came up on Mile 26, I saw someone coming toward me from my right. I looked over and it was Meb. He came out to run me in for the last quarter-mile. It was incredible coming into the finish with a runner of his stature (2004 Olympic Silver Medalist, 2009 New York City Marathon Champion, 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials Champion, etc.). It was an incredible experience that was made even more amazing because my finishing time was 3:51:18, well below my four-hour goal.
After the race, I learned that Meb won the USA Half Marathon Championship. That was just another thing that made for a perfect race weekend. I still needed to go into the convention center to get my finisher’s shirt. While there with David, we ran into one of our fellow Village Runners, Kaitlin, who had just completed her second marathon. Her time was twenty minutes faster her first marathon for yet another bonus from the weekend. We could not spend much time with Kaitlin because we had one more event to attend with Meb on race day.
There was an awards luncheon for the USA Half Marathon Championship. We had just enough time to get showered and changed to make it to the luncheon on time. After lunch, Meb went home with a family member. That meant David and I had the rest of the day to relax. We went back to the Elite Runners hospitality room to watch football and rest.
Monday was a much less busy day. I was going to go for an easy recovery run. Since Meb was planning to run 10 miles, he said he would run the first mile with me. Needless to say, our pace for that mile was much quicker than my recovery pace. However, it was a real honor and pleasure to run that mile with Meb. Once we parted ways, I decided to run by Minute Maid Park. What I did not expect was to be caught up in a Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day parade. I weaved through the spectators before heading back to the hotel. Meb had been invited to lunch at the home of someone he met in Athens, Greece, and told us we could join him. Matthew picked us up and took us to his home where some of his family and running group were gathered. We had Indian food and had some great conversation meeting new friends. It was a good afternoon. That night we went to the Houston Rockets basketball game. They were playing the Portland Trailblazers and Meb was the Honorary Captain for the Rockets. It was a terrific end to a fantastic weekend.
The folks working with the marathon made us feel like we were elite runners. Darrell and his crew that worked the hospitality room were incredible. They worked long hours and made sure the runners had anything and everything they needed. Erin and her team that took care of the elite runners did everything they could to make sure the runners only had to focus on running. All other needs were handled. Her right hand, Ian Rosen, was especially good to us and took very good care of Meb. All in all, the Houston Marathon was the best run event I have attended in my short running career. I do not have a frame of reference, but I cannot imagine that any other race can take better care of their elite athletes than these folks did. I would recommend this race to anyone. I would not mind going back one day myself!