by coach Chris McClung
I love this time of year. It is the very beginning of racing season in Austin and generally when training starts to get serious for everyone, with an eager anticipation of cooler weather to come. For the last 9 years, Zilker Relays has been the left bookend of the racing season in Austin. I ran the first Zilker in 2003 and have used it as my annual “motivational race” in many years since then. It is a good benchmark for your early-season fitness. Plus, the hot weather and anaerobic pain of the 2.5-mile grinder are sure to expose the holes in your summer training armor. After all, who could turn down a running night with friends, post-race beer and tacos?
With the 10th annual Zilker Relays approaching on Friday, I am reminded of how racing in Austin used to be back in 2003. From Zilker, the Distance Challenge kicks off and the usual gamut of classic Austin races follow with the IBM 10K, Run for the Water 10-Miler (or Pervasive 10-Miler as was the case in 2003), Decker Challenge, the 3M Half, and then eventually the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon. Back then, if Zilker was the left bookend for racing in Austin, the Austin Marathon was the right bookend. Everybody ran Austin, even if they did a fall race. That is what you did. It was Austin. It was THE race, the culmination of a season of hard work and racing.
Now, many things have changed about Austin… the course is much different and more challenging, the race is primarily marketed to out-of-towners as a destination event, and the number of half marathon finishers now trumps marathoners by nearly 3 to 1 (vs. the exact opposite ratio in 2003 when marathoners far outnumbered the halfers). And, sadly, the absolute number of local Austin finishers for the marathon is down ~21% in what is now a much bigger overall race. Yes, you heard that correctly, the number of locals doing the race is dramatically down from 10 years ago.
Wait…. What? How is that possible? In a city that is arguably the running capital of the US, how is that possible? In a time when marathon participation is at an all-time high, how is that possible?
Well, there are lots of reasons I suppose… including the increased availability of more and supposedly more compelling out-of-town options and the tougher course scaring away the locals looking for fast times.
Regardless, the Austin Marathon has a special place in my heart. I have run the Austin Marathon four times (out of my 10 marathons) on 3 different courses, including the most recent as well as the original downhill screamer from Gateway. My marathon PR and 4 of my top 6 finish times have been in Austin. My house now sits 100 meters from the current course. If runners could declare a “home-court” street, Exposition Blvd would be mine.
In fact, when we do Team Rogue workouts on Exposition (which is quite often), I sometimes day dream that the streets are lined with throngs of raging fans, and we’re competing head-to-head in a fartlek workout with a training group from out of town. We roll effortlessly over the hills crushing their morale while they slog up and down desperately hoping for it to end. Then, we turn around and do it again and again, while they wave the white flag of surrender. Weird, I know, but it gets me through it.
When I ran Expo during the Austin Marathon in February, I had a very different experience than the daydream above. In fact, it was a near-opposite scenario. After turning left on Enfield when the halfers turned right, I entered Expo running completely alone. The runners in front and back were too far to be seen. On top of that, with the streets closed, there were no cars, and the spectators hadn’t yet filed out from their dark houses to cheer. So, I was running right down the middle of the road, completely alone on an empty, dead-quiet street. It felt like a version of the apocalypse had happened, and I was the only one left. It was simultaneously weird and amazing at the same time.
As I run the course, whether in training or during the race, the streets are each bookmarked with a Rolodex of experiences like that one. I don’t see concrete or street signs as much as I see the ghosts of runs from the past, special memories of break-through runs, tough workouts or team bonding moments that make every inch of the course special.
But alas, the Austin Marathon has fallen down the list for locals in the hoopla of people seeking new, bigger, “better” destination events.
Some say that the course is too hard. Or, that it’s too boring to race in your hometown. Those same people under-estimate what you can do when you avoid the long travel to a destination event, eat at a local, familiar favorite the night before, sleep in your own bed, race on familiar roads and have the support of local friends and family cheering you on.
There is magic for you on these roads, and I know just the places you can find it. Think about it. Consider it. It IS Austin.
Chris is currently coaching the Run for the Water training group and will start coaching the Austin Marathon program on September 1st. His groups meet on Wednesday morning at 5:30 am.