Post-race review: Aramco Houston Half Marathon
Updated: Jan 17, 2018
This past Sunday I ran the Aramco Houston Half Marathon for the third time and had a great time doing so. Here are my thoughts and observations about this well-established event.
This expo has been held for decades at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. This venue is "ginormous" as my son likes to say, being quite spacious to say the least. Packet pickup there is always well organized, in particular when you consider that the event traditionally sells out at its current cap of 25,000 participants combined between the full and half marathon races. The packet pickup area this year was moved (for whatever reason) to a different hall from where the vendors are, but it is still on the same floor of the convention center. I guess the move might have been done in an attempt to create more space for the vendors and to clearly separate the two areas. Within seconds of entering the very large ballroom-style room for packet pick-up, I was approached by a friendly volunteer lady who asked if I needed help looking up my bib number and registration. After she found my number on her iPad, she walked me to a booth area in the room where my bib would be, and handed her iPad with my registration info to another volunteer who scanned the QR code displayed on the iPad and asked to see my ID to confirm my identity. He found my bib packet, confirmed with me it was the correct name on it, and explained to me where to go next to get my participant t-shirt (pictured) and browse the expo. I was literally in and out of the packet pick up in less than 3-4 minutes and zero confusion or hassles. It is quite clear not only that they have perfected the process over the years, but that they also know how to staff it with the right amount of volunteers.
Living nearby in the Houston suburbs makes this Expo a great opportunity for me to buy any running gear I may be needing for good, discounted prices, so I generally go to it even if I'm not running in one of the races. There are always plenty of vendors offering the latest and greatest gear as well as representatives of big races from across the country and the state. This year I enjoyed chatting with representatives from the Big Sur International Marathon and the Route 66 Marathon as those are events that have been on my radar for a bit and I'm considering doing. Interestingly enough, this year it felt as if there were less vendors altogether, and that there weren't as many booths or products being offered as in years past. For example, I tried to find a vendor booth I've seen there in the past carrying a large variety of colorful arm warmers, and couldn't find it. A friend of mine who attended had the same impression; that there appeared to be not as many vendors as in years past.
Race Day, Course, and Support
I drove downtown with my friend Mel and parked at the nearby Toyota Center garage which is only 3 blocks away. Parking in downtown Houston can be a challenge as it is the case in most cities that large. You can find yourself circling around several city blocks looking for either an open metered spot or a parking lot that charges reasonable parking fees. This year, a running club we're affiliated with, the Cypress Running Club, offered an awesome discounted park deal of $5 to its members at the Toyota Center garage. I am very glad to have taken advantage of the offer, as it took the hassle and guesswork out of where I'd be parking, at quite a reasonable cost of $5 to be so close to the convention center.
Once there, we gathered with friends and team members for group photos and I then headed for the port-a-potties to avoid having to use them during the race. Even though there were A LOT of port-a-potties available at the convention center, there were several hundred runners lining up for them. I estimate that each line had approximately 60-70 people waiting and they all appeared to be moving extremely slow, but I felt I had no choice but to go then (which was incorrect) and not wait until later, or I'd pay the price during the race---so I lined-up and waited patiently. The line took so long that by the time I exited and got out to the corrals, I had missed my corral closure time (7:00am) and had to then go into corral C, the next one that was open and due to start (7:15am). On my way to corral C, I noticed that there were plenty of port-a-potties available near it, and most of them were either empty or with only 1-2 people waiting in line, so that would have been a much better/smarter option. I regretted not thinking ahead and realizing that those would be there as that would have saved me all that time I spent earlier at the lines inside the convention center.
Approximately 10 minutes after entering the corral, we were released and able to start the race. Soon after, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I was able to establish my target pace without having to weave in and out and dodge a lot of the runners ahead of me. I feel that this was due to a change in the wave release times between each corral and the gap they were allowing in between, so the crowds ahead of us were smaller than in previous years. Kudos to the race management for that change, I definitely noticed the difference and feels it makes for a more enjoyable race. I last ran this race two years ago in 2016 and do not remember if the first 3-4 miles were the same then as they were this year, but definitely recall that 5 years ago that segment was different and not as enjoyable as it is now. On this new course, the route is straighter and on a wider street during those first few miles, so things felt a lot roomier and comfortable.
All along the course there are plenty of spectators, music bands, cheerleaders, and support groups literally from beginning to end. Despite the temperature being in the low 30s at start time, the crowds were out in force and in great spirits everywhere. I laughed, high-fived, and truly enjoyed all of the music they were playing as I progressed. The hydration stations were plentiful, spaced about 1.5 miles apart beginning at mile 2. They were well-organized and staffed, with plenty of volunteers handing out Gatorade Endurance (a formula with a higher sodium content to help sustain hydration better) on the first set of tables at each station, then water on the second set. Unlike some other races, I felt that the mix of Gatorade Endurance they provided was perfect with the correct strength and not diluted at all, so kudos to race management in that respect as well. They also had a Clif Energy Gel station between miles 9 and 10, but I always opt to carry the gels I train with instead. As far as elevation and difficulty go, I would rate this course as an optimal race to run a PR on, as it is extremely flat throughout with a mix of asphalt and concrete surface and not a lot of turns. One perfect example of this was that of Molly Huddle's, who just broke Deena Kastor's American record in the half marathon yesterday, a record which had stood since 2006 (click HERE to read a full-article on her amazing accomplishment. I was also very fortunate to run fast and strong on this course yesterday and improved on my previous personal record by 54 seconds, to a finish of exactly 1:59:00 for the 13.1 miles.
Right after finishing and receiving the medal, you enter back into the convention center for the post-race food and collecting of the finishers' t-shirt and checked gear bags. There was plenty of post-race food, consisting of ice cream sandwiches, egg and sausage biscuits, chocolate milk, fruit, granola bars, etc. The center, being a covered and indoor facility that is so large and spacious makes it very easy and comfortable to find an area to stretch and gather with friends and family.
Across the street from the convention center and adjacent to the finish line there is a large park, called Discovery Green, where various vendors and organizations setup tents for post-race festivities, refreshments, and promotions. After meeting my wife at the convention center, we went there to relax and to keep an eye out for our friend Mel who was running the full marathon. We were tracking her progress through the Houston Marathon App the race publishes and makes available for both Apple and Android devices. We found the app to be quite accurate in pinpointing exactly where she was on the course (and that is not always the case with some races). In fact, you could actually see the icon representing her location on the map move every few seconds as she moved. With this frequent and reliable update from the app, we went to the finish line to cheer her on as she got within the last mile, and were there as she crossed and recorded a video we shared with her afterwards.
From beginning to end, this was a great event. I feel this is a top-notch race that is extremely well-organized and supported in every aspect. I would definitely run it again, and would also recommend it to anyone considering it.