A Celebration of Fitness at Houston Half

March 5, 2021
Chaski Coach Calvin Lehn recaps his big half marathon PR at the loaded 2019 Houston Half Marathon. This photo comes from the 2019 US Cross Country Championships.

The day started at 4:04 AM… no need for an alarm this morning. It was 4:45 AM by the time I left the Airbnb for a shakeout jog of 6-7min—an early morning pre-race routine that helps me wake up and loosen up. After, it was nice to still have plenty of time before Lyfting over to the convention center for bag drop. This race was logistically more complex because they did not offer bag drop for the American Distance Project (ADP, the group of high level American runners just below the super-elites at the very front of the world-class field). Instead, bag drop was at the convention center, a half mile from the start area. Thankfully, it was 45 degrees on Sunday morning, which didn’t feel too cold compared to the sub-zero run I did on Thursday in MN.

At the ADP corral, I immediately found local masters legend and friend Eric Loeffler to jog circles with. We enjoyed casual conversation about our recent training and pre-race expectations. Before we knew it, race officials opened the gates and we marched over with the masses of other ADP runners towards the start line.  Since it’s an Olympic year, everyone wanted to get into the half or full as either a tune up for the Olympic Marathon Trials next month, or a last chance qualifying opportunity. This meant an over booked corral that we packed into well behind the elites at the front. As we settled into our position, I realized how deep this field was. I couldn’t even find the exact location of the start line. There was little space to move.  

Instead of adding to the all of the nervous energy, I looked over to Eric and claimed, “It’s going to be a big party out here; a celebration of fitness!”

“Yeah, there are a lot of really fit people here!” Eric added. Moments later they shot the gun.

The race did not start immediately for us, though. It took several seconds to slowly jog up to the timing mat for the official start. Finally, I started my watch and we took off at a conservative effort compared to the rest of the race. We patiently settled in and started moving up through the field. It was neat to pass occasional high profile women, such as Sara Hall.

I appreciated the relaxed start to the race knowing you can always make up time during the middle and late miles if you feel good. I have a tendency to get out hard in races, but my focus going into this race was to be patient and close the race strongly.  I had a disappointing last 5K at the Philadelphia Half Marathon back in November, which served as valuable experience fighting through some tough wind and hills. We came through the mile in 5:06. Eric had 5:13 because he started his watch with the gun. My patience began to wear off knowing we were out slower than I expected, and I started moving up more aggressively.  

From there, I dove in. Eric continued to follow me as we passed several groups of runners. The next mile ticked up to 4:55. He was concerned about over doing it though and decided to back off. I was sad to continue alone as we’d developed into friends through racing together many times over the past few years. I still hoped he would move back up to me later in the race like he did at Twin Cities 10-mile back in October. It ended up being a solo mission.

I established a smooth rhythm, rolling sub-5 minute mile pace all the way through eight miles to set a new 10k personal best of 30:48 in route. There was no thinking, only doing. I was in the zone. One after another I targeted and gradually chased down runners falling off pace in the strung out field. I heard a race announcer call out a projected finish time of 65 minutes after passing the clock at eight miles. I didn’t look at it. This was the first time I checked in with myself.

I felt solid and there was no doubt in my mind I was going to sustain this pace… .until  I hit the 15 MPH headwind a half mile later.

This is where the race truly started. I ducked into it and kept pushing ahead, desperately trying to run down the pack I had been chasing for several miles. It never happened, though.  The wind was relentless. I came through 15K in a tough spot.

I tried to prepare myself for this moment the days leading in. I knew miles 9, 10, and 11 would be into a stiff headwind. I refused to let any negativity creep in and embraced the discomfort. My legs continued to feel strong. My training was there for me. It was a mental battle. I succumbed to checking the mile 10 watch split (5:16). This actually motivated me because I felt like I was running much slower. 5k to go… this is it.

Help finally arrived the next mile. The Boulder Track Club guy I passed earlier came back on me. I’ve never been happier to be passed in a race. He cranked the pace back down, and I latched on. We finally turned east and mostly got out of the wind (it was NNE wind). He dropped me going down the gradual hill, but helped me break out of the slow rhythm during the windy stretch.

Late in the race, it’s a lot tougher to shift gears. It felt good to be moving again on the long stretch to the finish in the sudden bright sunshine. With a mile to go another runner unexpectedly flew by me. I responded with a final push to the finish and tapped back into the zone. This was by far my fastest mile and strongest finish of recent memory.

I brought it home with a 4:49 final mile. It turns out the lead woman was in that pack I pursued endlessly. She set the Japanese national record.

Although I hoped and expected to run 65 minutes, I didn’t care that I saw 67:00 on the clock as I crossed the line. I was proud of my performance in difficult wind and without any consistent drafting throughout the race.

Times are really just times at the end of the day anyways. The experience and people are what matter. Sunday was a true celebration of fitness, for me personally and for many others.

Final Result

Aramco Houston Half Marathon: 84th, 67:00 Official gun time (66:53 chip time)

— Calvin Lehn

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