Reaching High and Falling Short {Houston Half Marathon 2016 Recap}

I’m not really sure when the idea entered my head. Perhaps sometime in November when I ran my first four sub-11 minute miles around the block in my neighborhood. Or that one time I missed a group long run and did eight miles on my own…in under 12 minute miles and feeling strong. Certainly when I realized I could do a 10k without walk intervals and shattered that PR.

My “A” goal for the Houston Half Marathon became 2 hours and 30 minutes.


As an endurance running coach I advise my trainees to choose an A, B, and C goal time for their main race. The C goal for a first time half or full marathoner is just to finish. Hopefully uninjured. The B goal is somewhat based on the pace you kept during training. The A goal is a stretch, possibly attainable if everything comes together right and you really push yourself.

Two years ago I set my half marathon PR (personal record) at the Houston Half in 2 hours 39 minutes. That was using 5:1 walk/run intervals and following a strong pacer. That was pretty unexpected at the time.

I’ve run a few half and a full marathon since then but all were slower. This year I was coaching a 5:1 interval group with a few first time half marathoners, so we take it “easy” on long training runs. It’s about distance, not speed. But I changed my diet this fall and lost about twenty pounds. And I did more hill training, more yoga, some high impact aerobics and faster mid-week runs. I watched my pace drop and started to believe.

Setting my sights on this 2:30 goal made me nervous for weeks. I’m not gonna lie, I frequently thought about forgetting it, using some injury or illness as self-justification for not going all in. Because I knew deep down it was probably achievable but I knew it would take everything from me and I knew it would likely hurt. It would be less “fun” than the social half marathons I have run before.

But I also know the incredible fulfillment of aiming high, working hard, and reaching a big goal. I know it means more if I go all in, hold nothing back.

I quietly told a few people about my goal. Saying it out loud makes it more real.

I started to strategize. I could probably run 7:1 intervals, even though I never had before. That would mean averaging about 11:05 running, with quick walks. My friend Manny said he thought a 2:30 half would be a good goal for him, so I asked if he’d want to run with me. He usually talks my ear off, a very pleasant distraction. He agreed to try and hang with me at 7:1s. I picked up my 2:30 pace band tattoo at the race expo and got serious.

Mike kept asking why I was so anxious the days before. He knew I’d been training hard and had run this race many times before. I kept telling myself that anything better than 2:39 would be a new PR and a great race. But 2:30 was my goal and I wanted it.

A couple of my friends noticed how quiet and serious I was on race morning. My running group were all conferring with me but I kept telling them to run their own race, do not try to stay with me. I had no doubt they could finish strong without me.

The 5:1 group I coached ready to race!

I lined up with all my friends around the 12 minute mile pace signs. That turned out to be probably not the best idea, because I ended up continuously weaving around crowds of much slower runners and walkers for the. entire. race.  I swear I have never passed so many people in my life.

Manny stayed right with me as we sailed down Washington Avenue enjoying the gorgeous blue skies and crisp cool air. He sounded like he was breathing hard and maybe having trouble but he kept assuring me he felt good. We had an agreement if one of us fell behind it didn’t matter and the other would just go. I ditched my sweatshirt around mile three and checked my pace band at each mile marker. We were right on pace.

Neither of us talked much at all the whole race. A few words here or there, the occasional burst of energy to wave to excited spectators. I tried to stay between 10:40 and 11:05 as much as I could, and the first 6 miles sailed by. I took some Gu around mile 6 and then somewhere around mile 8 I got my first hint of discomfort. I was just starting to tire a little and breathing harder when a wave of nausea crept up. It became much more of a mental game once we turned onto Montrose Blvd. We were falling very slightly behind pace now, about a minute, but I thought there was still time to make it up. The crowds which I enjoyed so much in the past became just a distraction.


Somewhere around mile 10, Manny said he needed to stop for water. I was becoming really fatigued, my eyes were watering so I couldn’t see as clearly and I wanted to walk. So I stopped with him for a sip of gatorade and then refilled one of my bottles with water. I started up again before he did but I knew he’d catch up and he did. Then a few hundred feet later he suddenly tripped and fell down hard. I stopped and asked if he was ok as he slowly got back up. He said he hand mostly was hurt but he started walking again. He looked like he was in pain but could continue on, so I decided I needed to go. I turned and ran off, realizing I was now on my own. I put my other earbud in, and looked forward, letting gravity carry me downhill slightly to the turn onto Allen Parkway. I saw my friend Leo cheering on the side and ran over to high five him. He is truly an inspiration to me and was a big pick-me-up.

Allen Parkway really is a bit like a death march. You can see the downtown skyline but it feels so far away. LOADS of people are walking at that point, very few are still running. Spectators line the sides of the road screaming at you, which can be good but also can be  annoying. A guy called my name and offered me a can of beer. I smiled and waved him off. This was the point where more and more people started cheering for me by name (which was on my bib). I slowed down a bit, realizing I probably wasn’t going to make 2:30 but I was going to be way ahead of my PR. But my watch and my Runkeeper didn’t seem to agree on my average pace so I hoped one of them was wrong and determined not to give up. I knew I could suffer through two more miles of running, even if it had to be 30 seconds a mile slower. The last two miles or so really was hard. I dug deep. My left foot felt a blister forming. My legs were ok but my breathing was much harder. I just wanted to be done. The loud cheering as I came into the finish gave me anxiety, isn’t that weird? I usually love the encouragement but this time I could have done without it.

My awesome partner Manny!

2:32:32. That’s my official time, however my GPS says I ran well over 13.1, so really my pace was pretty much right on. But I fell just short of my goal. I blew my PR away by 7 minutes, which is a huge accomplishment itself. It feels really good.

5:1 group runners finished!
More 5:1 group. Babu’s first half marathon!





And so I will leave you with this quote from Theodore Roosevelt, which served as my inspiration to go all in. Till next year.



Ragnar Trail Relay Hill Country, TX Recap

First of all, let’s just pretend that it hasn’t been a year since I blogged. Good, now that’s out of the way.

In the past year I have had all kind of new and wonderful adventures and athletic endeavors. It’s very hard to believe sometimes that I only started running about five years ago. It’s true though, my journey from slug to avid runner is all documented right here on this blog!

This has been a year of trying even more new things, including a full marathon, triathlons and last week I did my first trail race…an overnight relay no less! The proposal to join my running friends from church on a 120 mile all day and all night relay race came many months ago. I first heard about it from my friend Becky and thought it sounded crazy. Running alone, in the woods, at night? With only a headlamp to guide your way? Plus camping…something I have not done since I was a kid and even then it was only a couple times.
Ragnar Hill CountryBut the crazy, adventurous nature of it sounded fun. Doing it as a team with my friends sounded like a great time. When I heard my friend Carla had committed, that sealed the deal for me. I lined up my parents to fly in to watch the kids and sent in my money. I knew this was just the challenge I needed to keep me training hard over the summer too.

Our team, Ragnar Schmagnar, had a few drop outs so I was able to recruit my Katy Fit friend, Walter, and my neighbor, Carrie, to join us. That only added to the fun. Carrie contributed a bunch of camping gear and tents which we sent ahead on Thursday with my friend Glenn, who helped set some of it up with the help of Walter and Josh. Glenn and Josh were part of a second team of Fellowshippers and friends, Running on Empty. Team Ragnar Schmagnar

Carrie and I rode out to Flat Rock Ranch in Comfort, TX with Ashley, Carol and David. We left Katy at 5am and rolled into the Ranch somewhere around 8:30 in the morning, grateful that the predicted deluge of rain was holding off. In fact, Friday turned out to be a beautiful day! We hauled all our stuff down and up the hill to our campsite that Josh had chosen on the highest ground, to avoid the potential flooding we knew was coming. I helped Carrie set up our little two man tent…a first for me and not hard at all. We greeted all our teammates as they arrived and wandered around the Ragnar Village…an area of large tents with various food and merchandise as well as the race starting line and transition area.

Ragnar Hill Country Campsite

We watched the required safety video and I bought a yummy chicken wrap for lunch, knowing I would need fuel for my first leg, the Red (hardest) loop…7.6 miles of climbing and rocky terrain. We took team photos and then our first runners started at noon with their Green loops. Josh started for our team and Glenn started for his team. They were both done their three miles pretty quickly but both remarked at how hard it was to run on the rocky trails. According to the course maps the Yellow loop was shorter but much steeper climbing than the long Red loop, but I would soon find out how wrong that was.

Ragnar Elevation

At approximately 1:30 in the afternoon, David came in from his Yellow loop and handed the bib off to me to start my first leg. Silly me almost ran straight down the wrong trail but Walter was there to see me off and yelled at me to go right down the well marked Red path, which crossed a small stream, then the main road, and then proceeded up, up, up an extremely rocky path. I was thrilled that it wasn’t raining and pumped up on adrenaline so I started my run bounding and bouncing along, enjoying the natural beauty of the landscape.

Ragnar Hill Country

It was curvy. It was up and up, maybe down a little and then up and up some more. I was huffing and puffing in no time. I know I was smiling just from being out in nature, alone, and taking on obstacle after obstacle, but at some point the sun came out and I started to get tired and I looked down at my watch…not even two miles. Dang. That’s a bad sign when you know you have six miles to go and you’re still climbing. I kept an eye out for cows or goats but saw none. At some point I reached what felt like a peak and I decided to stop and soak it in a minute…I even took this photo. Ragnar Red Loop

Even when I seemed to be going back downhill, there were always little inclines ahead. I kept drinking from my water bottles, knowing there was a water station somewhere on the trail. I had to walk some sections that were super narrow and rocky but I would run every chance I got, slow and steady…ignoring the interval settings on my watch. This definitely felt much harder than the practice trail run we had done in Bastrop two weeks earlier. 12049520_757759867683745_8600784481785521593_n

The only wildlife I would see on that run was a small green snake I encountered on the trail, head raised up in full alert mode. I happily jumped right over it, never missing a beat and congratulating myself on my bravery. Finally just after the four mile mark I saw the water station, and a heavy set girl who was actually just walking the trail stopped for a drink. The water was ice cold and perfect and it was nice to finally see and talk to another person. She said “it’s hot out here but we should be getting pretty close to done, huh?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her we still had 3.5 miles to go. That’s nowhere near done in my book. I took off running past her and marked my first Roadkill.

The last two miles I probably walked more than I ran. My legs just gave up. Not even my Gu was helping. I was so disappointed in what would surely be a pitiful time. As I came up out of a big dry creek bed my Red trail combined with the Green trail and I saw a photographer waiting ahead so I mustered up my energy, stood tall, ran and smiled at him. I hustled down the last stretch into the tent and handed off my bib to Carrie, and was greeted by lots of team members wanting to know how the Red loop was. “Awful” I think I said. “Crazy hard. Maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” I didn’t want to scare everybody but I was whooped. I sat down while Walter got me water. Funny thing though, I swear less than an hour later I was smiling again, thrilled that I had tackled that trail and beat it. Glad to be done my longest leg of the race.

Sarah Hubbell

The evening was fun, hanging out back at the campsite and in the Ragnar Village. I bought two awesome shirts and ate the pasta dinner they provided. I got to know the new folks a little bit. They had yoga and an air guitar contest but I mostly just relaxed. Walter took off on his Red loop and then finished right around sunset as they were lighting the bonfire. Here’s a cool photo someone captured with Walter sitting down, completely wasted after his first leg. Ragnar TX sunset

My second leg started somewhere around 10:30 at night and it was considerably cooler by then. I was worried about what appeared to be a very steep climb, so I was totally surprised to find the initial path pretty flat, open, hard packed dirt and much more runnable than my previous loop. I ran quickly and comfortably, having fun dodging giant cow paddies along the way. My headlamp was plenty bright enough to light my way and the trail was marked with tiny LEDs that made it easy to see where I was headed. Even as the trail curved narrowly around along a rock ledge with a steep drop off I was still able to run and I was enjoying every minute. My Runkeeper had refused to turn on when I started so I had no music, only silence and my footsteps. The path sloped gradually upward but I still had no issue running it in the cool of the night. A couple people passed me but eventually I came upon a girl walking and as I passed her she fell in line running directly behind me.

Knowing that almost everyone out there is faster than I, I asked her “Do you want to pass me? I don’t mind.” And she replied “Oh no, you’re fine, this is a nice pace. I’m tired and I think I’ll just follow you awhile.”  It turned out she was on an ultra team, a team of four that runs twice the distance. Another guy ran up behind us but instead of passing, he fell in line behind us too. He was also on an ultra team and liked me slow and steady pace. So the two of them mostly chatted back and forth for awhile while I listened and led the way, happy for the company. After a couple miles I slowed down to walk some particularly rocky parts and they finally opted to run past me and take off. So the last couple of miles I ran in quiet, rapidly downhill with drizzling rain cooling my face. It was honestly bliss. I heard a cow “moo” off to the right of me at one point, but I could not see him in the dark. I actually ran past a couple of women in the last mile, and finished with a big smile to hand off to Carrie again.

As I finished I headed straight to the s’mores tent to get my much desired snack, roasting a marshmallow over a mini fire pit with Ashley as the rain started to fall harder. I walked back up to the campsite and shared my joy with Walter and whoever else was there. Who would have ever imagined that I would love running trails in the dark so much?

Poor Carrie was off on the Red loop when the rain really started coming down hard. I felt bad for her but I know how tough she is. Eventually I climbed into my tent to try to sleep, but too many nearby voices and the rain kept me awake. When Carrie finally joined me in the tent she handed me a set of earplugs and that’s when I really knocked out for a couple of hours. Until around 5:30am when I massive gust of wind nearly blew our tent over with us in it and woke me right up. It was so loud and windy and raining so hard at that point I did get a touch nervous. I knew I wasn’t going to sleep any more so I got in my running clothes for my next run, trying to avoid the leak in the tent roof the whole time.

So glad I brought my wellies, I walked out to sit under the canopy and snack on the cinnamon rolls I found. I grabbed a golf umbrella and hiked down to the port-o-potties and back…the road was rapidly turning into a river. After awhile the team captains, Glenn and Becky, decided to call the race for our teams. The conditions were becoming dangerous. We sat around till daybreak and then hurriedly packed up camp, hauling our gear and taking down tents in the pouring down deluge. We got our medals so I had mixed feelings about not finishing but overall I was glad to be getting done and out early. Many many cars and trucks got stuck in the mud and we waited and waited in the pouring rain for everyone to get out. Finally we left in Ashley’s truck and headed to the first Whataburger for dry clothes and breakfast. 1653570_10208217348730934_6378532866588612476_n

Ragnar Trail was an experience I will not soon forget. Despite the cold, rainy end to the weekend, I had an amazingly awesome time. I learned a lot about myself that I didn’t know or had not realized before…namely that I love love love being out in nature. I even love camping! In a tent! Who knew? I love running up mountains and over rocks and roots! I love running in the dark and the quiet! I already knew I loved spending time with awesome people, but a shared experience like Ragnar Relay can not be beat.

I will do it again next year. 

Sarah Hubbell Ragnar