Want to ace the Austin Marathon’s new course? Heed these tips

Feb 11, 2018
Runners keep the pace during last year’s Austin Marathon and Half Marathon. Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2017

When the Austin Marathon announced a new route for this year’s race, many runners initially assumed that meant a flatter — and faster — course.

Not so, some Austin coaches say. The new course, which cuts off the northern reaches and replaces them with forays alongside the University of Texas and into East Austin, features just as many challenges.

“It’s not easier. My instincts tell me it’s 90 seconds to 2 minutes slower,” says five-time Austin Marathon finisher and Rogue Running co-owner Chris McClung, who has coached hundreds of runners through the 26.2-mile race.

His advice? Don’t run with a target pace group the whole way, because a pacer’s job is to stick to the same speed throughout the entire course, something that doesn’t work for this race. Instead, break the course into six parts, heed our advice and don’t expect to catch your target pace until the end.

RELATED: Is the new marathon course easier? Not so fast

“In Austin, unless you run each section as you should, it’s going to chew you up and spit you out,” McClung says. “You may not run your fastest race in Austin, but you can run your greatest race.”

Part 1

The course begins on Congress Avenue at Second Street.

“I really like this start because it’s so wide — six lanes, curb to curb — and it’s easy to get to with many access points,” McClung says.

Stay in the middle to avoid people hopping up on curbs and jostling for position.

“The biggest thing is you go uphill almost immediately,” McClung says. “Go slow. If you’re not being passed, you’re going too fast. Let the congestion slow you down.”

You’ll climb 70 feet per mile in the first 3 1/2 miles as you head south, the most climbing on the entire course. Embrace the hills and let them keep your pace in check. Aim to run 45 to 60 seconds per mile slower than your target pace during the first mile, 30 to 45 seconds slower than your target during the second mile, and 20 to 30 seconds slower than your target during the third mile. It’s all about banking energy, not time.

“If you’re slower than that, celebrate it,” McClung says. “You’re giving time but conserving energy. Don’t let the early hills kill your race.”

Think of this stretch as the warmup. Keep in control and start to find your rhythm. Consider carrying a hand-held water container and skipping the first water stop, which will probably be swamped with people.

“Hit the second stop and every one after that,” McClung says. “I recommend alternating between the Nuun Performance, made with sugar, that the race gives out and water, if it’s neutral weather. If it’s hot, get some electrolytes at every stop.”

Part 2

As you turn right onto Ben White Boulevard, then right again onto First Street, you’re facing 3 beautiful miles of downhill.

Beware. Downhills are notorious. You don’t want to beat up your quads, which you’ll need later.

“Your mission is to stay relaxed and in control,” McClung says. “Don’t get overzealous. Stay about 10 seconds per mile slower than your goal pace. Make it as smooth and natural as you can.”

RELATED: Manzano Mile added to race weekend lineup

You’ve left the anxiety of the start in your dust, so smile and start to take it in. Enjoy the fact that you’re getting to tour your city. Read the signs held by fans on the side of the road. Soak in the experience.

“Remember, we signed up to do this for fun,” McClung says. “And, relax — there’s still a long way to go.”

Part 3

By the time you turn left onto Cesar Chavez Street, you’ve got about 6 1/2 miles in your pocket. You’re about to tackle the easiest, flattest section of the run, where you finally get to dial into your rhythm.

Assume your target pace and try to stay consistent. Embrace the fact that you don’t have much to climb and have plenty of people to cheer you on. Avoid the temptation to speed up; it’s too early for that.

You face a short, steep climb on Veterans Drive, but stay relaxed.

“You don’t want to press the uphills until the very end,” McClung says. “Let the hills slow you down again. It’s OK.”

Enjoy the ever-so-slight downhill along Lake Austin Boulevard, past Maudie’s and Hula Hut.

Part 4

Gird your loins. When you turn right onto Enfield Road, you’ve reached the toughest section, and you’ll soon shift onto the new section of the course.

Miles 10 to 18 1/2 feature rollers the whole way, with some big climbs. The notorious hills of Exposition Boulevard are gone, but new ones along Enfield Drive take their place.

“Stay patient,” McClung says. “None of these hills is that long or that steep, but they’re nonstop. If you run too fast, you’re not going to have it at the end.”

Stay 10 to 20 seconds slower than your target pace to conserve energy. Imagine that you’re a boxer in the early rounds of a fight. “Save energy while the other guy boxes himself out,” McClung says. “If you’re not getting passed on the uphills, you’re going too fast.”

You’ve got a tough climb up from Lamar Boulevard on Enfield Drive, but you’ll have lots of fans cheering. Not long after that, the half-marathoners peel off the course, leaving the marathoners feeling a little lost and lonely. You’re close to the finish line, but you’re not going there yet.

That’s OK. Celebrate the fact that you’re not running the dreaded (Not So) Great Northern Boulevard stretch of the old course. Instead, you’re running on Guadalupe Street. Take in the famous “Hi, How Are You?” mural and nod at the University of Texas Tower. At 45th Street, turn right and head toward Red River Street, where you’ll turn right again.

At Mile 16, your legs are starting to feel it. Weave right onto 41st Street and onto Duval Street, then turn left onto Dean Keeton Street, where you’re looking up the barrel of a tough double climb up to and underneath Interstate 35.

“Be really careful, and try not to press,” McClung says.

Part 5

Yahoo! Most of the hills are now behind you. This section is all about getting time back, but you don’t want to go too crazy just yet. Take advantage of the downhills, but don’t go overboard as you wind through sections of East Austin.

“Think of it as a progressive run, and slowly build every mile,” McClung says. “This is where you should start to get time back. Go 10 to 20 seconds faster per mile than your target pace.”

You’ll weave along some residential streets, turning left on 12th Street to Pleasant Valley Road. Since this section of the marathon route is new, prepare for some lonely sections as far as crowd support.

Part 6

You’ve reached Mile 23, and it’s finally time to start pressing as you head onto Webberville Road. The course is pretty flat with lots of turns from now to the finish — except for one last brutal hill on 11th Street, which we’ll get to soon enough.

“If you’ve done a good job of conserving energy, you can take 20 to 30 seconds per mile back,” McClung says. “It’s time to go.”

You’ll pass some nice landmarks — Justine’s, Lustre Pearl, Blue Owl Brewery, La Barbecue, Mr. Natural and East Side Tavern — as you make your way down Fifth Street to Shady Lane and onto Cesar Chavez Street. Beware of potholes. You don’t want to step in a hole this close to the finish.

Turn right onto Waller Street, jog up to Sixth Street, turn left and cross underneath I-35 for a little taste of Dirty Sixth. Then, when you see Esther’s Follies on your left, swing right onto Red River Street.

You’ll pass a few bars, including Stubb’s, and there it is: the dreaded 11th Street hill.

“It’s tough, steep, long and at the end of a tough race,” McClung says. “People are going to be walking and cursing. But if you’ve done your job, you can run it. Just keep moving — eyes up, drive your knees and arms. Employ your whole body to climb to the top. It’s tough; there’s no way to sugarcoat it.”

When you reach the top of that hill, though, it’s downhill to the finish line at 10th and Congress Avenue, in the shadow of the Capitol, one of the coolest finishes out there.