I’ve run 13 marathons and eight of them have been my hometown race, so it’s safe to say the Houston Marathon is my favorite marathon. It’s fast and flat and it usually has favorable weather. It’s also where I broke four hours for the first time in 2012 and where I finally qualified for the Boston Marathon 10 years later. And while it might not draw nearly as many runners, I’d say the Houston Marathon has Abbott World Marathon Major levels of crowd support.
In addition to running the Houston Marathon nearly every year for the last 12 years, I’ve also served as a four-time ambassador for the race. I also train on parts of the course all year round, so I think it’s safe to say I’m an expert on this route.
While it’s mostly flat, there are some small hills on the back half of the course that may not be much to write home about, but which can really take their toll if you haven’t run a smart race and are struggling in the final miles.
So it’s best to follow the standard advice for how to pace a marathon, which means trying to run a negative split. That’s what I do and in my best races it’s resulted in a second half that’s been two to three minutes faster than the first.
To help with your strategy, here’s my mile-by-mile walk-through of the Houston Marathon route.
Houston Marathon Route
Where does the Houston Marathon start?
The Houston Marathon starts in downtown Houston, near the George R Brown Convention Center, where runners will drop their check bags and use the facilities. It’s often pretty cold on race day in January (mid-30s to mid-40s Fahrenheit, which is perfect marathon weather in my opinion), so I recommend hanging out in the convention center until it’s time to head to your corral, which is a 10-minute walk away.
When it’s time for the starting pistol to fire, remind yourself that patience is key. You’ll be met by cheering crowds as soon as you descend from Congress on to Washington Avenue and it will be easy to get carried away. You’ll feel like everyone is passing you and my best advice is to just let it happen—it’s way more fun to overtake them in the final 5K than the first.
Shortly after you hit the mile 2 marker, you’ll make the first left turn onto Waugh Drive, briefly running through the Montrose neighborhood before heading into River Oaks for a few miles. This is a good stretch to settle into your goal marathon pace and start feeding off the energy of the crowds.
The River Oaks shopping district is, unsurprisingly, a popular section for spectators. The road narrows a bit after you hit mile 4 on West Gray Street, where there are also a few speed bumps, so this is another stretch to be patient with your pace. The next couple of miles are on Kirby Drive, mostly in full sun if it’s a clear day, so be mindful about conserving some energy as you head toward the Rice Village and Rice University area.
When you turn onto Bissonnet Street, you’ll find some relief from the sun. This is also another crowded spot, but not for long, as the full and half marathon courses split off before the mile 8 marker. Both the course and spectators quiet down a bit here as you loop around Rice University, but not for long. This is a good area to check in with yourself and how you’re feeling so far.
Once you run past the university and into the Rice Village shopping district, the crowds pick up again. You’ll head into West University Place, where residents will be out in full force with posters and even some snack offerings like bananas and oranges if you need a little something in addition to your own mid-race nutrition.
Miles 12 to 13.1
After you pass mile 11, you hit a long straightaway down Weslayan Drive. Around the 20km mark, you’ll make a left turn as you head up the one true hill in the whole race, which I jokingly refer to as “Mount Westpark”. People always ask me for advice on conquering this hill, as well as Allen Parkway (which I’ll get to later). After running this race so many times and having it go all kinds of ways, I’ll say this: Mount Westpark is so short (about 200 meters) that you really shouldn’t notice it at all if you’re running a smart race. If you’ve gone out too fast and have already blown up, then yes, going up this hill will probably hurt a bit.
While this hill might cause your mile 13 split to be a few seconds slower even if you’ve been running well, you’ll easily recover from it and make it up over the next couple of miles after the halfway point.
Once you’ve descended the Westpark overpass, you run on the 59 and 610 feeder roads for a short stretch then enter the Galleria neighborhood. You’re more than halfway there at this point, but this feels more like the true midpoint for me. Once I hit mile 16 heading into Tanglewood and I’ve got 10 miles to go, I tell myself it’s OK to quicken the pace slightly.
Whether you’re having a great day or a bad day, this stretch can feel so long. You are literally running down the same road for five straight miles, which at least makes staying on the tangents easier. The crowds will die down during the first half of this section because it’s not as easy for people to get to on foot, but they’ll pick right up again once you run past Memorial Park and through the street tunnels under the newly constructed land bridge and park prairie.
Most years the race has installed speakers playing music along these miles, dubbed the “singing trees”, which has helped to keep me moving and in good spirits in what can be the toughest miles of the marathon. And while I’ve never stopped and taken it myself, others say the same thing about the Michelob Ultra beer station, which is around the 35km mark.
Once you finally exit Memorial Drive, you make a right onto Shepherd Drive and then hit the gentle ascent of Allen Parkway. You’ve got 5K to go at this point, and while these hills are child’s play compared with many other race courses, just like the Westpark overpass, they can hurt if you’ve been struggling through the race. But if you’re having the race of your life, as I did when I last raced it in 2022, you won’t notice these tiny inclines.
Miles 25 to 26.2
You exit Allen Parkway just before mile 25 and make the final two turns with a left on Bagby and right on Lamar as you arrive downtown again, right back where you started. The tall buildings will probably mess with your watch’s GPS signal around the mile 26 marker, but it won’t matter at this point. Focus on getting everything you have left out of yourself and on passing people in the final 800-meter straight. Congratulations! You’ve conquered the Houston Marathon, and I won’t be surprised if you sign up again for next year—registration opens that very same day.
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Emilia Benton is a freelance journalist primarily covering running, health, and fitness. She has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience and her work has appeared in publications such as Runner's World, SELF, SHAPE, Women's Health, Healthline, the Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Gate, and others. Emilia has also been a runner herself since she was a 16-year-old high school sophomore. She ran her first marathon at the 2010 New York City Marathon and has since gone on to run 11 more marathons including the Boston Marathon, as well as more than 30 half marathons. She is also a USATF Level 1-certified run coach.