Saturday, September 16, 2017

Tropical Storm Harvey

Last Saturday, September 9, I happily took a big bite out of a Double California Style from Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers. Ordinarily, this would be unremarkable. But to me it fulfilled a two week odyssey back to normalcy after life was rudely interrupted by trillions of gallons of rainfall.

Back on Saturday, August 26, I was also craving a steakburger. We pulled into the parking lot of Freddy's on Dairy Ashford only to find out that they had closed due to the approach of Tropical Storm Harvey; the first outer feeder band had rained upon us that morning.  After finding another place that was open, we went home with that night's dinner. As I crossed Buffalo Bayou, I had no idea that I wouldn't see the other side of the Dairy Ashford bridge for quite a while. The previous night, Harvey had made landfall as a category 4 hurricane at Rockport and then stalled not very far away. This set up a terrible rainfall scenario where the northeast quadrant of the storm would begin acting as a conveyor belt scooping up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and dumping it on us.

The overnight period of August 26-27 brought us three drenching thunderstorms that rocked us awake and terrified us like the ghosts out of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. After each visitation, the street intersection at our Ten Tree Corner would fill with water and then drain. Each time, the water would take a longer time to drain away. When daybreak arrived on the morning of Sunday, August 27, the website for the Harris County Flood Warning System was showing Buffalo Bayou close to top-of-bank.

Rainfall Totals on Buffalo Bayou @ Dairy Ashford. Chart taken from Harris County Flood Warning System website.
After a daytime period with a continuous drizzle, the bloggers over at Space City Weather advised that we were in for another "show" in the overnight period. We would see one more drenching storm that ended at 11 p.m. and our flooded intersection did not drain until around midnight. It was apparent that the storm drain network was straining under the deluges. But the worst of the overhead threat was over. By the morning of Monday, August 28, my smartphone had rung with 10 tornado alerts and 20 flash flood alerts, but we were safe. My yard was turned into a swamp, but the house itself was mostly dry, thanks to Gorilla Tape strategically applied to vulnerable areas. Experience from the previous two years (Memorial Day 2015, Tax Day 2016) had armed me with valuable knowledge in preparing for Harvey.

Buffalo Bayou @ Dairy Ashford stream elevation 
This is the point where things turned catastrophic for many on Houston's west side. Prior to Harvey, the Corps of Engineers was able to protect areas adjoining Buffalo Bayou by controlling the spillways of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Even the previous stream elevation level record of 70 feet during the Tax Day 2016 event still had the bayou within its banks. This time, however, the reservoirs were reaching capacity, and a decision was made to accelerate the release of water over the spillways. When I awoke on the morning of Tuesday, August 29, I looked out my front window to see puddles of still water standing at the mouths of the street drains. My heart sank. My own street was a mile away and many feet above Buffalo Bayou, but I knew that if I was seeing even a single drop of standing water on my street, it meant that nearby streets and homes at lower elevations were severely flooded.

We had sunshine again, and floodwaters had receded from nearly every other part of Houston, but the bayou-adjacent area remained inundated for several days. We were far enough away to be safe, but close enough to observe the breadth of the disaster response. Coast Guard helicopters were in the sky. Units from the El Paso and Fort Worth police departments patrolled our streets. A Fire and Rescue team from Lincoln, Nebraska ferried people out of flooded homes by boat. A steady stream of privately-owned trucks and trailers hauling watercraft turned our corner as they made their way to and from the disaster scene; that was the "Cajun Navy" in action.

In the week before Labor Day weekend, those of us who could were trying to return back to normal routines. Commuting was definitely not back to normal, though. Every north-south bayou bridge between the Grand Parkway in Katy to Voss Road near the Galleria area -- a distance of 17 miles right through the middle of the metro area -- was underwater. Motorists who depended on these bridges -- especially the West Sam Houston Tollway -- were making long diversions that exacerbated traffic woes in areas of town that were un-flooded. On normal days, the Galleria area is notoriously congested. After Harvey, gridlock on the westside was so bad I had dubbed it "California Traffic Simulator." One afternoon, I sat in in my car after office hours and realized that I could make a drive all the way to Austin in same amount of time that it was going to take simply to go home to the other side of the bayou -- a drive I normally make in a leisurely 30-45 minutes on local roads and bridges.

By last weekend, the outflows from the dams had been reduced to the point where the city and TxDOT were able to re-open nearly of our bridges again. I had my celebratory Freddy's burger. But my temporary traffic gripes are trivial compared to the immense losses of lives and homes. I will be looking for those small favors I can do to ease the burdens of friends, neighbors, and people I'll probably never meet in person.

Monday, January 16, 2017

2017 Houston Double

On the Thursday before race weekend, I decided to register for the ABB 5K. Saturday came and I loped the out-and-back course from Discovery Green through Midtown to almost the HCC campus and back in a chip time of 38:01. Basically, I just wanted to finish without risking injury or expending a lot of effort. It was kind of cool to claim the Houston Double medal once, but I can't say that I'd choose on my own to run this 5K again. For those not ready to take on a 13.1- or 26.2-miler, however, I think this is a nice way to participate in the marathon weekend experience with the finish line party in Discovery Green, the pumped-up start line music, and the race announcer hyping the finishers crossing the line.

Saturday night I put myself to bed early enough to miss what I understand was a very disappointing second half by the Texans in their playoff loss to New England. Impressively, my body stirred itself awake before what I thought was an aggressively early alarm setting on Sunday morning. For the second year in a row, I was taking advantage of Metro's offer of free rides for bib-number-wearing participants. As my bus rumbled through the darkness closer to downtown, a couple more runners boarded. After taking care of pre-race tasks, I walked out to the E Corral, which didn't depart the start line for more than a half hour after the initial gun.

I've blogged about the race day experience before, and everything I've said about it remained true this time -- excellent support from race volunteers and police officers on the course, entertainment and encouragement from spectators, and what I think of as the best of humanity with me on the streets. We ran under a "yellow flag" condition which basically meant that runners were encouraged to slow down due to high humidity and moderately warm temps that hung in the 60s thanks to overcast skies. My plan was to consume GU gel before gun time and then at the 3-, 6-, and 9-mile points. In addition, I took Gatorade from most of the aid stops in the early part of the course. I was mostly fine until I reached Montrose Boulevard. It seems to be always those miles from 8 to 10 where the length of the race finally tries to take my legs away, and then somehow I have to regain control of them before the finish line.

I finished in a chip time of 2:36:44, and had my second breakfast before returning home with my finisher medal and the Double medal. Thus this year's performance becomes my fifth fastest of 10 Aramco Houston Half Marathons. If I understand correctly, that tenth finish grants me "Legacy" status. I'm not that great of a runner, but now I guess I'm officially a non-quitter too.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

It's the most runner-ful time of the year -- 2017 edition

Yes, I still have something of a running life, even if I've slacked on blogging about it in the past year.

This weekend I will take on the Aramco Houston Half Marathon for what will hopefully be my tenth finish and achieve "Legacy" status. (I believe this is not much more than a free hat and bragging rights.) With the cap (full+half) at 27,000, participation in the event is close to doubling the numbers that were showing up when I completed my first Aramco Half in 2006; it's still one of the greatest days on the calendar in the city. I've had a very informal training season that culminated with a decent sub-3-hour jaunt for 13 miles around west Houston a couple of weekends ago. It's a good thing I didn't really need more long-run mileage because last weekend was miserably chilly with overnight lows in the 20s. Brrrrr!

My registered event count in 2016 was pretty low. I was registered for Run For The House benefiting Ronald McDonald House in December, but lousy (stormy) weather caused organizers to cancel the race. In November I ran the Nottingham Forest Club Turkey Trot and the Crimson and Gold 10K at Pope John XXIII school in Katy. And I think that was it. Maybe I should get back into doing a few more in 2017.

Meanwhile I'm still churning out monthly linkposts over at Houston Running Calendar.Good luck to all runners in the Aramco Houston Half Marathon and the Chevron Houston Marathon!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Tech Update 2016

Looking at some of my past posts, it's been interesting to reflect on how some of my tech choices have turned out in recent years. I thought it would be fun to post about where I'm at now.

Phone -- In the years since posting (here and here) about my first smartphone in 2011, I moved on to a couple other now-deceased Android phones after I lost that Motorola Backflip to water damage: a Motorola Atrix 2 (cracked screen) and a HTC One Mini (failing to boot). I'm picky about wanting a "small" phone (screen less than 5") and kept compromising on other features to maintain that. That's why I had been getting by with a 1st-gen Motorola Moto G for the past couple of years. However, being hamstrung by the 8GB of onboard storage (less than 6GB usable) got too annoying; I kept running out of room for apps without trying very hard. And so I moved on to an Xperia Z5 Compact. It's basically last year's flagship from Sony, and have nothing negative to say after a week with it. I've invested in a nice bumper case so hopefully this one will enjoy a long reign in my palm.

Laptop -- I parted ways with that Acer netbook from 2010 when it died after a couple of years. I lived life with no portable PC until I decided to pick up a Lenovo ThinkPad E545 in 2014. The E545 is from the ThinkPad lineage of boring but venerable business-class laptops. It's most crucial job now is streaming Internet content to the TV through the HDMI port. So, really, it also replaced my no-longer-supported first-generation Roku box.

Desktop -- Amazingly, the Vince-built PC from 2010 based around an i3-530 CPU is still my primary desktop machine. The RAM has since been doubled to 8GB, This month I splurged on an upgraded GPU, the nVidia GTX 750 Ti, because I wanted to dabble in more PC gaming, starting with  Cities: Skylines. (Getting pulled out is the nVidia GT430 which had been good enough for many years of Minecraft.)

Server -- The HP Mediasmart is still dutifully performing daily PC backups. One of the Western Digital hard drives I had added after purchase failed last year, but surprisingly I was able to exchange it under warranty. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

2016 Aramco Houston Half Marathon


I made it back to the Aramco Houston Half Marathon again. We had "chamber of commerce weather" with an overnight low right around 40F, sunny skies and little wind. As for my own two feet, I can say I've been in better shape in the past as I rumbled myself around the course in about 2:40. Each year, I grow to appreciate the experience itself  more, especially since I knew I wasn't chasing a fast time. Impressions from 2016:

Most visually entertaining spectator group -- The group that dressed up like Robert Palmer and his band of pale-faced, black-dressed ladies from the "Addicted to Love" video. It was such a ridiculous sight in the Museum District and I had 80s flashbacks!

Loudest spectator group -- It's too easy to give this to the large finish line crowd. But earlier in the course the Katy High School band made quite the big sound. Yeah!

Biggest delight and annoyance -- These both goes to Metro. With the advent of the New Bus Network last August, this was the first Marathon Sunday where I could put expanded weekend service to the test. Prior to race day, they advertised that runners wearing race bibs would get free rides on bus and rail. Unfortunately when I boarded my early bus for downtown, the driver claimed that she was not notified of this, so I ended up using my Q Card because I wasn't going to let $1.25 hold me up from getting to the start line. The post-race went better, as the fare inspector on the Red Line train looked me over and called my fare good. In the days following the race, Metro customer service responded to the complaint I made online and made up for the early AM confusion with ride credit.

Overall, however, using public transit was great. Thanks to the marathon-related street closures, my driver was on a detour that conveniently took me to the side of downtown near the convention center, saving me several blocks of anticipated walking. When I stepped off the bus next to a lot that was charging $30 for parking I knew I had made an excellent choice. I could see myself leaving my car behind next time too.

Second-biggest delight: Post-finish-line crowd management. There was a noticeable meandering stroll from the finish line to the interior of the convention center, but it looked to me as a way of dispersing runners so no bottlenecks would form. After getting a banana and water the third and fourth items I was offered were ice cream sandwiches. Even before sitting down to the HEB-sponsored hot breakfast, I had taken dessert from one of several volunteers roaming around bestowing ice cream sandwiches upon us finishers. Yum!

Bottom line: I got my ninth Aramco Half finisher medal. Next year I'm coming back to claim Legacy status.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Photos From Buffalo Bayou Park

Photos taken during my "carless afternoon" trip to the revamped Buffalo Bayou Park:
What looks like a big pile of sticks waits for kids at the playground near Sabine Street.

Peace between cyclists and pedestrians might be achievable if more separated paths like these are built.

I found these canoe-stranded-in-trees sculptures whimsical. They serve as gateway arches to the Sabine Street facilities. 

Dog park with a nice pond for splashing. I'm still looking for the cat park.

Near Sabine Street, an elevated green looks like the perfect place to host an outdoor concert or festival.

A statue of the statesman James Baker overlooks the bayou as it passes downtown Houston.

Kayaks! I still have difficulty thinking of Buffalo Bayou as an actual navigable waterway.

I spotted these masking tape labels on the ramp leading to the elevated plaza. Based on the names I think they may have been stage marks for VIPs to stand at during the recent ribbon-cutting.

Skate park

One of the "Tolerance" sculptures near Montrose Boulevard. Each figure is made up of characters from various language alphabets.

An Afternoon Downtown, While The Car Took a Rest

I'm a regular visitor to the Energy Corridor area trails alongside Buffalo Bayou. Last weekend I went farther down the waterway  to get a look at the revamped greenbelt facilities immediately to the west of downtown. I decided to go carless for the afternoon, taking the bus downtown and rambled the trails on a B-cycle bike. This blog post is some thoughts on the local transit situation.

I'll share pictures from the park in a separate post.

In August, Metro re-launched its bus route network from scratch. Seeing these local lines below get beefed-up service means that Energy Corridor area transit has finally made a baby step forward in convenience for getting to in-city weekend fun at least:

82 Westheimer -- featured as part of the "Frequent Network" but can be crowded and rather slow as it makes numerous stops on what is probably the busiest commercial corridor in the city
160/161/162 Express lines (via Memorial City) and 152/153 Harwin Express -- these lines form alternatives that can get Westsiders into inner-Loop destinations in about an hour.

Another welcome addition: real-time bus arrival information via text messages. Every bus stop has a number, and if I text that number to 697433, I get a text back letting me know when the next bus can be expected. This is great for finding out if my bus is delayed. Metro's interactive service map will show routes and the bus stop locations and their numbers. Checking the text-backs of adjacent stations will tell me if I can make a timely transfer between routes.

(For my personal workday commuting, however, even the new network is still useless. I'd only need to cover 10 miles, but the way the buses run would mean a two-hour trek with two transfers each way.)

Longtime residents might remember when many blocks of downtown Houston were used as cheap surface parking lots. I think that time is past. With more attractions downtown and less real estate to store cars, the parking operators have responded with a rising tide of rates -- $80 to park near the stadium for a recent Astros playoff game; $100 to park for a Taylor Swift concert!? Just the normal weekend charges have convinced me to use Metro for the coming marathon expo, as I don't need to pay $10-$15 just to stop by the GRB to pick up my race packet. For race morning, though, private transportation still appears to be the winning choice.

I did find B-cycle useful for my time around Buffalo Bayou. Growing up in the quiet suburbs, I'm not yet comfortable with the idea of riding across Midtown and the Montrose. The actual bikes remind me of the rental shoes at bowling alleys: they're functional, but clunky and certainly not the kind of equipment you'd desire to own for yourself. I did notice that Bike Barn has a rental shop near the Sabine Street bridge with much nicer looking bikes if you're ready to part with more money, of course. At $5 for a day pass, B-cycle is a bargain if you're OK with checking-in at a station once an hour.

Concerning cycling here in the Energy Corridor: The bayou trails are excellent cycle paths separated from car traffic. Howver, the on-street bike lanes on thoroughfares are still only 3-4 feet wide, in uncomfortably close confines between car traffic and curb. That has to change before cycling becomes a popular choice for everyday errands and commuting.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

2015 Aramco Houston Half Marathon

A couple nights ago, I played back my DVRed coverage of this past Sunday's race coverage here in Houston. I did feel a wee twinge of disappointment at not seeing my wobbly lumbering image onscreen. But hey, the rational part of my brain able to calculate probability knows that one person out of annual crowds of 20,000+ can't be reasonably be expected to make cameo appearances every year, right?

On the plus side, ABC13 did a super job of getting more feel-good "everyrunner" stories from the community. However, the competitive coverage of the elites was awful. At one point, I wondered aloud, "Why do I have no idea how Meb is doing?"

Back to my personal run: This was my eighth Aramco Half finish. If I also count in my precious 26.2-miler in 2008 and the year I marshaled runners in the correct direction as a volunteer, then I just extended myself to a ten-year streak of Marathon Sunday participation on the course in one manner or another.

By CurrentlyVince standards this last half yielded an undistinguished chip time finish of 2:35:49. For most of the run I was well-positioned to break 2:30, but fatigue (read: sad lack of conditioning) began progressively dragging my pace down around mile 8. And a discomforting rub in the late miles eventually made me stop on Allen Parkway to remove my shoe and re-adjust one of my socks.

Gearwise, I did have a success story this training season with a prescription pair of goggles. Firmly strapped to my head and holding steady in front of my eyes, I had the best vision in-race I could recall.

I'm pretty close to Houston "legacy" status -- 10 or more finishes in same race -- that I can't think of a good reason not to sign up for 2016. I guess that means I can't slack too much now. Here's to a new running year. . . .

Saturday, May 24, 2014

2014 Cinco Ranch Rotary Camo 5K

My last blog post . . . was for the Aramco Half? Really? Well, long time, no type.

Technically, I did do a race between then and today. In March I dropped in one evening at the Flash Mob Race Series. With a course very conveniently located, I was able to run to the start area, run three trail  miles in 31:09 and finally run home.

Now catching up with today's event: I ran the Cinco Ranch Camo 5K in Katy with a Garmin-recorded time of 31:15. I was able to knock out the first couple of miles in sub-ten-minute pace, then found myself rather winded so I ended up taking a walk break in the last mile. I was returning not only as a participant but once again as a race supporter. It's pretty cool to be wearing the race T-shirt with a Houston Running Calendar logo among the sponsorship smorgasbord on the back, and even cooler to know I've been kicking in support for the benefit charities of Team RWB and Special Buddies.

Farther ahead -- I've taken the lottery uncertainty back out of my life as far as the Aramco Half Marathon is concerned. For 2015 they introduced a "veteran status" for early registration eligibility as well as eligibility for those with five-to-nine Aramco Half finishes. So I jumped on that this week and re-installed a commitment device to stop me from slacking off running too much.

And now, back to life here 'round Buffalo Bayou.

Monday, January 20, 2014

2014 Aramco Houston Half Marathon

Nine Januarys of collectibles from Marathon Sunday in Houston
Yesterday morning felt like a fresh start to this "running thing." I ran the revised Aramco Houston Half Marathon course with a surprising energy, with a finish time the likes of which I had not seen in five years. Let's go ahead and get the split data out of the way:

Mile 01 - 11:18
Mile 02 - 10:43
Mile 03 - 10:28
Mile 04 - 10:27
Mile 05 - 10:15
Mile 06 - 10:21
Mile 07 - 10:08
Mile 08 - 10:29
Mile 09 - 10:53
Mile 10 - 11:01
Mile 11 - 11:12
Mile 12 - 11:26
Mile 13 - 12:15
Last .1  -   2:23
half marathon elapsed time per Garmin 110 - 2:23:20
half marathon elapsed time per chip scan - - 2:23:22

Start conditions were close to ideal for a strong run -- upper 40s and humid with a light north breeze. By midday, the bright sun likely made things a little too toasty for the full marathoners, but I was already back at the convention center by then.

Despite starting in Caroline Street's "D" -- the last of four corrals -- I didn't have a difficult time establishing a pace early and often throughout. There was significantly less bottlenecking in the early portion of the course than in previous years, especially on five- or seven-lane roads like Washington Avenue, Waugh Drive and Kirby Drive. I would occasionally catch myself uttering a steady cadence under my breath -- "1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-5-and-6-and-seven-8....1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-5-and-6-and-seven-8."

Somewhere around mile 4, I was surprised that I was carrying a sub-11 pace so easily and wondered if I had suckered myself into going too fast. By mile 8, I was positive I had not. I could see that I had passed a lot of folks from the A, B, and C corrals. I did interact with some of the wonderful spectators cheering us on, but mostly I was focusing inwardly, because in the midst of this race I realized that I wanted to run like I had something to prove.

I did hit a "wall-ish" feeling going into the 12-mile mark near the edge of downtown, to the point where I felt I was losing some feeling in my legs. I was able to regroup after about a block of walk/jog in reverse.

Passing The Grove restaurant at Discovery Green, I was suddenly mindful of an aroma in the air. "I smell bacon," I called out. "Who has the bacon?" And a spectator answered perfectly, "You got to finish before you can have bacon!"

My packet pickup at the preceding expo was largely unremarkable, although I feel I should close this blog post by making a note to myself here to make a batch of the chocolate avocado muffins that I sampled from the Luby's booth.

Doesn't that recipe sound delectable?