Anybody who doesn’t wake up naturally at o’dark-thirty knows the trick of setting as many alarms as you have access to. However, because of a slight Stephanie malfunction, the intended last of the three alarms we set went off at 3:33. That momentarily set me into “I can’t believe I slept through two alarms omg omg omg”.
I fell back asleep, but I don’t think Steph did. When the real alarms went off at 4:30, I pulled on all my meticulously stacked up gear, made the call not to bring the armwarmers (it was already 62degrees) and ate the Same Breakfast I Eat Every Morning. We drove down to the parking near the finish line, all chattering excitedly despite the early hour. We parked right near the finish, and walked a mile to the start line.
We saw the 13 mile marker on the walk over there, and it was thrilling to think of it as my goal; that I would be there (and just a little bit farther) in just a few hours.
At the start line, we ran into two of Annette’s friends who were also running the half. We kept each other company, sitting beneath the overhang of PPG Place.
Before the start, I felt my first real bout of nervousness. My stomach got unsettled and I couldn’t eat the Gu I was planning to eat before the run got started. Instead I just kept laughing and talking, until some kind of energy washed down (all the way into corral E) and people hurried through the porta potty lines and into the corral for the start.
That same invisible wave (we were too far back to hear the start line announcers) happened 3 or 4 more times, each moving us 10 feet, before the real start happened, and we were off. On the third, I had taken a much needed pit stop at my porta potties of last resort (the ones alongside Corral D!). I hadn’t had much to drink, and my body has never had much problem with nerves or GI distress while running, but I think just the enormity of the day complicated things. That said, as soon as they called for us to get running, and the crowd started to move fluidly, I felt really solid, and pretty much immediately after the start I was able to eat that gu so that I had energy for the run.
At about 0.5miles in, I saw the cheer-squad for the first time, holding up signs that read:
“You’re almost there!” and “<—- That's what she said!"
You could hear laughs, cheers and groans coming up from the crowd as they read the signs. Steph was grinning at me like a maniac, and it really revved me up for the race to come!
The first part of the race was through downtown, which made my Garmin pretty much lose its mind, but that’s fine, because I was trying to hold back to keep myself from turning race day excitement into dead legs in the last mile.
Mile 1 passed like a dream. I couldn’t believe the line of 12 people at the first porta potty, but besides that the whole first mile was spent marvelling at the sea of humanity with a purpose, stretched out behind and before me.
The Strip and the North Shore:
Mile 2 came up through the strip district and to our first turn. The Strip District was home to a guy dressed in a full body lobster costume. If you don’t know why a guy dressed in a full body lobster costume is tremendously motivating, you’ve obviously never seen one cheering for you during a race. Thank you, Rock Lobster Guy.
Mile 3 passed quickly, as I ran through the first water station. My philosophy was that I don’t need water this early, and I certainly don’t need to join all 15,000 participants as they learn how the fluid stations are going to work. I could figure out how it worked by watching rather than walking.
At 3.5 came our second encounter with the cheer squad, this time sans signs. I wasn’t wearing glasses, and I was looking for their yellow umbrella, which resulted in the following excellent photo.
From there, it was almost 6 miles before we’d see the girls again at the mile 9 point over in the South Side, so I strapped down to really push myself through this run.
As we left them, before mile 4, we crossed over the first of the four bridges we’d be running that day, the 16th street bridge. There, among the see of people, I saw a girl in a purple UnderArmour Shirt that said “Don’t Be Last” on the back of it. Even though I could see a huge field of people behind me, something about that shirt said “Beat me to the finish line, Donald.”, and it was distinctive enough that I remembered it, until I saw it again.
The first bridge over, and a sizable but not massive hill up into the North Shore. I felt strong, and the race had thinned out from the substantial crowds back on Liberty and Smallman, but was to remain a relatively thick field all the way to the end. The North Shore was amazing, along with another of my favorite course moments. As we came up the incline of East Commons street, we heard one voice, backed by a choir. Swem turned to me and said “I really hope that’s a full choir, and not just a backup track”. Lo and behold, as we came up to the corner, passing a huge section of cheering supporters, we saw the full church choir singing outside the Allegheny Center Alliance Church for encouragement. If anyone in Pittsburgh knows any of those great folks, please give them a hug from me. It put a huge grin on both our faces to hear voices cheering us on through song.
West End and the South Side:
At mile 6, we headed over the West End Bridge, which we’d driven over the prior day. There was a pretty steep rise to this bridge, and I heard people around me yelling encouragement to their partners. I ducked my head down and tried to keep my pace up strong. The good thing about a bridge is that unlike a natural hill, there’s no deceptive double rise, no confusing mid hill curve that gives you more hill. Once you hit the crest, you know it’s pretty much the same downhill as you just went up.
Beyond that, in the West End, we were rewarded with a zen moment of the race. Because the roads out there aren’t very populated, and we were on a closed highway connector, there was almost no sound, except for the sound of feet slapping on pavement, and the breathing of runners. Swem pointed this out to me and then we quietly enjoyed that cadence.
That feeling characterized the entire 6-9mile stretch. At around 8.5 or so, the stored and crowds of the south side started to rise to either side of the road. The familiar sights of East Carson Street were lined with some of the biggest crowds of the race. At mile 9, we saw Steph, Jen and Annette for the penultimate time, this time with their second batch of signs, the inspired “Something Inspirational”, the laser-correct, “Bold, Bald, Brian” and the inside joke, “Run Faster! The fish-bees are chasing you!”. Knowing that this was the last low key passing of the girls, we both stopped to sneak a kiss, and headed on to the half-marathon split.
From here to the end, the crowd support was excellent. Running the high side of the south side, soldiers in BDU’s were waving and cheering the runners. Then, down along Muriel St. a huge crowd featured 3 bands, a high-school cheerleader squad giving high-fives with their pompoms and a guy revving a harley loud as a rocks in a garbage disposal. Swem and I remarked that it was our favorite half mile of the course.
Around the end of the South Side, Brian pulled away to find a porta-potty, and I ran a lot of the remaining race alone, which suited me very well. The crowds and racers were plenty of company. We crossed the third bridge of the course, the Smithfield bridge, and made our way up Smithfield street and through downtown. I was tired, but was still moving at a solid 10:30 pace when mile 12 sprung up on my left. I glanced at my watch and saw 2:07 as I passed that marker. I didn’t have to do much math to know that unless I broke something I was going to blow away my ‘secret’ target of 2:30, and if I gave it a good effort, I could easily beat 2:20!
Knowing this was the last mile, I buckled down to run it hard, but as I did, I passed one of the weirdest bands yet. After 12 miles of up-tempo, uplifting, power guitars, blues on upright bass, and even the odd, but somehow inspiring ambient electronica, I passed a solo female vocalist playing down-tempo coffeehouse folk. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good female folk vocalist, but it was NOT what I needed as I dug in and prepared to spend my reserves to make my last 1.1 count!
Downtown went by in a blur though, and soon I was running alongside a female runner who was imploring the crowd for support. I joined her with the big hand gestures and we were rewarded with excellent crowd roars as we entered the Roberto Clemente Bridge, and the home stretch to the finish.
The Last Mile:
On the Roberto Clemente, I saw the girl with the Under Armour “Don’t Be Last” shirt, and I told myself I was going to beat her to the finish. That last bridge piled more abuse on to my quads, as was trying to maintain a 9:50 pace for this last stretch. But I did it. I left her behind as I passed the 1/4mile to go sign.
I saw the cheer-squad on the left and threw them a big smile and a fist pump. The huge yellow inflatable finish line was visible up ahead, and my watch read under 2:20 as I crossed over the finish line, my arms raised above my head in triumph.
Pushing into the chute, my eyes clouded with tears, and I actually started to cry. The emotion of finishing, and finishing strong, and finishing faster than I had even imagined I could just completely overwhelmed me. Even thinking back on that moment now, as I reached out to a volunteer to get my medal, I mist up a little. I must have yelled thank you at 50 volunteers as I piled food into my hands, and guzzled 4 or 5 cups of gatorade.
My official time was 2:18:17, a 10:33 pace. Almost a full 12 minutes faster than I thought I could run, and I had polished off the last 1.1 in just about 11 minutes.
The reward was our trip to Burgatory, which has been planned for almost as long as the race! I didn’t even realize it wasn’t noon before I finished my first Stone IPA. The second went to wash down my (MASSIVE) bacon, bbq, onion strings burger. The place, despite being distant from the race, was populated by people in the green shirt of the half marathon. We celebrated for an hour or more, chatting with some of the other racers and repeatedly toasting each other with glasses raised. I had a long awaited bourbon & caramel milkshake (which tastes exactly as good as it sounds, and looks, see below) and I got all the details of the girls’ day in the company of great friends.
I had an amazing experience running this half, so much so that I really can’t wait to sign up for my next. This post took so long to write because I wanted to get it exactly right. I know I’m always going to remember the huge support of the excellent people of Pittsburgh on my journey to do the half.
Big thanks to Annette, Swem, Jen and Stephanie for being there to support me, and to Sherry, Lauren, Paul for showing keen interest via the internet. My time was rocketing its way ’round twitter and facebook a few moments after the race. The love and help you’ve all given me has been huge. I hope that I can repay you all, or pay it forward to someone else. I couldn’t have made it 200 feet without you, never mind 13.1 miles.
One more thing: This journey isn’t over. I’m already planning out my next race. And I ran 4 miles this morning, in the hills of Ellicott City.