Paranoia or precognition always wakes me up in the seconds before my alarm on race day. You would need a full military rendition of Reveille to get me out of bed before 7am on a weekday, but on a Sunday morning, when I have a race, my eyes snap wide at 10 minutes to 5. Bolstered by a cup of coffee, a banana, and an english muffin with peanut butter, I set out.
In tow, I had the best kind of friends you can ask for. The kind that don’t summarily shoot you when you ask them to wake up at 5am to support your silly quest to cover a certain distance in a certain time. There’s something remarkable about people who come out to support a friend for a race, and I’m so grateful to Annette, Sheryl and my incomparable wife Stephanie for being there when I woke up and got in the car.
We rode downtown with Franz Ferdinand explaining the world to us (“It’s always better on holiday/So much better on holiday/that’s why only work when/we need the money.”). I tried to keep my mind on anything, but mostly was feeling a curious combination of anxiety and relaxation that is now pretty much familiar on a race morning. Like it’s a series of steps that I execute, and to my surprise, at the end, I’ve run a race. Wake up. Eat. Drink a mug of coffee. Drive. Park. Walk. Wait. Run. Collect medal. Drink gatorade. In the hours before the race, that kind of blur is comforting.
As the opening gun drew nearer, thousands of us runners made our way across bridges and through the pre-dawn streets of Pittsburgh to the intersection of Liberty & Stanwix St, where the corrals seemed to come to a gathering point. (B, C, and D spread out from that intersection in a triangle. The blur started to lift once we took position on the sidewalk near corral D, and my friends helped to keep my spirits high. Annette and I attempted to photobomb nearby athletes, and to my great delight, nobody punched me for doing so. We discussed the places where the girls would try to find me to cheer me on. I joked that one of them didn’t seem so far away; less than 5 miles, which I was sure I could run in my sleep. The sun rose out toward the start line, 3 corrals and thousands of people away. The air was cool then; I had put on my long sleeve race shirt from that year to walk around in, but the clear sky (and the internet) foretold a day that would warm up faster than you’d want a race day to do.
That couldn’t be helped, or changed, and wasn’t even in my mind. I felt ready, after a training plan I haven’t shared much of with you, but which had me running faster and more confident each week. The long rest, because I managed to miss a few runs, didn’t bother me at all. My legs felt fresh.
I gobbled a peanutbutter gu, and left Steph, Annette and Sheryl to make their way to the crowds along the start line. I got into the corral with plenty of time before the gun. Energy runs between the bodies in a race corral; there’s a hum as people mutter the same conversation in a hundred places. The weather, the time, the course. I strained to eavesdrop, to find someone saying the magical words “2 hours”. A kindred spirit, trying the same goal as I was. Surveying the crowd backward and forward, I saw only one pace team sign, a 2:10 behind me. Unable to recall what pace I had indicated when registering for the race, I eased forward through the crowd, stopping now and again to bounce with nervous energy. The announcer was closer this year than last year, so instead of the tide of the crowd, I actually heard what was going on as they called corrals up to the start line and set them free. Each announcement got me closer, but this time, near the front of the D/E corrals, I actually walked to within line of sight of the start line, almost 10 minutes after the starting gun, before they set us loose.
I don’t remember an airhorn, or a gun, though. Even this close to the line, having heard the announcer call us to place, the release was unceremonious and suddenly the thousands of us are running.
Shortly after the start line I passed what looked like a very surprised set of girls, and they got their first pictures. You can tell by how everyone is staring at the camera just how much noise they are making!
The frantic hand waving also might have been part of it. But you know my cheer squad was something special to get all that attention from folks in the background.
So there I am, fresh faced and in the foreground, less than a mile on my feet. I cleared the streets of downtown, my Garmin lost in the buildings, happily reporting I was running a 5 minute mile as signals refracted off of a million surfaces. I remembered this section from the prior year, the streets lined with people, the feeling of amazement of a crowd with such purpose, pouring out into the Strip District. First, was the less than scenic section; a huge underpass, followed by the warehouse district next to the food and fun destination that is the Strip. Buildings with huge steel sides and tiny little signs reading out business names no one but the people right before and after them in the supply chain know. Along there were the mile 1 porta potties, which, to my continuing amazement, always have a 5 deep line at them. Certainly it’s just nerves, or the inevitable problems that only takes 50 people in 25,000 to populate those lines, but I always wonder if maybe they just forgot that they’d be running a race that morning and didn’t make a pit stop at the dozens of similar stops before the clock started!
It is smart of the organizers to get us through this part of the race quickly; any race has it’s lulls, and there’s enough energy in mile 1 & 2 to cover a less than stellar scenery, and any gap was filled by a few of the bands playing to inspire the crowds and the runners. As I clocked through mile 1, my watch, which had still not regained it’s sanity regarding pace, was at least able to report that reaching the mile 1 post had taken 9:20 seconds. That pace, for those of you doing the math at home, would be more than 2 minutes too slow to finish in 2 hours. But if you’ve ever run a big city race, you also know that mile 1 is by far the slowest, as paces shake out, legs wake up, and the swamps of crowds thin to the manageable waters of the later miles. I wasn’t worried.
Mile two ticked over in the Strip District, where, I am sad to report, I did not see a SINGLE person in a Rock Lobster costume. The scents and sights of the Strip were, last year, the first that really felt like capital-P-Pittsburgh to Brian & I, and the same held true on my own now. The end of the strip though gives way to a landmark, and among the most memorable parts of the course. The first of five bridges on the course. The 16th street bridge was where I found my first ‘nemesis’ last year; a shirt that challenged me “Don’t Be Last”. This year, because of my aforementioned uncertainty in pace, I was picking people off too fast to have a nemesis, which I assure you is a good problem to have. Around this time, I tried to pick one, actually two, in the form of swinging-ponytail girls, in the same style pink & blue tank tops. These, the first of many, were passed within a half mile or so, as the 16th street bridge marked mile 3 (this mile, and the last, were both sub 9 minute miles, 8:50 and 8:57 respectively). Crossing that bridge, and nearing the place where I recalled the ‘elite fueling station’ being cleaned up last year, I ate my first gu of the race, and second of the morning, hunting up a cup of water to wash it down at the next aid station.
This year, instead of the 16th street bridge being followed up by a trek through the North Side, it was broken up by two more bridges; crossings of the Rachel Carson and Andy Warhol bridges (two of the three sisters). Having dashed across these the prior day while photo-stalking Steph, Sheryl & Annette in the 5k race, I felt a big feeling of accomplishment crossing these iconic yellow-painted steel bridges. This was further bolstered by seeing the girls here for the second time along the route.
The excitement of seeing them made me miss hitting lap on my watch for mile 5, so all I know is that mile 5-6 averaged out to about 8:53 a mile; well on schedule for my goal.
That section (mile 5) once again contained the amazing folks of the Urban Impact Choir at East Commons & East Ohio Street. I don’t know if they sing in shifts, or if those amazing souls are doing their own marathon of song, but they are truly the best of us, no matter what. Those voices in song gave me a great lift as I proceeded through the North Side. I saw the relay exchange at mile 5.5, and soon those fresh-legged relay runners were overtaking me as I crossed the West End Bridge. Crossing 6 miles, I got out another gu packet, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. So I ate it in little bites, which I nibbled on for the next two miles. I heard two folks discussing the Tiger’s baseball season as I came over the bridge. The mile 7 flags were just over the other side and up the hill.
All of this is before the run started to get hard. Mile 8 ticked over, and I remembered quipping that I could run 5 miles in my sleep to Stephanie that morning. That 5 miles joke, and a crowd of JROTC offering sorely needed high fives, on a big uphill, got me through a lonely mile until Station Square and mile 9. The mile 9 banner was cruelly manufactured; the font chosen made the 9 look maddeningly like an 8. Nor was I the only one fooled; runners around me murmured in exhaustion that it had to be a 9, and attributed it to heat or hallucination. But even the spectators were fooled. Someone yelled out “Just 5 more miles, half marathoners!” as we neared the flag. I got a good laugh out of that.
Now, with 4 miles to the finish, I hadn’t looked at my watch except to see splits, but I had started to see splits that worried me. Mile 9 itself was a 9:06. On pace, but not fast. I knew the South Side, and the double digits were coming, but the heat was startingI ran into the South Side, and the crowds along Carson Street were energizing, including some of the best high fives I’ve gotten. The aid station at mile 9 I grabbed a cup near the end, intending to skip future ones. But the heat was catching up with me, and the carbs from the GU were not settling well in my stomach. I didn’t get distressed, but I couldn’t eat more. Mile 10 was the most worrisome split yet, a painful 9:27. I knew I needed to stay in the low 9’s to keep my goal alive, but I didn’t dare look at the watch and start doing the calculations. I just focused on how I felt. At the last minute running through the second aid station in this stretch (these fluid stops were only 1.5 miles apart!) I tried to grab water at the end of the mile 10.x station, heading into East Carson and the South Side, but I didn’t make the decision in time, and missed the last cup. East Carson was a pleasure, though my fellow racers were too tired to reflect my good will, I shouted good luck to the marathoners as they split off from us. I shouted encouragement to my neighbors now that we were in the double digit miles!
And then came the Birmingham Bridge.
I don’t think the elevation chart they published accounted for the bridge and the elevation of Boulevard of the Allies. Or if it did, it didn’t do it right. To do it right, you’d have to draw the elevation chart with a little devil tail, and horns, and a pitchfork, and a cruel smile. The sun shone brightly by now, certainly nearing 9am, and the temperature rose as we moved onto a bridge bare of spectators. Some crazy, lovely, generous people were giving out pretzel rods and twizzlers across that bridge, after mile 11 came and went, and if I had any sense about me, I would have grabbed one or the other. Still, the good will from Carson Street helped me turn mile 11 in at an 8:52 pace. On the bridge I also “met” my rabbit for the last two miles. A guy in a grey shirt and black shorts who I traded places with repeatedly over the ups and downs of the last 5k. On a downhill, he would stride past me, and then slow down and I would pass him on the uphill.
Boulevard of the Allies is what we used to call a cattle chute. Jersey barriers on each side, elevated high enough to have an excellent Pittsburgh view, but not exactly thick with spectators. And it’s high; a tough climb with so many miles on my legs. My rabbit and I traded places here again, and I remember seeing a few brave cheerers along the barriers of the Boulevard, and distinctly remember thanking them for their great support. And while those great few were a huge help, the best was yet to come. Just after mile 12, I stopped looking at my watch (though I did take the split, I just didn’t look at it, knowing that one way or another, the day was won or lost). Almost as if in reward for my self control, we rounded the bend from the elevated portion of Boulevard of the Allies and onto the city street. From the top of that rise, you could see the whole 4 lane wide parade route of the Boulevard spreading down with crowds on either side, and the bright yellow of the finish line less than a mile away. I called out to the folks around me, who again seemed underwhelmed by my surge of energy. That energy turned into a hard run down toward the crowds of the finish.
That last mile flew by. I remember shouting out to the crowds, and receiving roars and applause in response. The last tenth was an uphill to the finish line, but I saw the girls for the last time near then, and their cheers buoyed me to the end.
Here I am, partially eclipsed by another runner sprinting to the finish. You can see me tilting my head back to shout out for the great crowd support.
I even remembered to keep my hands up, and my smile wide, as I hit the finish. My finish line photo might even be good enough to buy, as a result.
The real payoff though, was 3 seconds later, when I stopped my watch and saw a number that left no doubt. 1:57:59 on the watch, later clarified to an official 1:57:56 from the chip time. I had done it. A solid 2 minutes under 2 hours!
I started whooping in the finish chute, runners around me unentertained by my apparent continued energy, but who cares! I had done it! In less than a year, I went from having never run 13.1, to 2:18:17, down to 1:57:56. I leaned down to accept my medal from an adorable little girl who was helping the finish line volunteers out. Shouting thanks to everyone, I floated on the tide of people that brought me to bananas, bagels, water and gatorade.
During the race and at the finish I thanked every volunteer I could see, but I want to take the space here to thank them again. This race was run better than any of my other races so far, with well stocked aid ad fluid stations, great communication, a huge and well supported expo, a million little innovations. There were QR tags on your bib for official times, screen printing bibs onto white shirts at the expo! The events organization and planning for this family of races was top notch. Thank you Pittsburgh!
Still devouring my second cinnamon crunch bagel, and my arms overflowing with post race fuel, I lined up for a post race massage. Because nearly no marathoners were finished yet, and only a percentage of the half marathoners were, the line looked quite reasonable! I filled out a waiver with hands shaking from exertion, my already miserable handwriting reduced to illegible scratches.
Just before ducking into the cool interior of the massage tent, Steph found me, bouncing with excitement. I was subdued, wanting to wait for chip times, but Stephanie had received a text with a finish time just after I crossed the line, making it official enough to celebrate! Annette had come with a great way to do that, in the form of a hot funnel cake. I ended up getting my massage, while the treacherous girls ate my funnel cake. Much to my disappointment my masseus was a petite black girl, not one of the three burly truckers I saw as I entered. If its going to be all candles and Enya, soft hands and a quiet voice are great. But after 13.1 miles give me a guy with a refrigerator silhouette and no mercy.
My stomach was pretty sick of carbs, and the Eat’n’Park Smiley Cookie is not that great on a good day, so you can kind of understand my face in this picture. (So much for victory tasting sweet)
We headed back to the car, and I faced something I haven’t before; strong waves of post race nausea. Just after this great photo on the Roberto Clemente Bridge on the way back to the car, I made the girls stop because I felt like there was a serious risk I would throw up. I think most of it came from devouring a ton of carb heavy food.
At home I showered and tried to find something to settle my stomach, before heading to Burgatory for another bout of post-race gluttony, this one way more delicious but perhaps as ill advised as my banana/bagel/cookie/funnel cake bender that morning. On the drive home I was exhausted and nauseous, fighting a weekend of heavy food, and heavy exertion.
Arriving at home all I wanted was a light dinner (I had fruit and crackers, seriously) and to sleep. That’s where my Pittsburgh Half Marathon story ends; with a 12 hour burger coma. I woke up at 11am Monday, a little worse for wear, but entirely guilt free.