Congratulations to all those who became a Runner of Steel on Sunday!
Runner of Steel is the title awarded all runners who complete the Pittsburgh Marathon and half marathon. It is a well-deserved title – the course is tough.
Several of my friends and I became Runners of Steel on Sunday, running the Pittsburgh half or full marathon, some for the first time and some for the third or fourth time, maybe more than that.
I ran and walked the half marathon for the first time. I walked a lot because I’ve been sick a bit and missed a lot of my training. I walked a lot because I’m still on 30 mg of prednisone for a Crohn’s flare and running any more than I did would probably have been a lousy idea.
I ran and walked with my friend Beth who stayed with me the whole time, even though I know she could have run faster without me.
I arrived at the start with my usual running buddies, Beth and Kevin (who are first time half marathon Runners of Steel!) and our friend Brad who ran the full marathon for the first time (Brad, you are truly deserving of your title: RUNNER OF STEEL). Brad was the voice of experience as he had done the half marathon twice before.
Beth, Kevin, and I set alarms that started going off at 4 am so that we would have enough time to hit the snooze, get dressed, toast some bagels, walk the dog, and be out the door by 5 am. We made a quick pit stop for coffee for my buddies (I can’t drink it before running) and reached our parking spot at 5:30 am. We met up with Brad in the parking garage and he expertly weaved his way down to the start and showed us where we needed to go. We even found clean porta potties without lines for one last bathroom break before the start.
Kevin and Brad were in Corral B and Beth and I were in Corral D, so we wished them luck and headed back to our corral to wait for the start. We were among the first people to arrive, which was part of the plan, we wanted to be towards the front of our corral so we could start as soon as possible. We both get anxious and giddy at the start, so it’s good for us to just get going.
Even so, we had a long wait before us. We got into our corral around 6:15 am with a race start time of 7:00 am. Since there were three waves of runners ahead of us so our group didn’t even reach the start line until just before 7:30 and then we were told our official start time would be 7:35. It was cold and starting to rain. We had to pee already. We were wearing cheap lemon yellow sweatshirts that said Wildcats on the front, which were helping keep us warm but not dry. The world’s most overplayed song came on just after this announcement, but we danced it out like it was our favorite song in the world because we just felt insane by that point. We were ready to GO. I kept looking up at the cloudy sky, shaking my finger at it and saying: No. Do not rain. No. But we needed to keep our positive attitude so the singing and dancing was necessary, whether or not we liked the music selection.
And then, finally, 7:34 am. The announcers did a really nice start for us, got us pumped up, and the starting gun went off right at 7:35, as promised. Gangam Style came on and we ran across the start waving at all the cameras overhead. We felt great.
Except for the part about how we already had to pee. So half a mile or less into the race, we took a bathroom break. We each waited in a line behind two people and watched all those people we’d wanted to start ahead of run past us. But it was worth it. The porta-potties were still clean, it was our only bathroom stop, and it was the shortest bathroom line we saw during the entire race.
The remainder of the first three miles was easy. The course runs up Liberty Avenue to 30th Street and then turns down Penn Ave to the 16th Street Bridge, which is pretty flat. The live music was so motivating and it felt good to just be running. The first fluid station at mile 2.1 appeared right on time and we began our routine of grabbing a Gatorade and a water each. We took our first walking break going across the 16th Street Bridge, which is an incredible, beautiful bridge and perfect for walking photo ops. Even with the bathroom break, we were still ahead of our minimum pace, according to my watch and pace tattoo.
(I got a little obsessed with my pace tattoo, which is a temporary tattoo you can wear that will tell you what time you should be at each mile to reach your goal.)
We hit the 5k mark at the far side of the bridge and began the miles through the NorthSide. UPMC put up some helpful signs about hydration along the course and we vowed to follow the “gulp don’t sip” rule. Even though gulping was hard, I would say this was the best hydrated I’ve ever been during a race. The fluid stations were appropriately spaced and each one was identical: tables of Gatorade followed by tables of water. It made everything easy. (Thanks to all the volunteers who handed us drinks!)
Miles four through six were tougher than the first three, but not the toughest of the race. Four through six includes two bridges in a row going from the NorthSide to downtown and back to the NorthSide, then up hill to Allegheny Commons.
Part of the difficulty with the NorthSide was that we missed the mile 5 marker and couldn’t remember what to expect next on the course. But the NorthSide had the best cheer stations and signs, including one woman proudly waving a homemade sign declaring: RUN NOW. POOP LATER.
Mile seven was easy and beautiful, despite the big uphill over the West End Bridge. But it was here that we settled in with a group of very friendly female runners. We didn’t talk much with them, but they were an amiable group with great energy.
We hit the doldrums during miles eight and nine though. Because we were so slow, many of the cheer groups had gone home. So while we’d been expecting the West End and Carson Street to be lined with spectators and excellent music, we found the band in the West End on a break and only a handful of spectators remaining. Some of them looked bored by the time we came along. But others were cheering as loud as ever; I am so grateful for them and their funny signs. My favorite cheer-er was my friend Kayla! She called out to us from near the inclines and she got a big, stinky hug from me as we went by. It helped begin to lift us out of the doldrums even though we still had a long, empty stretch of Carson Street ahead. We lost a lot of our time during miles eight and nine.
Once we hit mile ten, we were immediately lifted up by the fact that we only had a 5k left to run. And then we met some greyhounds and sucked on some orange slices. How could we feel anything other than awesome?
We hit the Birmingham Bridge where the half marathon and marathon courses split, and sent lots of love to all those continuing on for the full marathon and delighting in all the signs telling us we were on the half marathon course, as well as the mile eleven marker midway across the bridge.
But the catch was, we still had two big uphills to do: Forbes Avenue and Boulevard of the Allies. I walked up Forbes sucking on a chocolate Gu like a sad kid with a fudgesicle. I was tired and done with going up. We went up a lot. And then we turned a corner and went up Boulevard of the Allies. Luckily, there’s a really amazing view.
And once you reach the top of the Boulevard, it’s a big down hill to the finish. When we hit that, we put on our serious running faces, didn’t speak to each other at all, and ran our hearts out. It was at this point that I set my final goal to finish the race in under three hours and ten minutes. We picked off runners and walkers one by one, moving closer and closer to the finish, but still not seeing it. There was a tiny up hill that we powered up swearing. But then, there it was, the finish line. I ran faster every step from there, I couldn’t help it, I just wanted to be done. I thought I might throw up at the finish, but I didn’t care. When we finally crossed the finish line, Beth and I fell into each other and wouldn’t let go, not even to get our medals. It wasn’t until we were handed crinkly, Mylar blankets that we separated and wrapped up in our blankies.
Kevin was waiting for us at the finish and called out to us. We waved across the fence and got some food. There were all kinds of things for us to pick up: bananas, bagels, Eat N Park Smiley cookies, chips, fruit cups, and bottled water. I got one of everything and put it in a bag for when I could fathom the thought of eating – I wasn’t ready right after the race.
I navigated through the crowds to get to Kevin while Beth waited for Brad, who was due to finish the full marathon not too long after us (see above – we’re slow and we started a solid 25 minutes later than the guys).
When I got to Kevin he had great news: Kevin finished the half marathon at a person best pace of one hour and 51 minutes! I’m so proud! He said that he felt great so he just kept running, and ran faster than he expected. He finished, ate, took a nap, and then saw us finish. According to the results map, Beth and I were at mile six when he crossed the finish.
Brad came in at just over four hours, which he was happy with, and we all stood in the sun in Point Park before staggering back to the parking garage. Because of Brad’s good planning, we were able to zip home. We had to take a back way through Squirrel Hill, but we made it home early enough that there were still a few straggling marathon runners going past our house and I cheered for them as I took our dog out. They still had several miles to go, they must have been so tired.
We were so tired. But we showered and went to Shady Grove at the request of our full marathon runner. We had big lunches and a celebratory glass of wine. We walked home in the sun and then collapsed for the day.
It was an incredible race. But the course was so hard, so much uphill. I will only run this race again when I’m a faster runner. I want to be able to get to the West End and Carson Street when there is still a huge crowd to distract from uphill followed by uphill. And the full marathon course is even more uphill, I can’t even imagine what it takes to run that.
But of course, sign up for next year isn’t until the fall, so by then I might decide I’m doing it again, hills and pace be damned. It was awesome.