It’s a little late, but before I run another race, I wanted to write about the Pittsburgh Marathon (and 5K).
A few weeks ago I headed south to Pittsburgh to run a couple races, and also spend some time with my brother, sister-in-law, and niece. After meeting a dinosaur in the airport, we had a very nice, laid-back time, including some amazing food at the Smallman Galley, some great beer at the Brew Gentlemen Beer Company, and even a trip to the cinema to catch the Jungle Book (Mom – remind me to talk to you about that the next time we’re on the phone!).
If you’re ever in need of a well cooked meal in Pittsburgh, I can’t recommend Smallman Galley enough. Several chefs rent small spaces under the same roof, and the food is amazing. I started with toast for dinner, then buttermilk biscuits for desert. Oh, and something like 20 beers on tap didn’t hurt matters, either. The S’Mores Porter was to die for!
Anyhow – on to the race report.
The expo was well organized and easy to navigate. Big city marathons can get very crowded at the expo, and you might mistakenly think Pittsburgh, with fewer than five thousand marathoners, would not qualify. Not so! They have a 5K the day before, and the marathon is one of only three ways to earn a finisher’s medal on Sunday. Over 10,000 runners participate in the half marathon, and there is a healthy marathon relay division available, too. In other words, over 20,000 people can be expected to go through the expo to pick up their bibs and shirts, plus see all the exhibitors.
We didn’t spend a lot of time at the expo itself, but visited the Success Rice booth where John and Mary each won a bag of rice. I don’t know why Success Rice is at just about every major race expo, but it’s a tradition to go spin the wheel.
Quick kudos to the folks putting on these races. Not only do they allow bib transfers, which is exceedingly rare, but they also allow you to change your event. If you’re signed up for the marathon and sustain an injury that will prevent you from being able to go that far, but the half marathon is still within reach, you can do that. Very hospitable! I didn’t notice that was an option ahead of time, but they had booths set up for that purpose at the expo.
The 5K on Saturday morning was a shake-out run for me. I didn’t go out hard, and frankly, I took a break at about 2.5 miles. My bank only has one ATM in all of Pittsburgh, and I needed cash… since I wasn’t running hard anyways, and the course went right by the ATM, I pulled off the course, found the ATM, and made a withdrawal.
Like many big 5Ks, I think you’d be hard pressed to land a PR here. The field was pretty crowded, but it was a lot of fun. Over 3,000 runners took to the streets in what felt like a pretty inclusive, celebratory event. There events for even the smallest of kids, and everyone got a medal.
I was the official delegate of steel representing the state of New Hampshire, which meant attending a rally with other state delegates the night before the race. Among the perks I received for participating was a beach towel, a tech shirt, and a pretty nice jacket, too. But best of all, the morning of the race, I was granted access to the VIP experience. The morning was damp and rain was threatening, but I got to duck into a hotel ballroom where there was plenty of water, coffee, fruit, and bagels. I was able to relax and stretch without getting cold. It was very civilized.
Twenty minutes before the start of the race, I headed out to find corral C, which seemed to be everyone who anticipated finishing in four hours or more. I found the pace groups for 4:10 and 4:20, and settled in roughly half way between the two. I was shooting for 4:17:27, so that felt like a good place to hang out. I ate the tortillas I brought with me, and practiced my pre-race last-minute hydration strategy.
If you chug a bottle of water right before the gun goes off, you’ll start with a slosh belly. If you do it 45 minutes before the race, you’ll be looking for a port-o-potty before the race even starts. My plan? Chug it 15 minutes before the start, and I’d be golden… so at 6:45 AM, the bottle I was carrying got drained.
…and then I remembered that I was in corral C, which would not be starting the race at 7:00 AM. No, we started closer to 7:18 AM, and by that time, I had to go. I knew this was going to be a challenge, and resolved to delay the visit as long as possible. Fortunately, there were facilities along the course about once every mile. Unfortunately, a lot of other runners were in my same situation. Every time I came across an opportunity, there was a line of up to fifteen runners already waiting. I pressed on, figuring if it became unbearable, I’d wait in line like everyone else. Hope for the best and press on! The strategy paid off at roughly 3.5 miles into the race, where I found a set of port-o-potties with only two people in line. I was there less than two minutes, then back on my way.
The Pittsburgh Marathon can be broken into two parts. The first 11 miles (ish) is run in massively big crowds. In addition to over 3,700 registrants for the marathon, there were 14,000 plus half marathon runners on the course. Even with three waves of starters, that’s about 6,000 runners per wave. While the streets were completely closed, there were still an awful lot of us.
While the streets were crowded, they were only moderately hilly. Having trained in my hilly home town, not too tough at all. In the first 11 miles, roughly 200 feet of climb (quite manageable). But then things started to change. Three fourths of the runners had peeled off to the left towards the finish line, and the rest of us went to the right and started climbing. In the next four miles, our total climb would more than double.
By the time I met my family just past mile 16, I knew I was going to have to fight to go sub 4:20. I started getting side stitches in mile 13, and they had not subsided. I took a minute to talk to them and recoup a little bit. I had ended mile 16 roughly 60 seconds above my goal pace, so I used that minute to catch my breath. My heart rate monitor was starting to cut into my skin, so I took it off and handed it to my brother, and hit the road again.
By the end of the 17th mile, I was right at goal, and starting to struggle. Not wanting to go too hard, and not knowing my pulse, I measured my effort by how hard I was breathing as I went up and down the hills of Pittsburgh. Push a little, ease up a little. Try to find the sweet spot of sustainable effort. Nine miles to go.
By the end of mile 18, I was 30 seconds behind target, but still sustaining pace nearly where I wanted it. Over the next four miles, I would hold onto that gap, meaning that while I didn’t catch up to where I wanted to be, I didn’t fall further behind. I ended mile 22 only 34 seconds behind my pace.
The only problem was my left calf was starting to knot up painfully. Thankfully, miles 23 and 24 are the sweet spot of the course, with plenty of downhill. I had planned on cruising these miles easily, but that didn’t happen. Even on the downhills, if I accelerated a little bit, my calf would cry out in pain, and I had to slow down again. I gave up another 37 seconds in mile 23. In what should have been the easiest mile of the course, gave up 14 more in mile 24.
Mile 25 is very nearly perfectly flat. I started the mile with grim determination, and tried desperately to hold on to my pace, knowing I could only spare another 30 seconds and still finish below 4:20. I tested the calf several times during this mile, always easing back quickly as stabbing pain greeted any attempt at accelerating past a 10 minute per mile pace. I managed a 10:07, and at this point was 1:54 slower than I planned on being with 1.2 miles to go.
After 25 miles, a minute and 54 seconds is an eternity. If you were chasing someone for 25 miles, and they were nearly two minutes ahead of you, it would be pretty much impossible to catch them with 1.2 miles to go, and I knew it. Still, the race wasn’t over, and pain is temporary. So I dug in, and told myself to run one extra step in pain.
So that’s what I did. Gradually accelerate until the calf muscle knotted, but instead of backing off quickly, grabbed an extra step or two at that pace. Then back off, catch my breath, and do it again.
Slowly accelerate, trying to stay up on my toes. Lean forward. Breath in on three paces, breath out on two. Just a little faster. Quick steps. Light on my feet. Then… crashing pain from the left side. Hobble as quickly as I can for three or four steps. Endure, endure, too much. Ease off. Slow down.
Again. Ease faster slowly, find the knot in my calf, and push for five or six steps this time. Then slower.
Again. Push. Up on the toes. Lean into it. Pain exploding across my calf, ignoring it. Six steps. Eight. Ten. And then… the pain faded.
My watch buzzed. I looked down, and saw a text from my brother telling me they were at mile 26 on the left side of the road. I knew I couldn’t spend time to find them, I’d finally shaken that knot in my calf, and it was time to haul as hard as I could. I drifted toward the left side of the road as I approached mile 26. My watch buzzed again. Looking down, seeing my pace. Mile 26 was a 9:20 mile… more than a minute faster than mile 26 had ever been before. From the left, I hear my brother scream, “GOOOOO JAMES!!!!”
Dig. Push. Knot. Searing across the calf. Screw that. Dig harder. People in front of me working hard, but I’m working harder. I can see the finish line, and I am pushing as hard as I can. I am passing people on my left and right. Afterwards, John would tell me that he turned to Mary and said, “I think he’s accelerating!” I hit my 5K pace, and by this point I am breathing like a freight train. Breathing in with every second step, breathing out on the other. Push, push, push, arms pumping hard, leaning into it, driving my feet backwards, and now I’m running faster than 5K pace, and the finish line isn’t just in sight, it’s at my feet. I power through, slow down, stop. Kiss the ground like a melodramatic fool, then convince the health volunteers that I’m okay, just tired, sore, and happy. Check my watch.
4:18:18. Not quite goal, but in that last 1.2 miles, I made back over a minute of the deficit, and along the way landed a fresh PR, over nine minutes faster than my last attempt. 22 seconds per mile faster than ever before.
Success? Almost total. Enough to be happy, but still very, very hungry.
New York beckons. Pittsburgh is a hilly beast of a course, with my watch logging over 800 feet of climb. People think New York is flat, but the bridges will get you if you’re not careful. The course has over 900 feet of climb. I have nearly six months to get ready.
Training started already. I’m shooting for 4:09:15, a 9:31 pace, 21 seconds per mile faster. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.
All my best,