Monday, May 3, 2010

Pittsburgh: City of Bridges, Hills, and Marathon Crowd Support

Pittsburgh. Self-proclaimed "City of Bridges." City at the junction of three rivers. Steel City. And birthplace of Andy Warhol. As a Clevelander, I often find myself in knock-down drag-out arguments with people about the merits of Pittsburgh. No, I don't hate the Steelers to my last dying breath. But I'm not FROM Cleveland. I love the Cleveland cultural institutions. But I also love the ones in Pittsburgh, especially the Carnegie Museum of Art. I love the restaurants in Pittsburgh, especially Piper's Pub, where I can drink a Scotch ale before noon and have a full "English breakfast." I love the riverfront stadiums in Pittsburgh -- Heinz Field and PNC Park. I love the Inclines. I love walking along Grand Avenue and taking pictures of the city. And most of all, I LOVE the bridges.

It should be obvious why I wanted to run the Pittsburgh Marathon. It runs over five bridges. I also chose the Pittsburgh Marathon because of another fact about Pittsburgh. It's hilly. And a marathon in Pittsburgh would HAVE to contain hills. And experience on hills is an absolute necessity for Ironman Lake Placid. And, unfortunately, my hometown Cleveland Marathon is -- you guessed it -- flat.

Now that I've run the Pittsburgh Marathon, I can give more kudos to Pittsburgh for putting on a great race on a really fun course (despite the hills) that sends runners through mostly urban neighborhoods and highlights some of the great sights of the city. Starting on Smallman Street and 14th, the first 10 miles of the race are relatively flat -- the only "hills" coming as you run over those iconic bridges. The race starts with a spectator-friendly out-and-back three miles through the Strip District. Miles 4-11 pass back near the start, cross the Allegheny River three times, run along the riverfront with the two stadiums, cross the Ohio River, then continue through the Southside neighborhood along Carson Street (past my beloved Piper's Pub). Again with great crowd support. Somewhere in there, the half-marathoners loop back on the course and run back downtown to finish. The marathoners keep going, crossing the Monongahela River and continuing upward toward the University of Pittsburgh. This is where the hills start. Miles 12-18 take you up through the Pitt campus and the very nice neighborhoods of Bloomfield and Shadyside, where, again, great crowd support continues. These slightly rolling miles produce quite a few mutterings of "is this the last hill?" From my clouded memory, the last substantial uphill actually occurs somewhere around mile 21. Shortly thereafter, there's a wicked downhill that it covers much of miles 23 and 24. It's not something a runner wants to deal with at that point in a marathon -- the quad pain from pounding on a downhill with three miles to go. The last two miles to the finish are very flat and the crowd size and cheering intensity increases steadily toward the finish at the Convention Center.

It's a fun and diverse course, and all in all, my race went exactly as planned. It even marked a first for me -- I met all the goals I set out with. There were four:
  1. have fun
  2. RUN the entire course
  3. practice race nutrition
  4. preserve my legs for a half-ironman six days later

The first thing I had to do was force myself to think of this marathon as a training run. I did this by purposefully riding my bike 65 miles two days before. This assured my legs would be tired, but they would also have a day's worth of rest. Standing at the starting line with that residual fatigue had me second-guessing this idea. But by mile 10, with a mile pace somewhere between 7 and 7:30, I was feeling very comfortable and fatigue-free. Here's where I thank my husband Jim for the constant reminders of my race goals right up until the starting gun went off. I resisted the urge to chase other runners and settled into the pace he and I discussed before the race. By the time I reached the hills, I was feeling very comfortable -- so comfortable that the logical me waged an internal battle with the competitive me to not "go for it." The logical me won. And because I kept a cool head, I was also able to deal with an emergency porta-john stop around mile 18. I managed to get back on pace and re-pass any women who got the jump on me -- mainly because I was feeling very good at that point and was on the flip side of my usual coin (i.e., dying and watching everyone pass me).

At mile 20, I can't say I remember hitting anything resembling the "wall." My fluid intake was good and I had been alternating gatorade and water at the aid stations. I consumed three Gu gels: one at 9 miles, one at 14 miles, and one somewhere before 20. When I hit the mile-23 downhill, I was torn between going fast and taking it easy -- it felt so good from a fatigue standpoint to be running downhill, but the impact made my quads start to tighten up. I shortened my stride and it worked to lessen the pounding. As a matter of fact, during the whole marathon, everytime I felt a sense of fatigue setting in, shortening and speeding up my stride seemed to help immensely. I wonder if that's what it means when I read about "running efficiency"...

The one struggle that everyone had to deal with was the weather. With temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s, heat exhaustion would not be an issue. It was the rain that caused the most problems. The rain started about 10 minutes into the marathon and continued steadily through the finish. People were having serious problems with blisters and chafing. I had blisters on my feet where I don't usually get blisters, but they did not cause me pain during the race, only after.

The last two miles were a little more painful than I would have liked, but I finished strong and did my best to keep a smile on my face. I did things I usually don't do (or don't have the energy to do) like high-fiving groups of kids along the street. It was nice to not be in a death-march coming into the finish line, and I thought that I had better enjoy it. It may be the only time it happens.

My time? 3:15.
My place? 14th woman overall.
The awesomest thing? The medal.

Not bad for a training run. I celebrated with the full English breakfast at Piper's. Baked beans and all.

A race footnote for those curious about my status as the Disaster Magnet: During the Pittsburgh Marathon, there was a bomb scare in downtown Pittsburgh that occurred along the race route (I am NOT making this up). To the credit of the marathon organizers, they were able to re-route the half-marathon course on the fly with as little disruption to the runners as possible. Jim said he was very impressed with how it was handled. He also was very impressed with the post-race area and refreshments (especially for spectators).

Some pre-race shots:

1 comment:

  1. I am a nonrunner, but I read all your articles with enthusiasm. The blogs are informative and intelligently written. Look at your smiles! Even when you think you are dueling your body and mind to a hard finish, you still look like you are having a good time. I think the question you were asked before your April 2 blog "Where Does It End" is not a rhetorical one. I think it ends when racing stops being fun. It is part of who you are and you will take that to the grave.