Hurdles. Yes, hurdles is what I ran today. The headline may say “Pittsburgh Marathon 2019”, but it really was hurdles. Oh, maybe not the high-hurdles that Chari Hawkins flies over, but hurdles nonetheless. Luckily, even with a race as long as the 26.2 of a marathon, there are only a few hurdles you have to overcome.
Training. Hurdle 1 is an “optional” hurdle for some and an insurmountable hurdle for others. If you do this Hurdle correctly, life is easier on race day. On the spectrum of training from none to extreme, I find more of the low-trained runners finishing than those following soul-crushing rigorous training. They are slower, but usually as happy at the end. The main problems facing the ultra-trained are burnout and injury.
That being said, moderately hard training works best for me. Twelve weeks of gradual increases in mileage and intensity. This means going out for a ten mile run after doing a fifteen miler the day before. This means going to track, doing the prescribed track warm-ups and workouts. This means getting to group runs, where the camaraderie and peer-pressure encourage me to continue.
This training cycle got off to a great start. I had a good base from doing the Detroit Marathon in the Fall. I was becoming more regular at the Steel City Saturday runs. In late January, over three months from race day, I did a 17 miler. I was on the verge of getting a half dozen 20+ milers in. I was easily going out with the 8:30 and 9:00 minute pace groups. Then, I had a fall in February. A fall on a dry, flat sidewalk. It sucked. My knee hurt. My hands hurt. My wrist hurt. Looking back at that time, it was pretty depressing. Ten days later, I managed a little over three miles at a blazing 12:13 min/mile pace. So roughly, my old pace could run three miles in the time it took my new pace to run two.
But then, I started to ease back into it. I focused more on running with friends rather than trying to bolt out of the gate all the time. Kristen was monumental in getting me to the runs, she always knew when and where the runs were. Everything started to heal. I could also go a little faster. By the end of the training cycle, I had completed three 20ish miles. Track was working out and occasionally I would keep up with faster folks. This year, I cleared the training hurdle by a mile.
Hurdle 2 Taper madness and race hoopla
Taper Madness – that period when you need to ease up on the mileage but keep up intensity is quite a mental game. You’re not getting the endorphins and release from the long runs anymore and might have a LOT of extra energy. The message threads buzzed this week. What will be race day weather? How hard should I do track? Are you doing five miles or three miles? I think I weathered the Madness pretty well, in part by taking the “oh, this is nothing special” tact and intentionally tampering my excitement. Being busy with blogs, work and a non-runner S.O. helped as well. Apparently a significant percentage of the general population didn’t even know a race was happening! Unbelievable!
Race hoopla, all the Marathon events and personal events leading up to the actual race day, are a big part of the race. The Marathon Race Expo, bib pickup, carb loading, race day travel logistics are also part of this hurdle. It can be fun, but it can also be a distraction. My Pro Bike group had an early carb-loading dinner, on Thursday at DiAnoia‘s in the Strip District. My epic thread group had a dinner on Saturday at Szechuan Spice, in Shadyside. Both were delicious and, more importantly, gave me a chance to hang out and catch-up with friends. Last minute stories came in. Maria might be coming back to the area! Luke and Rich decided to run the marathon in the last few days of training and were likely going drinking the night before!! (Jaw drop) Mason was going to be a hill runner! Finally, the dinner bills were paid, plans laid and we all headed home. I got everything ready and set out the before going to sleep Saturday, thankfully.
Hurdle 3 Get the hell there
Ugh, 5:15. I was supposed to pick up Mira at 5:15. My alarm was set for 4:45. I woke up to the alarm and slept another 15 minutes! However, with the previous night’s preparations, I wasn’t too late, getting her by 5:25. Then there was the trip downtown to my super-special parking garage and the dazed ride on the T. We almost rode the T all the way to Gateway Center – oops. Two sleepy-heads on a train isn’t a good thing. Then a walk in the eerie early morning light to the Westin, where Steel City had a breakfast.
Now, it was exciting! Like bees going into a hive, runners buzzed all around the Westin. Upstairs, the gilded conference room overflowed with runners and shoes, bibs, hoodies, light jackets of all colors, black garbage bag coveralls, pacer signs. People eating last minute meals of bananas and bagels. I grabbed a little OJ and coffee. Found Bob and Nancy and Chris. Chris and I we set off to catch up with the Pro Bike group, at the Starbucks a few blocks away. At this point in the Pittsburgh Marathon, there is a slight panic for many runners as they need to enter the corrals (A, B, C, D) before they close. Getting into a corral is a bottleneck, since race security checks each person’s bib, all 20,000 of them, to insure they are allowed to be in the corral. It’s a bit of a hectic pre-race sprint. The group eventually coalesced and headed into the corral for an anxious wait and opportunities for selfies.
Hurdle 4 start and early miles
We had a good start, getting moving about 7:26:33 AM, not sure about the milliseconds. The first few miles were pretty crowded. Even at our unassuming pace, we kept passing walkers and many others. About two miles in, I started to run faster, actually trying to keep abreast of Sasha, who was motoring along. We would periodically intersect, chat a bit and move apart again. This was also the part of the race to do a self-check, keeping an eye out for short port-a-john lines, fixing shoes becoming untied, belts coming loose and other annoyances. The race was a blur for most of these miles. Lots of people, trying to set a good pace, nothing too difficult. Finally, on Carson Street, after a needed pit stop, I was ready to run harder.
Hurdle 5 Middle miles
I broadly think of miles 7-19 or so, as middle miles. I was warmed up and ready to go. As it happens, the race course is pretty flat here with hundreds of people lining the walks, cheering. Wearing an old orange, Miami Marathon shirt, I got plenty of “go Orange!” The split with the half-marathoners at the Birmingham Bridge is always a bit disheartening since 75% of the runners go back toward the finish, yet my race course wasn’t even halfway done. I pushed on crossing the Birmingham Bridge at a good clip, passing Tom who was pacing the 4:30 group. Also saw Lisa, Jenny and Amy on the bridge. Going up the hill into Oakland, I felt strong. Mason gave me a big hug and ran with me the last 1/4 mile of the hill into Oakland.
I cruised here, mostly sub 9 minutes per mile. Saw Monica and Mike at the turn off of Penn Avenue around mile 16. The misty rain was starting to get more serious now. Past 18 miles, just getting a slightly tight hamstring and wondering how long I could keep it up. Most aid stations I had the Nuun drink and I consumed a few gels along the way.
Hurdle 6 High miles with no end in sight
Miles 19-25. So close yet so far. These are my most hated miles of a marathon. If you’ve messed up your nutrition or training or shoes or attitude, it will show here. Your nutritional balances are getting out of whack. Emotions run high. Everything hurts. You want to smack the next person who says “You’re almost done!”
I had planned to message my girlfriend at mile 20 so she could make it to the race course when I passed a few miles on, say mile 22. I figured I would just message her now, at mile 19, since I was slowing down. With the rain, I couldn’t unlock the phone and keep running, so I walked for a bit and sent her a message. It was very hard to get moving again. For the next few miles, I alternated running and walking. The rain started coming down harder. I kept looking for her, but realized that the agreed upon place was closer to mile 23! Between me slowing down and the miles being further apart, it seemed like forever. But eventually, Laura popped out from the bus shelter, gave me a hug and kiss and cheered me on. The little shelter community of onlookers also shouted out a few cheers too!
Just past mile 23, there was a little downhill. I grabbed a tiny beer from the Hash Harriers tent and tried to pick up some speed. At the end of it, a few runners were jogging backwards, looking for a friend. That looked fun, so I trotted backwards too. And who should I see but Gates, Mason’s sister! I ran with her for a hundred yards or so, then moved on.
Hurdle 7 The last push
If you have a kick, now is the time. You try to lay it all on the line. Sometimes, you’re just limping and cursing because it hurts so bad, but you’re determined to finish. Sometimes, there are friends and family on the course, scared of how you look and worried, but cheering you on nonetheless. But this year, I had some energy left. I was able to speed up again. Mile 24, so, so close. Mile 25, the Steel City Cheer Zone! Perhaps 25 people, but sounded like 100. Saw Sanchez, Betsy, the guy with all the tattoos, Suzanne, all cheering, clapping and playing RATM. One mile to go, pumped up. It always feels like forever. Past the Grayhound Station, down Liberty Avenue, left onto Stanwix, run, run, don’t stop. Some people are crossing the street. Argh! Final turn onto Boulevard of the Allies, a little uphill to the finish. Letting out a primal grunt and raising my arms, I finished.
Hurdle 8 the immediate aftermath
Thank the volunteer who puts the medal over your head. Walk a few steps, grab some food, drink something. That last salt tablet I had taken left me a little nauseous, so I almost threw up. Sit down, get off those feet. Pretty spacey here. Got a magical garment, the space blanket. These keep your body warmth in, which I needed since my fingers were turning blue. I sat down on some overturned tables. I thought I would wait for my friends. Eventually, Tom, the pacer, finished and sat next to me. We chatted a bit. Not having any idea where everyone else was I got up and left the finish area. I stumbled across a muddy, grassy area to the Steel City Tent. This year, it was nice, lots of good food. I put warmer clothes on, and every now and then, I would venture out to see who was done. Rich and Luke finished. Nancy was around. Mainly I sat, ate and talked to the other runners as they came in. Eventually Hayley came in, then Bob and Mira.
Now the reverse trip to the car. Got to the Gateway T, but had to wait awhile before the next train. We were falling asleep standing up, leaning on each other. No worries, just a few more steps to the car. A few miles to drive. Finally got home, took a hot shower and crashed for awhile.
Hurdle 9 The rush
Hell Yeah! We did it! Nothing is IMPOSSIBLE! I have all the Infinity Stones!!