This would be my fifth consecutive running of the Pittsburgh Marathon and it would be a memorable race for many reasons. Just a few weeks prior to race day I was contacted by Luna Sandals. I had won entry to the Born to Run ultramarathons in May. I would be running a 100 mile race in California just 10 days after the marathon. Being prudent, I planned to take it easy and enjoy the run instead of racing it. I am always prudent in my planning. And then the day before the race I invariably throw my plans out in favor of running hard because it’s fun. Hurty fun.
Aside from the Take the Stairs Fatass 50k I hadn’t run more than 14 miles of road since July of 2017. That and I have been trying low mileage running with strong crosstraining. This was all new territory for me so I really didn’t know what to expect. I only knew I wanted to run hard and I was very excited to do so.
Race morning in Pittsburgh started much the same as it has for me for the past 4 years. Wake up, make coffee, eat something small and go pick Don up from his daughter’s house. This year Don’s brother Gerry would be joining us and running his first half marathon. The forecast was for rain all morning and all through the race so instead of parking along the Heritage trails near the SCRR garage, as I have in the past, I opted to splurge on the parking garage close to the Westin Convention Center, where the Steel City Roadrunners had their pre-race lounge. I took my pre-race Hammer supplements; Anti-fatigue caps, endurance aminos, race caps, and an endurolyte cap. Ready to rock.
As we walked I felt calm. The Pittsburgh Marathon and the organized chaos surrounding it was one I’d come to know well. Instead of the anxiousness that accompanied my first two years running the race only a sense of calm excitement (dichotomy is everywhere) was present. At the Westin we met with more friends including Harvey , who had come up from Florida, and passed the time chatting until it was time to go out for the group picture and get to corrals. The photo was supposed to be around 6:30, but didn’t actually happen for another 10 minutes. By then I yelled for the Runderful crew to group up for a quick pic. I’m not sure anyone heard me, but if not, they heard Alyssa! After a few pics Harvey, Lori, and I were on our way to Corral B.
I wanted to get as close to the front of the corral as possible so the early miles would be less crowded. We weaved our way through the pack and situated ourselves in the front 1/4 of the corral. The plan went off well and for the first 2-3 miles Lori, Harvey, and I stayed together. I dug in to a comfortably hard pace and enjoyed the miles, sights, and sounds of our city. I also enjoyed the lack of rain. So far we had been clear and it turned out that no more than a few drops would fall while I was on the course.
In the strip, I briefly chatted with Arjun and Ali, who were pacing the 1:50 half. Ali had just run her first ultra the previous summer, the Hell Hath No Hurry 50k. She did okay…you know for a first time. I jest! She won the thing! I was slogging through the 50 miler and I’ll never forget the speed which she ran up one of the steepest ascent on the course. I could barely walk up it at that point. As I picked the pace back up Arjun asked something to the tune of “What are you doing??” He knew that I’d be at Born to Run in 10 days for the 100 miler. I answered honestly… “Something stupid” and continued on. I wanted to bring my A-game. Not just time wise. I was had been working on my mental focus in the past few months. Simple meditations seeking to find the joy in all things. Today was the day to put the physical, mental, and nutritional together for a trial run of sorts. I also knew I needed to balance running hard with not running so hard as to greatly delay recovery time. Mentally, my game would be on point today. This was a joyous run through and through…even in the dark moments. The mantra “I choose to do this” ran through my head when things got tough. Also, a bit of Horty’s advice from Scott Jurek’s book North kept popping in my head. “This is who I am and this is what I do.” Powerful words.
Mostly I ran by effort and was mindful to keep up on nutrition. A sip of water every few minutes with a goal of one bottle (around 20 ounces) per hour. I had a serving of Hammer Heed mixed with my water providing calories in complex carb form and some electrolytes. Additionally, I took 2-3 Hammer Endurolytes Extreme caps (electrolytes) and a Hammer gel every 45 minutes or so. I varied gel flavors starting with apple, vanilla, and chocolate. After 3 hours I went with my favorite, Nocciola. Think Nutella. Plus this flavor has 1 gram of protein per serving which is good after a few hours out there. My energy was steady, hydration was on point, and the race was flying by. I kept finding myself amazed how many miles had been laid out behind me.
Paul and I had been running together off and on for miles and as we began our ascent of Forbes into Oakland (the BIG hill) a good friend Brittany popped in with us to run us up part of the hill. Every year there is a station set up at the bottom of Forbes with “hillrunners,” volunteers who would spend hours helping runners mentally get up the big climb. It was great to see her face and as she paced us up the hill I thought about Josh, Pat, and I helping her through her first 50k the previous spring. As we continued the climb the OG (original goat) Tim came barreling up. Tim eats hills for breakfast and you’ll typically find him having that breakfast on trails, but for marathon weekend the North Park Trailrunners always had a relay team and he had been a part of that. Mountain goat in the big city. Tim was also one of my pacers the year I completed the Burning River 100 and we run trails together almost every Sunday. At the top of the hill Jamie was running back and ran with Paul and I for a little. Jamie had paced me at Burning River for the last 10 miles bringing me to the finish line and Paul had tirelessly crewed me for almost 30 hours. Almost the whole gang was there in a stretch of road no greater than 1/2 a mile. All we were missing was Suzanne and Don.
After the climb into Oakland I began slowing a little. I wasn’t too concerned. I hadn’t run much road and the eye was on the prize. The prize, in this case, was a performance I felt good about, yet could swiftly recover from. Paul and I were bouncing back and forth over the past few miles and by mile 16 I had said goodbye to him. I knew I wouldn’t be catching back up unless something went wrong for him and if there is one thing I know about Paul is he runs strong all the way through.
On the back miles I ran comfortably and took time to enjoy my surroundings, time to stop and pet a few of the greyhounds from Steel City Greyhounds. a wonderful non-profit here that rescues and finds homes for racing greyhounds. Soon I was making the last outward leg through Highland Park. The rest of the course would be slowly bringing us back to downtown and to the finish. I reached down to take my Endurolytes Extreme caps and was dismayed to find I had lost the bag with my last few. There were far too many miles left for me to feel great about this development.
I take medication for epilepsy. Medication which is working better than anything I had taken before with no notable side effects. The one effect it has is not the best for an endurance runner. It causes low blood sodium levels. This means I need to take a considerable amount of electrolytes in to maintain. Looking back I can say all my DNFs and poorest performances were related to dehydration and electrolyte depletion. No matter. This race was to be enjoyed.
Before coming into Bloomfield I saw Cam sitting at a table on the sidewalk and stopped to chat for a bit. His wife, Andrea was out here running today too. Cam is an amazing runner. On his first foray into the ultra world he outright won the 50 mile race. A few months later he completed his first 100 miler at Oil Creek. His time there was impressive. Fast, humble, and a great human all-around. I asked if he had any salt caps..no dice. I was feeling the depletion, but only had around 4 miles left to go. Moving on down Liberty I stopped to stretch my calves and looked over. A table was set up and on it…pretzels and mustard! I could have kissed those girls, but instead I shoved mustard-coated pretzels in my face and started on the descent. Halfway down I stopped by the Hashers table and had a few tiny cups of beer and chatted with Sarah Rose. My calves were toast. I would alternate run-walk intervals from miles 23-25 checking my watch. A course personal best had slipped away and now even the sub-4 seemed more and more unlikely. Approaching the mile 25 SCRR cheer station Boogie ran with me for a bit. He had finished the half marathon and was out here to help people. He gave me a salt cap and I thanked him. I came in to the SCRR cheer station and Cristin handed me her beer. I gladly took a sip and chatted with everyone for a few minutes. The sub-4 wasn’t happening and that was okay. As my right calf would lockup my toes would painfully curl down and I could only run very short stretches at a time. This race was still a win. Even as I cramped in pain I found my mindset was peaceful and I still was truly enjoying the race. Another bit of dichotomy. Perry asked me if I wanted a full beer. I laughed and said no. Then I thought better and took a can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from him. If I’d be limping it in I could at least enjoy a beer for the last mile and cheer on other runners. I popped the top and took a long draught and started running. The electrolyte cap from Boogie and the relaxing effect of the beer worked some powerful race magic. I was running! Not terribly fast, but I was steadily trucking along and as I drank the beer my calves relaxed and stopped seizing. My spirits were bolstered as I heard spectators asking…
Me – “Noooooooo”
“Ha! That guy is drinking a beer..epic!”
I was smiling ear to ear and realized this was the best I had ever felt in the last mile of a marathon. It goes without saying that one beer after 25 miles is fairly fast working. A happy and content me ran the last 1.2 miles in and crossed the line with an official finish time of 3:59:00! Sub-4 saved!
Post-race I had Hammer Recoverite and Tissue Rejuvenator. And after that celebratory food and drinks at the Wigle Barrelhouse, a personal favorite. Blue Sparrow food truck was there serving their take on world street food. Friends, food, and beers. A great end to a great day of running!
Congrats to everyone who ran in the weekend’s events and thanks to P3R and Dick’s Sporting Goods for another wonderful race weekend in Pittsburgh! Come join us in the City of Champiyinz next year. You’ll be glad you did.