Race Report: Pittsburgh Half-Marathon 2012

It was the best of time, it was the worst of times; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Okay, not really. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t a PR day, but I’m still pretty damn pleased with how it all went down, especially after taking some time to evaluate everything. But let’s start from the beginning.

Training had been going pretty brilliantly. I’d been really nailing my paces, and absolutely crushed my last speed workout (okay, maybe the first 1600 was way too fast cause I was trying to chick someone. So what?). I was nervous going into this race, knowing I had already PR’d and gotten my goal of sub-2 hours over a month before. Would I beat expectation again? I of course obsessed about the weather all week, and it was all over the map: high of 82. High of 58. High of 70. 30% chance of rain. 50% chance of rain. 10% chance of rain. Weather.com, stop playing with my emotions! I tried to let it go, and focus on the things I COULD control. Saturday morning we got up early with the intention of joining Bart Yasso and friends for a shakeout run…only to find out the time had gotten changed and it was starting in three minutes! Oh well. We had a leisurely breakfast of oatmeal, still in carbo-loadig mode, and then headed to the expo nice and early.

NB had missed last year since he was watching his mom and sister graduate so he was pleasantly surprised by the spread. We quickly got our bibs, shirts (a little disappointing compared to last year’s amazing shirts. I don’t like Nike’s business practices, but those were nice race shirts), and packets, and did a little shopping. He got an awesome shirt and a free foam roller. And me? Well… I may have bought two pairs of shoes. I NEEDED THEM. I SWEAR. And they were each $20 off. The Brooks rep was a smooth talker, let me tell ya, though I have to say I’m pretty devastated to hear that my beloved Launch will likely be discontinued. I’ll be buying a bunch of pairs when they go on sale.

And while we didn’t get to run with Bart, we still got to meet him, along with Jeff Galloway. Both SO nice!

Me and Bart! NB and I got a copy of his book autographed πŸ™‚

We ran into my co-worker who was running his first (only? Not sure how he feels about it now) marathon – and his first race ever – we’ll call him BG because I’m creative like that. I called out his name about four times before I finally had to swat his arm to get his attention. He was a little deer in headlights – first expos do that to people. We pointed him in the right direction as far as bib/packet pick-up, and we all wished each other luck for the next day.

I spent the rest of the day pretty much just relaxing, in addition to continuing to obsess about the weather and putting together my race bag and the outfit I planned to wear. Despite forecasts of a low dew point, I was fearing the worst as far as humidity, and given my past experiences with chafing during races, I decided not to chance it wearing my Brooks Infiniti short tights, since – even though they probably only chafed cause I didn’t wear vaseline, only bodyglide – I wasn’t about to have a chafing disaster like I did on a long run about a month before the race. So I went with my tried and true underarmour shorts, along with an Asics singlet (the one I wore for my TRON/Quorra costume), and of course my beloved Brooks Launch.

NB and I had our newly lucky dinner: Bisquick pancakes, with lots of REAL maple syrup, as well as bunch of fresh strawberries. Yum. We were both hydrating to the max, and I was peeing every hour. Runner love means discussing the color of your pee the day before the race. Oh yes.

As we were wrapping up dinner, my mom arrived from Cleveland! She walked in to the smell of pancakes, and I pulled out the gluten-free ones I had picked up for her from Trader Joe’s (she’s a celiac), and we chowed and talked for a while, before getting a quick drink (for NB and me, water and iced tea) with my sister-in-law and her mother, as the former was passing through town on her way to Israel. We bugged out by about 9:30 or so in order to hit the sack. My alarm was set for 4:30, and of course my mom and I talked for a while, even after I turned off the light. Oh well. The night before the night before the race counts more sleep-wise…right?

I was up instantly when my alarm went off, getting up to pee and then making a beeline for the coffee maker, which I had set up the night before, so I could have my big mug of black coffee with sugar to *ahem* get things moving. My mom dozed a bit more before she joined me, and I obsessed about the backpack I was using for my race bag: I packed a change of clothes – since my apartment would be closed off to us for a few hours after we got back, we were making NB’s apartment home base – lots of Gu, my handheld water bottle, filled, Nuun tablets just in case (glad I brought them), my Camelback, also filled, my camera, a jacket, cell phone, wallet, keys, fuel belt (small one, just for gels), chapstick (emergency lube), tissues (emergency TP), vaseline, and bodyglide. And whatever else I’m forgetting now but did not forget then.

My mom had some Greek yogurt I bought for her while I chowed down on my usual pre-half breakfast of 3/4 cup oatmeal with brown sugar, cooked in water, and my black coffee. My stomach was already churning in anticipation. The temperature was higher than predicted already: 58, instead of 55, at not even 5 a.m. It was also very humid. I knew then and there that I would be carrying water, and likely would be dropping half a Nuun tablet in pre-race for electrolytes.

At about 5:35, we were finally headed out the door, and I texted NB to let him know we were en route. My mom had printed out all the necessary maps, and I was pretty sure I knew where I wanted to go. We grabbed him from his apartment and headed down to the race via Bigelow, getting a really fantastic view of the “supermoon” over the skyline. It really was huge and amazing and beautiful – a sign of a formidable race. I decided to park where I knew I could get in and out – a deck near a bike rental place I’ve been to a couple times. It was a bit of a hike to the start, but not bad, and we had plenty of time. We quickly came across other runners and followed them until we could start following voices to Market Square, where suddenly they were everywhere, and the announcer kept saying things inaudibly. We hit the port-a-johns (they had toilet paper! It’s a race day miracle! Okay so we were there really early) and then sat in some chairs in Market Square and cahtted, watching a group of people stretch and warm up… forty-five minutes before the race.

Discussing race strategy…or judging people

About twenty-five minutes to the start, we decided to try to hit the portapotties one last time… only to discover an EPIC line. We decided it was just the pre-race-nerves-have-to-pee-but-don’t-really feeling and sucked it up, getting our Garmins ready and smiling for another picture. I felt chilled without my jacket, but that quickly changed.

I was assigned corral C and NB was corral D, but we quickly discovered that even just getting into corral D would be challenge at this point, fifteen minutes to start. We pushed through crowds like salmon swimming upstream (passing a guy holding – no joke – a bunny rabbit. It was sitting on his shoulder, flaring its nostrils with its eyes squinted shut. poor little bunny) before we finally found a crack in the corral. Like a$$holes we found our way to the front of corral D, and quickly warmed up from the heat of thousands of people crowding in around us. Naturally my mom took the opportunity to get lots of shots of us moving up after the gun sounded, way back from the starting line as we were.

The sun – my nemesis in this race – striking a building

The crowd continually bunched and bottle-necked, then stretched out. We had a couple false starts, breaking into a faster walk or jog before we FINALLY got to the start, wished each other good luck one more time, punched START on our garmins, and were off!

Mom missed me. Oh well. Hi NB!

Instantly I had a grin on my face. It was a BEAUTIFUL day – sunny and still hovering around 60 degrees. My playlist started with a rhythm-setter: Coldplay’s “Clocks.” I tried to find my stride and work through crowds while simultaneously not tiring myself with too much weaving. Within a half mile I was on pace, though still doing a lot of weaving around, looking for gaps. Spectators were out in droves, and I tried to soak it all in. The first couple miles were mostly about finding a pace and sticking with it. My hope was to run conservatively with 9:09s, maybe a few flat 9s, and punch it for the last 5K to try to PR, if all went well. The first mile was perfect – 9:08. I got a little more stuck at mile 2 (9:25), mostly due to a tight turn and a bad bottleneck. Before I knew it, we were hitting our first bridge around mile 3.

I hadn’t done as much hill training as I wanted during this training cycle, but I had done a little, and I had done a TON of jump squats – and it showed. I charged every bridge (well, almost), keeping pace or close to it, and recovering quickly as the bridges sloped back down the other side. The next few miles clocked off on pace or very near it. I was feeling pretty good.

Mile four was downright cruel. Because of the change to the finish line (starting and finishing downtown, instead of finishing on the North Shore), there were five bridge crossings instead of four, and two were right in a row. We crossed to downtown, ran a block (lined with screaming people, thankfully), then crossed right back on the very next bridge. Awful. My mom looked for NB and I at that point, but we didn’t see her and she didn’t see us.

Right in the middle … with the watermark over my face. Guess that’s what I get for circumventing the moving watermarks on the website and not buying the photo.

A mile or so later, I found a familiar face, or rather she found me – my pacer from Just a Short Run! I heard her voice: “Hey, I paced you!” and I turned around and smiled. She was pacing her husband in his first marathon for a 4:30 finish, and they were a bit fast, according to her. I wished him luck and she told me to go, go! Don’t slow down! So I waved once more and took off, continuing to click off 9:10 miles.

We headed to bridge three that led us onto South Side, and I knew that, though in a way the race was getting a lot closer to being done, the hard part was coming up. I was feeling pretty drained. I’d been sipping my Nuun-filled water conservatively, and took a Gu Roctane every 3.5 miles or so. I took sips of the water cups at water stations, but mostly just dumped them down my back in a futile effort to cool down. I knew one of my co-workers would be cheering me on around mile 10 (I never spotted her) so I wanted to keep a good pace, but it was getting hard. A road divider jumped out of nowhere and a guy almost tripped, signalling me to watch my step. Around mile seven or so, a girl my age was getting an IV bag from a medic. I felt my PR slipping away, realizing that today may just not be the right day for it.

Then another thing started happening. It actually started around 5 miles in. During our speedwork, my iPod had decided to start skipping through songs every two or three seconds, even with the hold button on. Usually this was due to humidity and sweat getting caught in the click wheel, but the hold button typically solved that. I actually ran the last half mile of my second repeat sans music since it was skipping and stopping so much. And now, it was just stopping. I found pulling out the headphones for a few minutes at a time seemed to help, but only for a song, maybe less. I was getting frustrated. Sometimes I can go hard without music, but not today. The sun was beating down on me. I couldn’t keep cool. I was dragging. I stopped on the sidelines and unwrapped my excess headphone length and just held onto it to keep it from flapping around, then re-strapping my arm band. That helped more, but not totally. I pressed on.

Nearing the marathon/half split, I kept my eyes out for my co-worker cheer section, keeping left and focusing on the fact that we were nearing the last 5K. But after the split, knowing it was just 5K to go when I had hoped to kick, I felt like my temperature was just getting too high. I walked. I picked it back up, walking through the water station and taking gatorade, then dumping water down my back as we crossed the cruelly huge, long Birmingham Bridge before my archnemesis: Blvd of the Allies. That long, slow, cruel climb from the Great Race 10K. Oh, how I loathe it. It’s not stop, but it’s just… there. Taunting. Teasing. You’re almost there! But you have t scale me first.

I tried to find my power songs without freaking out my iPod. I slowed down and walked a few times as my temperature climbed. I saw a guy o the sidelines of the Blvd of the Allies overpass, medics rushing to him as he looked delirious and almost faint. I prayed. I groaned. I cried a little. We finally crested to the exit ramp, and the quad crushing downhill was almost too much. But I was SO CLOSE. They said it was all downhill to the finish, right?

They lied. I watched the tenths of a mile click away on my Garmin (knowing it was about .15 ahead), and saw another climb – short but cruelΒ  in the last quarter mile before a downhill/flat finish. Gritting my teeth, searching for my cheering section, I settled into a fast grind up the hill. I saw the banner, not really registering it until the last maybe tenth of a mile. I was actually almost there! I was over two hours, but not by that much. As the seconds clicked, I unearthed a kick from lord-knows-where, considering how far my mile splits had slid (only one mile over ten minutes – mile 11 – but I recovered and managed mile 12 in 8:35). My Garmin registered the last spring at 6:53 pace. I threw up my hands in victory, pushing stop a few strides later for 2:02.30 by my Garmin, which I knew would be long given when I started and stopped it.

I wove around, tired and happy, and just a little disappointed. I kept moving, shuffling along, receiving my medal and grabbing water, thanking the volunteers profusely. I actually managed to get my finisher photo this time, and am pretty happy with it

After that, I wove on through, heading towards the big CONGRATULATIONS banner. I came across a curb on the way, almost there, and looked at it like it was a device meant to torture me as I tried to lift my legs to step up onto the sidewalk. Grabbing some food – salty chips, a banana, a small bagel (Panera – blech) – I made my way to the family meeting section, and spotted my mom and NB. We launched into our race analysis. NB was disappointed – he was hoping to crush his PR, and wound up with a 1:50 and change. I felt a similar disappointment, but pointed out later when it occurred to me: we both ran our second fastest half-marathons. Faster than Air Force, which was a much more PR-ready course, on a much less brutal day. That was really something.

Discussing the race and our splits

Smile! You just completed your fourth/fifth half-marathon!
Our sentiments about the heat, humidity and hills
Relaxing in my compression socks, and moving into a stretching routine
Reading text messages from friends and family who were tracking me
Finishers medals!

After some stretching, we hobbled our way to the car, making our way through traffic and to NB’s apartment. We showered up and ate a bunch of food – my mom made us eggs, French toast, and we even had mimosas, all while trying to rehydrate with tons of water. My real post-race hunger didn’t hit until hours later, after a nap and my mom’s departure and more lounging at my own apartment – and by that time NB and were going to Rock Bottom for a greasy dinner before seeing “The Avengers” in IMAX/3D! A perfect end to a great day.

Post-race analysis:

Pittsburgh half 2011: 2:11.58

Air Force half 2011: 2:04.14

JASR 2012: 1:59.03 (PR)

PGH half 2012: 2:02.16

It wasn’t a PR, but it wasn’t a PR kind of day. BUT I was only a little over three minutes off, nearly 10 minutes faster than this race last year, and nearly 2 minutes faster than Air Force, a flat, amazing PR course. I have the potential to crush my PR at Air Force this year, and I still had a good time at this race, even if some of the miles felt miserable. I overcame. And I will do it again.

(and for those who are wondering, my iPod has been behaving since I did a factory restore. Though I haven’t run with it since the race. Will see what happens tomorrow!)

What’s next? Well, I went for my first run since the race yesterday – three easy miles that felt strange and wonderful to my rested legs – and training for my next adventure doesn’t begin until mid/late-July.

And what’s that adventure, you ask

The Philadelphia Marathon. November 18. My first full.

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I'm a 29-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

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