Race Report: Pittsburgh Half-Marathon

7:37

That’s the pace I’d need to run to break 1:40. The pace that – in September 2011 – was my 5K race pace that left me wanting to vomit a little. The pace that was faster than goal tempo up until the last several months. The pace that was 12 seconds per mile faster than my PR from JASR. And the pace that was kind of scaring the pants off of me. But no matter what, I knew my real goal was to have fun: we have a lot of running pals in the area now, and big plans to see as many of them as possible. So without further ado…

Saturday

My husband and I rolled out of bed at a leisurely 8 a.m. after almost 10 hours of sleep. Ah, bliss. We ate a quick breakfast before heading downtown to the expo, parking at the convention center and then strolling to Market Square to meet up with Kim for a quick shakeout run. Our satellites all went haywire from the buildings, but we kept the effort super, duper easy, ran a couple of bridges to and from North Shore, and talked race strategy before heading back to the expo, Kim grabbing a quick breakfast before rejoining us there. There, we had a special job to do: watch this nugget … …while his mom – our friend Kelly – and her other kiddo ran in the Kids Marathon, the culmination of the 25.2 training miles they did in the weeks leading up to race day, wrapping up with one mile from north side to the downtown finish line. While they prepped for their race, we hit up the expo to grab our bibs and packets and scope out the booths, all while navigating the area with a stroller (moms – HOW DO YOU DO IT?) and watching the clock to make sure we headed out at the appropriate time. Baby and I made good friends while we waited. Or I was a horrible influence. We headed out of the expo to park ourselves a little before the finish line to watch some pretty cool kids run the race with their pretty cool parents.

Kelly, in pink, with her kiddo
Mark and his sweetie pie daughter – her first race! (I think)

We got the baby boy back to his momma (he saw her run by, we think, and then had a little meltdown when she didn’t stick around, so he very much wanted to be with her again. Poor tyke!), who gave us bottles of WINE to say thank you (seriously, I’d hang out with that kid for free) before heading back to the expo for a bit. I caught up with Danielle for a few minutes, my hubby bought discounted shoes, we both got some fuel, and True Runner through in a cowbell as a bonus. The rest of the afternoon we tried to stay off of our feet. We had fortunately done our shopping the night before (Giant Eagle is DEAD at 8pm-ish on a Friday evening – protip). Late in the afternoon, my former childhood neighbor Liz and her running buddy Carol arrived from Toledo. We chatted for a while before they each headed out for their respective dinner plans, while the hubs and I had our usual granola pancake dinner (all leftovers, actually). Everyone was home around 8 or 8:30 and by 9 pm we were all winding down – stretching, foam rolling, and heading to bed as soon as possible. The 4 am alarm waited for no runner.

Race Day

As usual, I’m pretty sure I was already awake when the alarm went off – though groggy, in a what the hell is that annoying sound? oh wait that’s the alarm TIME TO WAKE UUUPPPPzzzzz kind of way. But it was time to go: oatmeal, coffee (instant, because I’m lame and forgot to buy coffee filters, which I thought I still had laying around), and about a thousand trips to the bathroom before Devin and my running partner Danielle arrived and we all headed to the race! We took a longer route to get to North Shore just in case of early road closures, and after one misstep, parked a half mile-ish (maybe longer) walk across a bridge and to the start. We hit up some untouched porto-potties on the walk over, and had a photographer stop us for a group shot, still carrying our bags and wearing our throwaways.

pre-race group 1
Left to right: the hubs, Devin, Liz, Carol, me, and Danielle

pre-race group 2   After some discussion and bag dropping, we decided to chill in Market Square for a while, snagging a big table with plenty of seats, near a cluster of portos, which, yeah, we hit up like two or three more times (or was that just me?).  20ish minutes to start, we headed to the corrals, wishing each other luck and splitting up. Before I knew it, the anthem was being played, and I was running (my warmup! I guess) with my hat in my hand, trying to get to A corral. We GU’d up, stripped off our throwaways (after much deliberation, the outfit I landed on was the winona tank, bum wrap, and arm warmers (all Oiselle), and CEP compression calf sleeves. And, of course, Brooks Launch, and some swiftwick socks on my feet), and squeezed into the corral, locating the 3:20 marathon pace group (since there was no 1:40 half group) and finding Kim, who had the same goal. Score! A few minutes later, it was gun time – go time.

The Race

After the typical start line bottleneck, I hit START on my Garmin a few strides before the mat, exhilarated and excited. We tucked near the pacer and I soaked up the sights and sounds. I had chosen to race as long as I could without music, my iPod strapped to my arm, ear buds tucked into the pocket of my bum wrap. I felt calm, yet excited; focused, and thrilled. I was racing with my husband. I was racing with Kim. I was gunning for a 1:40, or at least a PR (previous PR at JASR being 1:42:17). But at the end of the day, I wanted to just enjoy every step running through this city I have grown to love. Some spitting rain had shown up during the last 20 minutes pre-race and kept on a little bit into the race, but I felt comfortable, and within the first three miles, shed my throwaway gloves (I just used a pair of thin winter gloves that needed to be retired anyway since they were getting very frayed). It was kind of hilarious running with a marathon pace group, since so many of the cheers we got were “yeaahhhh go 3:20!!!” But, I’ll take it. The pacer was also calling out how far off pace we were (not much) and reassuring everyone not to worry, that we would make it up. I appreciated him easing in, though.

7:47. 7:41. 7:30

Up Liberty and then doubling back down Penn, we curved onto the first bridge: 16th street (one of my favorites, actually – it’s beautiful) to hit up the north side. The first few miles are super flat, but the rolling hills began with the bridges and I buckled up for the task of really working the hills and my experience on the course to my advantage. On the bridge, the pacer called out that the last split was on pace, and that we were 20 seconds behind overall (well, you know, approximately). No biggie. The miles clicked off and I tried to stay even and relaxed behind the pacer. Kim seemed to be feeling great and surged ahead of him a bit. I monitored my breathing – in control – and stayed near my husband, the first time actually racing together in quite a while.  I took my first gel at the first water stop I was prepared for, which was I think at 4ish. Soon we were onto the double-bridge cross: you run 9th Street into downtown, run down two blocks which are LINED with people, and head back across on 7th. I’d work the rollers, and feed off the crowds, I told myself. _dsc0712 _dsc0715 _dsc0716 _dsc0718 _dsc0719 _dsc0720 The crowd was a little quiet as we moved from bridge to bridge, so I moved my hand to my ear and motioned to the crowd to pump it out. I got cheers and cowbells in response and tried to keep my pulse and pace from jumping too high. What a rush. Back across to the north side and past the first marathon relay exchange, I eyed my 10K overall time as we crossed the mat – a little slower than I’d hoped but not bad.

7:43. 7:37. 7:38

Official 10K split: 48:01 (7:43 pace)

 We rolled down a hill and headed toward the West End Bridge, which is a big one, but with a great view of downtown. At this point, I was very much on the outskirts of the pace group, and by the bridge, I had lost contact. I also lost Kim from my rearview after a water stop right around 10K. I kept the pace group and my husband in view but let myself follow my own feet: it was time to run my own race, especially as we made the Steuben Street climb right after the bridge ended. The rollers were starting to get to me, but as we spun around Steuben to Main to eventually land on Carson, I laughed and grinned as a band played “500 Miles” (modified for running, naturally), cruising down a hill. I tried to bring my pace back up and my effort back down by increasing my cadence, a tactic that seemed to be working. The pace group and the hubs were still out of reach, but I was holding steady as we reached Carson. By mile 8 or so, I was feeling slight twinges to turn on my music. But every time, I got a distraction. A girl who looked to be about 14 was running with her mom – she was going at a great clip but was suffering and her mom urged her on. I gave her a quick “you’ve got this” and kept on. We came upon the usual contingent of military folks, and even as I felt my pace and heart rate sky rocket, I still got as many high-fives as I could. Worth it. But it was still starting to get mentally taxing. I had lost sight of the pace group (I think they were going a bit fast, possibly banking time before the more brutal hills on the second half of the marathon) but I mostly had my husband in my sights, keeping an eye on his dark gray shirt and bright white compression socks. I made myself a deal: make it to mile 10, quickly evaluate, and if needed, turn on music. I also realized I probably needed a gel, and took one at 9.5 or so, a little ahead of a water stop.

7:40. 7:33. 7:38. 7:58

Yeah, I needed it. Out came the earbuds and I plugged right in, accidentally skipping a song, but it was perfect: on came “Get Lucky,” the perfect mind calmer and rhythm setter. I shouted to the crowd: “Let’s hear it, Southside!” and got a cheer echoed back. The split was coming. Soon we were spilling onto Birmingham Bridge – big and brutal – and the split was done: marathoners to the right, halfers to the left. I tucked in and pushed up, trying to stay relaxed. And I was drawing closer to my guy.

brains
I call this my zombie photo. BRRRRAAAAAIIIIINNNSSSS

beatthebridge2 beatthebridge3 beatthebridge4

As the bridge reached its peak, I found myself drawing abreast of my guy, giving him a very quick glance, but mostly providing him quiet company. We turned left onto Forbes and had the last steep climb, which I knew was coming – but had forgotten just how bad it was. I was trying maintain pace. Then I gave that up and tried to maintain effort. Dear lord please let this end. Can I make it up this hill? I want to walk. I NEED to walk. No, I just WANT to walk. Don’t walk. Just a little farther… (apparently he knew I was having this debate in my head – I think he knows me well or something)

The hill finally ended – or at least the portion – and we wove onto Blvd of the Allies, a long, gradual climb, but I knew exactly where it ended. The desire to quit and walk went away, and I rallied everything inside of me to just keep calm, be patient, and wait for the hill to end and the descent to start. And it would happen just after the mile 12 mark.

7:43. 8:04.

The hill – finally, mercifully – ended, and something in me clicked. I switched songs (Lady Gaga’s “Applause”) and took off.

The course goes down and down and down and down.

elevation pgh 2014
No but seriously: the last couple miles

I rode the hill, picking up my cadence and feeling the miles and miles of pounding in my feet, begging the blisters I was starting to feel to hold off just one more mile. A girl blew past me and I gave chase – not completely, but enough not to hold back, not to give up just yet. I rode the hill as long as I could, and as it began to flatten, looked at my overall time and cursed. A man next to me asked if I was going to break 1:40. “Not quite,” I said. But I was still not going to give in. The song ended and I restarted it as the flat began to climb just a little – only a little, but so cruel. The finish line was right down the street, but not in sight. I knew I was about a 10th of a mile off, but I wouldn’t look at my distance, glancing down only when I saw mile 13 tick off.

6:47

The hill ended and it was all downhill to the finish, the banner at last in sight. I didn’t know how close I was – I knew sub-1:40 was just out of reach (after some back-and-forth on the mush brain mental math) – but I prayed for my own watch not to tick over 1:41. In the last few strides, I had no kick left to give, felt like I was slowing, felt like my legs were oozing out from under me, and prayed that I would just. hold. on.

stretchrun1 stretchrun2 stretchrun3 stretchrun4

Final sprint: 6:07 pace

I flew across the line, arms in the air, and hit stop on my watch, gasping for air and chocking back tears.

finishing1 finishing2 finishing3

Chip time: 1:40:40 (7:40 avg) – new PR***

Post-race

A volunteer was instantly in front of me, helping me stand. I reassured her that I was okay, that I was just really happy, that I always do this (seriously – does anyone else cry at the finish line? Because it’s like every. damn. half.). I stumbled over to get my medal and looked back to see my husband had finished just behind me (27 seconds, I believe). He looked ready to fall down and/or vomit, so I broke the rules and stopped moving, then walked over to him to rub his back and help him walk to get his medal. We stumbled through the volunteers to snag our finishing photos. And I noticed how badly I had chafed under my right arm.

owchafing

derp official finish 2We grabbed all the food we could get our hands on and found Kim, all making our way to the FedEx tent for post-race massages, catching up with a few other folks there, including Mark.

A little bit later, we caught up with Devin, who finished in about 2:05 – a 15 minute PR!!! After a bit more stretching and relaxing, we packed it in and hobbled to the car. We had a brunch to throw! We took turns with the shower and shuffled to the end of our street where the marathon passes, clanging our new cowbell and cheering for the marathoners for about 20 minutes before we needed to head in to set up and start cooking.

Between noon and about 4:30 we had a steady stream of runner friends, and their partners, as well as a couple of kiddos. People rolled in and out depending on finish time, schedules, and distance. We traded war stories, gossiped about local running happenings, tracked our friends, drank mimosas, and ate like runner kings: bacon, pancakes cooked in bacon grease, bagels from Bagel Factory, fruit, and French toast.

Seriously. How did we live without griddle? And bacon-grease cooked pancakes?

I of course took no photos – but at least that means I was really in the moment and enjoying myself, right?

Now what?

Well, now, I rest. A little. I’m planning on doing a 16-week marathon training cycle for Air Force, starting June 2. Injected with a whole lot of confidence, I’m hoping to tackle the cycle with grit and determination; high mileage and marathon pace workouts; speed and form training; and strength training that will hopefully get me to the start line as a solid sheet of muscle (or something like that).

Maybe that will help me make up for the lack of marathon experience.

Maybe.

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I'm a 30-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

4 thoughts on “Race Report: Pittsburgh Half-Marathon

  1. Great recap! I was thinking about doing this half next year, but the hills scare me. I get very emotional at the finish as well. I cried a little at the end of my first one and got very emotional after my second when I realized I had reached my goal of finishing sub-2. Good luck with marathon training!

    1. Thank you! You should totally run this – don’t let the hills freak you out! I wasn’t as good about hill training this year as I was last year, but as long as you make a point of running hills when you can – whether it’s repeats or choosing hilly routes once a week, even just peppering treadmill runs with hills (sooo much treadmill with this harsh winter) – you’ll handle it fine. Squats are also your friend.

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