Marathon week finally arrived, and I felt like a child on Christmas Eve as I moved through Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. As I contemplated what to wear for the races of the weekend, I was torn by the 90 degree weather we’ve been having in Raleigh and the potential snow I saw for Western Pennsylvania in the forecast for Sunday. Luckily, I ended up packing a variety of layers . . .
Originally, I had planned to drive to and from Pittsburgh (about 11 hours in the car, each way) for the weekend. Fortunately, I changed my plans and found a flight that would allow me to leave after work on Friday and arrive not-too-late Friday night.
I arrived in Pittsburgh at 9:30 Friday night, and my mom picked me (and my large carry-on backpack) up at the airport. Driving through the dark rain, we found an ENORMOUS Giant Eagle where we picked up some groceries and snacks. Finally, we tucked ourselves away into the airbnb townhouse where we were staying for the weekend. This townhouse was conveniently located right between the airport and downtown, 15 minutes from each.
The townhouse had a beautiful kitchen, living room with big screen tv, and a cute patio (although it was too rainy for most of the weekend to make use of it) on the ground floor. Upstairs, there were two bedrooms, each with a comfy queen-sized bed (perfect for getting good race weekend rest) and a bathroom with a tub where I would be soaking in some epsom salts Sunday afternoon. There was also a washer and dryer, which meant I could wash all of my sweaty running clothes before packing to come home. It was really a perfect place for us to stay.
It was after midnight by the time I finally crawled into that comfy bed, way past my normal bedtime hour, and I completely forgot about watching the Nike Breaking 2 Project, the try to break the 2 hour marathon that was taking place in Italy and airing live online around midnight.
Saturday and The 5K
Mom and I were both up early the next morning to prepare for the 5K. It was cold (in the 40s) and pouring rain. We found our way to a parking garage right at the start line, making our way there easily (thanks, iPhone maps) and with no traffic. We sat in the warm car for almost an hour, catching up on what was new with each other and family.
Twenty minutes before the start time, we walked down the stairs of the garage, where we exited onto the street and were right at the start line. We had decided that we would do this 5K a few months ago; for me, it would be part of the “Steel Challenge,” running 5K on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday. I was assuming for the months leading up to the weekend that I would walk the 3.1 miles with my mom, saving my legs for Sunday. I originally had my bib (Mom had picked them up the afternoon before at the race expo) pinned to my Fleet Feet Race Team tshirt, but I decided last minute to wear a jacket on top of it, and pinned the bib to it instead. I figured by walking, I would feel colder than when I run, and I would need the extra layer.
We moved into the start corral (one big corral). They were hyping the crowd with music, and PNC Park, where the Pirates play, was right in front of us. The rain was still coming down, more than a drizzle, but not too heavy. It was pretty awesome, looking around at all the black and gold outfits, seeing people running in Pirates and Penguins and Steelers jerseys, and seeing people in Pitt and Slippery Rock and Clarion University gear. Although I get my share of Pittsburgh fans in Raleigh, THIS was home.
Mom and I took a few selfies, and I had some fun trying to teach her where to look at the camera, not the phone screen.
Finally, we were off! Five walking steps across the start, and I looked at my mom. She asked if I wanted to run. I said yes, I kind of do. We made plans to meet at the finish line, and I started to move faster.
My overall pace for the 5K was 11:39, which felt like just the right easy effort for the morning and before the miles that I would have the next day. The course was very flat, with only 98 feet of elevation gain. It started at PNC Park, and the first two miles were on the North Shore, past some museums, around a park, and around many beautiful, historical homes and churches. We crossed the 6th Street/Roberto Clemente Bridge, where we had an awesome view of our entrance into downtown, in spite of the rain.
This last mile was spectacular, moving through the narrow streets with tall buildings all around me, like running on the rock bottom floor of a canyon. I run in the city of Raleigh, but it is not at all the same feeling there as I had during this mile in Pittsburgh. The finish line was on the Boulevard of the Allies at PPG Place.
I finished the race feeling good, feeling like I had just done the perfect shake out run before the next day’s race. I also ran a negative split, just the second time (I think) that I’ve done this in a race. I wasn’t at all near a PR time, which was the intention.
We received a medal at the finish line, and I munched on a banana while I waited for mom to come in. When she arrived, she looked a little drenched! Maybe next time she’ll take my advice and wear a cap with a bill to keep the rain off her hair and face.
The Race Expo
We still needed to go to the Race Expo so I could pick up my marathon bib and shirt. We were close to the Convention Center at the finish line of the race, but since we were drenched and cold from the rain, we decided to walk the mile back to the start line where the car was and to go back to the townhouse first. After hot showers, hot coffee, and warm, comfy clothes, we drove back downtown to hit the Race Expo.
The traffic was a little dicey, as they were closing many of the major downtown streets for the race the next day. However, we were still able to get easily to the large Convention Center. The parking garage underneath it was packed, and we were directed to park off to the side of one of the main thoroughfares, which was not at all an actual parking space. We spent about three hours at the Expo, because it had so much to look at. For a runner, it was heaven!!! Dick’s Sporting Goods and Brooks both had large areas. Fleet Feet Pittsburgh also had a large section, and I found some great t-shirts and tanks as well as a pair of Hoka recovery sandals that I have been wanting (at half price). I also had my feet analyzed by a computer scan at Fleet Feet, and they emailed me the cool scan (that shows I have one foot larger than the other, which is common, and how my right ankle falls inward way more than my left does). Sierra Nevada, one of my favorite beers, had a tasting booth. There were hundreds of different Pittsburgh themed shirts, tights, compression socks, headbands, etc. etc. It was both awesome and overwhelming! I made some purchases in addition to picking up my bib, race shirt, and Brooks socks, which had the race logo and pictures of Pittsburgh bridges on them. I didn’t realize we would be getting those, so that was a nice surprise.
At two in the afternoon, we headed back to the townhouse (with me getting a little motion sick in the car; in fact, I spent a good part of the weekend being car sick and plane sick, the main reason I normally prefer to drive places rather than to be passenger . . . ). I took a three hour, heavenly nap, with the sounds of the cool rain outside of my bedroom window. I was up in time to watch the Kentucky Derby, and I then prepped my hydration pack with water, gels, Honey Stinger waffles and Clif Bar pieces for the next day. I packed a bag with bottles of nuun, bananas, more water, protein bars, and big beach towels to keep in the car for after the race. I picked out my race clothes (compression socks, capri length tights, arm sleeves, long sleeve tshirt, short sleeve race team shirt with bib pinned on, nuun Headsweats visor, and my Brooks Ravennas laced up and ready to go, nice and dry since I had worn a pair of Sauconys for the 5K.) For dinner, we decided to try the Pennsbury Pub, a sports bar located right in the middle of the Pennsbury Village where our townhouse was. From our front door, we walked 200 steep yards uphill (it was in Pittsburgh, after all!) under umbrellas, and boom! We were at our dinner destination. We had burgers and fries while watching the Penguins/Capitals playoff game on a tv right in our booth. I was in bed by 8:30, alarm set for 3:30, breakfast ready in the fridge. It took a few 30 minute episodes of Mozart in the Jungle before I was able to wind down enough to sleep, somewhere between 9:30 and 10:00.
Sunday and the Marathon
3:30 am: Half a cup of coffee with coconut milk, 1 oz of cold chicken, 1 oz of baked sweet potato minus the skin, 1 teaspoon of almond butter, and one envelope of Tropical Orange UCAN, the same breakfast I’ve had on most Saturdays and before all races for the past five months while training for this race as well as the five months before that while training for the Outer Banks Marathon. Then I dressed and was ready to go.
4:45 am: In the car, heading toward downtown. The rain had turned into a soft drizzle, but it was still cold, in the high thirties. We parked in the same North Shore parking garage where we had the day before, which meant we would have a mile walk to downtown and the race start. I had a mylar blanket from a previous race wrapped around me, and we made our way with other runners across the pedestrian bridge under/beside the Fort Duquesne Bridge, making our way into Point Park and downtown.
We arrived downtown a little before 6:00, and the race was to start at 7:00. There were porta pots everywhere, so the lines were very short and very fast to use them. The start line was on Liberty Avenue, and my corral was the last one of the four, Corral D. I followed the directions on the race website, which told you where the entrances to the corrals were. Once there, I understood why the directions were so specific. My Corral D had two entrances, one on the street a block to the north of Liberty and one on the street a block to the south. All of Liberty Avenue was fenced off with large steel fencing, making it impossible to get into the street unless you went through security gates. You could not go through without a bib, so this was where I said good-bye to Mom, who was going to make her way to the Start Line or a little in front of it. I had to pass through metal detectors and take my hydration pack off to have it searched. Through security, there were more banks of porta pots, and then I was on Liberty Avenue. I stood near the 12:00 minute/mile pace sign and waited. It was 6:40.
I was cold, even with the blanket still on me, and I was starting to get a little nervous, which doesn’t normally happen to me at a start line. I think the anticipation of the hills and not knowing how I would be able to handle them, if I would be able to hold the pace I wanted or if I would need to walk, was creating some anxiety, and the more time I had to think about it, the more the nerves set in. I chatted with a girl beside me, who was running the half. She asked where I was from, and when I told her, she immediately started to ask if I had trained on hills, and if I knew the course. More nerves. Looking around, I saw mostly half marathon bibs, and very few full marathon bibs. In the corral, I saw almost no one else with a hydration pack, and throughout the day and the race, I saw probably less than ten people wearing one. In fact, I saw few people carrying water at all, not in their hands or by wearing a belt. It struck me as odd, but maybe it’s because the South is so much hotter? I also noticed very few people wearing compression sleeves or socks. I was trying to take in everything, the tall buildings around me, thousands of runners standing antsy and ant-like in the cavern created by the buildings and the fencing, the gym four floors up in a building next to us where people were looking down at us as they ran on treadmills. The race officials were pumping the music at us, and a helicopter was hovering low in the air at the Start Line, about a half mile from where I was.
Finally, at 6:58, the National Anthem, and at 7:00, the start gun. I could hear them say the wheelchair division was off. Ten minutes later, the elites had their gun. Ten minutes later, Corral A was sent off. So, doing the math, you can figure out that is was . . . 7:40 by the time those of us in the final Corral D started. I was so cold and so nerved up at this point that I wasn’t even sure of how I was feeling.
I dropped the blanket right before the start and crossed the line. Within the first quarter mile, we went through a tunnel, and the whoops and hollers of hundreds of runners around me put a smile on my face and helped a little to relax me. I was running the Pittsburgh Marathon! 26.2 miles in the city where I’d spent time as a kid at Pirates’ games, at the zoo, shopping at Kaufmann’s at Christmas time, and riding the incline up Mount Washington! Where I’d spent time in college in Station Square comedy clubs, Southside bars on St. Patrick’s Day, and clubs in the Strip followed by late night Primanti Brothers sandwiches! Home of my Steelers, the Penguins, the Pirates, and all things steel, black, and gold. I was definitely excited, which is probably why my heart rate was already up to 140 BPM before I even crossed the Start Line.
Miles 1 & 2 took us down Liberty Avenue, past warehouses (including the Pittsburgh Macaroni Company) in a very unsexy part of Pittsburgh. We turned left twice and headed back toward downtown on Penn Avenue. We turned right on 16th Street and crossed our first bridge over the Allegheny River. We retraced much of the 5K course as we made our way around the neighborhoods of the North Side, and at Mile 5, I finally saw my mom again outside of PNC Park (I never did see her at the Start Line).
I was still trying to find my “feel good” spot at this point. Normally, in a marathon, I find a happy spot where I am enjoying the race and taking in everything. Although my legs felt good, I never did find this sweet spot during this race. The first eleven miles felt ok, and then I started to implode a little for the next fifteen miles. It wasn’t like a bonk; it was just never finding that groove all day, never really feeling GOOD.
We made our way past Heinz Field (Home of the Steelers) and the newer Rivers Casino. Until this point, the course had been fairly flat, with just a few rolling hills and the bridges giving some elevation. At the casino, the hills of the first half started to come into play. For the first eleven miles of the race, my pace was around 11:30. Many, many times I told myself to slow down, but I couldn’t seem to groove into a 12:00 minute pace like I wanted to. Part of me was berating myself that I would pay for this later, but part of me was thinking it might be ok to bank a little time in the beginning. Usually I don’t prescribe to this idea of “banking” time, but knowing that the second half of the race would be much more difficult, I went with it, even against my better judgement.
We crossed the Ohio River and tucked back into a little West End neighborhood, really tucked back into the side of a mountain. We had some steep ups and downs in this neighborhood; when we came out of it, we turned right onto Carson Street and ran at the foot of Mount Washington, past the Fort Pitt Tunnels, past Station Square and one of the Inclines, past the Liberty Tunnels and into Southside. I was feeling a big sense of deja vu, and I looked to my right and saw Blue Lou’s, a blues bar where I spent one St. Paddy’s night drinking green Coors Light and Iron City with sorority sisters during college. At this point, I was getting warm enough to shimmy out of the arm sleeves and shove them into my pack. As we neared the end of the Southside stretch, they were separating the half marathoners from the full, with a big barrier down the middle of the street. It seemed like only one out of every 30 runners were staying to the right for the full. The full marathon course was very quickly feeling very lonely, right from the beginning.
We crossed the Monongahela River via the Birmingham Bridge, the half marathoners on the normally southbound side and we, the full marathoners, on the northbound side. They took a left turn off the bridge, and we took a right onto Forbes Avenue.
Forbes Avenue is the beginning of a three mile climb onto a mountain to the east of Pittsburgh. A local running group clad in green “Hell of a Hill” t-shirts was spread out all over the hill, running up and down to support marathoners. Those running down were passing us, yelling encouragement and using our names (seeing them on our bibs), and those running up were escorting various runners up, giving them mental encouragement to keep pushing up the hill.
Forbes Avenue is where I started to walk, and I walked most of these three uphill miles. When we reached a plateau here and there, I tried to run and get back to that 11:30 pace, which felt out of my grasp at that point. I was trying to enjoy the scenery, running through the very urban University of Pittsburgh campus, remembering visits there to some of my high school friends. The scenery, however, was not enough to distract me from my mental struggles which were coming on strong at that point. As I was walking, trying to keep up a good clip, trying to will my heart rate to lower back down, the 5:30 pace group caught up to me. More mental struggles came with that, as I knew that my “A” goal of a 5:15 marathon was gone, and my “B” goal of bettering my last marathon, 5:31, was staring at me in the face. Ok, Stacia, try to attach on to this pace group and stay with them the rest of the race. Just attach on, pretending that they are your friend Tiffany, and let them do the mental work of holding pace while you just keep up. But alas, within a mile, they were inching slowly forward and out of my sight.
We ran past Carnegie Mellon University and entered the pretty neighborhood of Shadyside, with its trendy boutiques, pretty parks, and big mansions. We moved into Point Breeze, another pretty neighborhood, and there were great crowds everywhere, even for the small amount of marathoners who were moving down the closed off streets. The first eleven miles had been packed with the half marathoners, and now the streets were wide open for me to run wherever I wanted with no worries of anyone in my way.
I passed the Frick Mansion just after mile 16, yet another beautiful section of Pittsburgh, and even the pretty trees and park-like grounds were not raising my spirits. I think I was possibly drinking too much water, although I felt extremely thirsty and was craving it constantly. I thought I had my fueling under control; I had moved on from gels to partially dehydrated banana slices and Honey Stinger waffle bites. I had tried listening to music for a pick-me-up, but there was so much other noise and music on much of the course that I didn’t want to drown that out.
I thought about calling Peter, knowing he’d be at home writing an article for his blog. But instead, I decided to make a short video recording and text it to him. This video, when I watch it now, makes me laugh at how pitiful I looked and sounded! Peter received the video and sent me one back of Anni the Wonder Dog, but I didn’t get it until later in the afternoon when I was back on a Wifi signal.
Finally, a little downhill! We turned left onto Braddock Avenue and then left on Frankstown Avenue, the furthest point away from the start/finish lines. We had just entered the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, an African-American neighborhood of vacant lots, weeds and broken glass, and little barefoot kids in shabby pajamas coming up to give you high fives with their grubby hands. People were making their own water stops for us, yelling “You got this girl!” On one corner, people were shouting encouragement in heavy Pittsburgh accents, and on the next, men were hanging out on open bar stoop doorways, heavy cigarette smoke rolling out of the bar, the men drinking out of brown paper bags or carrying half gone cases of malt beer cans. On a Sunday morning?!?! Handwritten signs on cardboard were stapled over the signs of barber shops, “Stop the Shooting.” Had I been running through there by accident by myself, I would have been scared out of my mind. However, with the race officials and other runners around, it was more interesting and not scary at all. As I approached the official race water stop of the neighborhood, funk music blasting, the women dancing as they were trying to push cups of water at you, one woman was talking on a megaphone and saying “you’ve never had your lily white ass up here in Homewood, number 4079”–which meant she was talking to me! I started to laugh and took a cup of water from the woman nearest to me, and I started to move my legs a little faster. I would learn later that Homewood, the most crime-ridden area of Pittsburgh, wins the best neighborhood award every year when marathon runners vote.
That was a momentary pick-me-up, not lasting very long. There were still four miles, from 18 to 22, that had a lot of hills. During those four miles, I saw objects shimmer and vibrate in the air, things that were supposed to be fixed but instead looked they were melting or dancing in waves of heat (although it was chilly, not hot). I felt like I was seeing hallucinations in front of me. There was also a very strong wind for most of the day, and it was picking up at this point, 15 miles per hour. There were times when I tried to run up a hill and the wind pushed me sideways across the road at the same time. We moved through the neighborhoods of East Liberty and Highland Park, and finally we hit some big downhill in the Friendship section. At mile 22, we turned right, back onto Liberty Avenue, which I knew would take us back downtown and to the Finish Line. I also knew that we would have about a one mile downhill. I put myself into cruise on that downhill, running the fastest speed I could, enjoying the pressure off my heart rate, but feeling pissed off that I couldn’t move faster and that I still wanted to walk. I kept running, and luckily the big, beer drinking crowds of Bloomfield helped that section pass quickly.
At mile 24, things were mostly flat again, just small, rolling hills, and I told myself to run the rest. And I would run . . . and then I would walk. While many people do well in races using walk/run intervals, I haven’t mastered this . . . and I haven’t mastered the mental discipline for it. When I start to add in walking intervals, it’s very difficult mentally for me to start running again. I’m a runner who needs to run and to not stop running until the race is done. That is what I did for my first two marathons, and then I met the hills of Pittsburgh . . . This will be one area I concentrate upon heavily in the future: mental training and fortitude.
The last two miles were on Liberty Avenue, the same stretch we had run for our first two miles. Not only is this section full of ugly warehouses, now it was littered with jackets and throw away sweatshirts that people had shed back in those first few miles.
We actually passed the start line at mile 25.5, running past it and turning into a different street to enter downtown. A few more blocks, a lot of mental pushing to just keep running, a right turn, and finally: the Finish Line! I kept running toward and over it, but there was no sprinting at the end of this race as I had been able to do at the end of the Outer Banks Marathon.
So relieved. Not happy, just relieved, to be done. A volunteer placed a big, heavy medal around my neck, and I accepted a mylar blanket from another volunteer. I found a few bottles of water and slowly kept walking out the finish shoot, which was very quiet and empty. There were empty tables everywhere, empty of bananas and pretzels, no race food left for us back of the packers. I was feeling like things were kind of melting in my view, or quivering in the air as I looked at them, or like I was hallucinating again when I looked at things. Two photographers asked me if I wanted a finisher’s picture, and I let them take the bottles and blankets out of my hand. I asked them if they had seen the Eat ‘n’ Park cookies (something else I grew up with . . . I haven’t eaten one in years, and I was looking forward to those cookies and Sierra Nevada IPA through my whole race). One of the photographers answered that they were all gone. I must have looked so sad that the other photographer pulled one out of his jacket pocket and offered it to me. I accepted it and told him “I love you,” something definitely out of character for me! My mom was texting me at this point, asking if I was ok, as I had told her I’d be five and half hours at the most. At this point, I had run 6:01, plus the forty minutes extra for my corral to start, plus the ten minutes or so that had passed since I entered the finishers’ shoot. She was waiting for me at the end of the shoot, and luckily she had seen the Steel Challenge booth where I would go for my third medal. I say luckily because they had already taken down their signage and were packing up to leave. I never did see any Sierra Nevada beer tent.
During the mile walk back to the car, I tried to munch on a protein Power Bar, something I do after every race, trying to feel normal again. I had no energy to talk or to communicate, although I was trying. I also was shivering as the cold wind hit me, even wrapped in the mylar blanket. Finally in the car, I was able to utter some words, and I called Peter, letting him and my mom hear my initial thoughts at the same time for about ten minutes.
Back at the townhouse, I took an epsom salts bath and ate a little bit more, and I felt almost completely back to normal. This seemed amazing to me with how low I had felt just an hour or so before.
Around four o’clock, Mom and I headed back into downtown, parked, and walked a chilly, windy block to Proper Brick Oven and Tap Room, a restaurant recommended to me by a sorority sister. It was the perfect place. We had a cute Italian-Pittsburgh waiter, a tasty salad, delicious carnivore brick oven pizza, and a cold Pittsburgh brewed India Pale Ale. We were back at the townhouse by seven, and I was cuddled in flannel pajamas, in bed before nine o’clock.
Making the decision to not drive home eleven hours that Sunday but instead to get a good night’s sleep and to fly back the following day was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The next day at the airport, I walked around, feeling very little soreness at all. I ran for the first time Wednesday evening, three days later, and felt general fatigue but no soreness at all (two miles). I ran again three days later, Saturday, and these were five fast miles. Again, no soreness at all. My recovery after this race has been excellent and perfect, so different than after the Outer Banks Marathon last fall. I attribute this to lots of sleep and eating lots of vegetables and fruits and protein in the days after the marathon. I think I was healthier during training, as well, with no soreness or injury going into the marathon.
I have done A LOT of reflection during this past week. This was a hard race. Too hard for me? Maybe. It was hard to swallow, seeing a time over six hours when I finished. It was hard to swallow, realizing I was at the back of the back of the pack, when I usually would consider myself the back of the middle. On the other hand, I think here, where I live in Raleigh, we have a wider range of runners. A wider segment of the population who run races, and who run them slowly, and that’s ok. Better to run slowly than to not run at all. I think the Pittsburgh Marathon does not attract those back-of-the-pack runners, so there were fewer of us.
Too hard for me? No, I don’t think. I think I need to train more often and on larger hills than what we train on here, leading up to the next time that I run Pittsburgh.
Yes, you heard that right. The next time. It won’t be 2018, because that’s too soon. I need some time. (And, at this point, I think I am going to take spring 2018 off from marathons and concentrate more on half marathon distance and building back up strength with CrossFit.) But within the next five years, yes. Right around my 50th birthday. That seems like the right time to go back and get after it again. I’ll know better what to expect, I will train better on the hills, and I will build up stronger mental fortitude to keep going, keep running on those hills.
I’m not done with you yet, Pittsburgh! In the meantime, thanks for the learning experience. Thanks for keeping me humble. Thanks for kicking my ass. I still had a great time in the middle of all the struggle.