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Friday, May 9, 2014

3 Rivers, 5 Bridges, 26.2 Miles - A Pittsburgh Marathon Race Recap

I finished myself another marathon.  Pittsburgh 2014 marks my third full marathon. With Disney 2014 only 4 months prior and my first Pittsburgh Marathon only 364 days prior in 2013, Pittsburgh 2014 marks my third full marathon within a year.  Three races in, I haven't yet cracked the secret to improving my speed, or not feeling faraway and exhausted in mile 18.  There is one thing that I am certain of though: the feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment that the races provide is addictive and I will keep another marathon on the calendar as long as my mind and body allow me to keep running them.

It seems that the strategy for recounting an event of this magnitude should be the same as the strategy for running it, focusing on one mile by mile, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Corral C runners wait not-so-patiently at the starting line.

Pre-race:  Pittsburgh had runners wait in a corral system.  While previous years had 5 or more corrals, this year the runners were broken down into only 4 of them.  I'm not sure the reason for this change, but it provided some difficulty as there was not physically enough space for all of my corral's runners (Corral C) to fit in the designated space!  Many of us waited outside the corral fence in front of the Fairmont Hotel as corrals A and B left to make space.  I'm sure this traffic jam created some nerves at the start.  The slight sprinkling of rain gave me some cause for uncertainty, as the weather report had been fluctuating between rainy and sunny for days.  Luckily, the rain was brief, the runners eventually all got to the starting line, and we were off!

The green, orange, and red segments map the Pittsburgh marathon course.

Mile 1-2: The Strip District
Coming off the start, the streets are predictably crowded.  According to the marathon's race results page, the event had almost 5,000 participants in the full, 15,000 participants in the half, and almost 2,000 relay teams.  This means that 22,000 runners and walkers would make their way through this stretch in just about 30 minutes time!  Luckily, the Strip is fast, flat, and full of cheering crowds.  On non-marathon days, this Pittsburgh neighborhood is known for it's food and farmer's markets, and it was oh-so-tempting to smell some of that food cooking as we ran by, but we soldiered on!

Running in the Strip District.

Mile 3: The 16th Street Bridge
My mom walks around town during the first half of the course to greet me in different locations, and I saw her while approaching the 16th street bridge in the Strip.  Having someone to look for is a great periodic distraction from the facts like having 35+ more kilometers to go!  As for the bridge itself, 16th Street is mostly flat, and the first of 5 bridges that runners cross in this "City of Bridges."

Mile 4-6: The North Side
Pittsburgh has almost 100 distinct neighborhoods and the North Side is one of my two favorites.  Nestled between the Allegheny and Ohio rivers, the North Side is a spot many Pittsburgh athletes frequent to run and bike along the riverside or to kayak out on the water.  Professional athletes also call it home as the Pirates and Steelers home stadiums reside in the neighborhood.  Maybe it's because I love the North Side so much, but both years I've felt really fast in this part of the course.  We cross two more bridges in this part, the 9th and 7th Street Bridges, and their slight grades up to their center prove a bit steeper than that of the first bridge crossed.  There a rolling hills throughout this neighborhood, but the crowd is still dense and vocal including a group having a mimosa party on their front lawn.  Not only did I feel fast, but this neighborhood pushed me to some of my fastest miles in the race.  We shall later see that it's too early to run so fast, but it was fun in the moment!

The West End Bridge looms overhead.

Mile 7: The West End
Bridge number 4 takes us from the North Shore to the West End, and this bridge also challenges runners with a slight grade to race up to the center of the structure.  One of the best parts about running an urban race is getting to run on the road and all of these places pedestrians could never go, and the West End includes a lot of this.  It also includes a spin through the small West End Village neighborhood where the band played "Sweet Caroline" and the runners all sang along.  Mile 7 and we were still feeling fine!

Found my very own Pittsburgh Dad in the South Side!

Miles 8-10: The South Side
This stretch is long, but it's mostly flat.  The city's busses, bike trails, and light rail train all converge here, so the spectators are plentiful.  My dad rode his bike down to meet me here, and I enjoyed talking with him during a much-needed walk break (and selfie-break).  I'm always amused running through the South Side, as it's the city's nightlife mecca and most Pittsburghers have found ourselves out to all hours of the night carousing here at some point.  Today, however, it was about the run, and I enjoyed this straight, flat part of the course.  In fact, mile 10 boasts the title of "flattest mile" on course.  Remember this fact for later.

The flattest mile on the course - enjoy it while it lasts and beware!

Mile 11: The Birmingham Bridge
Remember when I told you mile 10 was the flattest mile on course?  Mile 11 is the opposite of that.  Remember when I said that the other bridges sloped slightly up to their center and then sloped back down?  The Birmingham bridge mostly just slopes uphill.  The Birmingham bridge also holds a surprise.  After climbing the bridge, half-marathoners turn left and full-marathoners turn right, but both are treated to another hill after the bridge!  Somehow, the post-bridge road that we split on to really does go uphill both ways.  The elevation chart for the full marathon is posted below, and I will let you guess where the Birmingham Bridge resides on this chart.

Mile 11 climbs about 200 feet, and the course just keeps climbing!
Half marathon on the left, full on the right, but everyone is having the same thought about this bridge right now.
Mile 12-13: Oakland
Topographically, Pittsburgh is known for its rivers, its bridges, and its hills.  After Birmingham, runners won't cross another river or bridge, but we sure see a lot more hills.  The climb into Oakland is arguably the toughest part of this race, and I chose to walk much of it, hoping to save some energy for the second half of the course.  Along with the North Side, Oakland is my other favorite Pittsburgh neighborhood, stuffed full of libraries, universities, and museums.  During the race, however, my love of Oakland's ambience is overtaken by my exhaustion after the hill, and my anxiety of having another 13 miles to go!

Mile 14-16: Shadyside and Point Breeze
This part of the race feels like a bit of a blur to me.  The first time I ran it, I was shocked to learn that the infamous hills don't end at the crest of the big hill into Oakland.  This year, I was more prepared for the low-grade, steady climb of Fifth Avenue.  I kept a pretty good pace here.  Shadyside is also where I saw one of my favorite inspirational signs on the course:

For my Game of Thrones fans.  If you're not into Game of Thrones, I really can't explain this any better than by saying "Hodor."
Mile 17-18: Homewood
Homewood has a reputation for being one of the liveliest neighborhoods on course.  This is a place where runners will see residents having their own dance parties and cookouts up and down the street. I don't even think I stopped at any official course aid or water stations in Homewood, as residents lined the street handing out their own cups of water and pieces of fruit.  Homewood is unique in that the spectators range from little children to the elderly, and they all seem to have more energy than I did at even the start of the race.  It's a good thing that Homewood is so upbeat, because this is also where I start to lose it as a runner.  People talk about hitting a wall.  In all three marathons I've run, mile 18 is where I start to feel unhinged, I slow down, and I doubt my abilities to finish.  Luckily, the residents of Homewood cheered me on, even when I slowed to walk, and entertained me with their relentless spirit.

The Pittsburgh Soul Steppers held their own marathon - a dance marathon!

Mile 19-21: East Liberty and Highland Park
The good thing about hitting the wall at mile 18 is that I find myself on the other side of the wall by mile 20.  I am certain the the course has something to do with this.  Mile 19 is another long, steady climb into Highland Park.  Mile 20 resides at the peak of this climb, and then mile 21 is back down that same long, steady hill.  In each of my three marathons, mile 20 is the point where I am confident that I can finish.  Pittsburgh just really makes you work for that 20 mile marker with the climb up North Highland Ave!

Up, up, up the mountain in Highland Park.

Mile 22-23: Bloomfield
This is another favorite neighborhood.  Self-described as Pittsburgh's Little Italy, Bloomfield is a place for amazing restaurants, amusing residents, and seemingly year-round festivals and parades.  Bloomfield is also where runners reach an amazing milestone.  Spectators like to say "it's all downhill from here."  Around mile 22.5, this sentiment is really true!  This stretch is also where I met a few new friends.  Running on Liberty, I met Lauren, a Team in Training runner who had just run the Big Sur Marathon the previous weekend, and her coach, Jeff, who invited me to some upcoming speedwork sessions in the South Hills.  Exiting Bloomfield, I met the Pittsburgh Hash House Harriers, who were offering their own form of aid to runners in the form of cups of beer.  I took a beer, hoping for a hoppy pep-up to carry me through the last 3 miles.

Pittsburgh Hash House Harriers.  They like running, food, and beer?  Sign me up!

Mile 24-25: The Strip District
Back in the Strip District, the only way I can describe these two miles is LONG.  They're straight and flat, but Downtown and the finish line seem so far away.  As a back-of-the-packer, I mostly see people walking and looking generally exhausted in this area.  I've heard tales from faster runners that this is where people's bodies physically give up on them, and many a runner chasing a PR or a BQ have collapsed or fallen in the final stretch.  As long as it felt, I knew that I would be chasing down the finish line soon.

Mile 26: Downtown
Mile 25 felt like the longest mile of my life, but mile 26 felt like one of the shortest.  The final stretch of the Pittsburgh Marathon twists and turns runners through the city streets of Downtown Pittsburgh, with the finish line being around several corners.  This is also where my mom comes to greet me again on Smithfield street and my husband, probably still asleep in the early miles, comes out to see me finish the race.

So happy knowing that in 3 minutes I'll be finished and in 30 I'll be eating brunch!

By the time I finish, the crowd of both runners and spectators has thinned considerably, but the bagels and Smiley Cookies at the finish line are still plentiful.  I knew back in Highland Park that I wasn't going to beat last year's time, but I was still a bit disappointed to learn that my first marathon was still my fastest to date.  I already have the wheels turning in my head, however, as to how I can improve my time in races to come.  PR's aside, no matter how slow, there is always a tremendous amount of satisfaction over crossing that finish line and hearing the roar of the announcer:

"You are a Runner of Steel!"

Pittsburgh Marathon finisher medals from 2013 and 2014.

By the Numbers:

  • 26.2 Miles
  • 5 Bridges
  • 3 Rivers
  • Approximately 6 hours
  • 3,170 Calories burned
  • 3 Marathons in the bag!

Thank you to the staff, volunteers, and spectators.  Thank you to my Mom, my Dad, my Husband, and my Dog for cheering me on.  And Congratulations to all the other Runners of Steel!


  1. Congrats on marathon number three!! I'm super excited to attack the full again next year!

  2. I was barely in front of you. I loved your recap because we experienced a lot of the same things, including Sweet Caroline. It was my first full marathon, and I'm already wondering about my next.

    Hope you're feeling well!

  3. Thanks, ladies! Congratulations on your races and I hope to run with you in another race soon!

  4. Haley CONGRATS on finishing Marathon #3! It was nice meeting you on the course and after the finish. Can't wait until you can make some speed workouts. Loved your race recap, it felt like we were all back out there covering the 26.2 again. Next year PR! With hard work you'll get there Haley. Keep up the hard work!

    1. Thanks, Jeff! I'm already looking forward to the next race!