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Friday, April 24, 2015

Strategizing the Pittsburgh Marathon

The countdown to the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon has reached the single digits!  The big day is even appearing in the 10-day weather forecast, so you know it's getting serious here!  (The weather forecast, however, is NOT making me excited yet at highs in the 70's and rain.  Hopefully this changes as we get closer...)

Taken on a training run.  Hopefully the 'Burgh will look like this come race day!

The training and the physical preparation are pretty much in the bag at this point.  There's not a whole lot a runner can do in the week leading up to a marathon to become physically more prepared, other than sleeping and hydrating.  Mentally, however, I'm using taper time to strategize about my race.

Race Map and Elevation Profile from the Pittsburgh Marathon website.

This will be my fourth marathon, and my third consecutive Pittsburgh Marathon, so I am familiar with both the distance and the course.  I know from experience that I can divide the race into roughly three parts:

One of the 5 bridges runners will cross - this photo taken at the 2014 EQT 10 miler.

Miles 1-13  - Keep Calm and Don't Go Out Too Fast!

I expect to feel relatively strong and happy, but I know that I'll need to pace myself from going out too fast on fresh legs and a mostly flat part of the course.  I've felt great in the first 13 miles of most of my training runs, including last month's Run the Bluegrass half marathon.  For those familiar with the Pittsburgh course, you may recognize that there is a significant elevation gain at mile 12.  I have run the uphill of the Birmingham Bridge and Forbes Avenue many times in training, and actually feel pretty good about it!  I've learned that this is another place where I need to be smart and not go too fast, taking walk breaks up the hill if needed, since there are many more hills to come.

The Pittsburgh Soul Steppers around mile 18 in Homewood.  A pleasant and happy distraction!

Miles 13-20 - Distract Myself

If anyone out there is running the Pittsburgh Marathon for the first time, there's something you need to know about the hills.  Everyone talks about the big hill in mile 12.  What nobody talks about is that  miles 13-23 are full of rolling hills in the form of slight grades, often on long stretches of road.  This killed me the first time that I ran Pittsburgh.  I expected a flat, easy plateau at the top of mile 12's hill, but the slight elevation gains of this section of the course have felt brutal to me on tiring legs.  I plan to turn on kind of an autopilot mode, to trust my training and use the scenic urban neighborhoods and  friendly crowds on course to distract me from any tiredness in my legs.

The city as seen from high up on one of the East End's hills.

Miles 20-Finish - Dig Deep, It's (Almost) All Downhill from Here!

For me, the undisputed most challenging part of the Pittsburgh Marathon course is climbing the hill of North Highland Avenue at mile 20.  Mile 20 is often the "Wall" a runner has to overcome in a marathon.  In Pittsburgh, that wall is made even more impassable seeming by the slow, steady climb of the course.  Fortunately, once you get to the top of the hill at Bryant street, runners get rewarded with a corresponding downhill in mile 21.  Then, more ups and downs before the course gets it's huge downhill at mile 23.  As much as it seems like a giant downhill should be easy, its still tough on my tired body to complete these last few miles.  Once I get to the top of the hill in Highland Park, I'm going to try and push my pace, and make the last 10K my fastest 10K!

Crossing the finish line at my first Pittsburgh Marathon in 2013!

I'm hoping that this strategy will bring me home a new marathon PR.  My 2015 goal race is ultimately the Marine Corps Marathon in October, in which I hope to break 5 hours.  Pittsburgh is going to be something of a "practice marathon" and, while I don't know that I'll be able to break 5 hours yet, I'm hoping to beat my best previous time.  Let the countdown continue, and I'll see everyone in 1 week at the Expo, 5K, Pet Walk, and Pittsburgh Marathon!


  1. Good luck! What a great race recap! I'm hoping to complete my first marathon this year and I am scared to death! :)

    1. Thank you! You should definitely go for it! It is a challenge for sure, but the feeling of accomplishment is totally worth it!