My fellow Yinzers, it is with great joy and also exhaustion that I inform you that today, for the first time in history, my husband and I participated in and completed the Pittsburgh Half-Marathon.
And now that I’ve had a sufficient amount of post-race calorie load and a nice nap, I feel that I can tell you about this crazy journey!
After sneaking in a few hours of sleep last night (I was waaaaay too hyper and excited to fall asleep for hours), we woke up at 4:30am and started the day off with a pre-race breakfast of bagels and bananas. My stomach was so worked up in nerves and excitement that I could barely make it through my bagel, which my body would hate me for around mile 8.
My mum made this awesome sign for us, and for our friend Marci who was running the full marathon today. My parents went to the Strip District to watch us as we raced by!
We made excellent time into town, but then it was a little crazy trying to find the right corral. We were in Corral E, but there were only signs for A, B, and C. While we were looking, we ran into a guy who was worried because he’d forgotten Band-Aids for his nipples. Thankfully, I’d packed extra Band-Aids in my fannypack, so I was totally able to come to the rescue! Shortly after, we finally found Corral E and got into position for the race.
Here we are in our 101 Achievements shirts before the start of the race. Because we were walking, we got to start at 6am. It was not that crowded in the pre-dawn time, but everyone was still quite excited.
The starting line was on Liberty Avenue downtown, so the corrals were all near Fifth Avenue Place. This is just before they started playing “Renegade” to get us all pumped up! (“Renegade” has become the Pittsburgh anthem after the Steelers started using it for their defensive video at games.)
Here I am, modeling my fabulous half-marathon outfit. I CANNOT say enough good things about those leggings – just regular Target leggings (not even the ones built for exercise or anything), but they kept my legs feeling like a million bucks throughout. Please also note my faboo fannypack, which allowed me to keep my camera on me throughout the race.
Our only action shot (so far, at least, we’ll see when the pro photos start rolling in) is kind of a photobomb, but here is the picture my mum took as we ran past 18th Street in the Strip District! My parents waited for us to run by just around mile 3. The course went down Liberty Avenue, then looped down to Penn on 32nd Street. There were already bands and fans on the streets!
This was probably the worst part of the day for rain. It was never a torrential downpour or anything, but the rain was starting to get in my eyes pretty badly between miles 3 and 4, and it was soaking my shirt even more than it already was from sweating alone. But we pressed on, and thankfully had cloudy, cool, but not wet weather for most of the race.
The first bridge!! The half-marathon crossed four bridges, and the first was the 16th Street Bridge crossing from the Strip into the North Side. At the top of the hill past the bridge was mile 4! We were almost a third of the way there!
As we were entering the North Side, the runners were stepping off to start the race back in the city. Because the leaders were running 5 minute miles (crazy, isn’t it?), we had periodic bursts of pace cyclists clearing the route and herding us walkers into the side of the course to make room for the runners. This gave us even more energy somehow, knowing that the elite runners would be passing soon!
There are bands and cheer groups all throughout the course, and in the North Side, there was a group of gospel singers from Urban Impact performing for us. It was so inspiring, and it gave us the energy to power on and run a short bit to the 5 mile marker!
There were tons of people in the North Side cheering us on, and there were motivational signs along the way as well. I cannot stress this enough: if you were a bystander cheering for us today, you do not even begin to understand how important you are!! Without your cheers and encouragement, we would have given up early on! I could just feel my spirit getting more energized each time we passed a big group of cheering fans!!
And not all the fans were two-legged, either! We loved seeing the adoptable, adorable pups outside the Western PA Humane Society! All those tail-wags kept us going, and we ran down Western Ave to mile 6 with tons of energy!
Then it was time for the West End Bridge. Trainer Mike had warned me going into the race that bridges are deceptively inclined. When you’re driving on them, they seem pretty flat, but when you’re actually walking, you can notice the incline to the center.
The West End Bridge was definitely like this, but as we began the climb to the level point, we heard a group of people approaching on the left. It was the ‘elite’ marathoners, the ones who had caught up to our hour-and-a-half of 6 miles in just over half an hour!! If we needed a boost going up the incline, this was certainly it. It was amazing to just watch these guys run.
I’d recently read an inspiring interview with Flea, bassist of one of my favorite bands, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Flea had just trained for his first marathon, the LA Marathon in April, and his inspiration (besides raising money for the music conservatory he runs in Silverlake) was a book called Born to Run that talks about how the human body is meant to run. Watching the elite 5-minute milers, I could see everything Flea was talking about. Never have I ever seen up close people who seemed to be built just for running. It was incredible!
By the time we hit mile 7, the runners were starting to catch up to us, so I don’t have any pictures between then and the end of the race, as the field got sooooo much more crowded. But the West End crowd was probably my favorite of the whole race. The sidewalks were packed with supportive fans, and there were several bands along the stretch of Main Street. We ran from mile 7 until the road started going uphill again toward Carson Street, the adrenaline from all the fans just carrying us.
I started noticing that my ankle was bugging me. My plan had been to wear the long leggings that could tuck into my shoes, but with my short socks that I like to wear when I’m working out. Well, after our few bouts of running, the socks started sagging and the leggings started inching up my shins on the bottom. I paused for a moment to pull my socks back up, but I didn’t think anything much about it until just after mile 8, when each step was like a sharp little pinprick in the back of my ankle.
The area from mile 8 to mile 9 was a mostly-downhill stretch of West Carson Street, along the river and bare of fans until around the Duquesne Incline. My ankle was starting to bother me more and more, and I was starting to question how the hell I thought I was going to finish this thing! I felt like we were starting to lose some of our pace, and more and more runners were passing us. I think in several ways, mile 8 was one of the hardest for me.
And then, a runner passed me whose shirt said, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Now, whether or not I believe that in the course of a normal day is a totally different story. But in the heat of the marathon, with the crowd around me and the sound of sneakers hitting the pavement on all sides, that shirt was the inspiration I needed. I paused to pull my sock up over the raw spot on my ankle, checked in with Michael, and then we took off running down the hill toward the incline.
By the time we reached the huge crowds at Station Square, I was feeling much improved. Everyone was cheering and yelling, “You can do it!” There was a fluid station here, so we grabbed some more Gatorade, and then there were volunteers handing out something called Gu (pronounced ‘goo’). It’s an energy gel supplement, and it was just what I needed, because mile 8 was about as far as that bagel and banana were going to take me! While it wasn’t the most delicious thing of all time (imagine eating blackberry-flavored toothpaste), the calories and electrolytes gave me a little burst!
Also around Station Square, there was a DJ playing dance music, and the songs got me moving. We were able to run a little of the stretch of Station Square. I also want to do a big shout-out thank you to the guy with the vuvuzela standing under the overpass at Arlington Avenue. I pretended I was racing down the field with the ball in the World Cup as I heard the vuvuzela, and I knocked a few seconds off my time for sure as we reached mile marker 9!
I can honestly say that the next two miles were the hardest of the race hands down. Mile 8 had been a challenge because of my ankle, but now my legs were starting to feel like lead, and my knees were crying out for me to bend them! I swear, my body kept telling me, “Just a little child’s pose, right there on the sidewalk, no one will notice!” over and over. My ankle was back to being a mess, but I had to work through that and focus on the more painful part at that point, which was my knees. Thankfully, a few high knee steps gave me enough relief to keep going, but after the turnoff for the half-marathon at 16th Street on the South Side, the crowds were more sparse, and I had to really stay focused to make it.
We made it through this stretch by talking numbers: how many kilometers had we gone, what percentage of the race were we through, what familiar landmarks that we loved to walk to were the same distance as the distance we had left? We kept talking about places we walked to and never thought about, like, “We used to walk this distance to the Squirrel Cage every night for drinks the summer we met!” and “Imagine we’re walking to the 61C Cafe and back a few times, but without the hill!”
The funny thing was that the way the half-marathon cycled back to the city, we passed through the same corridor where the vuvuzela guy and DJ were. So, just after we’d crossed the 11 mile mark, we were right back at 9! This gave us a laugh, and the dance music and cheers from fans gave me some more of a boost as we prepared to cross bridge #3.
We have walked across the Smithfield Street Bridge many times in our relationship, so this was terrain we were familiar with. It finally felt like the homestretch: in my mind, I could see each step of the route we had to take to get to the finish line. My legs were hurting sooooo badly at this point, and my left arm was completely raw from rubbing against my wet shirt, but we were so close, so we had to keep going!
The bands along Smithfield Street kept our energy up, and the closer we got to the Clemente Bridge, the more fans that were lining the streets. We had caught back up to a lady we had been unofficially pacing with the whole race, and her positive energy was wearing off on us! She kept yelling, “Good morning, thank you!” to each of the fans we passed, and as we passed the mile 12 marker, I thanked her for the good vibes. It turns out she was walking her first half-marathon as well!
Here it is, the final mile of the race! No matter how badly you hurt at this point, you know you’re going to make it. The sidewalks ahead were packed with spectators, and just past this stretch was the start of the Clemente Bridge, complete with an announcer and a huge screen showing us as we stepped onto the bridge. “The last mile! You’re in the last mile, runners!” the announcer kept saying.
As we crossed the bridge, a band on the side of PNC Park started playing the kind of music that they play during the Pens warm-up skate. I looked at Michael and said, “Alright. It’s game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. I’m Evgeni Malkin, and you’re Sidney Crosby, and we’re about to win our first cup. Let’s do this!!” We took off running, powering around the corner of PNC Park, ignoring every single bit of pain and exhaustion in my body.
We did walk a bit of the final stretch, because we wanted to finish strong, but we used a red umbrella past the 26 mile sign (the full and half-marathoners finish in the same place) as our target, and as soon as we hit it, we ran straight through to the finish line!!
I felt simultaneously the best and the worst that I have ever felt at that moment. I was almost in tears, just so amazed that we had actually done it. But as soon as I stopped moving, I started to really feel all of the pain. I knew I had blisters, and my muscles were aching, and as we stood in line to get our medal, I glanced down at my ankle. Apparently, the pain was not all in my head. My sock and the back of my shoe were red, as the walk had torn open the skin on the back of my ankle. Even now, hours after the race, it is still super tender to point or flex my foot, so it’s going to be a few days of Neosporin and wearing slippers at work for sure!
After we got our pictures taken with our medals, we capitalized on the free food and drink waiting for us at the Finish Line Festival. This banana was the best banana of my life, so I wanted to commemorate the moment with a picture. We also had Panera bagels and Eat n Park Smiley Cookies to help us replenish the calories burned.
Then we met up with my parents, who had so graciously played chauffer for us so we didn’t have to worry about parking and driving before and after the race. Once we were back at their place and away from the crowds, we could finally get a picture with our medals!
And then, of course, we had to take this picture for Craig Wolfley. Guess what? After 13.1 miles, our hammies were crampin’.
After we got back to our house and showered, it was off to celebrate with the post-race fatty breakfast at Fuel n Fuddle. I think this might be the first time in my life that I’ve gotten waffle fries with my breakfast. What a mess!
The final tally for the day:
~ miles raced: 13.1
~ final time: 3 hours 8 minutes
~ minutes per mile: 14.35
~ calories burned: 2042
~ average heart rate: 159
~ max heart rate: 196
~ memories made: about a million
Even as exhausted as I was after the race, I felt so good! My body was aching, but my heart and soul felt renewed. Just to be a part of this incredible experience was almost overwhelming: the energy, the excitement, and the existence of thousands of runner’s highs all around you, well, I can’t think of a much better feeling.
My goal at the start of the race had been to keep up to a 15-minute mile pace for my first half-marathon, and at the finish, we actually surpassed that, with an average of 14.35 minutes per mile! The bits that we ran felt amazing, like my body was grateful to me for trying it, like I tapped into something that made me feel, despite the pain in my feet, that this was something I knew, deep down, how to do. I remembered why I loved running laps so much for endurance training for dance: there is something so freeing about running, even when you feel like you can’t push on any further!
So now, on this evening, with the first half-marathon behind me, there’s really only one thing on my mind. How many days until the next one? 🙂
Maybe I’ll be a runner yet… we shall see!