Writing a race report about the Pittsburgh Marathon is a difficult task because it is connected with so many facts about my life during the last month. Being fair and avoid any partial judgment will be hard but I promise I will try to do my best.
First of all, Pittsburgh is the city I felt in love with many years ago (in 2008 exactly) when I visited Carnegie-Mellon University as a PhD student. This is the city I wanted to live in and this dream came true more than a year ago. This city offered me a new life from many perspectives (social, work, etc.) and literally transformed my life. Also, this Pittsburgh marathon reminds me how stupid I was after loosing all the weight few years ago. After losing 150 pounds, I was so worried to become fat again that I exercised every day for 1 or 2 hours. This impacted my social life so that I ate almost nothing but salad and lean protein. I felt tired, irritated, exhausted and bored all the times but I kept my exercise/diet routine at no cost. With almost no friends, no social life: no matter what, the goal was to continue exercising. I was also into a weird behavior where I had to exercise for one additional hour if I ate some bad food (such as a scoop of ice cream) or drink something else than water (such as a beer). I was fit but alone. Last year, I did the Pittsburgh Marathon 5K and, even after running since more than 4 years, I was clearly not able to complete a marathon. I remembered watching the marathoners from my gym and thought the runners were crazy: they were pushing too hard and just not healthy to do such a stupid long-distance race.
But after a while, I met the Steel City Road Runner group, started running seriously and these guys that eventually become very good friends. Sure, I gained weight but stay fit, healthy (my heart rate is below 50, I think I still look ok) and (bonus) have a real social life. Also, in the meantime, I ran four marathons, several half and usually run more than 50 miles a week. Also, another important fact is that my partner in crime, a PA native, is also a runner and we enjoy traveling across the country while we participating to running events.
So, yes, talking about the Pittsburgh marathon is a difficult topic and I will try to do my best to make a report to tell you can expect. But this is clearly not a race, just a fantastic experience.
At a Glance
The Pittsburgh Marathon is organized over a week end. It includes several events:
- a 5K, a 1M kid run and a pet walk on Saturday.
- a half-marathon and a marathon (and a relay also) on Sunday.
As the marathon was on May, 4 this year, the force was with us (“May the force be with you!”). The short-distance events might seem on the expensive side ($50 for the 5K) but the price for the half- or full marathon (between $85 and $145 depending on when do you sign up) is reasonable considering the experience. If you want to do it, register only to avoid price increase but also the possibility for not having any bib (the race sold out quickly this year).
May the 4th be with you!
The festivities started on Tuesday with the expo – people can take their packets, hang out at the expo to shop of discuss with other runners, etc. Serious stuff starts on Saturday with the 5K, the kid run or the dog walk. Then, on Sunday, the half-marathon and the full marathon (with the possibility of the relay) start. The half-marathon and the full were sold out, which shows the popularity of the event. More than 50000 runners were part of the event.
The race expo was really big with many shops and other companies wanting to sell their stuff. Hoka had a dedicated stand with the new shoes and I resisted to the call of the Rapa Nui (a new model proposed by the brand). As a member of the Steel City Road Runner club, I volunteered at their booth. I arrived at the expo on Saturday at noon and my shift was from noon to 4pm. After my shift, I visited the other booths and resisted to the call of buying more and more running gear. I just took my packet, check my bib information and go for a noodle diner in downtown!
Jeff Galloway, the dude behind the run/walk method (and also one main coach for the Disney marathon) was just next to the Steel City Road Runner booth! Surprisingly, he is very accessible. As I was next to him for four hours, we discussed a lot of time. This seems weird to see him so accessible: anybody at the expo could come, discuss with him and have some information. Sure, he was there to sell his book but he did not mind to spend 20 minutes to discuss with somebody. This convinced me to buy two of his books (so, he is also a good sales representative !).
Looking good at 70!
The race was really well organized from the start to the end. Everything went smoothly, the signs were easy to spot, there was plenty of water stops, etc. In terms of water stops, many volunteers distributed Gatorade or Water. At some stops, you can get Powerbar gel or chunks of Powerbars.
There is a stop every two miles, so, you do not need to carry your own water or energy bars as long as you are ok with what is provided. Also, at the finish, there is plenty of water, bananas, bagels and other foods. Food was available even after five hours, so, if you are slow, you can still refuel after your race!
Another nice feature is the drop bag: all runners can drop a bag before starting the race and pick it up once finished. So, you can go ahead, bring some money or your cell-phone, put that in your drop bag and take it back when you are done! Packet drop-off and pick-up were not so crowded and accessible, which is not always the case in all events!
The packet contains the minimum: your bib, some gels, sunscreen and the drop-off bag. There is also a nice journal about the race. Nothing really fancy, just the minimum. But more than enough.
The course goes over most Pittsburgh neighborhoods. You can find the course on my mapmyrun related activity and also on the official website. Overall, this is not very hilly and the organization crew did a good job for avoiding most hilly soits. In fact, Pittsburgh has two of the steepest streets in the US and so, it is possible to make the marathon a real fitness challenge! Instead, we have only one medium hill (before the half-marathon mark) that is not too difficult and just refresh you half way!
Pittsburgh Bridges by Shaun
In addition to the elevation profile is the view over the city. Pittsburgh is full of bridges and all runners (half- and full-marathon) cross four bridges, and probably the best ones! Runners go over Rachel Carson bridge, Andy Warhol bridge and Birmingham bridge. But the best thing is to cross the West End Bridge, one that has high traffic and not easy to run on while training. Running on these bridges give the experience to have a unique view over the city, which thrills you and give additional energy to continue your journey.
The race started at 7am. Four corrals separated runners at different paces. Obviously, the starting line was pretty well organized. I was in corral B and started to run at 0705am. The bib has a chip and the timing results are posted on xacte. Six different times were reported:
- Starting time
- Half-Marathon mark
- 15.4miles mark
- 20 mile
- Finish time
A nice perk that comes with your registration is the runpix report. It shows you a graphical representation of the results: where was you when a friend finished, when the first dude in your age group crossed the finish, etc. Many would argue this is totally useless and they might be right but I still love having such a feature!
Also, the race is tracked by Race Joy, an app that provides the ability to track your friends over the route. Also, you can track several runners using text alerts: you register your cell phone for a runner and as soon as he crossed a particular point on the course, you receive a text message. This feature is particularly useful for people cheering: they can know when you are supposed to pas next to them! Some friends used this feature to find me on the race!
Finally, the race has a 6 hours cut-off time, so, you have to cross the finish before these 6 final hours! While I think everybody made it in that time frame, a dude finished just on time. In fact, he ran the whole thing in a fireman suit (see picture below).
The course go over most Pittsburgh neighborhood: Downtown, the Strip-District, North Side, West end, South Side, Oakland, Shadyside, Regent Square, Homewood, Highland Park, Friendship and Bloomfield. When running, signs show when you enter a new neighborhood. Also, the race book have the list of the neighborhood with a logo for each of them. During the race, I enjoyed most of them, pick a bottle of water in Bloomfield, take a cookie in Friendship but pass on the beer and booze stop in Bloomfield. I also appreciated seeing many folks I met these last months in the city: my former roommate Jon who ran 2 miles with me, many colleagues and their family, etc. Seeing people you like gives you a boost and additional energy to continue your race.
The organizers did a great job by cutting the course over these different neighborhood and excite its residents to cheer on the runners. Most of the neighborhoods were active: people dancing, cheering, encouraging you to continue to run! This is definitively something that improves the overall race experience! Having band playing music, seeing people giving water, cookies, beer, reading funny signs make these 26.2 miles pleasant and fun.
The best neighborhood was probably Homewood. While being not so popular, this was a fantastic with people playing soul and funk music, dancing and cheering at you. The worst one being Oakland: streets were empty, quiet and almost dead. This is unfortunate because many university (such as University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University) are within this neighborhood and could be something for this community. Hopefully, the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh (FAAP) made a great Cheerathon between Oakland and Shadyside and were probably the most innovative Cheerathon over the course!
Steel-City Road Runner Benefits
Being a member of the Steel City Road Runner club provides additional benefits during the race week-end! Among them: access to an indoor space before the race with breakfast and bathrooms, private bag check and access to a finish tent with food (including ice cream, chicken, salad, etc.), massage, photo booth, etc. Considering the membership is $40/year and provides many other perks (e.g. race and gear discount), this is definitively worth it!
Having access to the Benedum center before the race (it opened at 0530am!) was a big advantage. On the other hand, considering the size of group now (probably around 2000 runners) it would be appreciated to have bigger bathrooms and many guys waited in line. The breakfast was also a good idea, very simple and enough for a pre-race fuel.
At the finish, the tent was a blast: the massage, the food was just great! Having a large choice of food options (with lean protein) was appreciated, as well as the treats (such as the ice cream). This is really something that makes the overall experience better. Also, having our own bag check was appreciated: we then can just pick up the packet and enjoy the company of other runners.
The Steel City Road Runner – before the run
But beyond the basic benefits, this is just great to have a place to meet together, take pictures and just hang out. This is probably the biggest benefits among all: being able to stay together, connect and share the fun we had during these 26.2 miles.
Let me make my French …
As many folks already know, french people complain all the time even during the best moments. So, I feel I have to put a french touch to this report and detail what could be improved. If you feel offended, just “excuse my french”!
About the race itself, there is not so much room for improvement. Obviously, having done Asheville Marathon, Richmond and Disney, this one is probably the best I did and, among all the running events, among the best one. The race was wonderful, there is nothing to complain about the organization and there are many perks. To be picky, one thing that might be improved is cheerathon in Oakland: the area seems really dead when we passed it. The FAAP is the only nice spot in the area, and this is a good thing they are here! Another thing that could be improved is the content of the bag: having more toys, nutrition sample, coupons or race invitations. But obviously, these are small details and the event already do more than most other events.
From a Steel City Road Runner member, the club might offer more perks and benefits. While it already offer many advantages, there might have additional good ideas to consider:
- Having a SCRR-dedicated photograph for free pictures in SCRR-designated areas. Taking a dedicated photograph to make pictures at areas where the group met and publish them for free. For example, having one photograph at the Benedum Center in the morning and after the race, within the tent. Providing free pictures on area covered by the official race photograph services might be unfair but, having such a service for the area dedicated to the group might be doable and not so expensive.
- Official picture discount. About the picture, even if I am not a big picture fan, many folks love to get their picture during the race. However, the official photo service if really expensive (about $25 for a picture and $75 for all your pictures …). Having a SCRR-dedicated discount for buying pictures will be a nice perk and would probably get more folks to purchase them!
- Bib switching/trading service. Having a service to switch the bib with other runners or defer the entry to the next year. Many folks registered early and get injured during the training season. Many try to transfer their bib but it can be difficult. Having a dedicated service that take care of it would be a wonderful perk. It would encourage people to sign up and training according to their schedule and constraints: if they do not feel ok to race, they can defer and if they feel really good, they might upgrade as well.
One more thing
This Pittsburgh marathon week-end was the opportunity to discover one more time how great running was, how much I enjoy and like this community. The unique experience I got over this week-end is something that originates from a long-term relationship with other runners within the Steel City Road Runner community. I am really thankful to these folks: in some sense, after traveling in many cities, relocating in different parts in Europe and America, they became a sort of adopting family. Again, I am really thankful to them and they change my life way more they might think.
For the same reason, there are also special thanks to two dudes. The first is Jonathan Kissel that initially organized the group activities and made it bigger, stronger. I was hooked by the training runs he organized over the last year with the different pacing groups. The second amazing dude is Dave Spell, another organizer that is now more involved in the organization of the group. As Jon, he is also a fantastic runner, and a great organizer that started new programs that get more people involved into running. Congratulations to these guys!
Also, this race was an opportunity to look back 18 months ago and think about what happened since I land in the Pittsburgh area. The course was an opportunity to see many folks I met over these months. Some are friends, some enemies and other frienemies. No matter what, they are or were part of these last months and made this time wonderful. Thank you again.
- Some pictures are not from me and if this post violates any copyright, please contact me.
- Fore info, a guy published his pictures from the Marathon for free. See http://www.hodnick.net