Avoid the flat, Hit the hills and Run Pittsburgh!

hillsWhen looking for a race, people usually are looking for flat or downhill courses. Two years ago, when volunteering in Richmond to present the Pittsburgh marathon I was surprised to see how many runners were reluctant to sign up because of the elevation profile. The city is known for its hills and the race directors did a great job to avoid steep hills (look at the five steepest hills to get a general idea). But when presenting the course, you have to come with an elevation chart to convince them it was not too hilly.

The general idea is that a flat course (or a downhill one) will be easier on your legs and require less efforts. Of course, this is obvious you are going faster on a flat course but was the elevation never change, you are working the same muscle group. And if you choose a downhill race, this can also put a lot of stress on your joints. Even for a flat race, you are putting all the efforts on the same muscles group and exhaust them until the last mile. If you are going to try to qualify for a particular time (Boston qualifier anyone?), this can be (1) very exhausting and (2) hard to recover as your body is not used to such long and intense efforts on the same muscles.

That might seem odd but running a race with some elevation variation can be easier on your body. As your running form is changing according to the elevation, you are not using the same muscles and when a muscle group is used, the other can rest for a while. Of course, this will not be easy, but if you are trained and used to take some hills, it will be definitively easier.

One example on the east coast is Erie and Pittsburgh. Erie is a big Boston Qualifier race: very flat, the course takes place in what one might consider as ideal conditions (perfect temperature most of the time, completely flat race). This is a two 13.1 loops on Presque Isle. Needless to say, pretty boring: after the first loop, you have only one wish, finish as soon as possible. On the other hand, Pittsburgh (or even Richmond) have some slight hills and is considered more difficult. But as long as you are used to run some hills, your body will recover quicker. And the course is nicer: you experience most of the neighborhood and the volunteers are pretty awesome. No matter if you are a Pittsburgh native or a new visitor: you will experience the city from a different perspective. Better than doing two loops on the same course. If you never experience the Steel City, I just recommend to come and experience this race. This would show you why Pittsburgh is one of the best city to live in the USA.


Avoid the flat, Hit the hills and Run Pittsburgh!

Tobacco Road Marathon: Race Report

The 2015 medal

The Story

A friend of mine familiar with the North Carolina area told me that there was a fantastic race around called Tobacco Road. It was also selected by Runner’s World as one of the top 10 marathons in the USA. As the registration fees for early birds were pretty cheap ($50), I registered immediately. The course seemed wonderful and is really flat. The race director highlights that this is an  ideal Boston Qualifier: pretty flat with good temperature, you might get a good time and qualify to run the mythical Boston race.

If you plan to do it, I would recommend to register early: the early bird registration is $50 and the fees goes up to $110. At $50, this is a fantastic deal but for $110, it seems too expensive for what it is and you might prefer to sign up for another race (Pittsburgh?). While the race was not sold out, it might be a good idea to register as soon as you know you can make it to save on registration fees.

How I got there

Natty’s Greene Brewing Company

Many friends decided to run the race but as a matter of fact, for several reasons, I was the only one to finally make it it. As I never DNS or DNF (for now … knock on wood!), I went there alone! As I was working in DC the week before, I take the drive from Washington, DC to Raleigh. This is a pretty straightforward drive.

The conditions for a horrible day were met: I fell few days before the race and injured my arm/hand and I was sick two days before, so, I was looking forward to see what will happen. Also, this is the first time I tapered before a race and did not run on Saturday before the race and took plenty of sleep. I wanted to see the impact of sleep over my performance and ability to race.

I arrived in Raleigh on Friday. Packet pick up and the race expo are at the Embassy Suites hotel on Friday and Saturday. You cannot take your packet on race-day, so, be careful to get there at least a day before. The expo is pretty basic with running stores, shoe sales, etc. I took my packet on Friday and want to Natty Greene’s, even if I was sick. The race is sponsored by Natty Greene’s Brewing Company, so, this was also a good opportunity to go and try their beers! In a nutshell: the food is ok and the beer is average. But obviously, they sponsor the race, so, what the heck, give them your bucks!

On the other hand, I was totally sick on Friday and was just hoping it will eventually get better after a few hours. The strategy was just to try to sleep as much as I can and avoid to overload my stomach and just try to keep something inside. Very romantic week-end in perspective. I got plenty of sleep during Friday night and Saturday and did not do any carb-load or special nutrition strategy. It will be definitively an interesting race!

Safety measures were already up on Saturday

The Race

The race organizers did a pretty good job to make the area safe and convenient for runners. On Saturday, there was already signs to indicate there will be runners on Sunday. This might be be so significant but it shows the attention and efforts the race director put into his event.

The race is well organized. Parking is limited at the start so you have to park few miles away and a shuttle bus connect the race site with this parking. There are a lot of portable toilets as well, either at the start/finish line or even on the course (there are not many but they are there very often).



The elevation profile - pretty flat
The elevation profile – pretty flat


The race starts with 2.5-ish miles on the road and after, you run on the Tobacco Road trail. You start a first 6-ish out and back (so, 12 in total) and do another 5-ish out and back  and finish by taking back the road (2.5-ish) to the starting line. Simple course, not exactly flat (it has slight hills, see the elevation chart) but definitively not an aggressive elevation profile. This makes this race a great Boston Qualifier for those who do not like hills! There are many aid stations with Water/Gatorade (probably even 2 to 3 miles) and some propose GU gels. Also, the second turn around (about mile 19-ish) is more an ultra-station with Peanut Butter & Jelly, Pretzels, etc. The beer enthusiasts will be happy to know that there is a beer aid-station (probably not official) around mile 7-ish and 9-ish). I appreciate the initiatives but on this day, I did not want to try such a thing, especially so early in the race! But it shows the support of the local community and how nice and friendly is the people around!

Over all these miles, you can see the nature, run on bridges, listen to the birds: that sounds very romantic. But what seems a great race on a sunny day could be a nightmare with more rain. We were lucky that the race was on a sunny day but in case there is rain it can be a complete muddy course. So, your race experience might be impacted significantly by the weather.

Get ready at the starting line

Once you finish, you get your medal (yeah!) and you can go to the dedicated finish area to get chocolate milks, beers, pizza and bread! The beer was nice and pour were smalls so that you do not drink too much  (which can be hazardous, especially if you have a long drive right after!). The bread was great and tasty, the Great Harvest Bread Company did a great job, their products were definitively the most appreciated sponsor here! I would have made my complete post-race recovery with bread and butter but I did not want to take too much!

The medal is very cool and original, another good reason to sign up! The ride back to the parking lot using the shuttle takes about 10 minutes, the system set up by the organizers is really efficient!

As for popular Boston-Qualifier race, the emphasis is put on the PR bell, the potential BQ for every runner, etc. Fortunately, a runner from Steel City Road Runner got her BQ at this race! So, it seems to be legit!

Lessons Learned

Representing the Steel City Road Runners

This race was the first one after a long time. As I was injured, the training was really different and this gave me an opportunity to learn a lot. Some thoughts:

  • sleep is definitively underrated and carb-load overrated: the race was done on an (almost) totally empty stomach but after two 9 to 10 hours night of sleep. During the run, I was able to put down three gels and a peanut butter square. I felt great (no bunk) and not tired at the finish. No wall effect as well.
  • walking might be necessary and do not impact significantly your time: the pain related to the injury started to come back sometimes, making running extremely difficult and painful. When it happens, I just walked for one to two minutes and then, the pain disappeared. It happened three times during the race. This is probably better to lose 6 minutes on your finish time than suffering for four hours.
  • running is definitively a mental process: all the conditions were met to have the most terrible experience. Previous injury, not having the friends I was expecting, being sick before the race, the list might be long and I could just decided not to start. But putting your ass on the starting line is probably the most important step to finish. Do, stop whining or complaining: put your ass on the starting line and do your thing. Action matters more than anything else.

The Take-Away

This is a great beautiful race if you run it on a sunny day. For $50, this is a great deal and I would not consider to run it for more (I would consider running another race). If you want to qualify for Boston, this is a great opportunity, especially if the race takes place on a sunny day.

The race is really well organized and there is nothing to complain about, there is truly a great event! This can be a great opportunity to make a road trip with other friends and discover North Carolina! Plus, you can meet famous people: Sean Astin, an actor in “The Goonies” and “Lord of the Rings” ran the race! Pretty cool!

More Information

Tobacco Road Marathon: Race Report

Pittsburgh 2015 Race Guide

After running more than 3500 miles and a few races in 2014 (including 7 half-marathons, 5 marathons, 1 50K and one 50M – complete list here), there is a list of good races in the Pittsburgh area. As many running friends are asking for good race, I hope such a list could be useful! This is definitively not complete and you might find your perfect race elsewhere. However, I am hoping this might help some runners out there!

Happy new year 2015 and run happy!

Finish are of Run Around the Square
Finish are of Run Around the Square

5K & 10K

There are a lot of small races: easy to organize, they do not need to much administrative work (compared to half-marathon of full marathons) and many folks can join (you can even walk a 5K within a hour). There is a good choices for 5K and 10K around. The following are particularly recommended:

  • Run Around the Square (August): very friendly 5K that includes a beer stop and hot dogs at the finish. The race go into Frick park and can be challenging for beginners. Even if the race can be seen as expensive (almost $30), Forbes Magazine reported that you can eat for two days after running so it pays off. See the race website and the 2014 race report.
  • The Steel City Road Runners “Flash 5K” (several races during Summer): the Steel City Road Runners club organize Flash 5K. These are a series of 5K around the city. Races are free of charge and very friendly. You need to be a member of the club, but considering the membership price, this is definitively not too expensive. It gives you an opportunity to gauge your performance without paying an expensive entry fee. See http://steelcityrrc.org/
  • The FAAP Fall Classic 5K or 10K (September): yes, the website sucks but the race is fun! With a registration of $20 that supports a charity, this is a fun race in North Park. Different from the hype of many other race, it can be also challenging for runners not used to trails! See the website http://faap5krace.yolasite.com for more information and the race report of 2013.
  • Marathon week-end 5K (May): yep, the highlight of this week-end is definitively the marathon on Sunday. But the marathon week-end has also a fun 5K, a great way to get started for the week-end! At $40, this is definitively an expensive race but if you are just looking for a first race and discover the marathon events, this is a good event to go. More information on the race website.
  • The Great Race 5K or 10K (September): never run it so far but heard a lot of good things inside the running community. The route is not too difficult and the event is really big. More information on the race website.


  • Dirty Kiln (April): dirty kiln is not a race, this is a real challenge! There are two options: a 5 miles and a half-marathon. This is a very challenging course on muddy trails. Very cheap (between $25 and $30), friendly with Pizza at the finish, this is a must-do if you are looking to run trails! More information on the race website or the 2014 race report.
  • Pittsburgh Half-Marathon (May): looking for a half-marathon and not running the Pittsburgh marathon? Do the Marathon! And if you are a member of the Steel City Road Runners, you will have access to a pre-race breakfast and finisher area! More information on the race website.
  • Run to Read (January): a very low-key half-marathon in West Virginia in January that benefits the Volunteer. More information on the race website on the race report.
Finish of the Pittsburgh Marathon!
Finish of the Pittsburgh Marathon!


  • Pittsburgh Marathon (May): of all marathons I have done so far, the Pittsburgh marathon is probably one of the best experience. The race is very well organized, go through many different neighborhoods and let you discover the city. More information on the race website or the 2014 race report.
  • Richmond Marathon (November): probably the best marathon I ran after Pittsburgh. The route is beautiful, the support across the different neighborhood is fantastic. One issue: it is far from the Burgh, so, you’d better make a week end of it rather than driving on race day! More information on the race website or the 2013 race report.
  • Erie Marathon (September): flat course with two loops, it can be boring if you expect to have different views during your race. However, Erie is a very easy and scenic course in Presque Isle. Plus, this is a Boston Qualifier race, so, if you want to qualify to go to Boston, this is a good candidate! This event used to have a half and full marathons but, because it is a popular Boston Qualifier, it will be only a full marathon for 2015. More information on the race website, the 2013 race report and the 2014 race report.
  • Columbus Marathon (October): I never run the Columbus marathon but heard many good thing about it! If you want a wonderful fall race, this might be the one for you! More information on the race website.
On the Laurel Highland Trail


  • Laurel Highlands (June): a challenging 50K or 70 miles race. The first 8 miles have more than 1500 feet of elevation which are very hard to climb. The support is limited (not as many aid stations as in other races) but this is definitively a wonderful and scenic course. If you are in love with trails, this one should be on your list! Be careful, the races have a hard cap and are sold out every year! More information on the race website.
  • Groundhog Fall 50K (May): The biggest surprise of 2014 with Dirty Kiln and Rock’n the Knobb. One of the most friendly race, a lot of support with aid stations about every 5 miles (with people baking cookies for the runners!) or so, a very affordable race ($25 for 25K or $50 for 50K), support of veterans and team RWB. Very good first ultra (if you do the 50K) or trail race (for the 25K). The race director is very friendly (however, a new RD will take over in 2015). More information on the race website or the 2014 race report.


  • EQT 10 milers (November): there are not so many 10 milers races in this area. The Pittsburgh 10 milers is definitively a good race even is the route is not so scenic. For the price, it provides a good workout and provides the ability to log a long run on a Sunday. If you like to run in the city, this is worth to have a look at this race. See the race website for more information or the race report for more information about the race.
  • Rock’n the Knob (September): a trail run organized by the Allegheny Trail Runner group. Very hilly and challenging course! There is a 5 and 20 miles option to accommodate different running needs! This is a very friendly race and there is a beer brewed just for the race! Definitively a good one if you plan to run on trails! More information on the race website or 2014 race report.
Hungry to pace!
Hungry to pace at EQT!
Pittsburgh 2015 Race Guide