Some things in life you don’t pass up. Like when a minister standing in front of a church asks if you’d like a blessing as you’re walking to your half marathon race start.
“Yes, please,” I responded.
We noticed the churches the day we arrived in Pittsburgh — old stone with interesting architectural details still standing amid tall, modern office buildings. We passed two Sunday morning on the walk to the starting corrals for the Pittsburgh Half Marathon and one of them, I believe it was Presbyterian church, had people on the sidewalk offering blessings to the runners. I’m Catholic but it didn’t really matter. If someone wanted to ask God, the Universe, the Higher Power to give me health and strength for my 13.1-mile race, I humbly accept it in the spirit in which it’s offered — one of love and compassion. And while the woman gave me the blessing she said, “May Amy do better than the she believes she can” I seriously almost teared up. Because that’s the crux of so much of my endurance journey — getting myself to believe that I’m capable of more than I give myself credit for.
Onward to the race report for the 2016 Pittsburgh Half Marathon.
This was a training race for me. It fell on a week when I had a 14-mile long run as part of my marathon training plan. I figured it was good time to knock out Pittsburgh and complete my Rust Belt Racing collection (after having run Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland) and 13.1 miles at intensity cancels out the need to get that extra 0.9 miles that’s on the schedule. This race would also give me a good look at my fitness. It was about this time a year ago when I ran the Cleveland half marathon as part of my training for the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon. My modest goal was to beat my Cleveland time.
The weather forecast was not helpful. It had been predicting thunderstorms. I tried to push the thought away, but it just hung around. It took some effort to mentally relax about the weather, but I was able to keep it to a dull roar of anxiety instead of a full-fledged panic attack. Good thing. Because it would have been wasted energy. The final weather alert from the marathon organizers came at 4:40 race morning — the heaviest rain had passed and there was no lightning in the area. Game on!
The other wrinkle in the Pittsburgh race — hills. I haven’t trained much on hills because Grandma’s Marathon is a rolling course without any climbs. Intellectually I knew Pittsburgh was hilly. However you don’t understand it until you look at the elevation profile and you truly don’t appreciate it until you run the course. I do not believe there is one stretch of flat road in all of Greater Pittsburgh. You are either going up or going down. There is no in-between.
This also was the first race my boyfriend Scott would be attending. While an active and outdoorsy kinda guy, he’s not a runner. This was his first race and part of me was nervous because I wanted him to have a good time and, well, spectating a race is not enjoyable for everyone. Add in the rain factor and I was a little nervous he would hate it. Before we made the trip I shifted my focus — this was about sharing something I love with him, showing him what my experience with racing is all about. When I looked at it that way, combined with his easy-going attitude, I no longer worried about entertaining him on the trip.
I have to say kudos to the Pittsburgh Marathon. It was one of the most well-organized big-city races I’ve done. The crowd support along the course was incredible. There were very few “dead” spots where you had to dig in mentally. Even with the crappy, drizzling weather, people were out cheering. Big props to the Urban League for being at the top of one of the hills. I can’t remember where you were at. All I know is your energy pulled me forward when I needed it most.
The first mile of the course is a long, gentle downhill. Which is awesome. And horrible. I always go out a bit too fast because I feel good and I’ve got adrenaline flowing. Now add in the downhill and my pace was way too fast. (It turned out to be my fastest mile.) I knew that and held myself back a bit. At Mile 2 it started to rain. Not a downpour but a steady rain. It only last about 10 minutes before it became mostly dry. Although then cue the humidity. Race temperature was in the upper 50s which isn’t hot but considering the majority of my runs have been in 37 degrees with some sideways snow and my body isn’t quite used to warm and humid conditions. I knew this and was happy to settle in.
I still was a bit too quick but felt I was in a good, moderate pace and went with it. Bridge No. 1 felt OK. At Bridge No. 2 I saw Scott and gave him a big wave, a smile and a shout out. Four miles in and I had a little burst of energy.
The hills, for the record, aren’t horrible. The half marathon course doesn’t have any heinous climbs but it’s a cumulative impact. Up and down. Up and down. Not in a gentle rolling hills way but a suck-it-up-and-grind-it-out kind of way. A blue collar kind of way. Hello fellow rust belt city!
After Mile 7 the hills got harder. Thankfully that’s were some of the funniest signs were including “If Donald Trump can run for President you can run for 26.2 miles.” I wasn’t going 26.2 miles but it made me laugh.
Mile 11 includes the final bridge then race split — marathoners to the right, half marathoners to left. I knew from the elevation profile that second last mile was a big hill. You could see it coming down the bridge. The incline wasn’t terrible but it was long. Very long. Hella long. And in a few parts the incline did turn a bit steep. This was the hill I had decided I could walk. Up until this point the only walking I did was through the water stops (because I can’t drink and run very well, the 30 to 45 second walk break isn’t going to kill my overall time and it has a bonus of helping me both mentally and physically). I did not walk any of the hills. I didn’t walk as I saw others walk.
(Quick digression: I have no problem with walking or people who walk. You do what you have to do to move forward. I’ve walked plenty myself. My personal pride in only walking the water stops was my own test of my own fitness level and mental toughness. Because I was definitely fit enough to run. I also was hydrated and my stomach was just fine. It was all systems go. The only thing that would have stopped me from running were the gremlins in my brain. Fortunately they took a holiday.)
This was my slowest mile. There was a water stop at the beginning and the end of the hill. I walked both but ran the rest. Slowly but surely. I didn’t need to attack the hill. I just needed to keep moving forward. And then came the fun part — the final mile is all downhill. For real. I enjoyed that mile. I smiled broadly. I didn’t kill it. There was, after all, still a mile to go, but my pace did quicken and I felt good and easy. I hit the 13-mile mark and with one-tenth of a mile to go started to kick it in. I crossed the line feeling good. Really good.
The finishing chute was well-run — wide open with goods on both sides. Gatorade, water, bananas and the famous Eat-N-Park smile cookies. I grabbed some grub and my space blanket and headed to the family reunion area where I planned to meet Scott.
This was my one criticism of the race — the families who crowded the end of the finishing chute to find their runners. I mean it was packed. You couldn’t move. Families were stopping to take pictures IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CROWD. People, please. If you go a few hundred yards there is a huge state park with a beautiful fountain, rivers and bridges to provide a photo opp backdrop. I was starting to get a bit claustrophobic. I darted around people and through a few others to open space! A few minutes later I found Scott who hugged me despite my stinky, sweaty self. He had his own adventures on the course and told me about them. (I had no need to worry that he would have an enjoyable time.)
In the end, I beat my Cleveland time. Actually I didn’t beat it. I smashed it. With more elevation gain to boot. I remembered what the minister said as she gave me the pre-race blessing: “May Amy do better than she believes she can.”