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Once a padawan, now a freaking Jedi. I run really far, I write a bunch, and have super powers that allow me to grow amazing facial hair.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Race Report: Dick's Sporting Good's Pittsburgh Marathon 2011

Last year my race in the Steel City was a disastrous affair... I was undertrained going in, injured about half way through, had terrible weather, and there was even a bomb scare during the race. I finished that one in 4:08:16, my worst marathon time to date by over 20 minutes.

This time my only concern about training was that I might be overtrained and not fully recovered from the last couple of races. I was still fairly confident that I was going to set a new PR and in doing so, redeem last year's race. My time to beat was 3:40:58, the mark I set last October in Columbus. I have had two shots already this year at eclipsing that time, but was just a few minutes off in both efforts. April and so far May have been some really solid training months, and much more consistent than anything I have ever done before a marathon. On top of the confidence in my training, this is also a race that I have done twice before, I know the course, where the hills are, and exactly where I have struggled in the past.

Just to give myself an extra edge to appease the running gods, I even had my buddy Phil tattoo the skyline of Pittsburgh on my forearm... how could I do poorly at a race whose location is forever etched into my skin? That would just be bad form. 

Some of you thought I was joking... I wasn't.
All that said, my original approach was to hang out near the 3:30 pace group until mile 20, and then drain the tanks for the last 6.2 miles, giving myself at least 10 minutes shaved off the PR.

Pre-race preparations went well, I did a really good job of being intentional with my diet leading into everything, stayed hydrated, and even tapered a bit (more because of my work schedule than actually resting because it was a good idea, but it still counts). I met up with Alex and Elise at the expo, where I also got the chance to say hi to Ferkett, a Marine I served with who I ran most of my first marathon with. I didn't really have a plan for lodging or anything set in stone, so when Alex and Elise offered to share their hotel room with me, I accepted. I spent the night there and actually got a decent amount of sleep, but then again I always do when I am big spoon (thanks Alex). 

My fear of Pittsburgh traffic had us waking up just after 4 AM to head out to the starting line by 4:45. What ended up happening was us getting there at 5:15 for a 7 AM start. The weather looked to be reminiscent of last years... slightly cold for the time of year, dreary, and an oppressively consistent drizzle.

The long wait to start resulted in meeting someone who I only had know via the interweb previously, which was pretty cool. She recognized me (probably because of my stunningly awesome facial hair) and now I see the potential of a new running buddy, which I always seem to be in need of. She was running the half marathon at about the same pace I was hoping to run the full in, so the first few miles of the race I had the unexpected pleasure of conversation. 

Foregoing my original plans, I decided to, of course, start fast and stayed up with the 3:20 pace group to start out. Outside of the annoying weather and my shoe coming untied around mile 6, everything was smooth sailing. I stayed right up on the pacers as close as I could manage, and did a decent job of staying  on a consistent pace. I was popping gel every 45 minutes and had a pretty methodical hydration plan working out. This whole that time that I was in the groove, I wasn't letting myself develop too much comfort. The start isn't where I have problems, its the last 8 miles that I was worried about. To prevent a collapse I just stayed in the pack. I felt like I should fly down hills, but it was a bad idea, so I didn't. In ultras you use the features to your advantage, and your pace being completely consistent is impractical if not altogether impossible. This wasn't an ultra, it was a road race, and I had to run it like one. 

Though it was good to have some company, it was also nice for the course to open up a bit once the half-marathoners turned off around mile 10.5 to head back towards Heinz Field. Just after that though is the most significant hill of the course, about a 200+ foot climb that starts right as you get across Birmingham Bridge. It's not much of a climb compared to some in ultras, but those are ones you run/walk. When you hit a hill like this one at a sub-8:00 pace, it's hard to keep that quick pace going for you. I tried to keep up with the pace group, but they inched further away from me with every stride. Some of the other runners that had been around me started to fall back too, it wasn't a case of all the sudden they blazed up the hill and left us, it was a gradual process. I honestly got a little worried right about then, worried that it was another case of me going out too fast and burning out. I tried to put the bad thoughts out of my head and just keep my pace steady and keep the group in view for as long as I could. I knew if I was consistent enough and didn't drop off completely that it would be a long while before the 3:30 guys caught up to me, and if that happened I would just try to stay with them.

As I went it was amazing how many familiar faces I saw. I saw at least two or three people from C-bus and quite a few old friends from Pennsylvania. In previous years I had seen a couple, but this time around it really felt like a hometown race. The thing I loved about the Columbus Marathon last year was the familiarity... running past places I see on a daily basis and seeing my friends on and around the course. This was very comparable, despite the fact that it's been over 4 years since I ventured to Ohio. As I passed the Pittsburgh YWCA (cool because I work at the one in C-bus) I was still feeling pretty fresh despite being close to the mileage where I start to struggle. The gels were starting to become a great annoyance to my stomach so I ate a few pepto tablets and started taking advantage of the Gatorade and orange slices at the aid stations to get my calories in. I also began to foolishly project my finish time anytime I passed a race clock, I say foolish because regardless of what I calculate, it always makes me want to go faster.

As I reached 20 miles, I knew all I had to do was hang on for a 10K. It had been raining almost the entire race, which was a huge problem last year when I was wearing my Trance 9's that aren't made to get wet, but this time around I was rocking my Green Silence's that breathe a whole lot better and subsequently also drain water a whole lot better too. When I started the climb that I recognized last year as the place I had to pull over and do some self maintenance on my pulled groin I was a full half hour faster to that point than in 2010. As soon as I realized this it was like a second wind, there was no doubt in my mind I would be walking away with a new PR, but by how much was still up for discussion. The last miles of the race are for the most part downhill so I had that working in my favor too.

At mile 23 I was very disappointed that the bar that in prior years had given me a 20oz Solo cup full of Yuengling decided to give out much smaller portions, but alas I had more important things to attend to. I did get an awkward amount of applause around that section, because the supporters lining the streets were very much my demographic... crazily groomed, tattooed bar flies, who very much appreciated my ink, amazing facial hair, and elation at getting free beer.

Shortly thereafter I passed a runner who had been reduced to walking as I have been in the past. I was beginning to entertain the idea myself so the encouragement I offered him, "Hey man, you have to run this last bit, if not you're going to look back at it in an hour and beat yourself up over it. You can finish with a really good time still, you just have to push through the pain." was for me as much as it was for him.

As I rolled into the homestretch I came alongside an older runner, who was probably running his 200th marathon or something. We both asked how one another were doing, and it was agreed that we both felt solid. He told me we should push the pace, so we did for the last mile and a half. On the 6th Street bridge there was a slight incline so I opened up my stride. That's where I saw my co-worker and fellow Pennsylvanian (and comer upper of my Pittsburgh tattoo design), Katie, for the second time during the race. I said hey and commented that unless I trip and break my ankle that I had my PR. The older guy I was pacing with told me to gun it the rest of the way, and I took off on my standard end-of-race Medal of Honor run. I still don't understand how I manage to get the speed I do at the end of the races but it's an amazing feeling when you bolt across the finish line, especially at big marathons like Pittsburgh where the crowd sees it and you know their reaction is for you despite the fact that there are literally thousands of runners. As I hit the timing strips I even got a shout out for my strong finish from Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Clark who was announcing the finishers.

I finished with a huge improvement upon my PR, getting it done in 3:28:24, fueling future fantasies of qualifying for Boston and hopefully breaking 3-hours someday. After shedding my hydration belt and shoes I promptly left the finish line area and threw up large amounts of water and orange pulp in front of PNC park. This seemed rather fitting and I could probably create some relevant analogy from my vomit to the perpetually disappointing performances of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Special shout outs go to the following:

Staci Headings, my former coworker at the Hampton Inn who finished her first half marathon in 2:48!

Adrienne Anderson, fellow Columbusian and now real life acquaintance, rocking the half in 1:41!

Elise Varner, my good hometown friend and future ultrarunner (if I can talk her into it) kickin' the half in 1:49!

Nick Boyko, fellow Marine and friend, finishing the half in 1:59!

Erin Suda, my good friend and huge supporter in my 2010 effort, battling through injuries to finish the half in 3:00!

Heather Duncan, my favorite Air Force girl and nurse, helping her friend along the way to finish the half in 2:08!

Oscar Aguilera, fellow Marine and my favorite illegal alien, killing the full in 4:55!

Kyle Ferkett, fellow Marine and favorite hippie, finally being slower than me at 3:36!

Natalie Halapin, my biggest crush as a 15 year old and favorite red head, finishing her first marathon in a solid first time performance of 3:58!

Tony Previte, an old high school friend, running in the relay and providing a boost to me at the end.

Dan Croce, always in the crowd every time I run Pittsburgh.

Katie Gascoine, spending all day in the rain to support her Dad, and inadvertently me.

Race Stats:

Official Time: 3:28:24 @ 7:57/mi

389th of 4284 Overall

341 of 2645 Men

83rd of 456 Men 25-29