I took a break last weekend from finals-studying and paper-writing to introduce my feet to 13.1 miles of downtown Pittsburgh. There’s actually a fairly avid group of runners in the CS department here and I had contemplated doing the full race with them, but decided I wasn’t sure if I could commit to the training schedule. (Ever since running the Des Moines marathon two and half years ago, my feelings have managed to morph from, “There is no way I’m ever putting myself through this again,” to, “Well, we’ll see,” to, “Yeah, that’d be fun!” Rosy retrospection at its finest, I guess.) But when some friends declared they planned to run the half marathon and suggested I join, I happily agreed.
Training for half of a marathon is not nearly so grueling as training for all of one — missing a long run or two might affect my time, but not my ability to finish in the first place. My biggest worry at the time was that race day might be unbearably hot; I’d enjoyed absolutely perfect running weather in Des Moines two years prior and I wasn’t confident my luck would hold out for a second go-round. Thankfully, I worried needlessly — the weather was perfect again. In fact, as I groggily rolled out of bed at 5:15AM (I hadn’t seen those numbers on a clock for quite some time, and hopefully won’t see them again anytime soon), Siri told me the current temperature was a crisp 55°. Not wanting to lose too much body heat before the race, I dusted off an old trick I learned from my instructor back at UIowa (running in Des Moines was the culmination of a marathon training class) and cut holes in a garbage bag to wear to the starting line. (It blocks the wind, but you can ditch it when the race starts without actually losing a real shirt.) I had seen plenty of people doing the same back in Des Moines, so I didn’t think this would look strange … until, upon arriving downtown, I scanned the crowd and couldn’t spot a single garbage bag save my own reflection in the window of a bank. (I eventually spotted two others while standing in line at the port-a-potties and felt a little better.)
I don’t remember how many fellow runners joined me in DM, but the turnout in Pittsburgh felt much larger. 30,000 runners crowded onto the course that morning, which meant two things. First, I didn’t cross the starting line until thirteen minutes after the official start (it’s okay, though; your finish time is determined by a chip attached to your bib, which registers when you actually cross the starting and finish lines). Second, I spent the first two or three miles weaving through the throng of runners, trying to pass the slow ones. While slightly annoying, this had the benefit of preventing me from giving in to the adrenaline and running too hard at the beginning.
The run was was actually really enjoyable. For those who aren’t experts in western Pennsylvania’s geography (gosh, what’s wrong with you!?), Pittsburgh sits at the intersection of three rivers. Downtown is riddled with bridges, five of which the half marathon course traversed, making for some pretty spectacular scenery. (The bridges proved to be the preferred spots for spectators, especially those sporting cameras hoping for a cool shot of their friends.) I took a fairly easy pace for the first half of the race (partially because, as I mentioned, I had no choice), but as the crowd thinned I pushed harder. My expectations weren’t high — my goal was just to come in under two hours, or, as a stretch goal, 1:45. I was both surprised and pleased, then, with my 1:42 finish. (If you’re curious, you can see my run as tracked by my iPhone here.) Here’s me post-race (along with my medal declaring me a “Runner of Steel”):
I’m beginning to learn a universal truth about marathons: they attract crazy people. Like, really crazy people. In Des Moines, I found myself at one point running alongside someone running his 106th marathon (including, if I recall correctly, at least one in each state) and not long after that I met a man who had run a different marathon the day before. This year in Pittsburgh, although I never saw him, was a man running the entire 26.2 miles blindfolded to raise money for a charity that had helped his daughter, who was born blind. And he wasn’t the only runner whose insanity supported a good cause — another marathoner spent 48 straight hours leading up to the marathon running on a treadmill. If running half a marathon qualifies me as half crazy, these guys are off the charts.
Aside from being reassured that there are, in fact, plenty of people who are more nuts than you are, one of the most enjoyable parts of the race is reading the witty signs some of the spectators wave above their heads to encourage the runners. I wish I could remember more, but here’s a small sampling:
“At least you’re beating everyone behind you!”
“Run! There are zombies chasing you!”
“Worst Parade Ever”
“Because 26.3 would just be crazy.”
Some of the runners joined in the fun themselves with t-shirts proclaiming:
“This seemed like such a good idea six months ago”
“Yet another brilliant idea conceived at happy hour…”
So there you have it: cool weather, tons of people, a decent finish, plenty of crazies, and witty-sign-toting spectators. But I’ve saved the best for last. Once I left the finish chute and scarfed down a banana and a bagel, I needed to find a restroom. I didn’t have to wander far, and then … there they were. Flushable port-a-potties. I work in a building full of some pretty cutting edge technology, but these took the cake. They were clean, they didn’t smell, and they flushed! Why it took so long for someone to make one of these I’ll never know, but regardless, I’m a fan.
So there you really have it: cool weather, tons of people, a decent finish, plenty of crazies, witty-sign-toting spectators, and flushable port-a-potties. It all added up to a really enjoyable morning and, call me half crazy, I’m sure I’ll do it again next year.