race bling

2015 Pittsburgh Half Marathon recap

Fair warning, this is a long one. Meet me back here tomorrow for what’s in our CSA if you’re looking for something less than 2,000 words.

I’ve read race recaps by several bloggers that I follow and the general consensus seems to be that “this race didn’t go as I planned.” I will add an amen! and a preach! to that.

When I came into training this year, I was ready for a reset with running. Poorly planned full marathon training last year left me completely burned out on running and I wasn’t sure how much of it I wanted to do going forward. But I love the Pittsburgh Marathon events, and having injured myself during the 2014 Pittsburgh Half enough to have to go to physical therapy for 10 weeks, I wanted another shot. So I decided to put the effort into real, focused training for this race and go for a PR, trying to top my personal best from 2013.

And I did. Through the ups and downs of illness and job changes and the complete garbage dump that is Pittsburgh’s weather from December – April, I trained harder and stronger than I ever have before. So I was thrilled in March when I PR’d in the half at Just a Short Run, shaving more than 5 minutes off my 2013 time and setting the new bar at 2:22:49. You’d think I could have been happy with that, because that’s a big PR and finally brought me under an 11 minute/mile average for the half marathon distance.

But I wanted more. I wanted a new PR and I wanted it at the Pittsburgh Half. I didn’t have a B or C or D goal. Just PR. Get to ring that bell at the finish line festival. But I didn’t PR. I finished the race officially in 2:24:35, a little under 2 minutes behind that PR.


Let’s start at the beginning. I am always in D corral because I’m a caboose runner, usually bringing up the rear. That’s no shade – it just is what it is. By the time we got to start around 7:30, I could see the sun getting higher up there, but paid no attention because it hasn’t really been warm at all in Pittsburgh, well, in all of 2015 so far. In the corral, I was repeating in my head start slow, start slow. My problem during the 2014 Pittsburgh Half beyond the injury was coming out of the gate way too fast and then completely crashing about halfway through. So my intention was to stay at 11 min/mile at the beginning until I could find a comfortable space in the crowd and get over the West End Bridge, and then gradually increase my pace until I brought it home in the last few miles after Station Square.

I couldn’t find a space to comfortably run until we hit the incline to get up on Carson Street. That’s past the 10K point. I spent more than 6 miles weaving and dodging, running around “fences” of 4-5 people walking side by side in a line and avoiding people taking selfies who would just stop in the road. (I never EVER hate on people walking during races, but for the love, people, don’t walk 5 in a row.) This was mentally making me crazy, and I decided somewhere around Western Avenue that next year I will lie about my pace if I have to in order to get at least one corral farther up. I was formerly #CorralDFoLyfe but no more. That was complete craziness.

The miles ticked by and because I was running with no music or podcasts and just my running prompts from MapMyRun, I got to enjoy a lot of the cheering and the course entertainment. I tried to focus, listen to the pacing in my ear and keep things mentally under control.

Meanwhile, the sun was just scorching us. I wore a really light tank and shorts and I could feel my heat factor rising with every mile. I am just not a heat runner. Historically, all of my PRs have always been in cold temps – early spring races or early winter Turkey Trots. My asthma/lungs don’t like the heat and my core temp jacks up and stays up when I run in the heat, especially with absolutely ZERO heat training at all this year.

After getting through the West End and finding a little bit of a comfortable space to run, I began to focus on pushing up the pace, knowing that with the tangents to take into account, I needed to hear MapMyRun tell me I was running about 10:45/mile to actually PR. I knew Mark was waiting for me at Station Square with a cowbell and a Star Trek sign that was from the Columbus Marathon that I kept. I get a huge high from seeing people I love and know cheering for me and shouting my name, so I was so happy to see him – my faithful supporter at so many races. I yelled out to him “I AM SO HOT!” across the road and just like that, I was on my way toward the Birmingham Bridge.

(The sign that Mark held – I hope some geeks on the course enjoyed that.)

marathon sign 3 resize

During the race I was using the fluid stations for water and taking my chews like I usually do, but I was noticing that I was starting to melt and wither in the heat and at the last station before the Birmingham Bridge, I made a poor decision and gulped two big cups of water. Like gasping, chugging the water. (Also, let’s take a moment to say god bless those fluid volunteers at the course this year. With it being so hot, some of these poor people couldn’t keep the cups filled as people were needing to douse their heads as well as drink – and the volunteers gave it their all.)

This was a poor decision, because leading up to the race, one of my GI issues reared its ugly head again, and the classy way of saying it was that not only did I run with shorts and a tank and my Ghost 7s, but also all of the food I had consumed since Friday morning. So pounding my stomach quickly with way too much water at once and then taking off again at an increased pace was a poor choice.

Crossing the Birmingham Bridge, I all of the sudden understood in a new way what all those signs about “never trusting a fart” were about. My stomach was in major distress and after seeing the downed runner off to the side getting fluids in an IV, I started to mentally panic. All of the sudden I felt like I was on fire, my GI distress making me more flushed. I came down the ramp and had to mentally kick it into high gear to start up that last hill, feeling like I was running head first into the dehydration wall. I swear I was seeing spots during that last climb.

I tried my best to Kool-Aid man through that wall, but when I heard a prompt from MapMyRun that I was past 2:20, I knew the PR was gone. I pushed and huffed and puffed my way to the finish, not even able to look to my left or right to try to find Mark, though the crowds were just unbelievable flanking the final stretch. I wobbled past the foul Gatorade in search of water and walked really slowly to get my bearings a bit, feeling really woozy and almost dry heaving a bit from that final push.

Officially I finished 13.1 miles in 2:24:35, an average pace of 11:02. MapMyRun clocked me at 13.52 miles in 2:25:01, an average page of 10:44.

So here’s what I finally settled on. The only thing I should have done differently was carry my own water so I could slowly sip, knowing that temperatures were going to be higher and I was not remotely heat acclimated. I should not have gulped that water down in a huge portion right before the final push.

But beyond that, everything else I did perfectly right. Most of what stopped me from getting that PR was outside of my control. My GI distress had nothing to do with what I ate pre-race and everything to do with an underlying condition I’ve been battling for more than two years. The good Lord didn’t ask me to pick the race weather, so the sun and the fact that it was unrelenting, even in a city as cloudy as Pittsburgh, was out of my control. The corral placement was basically out of my control, and I can’t control the people who are more concerned about selfies than running, so the added 0.42 mile was nothing I could really avoid either.

You know what else? I’ve realized that Pittsburgh is just not the course for a half marathon PR. It’s just not flat enough and the weather is so unpredictable here in May that I can’t put all my PR eggs in the Pittsburgh basket, to butcher a metaphor. I can go for course PRs, but it’s unrealistic for me to set a time PR as my goal in Pittsburgh, the most crowded race I run, and then be devastated when circumstances out of my control make that impossible.

So I’m acknowledging that this race was a great race for me in a lot of ways.

I raised over $850 for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. At the end of the day, that money will do more good in the world than running the race itself. I actually put all the names of my donors on a Food Bank bandanna, intending to carry it with me during the race, but it wouldn’t fit. Still, each donor was with me during that race, as I often used that as a mental place to go to when I needed a distraction from the heat.

food bank donors

I nearly ran negative splits in a half marathon. I have never run anything close to negative splits in a distance race before, and with the exception of that GI/water/heat mess on the Birmingham Bridge, I was running negative splits. My pace strategy was working.

I ran a course PR. My 2014 Pittsburgh Half time was 2:35:13. That means I took over 10 minutes off my time from last year, which over 13.whatever miles is really significant, pace wise. And I also didn’t have to visit the med tent after this year’s race. And had I not run Just a Short Run in March, this would have been the PR that I trained for.

I broke through a mental wall. Mental walls are my downfall (I’m looking at you, Columbus Marathon). This was my first race where I recognized the mental wall for what it was and basically said, eff this, and called upon all of the strength I had left to push. I can literally say I left everything I had physically and mentally out there on the course. There was a guy on the Birmingham Bridge yelling to runners about to push up to Oakland in the full that “today is the day that you give it everything you’ve got and you pull out the best version of yourself.” I feel like I can walk away saying I did that, and that’s a huge improvement from last year.

This is pretty rare for me, coming with pride out of a race where I didn’t reach my goal. Yeah, I know there are people who don’t train and show up and run like gazelles, when I’m there riding the struggle bus the second the sun comes out. But I need to run my own races and be proud of that medal around my neck. And remember that running is as much about those quiet mornings on the trail and the bone chilling long runs in February and the treadmill speed work than it is about the races. Not reaching the goal doesn’t erase the miles on my legs and the huge leap I took in training this year.

So to remind me of this fact, I went to Dick’s on Monday night and got my medal engraved with my non-PR time and I’m really glad that I did. It looks freaking awesome. Runner of Steel indeed.

finisher medal

  • http://runningonlentils.blogspot.com/ Jenn @ Running on Lentils

    I’m happy that you ended this on a positive note, with pride in how you did, because you should be proud! Wasn’t your target all through training an 11:00 pace, and you only recently decided to be more aggressive after JASR? So you did exactly what you trained for. In my mind, this was a perfect execution of your training and digging in and gritting it out until the very end. I so feel you about the GI distress. That is the WORST. To have it hit that late in the race, just before the hardest part of the course, just when you’re at your most tired and most hot–and then to STILL give it your all and battle it out until the end–that’s a huge accomplishment. Congratulations! You inspire me, and I wish I had half to the mental grit you did in this race. About the corral assignment, I was originally in D but then changed my time to move up to B so that I could start with Amanda. I felt awful–it was lying, and I don’t lie–but I really wanted to run with her. We planned to start in the back so we didn’t hold others up. We missed the corral B start and started in corral C, and it was perfect. Pretty much everyone was running around an 11:00 pace, and we had to do almost no weaving. I hate to say to lie, but I think starting in corral C will be a much better experience for you.

  • Mark Stone

    I would say you did fantastic in this race for several reasons.

    1. It was damned hot. Like the first really hot day we’ve had this year. A lot of people who ran who I’ve spoken to were thrown off their pace because of the heat and most by way more than 2 minutes. A friend’s daughter, who is one of those “gazelles” who usually is crossing the full marathon finish line smiling and looking fresh as a daisy was a HALF HOUR off her usual time because of it. As Voltaire was wont to say “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.”

    2. Post race I could see a difference. Sure, you were hot and tired but you weren’t wrecked beyond belief like I’ve seen from races in the past.

    3. You set a goal of a PR this year in the Pittsburgh Half, which, as you stated, you DID achieve. 10 minutes less than last year. You just happened to have an overall PR earlier in the year.

    So, pat yourself on the back, or let me do it, and let’s enjoy summer! You did it bubeleh!