On May 6th, I ran my 15th ever half marathon, and my 6th ever half marathon in Pittsburgh. If you follow my blog at all, you know that the Pittsburgh half is my favorite race ever. It was the first half I ever ran in 2011, and the first (and only) full I ever ran in 2014, so it is a race very near and dear to me. I look forward to running it every year. I missed running it in 2017 because my dear daughter was born on that day (although I’m not complaining at all about that)– so I was really looking forward to returning this year! Also, 13.1 is my favorite race distance, and I haven’t had the opportunity to run a half since 2016, so this race marked my “triumphant” return to half marathon-ing.
Each year since my younger brother started running in 2012, we train for and run this half together (besides 2017, of course). This year was a bit different because the weather and our schedules didn’t give us many chances to train together, but we still spent the weekend together for the race!
Any big race in any big city requires a certain amount of planning and logistics to make sure things go smoothly, and Pittsburgh is no different. Over the years, we have developed a fairly steady routine for the entire weekend that works for us, and we didn’t even think to deviate from our plan this year.
On Saturday, we left home around noon to head for the expo downtown. We grabbed a quick lunch at GetGo on the way and were at the expo by 1:30. Packet pickup was easy as always, and we were both thrilled that we actually got shirts in our size this year (a few years ago they ran out of shirts in the appropriate sizes; I’m not even sure how that happened). Since we were so early, we did a little browsing and a little shopping before leaving the expo.
We made a quick stop at the mall so my brother could pick up some BCAA’s because he had forgotten his at home (he swears by drinking them before any workout), then we headed to our favorite carbo-loading spot for dinner– Monte Cello’s! We found this gem a few years ago while looking for a good Italian spot in the North Hills, and it’s become a staple of our race weekend each year. We shared a deep dish pizza (heavy on the carbs) and each ordered a beer to wash it down (also heavy on the carbs- right?!).
After dinner, we stopped at Panera to pick up our race morning bagels before heading to the hotel. We both love Panera Cinnamon Crunch bagels with peanut butter before any half marathon, so I always order two of them ahead of time just to make sure they don’t run out before we are able to get there.
Once we got to the hotel, I unpacked all of my race day essentials just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything and was as prepared as possible for the morning. With a 4:30 a.m. wake up call, I knew my brain wouldn’t be processing things well enough to make sure I didn’t forget anything important, haha. The weather forecast for the start was 55 degrees with a chance of rain, and I wasn’t sure what to wear so I packed a little bit of everything. If it were 55 degrees with NO rain, I would have worn a tank top and capris with no question. That rain in the forecast was throwing me off, though, and I was afraid of getting soaked and cold. Because I hate being too hot when I’m running, I decided on a tank and capris anyways and just hoped that the rain would decide to hold off at least until late morning.
The morning of the race, we were en route by 5:45 a.m. and parked on the North Shore by 6:00 a.m. I like to get there early in case we hit traffic and to make sure we have plenty of time to wait in line for the restrooms, but we had no problems with either. After taking the “T” to the start line area, we actually had time to relax and casually make our way to our corral. Not rushing is always a good thing, especially at a race with 30,000 people.
We were in Corral B, so we didn’t have to wait too long to cross the start line. Thankfully– since I’m not known for being a patient person, especially before a race when my anxiety levels are at an all-time high, haha. I waited until this point to turn my Garmin on, which was a mistake. I’m not sure if it was because of all the tall buildings surrounding us or because everyone in the general area was using their Garmin at the same time, but my GPS could not locate a signal despite trying the entire time we were waiting in the corral. In fact, it didn’t locate a signal until we were almost at the first mile marker– I was so disappointed.
Staring at the my Garmin the entire first mile did make it go by quickly, though, so at least I had that going for me. Ha. I ran Mile 1 at a slightly uncomfortable pace but had no clue what it was. Not a good way to start a race, at least not for me. Since I’ve been out of practice at running for so long, I never know what my pace is or if I’m going too fast or too slow. I count on my Garmin to keep me on track with what I’ve determined I’m capable of doing, at least until I am back in the routine of running regularly and figuring out my “new normal.” I used to love running by feel, but I’ve lost touch with what running 13.1 miles is supposed to “feel” like. When my Garmin finally started working, it was showing an average 9:30 pace. That was a little faster than my 10:00 completely-arbitrary-goal-pace, but I felt pretty decent so I decided to try to keep it up.
My brother stuck with me the first three miles or so before taking off ahead of me. I was glad to see him go because I knew he was capable of a much faster pace and knew he wouldn’t be happy if he didn’t push himself to finish in the best time possible.
The first six to seven miles felt pretty good. This part of the course was different this year than in previous years. We ran past the stadiums and casino, which was an exciting change of scenery. I was able to maintain a 9:30-10:00 pace the entire time, but I knew I was pushing it. I knew I would eventually have to slow down, but for the time being I was able to hold that pace, so I kept pushing it. I felt unusually warm and thirsty for such a cool day despite making it a point to stay hydrated the day before (with the exception of the one beer at dinner). I grabbed a quick drink of water at the 4-mile water stop, and I took 3 Shot Bloks and water at the 6-mile water stop.
When we came into the West End Circle (always my favorite part of the race– the crowd here is always SO much fun) around Mile 7, something changed drastically. I became very thirsty, and my legs started to feel heavy even though I had just eaten some Shot Bloks. Usually by this point the Shot Bloks would have kicked in and I would have felt like I was running on air, but that wasn’t the case. Whatever my body was doing felt very foreign to me.
Typically I carry a water bottle with me when I run a half, but I opted to leave it behind that day because it was so cool outside and I knew there were water stops every two miles on the course. With nothing to drink, I trudged along to the next water stop at Mile 8, where I took a huge gulp of Gatorade and chased it with a huge gulp of water. I know better than to drink that much liquid when I’m racing, but I was THIRSTY. So thirsty. And my legs felt like cement pillars. I decided to stop and use the restroom here to give my body a chance to absorb the Gatorade because I knew I needed it.
After my restroom break, I hopped back on the course full of optimism. I expected to feel like a new person and finish out the race at the 9:30-10:00 pace that I had started with. I had run enough half marathons to know the magical powers of Gatorade and Shot Bloks, haha.
What happened though was exactly the opposite. My legs were heavy, my mouth was dry, and my infamous side stitches had now joined the party. Ugh. I knew right away that my race was shot, and I also knew that I still had five miles to go before I crossed the finish line. I can normally find a way to mentally power through a tough spot in any race, but not this time. Something was different than any other difficult race that I have ever run, and I still don’t know what it was. I knew I wasn’t bouncing back from whatever was ailing me. I stopped. I walked. I cried. I was angry. I was sad. I looked around to see if any medical tents were nearby because I didn’t want to finish the race. I didn’t think I could. Then I thought about my girls and how disappointed I was in myself for failing to be the kind of role model that they deserve. Then I cried some more. My mind just kinda went numb.
I’ll spare you the details of the next five miles of the race because they aren’t pretty. I didn’t bounce back. I walked more than I ran, even though walking didn’t help me feel better. I felt so awful that I truly don’t recall what was going through my mind. Near Mile 12, the strangest thing of all happened– I got cold. I don’t know if it’s because I was walking so much that my core body temperature had cooled down, or if I had reached a point of dehydration that no runner should ever reach (although I didn’t think of that until later), but it wasn’t typical for me. Against my better judgment, I powered through to the finish line with what must have been the most unpleasant look on my face. I finished (in 2:13:59), but I can’t even say I was happy about it.
After making my way through the finish line area and taking in a lot of liquids in the process, I met up with my brother. I found out he finished in just under 2 hours, which is fantastic!! I am so proud of his finish time!
I was feeling a little better at this point, so we headed to the finish line festival to check out the festivities. I swung in the VIP tent and picked up my complimentary Chipotle burrito and special running club medallion. This is the first year I joined the “Running Club Rally” and had access to the VIP tent, and let’s just say the free Chipotle makes it sooo worth it.
Looking back, I realize I probably should have taken a DNF and gotten medical attention once I figured out something didn’t feel right. I wasn’t thinking straight by that point in the race because of all the endorphins I had banked in the first seven miles, or else that’s what I would have done. If anything like this would ever happen again, I’m not hesitating to slow it down and assess what’s going on with my body and whether or not it’s smart to try to finish the race.
All of this was so uncharacteristic of me. I am still trying to figure out what happened and how it could have been prevented– did I start off too fast? Did I not hydrate properly in the days leading up to the race? Am I just not in as good of shape as I thought I was? I really don’t know. I have another half marathon coming up in 3 weeks, and to say I’m a little nervous about it is an understatement. I’m planning on taking it easy and listening to my body; hopefully there are no issues like I had in Pittsburgh.
As for Pittsburgh itself, I can’t say enough good things about this race, despite the fact that my personal race was hell. Everything about this race– from the scenic course to the crowd support to the finish line festivities– is SO much fun. I love running across the bridges and seeing all the landmarks that Pittsburgh is famous for in one run. It’s still my favorite race ever, and I will be back next year to take it on once again– hopefully with better results than I had this year.