This past Sunday, I ran the Pittsburgh Half Marathon for the fifth time since 2011 (I ran the full marathon in 2014, so this was my sixth consecutive Pittsburgh Marathon event). Running Pittsburgh is a tradition that I look forward to each year; “the most wonderful time of the year” as I call it. As always, I signed up for the race on the first day that registration opened in August. I was seven months pregnant with my first baby at the time. I ran the 2015 half while I was pregnant, so running it at six months postpartum was a no-brainer for me– how hard could it be to train, right?! After all, I would have 9 whole weeks off for maternity leave. I could train a ton with all of that time off. Wrong. Very wrong. I summarized my training in an earlier (short) post, but let’s just say that I didn’t have the free time or energy to train like I had anticipated or wanted. Not running the race, though, was not an option to me– I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was looking forward to race weekend and was determined to make it to the finish line even if it meant doing a lot of walking.
So, on Saturday I packed up my running clothes and the baby and made the hour-long trip to Pittsburgh for the expo. My brother and I run the race together each year, and each year we stay in a hotel closer to the city to avoid any traffic hangups (and extremely early wake-ups) in the morning. This year was no different, except this year we took my mother along as well to babysit Miss H while we ran the race.
Because I wasn’t sure how well the baby would do with a long & hectic day, we left later than usual and arrived at the expo at 4:30, 1.5 hours before it closed. The expo is always booming and there are a lot of interesting exhibits to see, but we were familiar with most of the vendors and just wanted to pick up our packets and get on our way. My brother and I were both very disappointed to find that they were out of both of our shirt sizes by the time we arrived at the expo! In all of the years I have been racing Pittsburgh, I’ve never had this issue before. It might seem like a trivial problem, but we were both beyond disappointed– I love sporting my half marathon shirts after my races. The shirts, although we didn’t receive one, were of a lesser quality than they have been in the past too. We were also disappointed with the attitudes of the volunteers at the shirt swap station. We were told to go there to inquire about getting a shirt in our size, and we were met by several hostile, defensive volunteers who were gruff with us. I’m sure they were tired of dealing with ticked off runners all day, but that’s no reason to treat us with hostility. We were pretty nice about the situation. That was a Pittsburgh first for me– rude race volunteers. Another first for me was that my bib was messed up– it wasn’t personalized with my name, and it didn’t contain a corral letter (so I had to wait in line at runner services to get a corral assignment, and the volunteer there was also less-than-friendly with me!). Again, these may be somewhat trivial things, but when you pay close to $100 to run a race it’s disappointing when things aren’t as planned. Overall, I was pretty underwhelmed with my expo experience this year.
After the expo, we headed to Monte Cello’s in Ross to carbo-load for the race with their pizza (one of my favorite pre-race meals). My brother and I found Monte Cello’s before last year’s race by scoping out local Italian places online and calling for their wait times. Surprisingly, we didn’t have to wait at all to get get seated there last year! And their pizza was amazing. But this year was different, and when we were told it would be an hour wait we scoped out other options so we could get to the hotel before Miss H’s bedtime. We ended up settling for Olive Garden, and I had to forego my beloved pizza for Portobello Ravioli (which was delicious, but probably not my best pre-race choice). After dinner, we headed to Panera to pick up the bagels that I had pre-ordered for the morning, then headed for our hotel room.
Miss H still isn’t sleeping through the night, so I wasn’t sure what our night of sleep would be like (especially in a new & unfamiliar place). Luckily, she only woke up once around midnight and again at 3:45 a.m. Since I was planning to get up at 4:15 anyways, I just stayed awake and got my shower and breakfast ready for the day. I ate a Panera Cinnamon Crunch bagel with peanut butter on it– a pre-Pittsburgh tradition. Yummo. We left for the city around 5:30 and got there with plenty of time to park, hit the porta-johns, and line up in our corral before the 7 a.m. start.
The weather at the start was being somewhat cooperative– the temperature was in the mid 50’s and it was slightly raining, which I didn’t mind at all. I was worried that a heavier rain would result in a bunch of chafing, but luckily the rain quit fairly early in the race.
My brother and I started in Corral B, which was designated for 8:00-9:00 mile pace runners. Although that’s appropriate for my brother, that is more of a PR pace for me than a realistic pace at this point in my life. I’m not sure how I got in that corral, but I wasn’t complaining because I knew a earlier start would mean I would get back to Miss H sooner. I started at the back of the pack so that I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way, but I couldn’t help but try to keep up with the crowd after the gun went off. Although my Garmin wasn’t working for the first few miles of the race, my brother told me that we ran our first mile at a 8:45 pace, which I think was a little too fast to start out for me.
As soon as we started running, I realized that I had made a mistake by going to the bathroom too early before the race start, and now I had to go again. I hate waiting in line at the porta-johns along the race course, but I knew it was something I’d have to do if I wanted to be comfortable running the race. So, right after the first mile marker, I spotted a bathroom and stood in line waiting my turn.
Two words can sum up these miles: side stitches. When I ran the full marathon in 2014, I stopped to go to the bathroom at Mile 20 and was plagued by crippling side stitches for the next 6.2 miles of the race. You’d think I would have learned my lesson then, but I didn’t. Sure enough, after I paused to go to the bathroom after the first mile, I had terrible side stitches after I started running again. Side stitches so bad that I actually considered a DNF by the 2nd mile marker, which is something I’ve never done. They only got worse as the miles went on. My optimism about being able to finish the race dwindled each time I stopped to stretch and each time I ran down a hill, when the pain was almost enough to stop me in my tracks. In all the half marathons I’ve run, I’ve never had such negative thoughts about my ability to finish so early on in the race. All of the negative self-talk coupled with the fact that I had to stop and stretch so many times was very discouraging, and I honestly can’t believe I didn’t give up. I’m not one to give up easily, though, so I pressed on across the city’s bridges, through the North Side, and through the West End Circle despite the pain in the hopes that the pain would eventually just go away. I’m glad I decided to persevere because by the time I reached the 8-mile marker, the side stitches had somehow managed to near-disappear, and I was finally able to focus on (and enjoy) the race at-hand instead of the pain.
In contrast with the rolling hills in the early part of the race, the Pittsburgh course from miles 9-11 runs along East Carson Street and is relatively flat. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though– by that point my legs and lungs are usually spent and my endurance is waning, and this year was no exception. My longest training run (and longest run since last year’s half in May) was 9 miles, and I could definitely feel it as I pushed past that point in Sunday’s race. I had officially entered uncharted territory in my training. My side stitches were gone, though, so I still felt better than I had in the earlier miles of the race. The crowd support at Pittsburgh is amazing, especially along this stretch of the course. I pushed through these miles tired but still very much enjoying the race.
Mile 12 began as we made a left off of Carson onto the Birmingham Bridge. I know from past experience that these last few miles of the race are by far the toughest, which is as rewarding as it is cruel. As we traveled across the bridge, one spectator sign in particular stuck out to me (and to everyone else that I talked to)– it said something along the lines of “You’ve Made it This Far, Now F This Hill!” Everyone that runs Pittsburgh knows “the hill,” and if you don’t, you will after you’ve run it once. It’s a +/- 173 foot elevation climb spread over the course of a mile right at the near-end of the course. “The hill” is always lined with extra medical personnel, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s tough. Do-able, but tough. At the bottom of the hill, there were several people handing out free beer, and as a major beer-aficionado I almost stopped to grab a cup. If I wouldn’t have been slowed down by side stitches for the first part of the race, I totally would have. But I just wanted to finish with the best time possible given the circumstances, and I knew the beer would only slow me down (maybe next year I’ll grab that cup). This is my official “thank you” to the person who was holding that sign, because it was just the motivation that I needed to push up over the steep incline that is Mile 12. The last mile of the course is a fairly steep downhill with a small level section of road at the very end, which is always a welcome and refreshing change from the climb the mile before. I sped down the hill to the finish with an official time of 2:24:13 and an average pace of 11:00/mile. I met up with my brother at the finish line for a few pictures before heading back to the hotel room to meet up with Miss H and my mom. Afterwards, we went to Monte Cello’s to catch up on that pizza that we had all so looked forward to the night before.
Of the fourteen half marathons that I’ve run, this is my 3rd slowest– my slowest was the 2015 Pittsburgh half when I was pregnant (2:32:55), and my 2nd slowest was my first half in Pittsburgh in 2011 (2:25:45). As with any race, it’s easy to pick apart the results and to think about how I could have done better, but overall I’m thrilled with my finish time. At six months postpartum and with completely inadequate training, I’ll take an 11:00/mile average pace any day. Could I have done better if I hadn’t had side stitches for the majority of the race? Probably. But then again, maybe not– maybe a faster start would have resulted in slower miles later in the race. There’s no way to know for sure.
There is one thing that I do know for sure, though– I need to find the cause of my side stitch dilemma so that I can avoid them at all costs during my next race. The pain was excruciating, not to mention extremely disappointing. I’m not sure if it was a first mile that was too fast, or an unfamiliar pre-race dinner, or my unplanned bathroom break one mile in that was the culprit.
Oh and another thing I know for sure– I’ll be back next year! Hopefully the expo goes a little better, but I never have any complaints about the race itself. Thanks for another great year Pittsburgh!