2016 Pittsburgh Half Marathon Recap

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.

EXPO
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.

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Miss H’s First Race Expo

PRE-RACE
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.

MILE 1
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.

MILES 2-8
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.

MILES 9-11
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.

MILES 12-13.1
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.

OVERALL
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!

Today I’m linking up with Mar, Courtney, and Cynthia for their Friday Five Link Up– be sure to check out their pages and see what they are up to!!

Have you ever done any of the Pittsburgh races?  Have side stitches ever crippled a race for you?

Johnstown Half Marathon Race Recap

This past Sunday, I ran in my 4th half marathon of 2013 (and my 8th half marathon ever).  The race was located in the scenic city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which is about an hour from home.  I ran this race in 2011 and, despite the fact that it was unseasonably cold and SNOWING that year, I really enjoyed it.  I was looking forward to returning this year.

The pre-race spaghetti dinner was held on Saturday evening at packet pickup.  My bestest running friend Emily, her husband, my boyfriend, and myself made the trip to J-town on Saturday night to pick up our packets and (for me & Emily, at least) to increase our carb stores.  One great thing about this race is that the all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner is included in the price of registration, and you can buy a guest pass to the dinner for only $5.  Another great thing about the race– registration (including the spaghetti dinner) is only $35 if you register before packet pickup!  Such a great value.  We each had a plate of spaghetti with meatballs, a side salad, a super-yummy breadstick, and a piece of cake.  It was delicious, too.

After dinner, we headed to Panera to pick up our race-morning staple– cinnamon crunch bagels!!  Emily and I both fuel up on one every half!

On race morning, I woke up, had my bagel & a big cup of coffee, and headed out the door by 7 a.m.  I wanted to run my first “semi-naked” half, so I left my HRM and my bottle of water behind.  I felt ready for the race and confident that I’d be able to breeze through 13.1 miles to the finish line.  Here’s what really happened:

Miles 1-5

As soon as the gun went off and I started running, I knew that something was very off about my body.  I had a pounding headache and my legs felt as heavy as concrete pillars.  I pushed on, assuming I’d loosen up after a few miles.  Mile 1 came and went, and I felt the same.  Mile 2– same.  Mile 3– same.  At this point I realized I had forgotten to take my Aleve (a race day constant) and my spirulina (my newest wonder-food), and I felt like those were both big fails on my part.  I took off the handkerchief I was wearing around my head, and it seemed to help with my headache.  I also realized that this part of the course, which is in one of the most beautiful parts of town, was much more hill-y than I remembered.  I guess I was so caught up in the scenery in 2011 that I failed to notice my burning quads!  By the mile 4 water station, I was sooooo ready for a drink of water and some honey stinger chews.  I don’t think I’ve ever taken a gel that early on in a race!

Miles 6-7

I remembered from 2011 that miles 6-7 were a relatively steep decline.  I was so relieved to see those miles arrive!  I felt sure I’d feel back to my old-self by the time I reached the bottom of the hill.  I didn’t speed up going downhill like I normally do, mainly to avoid getting those nasty side stitches that can creep up when you’re jarring your body running downhill.  I took it nice and easy and enjoyed the shaded scenery.  This part of the course is also very beautiful– it winds through a wooded area blotted with oranges and reds in true fall fashion.  About halfway down the hill, it happened– despite my diligent efforts to prevent them, side stitches got the best of me.  I walked.  I walked twice.  Down a hill.  For a change, I was actually thankful to see the course level out at the bottom.

Miles 8-10

At this point, the course turned into a semi-busy road running through a mostly-residential part of town.  The roads were open to vehicular traffic, which kept you alert to say the least.  The course, which had been shaded, was now out in the open sunshine.  And it was hot-hot-hot (near 80 degrees I’d guess) for that time of year.  I could tell it was getting hotter, because I drank two cups of water at the 8-mile water stop.  I also stopped to take three more chews before continuing on.  Fortunately, my side stitches had disappeared. The next three miles were a new out-and-back loop that wasn’t part of the course in 2011, and I had no idea what to expect.  The new loop was much hillier than expected.  It was hilly, it was hot, and it was in the wide-open sunshine.  Not to mention my legs still felt like concrete.  For the first time ever, I started to doubt my ability to finish the race.

Mile 11

Finally, a good mile!!!  Oddly enough, for one brief mile, I felt like I was flying on air.  I was enjoying the view of the town and passing other runners left-and-right.  I was ready to kick the last three miles of this race’s butt.

Miles 12-13.1

This part of the course ran through relatively-busy downtown, although one lane had been blocked off for the runners which was much less stressful.  The scenery, as always, was really enjoyable.  Johnstown has a quaint little downtown area and on a normal day it would’ve easily preoccupied my attention.  Not on Sunday, though.  I blame the staggering heat and the humid air for the wall I pushed through for the last 5K of the race.  To spare you the details, I had water at mile 11 but was so parched by mile 12 that I would have given a huge hug and kiss to anyone standing at the 12-mile marker with something to drink.  Nothing, though.  I was kicking myself for not bringing my water bottle along for this race.  I managed to scarf down one last chew without water around mile 12.  I had goosebumps, which told me that I was dehydrated.  I was starting to panic.  All I wanted to see was the finish line.  And, finally, I did.  When I crossed, I didn’t care about my time.  I was just so thrilled to have crossed the finish line after my 13.1 mile journey!

I was greeted at the finish line by my younger brother, who finished right around 1:55, a PR for him!  I was so proud!  I finished right under 2:05, which was my second best time ever.  It wasn’t the PR that I’d hoped for, but I was happy with my time especially considering the conditions.  I waited for my bestest running friend Emily and my cousin, who weren’t far behind me.  We all agreed that something about the day– whether it be the heat, humidity, or both– made the race one of the toughest we’d ever done.

My younger brother and myself after the finish.

My younger brother and myself after the finish.

Despite the events of the day, I would recommend the Johnstown race to anyone!  I really do love the race itself.  It’s a smaller field, which appeals to some more than others.  But it’s a nicely organized, very scenic small-town race.  They offer a 5K, a 10K, a half marathon, and a full marathon on the same day.  In the past, the full marathon course has been a Boston qualifier!  I’m assuming the race will return to that route once construction is finished in the area.

What I don’t recommend is running a race in the same weather conditions without taking along a water bottle!  Or without taking spirulina for that matter!! =)

Has anyone else ever had a long, bad race??

Decker’s Creek Trail Half Marathon Recap

On 6/1 (this post is a little delayed, I know), I ran in the Decker’s Creek Trail Half Marathon in Morgantown, West Virginia.  This was my THIRD half marathon of 2013, all three held in different states!!  That’s more half marathons than I’ve ever ran in one year, and I’m still planning to do at least one or two more before 2014 arrives.

If you’re not familiar with the Decker’s Creek Trail Half Marathon, it’s a smaller one– the field is limited to a maximum of 600 participants.  I found out about this half marathon when I was searching for a replacement race for the Rock ‘n Roll Pittsburgh half, which I had signed up to run in August before it was cancelled unexpectedly.  I was drawn to the Decker’s Creek half for several reasons.  The first was its location– one of my best friends grew up in Morgantown, and I’ve grown fond of the town over the years from my visits to see her.  I hadn’t been there in a few years and was intrigued at the thought of returning there to run a race.  Plus, the half was on a wooded trail, and WV has some of the most beautiful scenery around (I’m a total country girl at heart).  I was also drawn to the race because of the price– $50 isn’t bad at all for a 13.1 race distance.  The deal-sealing factor was the course description– a 13.1 mile downhill descent into Morgantown.  The word “downhill” sure sounded a lot like “PR” to me.  Plus, the course was not out-and-back on the trail (we were bussed from the finish line to the start line to begin) as most trail races are.  I prefer that as opposed to a 6.55 mile out, 6.55 mile back course.  Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to sign up for the race right away.  I was able to talk my bestest running friend Emily into signing up, too!

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Since I don’t live too far from Morgantown, we decided to make the morning commute to the race instead of splurging on a hotel room the night before.  Emily arrived at my house bright-and-early, around 5:30 a.m.  We made a pit stop at Sheetz for coffee and ate our Panera bagels (with peanut butter, of course) on the way.  Since we had a long drive, packet pickup, and a bus trip to the start line before we actually started the race, we didn’t want to eat too early and run out of fuel early on.

We found the race easily and packet pickup was held near a parking garage, so arriving and parking went very smoothly.  One thing I dread about any new race is finding my way around and worrying about where to park– there were no issues here!

Since the race is smaller, there was no pre-race expo or packet pickup.  Everything had to be done the morning of the race.  The lines for packet pickup were very long, and when I first saw them I didn’t think there was any way we would make it to the start line on time.  However, packet pickup was well-organized, so the lines moved along quickly and we had no issues arriving to the shuttle bus on time.  Kudos to the race organizers for that!

We were shuttled to the start line area, where we found a decent lineup of portable toilets.  Wahoo! (it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference in distance running).  There was only one portable toilet stop along the course at MILE 7!!  That’s terrifying to me, the girl who has-to-go by mile 3 if she’s going-to-go at all.  So I made sure to pay a visit to the portable toilets before heading down the trail to the start line.  We arrived just in time for our 8:45 a.m. gun to go off.

The race, although a smaller field, had two waves of start times.  Even with the staggered start, there was still a lot of congestion for the first few miles of the course.  The trail was more narrow than I expected, but it was stunningly beautiful!  I didn’t mind the slower start at all because it gave me a chance to warm up as well as the chance to look around at the creek, rock formations, and greenery around me.  Beautiful.

The sun was shining that day and the temperature was relatively warm, but the trees kept the trail shaded and a comfortable temperature for running (for the first 10 miles at least… more on that final-3.1-mile shocker later).

The outfit that I chose (my super-cheap, super cute tank from Wal-Mart and my Brooks Infiniti Tight shorts) was very comfortable– I’m so pleased and impressed with those cheap tanks I found at Wal-Mart!

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My iFitness belt, which I wore to carry water, gels, and my car keys, was NOT cooperating that day, though.  I’m not sure why– I’ve worn it in other races with no issues.  For some reason, it kept riding up, and I was continually adjusting it.

Even though we tried to eat our breakfast later than usual, I still feel like I ate too early.  By mile 6, my legs were feeling tired and I was starting to hit a wall.  I decided I needed to eat my first gel at the next water stop along the course, a few miles earlier than usual.  I had packed three gels– two in the handy loops on the outside of my belt, and one in the zippered pouch.  When I saw a water station approaching, I reached for a gel from the loops of my belt.  Guess what!  NO GELS TO BE FOUND!  They must have fallen off my belt at some point from my constant tugging and adjusting, and I hadn’t noticed.  I panicked.  I wasn’t even halfway done with the race and I only had the one gel in my zippered pouch to last me.  And I was already tired.  I had no idea what to expect for the last half of the race.

I decided to hold off until mile 8 to eat HALF of my one-and-only gel, then save the other half for whenever I needed it in the last 5 miles of the race.  I was very fortunate that there were water stops approximately every 2 miles, and every other water stop had Gatorade as well (good job race organizers!).  I had never drank anything but water & gels during a race before, but I knew it’d be in my best interest to take advantage of the Gatorade every chance I could get.  So that’s what I did.

I didn’t feel great using this technique, but I felt “okay” up until mile 10.  At this point, the shaded, crushed limestone trail transformed into an exposed, sun-soaking asphalt trail through town.  It was 84 degrees outside and sunny.  I knew right away that these last three miles were going to be HOT and going to be DIFFICULT.  I was already half-loopy (you distance runners know exactly what I’m talking about) at this point from lack of fuel.  I expected nothing but to be completely-loopy by the time I saw the finish line.

And completely-loopy pretty much sums up the last three miles of the race for me.  I walked more than I ever have during a half marathon because I just had to.  I was so tired!  And the heat was really getting to me.  I’m not sure if everyone was having the same last-3.1 experience as me, or if my experience was primarily caused by lack of carbohydrates. The last 3 miles seemed like an eternity to me; I lost track of time.  When I found some energy, I’d run as long as I could, then I’d walk again.  I finished my last half-of-a-gel and kept my water bottle in my hand, drinking frequently.  I was still enjoying myself– I was running, after all– but I was struggling.  I knew I had to be mentally tough enough to get to the finish line, and I knew I’d only be tougher than before once I did.  So I did all that I could to keep moving.  I was running purely on willpower and faith at that point.  And when I crossed that finish line, I felt so many different emotions– joy, sadness, relief, defeat, victory, accomplishment… I almost teared up for no particular reason.  And that’s why I love running– that inexplicable feeling you get when you conquer obstacles that you never thought you could conquer.  If you are a runner, you know the feeling I’m talking about.

"In the zone" for sure!

“In the zone” for sure!

My finish time was 2:07:07.8, 39 of 101 in my age group and 298 of 591 overall.  I was about 7 minutes away from my sought-after PR, but I was beyond thrilled with my time!  That was my second fastest half marathon time ever.  No disappointment at all considering the conditions.

Will I do this half marathon again?  ABSOLUTELY.  Even though I didn’t feel well, the half marathon itself was great.  Here’s why I liked it so much:

  • The race was very well-organized.  Kudos to the race directors for such great planning– everything from the parking to the packet to the shuttle buses to the start line to the water stations to the finish line was amazing.  Great job!
  • The scenery was beautiful and the trail was well-maintained.  There are some beautiful wooded areas where I live, and I must say this trail was right-up-there with some of the most beautiful areas I’ve seen.  Decker’s Creek was always visible off to the right, rocky cliffs and lush green areas were always visible to the left, and the trail was shaded by abundant trees. I’m sure the fact that the sun was shining only enhanced the beauty of the scenery.
  • Volunteers were handing out water bottles as soon as you crossed the finish line.  I seriously could have hugged the lady that handed me a cold bottle of water!!
  • The shirts were amazing.  And you know how important that is!
  • Live results were posted immediately.  I knew my official time as soon as I could get to my smartphone browser.  To me, that’s a highly desirable quality in a race.
  • There’s a finish line festival.  Although I wasn’t able to stick around for the festival, it looked like a lot of fun!  I’m pretty sure there were free drinks (ahem, beer) afterwards for runners.  That’s my kind of post-race party!

If you enjoy smaller half marathons or half marathons of all sizes, you should definitely consider the Decker’s Creek Trail Half!  I’ll see you there next year! =)