2018 Pittsburgh Half Marathon Recap – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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?!).

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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.

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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.

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Corral B Excitement

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!

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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?