Event: UPMC Pittsburgh Half Marathon 2014
Event Date: May 3, 2014
Event Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Picking up where we left off at the end of Part 1 of this race review.
Along the course
The half marathon course is well-thought out. There is a good amount of crowd support for the first mile or so, and then it thins out after that, but you never go more than a few steps without seeing spectators. As I said, the city of Pittsburgh really does embrace and turn out for this event. Race Icon. If there is one thing that sets a race in the “city of bridges” apart, it is the numerous bridge and river crossings. During the half marathon, runners cross major bridges 5 separate times and all of them are lined with spectators cheering you on. These major bridge crossings over the rivers are spaced out along the route, which allows runners to excitedly anticipate and experience each of the upcoming bridges throughout the race.
The first mile and a half of the course does not seem to make a whole lot of sense, until you realize that the course designers are setting you up for what is to come. After the first 1.5 miles or so, two left turns flip you around so you are now facing the downtown area that you just left, which is a nice sight during the early morning hour. This part of the course is through the strip district, which is a great collection of bars and shops. I am told that the crowds here were not quite as impressive as in 2013, but one can hope they return to that level of excitement.
After the Strip District, it’s a sharp right onto the first bridge and the first 5k of the race is in the bag somewhere over the Allegheny River. Unexpected Magic. At the end of the first bridge the runners were greeted by a beautiful little girl (who could not have been more than 3 or 4 years old) who was dressed as Snow White, and clutching an Olaf (from Frozen) mylar balloon in such a way that when she moved his hand waved us runners along. The look on her face was one of pure joy and excitement, and it was contagious as numerous runners called out to thank her by name – Snow White of course!
The first stretch on the North Side is mainly highways and may be the most sparsely attended part of the course, but runners are in for a treat as a mere left turn away is the second bridge crossing, which is also where the crowds started picking up. For the next 2 miles or so, nearly the entire course was lined – often times on both sides – with spectators. You can’t help but notice a little extra pep in the step of your fellow racers. Back onto the north side of the river again is where the good folks of Pittsburgh started to bring it. One could not throw a gel packet or used drinking cup without hitting a Church congregation, community service group, or house party (not literally, cut me some slack, I am going for a metaphor here!). I could not help but be overcome by the civic pride being demonstrated by the locals who were welcoming us into their communities.
After the 10k point, we crossed the Ohio River and what seemed like the biggest “climb” so far. Pittsburgh gets a well-deserved reputation for having lots of hills, but the first 11 miles of the course are surprisingly flat, and thank you to the course designers for that. Most of the elevation changes come from the curvature of the bridges rather than true climbs. At this point the sun was high in the sky and the temperature was starting to climb as the course tucks in between the Monongahela River and the mountains to the south, which did not provide much cover, but again, this is all about the sites. The whole time you are running you see the city’s skyline across the rivers, and pass sites like the inclines and Station Square, and make your way onto Carson Street, where another party begins.
There is one point of mild concern I had at this point in the race. I am not sure whether I missed this in the race materials, but the “food” station was marked as providing Cliff brand products to the runners. I must have assumed that this meant Cliff shots, but instead the volunteers handed out pieces of Cliff bars. I was not prepared for this and could not get the bar down and had to spit it out. I was glad that I had brought my own gels, except I had inadvertently dropped one on the course and had run out (at least according to my race plan). While, in the end, it all worked out for me, this just reinforces the need to be prepared for a race.
For those not familiar with Carson Street, it is the artery of the South Side neighborhood and is lined with bars and restaurants. The neighbors started celebrating early, and by the time I got to them, their sense of community spirit was, shall we say, very “well-lubricated.” It made for a very lively atmosphere along the course. This is also where the race advertises its “easiest”/“flattest” mile, which is a nice touch and made for a nice branding opportunity for EZ Pass. The event coordinators did a nice job of making runners abundantly aware of where the full and half marathon courses diverge (though I did see a few full marathoners miss the turn, which meant they had to jump over a highway barrier to get themselves back on course). A left turn amongst some raucous fans put us onto the Birmingham Bridge across the Monongahela River, which is where this race stops being fun (at least for me anyway).
After the 11 mile mark, the kind, sweet, compassionate course designer was replaced by the combined efforts of Maleficent, the Evil Queen, and Ursula the Sea Witch (yes, we are going heavy on the Disney villain references here). At the end of the bridge stood a lone gentleman holding a sign literally welcoming us to his neighborhood, but in retrospect, one can see how his kindness could be mistaken for taunting. The course dips down before beginning a long, slow climb to Duquesne University. The official course elevation chart says that the course climbs nearly 230 feet in the course of a mile, but it seemed like so much more. Not surprisingly, there were no spectators on this stretch of the course – honestly, what idiot would want to climb that hill unless he had to? I did see some runners lose it on the hill and have to walk or stop altogether, but for those who endured and pressed on (my pace was destroyed at this point), there is a great sense of accomplishment at having conquered this daunting challenge.
When we crested the hill, we had a straight on view into downtown and the last mile to the finish. I thought that I would pick up more speed on this downhill than I did, but my legs were shot, my lack of preparation was becoming evident. The crowds willing us to the finish were stellar, but I distinctly remember two moments more than anything. The first was the University of Pittsburgh drum line. There is no better on-course musical entertainment than marching bands and drum lines, and these kids brought their game. The second was an older gentleman who stopped about 30 yards in front of me with less than a mile to go, and he bent over at the waist. I ran towards him to see if he was OK, but before I got to him, he stood back up and resumed running, but this time he was clutching the victory cigar he had just lit. The smile on his face was priceless – and the cigar smelled pretty darned good as well.
I crossed the finish line, dripping with sweat. I had done it, in addition to being a Casual Runner, I was now a Runner of Steel.
Earlier I said that the Pittsburgh race organizers understand the value of swag, but they also understand the value of great SMOs. The monochrome medal is nice and perfectly encapsulates the city that hosts this great race. It is not flashy, but has an intricate beauty.
A comparison to last year’s medal is warranted. The 2013 medal looks very masculine, conveying the hard, blue collar roots of the city. The 2014 medal is a nice complement, and conveys a more feminine image. I use masculine and feminine in a descriptive, complimentary sense, not in the sense that toy stores have “boys toys” and “girls toys.” Both medals are nice keepsakes and are equally emblematic (and representative) of the city. In other words, like the race, very well done indeed, Pittsburgh.
The post-race experience
After the race, the organizers take care of the runners. The finishers’ chute empties directly into food and fluids. There was ample medical personnel on hand to carefully scrutinize every finisher and determine if anyone needed assistance, I saw 3 or 4 people picked out for attention, including one who had no idea that she needed help but nearly collapsed, helped only by the quick action of a volunteer.
The food and beverage selection was ample – plenty of water, bagels, smiley face cookies (it’s a Pittsburgh thing), and other carbohydrate bounties. After a race I cannot even look at carbs, but if I could, I would have had my pick of nourishment. It is back through the field of port-a-potties (the finish line is just around the corner from the starting area), and then it’s a quick left into the finisher’s village. The race organizers did a nice job of setting this area up, however it was too successful of a draw as there were just too many people in the area – which is a rather sizeable area. This made walking through crowds difficult.
One particularly noteworthy attraction was a bell that was set up in the center of the celebration area (I believe it was sponsored by an insurance company, I seem to recall a person in a large lizard costume, but then again, I was exhausted and pretty out of it). If you hit a PR, then you were invited to ring the bell and have your picture taken. I was nowhere near my PR so I just kept on walking. Actually, walking across the river was just what I needed to decompress from the race, and by the time I returned to my car, I felt almost human again. As there was a Pirates game in a few hours, my car was surrounded by tailgating baseball fans having a great time and offering me congratulatory adult beverages. I politely declined, opting instead for the Powerade Zero I brought with me. The SUV I saw earlier that morning with the keys clearly visible on the back tire was nowhere to be found…no word on whether the lawful owner was the one who moved it.
I kept a lot of standard songs from past race playlists, and the only newly-added songs were selections from the Frozen soundtrack. Of course I had to do this, at the time, Frozen mania was sweeping the nation (and my nephews!).
Looking back now
If you have a chance to run the Pittsburgh half marathon, do it. The branding, organization, and planning of this event should be commended and make it a worthwhile event to add to a Casual Runner’s program. The only “drawback” to this race is the long climb. Admittedly, while some may see this as a deterrent, others may see it as a challenge to be conquered. Had I known about the climb before the race (I know, poor race scouting on my part), I may have been scared away, but it really is do-able. Please bear in mind however, that while the half marathon course is relatively flat, the second half of the marathon course is a climber’s paradise. So if you should choose to take on the full 26.2, you should train and prepare accordingly. But if you do, and choose either event, you too can be a Casual Runner…of Steel!
If you missed it, don’t forget to read the first part of this race review here.
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