Race Report: The Pittsburgh Half

Ohhhh man. This race. This race.

I have such a checkered history with the Pittsburgh half marathon. In 2011, The Lady and I registered for it as our 2nd ever half marathon, but a week out from the race, my foot / ankle started hurting for no particular reason (I was having a lot of foot issues back then) and I dropped out to be on the safe side. In 2012, I made it to the starting line healthy after setting a crazy PR the month before of 1:43, and went out the gate so fast that I crashed and burned at Birmingham and finished just over 1:50, much to my chagrin (though to be fair, it got pretty hot). In 2013, I was having an amazing training run leading up to the Pittsburgh half, until my IT band quit about two weeks out. So I sat out yet again.

Not this time, I told myself. Birmingham wasn’t going to get away from me, not this time.

Birmingham Bridge: BEATEN.

Birmingham Bridge: BEATEN.

I didn’t go into Race Day feeling overly optimistic. As I mentioned in my previous post, I couldn’t nail down my A-goal of sub-1:40 at Just A Short Run, and I was feeling quite a bit more explosive than I felt this past week. After the monster month that was April, I just wasn’t feeling quite as strong or physically fresh. I felt good, but not amazing. Still: the Burgh 10K was, in a word, incredible: the lack of intense competition made my mind settle to the point where I was having the time of my life, and it felt easy. I wanted to see if, in lieu of a PR, I could recapture that feeling of just zipping along without a care in the world.

In more practical terms, the game plan was to stick like glue to the 3:20 marathon pace group and hold on for as long as I could. The Lady and her friend Kim were also going by the same plan, so it would be a rare race where I got to run with my better half. That was also a nice motivator.

4am race morning came pretty effing early.

Motley crew.

Motley crew.

Our apartment served as a staging area for quite a running group. Liz and Carol were from Toledo, OH: the former is a talented triathlete aiming for a BQ, and the latter was running her first-ever full marathon. Danielle, one of The Lady’s regular running buddies, was also going for a BQ. The rest of us–The Lady, our former Ragnar teammate Devin, and myself–were all running the half.

In case you were wondering, I registered for this race shortly after seeing "Anchorman" for the first time.

In case you were wondering, I registered for this race shortly after seeing “Anchorman” for the first time.

We arrived downtown in plenty of time, getting to the start line by 6 when we needed to be in our corrals by 6:45. We had some time to sit around and relax (read: hit the porta-johns) before wishing each other good luck before heading to our respective starting points. The Lady, after having nailed a qualifying time at Just A Short Run, was a seeded runner, but lined up in Corral A with me (which seemed to be a combination of both seeded and Corral A runners? as in, there didn’t seem to be a difference, other than the word “SEEDED” on some folks’ bibs in the same spot where others had “CORRAL A”).

Yadda yadda thanks for coming, yadda yadda ready set go, AND WE WERE OFF.

Half-marathon route. [Mostly] unchanged from the last couple of years.

Half-marathon route. [Mostly] unchanged from the last couple of years.

The Lady, her running buddy Kim (who we’d met up with in the corral), and I stuck with the 3:20 marathon pace group. The two would split off from each other around mile 10.5, or just before Birmingham Bridge. We figured if we could hang on that long, we’d have a decent shot at 1:40 half. And if not, oh well: we’d still have one another.

The miles started ticking off. Mile 1 actually felt pretty good. Mile 2…eh. Mile 3…oh geez, this is going to end badly.

7:48, 7:42, 7:36

We were only 3 miles in and my quads felt like they were just about to burst into flames. This was bad. This was very, very bad. It was Philly all over again. I was going to crash and burn. I’d have to walk like 5 miles. I’d probably run a 3-hour half marathon. Oh God, it’s going to be even worse than 2012. This is terrible. This is awful. This is–

Then I turned on my music. This was my first song:

I’d been experimenting the past couple of weeks with holding off on my music until I’m already a few miles in. It gives my muscles a chance to warm up without the added adrenaline of my awesome running playlists. Then, when the miles are starting to drag, I can play my ace in the hole to give myself a bit of a boost.

Talk about a boost. My brain clicked off and I settled right in. My quads still felt pretty trashed–it was probably a combination of a rough taper week after the Burgh 10K, a stressful work week, and a fitful night of sleep right before the race–but a mantra bubbled up from the recesses of my brain that I kept repeating to myself, over and over:

You’re fine. It’s just in your head.

I don’t know why, but this calmed me completely. All my doubts flew away. I’d trust my training and do the best I could, regardless of the outcome.

Of course, there was still a lot of ground to cover. We were just crossing over the West End bridge (bridge #3 in 4 miles, for anyone who’s counting).

West End bridge is in the foreground. And yes, the view of the city really is as spectacular as it looks.

West End bridge is in the foreground. And yes, the view of the city really is as spectacular as it looks.

Once across the bridge, we did a brief out-and-back before starting up along Southside.

7:38, 7:44, 7:37

It was at this point that I was coming to the realization that, if I wanted to make a respectable showing, I’d need to pull up just a hair. My legs were having a hard time of things, and if nothing else, I wanted to crush the bridge that had crushed me two years ago. But in order to do that, I needed to survive through mile 10, and things were already getting a bit dicey.

So I slowly released my hold on the pace group, and also took the opportunity to meet back up with The Lady and Kim. We kept dropping in and out of each other’s immediate line of vision as the crowds ebbed and flowed, so I danced outside the pace group and took a couple looks around.

Only this time, I couldn’t spot either one of them. I took another couple looks. Still couldn’t see them.

I was a little disappointed; I’d kind of liked the idea of running this race side by side with my wife. But having no idea where she was, I opted to press on.

7:34, 7:36

For those still keeping track, it was at this point that I made the realization: even though the 3:20 pace group was continuing to fade into the distance, I was still clicking off splits that would get me in right around my goal time. So apparently my legs had been warning me that I was going too fast. I happily chewed on that thought for a few more miles.

The hills of Southside are pretty rolling: for each uphill, there was a nice downhill. We eventually reached “the flattest mile” of the course, at which point I tossed off my makeshift arm-warmers as I mentally geared up for the home stretch of the race.

My nemesis was coming soon…

7:37, 7:52

…and I was starting to feel it. The hills were getting tougher. But mentally I was happy as a clam and calm as a cucumber. I almost couldn’t believe how settled I was.

Soon enough, the crowds on either side thickened considerably, and the half/full split loomed ahead. And I knew what lay just beyond that turn.

Birmingham Bridge. We meet again.

It’s a solid third-of-a-mile long, and a constant uphill grind. But mental acumen + a two-year grudge match to settle = I got across this bridge. I never stopped running, I never broke stride (though I did keep to the tangents!). As I crested the end of the bridge, I felt…accomplished.

It was strange. I expected to be jumping for joy and exploding out of my skin, but like the rest of the race, I just felt a calm serenity. Like the bridge had actually been secretly rooting for me the whole time. Or something.

Or maybe it was that, unbeknownst to me this whole time, The Lady had been a few steps behind me–she made her appearance as we crested over the uphill, as if materializing from somewhere else entirely. COOL!

7:52

Unfortunately, as tough as Birmingham can be, it’s not even the worst part. The downhill is but a brief respite before making a pretty brutal climb to Boulevard of the Allies. The Lady and I were lockstep up this hill, silently encouraging each other to push another mile to what we knew was a net downhill for the rest of the course. This was, by far, our slowest mile of the day.

8:08

I gave The Lady a few feet of running room, as Boulevard is a separated two-lane highway, and there were still a good number of runners. Truthfully, I was also trying to catch my breath from the hill we’d just climbed.

Pretty awesome shot from the last mile!

Pretty awesome shot from the last mile!

But then a curious thing happened. As I tried to make up the distance again, The Lady started surging. I knew we still had a little more than a mile to go, so I thought she was just riding the first downhill. So I kicked up the pace again…and she kicked it up even further.

Holy crap, is she kicking it this far out?

For every bit I pushed harder, she pushed two bits harder. I kept upping the speed, and she kept widening the distance between us. Before I even realized, I was pushing a sub-7 pace…and she was still getting further ahead! I couldn’t believe it when mile 13 ticked off.

7:09

It was the fastest mile I’ve ever run in a half marathon. And yet it wasn’t good enough to even shrink the distance between us, much less catch up to her. She was flying!

I crossed the finish line, covering the final 0.1 at a 6:34 pace, finishing in 1:41:07, a new PR by 30 seconds!

Splits!

Splits.

I can’t even begin to describe the torrent of emotions from after the race. Although I do know that, for a couple minutes after, I was afraid I’d lose my breakfast.

It was a PR on a day when I felt physically subpar within the first four miles. It was my second half marathon PR in two months, after going two years without any. It was, bar none, my finest mental race to date, after over a year of extremely questionable mental performances. It was a PR on a course that had absolutely obliterated me two years ago. It was a PR on a course through a beautiful city full of wonderful people who The Lady and I will dearly miss when we move in December. It was the best race I could have possibly imagined.

Proud finishers.

Proud finishers.

Yeah, I still missed my A-goal of sub-1:40. But on this particular day, I didn’t care. I PR’d against all my initial assessments, against all my feelings at mile 4 and against all my frustrations from two years previous. I had sidelined my worst enemy–my brain–for the duration of my favorite racing distance, and had blown away all expectations as a result.

And got my ass kicked by my wife. Did I mention she was a seeded runner? Yeah, I got beat by a certified badass. It feels pretty awesome, in case you were wondering 🙂

So what’s next? At this point, not really sure. I have a thesis to finish and graduation to worry about first and foremost, and in the distant future, a 4th Air Force half marathon to run. But there’s a lot of time between then and now. For now, I’m going to savor this feeling; this massive boost in confidence is tangible, and I want to remember it for as long as I can. It makes all the difficulties of 2013 seem so distant, but at the same time, so illuminating. I know I’ll have more ups and downs as the time goes on, but I just want to remember: I can still do this. It’s all in my head, after all.

Pretty effing badass finisher's medal, if I do say so m'self.

Pretty effing badass finisher’s medal, if I do say so m’self.

Oh yeah, once we got cleaned up, we went outside our apartment to cheer on the full marathoners. Badasses, every single one. And then we had pancakes and bacon and bagels and french toast and fruit and mimosas and donut holes and YUMMMM.

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