Friday, May 12, 2017

Race Review: Pittsburgh Marathon

Over the weekend I traveled down to Pittsburgh to run the Pittsburgh Marathon which had the best perk to any race I've ever experienced: I got to reunite with Erin and Cullen! It was so good to see them after nearly a year and to have them around for my fifth marathon experience. Yay for friendship reunions! I flew in early Saturday morning and our first stop was the Pub Chip Shop where we all grabbed buttermilk biscuits for breakfast. Seriously - so freaking good. Highly recommend you all to make a stop there if you're ever in the area!

Sick views of the Ohio River and PNC Park from the Convention Center!

 Afterward we wandered over to the Convention Center for the marathon expo! The expo was so legit - there were tons of vendors and photo ops available to runners and their loved ones. I'm not really into shopping around at expos (large crowds in a confined space usually isn't my thing) but I loved all the other cool things that they had at the expo, including a photo op with giant distance numbers, the wall of the nearly 30,000 runners' names, and the opportunity to sign your name to make your mark on the marathon!

One of the coolest things to take a photo with!

Finding my name out of the 28,392 that were on the wall!

Leaving my mark for Marathon #5!

After the expo we went home to Cullen and Erin's house to just chill. I really didn't want to do anything else besides hang out with my buds and rest up for the race. We did a lot of Netflixing, snacking, and planning out the transportation strategy for Sunday. We had a lot of fun taking arbitrary bets on Kentucky Derby Horses (I had McCracken and Fast & Accurate, Cullen had Thunder Snow and Irish War Cry, Erin had Gromley and Untrapped, and we all had our favorite - GIRVIN. Spoiler alert, none of them won) and later went out to dinner to ~carbo load~ (I ordered amazing spinach and cheese ravioli).

Chilling with Taco on the floor as I stretched!

We spent the rest of the night playing an awesome board game called Pandemic - highly recommend! My nerves were going pretty crazy at this point anticipating the race and we had to wake up by 4:45/5AM, so we all headed to bed pretty soon after that. Not before I snapped a quick flat runner photo, though! It's basically a pre-marathon requirement. :P

 I woke up before my alarm (probably due to nerves) so I decided to get ready for the race. I packed up my backpack, ate my traditional pre-marathon breakfast (PB bagel, banana, a Clif Bar, and some Gatorade) and got into my race attire. We were on the road by 5:30AM and got to the race site right after 6:15! We walked around a bit before I had to get into the starting corral just to check out the area, take a few pre-race potty breaks, and to dance to the music they were blasting at the starting line. We managed to snap some pre-race pictures as well!

Always twinning!

The O'Brien cheer squad!

All runners had to get into their corrals by 6:55AM so Erin and Cullen and I wished me luck and I headed into the corral with everyone else. It was so crazy to see everyone lined up and the pre-race energy was insane! What I wasn't expecting was how long it took for the later corrals to get moving. The race started at 7AM, but they sent each corral out in multiple waves (which makes sense because 30,000 people) but, even though I was in the last corral, I was not expecting that I wouldn't cross the starting line until 7:48AM! It was long enough where I could have definitely taken several more pre-race potty breaks (because we know those are real) and there wasn't anywhere to go. D: Definitely would have appreciated more access to bathrooms in the corrals if we have to be locked in there for close to an hour!

Party in Corral D!

Getting my watch set for the *final run* of the training cycle!

Finally our corral's time finally came to cross the starting line and we were on our way!

The first mile was so much fun and completely lined with fans and multiple live bands playing awesome covers to keep the runners entertained. I did have to pull over right after mile 1 for one quick potty break which meant standing in line for about 5 minutes, but I felt better about it when I saw that literally every restroom area had lines throughout the entire race. (That being said, don't feel nervous about waiting in line at one bathroom stop or try to take your potty break down the course, because you'll likely have to wait in line no matter where you are on the marathon course, especially when you're still combined with the half marathon!)

Crossing over the first bridge right before the 5K mark!

I managed to swoop through the next few miles and catch up on my time by the time I hit mile 4 and saw Erin & Cullen for the first time! They were there cheering me on and holding a sign that (SURPRISE) a bunch of my coworkers and students at MHC signed and wrote amazing encouraging messages on! My amazingly sneaky friends coordinated the signing and sending of the sign down to Pittsburgh just to wish me luck! So amazing to be a part of a community of people that makes me feel so loved and appreciated! I said a quick hello to my cheer squad and kept trucking along the course - I'd be meeting up with them again at mile 9!

Cullen with the MHC sign at mile 4!

We ran past PNC Park (which I didn't realize until I had basically already run by it) and Heinz Field in the intermittent miles and while I'm definitely not a Pittsburgh sports fan, I think it's always cool to run by professional sports complexes. That's where sports history is made! Of course, I had to snap a few photos. Right after, we headed over one of the many bridges of Pittsburgh where part of the Steeler's drum line was located as well as a really cool view of the Pittsburgh skyline as well.

Loved this view of the Pittsburgh skyline!

 I ran into Cullen and Erin again at mile 9 and they had another amazing sign ready for me that read "Tacos and Margs at the Finish Line" - a GREAT incentive to run fast! :P The weather had warmed right up at this point so I ditched by hoodie with them and Erin took some pretty amazing "candid" photos of me "running". :P This would be the last time I saw them until the finish line so we said some good-byes and good-lucks as I entered into the more difficult miles of the race.

Left: Totally candid and not posed at all running photo :)
Right: My expression in most situations... 

The half marathon and full marathon split off around mile 11 and there was a significant drop in runners around me once this happened. While this was nice as I had more room to run, it's always a bit easier and more fun to run a tough race with a crowd around you. That being said, I was never completely by myself on the course which was really nice. My fellow distance racers will relate - you kind of mentally bond with the runners that are around you throughout the race, especially the folks that are running a similar pace to you and especially when you're in the later, more painful miles of the race!

With mile 12 came "the hill". I've been hearing about this crazy hill that you need to tackle during the Pittsburgh Marathon that comes right after mile 12. Every race review I read called it brutal and the elevation map made it seem like I was about to go up a 90° angle. Not gonna lie, I was pretty nervous about this hill. When I actually saw it? I was pretty unimpressed. I mean, it's definitely a hill and it lasts a little while, but it's gradual enough that if you have done any sort of hill work during your training that you could pretty easily run up it. I got to the top and felt pretty awesome!

After "the hill" we entered the University of Pittsburgh campus which, as a Higher Ed Nerd, was awesome because I got to check another campus  off my Campus Bingo Card! :P Had to snap a quick selfie with the Cathedral of Learning, aka "Cathy", while I was running by.

Me and my BFF Cathy

We started to run through neighborhoods that were handing out extra treats like oranges and watermelon, which was such a big help. For whatever reason, I wasn't reaching or my GUs or my Gatorade blocks throughout the race and all I wanted was water in the hot sun, so having folks that were handing out fresh fruit in addition to what I was carrying with me was super helpful. I probably would have bonked HARD if it wasn't for those folks!

Mile 17 was when my legs started to get pretty tired. This is where I started my walk/running for the next few miles. My calves and hamstrings were really feeling it and I had to stop to stretch them out multiple times. However the crowds in each neighborhood kept me pushing through. I remember the kids all sticking their hands out for high fives for runners and a group from the neighborhood at mile 17 doing the Wobble with huge smiles on their faces. I remember the greyhound cheer team at mile 18 - all dressed up for the marathon and still adorable even though most of the pups were super sleepy by the time I ran through! It's really the crowds and cheers that kept me going through the pain.

At least the FRICK kept me chuckling through mile 16 :P

Mile 19 the pain in my calves shot down to my ankles and really started giving me a hard time. It lasted from mile 19 to mile 24 and at times felt fairly unbearable. All I wanted to do was sit down and stick my feet into an ice bucket. But again, it was the crowds that kept me chugging along. The town of Friendship being oh so welcoming and handing out popsicles to the runners at mile 22,  the HUGE crowd at the top of the downhill mile 23 pushing the runners through the last 5K, folks handing out free beer at mile 24…. I couldn't believe how much of a help and distraction it was from the pain. PGH has some amazing cheer squads through the entire city and I would recommend this race PURELY to experience the crowds!

Mile 24 is when the pain in my ankles made me so frustrated that I decided that it was finally time to break down and throw my headphones into my ears. With all the bands and DJs lining the course, I figured I wouldn't have to listen to any music, but as soon as I popped my headphones in and threw on my angsty pop punk playlist, my splits went from a painful 13:00-14:00/mile as they were miles 19-24, to roughly 10:40/mile for the rest of the race. My ankles were still killing for sure, but with just two miles to go and my favorite band New Found Glory blasting through my ears, I felt like nothing could stop me from crossing that finish line!

When I turned the corner and saw the big inflatable yellow finish line, I paused my music to hear the excitement of the crowd and the music, scanned the crowd for Erin's pink Virginia Tech hat (which I couldn't find) and whipped out my camera to film the crossing of the finish line. It felt SO GOOD to finish that race. It honestly never gets old. The sense of accomplishment I feel when I cross the finish line of a marathon is incomparable to anything else I've felt in my life. It's what keeps me returning to the 26.2 distance, despite how difficult it can be. After months of training and thinking about nothing but this race and sacrificing free time  and weekends and sleep for long runs, crossing the finish line on race day is like nothing else.

Erin cheering me on through the finish line!

The team of volunteers at the finish line handed me a medal, a water, and a heat sheet, and I began the pretty grueling walk down to the finish line festival. I swear they made us walk an additional half mile to get there… not something I was a fan of at all. There was fencing that made it impossible to go anywhere else and there was no where to sit and rest for a moment. Luckily I found an opening in the fencing and was able to sit on the curb for a bit before getting up the strength to walk the rest of the way down to the park, but it would have been nice to either not have had to walk as far to meet up with your cheer squad OR provide some sort of rest area for the runners within the finish line area. Just some sort of seating area would have been AMAZING.

Noticed this banner as I took a break from walking on the curb. My legs might have been dead but at least in that moment I could call myself a #RunnerofSteel!

Once I did make it down to the finish line festival I reunited with Cullen and Erin and we immediately found a space on the grass to sit for a while. I showed them my medal and we chatted about the race. It was so good having friends waiting to see my at the finish! I changed out of my running shoes and socks and into my flipflops and fuzzy socks (Which... oh my goodness... made SUCH a difference! Cannot recommend this post-race strategy enough!) and felt good enough to walk down to the fountain to take some post-race photos with my medal, my signs, and my cheer squad!

The race was such a positive experience for me, and from what I heard from Erin and Cullen, it was a great experience for them as well! It's so special when you can find a race that caters to both runners and spectators, and this marathon totally nailed it. The crowds we amazing and went all out for the runners through the whole course, and a good chunk of the course was close enough together that spectators could pretty easily move on foot from location to location to see their runner! I absolutely loved my experience running the Pittsburgh Marathon and would 100% recommend it to any runner who is looking to add 26.2 to their list of accomplishments! 

Thank you so much to Pittsburgh, Erin, Cullen, and to everyone who cheered me on from afar for making Marathon and State #5 so special! Now onto #6... 

P.S. If you were wondering: Erin and Cullen made good on their finish line promise ;)

My soup of the day: The Hamilton (super appropriate for our trip to NYC to see Hamilton next week!) 

P.P.S. If you'd like to see more action from the race, check out my marathon vlog below! :D

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