Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Pittsburgh Marathon Trifecta: The Bad, The Ugly, and The Good

I am still on vacation, but I have some awesome friends and one of them agreed to guest post for me! My non-blogger friend Carrie is going to chat with you guys this week! 

I’m Carrie and I’m one of Steff's fellow flock-mates and Pittsburgh’er. We tend to run in the same area so we cross paths all the time. Never a bad thing to see a friendly face.

Steff asked me to write about my experiences with the Pittsburgh Marathon, as this was my 3rd year participating. I was happy to oblige! 

I ran my first Pittsburgh Marathon event, the half, in 2011 when I was still a student at Virginia Tech. I signed up solely because one of my roommates ran a half marathon and it sounded cool so I wanted to try…and when I found out the Pittsburgh Half was the weekend after I’d be home for summer, it sounded like a GREAT idea.

I finished in 2:21, and was hooked. I spent the next two years going half marathon crazy, running everything and anything in the Pittsburgh area. I improved a lot, and ended up signing up for the Pittsburgh Half again in 2013.
And then, through a raffle….I won an entry to the full.

Now, I’m a little bit of a workout nut, so I figured, what the heck?! It can’t be THAT hard, right? I perused some training plans online, experimented with gels and such, and made sure to sneak in a few 20 mile runs. I don’t remember a whole lot about the race, just that I finished in 4:21 and was SO excited. 

My friends and family came to cheer me on, and I felt on TOP OF THE WORRLLLDD. In hindsight, I categorize this as the “bad” – I didn’t even run with a watch for any of my training! No idea what my paces were…I would just know I was running 5 mile increments because I would train at a 5-mile lake near where I lived. Yikes.  I’d check my time when I got out of the car and when I got back in…and that was literally as technical as I got. In today’s world of mapmyrun, Garmin, Strava…how in the WORLD did I survive?

Again, I was hooked, so I decided to sign up again for 2013 (this time, under my own power). I hooked up with a training group at a local running store, and actually got a training plan.

And this is where I get to the “ugly”…

I followed the training plan for awhile, and then figured I should be doing more! I wasn’t running enough! I wasn’t running fast enough! I kept adding miles to my training plan, telling myself it was the right thing to do. To be honest, I was also struggling with some body image issues so the more miles I logged and the more time I spent running, the better I felt. Not. Smart.

With about a week to go until the big day, I started feeling some knee pain. I got a massage, got a foam roller, freaked out sufficiently, and tried to block it out of my mind. I went in to the race feeling terrified. Around mile 7, the pain was so bad I could hardly stand it. I was way to pig-headed to quit, so I kept walk/run/hobbling around the best I could. I ended up stopping several times along the course to ask random strangers on the sidewalks if I could borrow their phone and text my mom and dad to let them know I was still moving very slow, but was okay. 

I was so upset, I know I cried several times along the course. Spectators would cheer for me to keep running every time I had to stop and hobble, but I knew I just couldn’t. I ended up finishing in 4:31 and felt awful.

The next day I woke up and my knee looked like a softball…it was swollen and black and blue. I quickly made an appointment with a local sports medicine doctor, and got my diagnosis – I had let the inflammation in my IT band get so bad that my kneecap had been pulled out of the socket, and I had damaged the socket from the knee rattling around.

I was sentenced to no running for almost 10 weeks, and this giant ugly knee brace, affectionately known as ‘Billy the Brace.’ I was crushed. Everything backfired! I had trained myself right into the ground. I spent all summer wallowing and feeling sorry for myself. I also logged a lot of time in the swimming pool, since lap swimming was the only thing I was allowed to do. Eventually I was cleared to start going to spin classes too, and I actually ended up becoming a certified teacher and taught classes in the meantime.

I finally got ‘promoted’ to a lighter (yet way uglier) knee brace and could start running again. I ran a few 5ks, and then signed up for the Runner’s World Half Marathon Hattrick in October – a 5k, 10k, and half marathon over the course of two days. I was able to complete the event, and then I knew – I needed REVENGE on Pittsburgh.

And now – finally – the good! 

I signed up for Pittsburgh again, and once again enlisted the help of my local running group. I also started working with one coach specifically. I knew that if I was going to run this race right, I needed to (for once) train intelligently. Between teaching my spin classes and joining a CrossFit box, I focused a lot more on cross-training. I also really tried to focus on hitting my paces and not running any more or any faster than I was supposed to. For once, my training felt…good. Strong. Like I could do this!

Fast forward to May 3rd. My coach and I had developed a game plan. I was going to stick with the 4:00 pacers (some friends of his) until about mile 20, and then I was going to try and pick up speed. Talk about a herculean task! Negative splitting a marathon is no joke. I got up nice and early (like, 3:45am early) went through my usual raceday ritual…and headed downtown. I entered corral B and met up with Jim and Andy, who knew their instructions were to hold me steady until it was time to go. I had never really run with a ‘pace group’ before, and we had a blast! 

The Pittsburgh Marathon is incredible because of all the crowd support – crossing the bridges and running past the stadiums is so exhilarating! Running through the SouthSide is always fun, because there are people ALREADY out drinking at 8:00am. (Or maybe still out from Saturday night? Who knows!) The sights, the smells…everything about the first ten miles of the marathon is awesome.

And then, the hill. If you’ve never run Pittsburgh, right around mile 11 is where the half marathoners head downhill towards the finish, and the marathoners head up a steep incline into Oakland. The ‘hill’ gets a lot of bad rap, but I actually think it’s more mentally challenging because the crowd of runners REALLY thins out, now that all the half-folks are gone. You’re committed.

Our group was still having run, chatting and cheering up through Oakland and Shadyside. Our pacer even grabbed a beer from a bystander! (Now THAT’S talent!). After about mile 15 – you have to start digging deep. This is the part of the Pittsburgh course where I always falter. There are fewer spectators and not a lot of shade (did I mention it was getting HOT? That sun was SHINING!). The pacers kept the conversation going, and it didn’t feel nearly as awful as years past. Success!

Heading up into Highland Park, I had to start getting my head right. We were about a minute ahead of our 4:00 pace, and I knew my plan was supposed to be to ‘take off’ at mile 20. Did I have it in me?! AHH.

Enter: Friendship/Bloomfield/Back to the Strip. Basically, a two-mile-quad-killing downhill back into the city. Ho-ly-cr-ap. My legs were BURNING. More folks handing out beer, and at this point people were either feeling great and taking it, or looked like death. I missed my pace group! I tried to keep knocking seconds off my time as we headed back into the Strip District around mile 24. Shade was limited, so everyone was running in essentially a single file line along a wall beside the road. Ha! As we reached the final underpass…you could start to hear the crowd roaring downtown. 

Less than 2 miles to go! LET’S DO THIS.

I kicked on the jets (as much as you can after 3+ hours of running!) and knew I could finish strong. There were SO many people downtown, it was awesome. Turning onto the Boulevard for those last 0.2 miles was INCREDIBLE. People cheering everywhere, and I was going to DO THIS. I crossed the finish line, grinning ear to ear, at 3:56. Finally, the good.

Three years, three wildly different experiences…the Pittsburgh Marathon is a crazy, wicked monster. But for some reason, we all keep coming back for more.

Thanks so much Carrie for sharing your story! Her persistence and determination is so inspiring to me! I don't know if I could run Pittsburgh twice, let alone three times in a row!! You are amazing and I'm so happy we have become such great friends!! Thanks for guest blogging for me! - Steff


  1. I loved hearing Carrie's story! I can't believe the story about her knee..that sounds SO painful and it's incredible that she managed to finish the race. Ouch! Her race this year is really incredible, and I'm happy to hear at least one success story come out of this year's race! Hope you're having a great vacation :)

  2. Thanks for a great guest post, Carrie! I loved hearing how you came back for revenge! I hope to do that one day to a couple of my "ugly" courses!

  3. Great story Carrie!!! At least you can say you experienced all aspects of the marathon, the good, bad and ugly. Congrats on a great race!