Jeannie and I arrived at our hotel room late Saturday afternoon, May 4, after attending the marathon exposition at the David Lawrence Convention Center. We had walked for about an hour at the expo, looking at all the running exhibits in wide-eyed fascination. We had never seen this much running apparel together in one place in our entire lives! After getting settled in the hotel room, we walked a few blocks to Panera Bread and had a light, early dinner. We walked a couple more blocks to get some of the famous Dave and Andy’s ice cream – we realized we had a marathon to run the next day, but what better way to finish off the prep process than a bit of top-notch ice cream! Jeannie had some unusual flavor of the real stuff, while I stuck with my tried-and-true vanilla yogurt.
After praying together, we got to bed about 9:30 p.m. We were ready to go to sleep, and it didn’t take long to do so. I had read about how first-time marathon runners don’t sleep the night before the race, but I did. Well, at least that’s how it started. Just before midnight some rowdy people in the room next door were talking and laughing so loudly that they awakened both of us. I finally called the front desk and complained, and within a few minutes the noise had stopped. I was awake however, and in my excitement for the upcoming race I never really got back to sleep. The alarm was set for 4:30 a.m., but I saw it hit 4:29 and turned it off. Jeannie was awake as well, so we got started with our pre-planned routine. All the clothes we needed for the race were put together in one place before we went to bed. So all we had to do was eat a quick breakfast, get dressed and to do the bathroom thing, then catch the 5:00 a.m. hotel shuttle to downtown Pittsburgh. The shuttles left at 5:00 a.m. and at 6:00 a.m., but with most of the streets being closed and the race starting at 7:00 a.m., we didn’t want to cut it too close.
We arrived in downtown Pittsburgh about 5:15 a.m., and walked a few blocks to find our starting corrals. There were 30,000 people who had registered for the half or the full marathon, so five corrals were used to group the participants together. The corrals were designated A-E, with A for the fastest runners and E for the slowest. I was assigned corral C. Jeannie and I sat for nearly an hour, then prayed together again, and went to our corrals. At 7:00 a.m. the gun sounded, and looking ahead of me, I could see corral A starting the race. My corral walked forward, B began, and then we walked to take the starting spot. A couple of minutes later we were off. The sun was beginning to rise on downtown Pittsburgh – it was a gorgeous morning with the temperature around 50 degrees.
Mile 1 through 5 was spent getting settled into the run, warming up my legs and finding my rhythm. I stopped quickly at the first fluid station and filled the two water bottles of my hydration belt. This section of the course crossed three bridges, and with the morning sun shining on the city, it was simply beautiful. I was taking it slow at first, remembering Coach Matt’s advice to “start slow and finish strong.” At the end of mile five I used my first gel – I needed it more than I thought due to the lack of sleep and the length of time between eating breakfast and starting the race. My plan was to have one gel every five miles and drink plenty of Gatorade at the fluid stations. In my thinking, that should be enough fuel to get me to the finish. If I became really weak, I could always squeeze another gel.
Mile 6 through 11 was the easiest stretch of the race. I was averaging about a 9:30 pace, and enjoying the cheering spectators along the course and gazing at the sun-drenched scenery. We were running along the river, and the temperature was still nice and cool. As we approached the Birmingham Bridge the course split, with the half-marathoners going to the left and the full-marathoners to the right. After crossing the bridge, the half course went west on the Boulevard of the Allies. The full course went east on Forbes Avenue toward the campus of Pitt University. We had reached the beginning of mile 12.
Mile 12 through 19 was where I was most upbeat about the whole race, even though the hills were seemingly non-stop. Mile 12 was Forbes Avenue, which was a long, steep incline approximately a mile and a half in length. There was one lone, older lady near the top of the hill who was shouting to us, “The top is just around the corner!” She gets my prize for the most strategic encouragement – there weren’t many onlookers in that section, but she was there, and she made a huge difference for me and other runners. At the top there was a brief pause, only to be followed by another hill. The course was rolling hills for the next several miles, with the elevation continuing to increase overall. I slowed down my pace on the hills as Coach Matt had instructed me, so that I would have enough energy to make it to the end. Still, I didn’t stop running. I feel very positive about this section of the course, that despite the relentless hills ascending ever higher, I kept running. Shortly before mile 14 I took my one and only potty break – my bladder was grateful! I had no stomach issues on this race, which is another thing for which I am extremely thankful. On this section of the course I continued to enjoy spectators, smiling at them, slapping hands, and occasionally commenting on one of the many motivational signs. I also started talking with a young relay runner named Kelly who was probably in her late 20s. She commented that she is a Biology teacher, and then shared all about her family, how her father and mother both run, and how her husband was being very supportive of all them after he had suffered a torn ACL. I told her about my wife who was running the half, my son who lived near Washington PA, and my daughter-in-law Amy who is an elementary school teacher. She asked me, “Is this your first marathon?” “Yes,” I responded. “Will it be your last?” she followed. “Probably not,” I said, thinking that was an odd question to ask around mile 20. After talking a while Kelly pulled ahead of me. After a few minutes I caught up with her as she had stopped to walk. We talked three or four times total – it helps when there is someone with whom to chat.
Mile 20 through 26.2 started well. As my Garmin showed 20 miles, Kelly was there for the last time and I remarked confidently, “I’m going to see just how tough this 20 mile wall is!” She didn’t respond. I stopped at a fluid station to refill both water bottles once again. I was encouraged by the thought that the last 4.5 miles of the course were downhill, so it should be easier for me to finish. For miles 20 and 21 there were even more rolling hills, and I started feeling like running uphill was easier than running downhill. By mile 22 the course was definitely on a decline. What should have been a welcome development for me turned into the greatest challenge of all. The more I ran downhill, the more my hips began to ache. My shoulders had been sore for several miles, but that was fairly easy to remedy by stretching, folding and flexing my arms. There was nothing I could do to deal with the hip pain, and the more I ran the worse it became. At that time I would have given $20 or more for a couple of Motrin to lessen the pain so I could reach the finish line. Unfortunately, there was no aid station nearby, and I only had two energy gels in my waist pack. For the first time in the entire race, I stopped and walked downhill in order to ease the pain. As the pain decreased I started running downhill again, then stopped to walk when it became too great. There was another rolling hill near mile 24, so I gladly ran up the hill, since it only hurt to run downhill. Then there was another downhill section, so with the pain I walked a bit more. I started walking with two guys who were a little younger than me, but also walking. I said, “Man, I could do okay if my hips would stop hurting!” One of them replied, “Everything in my body is hurting!” The other one said, “Yeah, my stomach would be doing better if I didn’t drink the free beer I got back there!” As the pain eased I started running again. At mile 25 the downtown portion of the city was in sight. “Only a mile and a half, surely I can run another mile and a half.” My hips were starting to ache on the flats now, and my energy was pretty much spent. I popped another gel, hoping it would help a little. I had seen a fire hydrant set to sprinkle on the street a mile or so earlier, and had the muddled thought, “I can’t run through the water – it will screw up my Garmin!” Now I saw another one that was also sprinkling on the street to refresh the runners if they wanted to run through it. This time my mind was a little clearer, and I thought, “The sprinkler is the same thing as rain – your Garmin will be fine.” When the cold water hit me, it was like a breath of fresh air. I kept running toward the city, and nearer to the finish line. I kept running through the downtown section, where crowds were cheering the racers as they neared the finish line. I saw flags in the distance, and even though I was exhausted, with the flags in sight I kept running and ignored the hip pain. Finally I reached the flags and saw they were at a street corner. I rounded the corner, expecting to see the finish line. It was nowhere in sight. I stopped to walk again – I was crushed. After a few steps someone shouted, “It’s only 400 yards ahead – keep running!” I started running again, and after topping another small hill, I could see the real finish line ahead of me. I crossed the line with the timer displaying 4 hours, 42 minutes. I hoped initially for a much better time, but my overall goal was to finish without injury, and happy. Through the strength and provision of my Lord Jesus, at age 52 I met that goal and finished my first full marathon. I walked through the finishing chute in somewhat of a daze, accepted my medal, and then was greeted with a huge smile and hug from my dear wife Jeannie. She exclaimed, “I am so proud of you – you did it!” Yes praise the Lord — I did it!