Pittsburgh Marathon Race Preview

Posted: April 27, 2010 in Pace and Racing
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As of Tuesday morning our second marathon in as many weeks is now just 5 days away.  I received notice that we have been awarded bib number 845 for the Pittsburgh Marathon.  Nice to score a sub 1,000 number in a race with more than 16,000 participants – somebody up there must think we’re fast or something.  

I’m still rolling around my race strategy in my mind right now trying to decide if we are recovered enough to “go for it” at Pittsburgh or if we should just play it smart, run a few easy miles to start and see where we are at the 10K mark.  Illusions of running a “Boston Time” keep entering into my head – but deep down I know that is just crazy talk.  13 days is not a lot of time to prepare for another race when most experts tell you it takes a full 4 weeks to recover fully from racing a marathon. 

Even though I know the facts, images of that perfect race literally one year ago this weekend play over and over in my mind where I raced flawlessly to a 3:17:43 on the very same Pittsburgh course.  Weather is calling for slightly warmer temperatures this year – 54 degrees at the race start vs. 47 one year ago.  There is also rain in the forecast for Sunday, which depending on the type of rain may or may not be a factor. 

So with 5 days to go I’m still holding back from finalizing my race plan.  I’m hoping for some divine intervention frankly that will clear my legs of this lingering soreness and allow me to get after it again on Sunday.  I will most likely wait until I get back from my 2-mile shake-out run Saturday morning to really zero in on my race expectations.  It will be very interesting to see how I feel on Saturday compared to my shake-out before Boston two weeks ago.  I felt absolutely perfect prior to Boston and raced not so great.  Will the situation be reversed this weekend?  We’ll see. 

As for the Pittsburgh course itself, if I had to choose a word to describe it, I would call it “fair”.  Are there hills?  Of course, we’re racing in Western Pennsylvania – but the nature of the hills is very different from Boston.  Thankfully the only significant “downhill” racing we will be doing Sunday is during the closing miles from 21-25.  I’m hoping that the late arriving “downs” will allow my hips and quadricep muscles that were so taxed at Boston the rest they desperately need until the closing portions of the race.  

Going into any race whether it is a 5K, half-marathon or marathon, I like to break the course down into smaller, bite-sized portions.  It helps me stay sharp mentally as the miles tick by and allows me to have certain “check-points” to look forward to whether it is a hit on my water bottle or my next nutrition boost from my energy gels.  At Boston I broke the course into three 8-mile segments and then a “hang-on” period over the final 2 miles.  When I make my return to Boston I will approach that course very differently based on the lessons I learned last week. 

For Pittsburgh the course really sets up nicely in 4 mile intervals – so let’s take a look ahead to Sunday’s race: 

Miles 1-4:  Strip District to 16th Street Bridge 

The first four miles are essentially a 2-mile out and back loop to start the race through the Pittsburgh Strip District.  Get your mind out of the gutter – not that kind of “strip” district.  The Strip – as it is familiarly known, is just that – a narrow strip of land in a flood plain confined by natural boundaries.  The Allegheny River to the north and the extension of Grant’s Hill to the south.  It was a wholesale produce and commerce area from the 1800’s to the post war years, now in addition to produce there are great restaurants, pubs and coffee houses. 

The terrain is relatively flat in this part of the course with very little terrain change.  A great start to the race where last year I posted very even mile splits of 7:13, 7:13, 7:11, 7:13. 

2009 Race Start

Miles 5-8:  PNC Park, Heinz Field and Bridges 

The next four miles begin with the first hill to navigate – heading up over the 16th street bridge to the North Shore where runners pass PNC Park – home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Heinz Field where the Steelers play football.  Runners then cross over the second bridge in the first 8 miles of the course – the 7th street bridge – followed by a small incline past the River’s Casino up to mile 8.  

This section is a bit rolling but still fair where last year I posted miles splits of 7:25, 7:24, 7:34, 7:34. 

First Hill on the Course

Miles 9-12:  West End Bridge to the South Side 

Mile 9 begins with a left turn for the marathoners heading over the West End Bridge.  At the base of the bridge the runners make another left turn and head up W. Carson Street for a 4 mile gentle climb.  Nothing to fear at this point, just a nice gentle climb of about 50 feet net over the next 4 miles.  This part of the course through the South Side is wonderful as there are great crowds and a beautiful look back to the left at downtown Pittsburgh.  

The final mile in this section crosses the last of the bridges as runners cross over the Birmingham Bridge – which provides a great look to the right of the Forbes Hill that looms in the distance.  I admit that the view can mesmerize you a bit peering at the incline you will be racing in just a few minutes.  Trust that it is just a hill.  Nothing more than you’ve encountered during your training.  

This is a good time to settle into your “cruising pace” and conserve a little energy for the hill ahead.  Last year we were able to post mile splits of 7:27, 7:18, 7:20, 7:32. 

Miles 13-16:  Time to climb 

Just past the foot of the bridge and the mile 12 marker the runners make a hard right onto Forbes Avenue.  The crowds here are some of the best on the course.  It’s a good thing too as this is where the course tests you a bit.   I’m not going to sugar coat it, you climb for the better part of two miles.  The total elevation change is just over 100 feet or 10 stories.  But because it is stretched out over close to two miles, it really isn’t too bad.  You just have to focus on the steps ahead of you and not look too far up ahead as the incline seems to stretch forever. 

Right at mile 14 the course flattens for a mile before another small hill leading up to mile 16 and the 10 miles to go point of the race.  Last year our mile splits over this section were:  7:30, 7:26, 7:38, 7:35. 

A Look From Atop Forbes Climb

Miles 17-20: Oakland to Shadyside 

Miles 17, 18 and 19 lead runners from Oakland to Shadyside over a small rolling downhill section.  The last climb on the course is found leading up to mile 20 but is very fair.  Once you cross the 20-mile mark it is all downhill from there – quite literally. 

Last year mile splits over this section of the course were:  7:35, 7:20, 7:33, 7:34. 

Miles 21-24:  Shadyside to Bloomfield 

This section of the course is very much downhill.  There is a small “bump” here and there that makes you think the course is flattening out – but they don’t last very long.  The course declines from 925 feet above sea level at mile 21 down to 740 feet at mile 24.  A welcome respite after the hills that led to mile 20. 

Last year as my glycogen fuel stores converted over to fat burning and I went through my “funky” period –  I was able to stay smooth and consistent with mile splits of:  7:36, 7:44, 7:48, 7:28. 

Miles 24-26:  Homestretch to the Finish 

The course bottoms out at the 24.5 mile mark and gently climbs to the finish.  Some of the best crowds found on the course line the streets over the final miles.  Being a “loop course” the start and finish areas are within a block of each other allowing for great crowd gathering.  Enjoy the final stretch, don’t punch your GPS until you are through the finishing chute and remember to smile.  Nothing like the finish line at the end of 26.2 miles. 

Last year’s final mile splits when our celebrating started for making our Boston time were:  7:41, 7:58. 

I remember really shutting down the jets over those final two miles and enjoying every closing minute of the race.  Our Boston time was well in hand and it was time to enjoy running a great technical race. 

Pittsburgh Marathon Finish 2009

What kind of time the 2010 race brings remains to be seen – but the strategy will remain the same.  Start smooth, stay strong through the hills and close with a purpose. 

It may be tough to keep it together this year at the end of the race with Dom and his family waiting in the grandstand.  My wife Dawn, family and friends will be waiting to greet me at the finish and the weight of two marathons in 13 days being removed from these shoulders.  It is going to be a helluva ride this weekend – of that I am certain.  Just 26.2 miles to go.  

I’ve honestly never been more excited about a race before – and that includes Boston.  Boston was different.  This one is personal.  I would be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that this is going to be an “all-go, no quit” kind of race. 

Rest assured the #845 Pittsburgh Express is leaving the station on Sunday morning, so clear a path.  We’ve got some cancer-kicking ass to whip.

Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.

  1. Jodi Higgins says:


    Did you get your bib number in an email? I am wondering when I will get mine. I am hoping it didn’t go into my junk email. Thanks.

  2. Connie says:

    I always went to the marathon and always was in Bloomfield . There was always so many people there. When I watched the race never in my wildest dreams did I ever think about how you prepare for the race. I thought you just went and ran.How stupid was I.I can’t make it to the race but my thoughts and prayers will be with you,Dawn,Dom and Val
    I’ll be following your progress.And remember before the race even starts

    • joerunfordom says:

      Thanks Connie for the visit and all the love and support over the months leading up to this weekend. You are the greatest. I haven’t been this excited for a marathon since my first one. Can’t wait! Best, J

  3. tbrush3 says:

    Great race summary Joe. Sounds like a great course and what a race you ran last time there. Very nice! By the way, not to worry about that race strategy. There is a paper with the number 845 on it and four pins waiting for you in Pittsburgh to help you! I have a pretty good idea how you will approach it. Good luck in Pittsburgh!

    • joerunfordom says:

      Trey – LOL – You know me well my friend. I may keep it simple and go as hard as I can as long as I can. Sounds about right given the mission on Sunday. As much as I need these extra days to heal a bit Trey from Boston – I wish we were racing tomorrow. Can’t wait to pin on and go! Thanks for everything my friend – it will be fun to debrief with you after the race. Take care in Atlanta, Joe

  4. Jodi Higgins says:

    Thanks Jodi! My bib is 7489…a bit higher than yours haha!!

  5. leslie says:

    Best of luck, Joe! I talked with Jeff (can’t remember his last name) who wrote “My First 100 Marathons” and he said nobody ever plans to run positive splits. That was enough to help me stay smart at Big Sur. The idea of getting through the first 6 miles then seeing how things feel is an excellent one.

    On another note, I’m 2 days post marathon and my quads feel like someone beat them with sticks. I’m signed up for a half this Saturday. How I’m going to run it I have no clue. And I can’t imagine another marathon just two weeks after the one I just ran. You are one tough man, Joe!

    • joerunfordom says:

      Leslie – thanks so much for the message and the visit! I read about your Big Sur race – man, powerful stuff. You did such a great job – Congrats!

      I think we’re on to something Leslie as those first 6 miles will really let me assess the situation and see what I have – I’m feeling remarkably strong right now – just need to get these hips loosened up – 5 days is a lot of time for the body to heal. It’s going to be a battle over the last hour or so I’m sure – just have to dig deep and remember who I’m racing for. That should be all the motivation I need. Thanks for all the love and support! Take good care and best of luck this weekend! You will do great. Best, Joe

  6. Shealy says:

    I just stumbled across this blog while looking for more info about the Pittsburgh marathon. Lo and behold, I see a Gamecock shirt in the pictures! I’ll be flying up from Columbia on Friday.

    I’ll be running my first marathon this weekend at Pittsburgh. Glad to know there will be another Gamecock out there as well (although you will be far, far, far ahead of me)!

    • joerunfordom says:

      Shealy – congratulations on your first marathon! You will absolutely love the experience, Pittsburgh is a great course with terrific support. I heard a ton of “Go Cocks!” last year so if you can rock the gamecock gear, I highly recommend it! Pass along your bib number if you can and I’ll check up on you at least post race. You never know I might even see you on the course.

      Best of luck Shealy – and just try to keep it under control until Forbes. Once you are over the top you can put the hammer down to the finish. Best to you! Joe

  7. Mad Dog 186 says:

    Best of luck from me too Joe! I just found your blog and was touched and motivated from the feelings and enthusiasm in your thoughts.

    This is my second Pittsburgh. I really enjoyed the 4 mile breakdown analysis of the 26.2 miles.

    My bib number is 2770. I’ll be bringing up the rear behind you. My goal time is somewhere less than 4:30. (Last year was a 4:31:20)

    I ran the Glass City Marathon yesterday and am recovering OK.

    Who knows, if the conditions are right, maybe I’ll follow your description and “let the hammer down after Forbes”. I could go 4:25. (You’ll have time to have couple of golden Iron City beers before I finish.)

    Keeping smiling.

    • joerunfordom says:

      Mad Dog – thanks so much for the visit and the comment! 2770 sounds like a winner to me – great stuff. Congrats on Glass City – man, you are a warrior.

      I will absolutely be looking forward to having a few chilly ones post race! God speed to you. Best, Joe

  8. odotbaria says:

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Christian, iwspo.net

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