Blogs tagged with "Pittsburgh"

Metal (Steel?) Medal

Running the Pittsburgh Marathon this year was never about time. It was never about place. And it certainly was never about money. I know those things as motivators in past races. And no, this year, running the Pittsburgh Marathon was about the demons.

Everyone who knows me knows I have demons. The demons tell me I'm not good enough to toe the line with other athletes (or even be in their presence). They tell me I'll never be better than a mid-packer at best. They tell me all my good performances were one-off flukes. Simply put, they make me hate myself. And they have owned my soul for the last two years. I wanted it back.

I chose the marathon as the race distance in which to wrestle back my soul. And I chose the Pittsburgh Marathon because it's a race and a city that are very near and dear to me (despite the scorn of my Cleveland-based social group). I've always loved Pittsburgh races: I ran the marathon once before (race report from 2010) and I've even won the Friends of the Riverfront Triathlon a few times. One of the great things about the marathon is, by far, the crowd support. I don't know how they do it, but it's like the city informs all of their residents to be out cheering and holding up posters that make runners laugh (more on that) along the entire route.

I registered for the Pittsburgh Marathon even before I considered the training. Since the beginning of 2014, my training has been focused on increasing time and frequency without re-injuring my severely messed-up hamstring tendon. I had two PRP treatments and have worked with a physical therapist for a year and a half. I've spent many hours on my bike and bike trainer and my fitness level was getting there, but with the marathon approaching, I needed more time on my legs just to feel a tiny bit of confidence at the starting line in Pittsburgh. But my running has seriously lacked distance - as my running partners of late have been doing hilly trail runs (read: slow.. well, slower than marathon pace for me). What made things most difficult was the atrocious Cleveland weather this winter - unbearably cold and snowy. If it weren't for those friends, I never would have gotten out the door. Even so, my longest run this year (and since March 2013) was only 18 miles. My second-longest was 14.

This mileage doesn't bode well for the marathon distance, and I knew I couldn't possibly go to Pittsburgh with a time goal. I fully expected to walk the last 6-8 miles. In fact, it's exactly what I told my physical therapist. He agreed that I could cover the distance and by covering the distance, I would prove something to myself that I needed (for sanity? for my upcoming season? for my return to ironman distance? all of the above?). I guess the most important thing was to not DNF.

Good Morning Pittsburgh! Land of bridges.

Of course, I made it a little more difficult for myself because I also went to Pittsburgh without a taper. I mean, like, NO taper. This was a first. I couldn't afford to break my triathlon training for the possibility of a fast marathon. No, I had to get in a decent-length bike ride the day before (which actually turned into a tough 50 miles of fighting wind and rain). To say the least, I wasn't giving myself much of a chance on May 4 in Pittsburgh. Yes, I had accepted that from the moment I hit the submit button in the race registration form.

But toe the line I did. At 6:50 am, on very little sleep and tired legs, I stood in my start corral behind the 3:15 pace group and hoped (prayed) I hadn't made a serious mistake. Spectators, including my husband Jim, were not given access to the starting area, so I had no one to help beat down the rising fear - the demons and their constant chatter of "oh my God, what have I done?" and "you are SO screwed, it's really not funny." I tried to shake them off with my own positive thinking: "this is going to be FUN!" and "I love Pittsburgh!" but the fight was on - and it would surely haunt every step.

Then, it started to rain.

Demons: 1
Me: 0

I took in the scene. There were helicopters and loud speakers. It was cold (50 degrees) and raining and dark. There were people jumping up and down trying to keep warm. People stretching. People saying their own silent prayers. There was a drone hanging in the air over the start line. Weirdly, it was a familiar feeling (well, not the drone part). I truly missed the marathon starting line. Just runners, pavement, and running shoes. No bikes. No wetsuits. No transition zones. No goggles. No caps. No tires to inflate. No wet grass. No mud. No worries.

Me in my new team 
At least Jim got photos of some fast people.

Take that! All tied up.
Demons: 2
Me: 2 ("I'm still smiling, the hill was surprisingly easy thanks to hill training!")

The 3:20 pace group kept me going for a bit, but I decided to pick up the pace around mile 15. It was another huge assumption - that picking up the pace wouldn't be a mistake. I noticed that my form is better when I run faster and with that, the increasing pain subsided a bit too. Expecting to hit the wall at 18 miles (since that was my longest training run), I thought it was nothing short of a miracle that I was still running well at 20.

Demons: 2 ("You'll be walking at 18!")
Me: 3 ("Bite me!")

I can see the the finish line.

My first-half splits had been 7:30-7:45 pace, and my second half splits were looking a little better until about mile 22. That's really when everything started to hurt. Bad. There was a considerable amount of pain (not cramps) in my legs and my hips. I kept running at least until the downhill at mile 23-24, but the leg pounding had really taken a toll. I was barely hanging onto a 7:45 pace after mile 24, and I could tell I was starting to drag my left leg - the hamstring-injury side. During the last four miles, I ran with two guys who were also struggling, but we supported each other to the finish. I kept telling myself that if I couldn't keep running in THIS marathon, what chance did I have in my next Ironman run? Then I saw on a poster that age-old expression - you know it - it starts with "Pain is temporary..." And it was all I could do to roll into the finish at a barely sub-8:00 pace. It was far from my best. My watch said 3:20:something. It was officially my third-slowest marathon ever.

Demons: 3 ("Here comes the pain!")
Me: 4 ("Oh yeah? I've run through much worse pain and fatigue - including vomiting - in Ironman!")


I purposely didn't look at the results because I wanted to celebrate the accomplishment while Jim and I immediately made our way to our favorite place, Piper's Pub, to have breakfast - and a beer. I now know my official time was 3:19:33, I finished 3rd (of 129) in my age group (W45-49), and 24th woman (of 1789) overall. Years ago, this result would find me kicking myself for all the things I didn't do to prepare for the race. But no one was more surprised than I was that I was even under 3:20. In reviewing my splits, I found a fairly even-pace run from start to finish. I didn't walk, I drank at every aid station, and I had no nutrition issues. During the race, I adjusted my goals according to how I was feeling and the bottom line was: be happy with a sub-3:30, finish running, and enjoy the day. Yep, goals accomplished.

The hard part may be yet to come. I have to kick the demons out of my head and not re-evaluate and overanalyze this thing to death... or to the point where I DO start beating myself up over what could have been.

But for now, once again, the demons are at rest.

Ah, Pittsburgh. What can I say? I feared my sixth attempt to defy the "age" odds at the annual Pittsburgh Triathlon - my favorite Olympic Distance race - would not go as well as it had in the past. In four out of the five times I've done the Pittsburgh Tri, I've been able to run down the leader(s) for the overall win. In fact, in this race, because of my lack of skill and prowess on the bike, I fully expect to fall behind in the quad-burning mountain-climb of a bike leg.

And I've always had my run speed. I was always determined to go down fighting on the run in this event. I would make the massively-quadded bikers who crushed me have to earn that win by running scared when they saw me at the three-mile turn-around.

That all ended on Sunday. To my dismay, I didn't go down fighting. In fact, if you were listening Sunday morning, I think I went out with a whimper. And now I sit in front of my computer trying to fight off the demons of Pittsburgh that are trying to kill my spirit of the comeback.

After all, it was the Pittsburgh Tri (and win) that marked my return to racing in 2003, just two months after being hospitalized as a trauma case. It was the Pittsburgh Tri that got me back on my feet after a four year mental layoff from said accident. And it was the Pittsburgh Tri that I registered for as soon as I made my decision to go to the ITU World Championship in London this year. It's a barometer. I can usually tell exactly where I'm at based on my performance in Pittsburgh.

And now - let's just say I'm having a hard time putting things in perspective.

My husband Jim says I need to be patient. That I'm expecting too much. He has a point. After several months of very little running, I've started the hardest part of my build-up (in all three disciplines) for London. I did a 40K time-trial in training last week. I also had my first run of longer than 50 minutes the next day. And I'm in a desperate struggle with my physical therapist to make my both my legs work - with strength and without pain - by September 14.

The problem is that we're in the midst of triathlon racing season and I'm running out of opportunities to have the proverbial something-to-hang-my-hat-on if (when?) all goes awry in London. Every year older I get, the more I wonder if this is my last chance to really feel strong. Or "fast." Or just "good."

There it goes - the snowball...

To back up a bit, to before the race... I was, indeed, feeling upbeat about my progress last week. Especially in physical therapy. As of last weekend, I could run - regularly - without a cast and without fear of "scary" pain in my right tibia. However, an attempt to run fast reduced me to hobbling from pain in my left hip (this was probably the thing that did me in last year - and the thing that caused my stress fracture).

The next day, I had to have my hip seriously worked on by my physical therapist. He was able to "put more space" in the joint, and, miraculously, I was able to run on Thursday with a freedom of movement (and lack of pain) I hadn't experienced in a long time (maybe years). I'm not sure why what he did worked this time, but it did.

With this new-found pain-free hip-movement, I apparently expected immediately results. No. Patience is NOT my middle name.

Swim start, last wave: women 40+ and relays, and my
right "high" elbow.

So, there I was, at the starting line of the Pittsburgh Triathlon - the defending champ. And before the gun, last year's runner-up approached me to tell me she suffered a broken pelvis two weeks after the race last year. Then she commented on my running speed - last-year. I related my current stress-fracture woes - my running was non-existent this year. Although I secretly thought (hoped?) I could pull something fast out on the run.

Race day started out cloudy and rainy - the transition area was all but under water - but the Allegheny River was strangely unaffected. In fact, the current was almost non-existent. The 1500m swim of the Pittsburgh Tri starts upstream, and besides a short swim upstream, it is mostly with the (said) current and parallel to the shoreline. It's great for spectators because they can watch their athletes during the entire swim (Jim managed to capture on camera my swim and all its idiosyncrasies - especially my asymmetric stroke). When we got in the water, I found it odd that I lacked the familiar adrenaline rush at the start. With no warm-up, it took me about half the swim to "find" my stroke, but by the time I reached the swim finish, I got a mental boost by catching several of the relay swimmers who went out much faster than I did.

The "low" (read: nonexistent) elbow.

After the swim, athletes have to run up a concrete ramp to transition which is in a small grassy area on the river's north shore between Heinz Stadium (home of the Steelers) and PNC Park (home of the Pirates). It was not a wetsuit-legal race, which made the long run to transition much easier. I took a split when I crossed the timing mat - it read about 20 minutes (almost the same as last year's time). I didn't chase anyone, I jogged to my bike, got out of my speed suit quickly - which wasn't easy with the spongy wet footing - and got out of there.

Swim exit: no, I can't walk and chew gum at the same time

The bike leg is basically a two-loop hill. It's in the HOV lane of I-279 so there are no cars to contend with, but it's just one giant hill. Last year was my best time on this course, and this year, I swore I would be faster because... well, because I'm faster on the bike.

Or so I thought. I rode hard and felt great through the bike leg, but when all was said and done, I got my butt kicked on the downhills. Which begs the question, after I was flying by people on the uphills, how does EVERYONE ride faster than me on the downhill? My aero position is good (I checked my shadow when the sun came out). My bike is supposedly one of the fastest (Cervelo P3). And yet, I end up losing all my gains on the downhills. And yes, I am pedaling, not just coasting.

Bike photos - at least I was smiling in my slowness:

Oh well. So I rolled into transition at around 1:08 for the 40K bike course. I didn't need Jim to tell me how far behind I was. I knew it was over six minutes at best. I racked my bike, jumped into my shoes and grabbed my hat and sunglasses. I knew immediately there would be a problem with my shoes. In an attempt to refine my horrible bike-to-run transition, I adjusted my running shoes too lose this time. The ground was puddles, the grass was squishy, my shoes were flopping all over the place. This has injury written all over it. So I stopped and tried to adjust.

Not once, but twice.

No, I was not focused on my run. I'm not sure what I was focusing on. But it wasn't running. I heard Jim yell not to chase anyone.

As though I would. Or could.

Maybe I do look a little distressed.

I think I gave up early. Right around the one-mile marker, I realized I just didn't have the killer instinct. I thought my run would be faster than the week before, but when I looked down at my watch, it showed a 7:40 first mile. That's when the negative talk started. What the hell was wrong with me? I feel good. My legs are working better than they have in years. My form is good. What then?

Who knows. I ran hard, but not hard enough to even work my way into second place. I finished third overall, five minutes slower than last year, with a very disappointing 44-minute 10K, and a lot of questions.

A little better? Starting to smile
because it was almost over.

When I got up on the podium, the winner (the girl I talked to at the starting line) said "I saw you out there running. You looked like you were in a LOT of pain." Really? This threw me for a loop. I didn't remember feeling much pain. Until I saw my splits, I actually felt balanced and strong on the run - and certainly not limping along in pain. Hmmm.... Jim said my form looked good.

Was he telling the truth? Is my perception of my situation different than what's actually happening? Am I expecting too much? Seriously, have I reached that age when I can no longer make big improvements in short periods? More importantly, do I care anymore? Could it be more mental than physical? Is this what it feels like to be washed up? And - omg, the horror - should I find another sport? Something more along the lines of shuffleboard? (I always thought curling might be fun.)

Lots of questions. And no answers. I hope they're out there. Because I'm (literally) running out of time.

Nothing much is going on in my world that's worthy of writing home about, but here's an update (like anyone cares).

My daily drawing has been a fail because I stopped doing it while I was feverishly preparing a talk on my latest project (the Cleveland Museum of Art's website) for the Cleveland Drupal Users group. The talk went well, despite my struggles with stage fright.

My training has been another fail because my physical therapist still can't fix what's wrong with my left hip and the torn labrum in my shoulder is back to its pain-state after the cortisone shot wore off. But this past week, we got a little closer to fixing my hip - a new stretch seems to have freed up the tendency to pull my foot inward on the left side. I have some new stretches and a less pessimistic outlook on the future. I've given up hope of running all 26.2 miles of the Boston Marathon and begun to look at this trip as just a way to satisfy my craving for New England clams.

I will be having periodontal surgery tomorrow - three teeth will have gum grafts and then I am told I must give up two weeks of training to recover. This will probably kill me (another reason for writing this blog just in case it's my last). I will attempt to focus on my art in (strangely still-optimistic) hope that I may get good at something before I die.

The only thing I did conquer recently was making pie crust.

And I learned something that I always knew about myself - that I was a fish in a former life. There's no other way to explain how I feel when I'm in the water and not focusing on swim training. Sometimes it feels like it's the only time I'm truly at peace with the world and myself. It also might explain why I've almost gone crazy living in places that are land-locked.

Anyway, that's pretty much all I got, and some pictures of the goings-on in my life...

Latest drawings (the first two are hip pain, the "lightbulb" one was during the Super Bowl when the lights went out in the Super Dome):
There were two new Play-Doh disasters (autobiographical): 
And we took a trip to Pittsburgh to eat, shop, and visit my favorite Edward Hopper painting: 
We saw a special exhibition of art from the World's Fairs at the Carnegie Museum of Art:
Then we went to the galleries - and once again checked out Hopper's Cape Cod Afternoon:
We got lost in Pittsburgh for the 50 billionth time (note that at one point, the GPS thought we were smack in the middle of the Monongahela River)
I went running on a very snowy morning along the north shore riverfront trail (one of my favorite Pittsburgh running spots)

Nothing much is going on in my world that's worthy of writing home about, but here's an update (like anyone cares).

Morning in Pittsburgh

It's been a while since I wanted to write a blog. Or write anything about my triathlon season for that matter. The short version is that I chose not to write about my second most recent race for many reasons. It was a negative experience and I'm trying to stay positive. So many things have been going wrong this season that I couldn't come up with something to write without sounding even more down than I already was. I decided to find the lessons in the failure and get on with it. I made more really bad decisions with nutrition and hydration and had an experience exactly the opposite of my usual problem, hyponatremia. The end result was another DNF (not by choice) and the embarrassment and self-doubt that is now creeping into my waking hours and threatening my sanity.

It's obvious I needed to finally get scientific in my nutrition analysis, so I gave in and did the sweat rate test - you know, the one where you weigh yourself before you run, then run for an hour monitoring your fluid intake, then weigh yourself after you run. The difference in your weight minus the weight of what you drank is the amount of fluid lost per hour. I used one of those online calculators to do the math.. I put in my weight before, my weight after, and my fluid intake in ounces (not estimated - I drank with a calibrated water bottle). The answer came back - in black and white - and no, I am NOT making this up: "The numbers you entered suggest that your fluid loss was WAY the f*ck off the charts - please check your numbers or retest." I checked my numbers. I even got on the scale again. Yep, the numbers are right. I plan to retest this week.

But.. so.. if the answer IS accurate, I'm so screwed that it won't matter what I eat or drink in my next Ironman. Seriously, it must be a fluke that I've ever even finished one in the first place.

In the meantime, I decided to focus on something much more entertaining and less likely to be screwed up by me - speed work and short racing distances. Thus, I entered an Olympic-distance race I've always loved: the Pittsburgh Triathlon.

View from the Pittsburgh swim start - do you see why I love this race?

The first time I did the Pittsburgh Tri was in 2002. I didn't win - in fact, despite running close to 37 minutes in the 10K, I still got my butt handed to me by a much faster swimmer/biker. But I went back the next year because, not only did I enjoy the race, but I really loved the trophies - they were very artistic and unique welded metal sculptures. I went back despite having been hit by a truck three months earlier. And my fate, interestingly enough, was to actually finish slightly faster than the year before and win the women's race. I went back - and won - the Pittsburgh Tri two more times. But it's interesting to note that every single time, I had to chase down at least one woman (usually more) on the run. And, in 2009, it took me right up until the last mile to catch the leader. Pittsburgh had become a very competitive triathlon over the years and it just kept getting tougher.

I've not been able to go back to Pittsburgh for two years because Ironman Lake Placid fell on the same weekend in July. But this year, I just had to go back to Pittsburgh to race (I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2010). I never go in blind, though - I checked results from the past two years only to find that it had gotten even more competitive, and I didn't stand a chance at winning the women's race. It's easier to know these things in advance, thus I could set some kind of goal - it was to find out how my newfound bike speed stacked up against my times in the past and Pittsburgh's tough bike course.

Downtown Pittsburgh from the North Shore

The other, more important, reason to put Pittsburgh back in the race plan was because my husband Jim and I love taking side trips to Pittsburgh whenever we get the chance - cruising the Strip District and picking up some specialty foods, checking out the great cultural institutions (our favorites: the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Andy Warhol Museum), and eating at two of our favorite restaurants: the Church Brew Works and Piper's Pub. And I know from experience that making a good weekend out of it has a two-fold effect: (1) it keeps my attitude positive, therefore setting up a good race, and (2) it offsets the fallout if I have a bad race.

One of the other great things I've been able to witness by doing this race five times over ten years is the improvement to the Allegheny Riverfront, specifically the North Shore where the race takes place. The original charity supported by the Pittsburgh Tri is Friends of the Riverfront. The first time I did the race, the swim was made wetsuit legal at 80 degrees because of the polluted water, and the run course included a short dirt trail being constructed by Friends of the Riverfront. By the fourth time I did the race, the Allegheny River water had become increasingly clean (dead fish were barely a memory), and all six miles of the run took place on the riverfront trail. It was nice to see such an improvement in an area that had been in a state of severe decay.

Yeah, it's early (and my body-marking was all horizontal)

We got to the race site just after 5 a.m. Sunday morning. I got a great night of sleep - which unfortunately came at the expense of missing the Olympic 400 IM swim finals. I mentioned to Jim that I wasn't nervous at all - he thought that was a good thing, but I worried it might indicate I had stopped caring about racing. Things got a lot better during body-marking when over the PA system came... a Radiohead song ("My Iron Lung"). Jim said that at first (until he heard the music), he couldn't figure out why I was beaming while getting body-marked. In all my years of racing, I've heard just about every type of music imaginable - before, during, and after races. However, I can honestly say that, not once, have I EVER heard Radiohead.

(I hoped it was a sign.)

The race began just below PNC Park (the baseball stadium). We had to swim a short section against the current and then two 90-degree turns would send us with the current to a point directly below Heinz Field (the football stadium). Air temperature at the start was in the mid to high 60s, and the water temperature was barely wetsuit legal at 78 degrees. In the interest of a fast transition, I opted to wear my BlueSeventy swimskin.

Swim start

My wave - the women and relays - started third (and last) at 6:55 a.m. Recent rain and high water was responsible for a very strong current that made it difficult to stay on the line for the deep-water start. Just before the start, we noticed a swimmer from an earlier wave swimming way off course directly at us (little did I know this would become important). Swimming upstream was much harder than I remembered, but I powered through with a few of the lead women. Before the first turn we caught the stragglers from the previous wave. It was a tough swim for everyone and I couldn't wait to get with the current.

The second turn buoy sent us downstream and things got easier immediately. I spotted the next orange buoy and swam in its direction. While approaching it, I realized I was WAY off course and actually swimming right toward the starting line - yowza, unfortunately I made the same mistake as the earlier swimmer I mentioned. When I looked up, I saw a line of swimmers about 50 or more yards to my left. This was NOT the way I envisioned my race starting - frantic, I spotted the next buoy, put my head down, and swam my way back onto the course as quickly as possible. By the time I was back in the mix, there were only three buoys left to navigate. Once I was back on course, I reminded myself to have fun, stretched out my stroke and did my best to enjoy the last few hundred yards... right up until someone swam me into the final turn buoy. My hand accidentally hit him in the head and I stopped to say "sorry," but he was angry and yelled at me. I turned and swam away to avoid fisticuffs.

Everyone looks a little confused.

At the finish, I looked down at my watch to see, shockingly, 19 minutes and change. Even with the course blunder, it was my fastest time in the Pittsburgh Tri's 1500m swim. We had to run up a concrete walkway to get to the transition zone in a grassy area between the two stadiums (stadia?). I heard Jim yell "great swim!" as I was chasing down the woman in front of me.

And then it happened again... As I entered the transition zone, I heard... ANOTHER Radiohead song ("15 Step"). What the? Seriously? Am I dreaming? I had to decide what to do - stay and listen? or get out on the bike course? My decision was to get out of transition ahead of the girl who led me out of the water. I'd have to listen to Radiohead after the race.

(But now I was sure it was a sign.)

The Pittsburgh bike course consists of two laps of one big hill - as expected in a city that's built into a (three-) river valley. It takes place on I-279, in the HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane - without traffic of course. Bikers must avoid road debris (at an all-time minimum this year) and rumble strips. Although they didn't bother me at all, I overheard angry complaints about the rumble strips after the race.

Finishing the first loop

I tried to keep a high cadence uphill and focus on speed, hydration, and nutrition downhill. My legs felt better this year than in the past, and I found myself remaining in the aero position on much of the hill. Before the turn-around I noticed one woman at least three minutes in front of me. I was so focused, it didn't even occur to me to chase her. I just rode strong and relaxed. But while looping back through the start and heading back out, I made bizarre mistakes that still baffle me even now. For some unknown reason, I took the long way around all the orange cone markers. It was as though I went out of my way to take the corners as slowly as possible. And I have no idea why I did it. Approaching the finish after the second loop, I took the corners much faster (like a normal cyclist).

The second loop was similar to the first in feel and speed, and I made up very little on the woman in front of me. At the turn-around, I did notice another woman only about a minute behind me - she was easy to see as she had a pink bike and a pink helmet. With my biking history, I expected her to overtake me before transition, but I didn't expect the spectacular fashion in which I handed her the lead. When I dismounted my bike, I lost control and almost fell down. My bike hit the pavement, and I did some serious damage to my hip just in stabilizing myself and not falling down.

One of the worst things ever, as a veteran of a sport, is to hear someone (I imagine it was someone's mother) say: "do you need some help?" when you have to pick up your bike and run into the transition zone.

Yeah, my hip was hurting

My bike time was around 1:07 for 40K - another PR on this course. Upon entering transition, the girl in pink was RIGHT BEHIND ME. My transition was ridiculously slow (over a minute) because I fumbled getting into my running shoes once again (Jim said I paid the stupid tax by forgetting to use Body Glide on them). Anyway, where's that shoehorn when you need it? I expected some pain in my hip when I started the run, but it was a non-issue until the day after.

By the time I was running, the pink girl (no longer pink but wearing a Virginia Tech orange tri top) was now in front of me. In transition, Jim gave me the information that the leader was about 2.5 minutes ahead, but if I just relaxed and ran my own race, I "should" catch her. I wondered if he even saw pink-now-orange girl leave T2 in front of me looking very strong and determined.

I told myself not to chase her and settled into a good rhythm. In less than a half-mile, I was running on her heels and (in my mind) it was only a matter of time. I think she knew it too - she kept turning around like she was running scared. I held my pace and passed her before the first mile but not without a fight. She surged several times, and then finally gave up trying to hold me off. I couldn't help but smile to myself knowing I was more than twice her age.

Somewhere near the second mile, I chased down the leader. It happened so quickly that I immediately backed off on my run to avoid burning myself out just in case a really fast runner was still behind me. Conserving energy, I still tried to run a steady pace to the finish. With about one mile to go, I met a young guy named Ryan who was doing his first triathlon. He said he would try to hang with me and so we carried each other to the finish line.

Coming into the finish

Upon approaching the finish, a bike escort gave me the heads-up that I was leading the women. I decided to enjoy the moment and celebrate a little at the finish. Afterwards I was worried I overdid it, so I apologized to Jim for excessive celebration. His retort? "Enjoy it - you never know when it will be the last time you win a race." Yeah, I know it sounds harsh, but he WAS being honest, and we HAD talked about that in the past. I'm not getting any younger, and the kids are getting faster.

The infamous watch check at the finish line.

My 10K run time (41:30) was not up to my standards, but I was surprised to see 2:11:xx still on the clock when I crossed the line. It was surprising in that it was more than two minutes faster than my best on the Pittsburgh course. I do believe my bike time was faster because of all the work I've done on the bike in the last two years. I don't know why my swim was so fast when I went off course and I've also been nursing a shoulder injury from a recent fall while running (Am I the only person capable of slipping and falling on a sidewalk in the middle of summer?).

My fueling in this race was simple and effective: one Gu Roctane and 12 ounces of water before the start, one 24-oz bottle of Gu Roctane drink on the bike, and only water during the run. The reason I took only water during the run was because I couldn't decide whether to drink or pour it on myself. I think the air temperature had reached near 80 degrees by the run. For the middle of summer, the weather was mostly perfect for this race.

Reminiscing with Pittsburgh media
who waited for me to come out of "Mr. John" Flushing Unit

Jim and I spent enough time after the race for me to get interviewed by the Pittsburgh Tribune (that was a first) and pick up the cool fish trophy at the awards ceremony. Like I said before, this race has always given out the best awards, and this year's did not disappoint.

It was a good weekend: Radiohead, a triathlon win, and a course PR. The only way to top it off was to get ourselves over to Carson Street for my other favorite thing to do in Pittsburgh - order the English Breakfast and a pint at Piper's Pub.

With a season like the one I'm having, I needed it. All of it.

See? Awesome. Fish. Trophy.
(anti-fashion Gu Energy socks)
(wicked cool Punk Rock Racing visor)

Looking upstream - several identical suspension bridges
cross the he Allegheny River to connect Pittsburgh's
downtown with the riverfront park and stadiums

As a resident of Cleveland, I always hesitate when I consider writing (or talking) about Pittsburgh. I hesitate because my Cleveland friends don't appreciate my ravings about Pittsburgh. (The last time I wrote about Pittsburgh was after the marathon last year and I already took a lot of flak for that.) In their defense, my friends forget I'm not FROM Cleveland. I wasn't born a Browns fan and I don't hate the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After writing that, I feel the desire to rant about how ridiculous these sports rivalry things are. But I'm married to a die-hard Ohio State University fan (with two degrees from there including his PhD), and my husband Jim has an unending supply of quotes by famed OSU football coach Woody Hayes about his hatred of Michigan - and not only the University, but the entire STATE of Michigan. For instance, upon learning from an assistant that they were running out of gas returning from a recruiting trip in the state of Michigan, Woody was alleged to have said the following: "We'll coast and PUSH this goddam car to the Ohio line before I give this state a nickel of my money!"

So, to my Cleveland friends re: Pittsburgh: ok OK, I GET it. I just don't share it. For many reasons I'll go into.

Pittsburgh and Cleveland have an amazing number of similarities. They're both blue-collar steel towns. In both cities you can find several great institutions of higher learning. Both cities have outstanding cultural institutions that were funded by wealthy industrial families of the American Renaissance. When I rave about  Pittsburgh's cultural institutions, I could just as easily be raving about Cleveland's (and I do). And yes, both cities have die-hard major league sports fanatics.

One thing I love about Cleveland is its location on the shores of Lake Erie. Ironically this is the reason Cleveland DOESN'T have one of the things I REALLY love about Pittsburgh - the topography. Pittsburgh's intrinsic beauty lies in its location. Downtown Pittsburgh is formed by the junction of three rivers - the Ohio, the Monongahela and the Allegheny. Surrounding this three-river valley are steep hills with buildings and residential communities built right into them. It often reminds me of San Francisco. One of the things I look forward to most when visiting Pittsburgh is making my way up to the the Mount Washington area (Grandview Avenue) and looking down at "the city of bridges":

Downtown Pittsburgh from Grandview Avenue
Looking up the Monongahela side of Pittsburgh
The junction of the three rivers

I've been to Pittsburgh more times than I can count. Unlike Detroit (you can read my thoughts on Detroit in blog form from earlier this year), we visit Pittsburgh on a regular basis to go to the art museums. We don't usually stay overnight, but when we do, I always bring my running shoes and get up early the next day to see the area.

On Thursday night, I once-again found myself in Pittsburgh, this time for a music gig - The Decemberists. My husband Jim and I decided to stay an extra day and booked a hotel downtown at the edge of what's known as the "Strip District" - the historic (and very cool) market district. Because of our location, my morning run was along the riverfront trail - the Three Rivers Heritage Trail - a route I know very well because I've run it before as part of one of my favorite races, the Pittsburgh Triathlon.

Heinz Field

While I was out running, I gave some thought to why this industrial steel town with a decrepit old riverfront has become a favorite place of mine. I can't even remember the first time I saw Pittsburgh. And I certainly can't count how many times I've been there. And, as previously stated, many of my Cleveland friends wouldn't be caught dead stepping foot in Pittsburgh. So why do I love it so much?

The first thing I came up with - while running - is the amount of care that has gone into revitalizing the riverfront. Pittsburgh's riverfront has undergone a revolution over the last 10-20 years. Pittsburgh's legendary double-duty Three Rivers Stadium was torn down and replaced by Heinz Field - where the Steelers play - and PNC Park - where the Pirates play. Both stadiums lie directly across the Allegheny River from downtown Pittsburgh. They sit majestically above a beautiful riverfront park along the waterfront. This park is along the trail on which I was running.

PNC Park - the architecture is a beautiful tribute
to the steel town's history

The first time I ever ran on the trail was in the 2002 Pittsburgh Triathlon. The race was organized by Friends of Riverfront, a group that has been working to clean up the riverfront and expand and maintain the trail. Their work has paid off. The first time I did the triathlon (2002), water temperature in the Allegheny River was over 80 degrees F, but we were "encouraged" to wear wetsuits because of the bacteria count. The situation had changed drastically by the last time I did the triathlon - in 2009. The trail has been extended much further upstream, the riverfront park was dotted with public art and historical markers and the water was immensely cleaner. Pittsburgh is a city that cares about its image, its heritage and its natural resources. I'd like to see Cleveland do more to celebrate its own industrial, cultural and sports history the way Pittsburgh does on its waterfront.

After my run, Jim and I spend a few hours shopping in the Strip District, grabbed a bite at our favorite Pittsburgh eating and drinking establishment, Piper's Pub, and took a stroll down to a place Jim always wanted to visit, Pittsburgh Guitars. As we were driving home, I recalled some of our past experiences in this city.

One confusing mess of bridges & highways

One of my earliest trips to Pittsburgh was when Jim's father had miraculously landed two tickets to the Major League Baseball All-Star game at Three Rivers Stadium. I don't remember much about that trip except that it was a very late night and trying to get out of town was very confusing. It reminded me of another major complaint my friends have about Pittsburgh - finding one's way around. It's a fair complaint (it's almost as difficult as Boston). There's an inherent difficulty in navigating a wedge-shaped area between two rivers with a seemingly-infinite number of expressways and bridges. Anyone who doesn't live in Pittsburgh usually ends up lost (or not where they wanted to be with no idea how to get where they want to be). It's become an accepted part of every trip we take to Pittsburgh - leaving extra time for getting lost. In fact, I was almost disappointed that we made it into town and to our hotel without incident this time. But we made up for it on Friday when we ended up accidentally driving out of town while trying to cross the Monongahela River to get to Piper's on Carson Street.

Despite the navigational difficulties, driving into Pittsburgh can be an awe-inspiring experience. Approaching the city on I-376 through the Fort Pitt Tunnel will give you one of the most stunning view ever of a city. Coming out of the tunnel always gives me the feeling that I'm descending over Pittsburgh by air - the vantage point gives a full view of downtown, all three rivers and all the bridges. I still remember the first time we drove that route - my heart almost stopped upon suddenly seeing the magnificent panorama. Do it sometime. You won't be disappointed. Unfortunately, we don't always approach Pittsburgh from I-376 - it usually depends on our specific destination and how much time we have.

Edward Hopper's "Cape Cod Afternoon"
at the Carnegie Museum of Art
(I bet you thought I'd post a Warhol)

This brings me to another reason I love Pittsburgh and one of the main reasons I like to go there repeatedly: Art. After a short drive, I can be standing in front of a Warhol. Or a room of Warhols. An entire museum of Warhols. Even better, I can be at the Carnegie Museum of Art standing in front of my favorite Edward Hopper Painting, "Cape Cod Afternoon." There are numerous art and cultural establishments in and around the city of Pittsburgh - the four Carnegie Museums are only a small fraction of it. Yes, I know Cleveland has an awesome art museum. (Afterall, I am a member.) But so does Pittsburgh. And it's only two hours away. (And Cleveland Museum of Art members get full admission reciprocation, i.e., it's free!)

And finally, I always like meeting people in Pittsburgh. We never get scorned upon revealing we're from Cleveland. Having traveled to Pittsburgh for a concert this time, it was ironic that one of the employees at Pittsburgh Guitars had the distinct impression that Cleveland "gets all the best gigs." Jim and I disagreed, but he backed it up with tales of his travels north to our fair city to see concerts at our own Beachland Ballroom (arguably the best music venue in the greater Cleveland area).

It made me think... could my whole love-of-Pittsburgh be a case of "the grass is always greener"? I don't know, but for now, I'm just glad we have more than one city to choose from.

Pittsburgh. Self-proclaimed "City of Bridges." City at the junction of three rivers. Steel City. And birthplace of Andy Warhol. As a Clevelander, I often find myself in knock-down drag-out arguments with people about the merits of Pittsburgh. No, I don't hate the Steelers to my last dying breath. But I'm not FROM Cleveland. I love the Cleveland cultural institutions. But I also love the ones in Pittsburgh, especially the Carnegie Museum of Art. I love the restaurants in Pittsburgh, especially Piper's Pub, where I can drink a Scotch ale before noon and have a full "English breakfast." I love the riverfront stadiums in Pittsburgh -- Heinz Field and PNC Park. I love the Inclines. I love walking along Grand Avenue and taking pictures of the city. And most of all, I LOVE the bridges.

It should be obvious why I wanted to run the Pittsburgh Marathon. It runs over five bridges. I also chose the Pittsburgh Marathon because of another fact about Pittsburgh. It's hilly. And a marathon in Pittsburgh would HAVE to contain hills. And experience on hills is an absolute necessity for Ironman Lake Placid. And, unfortunately, my hometown Cleveland Marathon is -- you guessed it -- flat.

Now that I've run the Pittsburgh Marathon, I can give more kudos to Pittsburgh for putting on a great race on a really fun course (despite the hills) that sends runners through mostly urban neighborhoods and highlights some of the great sights of the city. Starting on Smallman Street and 14th, the first 10 miles of the race are relatively flat -- the only "hills" coming as you run over those iconic bridges. The race starts with a spectator-friendly out-and-back three miles through the Strip District. Miles 4-11 pass back near the start, cross the Allegheny River three times, run along the riverfront with the two stadiums, cross the Ohio River, then continue through the Southside neighborhood along Carson Street (past my beloved Piper's Pub). Again with great crowd support. Somewhere in there, the half-marathoners loop back on the course and run back downtown to finish. The marathoners keep going, crossing the Monongahela River and continuing upward toward the University of Pittsburgh. This is where the hills start. Miles 12-18 take you up through the Pitt campus and the very nice neighborhoods of Bloomfield and Shadyside, where, again, great crowd support continues. These slightly rolling miles produce quite a few mutterings of "is this the last hill?" From my clouded memory, the last substantial uphill actually occurs somewhere around mile 21. Shortly thereafter, there's a wicked downhill that it covers much of miles 23 and 24. It's not something a runner wants to deal with at that point in a marathon -- the quad pain from pounding on a downhill with three miles to go. The last two miles to the finish are very flat and the crowd size and cheering intensity increases steadily toward the finish at the Convention Center.

It's a fun and diverse course, and all in all, my race went exactly as planned. It even marked a first for me -- I met all the goals I set out with. There were four:

  1. have fun
  2. RUN the entire course
  3. practice race nutrition
  4. preserve my legs for a half-ironman six days later

The first thing I had to do was force myself to think of this marathon as a training run. I did this by purposefully riding my bike 65 miles two days before. This assured my legs would be tired, but they would also have a day's worth of rest. Standing at the starting line with that residual fatigue had me second-guessing this idea. But by mile 10, with a mile pace somewhere between 7 and 7:30, I was feeling very comfortable and fatigue-free. Here's where I thank my husband Jim for the constant reminders of my race goals right up until the starting gun went off. I resisted the urge to chase other runners and settled into the pace he and I discussed before the race. By the time I reached the hills, I was feeling very comfortable -- so comfortable that the logical me waged an internal battle with the competitive me to not "go for it." The logical me won. And because I kept a cool head, I was also able to deal with an emergency porta-john stop around mile 18. I managed to get back on pace and re-pass any women who got the jump on me -- mainly because I was feeling very good at that point and was on the flip side of my usual coin (i.e., dying and watching everyone pass me).

At mile 20, I can't say I remember hitting anything resembling the "wall." My fluid intake was good and I had been alternating gatorade and water at the aid stations. I consumed three Gu gels: one at 9 miles, one at 14 miles, and one somewhere before 20. When I hit the mile-23 downhill, I was torn between going fast and taking it easy -- it felt so good from a fatigue standpoint to be running downhill, but the impact made my quads start to tighten up. I shortened my stride and it worked to lessen the pounding. As a matter of fact, during the whole marathon, everytime I felt a sense of fatigue setting in, shortening and speeding up my stride seemed to help immensely. I wonder if that's what it means when I read about "running efficiency"...

The one struggle that everyone had to deal with was the weather. With temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s, heat exhaustion would not be an issue. It was the rain that caused the most problems. The rain started about 10 minutes into the marathon and continued steadily through the finish. People were having serious problems with blisters and chafing. I had blisters on my feet where I don't usually get blisters, but they did not cause me pain during the race, only after.

The last two miles were a little more painful than I would have liked, but I finished strong and did my best to keep a smile on my face. I did things I usually don't do (or don't have the energy to do) like high-fiving groups of kids along the street. It was nice to not be in a death-march coming into the finish line, and I thought that I had better enjoy it. It may be the only time it happens.

My time? 3:15.
My place? 14th woman overall.

The awesomest thing? The medal.

Not bad for a training run. I celebrated with the full English breakfast at Piper's. Baked beans and all.

A race footnote for those curious about my status as the Disaster Magnet: During the Pittsburgh Marathon, there was a bomb scare in downtown Pittsburgh that occurred along the race route (I am NOT making this up). To the credit of the marathon organizers, they were able to re-route the half-marathon course on the fly with as little disruption to the runners as possible. Jim said he was very impressed with how it was handled. He also was very impressed with the post-race area and refreshments (especially for spectators).

Some pre-race shots:

Somewhere along the line, I lost it. My killer instinct. Who knows whether it was from age or from my bike accident? It was already gone before I returned to racing last year. I no longer possessed the ability to kick into 5th gear to win a race. But I wasn't mourning. I'm 44 years old -- I certainly don't expect to win races anymore. These days, I don't even expect to win my age group. I have become content to travel to races and enjoy the experience.

Most of you who know me are probably thinking "WHAT? Who is SHE kidding?" But, yes, after Ironman CDA, my killer instinct seemed long gone, dead and buried. Until yesterday in Pittsburgh. Yesterday in Pittsburgh, I found it. And I yanked it up from the depths to win the overall women's race in the Pittsburgh Triathlon.
The Pittsburgh Tri is one of my favorite races. Because I love Pittsburgh. I love the culture, the museums, the restaurants, the overall setting of the city -- the beautiful city at the "Y" of the three rivers, surrounded by bridges and small mountains. I look forward to this race every year because I get to see Pittsburgh again.
The story for me this year was "the chase." Sure, there are many stories that could be written about this race: the bike course is brutal (a 40K in two loops of 6 miles uphill and 6 miles down in the HOV lane of I-279); the 10K run is flat but slow because it's on a dirt trail; the weather is usually hot, humid and often rains (this year it rained on the bike course); and the first leg of the 1500M swim is upstream (this year, against a stronger-than-usual current in the Allegheny River). But for me this year, the race came down to the last two miles.
In those last two miles of the run, my killer instinct returned to its full former glory. After putting in my fastest swim and bike times ever in Pittsburgh, I found myself about 1.5 minutes behind the women's leader. I knew this because my husband Jim yelled it out -- he also conveniently left out the fact that the woman in front of me was a fast runner. I already knew she was a fast biker because she passed me on the second loop uphill like I was standing still. Usually people who pass me like that can be reeled in quickly on the run, but not this one. By the time I even got a glimpse of her, we were almost to the 3-mile turnaround, and I had all but given up hope to defend last year's victory. I was running relaxed but fast, and I had begun doubting my ability to hold the pace. Unfortunately, I didn't even know what pace I was running due to lack of mile markers.
The only thing I had going for me was that the leader did not know I was closing in. That all changed at the turnaround when she saw me about 10-15 seconds behind. Whether she was running scared at that point, I'll never know - it was ME who was beginning to fall apart. My mind started the questioning:
  • Was 5 weeks enough time to recover from an ironman?
  • What's the big deal if I finish second?
  • Is it time to accept the inevitable? (that at my age I won't be winning any races)
  • How can I expect to hold this pace even if I pass her?
  • If I do catch her, how will I feel when I die and she passes me at the finish line?

All the while, I was making gains, and in the midst of the questioning, I found myself right on her shoulder with about two miles to go. I had to make a quick decision: pass her now and hang on for dear life? or hang behind and try to pass her with about a half-mile to go? (risking that she might also surge in the last minutes of the race?) There was one thing I was sure of - I couldn't continue the mental gymnastics.

Enter, my killer instinct. I decided I would force my hand now and pass her with only one goal: to end the race. I wanted HER to throw in the towel - to give up chasing me, thinking I couldn't be caught. I mustered up my strength and made my move. She tried to go with me. I accelerated and she dropped back. I never looked back. I didn't want to give any indication that I was feeling the exhaustion. I was now running on pure desire. I wanted the win, and I was willing to work for it. Just one more chance to cross that finish line as first overall woman. Lord knows, every chance I get could be the last. My gamble worked, and I won by more than a minute. It also turned out to be my fastest time ever in the Pittsburgh Tri, a race I've done 5 times. And, although the race was small and I only beat a handful of women, I'll take it. And I'm glad it was in Pittsburgh. Because I LOVE Pittsburgh. And they also have the coolest trophies. (View the full results.)

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