My travel philosophy is to let my Sagittarius go-with-the-flow nature take the lead. Don’t do too much research beyond confirming the directions to the hotel, don’t overthink it, don’t over-Google it, just go.
That’s how I went into Pittsburgh. Admittedly, with a nickname like Steel City, I had a mental picture of this drab, gray, cold skyline. A part of me wondered after the lights, noise and people of Nashville if maybe I made a mistake following it up with Pittsburgh.
I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I was glad.
My drive in last Saturday morning was uneventful, heading east on I-70 to I-470 in West Virginia. Crossing from WV into Pennsylvania brought back some old memories, and then it was time to hop I-79 north. I was trucking along just fine through the hills, and then it was time to merge on to 376.
Remember how I mentioned that I don’t like to Google too much before leaving? One of the things I didn’t Google and got surprised by was the Fort Pitt Tunnel. I think of tunnels as “mountain” things, something you’d see coming through West Virginia or Colorado, so I didn’t expect to be driving through a tunnel. Or for that matter trying to quickly figure out if I was in the correct lane to take me straight through to downtown. It turns out I did something right on accident.
Since I didn’t expect the tunnel, I also couldn’t expect to be so taken away by what I saw when we all emerged from the other side. There I was popped out from the darkness onto that yellow bridge over the Ohio River, with a beautiful city skyline ahead of me. The clear sky and sunshine made the whole thing feel even more magical, like Miguel and Tulio in The Road the Eldorado when the boat they were on emerged from the secret passage into the golden city.
After getting my race stuff, checked in and my stuff put away, I couldn’t wait to explore the city.
I know a lot of running influencers like to discourage sightseeing the day before the race, since you’re supposed to save your energy for race day and then explore once the main event is over. I couldn’t disagree more. For starters, an out-of-towner is going to need to figure out where the start and finish lines are in location to the hotel they’re staying at. Secondly, it’s an easy way to shake out from the car or plane ride and get to take in the city. It turns out there is even more than meets the eye in Pittsburgh.
Do you all remember earlier when I said I had that preconception of the city being cold and drab? I was wrong. There’s plenty of steel and skyscrapers. There’s also plenty of historic brick buildings that have stood the test of time, and walkways built into the hilly terrain leading pedestrians to the riverfront, walking alongside the Allegheny and the spring blooms. Riverboats were heading down the Allegheny, and the steel yellow bridges connecting downtown to North Shore were bustling with locals and tourists alike. I headed up to North Shore and walked all over the Riverfront bike path, as well as around the Andy Warhol Museum. How could I think there wouldn’t have been any color in the city that bred Andy Warhol? The murals all over the North Shore jumped out at me as I wandered and eventually made my way back to the Westin I was staying at to get the phone charged and figure out what I wanted for dinner.
To answer the dinner question: Caesar salad and margharita pizza at Scarpino’s next door. I forgot to eat lunch on my way out, so dinner was scarfed down in record time. 11/10 do recommend the food. Do not recommend waiting that long to eat though.
Back to the hotel, a shower and a phone call later, it was time for me to get to bed. I wanted to beat my 2:25 time from Nashville. I was hoping for 2:20, or 2:15 if I was being super ambitious. I always heard Pittsburgh was hilly, but I didn’t think it would be hillier than Nashville’s course.
The race recap
A little before 7 I was back in my corral when I felt the droplets. I don’t mind running in the rain, since it can help keep you cool and comfortable. However, the forecast said we weren’t supposed to get rain until 11 am and I didn’t have my phone in a Ziploc. So if it was a downpour my phone would have gotten destroyed by the water and I would be phone-less. Which is obviously a terrible spot to be in when you’re out of town.
Thankfully the droplets stopped by the time I was crossing the start line and it was game on.
Down Liberty Avenue and through the neighborhoods of the first few miles, I felt strong. The first bridge at Mile 3 wasn’t too bad. We came into the Deutschland neighborhood and made our way around North Shore, past those some bright colors and murals towards Acrisure Stadium, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, at Mile 5 and around Rivers Casino at Mile 6.
I started to get tired as I was running into Mile 7 towards West End, crossing over the Ohio River and seeing downtown over my shoulder. We went east on Carson Street, passing the Dusquene Incline. I didn’t realize when I looked up that’s what I was looking at, since the trolley wasn’t going. I just saw the incline, thought it looked like a chute of some sort and thought how awful it would be to somehow fall down it in a freak accident. (Me note: I figured out what it was once I got home.)
At this point I was checking the time on my watch and optimistic I would beat the 2:25. But then we got to Mile 11, the Birmingham Bridge. My body said we needed to walk that bridge if we wanted to finish the race at all and at this point, my watch said 2:05. There was no way in hell I was running a little over two miles in 20 minutes, so I adjusted to goal to 2:30 or under. Even when it’s the right call, it’s always disappointing to have to readjust the time to something later.
I pushed through those last two miles. In the final stretch something happened within me. As I saw the finish line and picked up the pace, I got emotional. It wasn’t a full-on cry, but something within me was awakened and aware of what was going on.
I’ve written on here before about how nothing can make you feel both large and so small in the grand scheme of the universe as running. In that finisher’s shoot when the crowd sees your name on your bib and goes nuts cheering for you, you feel like the center of attention, and at the same time, you’re also part of a crowd running towards the same finish line. You stand out. You blend in.
It was my first time ever being there, and I felt like it was someplace I’d been before that I needed to return to, like there was unfinished business and only Pittsburgh would give me the closure I was needing.
And just like that, I barely met my time goal of 2:30.
I crossed the finish line in 2:29:56.
Four seconds to spare.
Four seconds in Pittsburgh.
There I was with my medal, Nuun and the smile cookies courtesy of EatnPark, walking out towards the finisher exit. There I was in a city of steel skyscrapers and old brick high-rises, of yellow bridges and mighty rivers and bursts of color in the nooks and crannies. A city marked by nods to the industrial roots and the brightness of the future.
In that city that honors its roots and looks forwards the future, I found that reconciliation within myself. During my run I thought about some of the disappointing/heartbreaking events and people I knew once. They’re all long gone, but every once in a while the sadness brings up old memories. Pittsburgh reminded me of two of them, and as I ran I was able to process some thoughts that had been jumbling around in my head. As I ran past the stadium I lamented one person, and then I was able to accept and release him as he is. Then as I ran down that final stretch I remembered who I am, and I felt peace and closure.
The past has been accepted. The future is coming, and even if the way I’m going there doesn’t quite look as I imagined it would, I’m still on my way. There’s reason to be hopeful and see that glass as half-full.
And all because of four seconds in Pittsburgh.
So this went on a lot longer than I was expecting. For those of you who all stayed with me – thanks for being here and visiting my corner of the internet. For the folks looking for a TL;DR recap of Pittsburgh, here it is:
1.) Pittsburgh Half Marathon – Absolutely recommend. The course hit all the major landmarks in the city. The event itself is super organized. The crowd support I mentioned earlier is truly incredible. It was in a word, wonderful.
2.) My hotel – Westin Downtown Convention Center. 10/10 recommend. Perfect location to everything, great hospitality.
3.) Restaurant – Scarpino. Pasta, pizza and small plates, plus cocktails. 10/10 recommend. It can be a challenge to guess which food will work well with me on race morning, and thankfully Scarpino was both delicious and a success.
4.) City walkability – 10/10. The Riverfront and downtown are very pedestrian and biker-friendly, which is a big deal for me visiting a city.
So Reader-Friends, thank you for popping by my side of the internet. Until next time!
Yours in running and life,