The story of my first marathon goes back to early-December several days after the Nittany Valley Half. It was then when I decided to go for my first marathon. In the months and weeks before the Pittsburgh Marathon, I cranked in the hours and logged a few 50+mile weeks. In looking for a training program, I liked Hal Halgdon’s plan but I felt I was somewhere between his beginner and intermediate plans so I went with Jeff Gaudette’s plan for a sub-4 hour marathon. Even though I was given the advice that no one should ever run a first marathon with a time goal, I had the confidence, the speed from the races I ran in the fall, and did enough miles that a four-hour marathon was attainable.
If there was any winter to train for a spring marathon, it was this past winter. It was the ‘winter without a winter’ with hardly any snow the entire season. I also got connected with a great bunch of running friends who made running the weekend long runs not so bad – even though sometimes we had to wake up at 5am or earlier on a few Saturday mornings. Nevertheless, each of them has a story to tell and we all drew inspiration and encouragement from each other.

One of the first marathon training group runs in January.

Flash-forward to a week before the marathon… Instead of getting nervous, I began to plan. I thought about all the training I did in the past 16 to 18 weeks. I compared and analyzed my logs and reviewed my mileage and pace. I estimated I was physically capable of anything from a 3:40 to a 4:15 marathon based on past races and my pace from my long and pace workouts the few weeks before race. I was having some of my fastest weeks just prior to the Mile Run Half back in mid-March and again in mid-April with a pace consistently in the low 8 minute miles. I also compared my performance with my running colleagues. During my long runs, I found my pace between the leaders, (Adam, Dusty, Tina) and the rest of the crew. Knowing their goals, with Adam wanting a 3:30 and Tina wanting a Boston qualifier and the rest wanting a 4 hour marathon or higher, I decided on that a 4-hour marathon was a reasonable goal. I looked at the course and from my experience in the Pittsburgh half-marathon and marathon relay from previous years, I decided on my target pace. To achieve a 4-hour pace, I had to do a 9:10 minute mile as my overall pace. To me, running at a constant 9:10 seemed too slow and worried that I would be running inefficiently and at the same time, I wondered if after 20 miles, 9:10 might be too fast for me to sustain. Plus if I ran at my projected pace, I had no room for error – 5 seconds over my pace for 26 miles means I would end almost 3 minutes past my target. I also accounted for fade as well as the hills and grades of the course. That said, here was the plan:

The first two miles I would set out a target of a 9:10 pace since it would be crowded as 25,000 runners set out on the starting line. From mile 2 to mile 12, I would run at a 8:50 pace. During the climb on Forbes Avenue to Oakland and then up to the corner of Aiken and Fifth Avenue, I would dial it down to to a 9:10 – this was mile 12 to 14. After mile 14 to mile 20, I would pick up the pace to 8:50. Then at the 21st mile, new territory for me and not knowing exactly what to expect, I can slow down to a 10:10 from mile 20 to the finish. I would still have 2 minutes to spare with a projected finish at 3:58:00.

I also had a plan for nutrition and hydration. I did some research and estimated I needed 13 oz. of fluids an hour and 30-60 grams of carbs every 45 to 60 minutes. Weeks before, I decided not to run with a hydration belt and estimated how much Gatorade I could drink at each fluid stop while taking into account my estimates on how much Gatorade would be in a paper cup and how much of it would end up spilling. I did the math and put together the charts. With the help of Erin Dunkel, I came up with a hydration plan of stopping at every fluid station from mile 1 to 12 since they were spaced every 2 miles. After mile 12, the fluid stations are only a mile apart and my plan was to stop at every other fluid station for Gatorade. This means I would drink every 2 miles for the entire race. I also allotted myself to have a PowerBar gel every 45 minutes and a mini-Cliff bar every 55 minutes. Luckily I was able to program all my targeted paces for each mile and the nutrition alarms using my iSmoothRun app on my iPhone.

Me with Meb at the Sheetz booth.

Mary and I before the race in our OAR singlets.

I decided to take Friday off from work and travel to Pittsburgh that afternoon. It was a good thing that I did. One, I was able to go to the expo without the crowds and the hassle of going to the expo when everybody else was doing the same on Saturday. Also, just by luck, I was able to meet Meb at the Sheetz booth and had him sign by bib and race program as well as having my pic taken with Meb. Strangely enough, that was the second Olympian I met in two days. The day before Brian Sell had a pre-race briefing with the marathon training crew back at the YMCA in Hollidaysburg. Also at the expo, I met the good folks at the Organization for Autism Research, that I was doing some fundraising on their behalf. They said I was the most calmest person they ever met pre-marathon. Allowing me that extra day, I never felt rushed, I had plenty of time to relax, get adjusted, and spend time with friends. On Saturday, I got in a short “stretch” run in Frick Park (on this run, I realized how hot and humid it was even on a ‘nice’ day in the ‘Burgh), got all my stuff ready for race morning, and met up then have a good dinner with two close friends, Mary and Brian Beiler. Even though I really don’t recall asking Mary to run as part of the Run for Autism fundraising initiative, she enthusiastically decided to make a go of it and was running in her first half-marathon. We had a nice dinner at an Italian restaurant in Bloomfield and carb-loaded. By 7:45pm I was already back in Squirrel Hill and was in bed by 9pm and had a good night sleep confident that I prepared well for the next day.
I woke up at 4:50am, ten minutes before my alarms (yes, two alarms) would have went off. I got dressed, had my coffee and was out the door at 5:25. I picked up two friends from our marathon training group, who coincidentally was staying with friends only two blocks away. They seemed a little scattered and stressed out and I think I might have been a little cocky since I acted all cool since I felt I had my shit together. Then one of the friends asked me what I ate for breakfast… Whoops! I realized I forgot to eat the bagel and peanut butter I purchased the day before! This could be a disaster! Luckily, I remembered that there was going to be some mini-bagels and peanut butter at the charity tent. I dropped off my two friends at the Consol Center since they were meeting up with other friends at a nearby hotel. I drove downtown to the PPG Center. I was able to score a free parking pass just a block from the finish line since I was one of the top fundraisiers for my charity. I got myself parked before the downtown area was closed to all cars at 6am. I made my way from PPG Center. I walked through Market Square and I could feel the energy gather. I made my way to the OAR charity tent at the far side of the charity village in Point Park. There I had my breakfast, hung around until Mary and Brian showed up, took a group shot with the charity and then set out toward the corral.

Here is a point of controversy. Somehow I managed to get into Corral B. I really don’t remember how I was able to score such a good position. Now, that I have had time to think about it, I am now sure that the charity had estimated my time when they registered on my behalf. On my way to my corral, I ran into Tina and Dusty who were at the head of Corral C. Tina wanted to qualify for Boston and she wasn’t too happy that she had to fight from Corral C. I walked into Corral B and then positioned myself within sight of the 3:50 pace group.
I pulled out of my compression calf sleeve my timetable and decision tree. It was a letter-sized sheet of paper, on the right column was the time, column B was my estimated mileage, column C had check marks when I was to eat a Cliff mini-bar or a gel, and column D was when I was going to drink some fluids. The right half of the paper was my “decision-points” and depending what was happening or feeling at that moment of the race, it would help me to decide what to do next. One guy who saw me reviewing the paper thought it was a note from a loved on while another person asked if I was studying for exam. They say when you realize you are in trouble, it is already too late. I was trying to stay ahead of the game.

Download of the Course Map – PDF file

The Start!

I am on the right crossing the timing mat at the starting line.

The Start to Mile 6

The gun goes off. My plan is to run conservatively for the first two miles and not fight against the crowd and not fight the temptation of getting caught up in the excitement and thus running too fast. In fact, I did go out a little too fast at 8:22 for the first mile. At mile 1, I hear my first mile split and decided to turn it back some. After turning the corner on Liberty and back through The Strip on Penn, I successfully notched it back to a 8:54 and I noted I was running slower than my surrounding runners. But I wasn’t too concerned since most of those running around me were half marathoners. Normally, I am a cold runner and I really don’t get loosen up until 5 or 6 miles. However, today I am feeling great and loose. At mile 2, it was time for my first decision point. I decided to increase my pace slightly until mile 5. Here I can build a “time cushion” in case things go wrong later on in the race. I increased my speed but only marginally. From the Strip on Penn to the 18th Street Bridge, I clock in at 8:36.

Finish crossing the second bridge and into downtown.

One of the best things about the race is the bridges. Pittsburgh is a great looking city and it’s bridges are the best part. I crossed into the Northside on the 18th Street Bridge, turn on E. Ohio, then crossed the Rachel Carson/9th Street Bridge back into downtown and did a U-turn onto and over the Andy Warhol/7th Street Bridge. That is three bridges in one and a half miles! Back in the Northside I reached the corner of East Commons and East Ohio and it is here when I made my next decision point. The last mile I sped up to a 8:22 mile with an overall 8:36 pace thus far. With 21 miles yet to go, running more than a half a minute faster than my average race pace and 25 seconds faster than what I should be for the first half of the race, I decided to slow down my pace. With a good cushion built up and feeling good at that point, I decided to let off the gas a little until I reach the Southside.

Miles 6 through 11.5 – Western Ave. on the Northside, West End, Southside and the Birmingham Bridge.
After mile 6, I cross the 10k point in 54:06 with an average pace 8:42 so far.
I made my way on Western Ave. and toward the West End Bridge. On the West End Bridge, a older man, who I assume was a runner since I recall him wearing a past PGH marathon shirt, yelled out, “move over to the right of the bridge – there is a breeze”. My first thought was “who is this bozo”? Then my second thought was, “Wow! It IS warm!” It was on this bridge that I realized we were in for a warm day. There was enough shade and early enough in the morning on the Northside that I haven’t noticed until now.
After the West End Bridge, I ran toward the West End neighborhood on Stueben. I hear behind me “Ben!” It is Tina and Dusty. Again, Tina is going for a BQ. I didn’t think too much of it at the time but as they ran off ahead, I thought to myself “Damn, Dusty is sweating a lot!”
West End is the third neighborhood on the course and the only neighborhood that I never been in. Protected by steep hills on each side, to me it didn’t feel like I was running within the city limits. The West End had a Western PA small town feel to it. The crowd that came out was probably the liveliest along the course. I was even taken back when I saw two belly dancers directly in front of me. Seeing that and the rest of the crowd made me smile and I started to relax and have some fun. From there and all the way to the end of the race, I would wave back if someone waved at me, give a high-five to anyone who extended their hand, and enjoyed and thanked the crowds for coming out. The last two races I been in Pittsburgh were very damp or rainy.

The West End Neighborhood.

I made a U-turn in the West End and headed back toward the river and then down Carson toward Station Square. I noticed the heat but I wasn’t warm. There is no shade on this section. Why I bring this up is that by the end of the run, the heat would get to almost everyone. At that moment, I wasn’t too affected by it. But more about the heat later.
Station Square was at mile 9 and a very big crowd gathered there since it was a relay exchange. I also saw one of my favorite signs who would only be appreciated by an Arrested Development fan. “Steve Holt!” it said with a silhouette of Steve Holt giving his signature fist pump.
Mile 9 was also decision time. I was feeling fine and with me going at a very steady 8:41 to 8:56 since mile 5, I decided to continue to stay with my current pace.

I remember this kid handing out gummy worms in the Southside.

I started to climb a small hill between mile 5 and 6. It was a small hill and after another mile, I did the mile at 9:00 or 10 seconds slower than what I wanted. I wasn’t too concerned since I ran the first 9 miles far below 8:50 so I had time to spare but did take note that I was slowing down.
Through the Southside, I started to feel my nipples chaff. The previous night I sat aside two Band-Aids on the dresser and that morning I forgot to tape them on. On an interesting note, my harden nipples (he he, I typed ‘harden nipples’) told me that I might be dehydrating. The only time I ever had problems with my nips is when it gets hot. It was a sign that I should start taking in more fluids. But before the next fluid station, I saw up ahead volunteers holding out sticks of runner’s lube. As I ran toward them, another runner in front of me grabbed a stick and -chomp- ate the lube. The volunteers collectively dropped their jaws and some actually shuttered and gagged. A volunteer looked at me and said “please don’t eat this!”. “I won’t”, I said.
While I wondered what three tablespoons of lube tasted like, a friend became a victim from the heat. Here is an excerpt from his Facebook status:

I made it to the 10 mile mark at about a 7:00 pace, right on target, but badly misjudged my completed distance. I kicked it in to 3-4 imaginary finish lines that my increasingly confused mind was seeing. When I finally hit the 10.8 mile water point, I went down….
…Nice. Three liters of saline later, and I’m able to walk again.

He wouldn’t be the first to be affected by the heat. At mile 11, there is a U-Turn on Carson with marathon runners running one block past the Birmingham Bridge, turning around on Sidney Street and then onto the northbound lane over the bridge. At the beginning of this section, I was running past the bridge as Tina and Dusty were coming the other way about to span the bridge. At that moment I assumed they were doing fine but unknown to me, that was not the case. Tina’s account:

Dusty was helping by pacing me for the first 11 miles but started to feel the heat as well and told me to go. I was getting very concerned when I finished and he didn’t come in right after me. Poor guy had to go to medical tent around mile 15.

Damn! In fact Dusty had stopped at every med tent from mile 15 until the finish. At the finish, Dusty had to get an IV and another IV the next day.

Mile 12: Blvd. of the Allies to Halfway Mark
I crossed the Monongahela River and made a sharp right on Forbes Avenue. At the bottom of the hill, my iPhone announced “Previous Mile Pace: 9 minutes and 12 seconds!” 9:12?! Why was the last mile so slow? It was time for my next decision point. I knew out of the last three miles, two were below my 8:50 target pace. Overall I knew I was still ahead for a 4 hour marathon but I was eating up my cushion. The next two miles my target was a slower 9:10 to take into account the hill into Oakland and up 5th Avenue to Shadyside. A year ago, I flew up this hill as part of my leg for the Pittsburgh marathon. I did not want to do a 7:30 mile like I did last year but I thought to myself that I need to keep it a steady 8:50 and not let up on my pace. I ended up doing a 9:02 in this section. Still, what was a slower than anticipated pace for me, I was very surprised so see so many people fade and drop back in this section. That goes to show how well us Central PA runners can crush those hills!

Looking down Forbes Ave. toward Oakland on the corner of Forbes and Craig.

In Oakland, I saw my favorite sign “Worst. Marathon. Ever”. At the halfway mark between Forbes and Fifth Ave. on Craig Street I crossed the halfway timer. 1 hour and 59 minutes??!!! This is the only time during the race I became concerned. How could I be at 1 hour and 59 minutes? Granted I knew it took me a few minutes to cross the start line and I knew what I was seeing was the clock time and not my chip time but… still, that might have been only a minute or two, right? According to what my app was telling me, I should be closer to 1 hour 56 seconds. After thinking about it for half a block until I hit Fifth Avenue, I decided to trust my app and ignore what I just saw on the digital clock I passed. Well, it turned out that my true chip time was indeed closer to my app than the clock time I saw. My true chip time:

1/2 Marathon: 1 hour, 56 seconds and 29 seconds. 8:53 pace. Projected marathon time in 3h:52s:54s

With everything that my body was telling me, and making an educated guess to ignore what I saw on the clock, I decided to press on. This is not the time to make a rash decision to back off too much and give up or the time to speed up and risk burning up. I decided to wait until the next decision point.

(second half –to be continued…)