2017 Pittsburgh Marathon…& Darryl Cann

The Pittsburgh Marathon was my sixth marathon. I want to write about this one differently. I have previously written about running marathons regarding how they impacted me, reflecting on myself and what I perceive is so unfamiliar in such a familiar place. There have been times when things happen that can change my perspective of New York and the world. I am one of those obnoxious self-centered New Yorkers who sometimes forgets that there is a world outside of this place. New York may be the center of universe in my my mind but there are people and places beyond this place that can be therapeutic, special and different. All of those things that I needed a reminder of after what happened last November. I am not going to make it about politics, don’t worry. But this recap has to be more than just my pace and the scenery; I think this marathon was meant to remind me to appreciate the people.

After I had run my first marathon in the fall of 2014, I knew I wanted to do it again and that I wouldn’t wait until the following Fall. The one thing that intrigued me was traveling somewhere new to run. So I signed up for a marathon in June of 2015 in Cooperstown, New York and entered the lottery for the 2015 Chicago Marathon. I managed to win the lottery for Chicago, so I had two destination marathons in very different parts of the country. Instead of the Hudson and East Rivers, I would run near Lake Michigan and Lake Otsego. In 2016, I took a trip to New Orleans with some friends during Mardi Gras and managed to put in some miles running down the banks of the Mississippi and then I went to Greece for the summer and ran with the Aegean Sea at my side. It is easy to go to a new place and describe all the beautiful things around me during a run. Sunrises, sunsets, rivers, oceans and mountains are objectively amazing. That was one of the first things that I was reminded of when I started running — don’t forget to look around. My day to day is mostly about being pinned behind a desk in a big glass box for what can feel like a life sentence, so waking up early in the morning for a run outside is like Christmas for me back when I was a little kid. It isn’t that hard to start noticing the trees, the smells and the way the sky can change from one season to the next.

The tough part is understanding how people play a role in this whole thing. Running is an introvert’s dream, and it’s a conundrum because it puts me face to face with how people, even strangers, can play a role. When I first started, I never wanted to run races because I didn’t want to share how good running made me feel because I was worried other people would ruin it. And then I tried running a race and realized that I liked it. It wasn’t the medals, and it wasn’t my pace, but it was the people. And I still can’t explain it, but I know I get something from the people that are lined up next to me and the people who stand on the side of the road and cheer. I know when I see someone running around wearing a shirt from a race I have run, I enjoy that familiarity.

I arrived in Pittsburgh last Friday, two days before the marathon. I was picked up at the airport taken over some highways that went through some pastoral looking green fields until we went through a tunnel and emerged into downtown Pittsburgh. I checked into the hotel, unpacked my things, charged my phone and started checking out the map to figure out where I would go to pick up my bib. I walked out of the hotel at around 1:30 in the afternoon. It was actually a perfect day, maybe even a little too warm. I put my headphones on and began listening to the map woman who would give me my directions over the new Kendrick Lamar album while I walked around downtown Pittsburgh. By the way, if you are ever doing the solo tourist thing, try putting on an album you like from beginning to end. No fiddling with playlists or jumping around to different songs. Just song 1 to song 13 and one story being told. Eventually, I started seeing the multitude of green neon bags, making it clear that I was getting closer to the convention center where I would get all my race stuff.

I came up the escalator to view of the Alleghany River through window pains and massive statue numbers of “13.1” and “26.1”. I saw runners grinning for pictures as they stood in front of the logo and the numbers. I shut off Kendrick and smiled to myself as I walked into organized chaos of bib pick up. I was greeted by a smiling woman in her fifties who was volunteering. The smile grew wider when she saw my driver’s license and asked me about New York City. Beth warned me about the hills but assured me that I would be okay as she presented me with my bib. I thanked her and went on to get my shirt and neon bag.

That night I again walked through the City under some cloudy skies to get to the PNC Park. I had promised myself I would go, have a beer and watch a couple of innings of a Pirates game. They were playing the Brewers that night, and I found a seat three rows from the fence in right field for the bargain price of $17 from Seat Geek. When I arrived at the ballpark, an older gentleman was waiting to check my ticket and then escort me to my seat where he wiped it down. I thanked him as I put down my 16-ounce beer in the cup holder in front of me. I usually never drink before a marathon, but I found the exception in the confines of a baseball game. I only watched three or four innings until the rain started to come down. So I walked along the concourse, sipping a bottle of water and pausing every once in a while to watch people huddle away from the rain.

Saturday was cloudy and rainy. At some point in the afternoon, I put on my sneakers and headed outside into the wind, the rain and the hills for a shake out run. I pretty much took the same trip I had made the night before for the Pirates game but when I am running distances, and places feel different. I crossed the Roberto Clemente Bridge and turned right towards the Andy Warhol Museum and ran along the Allegheny River. I saw a mixture of people who were there for the race which gave me a knowing nod and locals who were confused as I clenched my jaw running through the wind, the rain and up the hills.

The morning of the race I went through my standard ritual of stretching until I left my hotel room and got onto the elevator at around 6:00 am, surrounded by other runners. There was a young girl draped in the blue NYC Marathon cape on the elevator. I should have probably said something, but I am too tense before a race. I am not the guy who is chatting with you. My nervousness and anxiety push me into silence but I love having those crowds around me. Talking too much is a mush but there is a comfort being around people wearing shorts and bright colors before sunrise heading to the same place. I found my corral pretty easily and continued to warm up. The weather had cleared from the day before, but there was a slight chill in the air. It felt more like Staten Island in Fall than Pennsylvania in the Spring. The race is mixed with people doing both the full marathon and a marathon. After the progressions of pre-run ceremonies, the gun (an actual gun) shot off and people started.

A marathon is a long distance. I know that sounds obvious, but on a day-to-day basis you don’t comprehend what twenty-six miles entails, especially in a city. I literally saw all of Pittsburgh. The best way I can describe the cheering crowds in Pittsburgh is to say I now fully understand the difference between the Midwest and the Rust Belt. Chicago was painfully sweet. I almost got fatigued by the support along that race. New York isn’t like that. There are some neighborhoods where you get a complete break from any cheers. Pittsburgh was more like Chicago than New York, but it wasn’t as sweet. Kind of in between with a mix of New York cynicism from the spectators, which I kind of liked so it isn’t meant to be an insult. And unlike Chicago where the route seems to be perpetually polished and happy, Pittsburgh showed me its entire self. There the pretty polished parts, the gritty run down parts, the cool refurbished parts and of course the wealthy parts of the City.

Until Sunday, I was confined to downtown Pittsburgh so the race opened up the world to all these different neighborhoods. The first part of the race involved running along train tracks and next to old single story warehouses that speak of a different time. The faces on the roads changed with each area and each town. One part of race looked more rural than urban or suburban and the people matched. Older people, black and white, sitting in lawn chairs at the front of massive yards that weren’t well groomed but functional. The route moved into one neighborhood that reminded of Brooklyn. Young hipster-looking people with anti-Trump signs in front of cool looking restoration bars. I don’t know if I drew inspiration from these people but I just liked having them there. The pockets of large crowds mixed well with other smaller groups who would look me in the eyes sympathetically.

I struggled during this race because I never felt right. My right leg was still not 100%, so I was always contemplating whether my IT band had loosened up. I also was aware that I needed to have something in the tank for the hill that started mile 12 abd went all the way up to 13, where more rolling hills would start. To put it another way, the hill in Mile 12 would be like hearing a Ray LaMontagne song when you think you have gotten over a bad break up but you aren’t completely there. I think I had mentally prepared for it so that when I was in the middle of it, I kind of said to myself I was entitled to slow a little and take the hill as it came and I would make up the time on the back half if everything felt right. Low and behold I crested that hill, and for the first time in three weeks, my right ass cheek and hamstring felt completely lose and free.

I glanced and my watch, and I knew wouldn’t PR anything, but I had the potential to have a pretty good race. If my legs stayed loose until 20, I had a pretty chance to get this done in less than 3:25. But my body wasn’t going to cooperate, and neither was the back half the Pittsburgh Marathon. Rolling hill after rolling hill seemed to wipe me out and around mile 19, the tightness in the IT band came back violently when I was heading down one of those hills. Let me pause here and take a break from the kind of artful description of what happens in the back half of the Pittsburgh Marathon, and I am going to write the actual Queens-born driven thoughts that took over during the race:

These motherfuckers decided to give me endless fucking hills in the back half. Oh and this marathon relay concept is bullshit. I am going to have these assholes running by me from mile 16–26 with fresh legs. You have to be fucking shitting me.

Okay back to reality and apologize for the cursing. It wasn’t that bad, and after the fact, my thoughts were that if my legs had been healthy coming into this, there was a potential where this could have been a great race for me. Perfect weather and the rolling hills were kind of useful because it changed things up in order to give my muscles some relief. Coming into the final two miles, I have a huge thank you for the 3:30 pacing team. They caught up with me and they wouldn’t let me slow down. I have seen pacing teams before, but these guys were phenomenal. They were picking up stragglers like me along the way, and they ensured that I finished in under 3:30. I can’t say enough about these guys, and I would recommend every pacing group follow their lead in terms of inclusion, especially in the back half of a marathon.

After the race, I again followed my usual routine, except stopping at a medical tent to get ice for my right leg. On the walk back I saw that same girl with her NYC Marathon Blue cape and this time we exchanged a couple of words that I initiated. Eventually, I made it back to the hotel and took a long hot shower where I probably made some odd and inappropriate noises. I put on my favorite jeans, a white henley shirt, and flip flops, with my medal, tucked into my pocket. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer and asked for a menu. I guzzled down two beers before I glanced down at the menu and ordered something that the bartender questioned whether I would be able to eat everything since I was a “slight fella”. I smiled and said I don’t know if I can finish, but I just ran a marathon, so I am going to try. Two sisters from Florida next to me had run the half marathon. We spent the next hour sharing stories about races, injuries, and plans. They were going on a running cruise in Alaska.

Eventually, I packed my things, and I called an Uber to get to the airport. And as much as I loved everything about this race, this ride to the airport was perhaps the highlight of this trip. I was greeted by Darryl, who was probably in his fifties or sixties, who called me by my name and helped me put my bag in the trunk. When I walked to get into the car, I noticed a clarinet sitting in the passenger seat. As we started driving Darryl gave me a glimpse into his world. He had worked for years in the corporate world in Boston and then came back to Pittsburgh to be a teacher and to explore his music career. And eventually, after some layoffs, he ended working as a Bellman at the Omni William Penn Hotel. Darryl pointed me to this story that the Pittsburgh Gazette posted about him. He does more justice to his story than I can so the video is linked below. He told me the story of playing piano for Robert Redford and exchanges he had with both Senator Obama and President Obama.

Darryl Cann is a guy who can’t help but emanate his love of life. And at some point during the ride, he offered to play for me. So he pulled over and turned on George Benson on the radio and started playing his clarinet along with the music. Again, I can’t do this justice, but I have never had a cab ride or an Uber ride here in New York like that. This guy who was obviously a very talented musician had treated me to something that made him happy but left an indelible impression on me. The another part of this was a reminder that despite all the microaggression white panic and anger I experienced in November, I can always remind myself of the goodness of people. That we can find greatness in ourselves and others in the moments that aren’t quantifiable. So instead of anger and further ignorance, maybe it’s just time to open our eyes to the world. Greed or isolation will never define greatness; it will always be about inclusion, experiences and the people around us.

And I got all of that because I decided back in January to run 26.2 miles in Pittsburgh.