For anyone who’s toed the starting line of a race, you face the question – asked by yourself or your family when you are trying to squeeze in a workout after brunch – of “why do this?” Why get up super early on a weekend, go run a specific distance that’s probably going to hurt while worrying about things like chafing, and pay for it?
Reasons vary as much as the runners. Lose weight. Tackle a specific distance. Beat the clock/last year’s time/next year’s time. Get a free t-shirt. To eat more brunch. Prove something to someone. Prove something to yourself. Free oranges at the finish line.
At first an unsuspecting relative might think this some inspirational tale, about how, after a few years working in a demanding and time-consuming profession, I spent more time on my career then myself. That led to serious burn out, being overweight and just unhappy. Triathlon and running changed my life, I could tell you. And it’d all be true.
But that’s not the reason I do any of it. I probably won’t ever do a full marathon or Ironman triathlon like so many of my wonderful friends and acquaintances, in the Pittsburgh Triathlon Club or in life. But I will always run the Pittsburgh half marathon as long as I’m physically able. And part of it is because it’s my hometown. But part of it is because it’s the only sporting event in the city besides the Pittsburgh Triathlon that I’ve ever felt connected to.
This doesn’t mean I don’t like Pittsburgh sports. I do. I just don’t understand sports in general, and am horribly unathletic. I have a gnarly scar on my knee. It’s not from wrecking my bike like so many of my triathlon friends have; I fell in a pothole crossing a South Side street on the way to get a pretzel.
Last year, I ran the UPMC Health Plan half marathon and it changed my life. Sure, it was invigorating to cross a finish line some few hours after starting at one point downtown and physically propelling myself 13.1 miles.
But the joy didn’t come from the run.
It came from the people along the way. The people of Pittsburgh.
When we pulled into the parking garage on the North Side at 5 a.m., and saw hundreds of other people, it became clear how a marathon brings a city together. Even in my own family where my wife, sister-in-law and her co-workers all ran the relay (and are again taking on the challenge this year). We had trained together, and walked to the starting line together. That’s a powerful experience.
And even at 5 a.m., you can have that Pittsburgh moment, where you run into someone you never expected to see, and realized how very much you needed to see them. Without any coordination, we parked within three cars of my dear running friend and an amazing inspiration Susan (who ran the race 80-some days after major surgery. Oh and she crushed the race by the way. And is doing it again this year. ’Natch).
To sum up the experience of actually running the half marathon is hard to do. It’s hard to articulate the feeling of running by people, literally hanging off the bridges, cheering for the people passing by that they have never met and may not ever see again. Neighborhoods came out in full force. On the North Side, an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade recognized me and dashed off his porch. We ran together. Passing through the West End was literally a religious experience. I didn’t even know that many people lived in the West End.
And I have never liked marching bands — until I ran the Pittsburgh marathon and found encouragement in a horn section blasting out the melody of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” I even got another race-day Pittsburgh moment of seeing my wife, wearing a great big smile after finishing her leg of the relay. Knowing she conquered her goal, and grabbing an ice cold Gatorade from her, made the second half the race fly by.
As my good friend, mentor and coach, Matty Mauclair says, you never cross the finish line alone. And you don’t. I had his months of his patience and support and encouragement with me. He single-handedly brought me to the point of not just running 13.1 miles, or swimming, biking and running in triathlons, but also believing that those things were possible. Then there were Daily email exchanges with Susan about the task at hand. My family. My friends.
And after crossing the finish line, high-fiving my brother Chris and receiving a medal that said “runner of steel” (and oddly, a bag of salty potato chips), I finally felt connected to the city I was born and raised in. It really was about being a part of something bigger than yourself.
Those are the very reasons I sign up for this race each year as soon as it’s open.
There are lots of personal reasons to run a race, and those are all good reasons. But as you’ve seen in London and will undoubtedly see May 5 in Pittsburgh, from the guy running blindfolded for his daughter, to all the personal and public tributes to the Boston Marathon bombing victims, there is one reason that unites everyone: community.