By Gretchen McKay

Pittsburgh marathoners get help up The Hill

Categories : Positively Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For a city that’s as famous for its big hills as its 400-plus bridges, today’s Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and UPMC Health Plan Half Marathon will offer its 27,700 runners a fairly level course. Which is not to say it won’t have its challenges.

Chief among them is The Hill, that daunting stretch of pavement marathoners and relay racers face when they make a right onto Forbes Avenue after crossing the six-lane, 1,662-foot-long Birmingham Bridge from the South Side.

Many a runner has lost momentum, if not faith, on this long, slow climb into the heart of Oakland, which begins at about mile 11.5 and continues for close to a mile.

“If you’re not expecting it, it can really, really break you,” said Norm Dastur, a lawyer who is running his third Pittsburgh marathon. “You have just separated from the half marathoners and are looking to settle in. And then you’re looking at that hill.”

This year, though, the dreaded ascent just might seem a little easier.

As the 6,300 marathoners turn off the bridge onto Forbes, more than a dozen volunteers wearing Asics shirts and encouraging smiles will be there to greet them. Half will be stationed at the bottom of the hill and the other half about midway up; all will spend three or so hours jogging up the hill, again and again, alongside those who appear to be running out of steam.

Organizers are always searching for ways to improve the 26.2-mile course, which winds its way through several city neighborhoods before bringing runners down Liberty Avenue through Bloomfield and the Strip District for the big finish on the Boulevard of the Allies (between Stanwix Street and Commonwealth Place, just short of Point State Park).

Looking at it this year, they realized the hill into Oakland was among the race’s more quiet and empty stretches — a prime spot, said Chelsea Hamilton, event marketing manager for Dick’s, to “provide a little support for runners.”

What they came up with was the idea to gather a group of volunteer “hill runners” who’d be willing to put their athleticism to good use to help keep them motivated through this difficult part of the race. An ad was posted on Craigslist and they also reached out to True Runners, the specialty running store that sponsor Dick’s is testing in Shadyside, and running groups such as People Who Run Downtown. They ended getting 15 takers.

Among them will be 25-year-old Danielle Millett of Regent Square, who runs with Pittsburgh Sports League’s running club, and Cathy Connor, 47, of McCandless, who last month did the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge, competing in both the Boston and Big Sur marathons.

Both have experience pitching in: Ms. Millett, who’s a software engineer at Google, has volunteered at the annual runners expo at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, while Ms. Connor, who’s a graphic artist, designed this year’s T-shirt for the Sole Survivors, a group of athletes who have run in every Pittsburgh marathon since the first race in 1983. Both were intrigued, they say, by the chance to do something a little different.

“It just seemed like fun,” said Ms. Millett, even if it also would be something of a challenge, since she and her fellow volunteers have no idea how many times, or how fast, they’ll have to sprint up and down the hill.

“I wanted to give back, and thought this would be a great way to support my friends,” added Ms. Connor. A veteran of more than 100 races, including 15 marathons, “I also want to help get new runners up and over the hill.”

With just a 150-foot change in elevation, the hill isn’t as dramatic as, say, the run up McArdle Roadway to Mount Washington or up FedEx Drive in Coraopolis, two regular workouts for Mr. Dastur, 40, who trains with In Motion Athletics, a local marathon training group affiliated with Elite Runners & Walkers in Robinson.

But it’s not insignificant, either.

“That’s the point where I put my head down and block things out,” he said.

Adding to the hill’s bad reputation, said Kristina Powell, 25, of Mount Washington, who’s run the marathon twice, is the fact there’s no shade, “and the sun is beating down on you.”

Also, there’s the element of timing.

With Shadyside, Point Breeze, Homewood, East Liberty and Highland Park still on the horizon, Ms. Powell said, “You realize you’re not even halfway. There’s still more hills to come.”

Any extra help, then, “is a good thing.”

Not every runner will need or want the company during the climb, acknowledged Ms. Hamilton, who also is adding music, balloons and banners along this stretch of the course to help motivate the marathoners.

“All of the volunteers are runners themselves, so if someone is in headphones or running full out, they’ll be able to gauge that,” she said.

“We don’t want to be a distraction,” agreed Ms. Connor. “Just to help push the ones who need.”

But her guess is the majority will feed off the volunteer hill runners’ energy.

That feeling is shared by 34-year-old ultramarathoner Lucas Marsak, a seeded runner from Monroeville who finished last year’s Pittsburgh Marathon in 2:47:36 (35th overall) and hopes to set a personal record on this year’s course. Every race, he said, has spots that test you. But the crowd and volunteers always pull you back into a good place.

“They help you tap into your reserves and let you know you’ve got more inside than you think you do,” he said. “They put you in the frame of mind of ‘I can do this!’ ”

The volunteer hill runners, he said, can’t help but be part of that “awesome variable.”