PITTSBURGH – There’s an old, true saying about the fervor and loyalty of Pittsburgh fans: When you play Pittsburgh, you play the whole city. Now you can add a corollary to that rule: When you run Pittsburgh, the whole city runs with you.
Over 300,000 spectators cheered on 30,000 runners for the seventh-annual Pittsburgh Marathon and Half Marathon races May 7. That’s a number almost equal to the 305,000 that populate the city of Pittsburgh itself and almost matched the 350,000 that came out to cheer the Penguins at their Stanley Cup victory rally last year.
The entire weekend was a glorious celebration of both running and the Steel City, with the race course not only incorporating many of the area’s great landmarks, but starting and finishing in the vibrant downtown district after traversing some of the most challenging terrain in American running. The course crosses all three rivers, passes all three major sports complexes, visits a galaxy of vibrant neighborhoods and culminates in a glorious climax through the Canyon of Heroes, the same route the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins victory parades follow after winning world titles.
Although every step of the way the cheers of the spectators buoy the runners - reverberating in your ears at every one of the course’s endless twists and turns - that final half mile is especially euphoric. Almost 100,000 people are packed into the parking garages, partying on rooftops, watching from the windows and lining the streets. During those last few blocks if you have your Terrible Towel with you, you’ll enjoy what I call a “Lynn Swann Moment.”
You’ll recall Swann as the gifted Steeler receiver with the twin magnets for hands whose balletic catches and laser speed helped propel the Steelers to four Super Bowls in the ‘70s. But Swann also set off the first ever Terrible Towel celebration in team history. The year was 1975, and the Steelers were headed to the playoffs as defending Super Bowl Champions. Iconic Steeler radio broadcaster Myron Cope had “come up with a gimmick” for the opening playoff game. The station director had read somewhere that “color and motion will spur a team to victory,” so the Terrible Towel was created.
“Bring a yellow towel to the game! The Terrible Towel is poised to strike!” Cope exclaimed to Steeler Nation.
The only problem was the idea didn’t seem to be catching on. The week of the game, several Steelers expressed scorn and disdain for gimmicks of any kind. We don’t need no stinkin’ cheerleaders or pom poms or fight songs, they thought, We’re the Steel Curtain. So as the game was about to begin, and there were no towels to be seen in the crowd, poor Myron Cope was getting lambasted by his bosses and co-workers.
“Nice idea, loser,” they said.
It turns out they needed a rewrite, because during player introductions, Swann pulled out a yellow towel and twirled it around his head as he ran onto the field. Suddenly, like a Harry Potter magic trick, there were 30,000 towels in the stands, all waving and twirling.
“It was deafening,” Cope said later.
Well the same thing happens at the Pittsburgh Marathon, better still because they are cheering for you. As you make the final turn into downtown, and realize – to your inestimable delight – that you are running the same street the victory parade follows, that’s when to pull out your Terrible Towel.
I did…and suddenly there was a roar like jet planes taking off in every direction, and a thousand towels appeared out of nowhere, the ovation reverberating like a thunderclap.
You’d have thought they mistook me for Swanny.
At a setting like this, who cares what your time is? This isn’t a race – it’s a 13.1 mile victory lap. You spend your whole life rooting for Pittsburgh, and then for one unforgettable day you are the Pittsburgh sports hero, and all of Pittsburgh is rooting for you: the Strip District, Oakland, Duquesne, the West End, PNC, Heinz Field, the South Side (especially the South Side!) -- every heart in this Black and Gold town. If you are a Steeler, Pirate, Penguin or even Panther fan -- anywhere in the world -- you should come home to Pittsburgh to run this race for that reason alone.
Moreover, the entire weekend was absolutely up to the world-class standard Pittsburghers expect of their city. Another 10,000 runners ran the 5K race the day before, bringing the total number of runners to 40,000 for the weekend. The gargantuan expo, seemingly large enough to warrant its own area code, featured every whiz-bang running gadget you could imagine. Over $1.3 million was raised for the various participating charities. And the après running was downright joyous. There’s a palpable electricity to downtown Pittsburgh with its culture, sports, and restaurant districts all within easy walking distance. But the addition of the high-energy running family turned the entire downtown into a festival atmosphere.
Best of all, race organizers had this event firing on all cylinders from sign up right up until the last runner crossed the finish line and headed to the Sierra Nevada tent. A textbook example of how races are organized at the highest level of our sport, everything was state of the industry when it comes to staging a road race of international significance. A true destination race that all runners should circle on their calendar, every race director in the country needs to come out to see how Pittsburgh does it. And for those of you who can’t wait a whole year, Pittsburgh also has a 10-mile run in early November that follows the reverse of the course featured for the Half. By then, the Steelers and Penguins are playing: BONUS!
VITAL STATS (all ratings out of seven)
Length: Half Marathon (13.1 miles)
Size: This year just under 30,000 runners participated in the marathon and half marathon, the largest field this author has yet run with. The entire weekend a total of 40,000 racers, including 5K runners, relay runners and a kid’s run.
Difficulty for that length: 6 out of 7 – There’s an excellent reason why this race is a Boston Marathon qualifier. Pittsburgh is the San Francisco of the East - all hills and bridges. If a snake and a roller coaster had a love child, it would be this race course. There’s exactly one flat mile, Mile 10, as you learn when you pass a sign that reads, “Welcome the flat mile of the course.”
It’s the toughest route this author has run. Still, that’s perfectly befitting Pittsburgh’s idiom as a blue collar, tough as steel town. They deserve a race to match, and they got it. You earn the moniker “Runner of Steel” when you cross the finish line.
Natural Setting: 6 out of 7 – There are compensations for the tough route. The confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers is a majestic scene: verdant, forest-fragrant, tree-cloaked hills on one side, downtown’s glitter on another, and the sports complexes’ skyline dominating a third, all connected by the yellow and grey bridges spanning the water’s murky currents. Only Big Sur’s run along the Pacific Coast has surpassed it in this author’s experience.
Weather: 5.5-6 out of 7 – May is usually the perfect time to run in the Northeast. There’s normally little chance of either snow or thunderstorms.
I say “usually” and “normally” because this year, of course, we caught cold rain on Saturday of race weekend and a light dusting of snow overnight. Happily, the race PR team - led by social media uber-maven and all-around event planning all-star Jen Egan - had up-to-the-minute information sent to each runner electronically. Happily, when race day dawned, a cold daybreak blossomed into a sunny morning, and by the time the lion’s share of half marathoners were finishing, we were all in shirtsleeves and sunglasses. But hey, for a race this good, as one of my poet friends says, we’ll weather the weather whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.
Value: 6 out of 7 – It’s an expensive race, as high as $135 for late entries, but you get so much for your money. This is a destination race in one of the great cities of the world. The events and expo make Pittsburgh the epicenter of the running world for the entire weekend. You’ll be hard pressed to find a bigger crowd following the runners. And for one day, you are a Pittsburgh hero, finishing in the same Canyon of Champions that saw such luminaries as Bradshaw, Franco, Mean Joe Greene, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby celebrate world championships to adoring crowds. That’s worth diamonds.
After Party: 6 out of 7 – Sorry, Boilermaker, but finally someone wrested the title of “Best After Party in Running” from you. Thousands descend upon the park and outdoor expo after crossing the finishing line. They’re serving Sierra Nevada – the closest thing to a love potion a beer has ever come. (Saranac is pretty good in that regard too...) And restaurants of every ethnic cuisine are within walking distance.
Fun: 7 out of 7 – You can tell a truly great race because its whole experience is greater than the sum of its parts. And you come back from the race with a dozen new friends, all the while saying, “I’m never missing this race again as long as I live!”
GOLF IN THE REGION
“Golf is the perfect activity on days when you don’t run,” confided veteran running coach Joe Wilczynski, whose clubs and programs have trained thousands of runners over the years. “Walking on grass and getting off the hard pavement helps rest your legs - recovery time is important. Plus you get out in the fresh air and use different muscles you don’t use when you run.”
I don’t know how much recovery you’ll get here, because the great golf courses in the Pittsburgh area are as hilly, windy and challenging as the race course. Three rivers form the Golden Triangle that defines Pittsburgh’s geography and, likewise, three Golden Age masterpieces, in particular, are the radiant jewels in Pittsburgh’s private golf diadem: Oakmont, Fox Chapel and Pittsburgh Field Club.
Pittsburgh Field Club recently underwent a wildly successful renovation by golf architect Keith Foster. Originally designed by Alex Findlay in 1915, a host of intervening designers had introduced architectural changes for the next 90 years, making the course a hodge-podge of different design strategies with no consistent flavor or character.
Foster was a great choice in such a circumstance; he has been winning accolades year after year for his faithful restoration work, precise renovation work (where courses, for example, might need new bunkers or tee boxes to combat modern equipment, but still keep their original strategies), and ingenious redesigns. Sometimes he combines all three in one, like at Philly Cricket Club, right now considered to be the magnum opus in his pantheon full of superb courses.
Foster’s work at the Field Club, as its known to its friends, primarily involved bringing greens all the way back to the full size of their pads, tightening bunkers closer to greens and fairway edges, and re-positioning fairways to different angles to the greens, changing mowing patterns significantly, but infusing more strategy. In particular, PGA head professional David Martin believes the bunkering was one of Foster’s best improvements.
“Foster changed the character of the bunkers by removing the sand from the faces. Where once the bunkers were flash-faced, now they are grass faces, with the sand only at the bottoms,” he stated.
Moreover, the bunkers exhibit amazing variety, and hearken back to the geometric shapes of the great Golden Age courses.
The course is best known for its impressive first and 18th holes. From a pulpit tee box 100 feet above the fairway, one gets a panoramic vista across much of the course. Indeed, the entire round traverses hundreds of feet of elevation change – wondrous terrain for golf. The par 4s are especially strong, especially the four that appear during a stretch of 8-12, interrupted by a lone par 5. The short, but dangerous par-3 16th is as prim as a cameo, and the elevator you have to take from the 17th green to the 18th tee is unique in golf. The closing par 3 plays along the clubhouse, meaning you have a gallery to watch you play the last hole.
For public golfers, there is nothing within a two-hour drive from Pittsburgh better than the spectacular Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, whose Mystic Rock course by Pete Dye formerly hosted the 84 Lumber Classic. It’s a huge course: wide off the tee, but playing into the teeth of the most severe natural terrain, including cavernous ravines, idyllic lakes and deep valleys. Every hole is strong but also unique: Mystic Rock features none of the templates Dye sometimes repeated at, for example, Kiawah Island, PGA West or Whistling Straits.
Dye and right-hand man Tim Liddy recently finished a new course at Nemacolin, Shepherd's Rock.
“It’s similar to Mystic Rock with its huge hills and many angles off the tee, but the bunkers more resemble the work we did at French Lick,” explained Liddy. “It’s the most sculptural golf course we’ve done since Colleton River.”
The new course winds through three different ecosystems: wetlands (holes 1-3), woodlands (holes 4-9), and pasture (the entire back nine), and offers views as far as 50 miles across the mountains. Shepherd’s Rock will open in July of this year. The resort, one of the greatest in the country, actually has its own zoo on site.
Author's Note: This article is dedicated to my dear friends Marino and Leona Parascenzo, quintessential, indeed iconic Pittsburghers.