Western Pennsylvania athletes prepared for Dick’s Sporting Items Pittsburgh Marathon

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Every time Tom Weir has participated in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, he has turned left to venture into Downtown at the Birmingham Bridge.

On May 1, Weir, 60, of Hempfield, plans to make a right turn, hoping it’s the correct one.

The bridge from Pittsburgh’s South Side is where runners who want to continue on in the full marathon — 26.2 miles — split from the half-marathoners who go on to finish the 13.1 distance.

“It’s the uncertainty of making that turn to do the full marathon,” Weir said. “I always said to myself, ‘I am not making that turn.’ There are a lot of unknowns. It is exciting and scary. I have decided to make that turn this year.”

Courtesy of Tom Weir

Tom Weir of Hempfield has run 20 half-marathons, including Pittsburgh and the Gettysburg Battlefield race (pictured). He plans to run his first full marathon at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon on May 1.

 

A personal goal is what brings Weir as well as thousands of other runners to the start line every year. It’s their individual drive that helps carry them to the finish.

Choosing to endure the grueling full marathon course at 26.2 miles or opt for a definitely challenging half at 13.1 miles — as they journey through city streets and up and down hills amid changing temperatures — is a choice that’s made from within their heart.

“Every runner has a story,” said Troy Schooley, CEO of P3R, organizer of the Pittsburgh Marathon and other area races, including the Richard S. Caliguiri City of Pittsburgh Great Race. “It is so cool to stand at the finish line, because as I watch runners cross, I know each of them has had trials and tribulations, but they’ve worked through all of those to get to the finish line.”

In-person race

The annual event is back in person on May 1. Schooley said he is seeing a lot of first-timers on the registration list. He thinks that’s because running was something people began to do during the pandemic.

The weekend of April 29-May 1 includes the Pittsburgh Pet Walk, Sheetz Pittsburgh Toddler Trot, Chick-fil-A Pittsburgh Kids Marathon, UPMC Health Plan/UPMC Sports Medicine Pittsburgh 5K Run, FedEx Pittsburgh Marathon Relay, UPMC Health Plan Pittsburgh Half Marathon and DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon.

Schooley expects 35,000 to 40,000 participants.

There were 36,000 in 2019.

More than 300,000 spectators usually line the course.

Runners can register here.

“After two years of virtual events, the finish line is going to feel extra special this year, and we can’t wait to celebrate with them,” Schooley said.

The Pittsburgh Marathon was held annually from 1985 to 2003. After a five-year hiatus, the DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon was relaunched in 2009 and debuted with a sold-out field of 10,000 participants.

“It is a lot easier to get through such a challenge when you have other runners and spectators lifting you up,” Schooley said. “You have an army of people behind you. This is the biggest sporting event in Pittsburgh.”

Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review

Runners training for the Pittsburgh Marathon half-marathon run across East Carson Street during a training day Feb. 12 on the South Side.

 

‘Excited for all the unknowns’

Having the city cheering for him is one reason Weir, who ran his first half-marathon in 2012 in Pittsburgh, wants to do a full marathon in his hometown.

“I remember the uncertainty of it all the first time and the excitement of the experience,” said Weir, who has since done 20 half-marathons. “I had no real idea of what to expect … the physical and mental challenge versus my level of training. I also had no understanding of just how much the overall environment and energy of the other runners, spectators and supporters raise your level of performance. It all takes you to a different place versus any training run. I’m counting on this to pull me through on this much greater challenge. I’m a bit anxious right now, but excited for all of the unknowns that I will face from training to race day.”

He had signed up to run the full last year, but it was canceled, just like in 2020, because of the pandemic.

“I think I was meant to run it when I turned 60,” Weir said. “I am not sure I could do the 26.2 in any other city but my hometown. The quality of the race, the vibe of the city and especially the crowd, family and friend support will be exactly what I will need to give me a fighting chance to finish this.”

For his job at Westinghouse, Weir has traveled all over the world, from South Africa to Saudi Arabia. Runing through the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, he said, really gives the runner a deeper appreciation for the diversity of the city.

He typically runs on the country roads near Hempfield Park. When not running, he mixes in hikes on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.

“It’s just amazing what a good run can do to clear your mind and provide a feeling of accomplishment,” Weir said. “Running is like a gift to myself.”

He plans to do the 18-miler in North Park on March 29 called Just a Short Run. It’s a charity race.

Running in person this year through 14 Pittsburgh neighborhoods will definitely help him reach the finish line, he said.

It has for Melissa Smith, 48, of Oakmont.

“I am so looking forward to running in person,” she said. “Pittsburgh is unlike any other marathon. The city embraces all of the runners and when you run through the neighborhoods, they make you feel like a rock star.”

Overcoming injury

Smith ran the full Pittsburgh Marathon in 2009. Two weeks later, she completed a half-marathon in Cleveland, but developed a stress fracture in her right femur while running around mile 10. She kept running because she didn’t think it was serious.

Two weeks later, she went to the doctor because of the pain. She was in an air cast and on crutches for eight weeks and endured a few months of physical therapy.

“The doctor told me my femur could have snapped,” said Smith, a mother of three. “When I was injured and couldn’t run, my stress level was high and I was miserable. I needed to get back to running.”

She was able to, but in May 2021, she suffered a stress fracture in her right foot and was in a boot for eight weeks.

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Courtesy of Melissa Smith

Melissa Smith of Oakmont plans to run the half-marathon at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon on May 1. This photo was taken during the 2015 half-marathon in Pittsburgh.

 

Smith is ready for the half-marathon and plans to run with her husband, Toby, 54. They will start off together and then he will take off and leave her behind, she said.

Melissa Smith ran track at Mohawk High School, where she is now a teacher, but she didn’t venture out for long distances until after college. She lived in New York previously — just blocks away from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 — and would run regularly through Central Park.

She likes to train in Oakmont, as well as on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, and often jogs through Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Oakland. She has to be listening to music when she runs. It is not unusual for her to throw up at the finish line because of emotion and nerves, she said.

Pre-planning

To reach that finish line takes planning. P3R held a half-marathon kickoff training run Feb. 12 at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex in Pittsburgh’s South Side.

More than 300 runners completed a 5K or 10K.

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Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review

Runner Brian Thomas of Bloomfield waits with other runners before taking off on a training run for the upcoming Pittsburgh Marathon half-marathon Feb. 12 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side.

 

One of those was Brian Thomas of Bloomfield. He is running a new feature this year called the “Back Half Marathon” — the back half of the 26.2-mile course.

Thomas will be participating in his first half-marathon as a way to honor his friend of 15 years, Jennifer Leitkam of Mt. Lebanon, who died of cancer Oct. 24, 2021, at the age of 39.

Thomas, 48, ran the 5K at the training event.

“I did better than I expected,” he said. “When I am running, if I feel like quitting, I think of how hard treatment was for Jen and how she hung in there for her daughter to become a teenager and for her son’s 8th birthday in October. I am close to her kids. I’ve babysat them since they were babies.”

Running in memory of a friend

Thomas is part of a team raising money for the American Cancer Society in Jen’s name through the Pittsburgh DetermiNation Running Group.

Emma Craven of Kittanning is the community development manager for the DetermiNation endurance program, which partners with such events as a way to raise money.

“Running for charity makes every mile meaningful,” Craven said.

Thomas currently is the top fundraiser.

People can donate here.

Schooley said when he talks with those running for a charity, they tell him when they are having a bad day of training, they are inspired to keep going for the people they are running for.

“Some say they will do it one year, and I see them back the following year,” Schooley said. “It is always an extra motivation.”

It has been for Thomas, who first ventured out in November. He could barely run a mile. He has trained in Muay Thai (a martial art). When he can, he runs through Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville for hill workouts.

“This has been the toughest thing I have ever done,” Thomas said. “The weather here makes training outside difficult. I know this won’t be easy, but it wasn’t easy for Jennifer. She fought to live every day.”

When he found out there was a half-marathon course that goes through Bloomfield, he said it was meant to be.

“After my friend’s passing from to cancer — and due to her wishes — this seemed like the perfect avenue to honor her,” he said. “As a grieving person, it also gave me a positive outlet and way to clear my mind. After hearing about the ‘Back Half Marathon,’ it was the universe’s way of telling me I’m on the right path.”

Athletes such as Weir, Thomas and Melissa Smith represent the “runners of steel” mentality in Pittsburgh, said Schooley, who lives in South Fayette.

“Pittsburgh runners train through the most difficult times in the dead of winter,” Schooley said. “There is a mental toughness, and it takes mental fortitude to run when it’s 10 degrees and windy or 35 and raining. But there is a pot of gold at the finish line.”

Pace yourself

Helping to keep runners on the right path to reach the finish line are pacers such as Betsy Magovern of O’Hara. A pacer is a volunteer runner who runs a race at a specific pace for a target finish time or a target pace per mile.

Pacers help runners stay focused. It’s important to consider the weather and the changes in temperature and humidity during the event, especially in a long race. Pacers often carry a sign or wear a bright-colored top so they are visible.

“It is great to be back to live racing,” said Magovern, who has run 23 marathons. “I love being out there with the runners. It is energizing to be around them, and I love hearing their stories.”

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Magovern, 66, is part of P3R and Steel City Road Runners events as a pacer. She also is a certified running coach. She has been running for 46 years. She said the biggest mistake runners make is trying to go out too fast. Race conditions definitely can affect pace times. She talks with runners about what they want to accomplish.

“It is about the camaraderie of being with the other runners,” Magovern said. “They help motivate each other and pick each other up. I ask them if they need help, if there is anything I can do for them to get them to the finish line. I have had people I had helped wait for me at the finish line and introduce me to their friends and family.”

She knows the course and can help them navigate it. The split at the end of the Birmingham Bridge is a decisive spot in the event, she said.

“It’s a whole new journey when you make that right turn,” she said.

A journey Weir will experience for the first time.

“This split will be a defining moment for me,” he said. “It seemed impossible for me due to training commitment and desire. I saw all types of runners taking it on, and I am amazed but always said ‘not me.’ I’m ready for the end and a good beer with friends.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062, [email protected] or via Twitter .