Wednesday, May 9, 2012

#407: 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon

A friend asked me, "How long does it take to train for a marathon?" I didn't hesitate. "51 years." This race report could be a novel, but I'll try to spare you that. Still, there's a lot to say.


The 7 days before the marathon were verrrry long. Once the calender said "7 days," my obsession kicked into high gear. I wore shoes all the time so I wouldn't stub my toes. I questioned every bite of food. I saw myself running every time I closed my eyes. I promoted my fundraiser relentlessly. Monday night, I ran with the Run This Town kids from the Y and we did speed work: exactly what I should not have been doing the week before a marathon. That night, I lay in bed fretting over my sore quads. Had I hurt myself? Had I burned up too much energy? Would I recover in time for the race? 

By Wednesday, I was stone crazy. After a couple of hours of checking the clock, I got up at 4:30 and wrote out my agenda for the race weekend. Travel time. Sightseeing with Mrs P. Time at the race expo. Rest days. Race day. Then I wrote my packing list. Race clothes. Spare clothes. Street clothes.By the time I went to work, I was packed and ready to go. I ran 4 easy miles on the Legacy Trail to work off some nerves, then did my shift at the desk at the Y. Our LIVESTRONG at the YMCA class was particularly sweet that night. We had a good workout, then during stretch and reflect time, everyone wished me good luck. Rehearsal that night was long, but productive. Our directrix, the Mad Russian told me to win my marathon, and I assured her that I intended to do so.

Thursday was travel day. Mrs P packed and told me when she was finished so I could load the bags into the car. On the way out of town, I stopped to say goodbye to the gang at the Y, and to add my brother PP to our membership. He had driven up from Florida to watch the dogs, and wanted a place to exercise while he was in town. The lunchroom gang all wished me well, and I insisted on a big hug from Coach Melissa. Then we were off. The drive was lovely. Not even the great flat plains of central Ohio could dampen my spirits. We arrived at Mum's house just after dark, only to discover that I had packed everything except our suitcase. I had all my race clothes and spare gear. Nothing else. We added trips to Walmart and Goodwill to our itinerary...

Which way to the wharf?

Ran a marathon and all I got...
Friday morning, Mrs P and I drove the 2 hours to Pittsburgh in about 1:30. I got completely lost trying to find the entrance to the Monongahela parking wharf, and we wound up on the North Side, two rivers away, in the shadow of Heinz Field. A friendly waitress at a street cafe (something unheard of during the sooty days of my childhood in Pittsburgh) gave us directions, and we parked by the river. We explored the streets where my starting corral would be, and traced the route to the starting line. Hiked to the convention center to pick up my bib (number 4952), my race shirt, and my swag bag. The expo was a big trade show with booths representing gear manufacturers, retailers, charities associated with the race, and runner services. I spent as little money as possible, and we headed back home, stopping on Liberty avenue for a slice of the best pizza either of us had tasted since we moved from Brooklyn. That night, we bought some clothes at Goodwill in New Bethlehem, and underwear at the Walmart in Clarion. 

That's a runner's leg?
Love all up and down my arms

The girls over my heart
The Strong Eight
 Saturday, we relaxed on Mum's porch. Mrs P got out the Sharpies and wrote the names of all my sponsors on my arms, legs, and chest. My sister B came down to the house with a $20 bill and said she wanted to write her own name. "I want to write it on your butt," she joked. I was too tired to resist, and dropped trou right there on the porch. "Now I'll be riding your ass the whole way." Then it was time to go to bed. I did my final gear check, then turned out the lights, only to wake up every hour until 3:30 when the alarm sounded. 
One more for the 5
What I won't do for 20 bucks

Race day started with a toasted bagel and strawberry jelly. I didn't think my stomach would tolerate coffee, so I drank a couple of bottles of water. Checked the numbers on the fundraiser. Took in the love from my friends on Facebook. Rubbed on Mum's poodle, Cujo for a while. Then it was time to wake Mrs P, collect B, and hit the road. They slept while I drove the dark country roads under a gigantic full moon. It was so bright, it looked like the sun was about to come up. We twisted and turned through the night and I did my best to think about anything but the race. Fat chance. In the city, I took the wrong ramp off the Veterans Bridge, and we somehow wound up on top of Mt Washington, across the river from town and our parking spot. B managed to get me back, and we finally parked on the wharf. We walked along the river for a while, then climbed the old, concrete steps to Stanwix street.


Anybody got a light?
What's it like to line up with 25,000 runners? It isn't like anything at all. We walked up to Gateway Center, where the crowd curved around the bend toward the starting line. B wondered if there had ever been this many non-smokers downtown before. I could tell she was jonesing for one, but suspected she might have been beaten to death if she had tried to light up. Back at corral "E" where I would be starting, we found my pace group. I was shooting for 11:30/mile. I turned back and realized that there were about 40 runners behind me. I didn't bother doing the math. I was at the back of the biggest pack I had ever seen. Mrs P put her hand on my chest and confirmed what I felt: my heart was pounding. Just before the gun, we hugged and kissed and they left me to hop and stretch in the street. At 7:30 there was a great cheer, and the throng started shuffling toward the starting line. The race had begun.
Only 24,960 runners to beat

I had occasional running partners, curious about the names scrawled all over me, or the "Survivor" tag the folks at the LIVESTRONG booth had given me to wear. There were the people encouraging us through every neighborhood with water, fruit slices, and cowbells. We crossed the Allegheny three times, then went down the North Side to the West End Bridge over the Ohio. I was feeling great as we started up Carson Street, the main drag through the South Side: my family's first home when Gramma Johnson's parents brought her here from Ukraine in 1904. As we approached the Birmingham bridge and the 11 mile mark, I felt strong and confident. I had trained hard and was ready to begin the 5 mile climb to the Frick mansion in Shadyside. 


Uhhh... Keeneland's hills look nothing like this
I thought there were hills in the Bluegrass. I really did. They felt like hills to me. They were not hills. THIS was a hill. My form broke down quickly. My head dipped, my shoulders fell forward, and my upper back started to ache. Walk breaks became longer and more frequent. People on the side of the road would clap and encourage me, then ask if I was OK. Starting around mile 15, every step I took involved a cramp in my upper calves. Over and over I wanted to stop. Over and over I told myself aloud "Just keep moving." I stretched my neck up, trying to run tall. The angle of the climb was torture on my calves and hamstrings. The dreaded sweep bus pulled up beside me the first of many times and a ghoulish Samaritan stuck his head out the front window. "You want a ride?" I would rather have finished on bloody stumps than to get on that bus. I smiled, clenched my fists, and waved him on again and again. My heart and lungs were strong, but my muscles were failing me. I couldn't believe a person could hurt so much in so many places at once. Again and again, I looked down at the sweat smeared names written on my legs and arms. Donors. Lost loved ones. Fellow cancer fighters. They were the ones who got me through. There was no way I could have stayed off that bus on my own.
The dreaded "Sweep Bus"
Marathon: Robert Parks Johnson - FINISH in 6:21:53. Pace: 14:34. At 14:14:03.
In the shadow of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette,
 where my father, uncle and grandfather worked
Mrs P and B had managed to sneak into the VIP grandstands. It wasn't too hard, since the winners had finished over 4 hours earlier. I saw them cheering and snapping pictures just as I passed and their smiles gave me the last boost I needed to run across the finish line. A lady handed me my medal. Two young girls doused me with water. I staggered to a photo area where a man snapped my picture and handed me a business card. I guzzled Gatorade and water and grabbed a banana before wandering to a bench at the entrance of Point Park and prayed that the girls would somehow stumble across me. We embraced. "We did it," I said to Mrs P. "YOU did it," she corrected me. "WE did it," I insisted. "We kicked cancer's ass." My sister looked at the two of us and said, "You sure did." "We did it," I repeated. "F**k cancer."
WE did it

Polly, Marmaduke, and Mrs P
Riding back to Mum's was agony. My legs were seized with little cramps from my ankles to my hips. My seat was tipped all the way back and I slept most of the way, waking up from time to time as one spasm or another stabbed me. Mrs P sat in the back seat petting my head. B drove, singing along to country music on the radio. "When did my sister turn into a redneck?" I wondered sleepily. At Mums, the family greeted us. Hugs and congratulations all around. We ate something, I don't remember what. We opened a case of Iron City Beer and I drank three or four while kids and dogs played in the yard. I had stretched and used my foam roller as soon as we got home, and now I sat on the chaise lounge, my legs punishing me every time I tried to move them. My medal was still hanging around my neck. I looked around and thought to myself, "This just might be the happiest day of my life."

Mrs P and me before the race
My niece and a buddy
Nobody loves you like your little sister

The next morning, I checked my fundraiser page. $3490. I still have a few pledges coming in, so we'll be rounding that up a little. 


Survivor? Damn right, I am
  • The Pittsburgh was a very reckless choice for a first marathon.
  • I need to spend a lot more time building up my core and leg strength.
  • I want to be several pounds lighter before I take on my next 26.2.
  • A four week taper might be just a little too long.
  • I missed a lot of early walk breaks, and need a louder alarm so I can hear it in heavy traffic.
  • I need a lot more speed and hill work if I'm going to enjoy my next big race.
  • I have the best, most supportive, loving friends and family in the universe.
  • God is great.
  • Cancer is a wussy.
  • There really is no place like home.
  • I am a by-God marathoner.

My God, what a great day for a run.


Oh by the way, Living Strong at the Y will be accepting donations until Sunday, May 13. You know, just in case you were waiting to see if I would actually do it! 


  1. this is polly and those are my proud puppies and so proud of you bob that u did it all the way

  2. So awesome. F#*k cancer indeed sir.


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