The Run for Roch
Admittedly, I wasn't creative when planning my race strategy for the Run for Roch. It's a rough course, a really rough course, and I had success in 2007 by just running hard from the start and gapping everyone. That was the race's weakest field- Eric Shafer was second, but he wasn't on top of his game thanks to grad school. It's a course, though, that if you build enough of a lead, the topography can discourage people from closing the gap. It's on Mount Washington, overlooking the city of Pittsburgh, and the course is an out-and-back on Grandview Avenue and an out-and-back on the McArdle Roadway, which descends and climbs the side of the mountain.
It's a good time to mention that the Run for Roch is probably the hardest real 5k course I have ever run. The Ohio Township 5k is technically worse, but that's because it was just thrown together on some roads that aren't fit for pedestians. The Run for Roch was developed by coach John Papa of Slippery Rock University and Rich Wright of Baldwin High School, it's a true competitive course, but it is a monster. I ran 15:56 to win the 2007 race, and I have no idea how I did it then, it is now all a blur to me.
I got involved in the race in 2006, after I moved back to Pittsburgh from Richmond. I had metRoch Furguiele in 2000 at a WPIAL alumni run and got to know him the next few years as I grew into the Pittsburgh running community, particularly as a friend of Scott Sehon and Dave O'Hara from Mt. Lebanon and Larry and Brian Quinn from Baldwin. His positivity influenced my attitude and I came to know him as a principled and talented athlete. He was a member of the Pharaoh Hounds and a volunteer coach at Pitt, but in 2004 he drowned while on a family camping trip in West Virginia. His parents, Roch and Donna, started a scholarship fund for Pittsburgh city high school track athletes to go to Slippery Rock. I've thrown myself into promoting the race to improve our numbers and bolster our case to potential sponsors. We've financed a few scholarships, but the goal will always be to have a great race befitting Roch's legacy as one of the greatest runners in Pittsburgh Public Schools history.
This year, I was going to do the same. Ryan Sheehan and Jeff Weiss weren't here to dominate, so I guess I had to be the one.
I started out hard, harder than I had all year. I was in the lead within seconds. Roch's mom, Donna, was ahead of us in a Corvette, cheering me on. In fact, I heard people cheering for me the whole time. It was great. Less than 90 seconds in, I felt someone on my shoulder. Steve Kirkland. He's been having a great year, with breakout 5ks at the Brentwood and Fathers' Day races. He might be ready to take that next step and take me out, so I knew I had to push it now and nip his hopes in the bud. I opened my stride up coming down the first hill and hit the half mile mark at 2:30 even. The second uphill is probably the most miserable on the course and by the time I got to the top, where Matt Ciccone and Amy Lazarus were cheering, I was back in the lead. Or so I thought.
A smaller dude in back shorts flew by, opening a huge gap down the hill. I heard people cheering for Bobby. I thought it was this Baldwin grad who runs at Louisville, and as he increased his lead, I thought to myself "Ok, this is it, I'm losing this." My mind wasn't on the race, I thought about my cat. Not the right attitude or focus, but Bobby ran 16:09 at a really hot race in Greensburg where I just snuck in under 17, so I was worried and a little blown away. I relaxed a little and felt Sean Staltari, a proud Mt. Lebanon alumnus, on my shoulder. I would ordinarily love to have him with whom to run, but he has signed with St. Joseph's, a bitter conference rival of the Richmond Spiders, so I figured it was time to start hammering again. I started to reel Bobby in, passing the mile in 5:23 (pretty darn slow, despite the hills), and catching him at the first turnaround.
I moved quickly to put distance on him and the rest of the chase pack, which included Sean, Steve, Pharaoh Hounds Greg Byrnes and Tim Wu, Shadyside Academy alumnus Andrew Bell, and some dude in green shorts who looked like Sam Weiser, all in hot pursuit.
Right then, Larry Quinn ran by on his way out on the course and told me to race like a man.
At this point, I thought, there were eight guys who could win this race. If I was going to be the one, I would have to string the field out so they couldn't chase me in a pack. They wouldn't all have the strength to come after me and keep the pack intact. After cresting the second worst hill on the course, I started to fade a bit, but took the next downhills hard. Then, Bell was right there. Every time I tried to recover from putting a move on someone to get away, there was another challenger there to take a shot. Back up the initial hard hill, I dropped him and tried to keep my momentum going down the hill. Green shorts caught me then, and I pulled away. We were both going top speed down the awful hill that leads into the McArdle Roadway. I continued to hold him off until the turnaround halfway down the mountain.
I am just plain bad at turnarounds, and Greenshorts got the jump on me. I was a step behind him climbing the hill, and the last turn to the church at the very top of the hill was my undoing. When I got to the top, I saw he wasn't too far ahead. I could get him if I cast my fate with a half-mile kick to the finish. I listened and heard steps behind me. I wasn't sure who it was, but if I tried this kick and it failed, or just like every other time someone was just keying off of me, I would at least get sucked up by a few pursuers. I decided to be conservative, hold off anyone who was behind me and take a shot at Greenshorts if I felt I had a chance a little closer to the line.
As it turns out, I didn't, and I finished in second place at 16:25. The winner turned out to be a 34-year-old Irish fellow named Conor McGee from new York who was visiting his sister-in-law and found the race online. He told me how he was running scared the last half mile, which flattered and infuriated me, because I kicked myself for not taking another swing at him.
Not to be egotistical, but I feel like I made the race a bit exciting by pushing the pace and being competitive. I hope I made everyone else run faster. Even though I lost, it was an exciting race, and I really really enjoyed it.
I was struck by the consistency with which I run this race- the last three years I have finished with the same time and place. Moreover, the general timing of the top places has been similar
I know I don't feel fast, but I feel strong. That I averaged 5:17 for 5k after opening in 5:23 makes me feel pretty good, but not as good as winning the race would have been. I trained though the race, even though I dropped my mileage. That wasn't so much intentional as it just happened.
The women's race was great, too with Michelle Corkum running like crazy to hold off Laura O'Hara, who took the lead with less than 1200 meters left and cruised to victory and a new course record.
We had 294 finishers, our second highest turnout, and I think that with competitions like those, we held a race that would have pleased Roch. Sadly, Dave O'Hara was unable to run, thanks to an Achilles tendon problem, but he got to see the
finish as he clipped off the chips on people's shoes.
I hope the race resumes its growth next year. We do face competition from two other big events- the Pittsburgh Triathlon the next morning and the Turtle Trot, an absolutely flat 5k in Turtle Creek.
People who want to run the Turtle Trot clearly know what they want, and it isn't a hilly course. What we can offer is a challenging course and a great experience. I was happy to see some familiar runners: 10 Hounds, including Dave Hackworth pushing his two sons at 7:37 pace, Dave and Tricia Keen with Mara and Mati; Jim Schweitzer, whom I met at some race last year and convinced to come to Mt. Washington; Jess and Nick, two PT students I recruited at the Greenfield Glide last year, Dave Torrey and a crew of FrontRunners, Nate Wildfire, Regina Anderson, Pokey, Scott Rosenblum, Clay Northouse, Mike Bode, Laurel Chiapetta, Erin Egal, Karen Nichols, Sara Roberts and of course, my mom and sister, who ran together until my mom cut Hallie off at the end (accidentally, she says) and improved their time from last year by 15 seconds.