In Pittsburgh: A Race, a Roar, and a Prisoner’s Running Shoes

Between fatherhood, writing, and promoting, 2014 has been a crazy year.  I haven’t been able to dedicate nearly enough time to running over the past few months, so I was hesitant to participate in one of my usual races – The Great Race, in Pittsburgh.  The Great Race has 5K and 10K options, and I have always chosen to run in the 10K which is point-to-point, meaning you do not end up where you started.  The point-to-point course can be troublesome for logistics, but allows runners to experience the beauty of Pittsburgh while traveling 6.2 miles through the streets on a mostly downhill course.

I don’t usually write race recaps, but I’m going to do this one – but in a different manner.  Below are photos from potions of the wonderful course and a song from my iPod playlist that corresponds to that mile.  Before you ask how I managed to take photos and listen to music while running along with 10,000+ people, it’s because I decided to take my time and enjoy the event rather than focus on achieving a certain time.  It made the experience very enjoyable and made me appreciate Pittsburgh even more.


The Start

photo 1 (4)

With this race, there is a slight challenge with actually get to the starting line.  As has happened to me many times before, I watched competitors line up to start while I was still standing in a line to simply get to the starting area.  The standing and waiting are frustrating and it’s something I dread each year.  However, I suppose this is the price you pay to participate in 10K with this many people.  In this case, the race is worth the wait.

Playlist Song:  Long Hard Times to Come – theme music from the show Justified


Mile 1

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It’s slow going for the first mile, as everyone is bottled up for a downhill start and then a sudden uphill climb onto Forbes Ave.  Things spread out a bit as runners make their way through Squirrel Hill, but it’s still a part of the race where you can expect to see one or two people take a tumble.  The noise from the spectators is motivating for most of us.

This year I had the pleasure of seeing my wife and 3 yr old daughter standing on one of the corners.  I beamed as I prepared to hear my little girl cheer her daddy on.  As I passed by she inexplicably roared like a monster, which I chose to interpret as her version of a motivational speech.

Playlist Song:  Little Monster by Royal Blood


Mile 2

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Very close to the start of Mile 2, runners were cheered on by a pack of greyhounds.  That’s right – representatives from a cool organization called the Steel City Greyhounds , including some very interested dogs, were on hand.  SCG is a non-profit that promotes the adoption of retired racing greyhounds and their presence did not go unnoticed.

I did my best to ignore some of the condescending looks I got from the dogs as I meandered by.  They are beautiful dogs, but a little pompous when it comes to the subject of speed.

Near the end of Mile 2, we cruise by the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.  One of my favorite sights on the campus is the piece of art in the above photo.  I’m not sure where those people are walking, but I’m impressed by their extraordinary balance.

Throughout the race, runners pass by CMU, Pitt, Duquesne University, Carlow University, and Point Park University.  The culture of higher education in Pittsburgh is something that is often overlooked, but may be one of the reasons the city has been named one of the most literate in the country.  Ahh… college.

Playlist song:  Whiskey Hangover by Godsmack


Mile 3

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The 5th Avenue stretch of the race is downhill and takes runners through the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.  In addition to beautiful campus views, participants pass by fabulous museums and picturesque churches.  Since I was doing my best not to fall while running, I managed to not photograph most of that great imagery, but got a nice photo of some lady in a purple shirt.

But in the distance, you can see the gaggle of runners descending into one of my favorite sections of Pittsburgh.  When you can see how many people are in this race with you, it’s inspiring and motivating.  Hopes run high.

Playlist song:  High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen


Mile 4

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Toward the end of Mile 4, you hit the Boulevard of the Allies.  Things get a little tight here as guard rails and concrete barriers funnel the runners into a narrow stream of exertion.  The view of downtown is incredible and your mind starts to believe you are on the home stretch.  You aren’t.  If you studied your elevation chart, you know there is one more challenge ahead.

Playlist song:  Know Your Enemy by Rage Against the Machine


Mile 5

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The Boulevard of the Allies gets a little feisty and ascends upward toward Duquesne University.  Once you get under the elevated walkway you pass by the Allegheny County Jail, which is the brick structure on the left in the photos.  Often, the prisoners stand in the windows and watch the runners pass.

As an aside:  Did you know 4 out of 5 prisoners prefer a very specific running shoe?
The Nike Free, of course.


Playlist song:  Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash


Mile 6

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Into downtown Pittsburgh we go!  The road flattens out and people pick up the pace.  Here, runners take a lightning speed tour of modern Pittsburgh and any preconceived notions of the old Rust Belt city are tossed aside.  Buildings that house biotech, health care, and banking giants cast shadows over quality restaurants and coffee shops.  Now, we are really in the home stretch and headed to the intersection of the three rivers that have shaped this city.

Playlist Song:  The Last Mile by Cinderella (Don’t judge, I like my hair bands)


Mile 0.2

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Here is a fairly lousy photo of the finish line crowd at Point State Park.  The mass of people in this area makes the post-race search for food and water a little challenging, but tolerable.  The best part about this finish area is that you are a short walk away from multiple parking garages and can easily take a stroll across a bridge to get the North Shore.  Unfortunately, this year’s race was on the same day as a Steelers game, so parking and traffic were a bit of a problem.  However, the overall race experience was once again positive.

The faces of the runners in the park tell the story.  For some runners, this was their first race and they trained long and hard.  For others, it was a warm-up for a fall half-marathon or marathon.  Everyone fights their own little battle.

Playlist song:  Trenches by Pop Evil


For those of us who were not participating in order to achieve a specific running goal, it was a great way to appreciate a city that is just now starting to get the proper amount of attention in literature and by the movie industry.

Pittsburgh is not only a great setting for a story.  It’s a great setting for your story.

What is your ideal running city?  Why?


J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, and Measure Twice.  He is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

RESOLVE has been named a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization and was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine.
witter @JJHensleyauthor



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An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.

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