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On the Run

Could the Pittsburgh Marathon be getting a second wind?

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My very first apartment within the city limits was right on the Pittsburgh Marathon route. Until that May, I never gave marathon running any thought, but waking up to a marathon passing by was a transforming experience. There they were, pushing themselves to the outermost limits of human endurance -- their breath and footsteps sounding ragged in the early morning air. And there I was, sipping coffee. In my jammies.

"Marathons were 'hot' at the time," recalls former Pittsburgh Press reporter Bill Modoono about the Pittsburgh Marathon's origins in the 1980s. "Pittsburgh and Chicago sort of started at the same time and were kind of vying for the No. 3 spot behind Boston and New York," he recalls -- and local TV stations covered the whole event.

The man with the vision, Larry Kuzmanko, remembers proposing the marathon to then Mayor Richard Caliguiri, who "shared his vision to try to bring all the city neighborhoods into the event to really join the city."

And just a few years after its inception, in 1988, the Pittsburgh Marathon was a qualifier for the women's Olympic team. The race was won by Margaret Groos, who set a record that year. In 2000, it served as a qualifier for U.S. men's Olympics team. Unfortunately, it was exceedingly hot that year, which meant the finishing times were bad.

That year, a colleague of mine was running his first marathon. Despite the pounding heat, when I saw him near mile-marker 23, my friend looked good. Later, though, he said he felt like he'd ridden an unsaddled horse from Boston to Pittsburgh; his big toenail turned black and a few days later fell off.

He swore he'd never do it again. Of course, the next year he did.

As it turned out, he didn't get many more chances. After the 2003 race, the marathon went on hiatus, due to the city's ongoing financial problems. In its last year, according to runners' Web site Cool Running (www.coolrunning.com), Pittsburgh drew the finest international field in the history of the event, which was notoriously grueling because of the vagaries of the weather and the city's topography.

Now, Cincinnati (?!?) has taken our spot in the marathon calendar, running their Cincinnati Flying Pig marathon May 6 this year.

As Modoono said via e-mail, "Pittsburgh wanted to love it; at one time the prestige of the event made it a big deal. But when the prestige of marathon racing started to wane, it slipped in terms of public support and it was simply too expensive and too much of a logistical nightmare."

I've always thought that interest waned when the route was changed -- when it ended at Heinz Field instead of the Point, which is the perfect spot for it. Fans may recall that in 2002, Kenyan runner Eliud Kering nearly won the race before getting confused just outside Heinz Field and straying a few hundred yards. In the years to come, the marathon seemed to lose its way as well.

But the flame still burns in Larry Kuzmanko, now the director of Allegheny County Special Events. He reports being contacted by local officials several months ago about reviving the marathon; he and other marathon supporters think that Pittsburgh will embrace the marathon again.

"It's been hard to get it going again, because when it stopped we lost so much momentum," says Michele Fetting, another organizer hoping to restart the marathon. The late Bob O'Connor "was very interested and exited," she says. And County Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl are game as well.

"There are a lot of details to work out -- sponsorship and so on," Fetting adds. "But it's going to happen. We should make an official announcement in the not-too-distant future."

So there's hope for the marathon that once joined neighborhoods. At least I'm not the only one who misses spectacle of the Pittsburgh Marathon.

The chance to show off the city's neighborhoods. The thrill of seeing the wheelchairs and elite runners. Even the parties along the streets -- one of which included free beer distributed by a wily former city councilman. But most of all, the rush from seeing the thousands of mostly local amateurs (over 6,000 in 2003) push themselves to their absolute limit. That kind of dedication deserves another go.

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