On Saturday, the night before the Pittsburgh Marathon, 12 men will be introduced at a pasta dinner at Stage AE on the North Side.
Each will receive a neon-yellow shirt with a black-and-gold design and a foot tread on the back so that everyone who sees them will know they belong to a select group: the only people who have raced in all 21 Pittsburgh Marathons. They've already been given a nickname: the Sole Survivors.
None of them ever expected to come this far. But now that they're here, about to run that 26.2-mile course for the 22nd time, they wouldn't skip the tradition for anything.
"It started out like a nationalistic kind of thing -- I was proud to be from Pittsburgh," says Don Toy of Apollo, who turns 58 today. "And one led to two and three and four. And then after five or six, it was a must-do."
Tim Hewitt once ran the race with a freshly healed tibial stress fracture. This year he will miss his daughter's college graduation in California. "It's taken on new importance now that I know I'm one of 12," he says.
Don Slusser doesn't know how well he'll perform on Sunday -- over the years he's had four surgeries on his right knee, one on his left.
"I'm still running every day," he says. "I'm running a lot slower. It's going to be a challenge -- this year especially." Still, he'll be at the starting line: "You've got to support something that you don't have to go out of town for."
Marty Klanchar ran the Boston Marathon in 3:34:49 on April 18. It's his eighth year in a row running both Boston and Pittsburgh.
"It is important for me," says Mr. Klanchar, 53, who went to the University of Pittsburgh and now lives in State College. "And I enjoy doing it as well. So both of those factors play into that." He laughs. "I'll probably continue to do it even if I have to walk it."
Some of the men run multiple marathons every year, and others run only Pittsburgh. Some rack up 60 or more miles a week, others a lot less. All of them are happy to share their philosophy about running. And their advice.
• Know why you're out there.
In March, Mr. Hewitt, 56, who is a lawyer in Latrobe, completed the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational, walking and running on foot, pulling a 40- to 50-pound sled. It was his sixth -- from Knik to Nome and took 20 days, 7 hours and 17 minutes -- a new overall course record.
He's also run other ultramarathons like Badwater, a 135-mile march through Death Valley. His pursuits may seem unusual, but he believes they spring from a universal desire.
"I think everybody has some inclination to do something a little bit harder or a little bit faster or a little bit better in whatever their interest is ... If you run enough you begin to enjoy it," he says. "And once you begin to enjoy it, you begin to measure yourself in one way or another, whether it's more miles or faster miles or whatever."
For others, it's about the way running shapes everyday life.
"Running gives you a destination," says Joe Bujdos, 58, of McKeesport. "This feeling of being able to push yourself gives you the impression that you can do this forever."
Dirk Kalp, who's 61, started running cross-country when he was a student at Carnegie Mellon University; his dorm room overlooked the track and one day he looked and thought: Maybe I should try that sometime. Pittsburgh's first marathon in 1985 was his first, too.
"It's an avenue for being really healthy," says Mr. Kalp, who lives in Mount Pleasant Township. "I like the feeling of the exercise itself -- it feels good to be tired and sore at various points afterward. It's a good feeling to know you've got a muscle there that you didn't realize you had."
Mr. Kalp enjoyed running Pittsburgh so much he joined an even more select group. When money troubles sidelined the marathon for five years, he ran the course by himself on the day the race would have been held in 2004, carrying his own water, wearing his tag from the year before in the hope that drivers would give him room. "Because there wasn't the distraction of other people, I could sort of get a real sense of a neighborhood."
(Mr. Toy, Mr. Bujdos, Mr. Hewitt and Bob Zukas, another one of the 22-year veterans, also ran the marathon course after the race was canceled.)
Don and Tammy Slusser wouldn't be together if it weren't for running. They met at Indiana University of Pennsylvania's homecoming in 1983; she was a runner for the school and he was a visiting graduate. "Our first date was a 9-mile run," says Don, 59.
Tammy, 46, hasn't run every marathon but has been there every year -- and won twice, in 1994 and 2000. She first ran the race in 1989. Three years earlier, on an 89-degree day, Don proposed to her at the finish line.
"I was doing much better than I thought I would," he explains during a talk at their Monroeville home. He looks at Tammy, who sits across the room on the couch. "I actually intended to ask you at 15 miles, but I didn't want to stop."
Tammy smiles. "I'd have been shocked if he'd have stopped during the race," she says.
Bob Crawford of East Brady, who's 64 and a veteran of roughly 160 marathons, likes running because it gets him outside, closer to nature. He also likes them because he believes they reveal something of a runner's inner landscape. "At 20 miles, the world seems to change. Your mind says, 'Let's go running,' but your body's not up to that. That's when you find out a lot about yourself, what you're made of. You find out what you are."
• Be prepared.
If you've run through the winter and logged the miles, the veterans say, even a newcomer can handle a marathon.
Part of that preparation includes eliminating surprises. "Know the course well," Mr. Klanchar advises.
All of the runners appreciate the way it winds through neighborhoods and the way people line much of the course, cheering runners along. "Before you know it you're at the finish line," says Terry Moore of Cranberry, at 49 the youngest of the runners.
This year's race will be Bob Graham's 51st marathon. "It's a wonderful run," says Mr. Graham, who is 66 and lives in McCandless. "It's fun to see those different neighborhoods and take a foot tour of the city."
• Take on water.
Most of the runners talk about eating well before a race -- take it easy on pasta the night before, some warn -- but even more they suggest a strategy for hydrating.
Mr. Crawford advises drinking more water two days before. During the race, Mr. Klanchar says, "make sure you stop at all the water stops. Even if you don't feel you need it, stop and get some water."
"Take a bottle of water with you and drink it just before it starts," suggests Mr. Kalp. "That way you're not so overhydrated you're not worried about: where am I going to stop and pee?"
• Watch that climb into Oakland -- but don't obsess over it.
One of the toughest parts of the course, many agree, is the trip across the Birmingham Bridge and up the Forbes Avenue hill into Oakland around the 11-mile mark.
Yet tough doesn't mean killing: "I've always felt that hill," Mr. Klanchar says, "but it's never really bothered me that much because I'm still very fresh, and if you've gone out at a reasonable pace you're used to doing hills like that."
Besides, Mr. Crawford says, "Once you get to the top you'll have so much confidence, it'll definitely help."
But it's not all uphill.
"The last two miles are the easy part," Mr. Crawford says. "It'll suck you in like a vacuum."
• Know your pace and stick to it.
The one piece of advice nearly all of the runners share is the one they say presents the biggest challenge: not starting out too fast, especially the first 13 miles.
"You have to have a plan and you have to run that plan," Mr. Hewitt warns, "because it can be sneaky and it can destroy you, too."
"There was a year that I thought I was going to take the bus back," Mr. Toy recalls. "I thought I was done."
At mile 18 he started walking, just one step after another. "And then I found, hey, I got it back," he says, finishing strong. "So you just have to listen t o your body and back off when it tells you to back off."
Then again: "It's not OK to walk and it's not OK to quit," Mr. Hewitt says. "Even though your mind's going to tell you to do that, you don't need to do that. Your body typically doesn't break down that quickly."
Either way, pay attention to your body but know when to use your head.
"It's 80 percent mental," Mr. Moore says. "The human body can do a lot if mentally you push yourself to do it."
Mr. Kalp suggests enjoying the bands, the crowds, the rhythm of the course. Distractions, he said, "get your mind off of whatever's bothering you."
• Challenge yourself -- but enjoy yourself.
At the first Pittsburgh Marathon, Mr. Toy was passing through Oakland when he heard another runner goofing with the crowd. It was Mr. Bujdos, who had lived in the fraternity house next door when they were students at Indiana. They've run every marathon together since. Mr. Toy wades into the crowd and cheers Mr. Bujdos as he runs by. Mr. Bujdos, who's run 141 marathons, unleashes his Mick Jagger impression. ("I can still do two of his moves at the 22-mile mark," he says.) They jump in and sing with the bands along the course.
"You know," Mr. Toy says, "to do this for 22 years you can't be dead serious about it. You'll drive yourself crazy, especially if you want to be competitive and you want to run a certain time ... you know, 'I didn't get my time two years in a row, so maybe I should quit.'
"That's not gonna happen. I'll quit when my body tells me to quit."
Leslie Rubinkowski , a former Post-Gazette features writer, teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh and at Goucher College, Maryland, and is the author of "Impersonating Elvis." She ran her first mile last May. First Published May 9, 2011 4:00 AM