Newlyweds Josh and Jessica Troiano ducked into First Presbyterian Church before dawn Sunday morning, the moon still hanging over Downtown, the streets still quiet.
Within hours, a record 19,000 entrants would navigate the streets of Pittsburgh for the fourth running of the marathon since its rebirth in 2009.
But for a moment, in the peaceful dark wooden pews, the Troianos -- in sneakers and running shorts -- bowed their heads for "The Blessing of the Runners."
2012 Pittsburgh Marathon
Kenya's James Kirwa and Morocco's Malika Mejdoub claim gold medals in the 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon. (Video by Andrew Rush; 5/6/2012)
The Rev. Tom Hall -- through prayer, hymns, and a little humor -- delivered a 30-minute, nondenominational service to some 60 parishioners, clad mostly in running gear and not their Sunday best.
"Why are you running today?" Rev. Hall asked. "You're going to ask yourself that again around mile 20."
He shared the story made famous by the movie "Chariots of Fire" -- and the faith that Eric Liddell, who was a devout Christian, ran with.
"Tim Tebow had nothing on Eric Liddell," Rev. Hall quipped.
Prayers titled "We're Reminded that We Don't Run Alone" and "We Ask God to Help Us Finish Well" were shared.
The organ blared, and congregation members eventually filed out to find their places in the starting corral on Liberty Avenue.
Among them was Glen Raggio, a marathoner from Dallas, who arrived early, in his singlet and racing bib.
"Faith always comes first," he said.
As for the Troianos?
Just two weeks earlier, the couple stood in the front of the church on their wedding day.
Sunday, they returned for some inspiration before setting off to run the half-marathon.
"I need all the help I can get," Mr. Troiano said.
Warm day for runners
For the first time in years, it didn't rain for Sunday's marathon.
But the weather still created problems for some runners and forced organizers to fly red flags starting at 11:30 a.m. because of the heat.
At least 365 were treated in the medical tent and 60 -- a record number -- were transported to area hospitals, said Ronald Roth of UPMC, who helps coordinate the marathon's emergency medical services.
The race started with a white flag, was upped to a yellow cautionary flag around 10:30 a.m. and advanced to a red flag by 11:30 a.m. as the temperature reached the high 70s.
Runners are trained to not attempt a personal best when the flags are red.
The flags are determined, Dr. Roth said, based on a calculation that mimics what the runner feels.
That figure is derived from the air temperature, a second reading that takes humidity into account, and radiant energy.
Dr. Roth said there was a brief spike in visits to the medical tent following the half-marathon, but it leveled off.
"We were on what we thought was an oh-my-God course, but it came down to [a level that equals] an average marathon that is warm."
Ken Bestine defined a good sport at the end of 26.2 miles on Sunday.
Mr. Bestine, 45, defended his title in the wheelchair division in 1:32:45, despite taking a wrong turn and losing several minutes near the finish when he was steered wrong briefly by police.
His time came close to setting a record, but he shrugged off the lost time with a smile.
"It happens," he said.
A seasoned hand-cyclist, Mr. Bestine has been in a wheelchair for 10 years following a motorcycle accident near his home in Clymer, N.Y.
But he's been racing for the last five, logging some 150-175 miles a week.
"This is a dream," said Mr. Bestine, who dedicated the race to former winner Attila Domos.
The mayor's run
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl ran Sunday as part of a relay team running the 26.2 miles.
Running to raise funds for the Pittsburgh Promise, Mr. Ravenstahl and his four team members finished the race in 3:36:53.
Last year, Mr. Ravenstahl ran the half-marathon to raise money for the Pittsburgh Promise.
His team finished 62nd out of 642 coed relay teams, and 100th overall.
"We didn't know what to expect," he said. "We had five amateur racers to say the least."
Mr. Ravenstahl ran the final leg of the race, which came down Liberty Avenue through Bloomfield, Lawrenceville and the Strip District. He finished his 4.7 miles in 40:34.
"It's a great event," he said. "All the neighborhoods are out supporting the runners, cheering them on. I remember running last year and they were still out. It's a great Pittsburgh event, and there's no better way to experience the city than to run through its neighborhoods, run over its bridges, and everyone had a chance to do that today."
Exact figures weren't yet available for how much money Mr. Ravenstahl's team contributed to the Pittsburgh Promise this year.
Last year, he raised more than $5,000.
The Pittsburgh Promise is a charity Mr. Ravenstahl helped found in 2006 designed to provide scholarships to Pittsburgh Public School students.
"It's a great charity doing wonderful things," he said. "It has over 3,000 kids in college already. Anything we can do to support the Pittsburgh Promise, we do."
The Cheerathoners are found along almost every mile of the course.
They are local businesses, youth groups and other organizations that support the runners.
Some are four-legged, including groups of shelter animals. And there are the Steel City Greyhounds, a group of greyhound rescue dogs and their human friends who come out every year to greet the runners at the corner of Frankstown and Fifth avenues in Homewood.
Like their human counterparts, these dogs were born to run.
Now retired from dog racing, some are up for adoption through Steel City Rescue and others are now living with the group's volunteers.
The greyhounds are a favorite among the marathon runners.
"At mile 18, the runners are starting to lag. They say that was the pick-me-up they need," said David Anderson, Steel City Greyhounds treasurer.
The long journey to the finish line begins long before Marathon Day.
This year, marathon organizers invited participants to share their inspiring stories as "Runners of Steel" by sending them to the marathon website.
Among the many submissions were people who have overcome health issues and weight problems.
Eight years, ago, Andrew Rosebaugh of Youngstown, Ohio, couldn't walk without a walker or cane because of injuries suffered in a traffic accident. After therapy, the 31-year-old teacher was able to walk again.
But he led a sedentary lifestyle and put on weight. When he was diagnosed with a liver ailment, that was his wake-up call.
He decided to lead a healthier life and stared running in May 2010. "I couldn't even run a quarter-mile. Then I tried a half and then one mile. It kind if snowballed after that," he said.
Mr. Rosebaugh ran his first full marathon in September 2010, followed by four more in 2011. This was his first time in Pittsburgh, and he plans to run a 50-mile ultramarathon later this summer.
On the eve of the race, he was looking forward to seeing the city's neighborhoods "without the stress of having to drive and negotiate the city. It's always a driving drama."
Many people set new goals for themselves when they turn 40. But they don't often decide to compete in a marathon.
But Ashli Molinero, an assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology at the University of Pittsburgh, set her mind to it and started training in earnest in January.
She was born with spina bifida and walks on crutches. She competed in this year's marathon using a hand cycle.
She started working out with trainers at Urban Active this year.
"They've been so supportive with the cross-training. That's really important -- not just for people with disabilities, but anyone," she said.
Her goal was three hours; she finished in 2:15.
Just steps before the 20-mile mark on Highland Park's Bryant Street, runners hear local jazz trombonist Hill Jordan, who has become a marathon fixture. His band plays a mix of jazz and funk to keep the runners going. This year, he and the band Machete gave the atmosphere a more Latin flavor. Mr. Jordan always weaves in songs like "Gonna Fly Now: Theme from Rocky" and "Chariots of Fire" in honor of race day. And when he sees a runner looking tired or discouraged, he shouts out their number and sometimes gets a smile out of them. "They get a kick out of it," he said. "At 20 miles, they need a boost."
Bloomfield loves to throw a good block party, and Liberty Avenue is always lined with spectators. This year, some rang cowbells and danced to live bands and DJs, while people watched from tables set up outside several Bloomfield restaurants.
It's a party for the spectators, but not for the runners. The temperature was rising as the large wave of runners passed through Bloomfield.
Many decided to slow down before the final stretch to the finish line.
Around 11 a.m., race officials decided to raise the red flag to warn of heat-related health risks. Minutes before, two runners shared an ambulance ride from Liberty Avenue to nearby hospitals.
Another inspired runner, 42-year-old teacher Laura Boyd, said she battled through the heat and fatigue by remembering her late son, Adam, whom she kept in her heart and on her mind.
"When I'm in pain, I remember the pain he went through and it keeps me going," said Mrs. Boyd, of Fallowfield, Washington County, who was running as part of "Team Odyssey," the official running team of the Children's Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation.
Young Adam died at the age of 14 from the rare pediatric cancer, which often affects children under the age of 5, and his sister Amanda was diagnosed during the same week in December 1999.
Now 15, Amanda has been in remission for 12 years, and she was one of dozens of supporters on the sidelines for the team, which included 50 other members.
Keeping pace with Mrs. Boyd was her sister, Linda Fredo, 45, of Hopewell, Beaver County.
The team, which raised more than $17,000 for the foundation, also included five relay teams.
Mrs. Boyd's husband, Kelly Boyd, 42, a probation officer for Washington County, said the team has participated in several smaller races and hopes to continue fundraising at next year's marathon and perhaps through nationwide races.
"It's been a great year, and all the money goes to research," he said.
One of the foundation's sponsors, lawyer Dennis Paluso of Speers, said he hopes the group's participation in the race raises its profile.
"If we just raise enough to help just one child, it's worth it," said Mrs. Boyd, a first-grade teacher at the Ringgold Elementary School South. "It's a terrible thing to watch your child go through; you are totally helpless. This is just a great way to turn a negative into a positive."
To donate to the foundation or to learn more about the team, visit www.cncfteamodyssey.com.neigh_city
Jenn Menendez: email@example.com. Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org. Adrian McCoy: email@example.com. Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published May 7, 2012 9:15 PM