Pittsburgh Marathon: A race full of purpose and a proposal

A light drizzle and gunmetal skies gave way to daylight early Sunday morning as a starter's pistol trumpeted the beginning of the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and a river of runners on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, poured onto the 26.2-mile course.

A record 23,458 runners participated Sunday, between the marathon and the UPMC Health Plan Pittsburgh Half Marathon. The calm and cool morning went without major incident.

"It went fantastic -- our best race," said Patrice Matamoros, executive director of the Pittsburgh Marathon, who helped revive the marathon in 2009. "In six years, this was the most impactful race. It was a really phenomenal day for us."

Thousands cheer on 2014 Pittsburgh Marathon runners

In addition to the runners, thousands of spectators turn out for the 2014 Pittsburgh Marathon. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/4/2014)

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Gebo Burka Gamade of Ethiopia and Clara Santucci of Dilliner, Greene County, are the winners of the 2014 Pittsburgh Marathon. (Video by Andrew Rush; 5/4/2014)

One lingering shadow was the memory of Kyle Chase Johnson, a 23-year-old man who died last year from a rare heart defect after he collapsed near the 12-mile mark on the half-marathon route.

His mother, Mary Beth Deal, and brother, Seth Johnson, returned Sunday to run the half-marathon. His father, Dan Johnson, ran the last mile.

"It was really the mile that Kyle wasn't able to run last year," Mr. Johnson said. As he ran, "a lot of thoughts [were] running through my mind, just thinking about him. It was pretty emotional."

Luke Slagle, a Fox Chapel native and Penn State University junior who is friends with Seth Johnson, ran his first Pittsburgh marathon last year.

"It kind of hit home," he said of Kyle's death. "It could have really been anybody. It could have been me."

On Sunday, he completed the half-marathon in one hour and 40 minutes, a record for him, propelled by the momentum of the Run4Kyle collective.

“The kids I ran with from Penn State, they were saying they’re ready to roll for next year,” he said.

Rachel Peltz, a senior at Penn State, couldn’t run the marathon, but she and a group of friends paid their respects to Johnson last year by completing the Tough Mudder event, an extreme obstacle course that he’d signed up to do but didn’t get his chance.

Throughout the brutal event, which included electroshocks, Ms. Peltz said Johnson kept her at ease.

“I could hear him laughing,” she said.

Mr. Johnson said he thinks about Kyle daily. Sometimes it’s a sad reminder about last year’s marathon. Other times, it’s something a little happier.

“Kyle was a great kid,” the father said. “He was a dynamic guy.”

Mr. Johnson said he was delighted when Kyle's friends thought to organize something in his honor. It started on Facebook, he said, and Saturday night they had a party on the North Side that more than 400 people attended and at which many told stories of Kyle.

"It was the kind of party that he wanted to have," Mr. Johnson said.

After the race Sunday morning, they invited a group to a pancake breakfast in the Gateway Center Complex, behind the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh. Kyle Johnson had made plans last year to have a pancake party because after he ran a half-marathon in New York in March of 2013 he had a craving for pancakes.

"I'm awful proud of the life he lived, and I think about all the positive things he did," Mr. Johnson said. "And there were many."

The biggest step

Joe Sidhom, 27, and Katie Mulkern, 28, of Moon started the half-marathon together as boyfriend and girlfriend and crossed the finish line on the Boulevard of the Allies near Gateway Center some three hours and three minutes later as fiances.

A crowd of more than a dozen friends and family members waited mid-morning at the intersection of Grant Street and the boulevard with flowers, a ring and a "Marry Me, Katie?" banner. They held their collective breath, constantly refreshing the mobile tracking app until the couple finally appeared at the crest of the bridge a quarter-mile away.

Ms. Mulkern beamed as she saw the banner, and Mr. Sidhom bounded down the hill, arms raised triumphantly. He stopped at the intersection, caught the engagement ring box tossed by his brother and dropped to a knee in the street. Behind the couple twirled a heart-shaped sign that read "He Asked" on one side, and "She Said Yes" on the other.

"If we could do this run together, we can do anything," Mr. Sidhom said afterward.

After a lengthy break for hugs, photographs, silly string and a champagne shower, Mr. Sidhom and Ms. Mulkern rejoined the runners and scampered to the finish line.

"It was the best ever," Ms. Mulkern said of Mr. Sidhom's proposal, two months in the planning. "I couldn't imagine anything better."

'Mind over matter'

Growing up, James Cook, 23, of Salisbury, Md., was a standout lacrosse player who also played football and soccer.

Four years ago, he was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident, and he began learning to play sports all over again. Among the ones he learned was hand-cycling.

Mr. Cook, a former Naval ROTC cadet at Virginia Tech, participated in Sunday's marathon in part because he received a scholarship from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, which lends equipment to those receiving rehabilitation.

"I couldn't do it without them," Mr. Cook said.

Most of the race, his second hand-cycling marathon, went smoothly, he said, but around mile 12 the race guides warned of steep hill ahead.

"The hill is pretty big. ... I'm thinking to myself, 'This is rough,' " Mr. Cook said. "It's a mind-over-matter thing."

As he approached the finish line, a team from Kennedy Krieger stood by the barricades, cheering him on. He crossed the line at 1:39:50.

"It was awesome," he said.

Crowds heard but not seen

Point Park volleyball coach Mike Bruno, 45, of Cecil ran blindfolded and tethered to Jim Irvin, the school's cross-country coach, for the second year in a row to raise awareness and funding for Autism Speaks.

The pair finished at 3:34:39, more than four minutes better than their finish last May.

"Considering the way we did it, we'll take it," Mr. Bruno said.

His wife, Jennifer, and daughters Carly and Cassie cheered the tethered tandem on from the sidewalk, with Cassie stuck in a stroller with a thigh-high pink cast on her right leg.

Cassie, 8, is visually impaired and lives with autism. Mr. Bruno originally had the idea to run blindfolded to simulate the sensory experience a child like Cassie might encounter on a daily basis.

Dad and daughter had planned to run Saturday's mile-long Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon together until Cassie fell and broke her leg April 19.

Instead, the family constructed a 2.62-meter mini-marathon course for Cassie in the living room Saturday. With the "Chariots of Fire" theme as the backdrop, Carly helped Cassie inch forward in her walker, dragging her big cast behind her, until she broke through the faux-finish line dressed up with streamers and balloons.

The crowd support Sunday was "absolutely amazing," Mr. Bruno said, an experience he hopes to share, in some way, with other deserving parents of children with autism.

Accidently on purpose

Tyler Duncan, 23, of Lexington Park, Md., watched from near the corner of Liberty Avenue and Sassafras Street in Lawrenceville, wrapped in a Mylar blanket, his half-marathon medal around his neck.

Mr. Duncan said his friend Scott Kopicko decided to run the full marathon and had asked if he wanted to come along. Mr. Duncan agreed to run the half-marathon and asked his father, Luther, 52, if he wanted to join him as well. His dad surprised him by signing up for the full marathon instead.

"He said ... 'I signed up for the wrong race,' " but Mr. Duncan said he later realized his dad signed up for the full race intentionally. Two years ago, he said, his father weighed 320 pounds but then had surgery, started running and dropped down to 180 pounds.

"It's a total transformation from two years ago," the younger Mr. Duncan said.

And, it’s also been motivation.

“He can run it, so why can’t I?”

Back and forth

Weaving through the myriad Pittsburgh neighborhoods once just wasn't enough for Michael Sally, 46, of South Side. Mr. Sally started out shortly after midnight and ran the course backward, from finish to start.

He got home at 5:30 a.m. and "had some serious self-doubt," he would later admit.

After a shower and a change of clothes, though, Mr. Sally was back at the starting line for his second 26.2-mile sojourn of the day. He clocked in at 5:58:17, just under his stated goal of a second sub-six-hour run.

Runner goes in One Direction

On Carson Street, not far from the Birmingham Bridge, Brittany Quinn, 27, of Kennedy, was standing beside a life-size cardboard cutout of Harry Styles of the boy band One Direction and a speech bubble cutout that read, "April, run like you're chasing me."

Her best friend, April Ritchey, 26, is a big fan of One Direction. Ms. Ritchey was running her first half-marathon Sunday after moving back to Pittsburgh from New York.

Running has been a way for Ms. Ritchey to focus on her health after battling a recent illness. Though nervous for the race, she set the goal "just to prove to herself" that she could do it, said her mother Carrie, 54, of Thornburg.

The celebrity cutout proved to be a surprise and Ms. Ritchey stopped for a brief moment.

"She gave it a big kiss," Ms. Quinn said.

Alpacas 'out of hand'

Six inflatable alpacas bobbed over spectators' heads along the marathon route. And, somehow, this felt normal.

The friendly folks hoisting the alpacas are members of the Pittsburgh Triathlon Club, a bustling 250-member group, but this is a very particular sect of the troupe.

Team Iron Alpaca was formed five years ago when six strangers biked to a nearby alpaca farm, Chris Rotelli explained, "and we were all friends by the top of the climb."

Mr. Rotelli, the ringleader, shouted a rapid burst of encouragement as his wife, Julie, passed by in the last mile of the half-marathon.

Mr. Rotelli is a walking tribute to Steve Prefontaine. He wears a black singlet, neon arm sleeves and a bleached-blonde wig.

And the inflatable alpacas?

"You can find anything on Amazon," he said, laughing. "It's gotten out of hand. They've been in a wedding. It's not good."

Wet, wild and weird

On the Birmingham Bridge, spectator Jason Hindes stood on a concrete barrier displaying a sign with a picture of a cat that read "13.1 miles? UR KITTEN ME!"

Runners, around their 10th mile, smiled and laughed. Some paused to take a selfie with the poster.

"I think Pittsburgh embraces the weird," Mr. Hindes of Shadyside said.

He, Emily Dritz of the South Side and Matthew Manzo of Shadyside, all 29, also shouted cat puns to runners trekking up the half marathon’s biggest incline.

“Have a great meow-a-thon!”

“You’re purrrrrfect.”

“Don’t paws!”

“Little faster meow!”

A runner on the bridge turned to her friend and offered her own words of comfort: “Thirty more minutes, then we get couches and potato chips.”

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 or on Twitter @stephenjnesbitt. Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. Anya Litvak contributed. First Published May 4, 2014 7:49 AM

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