Pittsburgh Marathon: Race changes course, allows for more growth

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When participants take to the revamped course in the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon this year, they could be going for gold.

The course has been USA Track & Field certified as a qualifier for the 2012 Olympic trials in Houston, race officials announced Wednesday. This certification also sanctions the race a qualifier for the 2012 Boston Marathon, the world's oldest annual marathon.

"We're extremely proud and extremely happy to be running this marathon in Pittsburgh," said Patrice Matamoros, marathon race director.

"We think that not only is this the most livable city, but we're proving that this is one of the most fit cities in America, too."

The May 15 Pittsburgh Marathon and half marathon are expected to attract up to 18,000 participants -- and with nearly 10,000 already registered, race organizers say it is on track to have its largest field of runners since its inception in 1985.

To accommodate that larger field, organizers announced several route changes, including new start and finish lines, and the addition of a new neighborhood loop.

The 2010 race began on Smallman Street, but the new course begins Downtown on Liberty Avenue near Sixth Street, with participants backed up to Point State Park. Racers will run a long straightaway before making the first turn -- a move that race organizers say will enhance runners' safety by initially thinning the field.

"It's key for us to have a straight shot for the first 2 to 3 miles, optimally, and it is perfect because it does allow your front runners to get out," Matamoros said.

Organizers are evaluating different start options, including a staggered start, which both the Chicago and Boston marathons employ.

Also new to the course is a West End neighborhood loop.

That loop will take the runners across the Ohio River before they proceed along West Carson Street.

Participants last year wound through 15 area neighborhoods, and Matamoros said the variety of Pittsburgh communities is a key attraction for out-of-town runners.

"I think this is probably the only event in the city of Pittsburgh that really bridges the communities together, because it encompasses 26.2 miles of communities working together," she said.

The course will end along General Robinson Street on the North Shore, between PNC Park and Heinz Field.

With these route changes, organizers estimate that the course could safely accommodate up to 35,000 registrants.

Although the event took a five-year hiatus from 2004 to 2009 as a result of budgeting issues, race last year drew a record number of participants, with organizers capping registration at 16,000.

The race brought an estimated $8.2 million in direct spending to the region, according to an independent study by market research firm Forward Analytics.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hailed that revenue as a "significant boost" to the region's economy.

Ravenstahl also announced Wednesday that he is committing to participate in the half-marathon.

"I've never done a marathon, but, hopefully, my athletic abilities -- limited athletic abilities -- are still there enough to get me through it," he said.

Julie Percha: jpercha@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.


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