James Kirwa, quite comfortable with Pittsburgh Marathon, seeks 3rd title in row

By now, James Kirwa of Kenya is pretty comfortable with the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon course.

Kirwa will seek his third consecutive Pittsburgh Marathon title Sunday over a course he has become intimately familiar with the past two years.

In 2012, he needed a massive comeback in the second half of the course to win. A year ago, he cruised to a relatively easy victory in 2:13:27.

This year, Kirwa hopes he can cross the finish line with a personal best and his third consecutive gold medal.

“It will be really cool if I run 2:12 to win it, that would be awesome,” he said.

Kirwa’s current personal best is 2:12:54, set at the Des Moines Marathon in 2012. He said he has felt good in training over the past few weeks, though, and if weather conditions cooperate, he could finish Sunday in 2:12:50 or 2:12:45.

“If you have been training really good and, if you are good in the last 10k, you’re going to win the race,” Kirwa said.

Kirwa’s biggest advantage, of course, will be his knowledge of Pittsburgh’s unique course. It’s tempting for most runners to start off fast through the flat Strip District for the first few miles, but Kirwa said he prefers to take it slower, conserving his energy for the run up through Oakland around the 11th mile.

Since he has used that strategy to win twice before, he’s confident heading into Sunday.

“If they’re going to take the pace really hard, I will just relax and take the last 13 [miles],” Kirwa said.

“My focus right now is right there [in Oakland] … I want to be in the leading group,” he said. “I don’t want to be running alone in the hilly parts.”

Kirwa’s biggest challengers Sunday will be two Ethiopians, Gebo Burka and Negash Abebe Duki. Both boast personal bests faster than Kirwa’s. Burka ran the 2009 Cannes Marathon in 2:10:18, and Duki finished the 2013 Kosice Peace Marathon in 2:11:14. Burka also won the 2014 Los Angeles Marathon in March. Neither, though, have run in Pittsburgh.

“You need to be smart,” Kirwa said.

On the women’s side, Dilliner, Pa., resident Clara Santucci has a chance to become the first American woman to win since Kristen Price in 2009.

This will be her first time racing in Pittsburgh but, like Kirwa, she said she was most focused on the hilly section crossing through Oakland. She has prepared over the past few weeks by driving and running different sections of the course.

Santucci, though, didn’t have a specific finishing time in mind.

“Not specifically timed, I want to go for the win,” she said. “That’s the most important thing right now, but, hopefully, the time would come with it.”

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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