What the Great Race means to the City of Pittsburgh, and What It Means to Me

by P3R

by: Jeff Paladina

The year was 1990.  I was a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, living in Pitt’s Tower B when I was awakened on a Sunday morning by a thundering herd of humanity running down Fifth Avenue.  I asked a friend who lived on my floor, and who happened to be a member of Pitt’s cross county team, what on earth was going on.  “That was the Great Race,” my friend said.  He told me that the 10k race was 6.2 miles long.  At the time, I could not imagine anyone being able to run 6.2 miles.  It was not until I started running nearly 10 years later that I realized the significance of the event, and what it means to the City of Pittsburgh.

In 2001, I officially caught the running bug.  A good friend convinced me to sign up for the Great Race.  “You see, in Pittsburgh, you can run a 5k just about every weekend,” he explained.  “Runners run 5ks all year, and then, at the end of September, they run the Great Race 10k as sort of the grand finale of the running season.”

I ran my first Great Race in September 2001, and I was hooked – both on the sport of running and on the race that so personifies the grit of the city that I love.  That 2001 Great Race began a 12-year personal streak of doing the Great Race 10k.  That streak continued well after I moved to Harrisburg with my family in 2006.  The streak was only broken in 2013 when my son (who was born in 2005) made his travel hockey team and we had to attend a mandatory tournament in Philadelphia.  There was one break in the streak – when the race was canceled in 2003 (more on that later).  All in all, I have run the Pittsburgh Great Race 14 times.

My Great Race 10k times have waxed and waned as my fitness changed over the years. Nearly 18 minutes separate my personal best time in 2009 from my personal worst time in 2006.  But one thing that never changed was the magnificence of the city of Pittsburgh on the last Sunday in September, and what always seemed like the best day of the year – a “family holiday” for Pittsburgh’s running community.

The sights and sounds at the Great Race are the same each year.  There is the early morning buzz downtown, with runners wearing garbage bags over their running clothes to stay warm on the cool, crisp fall morning while they wait to board the shuttle buses to take them to the start lines.  There is the historic Frick Park neighborhood, where the hospitable residents stand on their porches to see off the runners.  There is the collective excitement at the start line, where a succession of Pittsburgh’s mayors over the years have been to offer pre-race best wishes to runners while acknowledging the legacy of Mayor Richard Caliguiri, who started it all.  As the runners cross the start line, we are greeted by the song “Shout!” and the local television cameras there to capture the day’s news.  In the first mile of the race, there always seems to be a man playing his bugle to the tune “Charge!”  And from there, we engage on a fast run on a mostly downhill course through Squirrel Hill, Oakland, the Bluff, and downtown Pittsburgh, finishing at Point State Park.   The race shows off so much of what makes me proud to be from Pittsburgh – Pitt, Duquesne, and CMU, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Oakland medical facilities, the “Mon” river, and the point.
The race is so much a part of the fabric of the City’s history that if you visit the Western Pennsylvania Pittsburgh Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District, you will find a display dedicated to the Great Race.

Part of the history of the race is the legacy of the “Perfect Great Racers” – the 21 men who have run every race for the 42 years since the race started in 1977.  I always have admired these men because they exemplify a commitment to fitness, to the race, and to the city.  One of the perfect Great Racers is Mayor Tom Murphy.  I am sure Mayor Murphy did not know it, but when he was the mayor, I know that I and a lot of other runners would target beating his time as a personal challenge in the 10k.  Mayor Murphy can run well, so beating his time was a formidable task.

2020 is not the first time the Great Race was canceled.  In August 2003, a month before the race was scheduled, Mayor Murphy canceled the race due to financial problems in the city.  It was a decision that broke the hearts of the running community. The September 28, 2003 headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the decision to cancel the race as “The Great Disappointment”.    Runners responded like runners do – by finding a way to continue chasing their goals.   Local runners quickly put together a race dubbed as “The Great Replacement Race”, a 5k/10k that took place at Schenley Park on the day the Great Race had been previously scheduled to occur.  Other diehard runners lined up at Frick Park and ran the traditional Great Race course as scheduled on their own– a sort of precursor to today’s virtual races.

Now, in 2020, we are faced with another cancelation of the live version of the Great Race.  But the COVID19 crisis cannot cancel Pittsburgh’s spirit, nor will it damper the resolve of Pittsburgh’s running community.  I, and other Great Racers throughout Pittsburgh and beyond, will tackle the challenge presented by this crisis the way runners did in 2003.  We will find a way to get it done while supporting each other virtually.  Let’s do this, friends! 

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