Marathon Running & Training:
An Alternative Tapering Strategy

By Brian McNeill

I previously announced my intention to participate in the Pittsburgh Marathon as well as my race strategy: Northern Italian-influenced on Thursday; French on Friday; New American on Saturday; and a few 400 meter repeats of Itzhak Perlman on Saturday night for sharpening. I thought I’d share with you the results of that race strategy.


Hotel restaurants in the U.S. are usually a pretty mediocre lot, somewhere between Ruby Tuesdays and the Outback Steakhouse on the gastronomic periodic table, lacking only an extra grease-neutron or two in their onion rings to be as good as a second-rate sports bar.

That’s not the case with the Opus, an opulently decorated restaurant in the recently restored Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel. Both the hotel and its restaurant are decorated in sumptuous red and gold tones, which are evocative of the salons and symphony hall of the recently redecorated home of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Heinz Hall, which is about a half-block walk away. The restaurant is an intimate space, able to seat no more than 60 or 70 souls at a time, and is softly lit with indirect illumination cast upon several large murals depicting musical scores, instruments, and conductors’ upraised arms. The soft lighting and large booth-style seating provide a relaxing, romantic atmosphere.

I first discovered the hotel and Opus while staying in Pittsburgh last year. Looking for an alternative to my usual selection of the Church Brew Works for my post-race dinner, I tried Opus, and was greatly pleased. The lovely restoration of the hotel is also visually more inviting than the Hilton, where I usually stay when running the UPMC marathon. The Hilton was erected in the 1960s and gravely needs a facelift. It’s still a good hotel offering premium service, but the public spaces are stuck somewhere between Nehru Jackets and denim three-piece suits.

The food at Opus is excellent, with most local reviewers giving it high marks both for conception and execution. Our happy experience thus appears to be typical. The salads were standard-issue mesclun greens, radicchio, and red onions. All were fresh and crisp. I ordered the scallops in a saffron cream sauce, served atop a mushroom infused risotto, while my wife--- who never met a salmon that she didn’t eat—partook of the salmon topped with scallop mousse. Both dishes were excellent.


I have always wanted to dine atop Mt. Washington, which offers a commanding view of the Pittsburgh skyline. So, taking the concierge’s advice, we took a brief limo. ride to the base of the Duquesne Incline and rode a 19th century cable car up the 500 foot ascent to the aptly named Grandview Avenue and walked about ˝ a block to LeMont. (Limo service is actually about the same price as taxi fare, and with Pittsburgh’s terrible cab-service, is a fair site more reliable) Having timed our reservation so we could watch the sunset, the gloamin’, and the skyline come alight, we sat down to enjoy what we hoped would be an elegant dinner. Other than the lovely view, much of the rest of the evening was a disappointment.

Our shared appetizer of grilled shrimp in a mushroom remoulade and topped with sautéed red-pepper was the best course of the evening. The quality quickly went downhill from there. My boned duck breast in a cranberry sauce was just fine, but the steamed vegetables and pureed, curried carrots were clearly afterthoughts, and it showed. Kathy and I both rated her seafood sampler of lobster tail, breaded rockfish, and seafood Wellington as clearly no better than “bâtonnet du Poisson, Madame Paul.” My wife’s chocolate mousse was from a mix, and the whipped cream came from a can.

Worst of all, our waiter was graceless, loud, and hurried. Courses came so quickly that I can only surmise that they were interested in turning the table over quickly for another seating. When we’re paying $150.00 for dinner for two (and that’s without wine, as neither of us drink) I want the experience to linger for a while and to have a bit of grace to it. I suppose LeMont was, relatively speaking, a fine restaurant in the 1960s or 1970s, but American dining has greatly improved since then. Remember when Fran O’Brien’s, Trader Vic’s or the Maisson Blanche were the only half-way decent restaurants in D.C.? LeMont is still stuck in that time-warp.

Other than the view, I can conceive of no reason to recommend the LeMont. Save your money; ride the Incline to the top; take in a lovely view, and then go elsewhere for dinner.


We had tickets on Saturday night for the Pittsburgh Symphony with Itzhak Perlman, so we opted for an early dinner at an old favorite of mine, the Church Brew Works. Why would two tea-totalers choose a craft-brewery for dinner? Well, first of all, it too is in a lovely setting, a de-sanctified Catholic Church about a mile beyond the Strip District, on Liberty Avenue. On Sunday morning, I’d pass this edifice as I flew down the three mile descent from Bloomfield to the finish line, (not quite as steep as the Promise Land’s finish though). The sanctuary’s wood work and stain glass were all retained by the restaurant owners. In keeping with Benjamin Franklin’s sentiment that “Beer is proof that God loves us,” the gleaming copper and stainless steel of the brewer’s tools now sit in the chancel. As the late afternoon sun descended and streamed through the stained glass, the sanctuary took on the continually changing warm hues of gold, red, and yellow.

My wife and I each ordered an appetizer, which we shared. We couldn’t agree on which was better, the spinach/mushroom strudel or the chicken quesadillas. Kathy opted for the smoked-salmon with bow-tie pasta in a light cream sauce (she was carbo-loading in preparation for watching the race on Sunday). I selected the red snapper Vera Cruz style, which featured a dry-rub of crushed macadamia nuts, red-pepper, and cumin served over Mexican rice with a light salsa. Both entrees were superb. We ordered dessert. I selected the bread pudding coated in brewer’s malt sweetened with brown-sugar and vanilla, while Kathy chose the homemade ice-cream. Because we didn’t want to be late for our concert, we wolfed down our desserts without really taking the time to savor such fine preparations. Like Itzhak Perlman, there was not a harsh note bowed for the entire meal. Uniformly excellent in every respect, down to the brewer’s raspberry ginger ale, which we drank in lieu of the many beers available.

Mr. Perlman’s performance of Vivaldi’s “Two Seasons” (Spring and Winter) was magnificent. Although he recently had surgery on his rotator cuff, he performed this energetic piece with great vigour. Although there are some physically attractive violinists getting the rock-star treatment from their record labels, in my opinion Mr. Perlman is still the best violinist in the business.

The Course

Oh yes, there was also a Marathon run in Pittsburgh this weekend. I’m quite partial to it, having now run it nine times. Pittsburgh is a lovely city featuring terrific architecture, quiet shady streets, several excellent universities, and rich cultural amenities, many bearing the names Mellon, Frick, Carnegie, or Heinz. The marathon course passes through many of the city’s neighborhoods, past Pitt and Carnegie Mellon Universities in the lovely Oakland hills.

I love to hear road racers whine about hills. “Hills? These aren’t hills. I know a place called Fort Valley. Now there’s some hills for you!!!” On Southside, the course is hard by the remnants of the city’s old manufacturing past. There’s a forlorn-looking Eastern Orthodox Church on Southside, wedged between a cement plant and a rickety baseball field. If there were a Class “DDD” low-minors, that’s who would play on this sandlot.

This year’s course doesn’t go by there, but in recent years it wound through the Homestead area, which is where 300 Pinkerton Men fought a gun battle with anarchists and union men who had been locked-out of Mr. Carnegie’s Homestead mills in 1892. The violence continued all summer and autumn, as an anarchist burst into the home of the CEO of Carnegie’s Amalgamated Iron & Steel, and shot and stabbed him several times. Mr. Frick survived. The mob turned its violence on the black strike-breakers whom Frick had hired to replace the union-men. In November 1892, the local mob burned the homes of 50 black families in Southside. The PA governor finally restored order by calling out the state militia. The now run-down area is being re-developed as a gigantic indoor sports entertainment & sports medicine complex.

The many union halls are now filled mostly with ghosts, as Big-Steel has long ago moved entirely out of Pittsburgh. The jobs in Pittsburgh are now mostly in health-care and medical research, software, financial services, and manufacturing automation and control systems. The soot of Big-Steel was long ago sandblasted from the facades of downtown’s lovely towers and churches.

The Marathon

Running the race itself was almost an afterthought, as you may have inferred from how little of my “race report” is actually about running. I hadn’t broken 3:55 in Pittsburgh since I took up ultra-running and stopped racing 10Ks, 10 Milers, and doing occasional speed-work. Nonetheless, I thought I could break 4:00 if I ran a smart race, and if the weather would cooperate.

Some of you may recall the year that the marathon trials were held in Pittsburgh in 2000. The organizers started the elite runners at 8:00 and the masses at 9:00, fully an hour and fifteen minutes later than normal. It eventually reached 87 degrees that afternoon, with dozens of downed runners strewn along the sidewalks of Bloomfield and East Liberty (17-20 miles), receiving IV fluids or having their upper-bodies packed in ice. I turned in my worst ever marathon that day, 4:17, but at least I finished and had all my parts still attached, mainly owing to the power of Succeed and lots of water.

This year’s marathon offered slightly warmer than optimal conditions of clear skies and 42 degrees at the start, with the temperature rising to about 60 degrees by the time that I finished. I was determined to run a smart race and turn in negative splits for a change. They didn’t have any PBJ or baloney and cheese sandwiches or even any Gu at the aid stations. Instead, they had colored corn syrup called “PowerAde;” Corn syrup-based sports drinks usually give me intestinal problems, but I drank one cup of the stuff at every other aid station, drank one water bottle of water every hour, and took a Succeed every 45 minutes to an hour.

I kept waiting to bonk, but it never happened. I don’t understand why, but I got stronger as the race went on and my confidence grew. I ran the first half in 1:56, the second half in 1:51, and passed lots of people in the final three miles. I saw a fellow Ultra-runner at mile 24, Stan Newman, who is also a 50 states marathoner, and I walked with him for a few seconds just to exchange pleasantries. Just after mile 25, the course turns onto the Roberto Clemente Bridge for the final 1000 yards or so to the finish line inside Heinz Stadium. Kathy was standing there at the corner of the bridge to greet me and gave me a quick smooch, which was a very nice treat indeed.

I finished in 3:47:28, which was good enough for 529 of 1530 men and 92 of 222 in my age-group. That’s my best marathon time in over six years, so I am thrilled with my performance, especially since it came on a challenging marathon course.

The Strategy

In-keeping with an Ultra-runner’s standard sense of iconoclasm, here is how I prepared for my race:

1) I tapered by running Promise Land last weekend; the Chocolate Bunny 50K overnight on the MMT course the previous weekend with Tom Corris and Rick Kerby, and Bull Run the weekend before that. So much for tapering.

2) I spent all day on my feet on both Friday and Saturday, touring museums, gardens, and historic properties. So much for resting extensively in the days before the race.

3) In the three to four days before the race, I ate a balanced diet. It consisted of roughly equal amounts of butter, cream-sauce, bechamel sauce, and animal proteins. So much for carbo-loading.

4) My speed work in preparation for this race consisted of the last three miles of the Promise Land, last weekend. So much for the track.

For more power-training secrets of the serious Ultra-runner, please look for my new book: Power-dining for Ultra-runners: Better running through cream-sauce.

Author’s note: My cholesterol is only 154 with low tri-glycerides and a great HDL/LDL ratio. I don’t eat like this all the time. It does however serve as a nice switch from virtuous salads and ascetic grilled chicken that make up most of my diet. Bon Appetit!


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