The Fineview Stepathon 2012: Pittsburgh's grueling urban trail race

Stepathon steps

Today I ran in the annual Fineview Stepathon, a truly unique and grueling 5-mile race held in Fineview, a neighborhood in the North Side of Pittsburgh.

This was not the first time I’d run the Stepathon: I’d actually done a shorter version of it (supposedly a 5K, but clearly much shorter given how quickly I finished it) in 2006. Originally, I wasn’t sure I was going to run another race this year after the Great Race, but after telling my buddy Chris about the Stepathon, and his getting excited about the concept, I decided to commit to doing it with him, rain or shine.

(Note that there was a short 2.5 mile option available, but only six people took it this year.)

The Web site’s description only gives a hint of what this event is like:

Are you a runner, about to run the Great Race? An urban explorer? A fitness nut? Or just a masochist? How fast should you pace yourself, going up a stairway that rises out of view? How fast can you go? One thing for sure, the harder you fight the steps, the harder they fight back! We saved the best for last... the legendary Rising Main stairway. High as a 17-story building, disorienting as it leans this way and that, your legs feeling like jelly as you near the top... The Stepathon, ready to chew you up and spit you out!

Also, the registration form says:

Challenging course includes 12 public staircases over 1600 steps. Vertical climb 400 feet.

Here’s my report on this fantastic event!


The course includes stairways, sidewalk steps, road sections, trail sections, grassy sections, bridges. It’s really something else. With all the turns, it was very helpful indeed that signs were put up and arrows drawn on the ground where useful, and several volunteers out on the course also, who pointed the way. I really appreciated the number of volunteers in the Stepathon who made it go smoothly. They not only pointed the way, but gave encouragement, and there were water stations also along the course.

Here is a detailed map of the course.

And here are photos from the past.


I didn’t prepare for this event at all. I had no goal but to do my best and pace myself well. Real preparation, of course, would have involved doing a lot of stair-climbing. It is the case that I almost never take an elevator or escalator, but take the stairs instead, wherever I go, but I’m talking about actual stair-climbing training, of the form I used to engage in, during winter, when I did the summer Rachel Carson Trail Challenge three years in a row. Of course, the place for such training is the Cathedral of Learning. Once a week, I’d do 36 floors, elevation gain of 440 feet, in one straight shot up, no rest: it was a great workout.



Just as in the Great Race, I continued my policy of not eating before the race.


It was drizzling rain, but the temperature wasn’t too bad. I wore a long-sleeve moisture-wicking shirt, long running pants, my Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS shoes, and the brand new Great Race cap that was given to all participants of the Great Race this year. This was the first time I’d ever worn a cap during a race; I didn’t want water getting into my eyes (as happened actually during the Great Race). I also wore some light gloves; in particular, I expected to try to hold onto some cold and wet stairway handrails!

Chris also wore his Great Race cap. Since this was a smaller race, with 70 participants, this was the first time in a race we were at a start line together. In the huge July 4 Brentwood 5K race, which was his first 5K race, we didn’t start together, and in the even more huge Great Race, his first 10K race, I never even saw him at all.

I saw some people wearing the yellow Great Race long-sleeve shirts they were also given to all Great Race participants. I still haven’t worn mine yet. I wasn’t going to wear an unfamiliar shirt for the first time when doing a race.

Pep talk

The race director warned us of the hazards in store for us, and told us to be especially careful on the slippery wooden steps and in the trails. There were lots of jokes going around about dragging our broken bodies from the steps. I enjoyed the lighthearted mood. Hey, we all signed the waivers about the dangers of this event!

Description of the race

Stairs and trails

We started off running on the road for a bit before turning onto the first stairway. Chris was way ahead of me, but I was trying to pace myself for what lay ahead.

After doing a bit of “running” up the stairs, I quickly realized that I was wasting my energy. I started just walking up the stairs instead. The plan was to walk up all stairways, but descend quickly, and run fast on the roads.

Also, I was trying to pull myself up with my arms using the handrails, but it turns out that some handrail sections are missing or loose. Yup, we were warned!

At some point, we started going off into the trails. Unfortunately, I had “forgotten” that there might be mud issues, and I was annoyed that I had worn my Bikila LS shoes instead of my KSO Trek shoes, which would have been much better in these conditions. I had to slow down a lot to avoid slipping and falling in the muddy trails.

I noticed that I was a lot faster descending steps than many people, so I started passing people during the descents. At some point, I caught up to Chris and passed him. But not too long after that, we entered a grassy section of the course, outside the fenced baseball field. I knew that this was going to be treacherous, so I tried to grab with my right hand onto the fence as I ran, but still, at some point there was a drop and I slipped and fell hard, right on my butt. I picked myself up, luckily not really injured (although I had some hip pain for a day or two after the race), and kept going. After the race, Chris said he had seen me going down. Thanks to the indentation I made in the ground with my body, others behind me knew where not to step!


I did do a good bit of running on the roads, but actually, a lot of walking too, because there were such steep hills along some of the roads. Here’s my rule of thumb in these kinds of races: if by walking hard I can keep up with someone who is running up a hill, clearly I am saving more energy than my competitor.


There were various bridges, but most amusing was the bridge over I-279. When was the last time I ran in a race that crossed an interstate highway? Um, never?

The garden hose

On the big stair climb near the end, I noticed while pulling myself up the handrails that one entire section was not only missing, but replaced seamlessly with a garden hose. Hilarious, but not safe! I didn’t touch the hose.

Fear of getting lost

Despite all the volunteers and signs and drawn arrows, there were times when I feared getting lost. This proved detrimental to my running speed. During much of the last half hour of the race, I was basically with a pack of two other people, with nobody else in sight ahead of us, and we were taking turns leading. This was fine when I wasn’t leading (typically, they were faster than me on the stairs and trails, while I was faster on the roads), but when a long stretch of road came up and I was clearly able to go faster, I was afraid to go as fast as I really could, in case I missed a turn. If I had genuinely prepared for this race, I would have studied and memorized the course map before doing it.

As a result of my not going all out when I was clearly strong enough to on the roads, by the time I saw the finish line approaching, no amount of sprinting on my part could get me to catch up with my two closest competitors. I was slightly annoyed with myself for not having applied optimal race tactics.


The results of the race show that I finished in 27th place out of 70, in a time of 59:31. The two people I was running in a pack with for much of the second half of the race came in 8 seconds and 4 seconds earlier than me.

I cheered Chris on as he came in some minutes later.


Here is a view from the finish:

Welcome to Fineview

View from finish

(It’s probably too hard to see my “indentation” in the ground in this photo outside the fenced ball field where I fell!)

There was a little band playing some old-time music. That was a nice touch to this event. I always appreciate it when post-race festivities include some music.

Many refreshments were available: muffins, fruit, coffee, etc. I was pretty hungry after almost an hour of running (and on an empty stomach), and devoured some muffins and fruit. No coffee for me, though: I need to wind down, not wind up, after a race!

I didn’t pay much attention to the raffle prizes being given away, so who knows, I might have missed winning something.

I picked up my race bag and a coaster. After I was done eating and chatting with Chris, I was getting cold and walked back to the start line and back to my car to drive home. It was kind of funny going backwards along part of the course, down the rights, down the steps, back to the start line.

Other events that took place today

Sadly, today was also the day for two other annual events that were on different days last year: the Pittsburgh Step Trek and the Run Shadyside 5K.

So I had to miss both of them. Generally, given the choice between doing something that I have enjoyed recently and doing something new (or very old), I will almost always choose what I did least recently.

Pittsburgh Step Trek

Last year, Abby and I did the annual Pittsburgh Step Trek, which is a self-guided, noncompetitive event that actually gives a similar feel to the Fineview Stepathon, in that it is an exploration of a Pittsburgh neighborhood that has a lot of hills and nooks and crannies, and of course a lot of stairways. This year I was unable to do the Step Trek because of another commitment in the afternoon.

Here’s a local writeup of this year’s event.

Run Shadyside 5K

Last year, since it fell on a different day, I also ran the Run Shadyside 5K. It’s a nice event, but fast and flat and crowded is not as exciting as a quirky, small Stepathon!


I had a great time in this year’s Fineview Stepathon, and I was delighted to have introduced Chris to this event. This was one of the most fun races in my life! I’m grateful for all the work the volunteers did to get the route ready, handle registration, direct the race, point out directions, give us water, and provide music and food for us at the end. I totally want to do this again next year, even if schedule conflicts arise again. And I hope that maybe I’ll do some targeted training in order to really conquer “man versus steps”!

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