Guarded Pittsburgh Marathon still fun to run

Tom Fontaine
| Sunday, May 5, 2013, 10:45 p.m.

In the weeks leading up to the Pittsburgh Marathon, the race appeared to take a back seat to security plans designed to prevent an attack like the April 15 bombing in Boston.

But on Sunday, standout performances by runners and a festive atmosphere along the sun-drenched marathon route dominated the story, even though a 23-year-old runner in the half marathon collapsed about a mile short of the finish line and died. Family and friends identified the man as Kyle Chase Johnson, 23, of McCandless.

Acting city police Chief Regina McDonald said officers were manning a total of 471 points along the race course, with 231 manned by city police officers and 240 by officers from other agencies, including university police and school crossing guards.

Meanwhile, 17 bomb squad technicians, 45 SWAT officers, 24 K-9 handlers with dogs and an undisclosed number of intelligence officers responded to any calls of suspicious people or packages along the course.

A total of 17 suspicious packages were investigated and determined to be safe. Most were garbage cans, unattended backpacks and one discarded television, McDonald said.

Federal authorities will pay overtime costs related to raising security beyond past marathons in response to the Boston Marathon bombings, said city Public Safety Director Mike Huss.

“The city, county and our regional partners will be made whole,” Huss said.

“The biggest thing about today, and planning for today, was finding the right balance,” Pittsburgh Marathon director Patrice Matamoros said.

“We worked hard to ensure this was a secure event, but we didn't want to create a somber or morose mood where security was so overbearing that people were afraid to enjoy themselves,” Matamoros said.

Although nearly 28,000 people registered for races that drew an estimated 100,000 fans, traffic headaches paled in comparison with last year's event.

Fewer people required medical help than the 60 who did a year ago. Authorities reported a handful of minor disturbances, including a drunken spectator escorted from the course before 8 a.m., and a report of a suspicious package, which turned out to be a TV someone had left on a sidewalk.

Friends Erin Cassese and Sera Matthew of Morgantown, W.Va., were still smiling long after finishing the half marathon. They raved about the crowds and the beautiful day and said security did not intrude on their fun.

“The people were really excited. I loved the cowbells,” said Matthew, 32.

A mariachi band played in the North Side. Spectators waved humorous signs, with messages such as “Run Like You Stole Something,” “Why do all the cute ones run away?” and “Hurry! There's beer at the finish.”

Near the University of Pittsburgh, a drum line helped push the tempo.

“They made you want to run faster than you should have,” said Staci Wasco, 33, of New York City.

Aaron “The Uke Slinger” Jones of Latrobe sang the blues along Fifth Avenue in Shadyside, at Mile 14 of the race. After 2½ hours, Jones developed a rasp that seemed to enhance his singing.

“I mean, I've done three-hour gigs, no problem. But usually you get 15- or 20-minute breaks between sets,” Jones said.

Runners had fun, too.

“Let's see, there was a lady dressed like Wonder Woman, a guy in a Frownie suit from King's Restaurant, tutus over spandex and some of the craziest wigs,” said UPMC Sports Medicine athletic trainer Amy Stephenson, 29, of Youngwood.

The day had its serious moments.

Before races began, the crowd and runners observed a 15-second silence for those injured and killed in the Boston Marathon bombing. Countless people wore T-shirts and waved signs in remembrance. One man ran while holding an American flag on a pole. Many ran for other charities and causes.

A large red sign hanging from the True Runner store in Shadyside read, “If you're trying to defeat the human spirit, marathoners are the wrong group to target.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or Staff writers David Conti, Aaron Aupperlee and Carl Prine contributed to this report.

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