This is the first in a series about Pittsburgh Marathon runners.
Richard Peterson’s moment came 11 miles into the 2010 Pittsburgh Marathon.
He was running through the South Side — where he’d spent his childhood years before moving to Illinois in 1969 — when the course turned onto the Birmingham Bridge.
He looked to his left and saw Ormsby Rec Center, where decades before he’d spent countless days playing sports with other South Side kids. Then he looked to his right, and there was the old row house, on South 23rd Street, where his mother spent her final years before she passed in 2001.
“There were all these echoes of my past,” Peterson recalled from his current home in Makanda, Illinois. “There was my mother, a wonderful person who faced so much adversity raising us in working-class Pittsburgh. I almost felt that I could see her standing in front of that house.”
“It was like I was there again. The best moments of my life were playing ball in Pittsburgh and being raised by my mother. And there was that world again.”
Everything good and true
To run a marathon is to share a common experience, one in which each participant starts at the same spot, runs the same 26.2 miles, and crosses the same finish line.
But for those who take on the challenge, it’s a deeply personal undertaking defined by a series of moments that unfold before the runner unexpectedly — magically, even — in ways that someone even directly next to them cannot fathom.
“In (James) Joyce’s short stories, there are always these epiphanies, these moments of discovery,” Peterson said. “That’s what I had on that bridge unexpectedly — a moment of truth where everything good and true in my life radiated out. That made it all worthwhile.”
The 2010 Pittsburgh race was Peterson’s first marathon.
He was 71.
First, it was Anne
Peterson, a retired English Department Chair at Southern Illinois University, ran the marathon to cross an item off his bucket list. He skipped the next year, but has returned every year since to run the half marathon. He will run the 13.1-mile course this year at age 79.
His family questions the prudence of a man that old running that far.
They have cause for concern: One year, he fell at the finish line and required medical attention. Last year, he lost feeling in his feet after passing his mom’s old house, then struggled to maintain his balance after crossing the finish line.
His family told him — as they do every year — no more.
So it’s a bit curious that every time Peterson thinks his running days are over, someone in his family steps up to ensure he will continue, for at least one more year.
“First it was Anne,” Peterson said of his daughter, a former South Carolina state representative who was inspired by her father’s marathon finish and took up running. “She wanted to run a 5k with me (and) that was it,” he says. “She got the bug.”
In 2012, Anne and her father returned to Pittsburgh to run the half marathon together.
“And I mean together, complete with him holding up my hand at the finish line,” said Anne Louise Peterson. “Running over the Birmingham Bridge, seeing that row house … You know it’s coming, but it still — it hits you. That was my vacation home growing up, my beach house, where I spent my summers as a kid. And then finishing together and seeing how proud my dad was — not that he’d done it, but that I’d done it — it was a wonderful experience.”