If you’re not from Pittsburgh, thinking of the city might invoke scenes of smokestacks, steel mills, or black and gold sports gear, not trail runs along steep, technical trails. You might wonder: Are there even mountains in Pittsburgh? In 2021 my family moved to the steel city. At the time, I thought I would have to hang up my trail running shoes and return to shin-busting runs on pavement, but over the last couple of years, I’ve been able to make some of my most beloved trail running memories ever.
Western Pennsylvania has so many fun, and quirky, things to offer the trail-running community. These are some of the things that I love about running in and around Pittsburgh:
Pittsburgh’s got hills (so many hills).
From my house, I wouldn’t be able to head out for an easy, flat trail run, even if I wanted to (don’t get me wrong, sometimes I really want to). Every run I set out on requires running up (and down and up) hills. This has been great for both training my mountain legs and for appearing to have slowed down on my Strava feed. During local races, I speed down hills with a sense of dread because in Pittsburgh trail running, whatever goes down, must come back up.
Pittsburgh’s city parks are basically trail systems.
One of the most special things about running in the Pittsburgh area is that a lot of the regional parks are trail systems. The park near my house has miles of trails and lots of vertical training potential (see: hills!). I even completed 50,000 vertical feet in the Cirque Series Max Vert October challenge at this park. Plus, if I drive a little bit further out, I can access several city and state parks where I can run through the hills for hours.
Races in Western Pennsylvania are more like adventures.
The trail races in Western Pennsylvania are wild, but in a nuanced way. You may not have tall peaks in Pennsylvania, but the rolling hills add up in a way that’s almost more difficult. To top it off, there are some really fun races in the area that offer their own off-beat challenges. Take, for example, the Baker Trail Ultra Challenge, a race in which runners are required to navigate the trails (and roads and farmlands) without race markers. If you do this race three years in a row, thereby completing the entire 150-mile Baker Trail, you get a rolling pin — the mark of a truly dedicated and resilient Western Pennsylvania trail runner. I ran on a relay team for the Baker Trail Ultra Challenge one year. After sleeping on a farm under the stars without cell service, running for 10 road miles in the blazing heat (I signed up late, so got relegated to arguably the least pleasant leg of the trail), and driving around cheering on the runners all day, this event found a place in my heart as one of my favorite race experiences ever. That race is run by the Rachel Carson Trail Conservancy, which has been around in some form since the early nineties and is now the caretaker of about 170 miles of trail in the Pittsburgh area. They also host the annual Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, a race and hiking challenge held on or near summer solstice that treks over 36 miles of rugged land that is mostly owned by utility and coal companies or private landowners. I’ve never had the chance to run this race, but have run or hiked several sections of the trail, and once again, it offers so many interesting moments of adventure and community building. There are also many races that I haven’t gotten to yet, For instance, The Laurel Highlands Ultra, which treks along the Laurel Highlands Heritage Trail is at the top of my list.
There’s lots of sticky, sloppy, slippery mud!
One thing about Western Pennsylvania is that it rains. Like, a lot. And what happens to trails when they get wet? They turn into sticky, sloppy, slippery mud. My first 50K started after a three-day rain fest; it poured up until the starting gun. It felt like I was post-holing mud (or precariously sliding down hills) for most of the day. While I might not have PR’d (I guess technically I did because it was my first), the mud added to the sense of rugged adventure. My shoes never recovered, but my heart was full.
While all of the above make trail running around Pittsburgh great, I saved the best reason for last. What really makes the experience are the people. This community is fun, tough, adventurous, and kind-hearted. If you ever get the opportunity to race one of these races with Trail Sisters Pittsburgh and the broader community, you can consider yourself a lucky trail runner.