Clara Santucci likes to have a mantra going into every marathon, a little something she can repeat in her head for motivation when things get tough along the 26.2-mile course. During the 2015 DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon she kept telling herself, “These are my hills. No one’s going to run them better than I am.”
The Doddridge County, West Virginia native won her second straight Pittsburgh Marathon that year. Now, on the 10th anniversary of the race returning to the city, the hometown favorite is going for her third victory in as many tries.
Although there have been a number of men and women who have won the Pittsburgh Marathon twice, none have done it three times.
“It would mean a lot,” she said. “It’s been a big goal for me actually since I decided that I was going to do Pittsburgh multiple times. It would be huge to win it again.”
Santucci raced an hour and a half from Pittsburgh at her alma mater, West Virginia University. She made her marathon debut in Boston in 2011, running a 2:29:54 for one of the top 10 best marathon debuts by an American woman ever, then was seventh at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She later finished ninth overall and was the top American woman at the Chicago Marathon in 2013 with a time of 2:31:29.
After college she lived in Dillner, PA about 65 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, however, she didn’t make her Pittsburgh Marathon debut until 2014. When she won in 2:32:25, the race immediately found a special place in her heart.
“When I crossed the finish line the first year, Race Director Patrice Matamoros grabbed me and wrapped me in the flag and said, ‘You’re a Pittsburgher now,’” Santucci said. “That’s when I really felt the embrace of Pittsburgh.”
Since then, Santucci has competed in other races throughout the city, including the Liberty Mile and the Richard S. Caligiuri City of Pittsburgh Great Race. She’s interacted with and inspired members of the local running community as an ambassador for the P3R American Development Program. And in 2015, she was a pen pal to second graders from Aiken Elementary through the marathon’s Kids of STEEL program, ultimately visiting the school and running with the children in the Toyota Pittsburgh Kids Marathon.
In 2015, when she returned to defend her title, she said she had three goals: to win, to break the course record of 2:29:50 set by Margaret Groos in 1988, and to make Pittsburgh proud. Although she didn’t break the course record, she did win with a time of 2:34:06, and she definitely made Pittsburgh proud.
Coach Sean Cleary, who’s been with Santucci since her days at West Virginia, said she feels a sense of ownership when it comes to Pittsburgh.
“She’s won two and she’d love to win three,” he said. “She’s gotten invitations to flatter, faster courses, but every time we sit down and make goals, she tells me Pittsburgh is very dear to her and if it fits into the plan, that’s what she wants to do. So here we are.”
The past two years haven’t been easy for Santucci. She competed in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February 2016, but she’d strained a hamstring not long before the race and was unable to finish. She returned to racing a few months later, but strained it again. Then, in February 2017, she was racing in Florida and felt a pop within the first half mile.
“That was my hamstring going on me,” she said. “I had no power in that leg. It didn’t really hurt, I just couldn’t lift it.” Santucci had to take six months off.
Cleary said that while Santucci has never been out of shape, when they first began training for the Pittsburgh three-peat, she was still feeling the impact of the injury, both physically and mentally.
“She’s been as durable a distance runner as anyone I’ve ever been around, and that kind of knocked her confidence, knocked her back mentally a little bit,” he said. “We wanted to make sure she was as healthy as she could be before we started, so based on what she’s used to, she was not that fit to start. But I’d say with about six or seven weeks left, she should be very excited to be in top shape by the time she lines up for Pittsburgh.”
If there’s one thing Santucci has learned, it’s that if you’re not good with the ups and downs — both physically and mentally — you aren’t going to have much success in Pittsburgh.
“I practice on the hills a lot for this race,” she said. “It’s kind of like a Boston race. It’s a proud city, a strong city and people are always coming out to cheer you on, but it’s all about the ups and downs and running strong on those hills.”
Santucci said her experiences in the Pittsburgh Marathon have shaped who she is as a runner today. Whereas 2014’s race was more of a back-and-forth that saw her develop a big lead over the last few miles, she trailed Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton for much of the race in 2015.
“It can be discouraging when someone’s way out in front and you could think you might not be able to catch them, but that was probably one of my biggest lessons in running,” she said. “The second Pittsburgh Marathon, I couldn’t see the first-place woman until the last two miles and I didn’t pass her until the last mile, so it was definitely a lesson in never quitting. Having those experiences and learning from them in 2014 and 2015 have made me a better runner.”
Despite being a two-time champion, Santucci said she doesn’t feel as if she’s the favorite this year. She still believes she’s the underdog, particularly with some of the talent expected to line up with her at the start.
In mid-March, she said she also wasn’t yet sure what her mantra would be for 2018. She just knew that it would be something good. “It will definitely have something to do with this race being closer to my heart than it is to the other competitors,” Santucci said. “It’s not just another race. This one is pretty special to me.”