If you have ever walked or jogged through the hills of Mt. Lebanon, you know that in places the challenging terrain can make you breathe a little harder than normal. For the running community, the upcoming 20th Annual Martha’s Run on April 9 in Mt. Lebanon also inspires a challenge to the heart and mind. Respected as one of the most difficult 10K races in the Pittsburgh area, the USATF-certified event attracts people who want to accomplish a great goal for a good cause and helps avid runners fulfill the void of their inner crazy side.
You may be saying to yourself, what kind of race offers all of these emotions? This race, which honors the late Martha Dixon, an FBI agent who was killed in the line of duty in 1994, certainly does. I can attest. I won the race in 2001 and 2002, holding the course record for seven years. It is the most challenging and enjoyable 10K I have ever toed the line for.
Starting on the track of Mt. Lebanon High School Stadium, participants complete 300 meters before heading down to Cedar Boulevard. This is where Martha’s Run veterans giggle at newcomers who start way too fast. That’s because from the flat stretch of Cedar, runners have to battle with the incline of Cochran Road. It’s a swift reminder that Mt. Lebanon is indeed hilly. Next, everyone enjoys a flat stretch of Washington Road, lined by orange cones with runners on one side and vehicular traffic on the other. They then head into the beautiful Beverly Heights area, taking the residential loop around Longuevue and Woodhaven drives and stopping for quick refreshment breaks at two official water stops that have been in front of the same homes since the very first Martha’s Run. First, you’ll be greeted by the Isler family on Longuevue and secondly, the Stevenson family on the bend of Markham and Altadena. The race continues to zig-zag through the Markham area streets, all presenting tough turns, accents and dips. Once runners climb up to Markham School, things finally get a bit more manageable for those aching hamstrings and calves as runners continue on to re-enter Washington Road and head back the way they originally came, descending down Cochran Road, passing the high school, and then sprinting (or waddling) with everything they have left past the tennis center on Cedar Boulevard toward the finish line in Mt. Lebanon Park. The finish line puts a smile on the faces of both the runners and the friends and family members who have been waiting on Morgan Drive in front of the Mt. Lebanon Veterans Memorial to congratulate them. Martha Dixon’s memorial plaque is also on display there. Whether they’re the first or the last to cross the finish line, these runners know they’ve accomplished a great feat.
Martha Dixon, the Mt. Lebanon native for whom the race is named, died November 22, 1994, when a criminal armed with an automatic weapon entered the Washington, D.C., police headquarters and opened fire. Two people were killed and others were wounded. Dixon was the FBI Special Agent who confronted and shot the suspect. Sadly, she also died in the exchange of gunfire. A true hero, she was awarded the FBI’s Memorial Star and Medal of Valor. The FBI building on Pittsburgh’s South Side is named after her.
Dixon was a 1977 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School and loved sports, especially running. The Martha Fund, which the race benefits, provides financial assistance for building area playgrounds in Allegheny County and surrounding areas. Martha’s Playground in Mt. Lebanon Park, which was dedicated in 2007, was the first area playground to be built.
“Over the years, more than $100,000 has been donated for area playgrounds,” says race director Rick Rinaldo, who has been involved since the outset. “This race has successfully honored Martha’s legacy and helped keep her memory alive. Because of Martha’s Run, the Dixon family has turned a horrible circumstance into a respected community event.”
Bob Shooer, Woodhaven Drive, is the owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Norman Centre. He says there’s nothing quite like this race. “It is renowned for being a challenging race,” says Shooer. “It literally runs along my street and at Fleet Feet, we love to challenge people to be a part of the race.”
Fleet Feet will be selling a special collectors’ edition 20th anniversary Martha’s Run shirt. The fabric will be green, which was Martha’s favorite color, and 100 percent of the sales go to the Martha Fund. Fleet Feet also will provide prizes following the event for those in attendance only.
Martha’s Run would not be possible without the support of the community. Mt. Lebanon police officers maintain the safety of participants while ensuring that traffic flows efficiently. Police department traffic division head Chip Sanders, now retired, helped organizers like Rinaldo and Tom Dempsey plot the race course we know today.
“It was Chip’s idea to set up the cones and barriers,” says Rinaldo. “We have people that are very loyal to this course; we can’t do this without the Mt. Lebanon Police, PennDot providing the cones, and public works offering us the barricades.”
Community volunteers work devotedly on Martha’s Run. District Judge Blaise Larotonda has been proud to work registration for every race since its inception. “Martha’s Run honors one of our own, who died performing her law enforcement duties, while raising money for community playgrounds,” says Larotonda, also a retired police officer. “For the past 20 years, Mt. Lebanon has embraced Martha’s sacrifice and the good will the race represents.”
The race is truly a family event—you don’t have to be a competitive, experienced runner to enjoy it. Adults and children of all levels can participate in the two-mile fun run or one-mile walk. For the little ones, there’s a 100-yard race and even a 20-yard race.
A unique division was created for police officers and others who protect the community. The Sam Hicks Memorial Law Enforcement Division welcomes runners from any law enforcement agency to get competitive. This special division was renamed in memory of FBI Special Agent Sam Hicks, who died in the line of duty in 2008.
We honor Sam by sponsoring this division in his name,” says Monica Dixon Dentino, Martha’s sister. “It’s been a lot of fun to see it on race day. It gives us a chance to serve law enforcement, since they were there for us.”
Martha’s Run provides a special occasion for the Dixon family to get together each year. Family travels from all over the country to be here. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed a race,” says Julia Smith, Martha’s niece from Colorado. “It’s a reason for us to all keep in touch and keep Aunt Martha close. She loved being around kids. It’s really cool to see kids playing on the playgrounds.”
“The payoff is we can do something good for others,” adds Dentino. “Our grief is still there. It keeps her memory going. It’s great when people come for the first time and realize what she did, and they become inspired by her.”
20th Annual Martha’s Run
T-Shirts for all pre-registered runners
Two runners have completed every Martha’s Run: Stan Wolowski and John Malicky
After the race, wear your race shirt to Bado’s on Beverly Road and receive a free Italian hoagie on Saturday or Sunday.