When Brenda Ayuk decided to transfer from Kennesaw State University to a bigger school to run cross-country, she wanted to find a place with an array of beautiful trails. Her standards were high: She began running as a girl in Kumba, Cameroon, famous among backpackers for Lake Barombi Mbo, which is nestled in a volcanic chain. She had also trained along beaches in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the tree-covered hills of suburban Atlanta, where she attended high school.
But the 19-year-old junior exercise science major said Pittsburgh possesses the perfect combination of trail types. “I just love the location of Pitt and just the feeling of it, which is really what made me choose to transfer here,” she said.
Ayuk discovered what a lot of people are beginning to realize: that Pittsburgh is a runner’s paradise. Runkeeper, a fitness tracking app, ranks Pittsburgh as one of the 15 best running cities in the world, calling it the “unsung hero” of places to train in North America, and Runner’s World rated it 17 among America’s top 150 cities.
What is it about the trails in and around Pittsburgh that have given the city this newfound recognition? Pitt’s cross-country team might know better anyone.
The team trains on 10 area courses: The Panhandle trail, Montour trail, Moon Park, Schenley Park, Frick Park, North Park, Point State Park (also known as the Riverwalk Waterfront) and the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. The last one is a 24-mile nonlinear trail with three segments that many consider separate courses—the North Side trail, the Downtown trail and the South Side/Eliza Furnace trail.
Pitt cross-country coach Brad Herbster said he describes the variety that these trails offer when he recruits student-athletes.
“I tell recruits all the time: ‘Whether you want hills or long, straight, flat trails, whatever you want to run on, you can find it in Pittsburgh,’” said Herbster, who coached cross-country at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Clemson University and the University of Texas before he came to Pitt in 2018.
“Pittsburgh crushes the other places I’ve been,” he said. “It’s so unique for distance runners. It’s like a hidden gem, because who would have thought Pittsburgh has great places to run? But it really does.”
A change of scenery is important for Pitt’s team because the student-athletes train—a lot. Each week, the men’s team runs between 75 to 80 miles in preparation for NCAA meets that range from 4.9 miles (called an 8k by runners, meaning 8 kilometers) to 6.2 miles (10k). The women run between 55 to 60 miles each week for races that are 2.4 miles (4k) or 3.7 miles (6k).
Entering her second season at Pitt, Ayuk is one of the women’s team’s top runners with a 6k time of 24:39.2. She said she loves running in the woods, but the South Side/Eliza Furnace segment of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail is her favorite because of its combination of green space and urban landscape along the Monongahela River. Particularly, she enjoys the stretch along Second Avenue.
“You look out at the river and it’s so calming,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re feeling. Looking at the river can keep everything still. The slow movement of the water—it puts everything in perspective.”
Like Ayuk, senior and architectural studies major Zach Lefever, who is one of the men’s team’s top runners with a 10k time of 30:47.3, often looks inward when running along the river. However, he prefers the North Side Trail. “As you’re running down the Allegheny River you’re in the trees, and then you pop out and you’re right across from downtown,” he said. “You’re so small compared to all those buildings, and then you’re next to the stadiums. It’s such a super cool feeling.”
Pitt’s men’s team is coming off its best season since 2006. The Panthers placed seventh at the 2019 NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regionals. Lefever leads the team with Marc Migliozzi, a mechanical engineering major and Pittsburgh native who transferred from Akron University after being crowned Mid-American Conference champion last year.
Pitt’s cross-country team rests one day each week, and each Sunday, the student-athletes drive to the Panhandle Trail for their longest practice of the week. The trail begins at Walkers Mill in Collier Township, Pennsylvania—a 20-minute drive from campus—and stretches 29 miles to Colliers, West Virginia. The Panhandle Trail was the first place Ayuk ran after moving to Pittsburgh.
“It’s so cool because it’s so flat and so long,” she said. “I love that you can run in the city and also have so much green space like that nearby.”
When the Panthers want to run up hills, they head to Frick Park. “If you want to have a hard day, you go there,” Lefever said. “Your legs are definitely feeling it the rest of the day. It probably has the most beautiful trails we run on, too.”
Runners who don’t live near Frick Park might drive there and then run the steep, tree-covered dirt trails. The Panthers aren’t like most runners, though, and by running to the park, the student-athletes get the full Pittsburgh experience.
“You’re running in the city when you start on campus,” Lefever said. “Then you get into Squirrel Hill and it feels more suburban, and then you’re in the park and all you see are trees.”