William Harrison can tell you horrific stories of his time as a 911 dispatcher. He can also take you on a journey through his rich family history, most notably holding the distinction of the most degrees from the University of Pittsburgh of any African-American family.
But perhaps what he’s most proud of, is being a part of the elite 13, a group of runners who have been through every Pittsburgh Marathon, including the first two Great Races.
This year’s race marked Harrison’s 21st marathon. What makes him different from probably most of the others is that he doesn’t train between marathons. In fact, he can’t train.
|SCENIC ROUTE—Every year, William Harrison joins thousands of others in the Pittsburgh Marathon.
While in high school, Harrison, 59, discovered he had non-cancerous bone growths in his left leg. Four operations and four decades later, his left leg is still the source of constant pain.
“If I trained the way people are supposed to train, I probably wouldn’t be able to run the race. I don’t have the strength in my left leg that I do in my right leg,” Harrison said. “That kind of strain on my knee, I just wouldn’t be able to do it. The only thing I can consider training is the last race I ran.”
As a former athlete at Westinghouse High School, the loss of strength in his left leg hit Harrison particularly hard. He has spent the rest of his life trying to show people how he has been able to overcome his disability through the power of God.
“I ran the Great Race with the hope of telling my surgeon he couldn’t tell me what I can’t do. After I ran the first two Great Races, I called him up. I said is that good enough for you? He said no, I shouldn’t be doing that,” Harrison said. “I ran the first six before he stopped telling me what I couldn’t do.”
The Pittsburgh Marathon takes runners on a tour of the city, confronting a variety of neighborhoods, not only the nicest ones. For native Pittsburghers, the sight of familiar landmarks is what inspires them to continue.
“Running through Homewood is special. Homewood is in such bad shape,” Harrison said. “In this family you’re born Westinghouse Bulldogs. I use that because Westinghouse is right by mile 18 and most runners will tell you mile 18 is where you hit the wall. There’s no quit in me. There’s no quit in a Bulldog.”
Mentally, Harrison’s weak leg has been a counterbalance for his physical shortcomings. Coupled with his devout religious beliefs, he sees his ability to overcome the odds and finish every race as a miracle.
“A large part of finishing longer distance races is mental. First and foremost I think about God, I think about all the factors in my life that allowed me to run, I think about being the descendants of slaves,” Harrison said. “Clearly Jesus gave me the power to run with one and a half legs.”
Harrison’s story has inspired others including his sons to begin running. Throughout each race he also serves as constant inspiration to his fellow runners.
“All I can tell you now with the future of the Pittsburgh Marathon is, if I’m alive, I’ll do it. They start blending together after awhile. After number seven my body was pretty much imprinted with I’m going to do this every year. It can’t be pain because my left leg hurts all the time. Because it hurts all the time it can’t be an excuse,” Harrison said. “I talk to people during the race. I tell them, I’m going to finish this race so you’ve got to finish. There’s no reason I should be finishing this race.”