Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
December 31
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at

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JANUARY 11, 2012 11:14AM

The Frigid Five

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Frigid Five

Photograph of Frigid Five Winner, 2011


My legs were moving. Clopping, you could say. Like the shoed hoofs of a horse on cold pavement. There I was, 2.4 miles into a five-mile race, and suddenly I realized, Holy shit, I’m really running!

            And then: One hour, five minutes. I can finish this race in one hour and five minutes. If I beat that time, I’ll be happy.

            For serious runners, the Frigid Five isn’t a long race, but it’s long enough for me. I have come to North Park twice before to photograph the event, once for fun, the other time for Pittsburgh Magazine. On a normal January day, the Frigid Five is aptly named; runners often trudge across a nit afghan of snow, up and down the North Park roads, in the damp and chilly air that makes Pittsburgh winters so grudging. Twice I have stood on the sidelines, snapping away at friends and girlfriend as they trundled toward the finish line, spewing gray breaths into the air.

            Now that I’m a “runner”—slow and easygoing, but a runner nonetheless—I decided to join the Frigid Fivers. Like the Polar Bear Plunge, this is a test of wintry will, something I’ve observed firsthand and “always wanted to do,” but never been bothered to try. Instead of standing in a snowy bluff, waiting for the signal so I could start shooting, I was among the runners, waiting for the signal to go.

            Foolishly, I started in the middle of the pack, which meant that faster racers kept outrunning me. One after another, they appeared to my right and left, easily striding past my shoulders and disappearing around the curve. But I reminded myself that this was a fun little jaunt, and whatever my pace, the morning was beautiful—blades of sunlight cut through the trees, and the hills unfolded around us, revealing ever more stretches of forest. After a while I didn’t mind the runners scampering past me, even the elderly runners, the overweight runners, the runners who heaved asthmatically. Everybody goes at their own pace, I thought. Even ridiculously, pathetically slow people.

            The Frigid Five is short, yes, but it’s also a very unpredictable course. The road rolls with the hills. It dips and rises and finally plummets into the valley, where racers find North Park Lake, a serpentine pond of dark gray water and evergreen trim. As I bombed down the incline, it dawned on me that I could go faster—not a gentlemanly trot, but a gallop. My legs picked up speed, and when I reached the flat, lakeside road, everything accelerated. I passed another runner. And another. I spotted, for the first time, people who had stopped running altogether. I might not be fast, I thought, but I’ll be damned if I start walking.

            The final leg of the Frigid Five is a heart-cracking, mile-long ascent. The hill is long and steep, and because it twists and turns, there’s no telling how far the route will go. The finish line stands at the top of this hill, but many runners give up hope and start ambling. I passed a string of wheezing racers, first a handful, then a dozen, a score. I kept my pace because I had saved for this moment. Whatever energy my unathletic body had, I’d reserved it for my “kick.” When I reached the apex of the hill, I started to sprint—burning all the flame I had left. My girlfriend cheered. My friends cheered. They had crossed the finish line long before, but now they took out their cameras and took snapshots. In an exhilarating role-reversal, I was the one memorialized. And in a moment of sheer solipsistic joy, I completely forgot to see my time.

            52 minutes. I had beaten my goal by nearly a quarter-hour. A personal best, as they say. And suddenly, amid slurps of Gatorade, I couldn’t wait to run the next one.

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