Running for those who cannot, Pittsburgh marathoners pay tribute to Tree of Life victims

“It’s a symbolic run. It’s going to be very emotional.”

Scoletti pays his respects to the Tree of Life victims at a makeshift memorial outside the Squirrel Hill synagogue.

Scoletti pays his respects to the Tree of Life victims at a makeshift memorial outside the Squirrel Hill synagogue.

COURTESY OF MATT SCOLETTI
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Minutes before setting off on this year’s Pittsburgh marathon, Matt Scoletti will don a vest containing 11 pounds of extra weight.

He will keep it on across 26.2 miles of urban road running. It will feel heavier as he goes, pressing down on his legs and back, and pulling at his neck.

It’s worth noting that Scoletti, an author, motivational speaker, and resident of Gibsonia, has never run a full marathon before. And he decided to do his first with the added weight as a tribute to the lives lost and forever altered by October’s mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue.

Scoletti settled on 11 pounds — one for each of the 11 people killed that day, none of whom were known to him personally. When he sets off at the starting line Sunday, he’ll have a piece of paper with their names on it tucked into his pocket. He’ll also have the weighted vest around his shoulders and something less tangible on his mind.

“When I picture the end of the race, I definitely break down,” Scoletti said. “It’s a symbolic run. It’s going to be very emotional.”

He will be joined in tribute by other runners, all of whom plan to use the race weekend to honor those killed or wounded six months ago in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history, one that occurred mere blocks from mile 14 of the marathon course.

Henry Cohen, 23, of Pittsburgh, is running his first ever half marathon as an officially sanctioned charity runner for Tree of Life this year.

Nancy Lieberman, founder and former president of GO! St. Louis, is running to support Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

Zev Rosenberg of Edison, NJ, ran his first marathon as a synagogue fundraiser in 2011. He was forced to stop running after he suffered head trauma and crushed a portion of his spine in a work accident in 2013. He came back to run the New Jersey marathon the following year and said his decision to run the Pittsburgh marathon this year was an obvious one. “I run because I can and in memory of those who can’t,” he said in a statement.

The nods, some more subtle than others, will bring glimpses of solemnity to a weekend best known for its buoyancy. They will also speak, however indirectly, to a city continuing to adjust to life with a well-worn and often regenerating sense of trauma. This is Pittsburgh’s greatest public spectacle reckoning with its greatest modern day atrocity.

Matt Scoletti will run the Pittsburgh marathon this year while wearing an 11-pound vest, a tribute to the 11 people killed at Tree of Life synagogue in October. He is joined by other runners who are planning tributes of their own.

Matt Scoletti will run the Pittsburgh marathon this year while wearing an 11-pound vest, a tribute to the 11 people killed at Tree of Life synagogue in October. He is joined by other runners who are planning tributes of their own.

COURTESY OF MATT SCOLETTI

“Every time I put that vest on to train, I’m forced to think about the families and the people we lost, and it definitely gets emotional,” Scoletti said.

The 35-year-old started training for this in December, wearing the vest whenever he did.

He met people impacted by the shooting, including a friend of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a Dor Hadash congregant and one of the 11 killed.

At a recent charity dinner, Scoletti also met Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who survived the shooting to become the public face of the grieving process here for many. Scoletti said he told Myers of his race plans and said Myers offered his blessing.

“I told him it was an honor to do this for their community,” Scoletti recalled.

Scoletti is Catholic but said what happened at Tree of Life should move everyone irrespective of religious affiliation.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Jewish, atheist — I just want to do my part to show we can come together no matter what happens in Pittsburgh or the rest of the world,” he added.

Scoletti and his wife, Stephanie, say they were half a world away — or at least felt like it — when the shooting happened. They were in Las Vegas and barraged with news and texts about the events unfolding in Squirrel Hill, closer to home. They came back days later to a mournful and anxious city. Weeks later, Scoletti pulled his wife aside.

“He said, ‘I think I’m ready and healthy enough to run the marathon,’ and he said that with the tragedy at Tree of Life, he wanted to do something for them,” Stephanie Scoletti recalled. “And when he told me, I paused and went completely silent. My heart went out to him for him even thinking of something like this.”

She added, “I think don’t think he realized how challenging it was gonna be when he first started, but once he started and committed to doing it, there was no way he was going to stop. He’ll crawl across that finish line if he has to.”

Eleven pounds may not sound like much, but its impact on a runner is compounded over time and distance, as muscles are forced to work harder than normal and grow weary more quickly.

“It’s a huge difference to run with a vest for four-plus hours” Scoletti said. “It definitely takes a toll on my legs. The shoulders get sore quickly, which is something I didn’t necessarily anticipate. I can almost appreciate it more when I don’t have the vest on because I feel so light. But, yeah, I’d say it’s even more challenging than I would have thought.”

Scoletti expects the symbolism of the vest to have the opposite effect, though, spurring him on on what is sure to be the longest run of his life.

“I’m looking forward to mile 17 or 18 when your body wants to stop and you have to keep your mind focused on moving your legs. And when I hit that wall, I’m looking forward to digging deeper and focusing on why I’m doing this, and I hope that propels me.”

Matt Scoletti is pictured in a weighted vest similar to the one he'll be wearing in the 2019 Pittsburgh marathon as a tribute to the Tree of Life victims.

Matt Scoletti is pictured in a weighted vest similar to the one he'll wear in the 2019 Pittsburgh marathon as a tribute to the Tree of Life victims.

COURTESY OF MATT SCOLETTI

There will also be thousands of people cheering him on, his wife and Pittsburgh marathon CEO Patrice Matamoros among them.

In an email to The Incline, Matamoros said the marathon has worked this year to showcase the stories of runners who are dedicating their race day experiences to Tree of Life victims.

“It is our way of recognizing the ongoing grief of many in the aftermath of this great tragedy,” Matamoros explained, adding, “On race day, we will stand at the finish line cheering the loudest and proudest for those who run in remembrance of those 11 amazing people whose lives were taken too soon.”