Running these streets


Dr. Tom Murphy VII is a tediumcore performance artist based in Pittburgh with a YouTube channel. His formula is as elegant as it is effective - take a topic, pluck out an interesting nugget of truth, apply the commutative property, unrelentingly follow that reasoning straight into a wall. E.g. "x86 instructions can be one byte, and ASCII characters are ALSO one byte, so it follows that I should make a compiler that only uses instructions that are printable ASCII characters".

With that background, it's unsurprising that he:

  1. Decided to run every street in the City of Pittsburgh
  2. In its entirety
  3. Starting each run from his house
  4. Which he recently completed, celebrated below

For reasons lost to time, I decided "Oh, this seems like fun" and set out to do my own PacTom, all the way back in 2020. I even started out measuring it in "millimurphies", where 1000 == 866 miles1, the length of all the streets in Pittsburgh.

My first Strava run on my attempt

As my interest in running has waxed and waned, so too has my progress, but if City Strides3 is to be believed I'm around 18% of the way there.

A City Strides map showing my progress

Here's what I've learned so far, nearly 3 years in.

You rack up the miles pretty darn fast

I remember my surprise hearing Strava cheerily announce mile one on that first run. It was a gorgeous, cool August night and I had decided to get a two-miler in before bed. I figured doing the few blocks between 40th and Butler ought to do the trick. When Strava gave me the news, I had barely made it down Liberty.

I finished, but my guesstimate was obviously way off [Editor's note: v typical software developer behavior]. After a few more outings, I started to get calibrated and better at judging the real distance. These days I can pretty accurately clock the mileage of a section of the map, a nearly useless skill I'll carry with me until I die4.

It's a little embarrassing

It's passing someone, pulling a startling 180, then lurching past them the other direction.

It's exchanging increasingly uncomfortable glances with a dogwalker for the third time this route.

It's sheepishly explaining "Yeah, every street. Yeah, I have to start at my house. Because this other guy said so. No- no- yeah, no I don't know why I'm doing it", again.

There's a lot of backtracking

Although there are only 1,2001 miles of streets in Pittsburgh, I'm going to run wayyy more than that - beyond running the same arterial roads to get from place to place, there are dead end streets and unavoidable overlap.

As a result, I'm obsessive about running efficiency. I don't really try and plan ahead, so you'll see me huffing along, scrunched up face buried in my phone, cursing under my breath as I optimize on-the-fly. If you really want to coax me out of my shell, ask me about my favorite patterns. Spoilers: zipper, baybee!

A zipper pattern alternating streets that fills in each segment with zero

Look at it! Nearly zero backtracking! IT'S SO BEAUTIFUL!!

Lubrication is important

Never, ever, ever high-five a marathon runner. Beyond bathroom stops, sweat, etc., there's urgent need to keep the skin/clothing interface low-friction. Helpful marathon enthusiasts? employees? are along the route handing out tongue depressers with thick smears of Vaseline. As a runner, you have limited options on how you can apply this vital petroleum jelly and importantly how you can disinfect post application. Perversely, your friends and family members are all going to want a stiff, American high five as you pass them on the course. This is a major social/moral dilemma and source of stress for runners5. As a spectator, please stick to socially distanced cheering (or loud supportive words, if you find yelling embarrassing5).

Internal lubrication is important, too. For a long time I didn't bring water, even on my long training sessions. I've learned since this is both a chaotic and counterproductive thing to do, and my runs have been much more comfortable. Drink water!

It's a really cool way to see (all of) the city

Many, many times, I'll pass by an unassuming armpit of some neighborhood or another on my bike. Coming back on foot, I'm over-and-over surprised to find, like, hey, there's a bunch more here here. What was once the border of some imagined neighborhood turns out to be a crease in the unfolding origami of the city.

Pittsburgh in particular is a weird city to explore. Before the steel collapse, the city was twice the population it is today; like the Giant's Playground in "Ender's Game", it feels like walking the bones of some long-dead being. Cataloging some of the industrial skeleton peeking through is a fun bonus.

Funnily enough, the question I get asked the most is "what's the coolest thing you've seen?", and for some reason I never have a great answer. Reflecting, I think it's because it's all cool to me. The rickety concrete steps of the South Side, the charming Craftsman estates in Highland Park and Point Breeze, the jumble of vinyl-sided Bloomfield houses, the energy and gravitas of Oakland, the civil engineering absurdities peppered throughout, all of it. It's all my favorite, it's all cool5.

But I definitely have a favorite weird thing, and that's the Jewel Street steps in Polish Hill that go down into the woods two storeys, turn 90 degrees, and then up one storey back to street level. Like, what?

The 90 degree turn in the Jewel street

Or maybe it's "big titty sphinx" in Allegheny Cemetery.

  1. This was apparently only asphalt streets or just a made up number - the City says 1,200 ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. It's also much nicer than my old Python scripts ↩︎

  3. Of course there's an app for this2↩︎

  4. A young boy runs up to an elderly man in the park, "Mister! Mister! Quick, it's an emergency! Do you know how far it is from here to the end of the street and then every other street between that street and this other one?". Beneath my felted brim hat, I crack a leathery smile. ↩︎

  5. Maybe just me. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎