Finish time: 5:00:05
Splits: 2:32:48 (half); 2:27:17 (end)
Total elevation gain: 1684 feet
Placing: 4098 out of 6544 (overall)
2907 out of 4194 (male)
549 out of 744 (male division)
Goal 1: Finish and have fun (yes)
Goal 2: Under 5 hours (no)
Goal 3: Beat Baltimore (no)
If you told me at the beginning of training that I would run a five hour marathon in San Francisco, I’d probably guess that it was a terrible race. That couldn’t be further from the truth. This was one of the most fun, stress-free races that I think I’ll ever run.
This marathon was the most laid back culmination of a lot of things: on a large scale, training for my first marathon after Mini was born, and on a smaller scale, running after just a great weekend with friends. The race came right after making a major career decision. It came with uncertainty all the way up until the night before the race, where I went to bed thinking I’d run the half, and woke up with a “fuck it” attitude to run the full anyway, even if it was going to be slow. For no other reason than (1) someone told me after Mini was born that I’d never run a marathon again and (2) I knew that running the half while watching others finish the full would just make me mad at myself.
During training, I developed a vague plan for the race. Before the marathon, I threw it all out the window. No rituals or routines, and it made the race feel weird. I didn’t watch Castaway the night before. I didn’t take a Sharpie to my arm to write out my race-pace plan, I didn’t listen to any of the music I listened to during training. In fact, I forgot my headphones at home and I didn’t listen to any music at all during the run. The night before races are usually spent with me in a contemplative and relaxed mood to get my mind right; the night before this one was spent with me out with friends in the Mission. And I don’t regret any of it.
The only tradition that I did keep was to run with a purpose, to dedicate to my run to someone or something, this time it was to all the folks whose messages I have read on the Smart Patients kidney cancer blog–the success stories and the set backs, all the fights that people on there were going through, this marathon was dedicated to that.
At the end of the day, I just got up and ran. With a plan to run slowly. To run-walk the race so that I could just complete it and let Mini see for the first time that her dad finished.
Aside from having to travel across the country to run this, it actually turned out to be on of the most convenient races that I could run. Jess, Mini, and I were out in San Francisco for a vacation, which was kind of built around this race, but also just a summer getaway for us with an excuse to travel a long distance with Mini. We flew in on Tuesday night and left on the Monday after the race (marathon was on Sunday). After an AirBnB on Tuesday and Wednesday, we moved over to a friend’s apartment for the rest of the weekend. He was out of town and let us crash there while he was away. He’s such a great friend.
His place is in the Marina neighborhood, literally steps away from Fort Maison, where the race expo was held. One of my other friends and I walked over there on Friday to grab my bib. At this location, there was an SF event later that evening , a food truck festival called Off the Grid. So we went to the expo and stayed for Off the Grid, hung out with our friends from DC and our friends from Michigan/NYC.
On Saturday, we planned a picnic out in Dolores Park, and I made sure to keep hydrated during the sunny day. I won’t lie, I also had a beer or two, still not knowing if I’d drop to the half or still run the full. I was about to drop to the half simply because the training had fell off in the last weeks, and I didn’t want to attempt to jump out at the full and destroy myself (and thus not be helpful for Jess and Mini as we left the next morning). Saturday was mostly spent relaxing in the park.
The marathon was on my mind, but kind of in the back of my thoughts. My main priority was hanging out and spending time with friends. Jess and I got back to the apartment at around 9:30pm, we put Mini to bed (I say this so nonchalantly, but I fully understand how incredibly awesome it has been to have such an easy four month old baby who we can take to freaking San Francisco and still have her sleep perfectly fine during the night), and I laid out my clothes for the next morning. I tried to continue my Castaway movie tradition, but it was already late, and I started to watch a bootlegged Russian version on YouTube that just wasn’t doing the trick. I went to bed telling Jess that I think I’m going to run the half.
Before the start
The marathon had an early start, 5:30am, so I got up at 4 with an intention to leave by 4:30. When I got up, I decided that I was going to run the full after all, and decided that I was going to run it at an easy pace. I looked up a run walk technique (something I never tried before), where you run for five minutes, walk for one minute, rinse and repeat.
So, grabbed my stuff and my water bottle and GUs and Ubered down to the start line.
The start was at the Embarcadero. It was pretty crowded–word was that a record 27,000 people were participating in the running activities, the full, halfs or shorter runs. I snapped this photo before the gun:
By the way, I looked up this dude’s number–he’s from France and beat me by almost an hour. Looks like he was ready to go too.
Start of the race, miles 1-4 “run-walk and gotta pee”
11:09 min/mile; 11:07; 15:05;10:42 (note, tracked on my watch with auto-stop, so it’s not going to add up to the finish time)
The race starts at the Embarcadero and the first four miles go up to North Beach and west across the Marina to the edge of Presidio, running through Fisherman’s Wharf. As mentioned, I looked up a five minute on, one minute off run-walk technique that I was trying out for the first time. In hindsight, it might have been way too conservative as when I finished the race I felt like I had a lot left in the tank.
I started off fine, though it did feel weird to start walking just five minutes into the race. I felt like people around me were probably thinking “WTF, five minutes in and this guy’s walking, he’s done.” But I quickly got over that because, whatever, everyone’s running their own race.
At about mile 1.5 I had to pee really badly. We ran by some port-a-potties that were set up for the race but that were locked. I guess they were there for the finishers. That was a bit of a mind fuck, and then for the next 2.5 miles, all I could think about was how I needed to go. I finally got a bathroom break at mile 3, and it shows with the 15 mile split. I ate my first GU, grabbed some Nuun at the water station and moved on.
Jess and Mini met me at mile 2 since the race passed literally right by our friend’s apartment in Marina where we were staying. It was before 6am, so Jess was a trooper for getting Mini up and ready to see her dad run the very earliest stage of the race.
Miles 5-8 “foggy as hell and absolutely stunning”
10:57; 11:10; 11:00; 12:43
This part of the route goes across the north edge of Presidio and over the Golden Gate Bridge. During the morning, it was really foggy, and the temperature was in the mid 50s. It was so foggy that you couldn’t see much in front of you. We were steps away from the Golden Gate Bridge and I couldn’t even really see it, let alone the bay in front. I knew that Karl the Fog is notorious in SF, but I was surprised to see it so thick.
I’ve run across the Golden Gate Bridge once before, at night during a work trip a few years ago. I basically did it just to say that I did, and it was after an evening of a few drinks, which I strongly recommend against. So I don’t really remember much of it. This time was different. The bridge is actually a bit of a climb. According to the GPS, it’s about a 250ft climb over a mile and a half, starting at the base at Presidio.
As I entered the bridge, I remember thinking how it was a disappointment that it was so foggy, that it would have been cool to be able to get the bay view from the bridge. This is what it looked like when I snapped a picture during my walk break:
It felt like we were just trusting the route as we ran into the fog, but really, we could have been duped into running into a different dimension altogether, and we would have never known.
As we got close to the end of the bridge, I overheard someone, probably a native San Francisco runner, say “sun’s out, about to get beautiful.” And man, was she right. Towards the end of the bridge, we exited the fog, and almost instantaneously, as if running through a gray wall, the fog lifted and the scene was just stunning. Blue skies with the view toward Sausalito and the Bay. It honestly was one of the coolest run views I’ve had–the juxtaposition of running through the dense, dreary fog, opening up into this amazing bay view, and then turning around and running right back towards the fog again.
I got across the bridge, stopped for another gel and headed for the run back.
Miles 9-12 “annoying hill and big downhill”
10:17; 9:47; 11:25; 13:28
The route exits comes back over the Golden Gate Bridge and then heads over to the western edge of Presidio, right along the water. However, after exiting the bridge, there’s an annoying 70 foot, half mile hill that kind of catches you off guard. Running across the bridge was a little slippery, so I was kind of out of any sort of groove, and then the hill showed up.
I actually went a little faster during this part. It was the one time where I felt annoyed at taking the easy pace. I sped up for miles 9 and 10, but then held myself back again, remembering the reasons for why I decided to take it easy: (1) I didn’t want to burn out and be useless after the race; (2) I was running the race with the intent to finish it; and (3) I was kind of ad-hoc-ing my plan enough to begin with, so don’t try and go completely off the reservation.
After climbing the short hill to Presidio, there was a long downhill segment, almost a 200 foot drop in half a mile. I actually found that part to be a little challenging, just because running such a steep down hill taxes your legs in different ways. The end of mile 12 takes you between Lands End and Richmond, just down to Golden Gate Park.
Miles 13-16 “Golden Gate Park for days”
10:43; 12:44; 11:34; 11:18
Mile 13 enters Golden Gate Park from the north. Here, the first half marathoners split off and headed to their finish line, and the full marathoners face the depressing split “to the right” when the course bifurcates. I remember this before on the DC Rock n Roll marathon, the first one I ran back in 2015, where the course split between the half and full plays some mental tricks on you. I was going slow enough to get over it pretty quickly, but still, it was funny running by the half finish area when you were only half way done.
These four miles are beautiful and quiet. There isn’t much crowd support in this segment. In actuality, there isn’t too much crowd support in the first half of the race, which is totally understandable given the bridge segments and the early start.
This segment, though, had a few rolling hills which were tough, even while running slowly. The first is about a 100 foot climb for a mile, followed by a 100 foot drop for a mile, and the second is about a 200 foot climb over two miles. That second one is tougher. You have the second half folks joining around here, and the full marathon folks are starting to slow down. It’s still a beautiful portion of the run, but the isolation and quiet of the park, together with that relentless hill and 10+ miles still to go, it’s a pretty lonely part of the run.
Miles 17-20 “I don’t care at all about my time anymore”
13:47; 12:21; 11:22; 12:19
This part went through the eastern half of the park. By this point, I was ready to see something else, as we’d be in the park for about 8 miles by the time the segment finished. I decided here that I didn’t really care about how I finished, even beyond the five-on one off-plan, I just wanted to finish without killing myself, so I was very liberal with the run-walking. I took a gel somewhere here, maybe even in the previous segment and hydrated up well at every water stop. I figured, since I’m running just to finish this, I’m going to take it easy, “enjoy” it (as if that’s possible 20 miles into a race) and I did just that.
Miles 21-24 “plenty left in the tank”
9:30; 9:50; 12:03; 9:21
As I was doing the run-walk method, I decided (somewhere around mile 14 or so), that if I still felt fine at mile 20, I’m just going to go to the end. Part of holding back was because I didn’t want to cramp up before then and kill my race, as I feared it might base on how my long-ish training runs went. And if I got to mile 20 feeling fine, I figured that I can just push a faster pace for a 10k like I’ve done many times before
When I got to mile 20, I felt great. My legs felt fresh, and I felt like I could hit the last 10k fairly hard. So I picked it up at mile 21, where you exit the park on Haight (close to Ashbury) and head east towards Mission and Dogpatch. The miles here felt great. I slowed down at mile 23 to chat with friends who were so kind enough to come outside and cheer me along. I talked with them, about the race and whether or not I regretted hanging out the day before for so long (which I absolutely did not). After a few high fives, I continued on to the last 2.2 miles.
Miles 25-26.2 “finish up strong”
9:23; 9:48; [1:46]
Every time I have entered the last 2.2 miles of a marathon, I tell myself “finish up strong.” I originally got this phrase from a classic rock radio station in South Carolina. When I was growing up, FM 102.3 would play songs at around 4pm as I drove home from school, and they would always end the afternoon segment with a song to “finish up strong.” I adopted the phrase when I went to college, using it as a mantra for taking finals in my Electrical Engineering courses to try and finish the semester with a bang. When I was studying for the LSAT, a friend and I would say that to each other as we took practice tests, to remind ourselves to avoid fatigue and attach the last the test sections with vigor. Every now and then, I still say it to myself, whether I’m at the end of a crazy gym class, finishing up a tiring day at work, or wrapping up a long run.
So, finish up strong, that’s what I did, from Dogpatch up north past AT&T park and back to the Embarcadero where we started. I felt great and ran hard through the end. When I got to the line, I actually heard the MC call out my name, which was kind of cool and has never happened in the prior races.
I grabbed my medal, some free water, bananas and muscle milk and looked for Jess and Mini who were waiting for me at the finish line. I was so excited to see them after finishing this run. We snapped some priceless pictures:
Shortly after seeing Jess, we met up with our friends who met me at mile 23. They biked down to the finish to meet up with me, which I just appreciated a whole lot.
Afterwards, we grabbed a quick bite to eat, said goodbye to our friends and headed back to the apartment. That afternoon, our friends from Michigan/NYC came over to hang out, and then we grabbed dinner with my cousins. A nice end to a great morning and great trip in general.
The SF marathon was probably the most fun of the four marathons that I’ve run so far. A lot of this had to do with my attitude going in. At least three of the four marathons had a great atmosphere (the exception being the first marathon, which was more a function of a the 43 degree rainy day than anything else). But for SF, easing off on the time and pace took a lot of pressure off, and I could just sit back and enjoy running through the city. I had my share of doubts coming into the race–I had heard mixed things about the course and the overall atmosphere. But I highly recommend it for a city run. The early start dissuades some of the city support in the early segment that might otherwise be there (5:30am vs. the usual 7am or 8am starts that I’m accustomed to), but that is offset by the beauty and the experience of running across the Golden Gate Bridge. The park is a little long, but it’s kind of nice to have that solitude too, it makes the run memorable with your own thoughts. Maybe I felt that way, though, because I ran without any headphones or music. The crowd support picks up in the second half of the race, an as you wind your way through the finish, it just increases exponentially. The energy at the finish is enthusiastic as you’d expect from a major city run. It’s a really hilly run, more than I expected, which is odd because I expected it to be really hilly. But I’d never run that elevation gain before, so I guess you don’t know until you do it. So it may not be a race to target for a PR (or maybe it should be for that very challenge), but I’m very glad to have picked this one.
So, yeah, five hours isn’t exactly a world record time. But sometimes it’s fun to just let go of expectations, routines and rituals and have some fun. We went to San Francisco and had an amazing time with great friends, and I capped it off with completing marathon number four and crossing California off my list. Couldn’t ask for anything better than that.