Executive Summary – In my typical fashion my words ran long. If you’re wondering if you should run the San Fran Marathon as a casual runner I HIGHLY encourage you to run the first Half for the scenery. There are some hills but it’s really not bad if you can handle hills. If you absolutely hate hills then you won’t like it but I found the hills on the first half to be challenging but not demoralizing.
The second half is another story. All 26.2 are an amazing accomplishment but the second half was something I was not mentally prepared for based on looking at the course map and elevation map along with having some knowledge of Golden Gate Park. If you want to be challenged for 26.2 miles I encourage you to give it a go. I have nothing to compare it to but there was no training in Houston I could have done to prepare me for it.
If you have time to kill feel free to read on. My apologies for the length but I got to writing and couldn’t stop.
Prior Marathon Experience – Zero. Nada. Zilch. Prior to running the SF Marathon I’d run one long race my entire life. In high school I HATED it when coach made us run a mile. Seriously. Was painful. Let’s run 10 gassers rather than a mile. So in college a bunch of girls signed up for a 5K and asked me if I wanted to run so I said sure. I ran a 21:30 5K and felt really good about it but never felt the need to run any distance race again. I would run 3 miles off and on but nothing I was ever passionate about. I say that to let you know 3 miles was about the longest I’d ever run before deciding to run a marathon some 15 years later.
Why the SF Marathon? – San Fran is my favorite city to visit in the U.S. It’s got the same character of New York but smaller and more manageable. I love New York for business but for leisure I’ve just always preferred San Fran. I was out there 3 years ago for work when the Marathon was going on. I’ve always thought about running a Marathon but never seriously. Something struck me that weekend I should do it and do San Fran because it would be scenic and the weather fantastic for a fat kid like me. If you’ve never been to San Fran in July it’s usually REALLY cold for July. With all my insulation I thought it would be perfect.
That weekend I got out the course map and saw the elevation map and saw the steepest climb was up to and across the Golden Gate. So I laced up my shoes and took off for the Golden Gate and hit the hills up to and across. A little more than 6 miles. No doubt it was tough but the weather was AWESOME and running the Golden Gate was amazing. I was hooked and was in. How hard could the other 20 miles be? Piece. Of. Cake.
It would take me another three years to do it due to work stuff and moving back to Houston from Fort Worth but it was always a goal. When work stuff finally worked out where it wouldn’t be an issue to train and travel, I was all in. As for deciding to go from a 5K some 15 years ago to a Full marathon rather than a Half it was all about go big or go home. Seriously. If I’m going to commit to running a long distance then let’s just nut up and do the whole damn thing. I figured this would be the only one I ever did so might as well do the whole enchilada. Plus, I wanted to be able snicker at those people with “13.1” on their cars. Just kidding Halfers!!! A Half is still an amazing accomplishment!
Training – Real quick on training. I trained for the thing by myself. It’s just kind of how I am for something like this. I need to be left alone and work out my issues by myself. I need to figure out what works to convince my body and brain to live in harmony for something as painful as running that far. No amount of encouragement from anyone is going to change my thoughts. I got a training plan from my buddy that owns a running store in Cincinnati with daily miles and took off running. A little like Forest Gump but no one ever joined me on my long runs. Looking back that would have been kind of cool.
Part of my training psyche was that I’d be training in Houston in May, June, and July and would be trading heat for hills in San Fran. I had to REALLY slow down my training pace when I hit June and July on my long runs due to the heat. I was running early on Sat mornings but it was still just too humid and hot to run the pace I wanted. Kind of frustrating but I worked through it.
As for what finally worked for me mentally was I treated it like all those drives I made between Fort Worth and Houston moving back. I’d put on Randy Rogers Band Pandora and zone out for the most part. Pay attention to my surroundings but get lost in every other thought besides the idiotic thing I was currently training for. In the book Lone Survivor there was a quote that always stuck with me while Marcus was in SEAL training. One of the SEAL trainers tells Marcus, “Marcus, the body can take damn near anything. It’s the mind that needs training.” That quote struck me when I read it. I’d remember that quote when I thought I was fool for attempting to do this and keep going. The body can handle more than you can imagine. It’s the brain you have to convince you can do it. Seriously. The mental hurdle was the toughest because it would have been so easy to quit.
My goal was to run sub 4 hours which is a little more than a 9:00 pace. I was able to do it on my 10-13 mile runs in May but when it hit June I had to drop back to a 10:00 and then an 11:00 pace to make it the distances I needed in the heat. My longest run was 22 miles on July 4th 3 weeks before the race which I finished at a 10:30 average but finished the last 6 miles at an 8:30 pace with a negative split the entire run and had lots of kick at the end. Tapered off the distances after that and was hitting sub 9:00 pace on every run and felt I was ready to bust 4 hours.
The Weather that Weekend – Remember when I said this fat kid decided to run SF because it’s REALLY cold this time of year? Yeah, well, Mother Nature wasn’t smiling on the fat kid. It was UNBELIEVABLY hot that weekend. Normally that time of year you’re wearing long sleeves and pants at all times and a decent sized jacket at night and still feeling cold. Not that weekend. Got off BART in Union Square in shorts and t-shirt and it was hot. I never wore sleeves or pants all damn weekend. This would be a HUGE factor for me. It would cool down at night and was DEFINITELY cooler than Texas but honestly about 20 degrees hotter than normal and had me worried about busting 4 hours.
The Race – I was never really nervous or anxious about the race. I had already run it several times in my mind. I actually built spreadsheets with paces per mile tied to the elevation so I knew where I needed to be to bust 4 hours based on my training. I just needed to run the race based on my training and those spreadsheets and I’d break 4 hours and never run another again. I went to SF alone and was just fine with that. I met up with my cousins Friday night and spent Saturday bumming around the city but I wanted to focus on the race and busting 4 hours.
On race day I walked down to the starting area from my hotel which is another reason I chose SF. I could stay in the city and not have to mess with parking and all that. Just walked the 15 minutes or so and got in my flight stall and waited like cattle at an auction until we were free to take off. It was cool that morning but I was in shorts and t-shirt and never once felt cold like I normally would. My only hope was that the sun would hold off until after I was done. We’ll get to the part about the sun eventually.
The first 3 miles are flat as can be. Great way to warm up without being pushed. The worst part of those first three miles was passing the Boudin sourdough factory about at mile 2. They were clearly baking sourdough that morning and I clearly wanted to stop. So unfair to do that to marathoners. At mile 2.5 there’s a pretty steep climb at Fort Mason but not too bad. Short hills are actually my strength as I found myself passing lots of folks and only got passed by one fool I’d quickly pass when he ran out of gas. After that little climb it levels back off for another couple of miles running along the bay with the Golden Gate in sight. About that time the sun is starting to appear and it’s just beautiful.
At mile 5 the climb to the Golden Gate begins. The first 5 miles I had gone from a 9:30 pace the first couple of miles as I let things get stretched out and settled to slowly increasing the pace to where I was about 9:15 at mile 5. The initial climb up the Golden Gate is pretty steep and probably 500 to 600 yards long. Lots of people were struggling up it but I was able to maintain my pace and pass lots of people and only got passed by that one yahoo that thought he was Rocky. Getting to the top of that hill was a moment I’ll never forget. When you get up the top you turn to the right. If you look to your right you can see Alcatraz. I looked over and there was the sun just peeking up right next to The Rock. It was gorgeous. I laughed out loud how amazing it looked. Turned towards the Golden Gate and started the smaller climbs up to the bridge.
Running the Golden Gate is AWESOME. Just AWESOME. The only really bad part is there’s only one lane going out and one lane going back in. It sucks if you’re trying to stay on a pace or like me decided to let the adrenaline push you a little as you’ll get caught up behind people as it’s not wide enough with only one car lane each way. I did a lot of slowing down and darting in and out of people to keep up my pace and not get slowed down. In a way it was kind of fun but took lots of concentration to find the gaps and not be rude to another runner. I wish they would use three lanes total and open up it a little bit.
Two of the coolest things for me running the bridge was hearing other Aggies give me a “Howdy” or “Gig ‘Em!” and even high fived another Aggie as we passed next to each other as I was going back and she was heading out. Pretty cool moments being in the SF Marathon and having Aggies acknowledge one another. Saw a kid in a Longhorn shirt so I smiled at him and he rolled his eyes and smirked so I gave him a thumbs up and a “Gig ‘Em” since he was clearly bothered by my Aggie shirt. The other AWESOME moment was making the turn to head back across and there’s a lookout point back to San Fran. You see the full city and it just looked awesome. In fact one of the pictures is of me bringing my eyes back to the course because I turned my head to look for such a long time to stare at the city.
Getting to the end of the Golden Gate is about mile 10. Not gonna lie that’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. Weird to say that about running 10 miles at a non competitive pace but just the scenery and energy from the other runners pushes you. The other exhilarating part for me was I passed the 4:10 pacers about mile 7ish so I thought I’d have no problem busting 4 hours. I had even gotten my pace right under 9:00 so I was in good shape at mile 10. I wasn’t worn out at all and my breath wasn’t even struggling.
There’s some annoying people taking selfies on the bridge but most of them stayed to the side or even hit the pedestrian part of the bridge. I don’t care if people take selfies but its just way too tight on the Golden Gate to do it. I think the SF Marathon should divert people that want to take selfies to the pedestrian part of the bridge on the way out. Everyone could live in harmony that way. Just a quick notice if you run it there’s lots to pay attention to on the Golden Gate because it’s so tight.
After mile 10 it set in for me I was no longer on an amusement park run with great scenery and I was running a marathon. It’s still scenic at mile 10 but the adrenaline definitely slows down as coming off the Golden Gate there’s a pretty long climb in the Presidio that’s not as steep as the others but its long and foreshadows what a good portion of the remaining course will be like for the marathoners. Coming off the climb is a really nice decline with the Pacific Ocean to the right which once again was just beautiful.
At about mile 11 you come down a decline from the Presidio with the ocean on your right to a very San Fran type neighborhood. There’s a pretty steady climb for a couple miles into Golden Gate Park but I was still running on adrenaline and there would be some plateaus and declines so those hills really didn’t bother me. This was the first neighborhood so it was a decent change of scenery and pretty cool.
At about Mile 12.5 you enter into Golden Gate Park. Golden Gate Park is BEAUTIFUL to visit and awesome when you first come into it. However, it would fell like my prison after a while. I hit Mile 13 right under a 9:00 pace and everything felt great. It was a little warmer than I would have liked but the lungs felt great and the sun was nowhere to be found. I remember being so thankful it looked like the sun would stay hidden until the end of the race. I hate full sun when I’m running. The park was beautiful for the first couple of miles to about mile 14.5 and then for me everything would change.
What I didn’t realize was happening is that I was on a STEADY ~2-3 mile climb that wasn’t steep at all but just never a flat spot or decline to let my lungs catch up. Legs were hurting just a bit but the lungs were slowly starting to work a lot more to keep my 9:00 pace I was still on. I was unaware the toll this slow climb would have on me. The photos I posted on FB are in chronological order and it’s not hard to tell which photos were taken during this stretch. The pain is all over my face and it HURT.
At about Mile 16 I wanted the hell out of the park. Honestly. There was nothing around. No spectators for the most part, no encouragement, and worst of all there seemed to be missing mile markers. I had no clue where I was on the course and was making a steady climb. It was MISERABLE. I’m very claustrophobic and it really felt like the forest was closing around me. I was still on my 9:00 pace and doing fine but honestly mentally I was breaking down because I felt lost and didn’t know where I was. I had my run tracker on my phone letting me know where but it still felt like prison because I didn’t know really where I was and didn’t know when I was getting out.
The park kind of levels out almost at the 18 mile mark so I did have a chance to recover some. However, I was working pretty hard at that point after climbing ever so slightly for most of 5 miles. I chatted briefly with an Aggie girl who was class of ’09 and from Fort Worth of all places on a level part and got some enthusiasm there. I was still on my 9:00 pace but I was struggling. Those pictures show just how much.
The end of the park is at Mile 19 and the cruelest of all things happens. You go through a tunnel and up a short but fairly steep incline into Haight Ashbury. I hit the incline into Haight Ashbury and the full sun hit me and I looked ahead and saw more inclines. Wasn’t steep at all but man I was worn out. At Mile 19 and still on my 9:00 pace and out of the park I let the monkey get me. I walked for the first time the entire race. There was no marine breeze like SF normally has and it was hot. Probably in the mid 70s about that time.
On my long runs I was able to walk for about 5 minutes to catch my breath and then re-start at a slower pace to recover before getting close to my desired pace. That’s what I was hoping for but I just couldn’t do it. My lungs were done. Legs were barking but the lungs couldn’t make a go of it. It was just too hot for me to keep any decent pace but I kept trying. For the remaining 7.2 miles I would walk and run. Probably an equal mix between the two. Every time I ran I was trying to get back to my 9:00 pace but I just couldn’t hold it.
Those last 7.2 miles aren’t bad at all as there’s not a lot of climbing and a LOT of downhill running. I was hoping the downhills would let me recover but honestly I was doing just as much work going down the hills and my lungs couldn’t do it. You spend most of the time after the park running through the city which is pretty cool. Lots of energy and encouragement through that part but I just couldn’t muster the energy to get back to my 9:00 pace and hold it. And to be honest when I knew I wasn’t breaking 4 hours I didn’t really want to push as my back started cramping at times and I really felt like I was fighting dehydration. I didn’t realize how much I sweated out on the course and those little cups of water they give you just weren’t enough for me looking back.
I did hit a slow steady pace for the last 1.2 miles to bring it in where I wasn’t walking. Since that was my first marathon, the last .2 miles is the LONGEST distance I’ve ever run in my life. Seriously, placing a mile marker at 26 is the CRUELEST thing ever in my book. I hit Mile 26 and thought, “Are you kidding me??? I really have to run the .2 miles??? Can’t we just call it good???” So cruel.
Even though I struggled the last 7.2 miles, hitting the finish felt like an amazing accomplishment and a huge sense of relief. 26.2 miles covered over 4:16:27. Pretty damn awesome to put the body through that and not pass out. Especially on that course with those hills and views. It was amazingly hot at the end and probably in the low 80s. I was fighting dehydration pretty bad I think as I was getting dizzy and my lips were tingling. So I grabbed two big waters and found some shade where I sat for 15 minutes. Felt back to normal mentally so I hit the beer garden and camped out for a good hour talking with other runners about their experience. Many of them echoed my sentiment about the park being the worst part for the steady climb, missing mile markers, and the last incline out of the park was really tough.
If you asked me in the first hour after I was done if I would ever run another the answer would be, “HELL NO!!!!!” My plan all along was to run this one and call it good. However, being so close to breaking 4 hours coupled with the difficulty of the hills and heat and I’m thinking sub 4 hours is in me on another course. I want to make a go for it. I have my eye on the Cowtown at the end of March. Would be cool to do it in a town I also love but I have to get through football season and see if I can get in the training groove again. No serious cardio training during football season as I focus on a strict workout of 12 oz curls and protein loading.
For those of you that have never done any distance (including a 5K) I encourage you to do it. I used to make all the excuses I wasn’t built for a marathon and could never do it. However it’s all a mind over matter. That’s one of the funniest things about all of this. I can’t tell you the number of people in the last 6 months that have said to me, “You’re running (ran) a marathon? No offense, but you don’t look like a marathoner?” Uh, is that a compliment of some kind??? Either way it’s an awesome accomplishment and if you have a distance you’d like to do I assure you that you can do it. GO FOR IT!!!!
Thanks for reading and feel free to hit me up with any questions.