San Francisco Marathon July 26th 2015
Marathon # 17
By Paul Cleasby
It was the perfect timing of the San Francisco Marathon that attracted me to it initially. The last week in July is an ideal time for a marathon if you’re married to a teacher and have children of school age.
It’s a long way to go to run a race so it seemed sensible to fit a holiday around the race. A visit to California was much easier to sell to the family than persuading them to come out and support a race on the sea front in Redcar.
The down side of a July marathon for me is that I am never in decent shape. I seem to follow a yearly cycle of peaking in the early spring and then degenerating gradually over the rest of the year before re-focusing again in late winter. The same pattern was apparent this year with a very pleasing sub 3 in Tokyo and a surprising pb at London in April. Thereafter the monthly mileage decreased, the weight increased and the race times got slower.
I had intended to train properly for the event and give the distance the respect it obviously deserves. As sometimes happens however, a combination of work pressures and family engagements meant I was unable to get the long runs in that I needed in order to give myself the best chance of peaking at the right time. As a consequence I decided to keep the race under wraps to avoid putting myself under any pressure and just run it for fun. This meant that for the first time ever I was going to do a marathon having done no long runs. My longest run since the London marathon in April was 15 miles and my weekly mileage was hovering around 25-30 miles per week. Adequate for keeping fit and healthy but obviously not enough for me to be race ready.
Race shoes were deliberately left back in the UK to prevent any late bravado inspired changes of mind and I opted for a rather worn pair of long run trainers, very definitely coming to the end of their street-life.
The expo was in a dockside warehouse and was fairly small scale, no big shoe manufacturers; no massive Adidas boost zones or the like. The stall-holders present were still enthusiastic enough and as ever the free samples kept the children entertained. Perhaps the highlight of the Expo was the food afterwards. There was a large corral of street food trucks supported by micro brewery stalls. Tex-Mex, Pulled Pork, Indian Street food, Crème Brule, Cotton Candy and beer. What more could you ask for!
As seems to be common at these city marathons the day before the race the organisers put on a 5k breakfast run. This one was no different although it had the added interests for running geeks of being attended by Dean Karnazes the ultra runner and author of a number of very readable running books.
Having asked for the obligatory selfie, I left him in peace and jogged the 5k with a Canadian lady vet who had over 100 marathons to her name. I’m generally not a massive fan of running 5k the day before a race, no matter how easy the pace but as I was determined not to race I was not unduly stressed.
When I collected my number from the expo I have to confess I felt something of a fraud. I’d obtained a sub elite entry due to my London time but had to register at the elite desk. My lack of training was beginning to make me feel guilty. ‘No matter’ I thought I’ll just start at the back of my pen and not get sucked in to starting off too fast.
On the morning of the race I was up at 4.00am. The race starts at 5.30am. Normally I’d stress about breakfast but I figured I’d only eaten my evening meal (Thai noodles) at 8pm so my carbohydrate stores wouldn’t need much topping up. An energy bar and a bottle of Gatorade was the breakfast of choice on the 1½ mile walk to the start from the hotel.
Again my conscience was pricked when I handed my baggage into the elite runners truck and it perhaps should have given me a clue as to what was to come. I made my way to the start and I could easily make out the second wave runners but I couldn’t see the entrance to the elite pen. As I got closer to the front I realized exactly why. It was tiny. There were less than 100 runners in this section and I found myself one row back from the start line. To add to my angst I discovered the elites were setting off 2 minutes before the rest of the field.
This meant that within 2 miles I was going to be being passed by all of those athletes who had trained properly for the race and this passing would go on for miles and miles. I was seriously beginning to regret my casual approach to this run. I thought perhaps it would have been wise to wear something a little less conspicuous than my union jack vest but it was too late to do anything about anything now. I was on the start line and the run was about to start.
The weather was cool with a morning mist. No humidity and perfect running conditions. Following the American national anthem the race started and off I set, at the back of my extremely small pen. Now really was the time to be sensible and not get carried away by my enthusiasm, which would undoubtedly lead me to have a very painful race experience within a few miles.
I was perhaps a little too fast over the first couple of miles which are pancake flat, running along the San Franciscan promenade but I quickly settled down into a more sensible pace, perhaps helped by a significant hill at 3 miles. At this point I started being passed by the next wave and it seemed like hundreds and hundreds of people were streaming past me. The early stages of the marathon are generally convivial affairs with runners acknowledging national vests and perhaps having a brief chat as they pass by and this was no different. You can probably guess I was happy to chat to anyone as they passed because I was here for a good time and to enjoy the experience.
The talking in this marathon seemed to stop at about mile 8 when runners hit a series of hills and switchbacks to get up to the Golden Gate Bridge, once at the top runners are recovering from the hills and being careful of their footing as the early morning mist made for slippery conditions under foot. People still seemed to be teeming past me as I settled into 7:30 minute mileing. Running across the bridge is a major selling point for this marathon and you certainly got your money’s worth as it went on for ever, having crossed the bridge, there is a quick turnaround and you get to do it all over again.
After the bridge its back towards the city and within a few miles you are running around a park. This park dominates many of the miles from 14-20. San Francisco is a small city and no doubt finds it difficult to accommodate 26.2 miles of running route so there was no option but to get very familiar with this park. Very pretty it was too but at that point in the run everyone is beginning to tire and the undulations within the park remain a significant challenge. It was at this point other runners who had passed me earlier started to come back to me and I started to notice some were reduced to a walk. With six miles or so to go this was not going to be a pleasurable experience for them. I was feeling tired myself but my decision to reign in my ego and run sensibly was proving wise.
Having escaped the park it was back into the streets of San Francisco and yes more hills. I was 20 miles in now and hadn’t walked. It was my ambition to get around without walking which I thought would be a decent achievement given the lack of training and the amount of hills. I was beginning to enjoy the hills as the race wore on although the down hills were so steep it became uncomfortable running down them as I was worried about what effect they would have on my quads. Memories of Boston were particularly vivid and I didn’t fancy the painful finish I experienced there.
By now it was after 8am and the city was starting to wake up, crowd support in this race is always pretty sparse but by this time people are starting to get up and pockets of support appear.
Miles 23-25 were fairly non-descript. They hurt, time passes slowly and I found myself running around an industrial estate and some service roads. We passed by a baseball stadium, which I suspect is pretty famous but at this stage I was less than fussed. I was counting down the final yards. I could see the Oakland Bridge, which was pretty much at the finish line but I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to it.
A young Irish runner was running beside me expressing the same wish for the finish line to arrive, my watch had already gone well beyond the 26.2 miles before the end finally came into sight.
My Irish runner made a spurt for the finish line and I thought to myself you’ve gone to early my friend and so it was that I couldn’t resist that last burst of testosterone just to make sure I crossed the line before him. Entirely pointless exercise as he probably started 2 minutes behind me but old habits die hard.
My finishing time 3:21:44. Out of the 6067 marathon participants I placed 244th and 35th in my age category. Either my perception of the thousands of people passing me was runner’s paranoia or I moved back up the field as time went on. In any event it was a sensibly paced run, meaning no aches and pains the following day and no walking down the stairs backwards.
[Perhaps the most peculiar split distances you’ll ever see! If anyone can work out the logic of it let me know!]
My overall reflections on the race are that it is certainly a worthwhile destination marathon. It’s an interesting and varied course. The hills are challenging and it’s clearly not a pb course. If you like big city razzmatazz and deafening crowd support this is not the race for you but if variety is a spice in your life, give it a go.