Photo by Brant Ward of The Chronicle
This past weekend’s San Francisco Marathon capped off my first year as a marathon runner. Starting off at last year’s SFM and continuing through Napa Valley and Seattle’s Rock ‘n’ Roll event I found myself once again standing in a starting corral early on a Sunday morning eagerly waiting to run through the streets of San Francisco.
In pre-sunrise darkness with the necklace of lights hanging from the Bay Bridge reflecting off of the waters of the bay to my right I shuffled my way to the starting line after the elites and first wave runners took to the course. Moments later I was off, sort off. Just as we runners started to jog slowly through the starting line, many of us had to stop short to funnel through some sort of advertising arch positioned in the middle of the street. I don’t know what the ad was for, but I sure hope it’s not a course feature next year. Once I was through the obstacle course though, the pace picked up, and I drifted over to the extreme right hand edge of the street (and occasionally up onto the sidewalk) where there was more room to run without having to weave through knots of runners. The first part of the course is a pancake flat shot through the tourist kitsch of Fisherman’s Wharf whose visual pollution is balanced by the soul-satisfying aroma of freshly baked sourdough bread wafting from the Boudin Sourdough Bakery. Passing the Mile 1 marker I glanced at my watch to check my pace and was happy I was only a few seconds over my goal.
Here I’d like to take a moment to talk about setting a marathon goal pace. In a previous post I wrote about what I took away listening to John Bingham talking about how race day conditions affect the pace you set for yourself. With his words about effort dictating pace not the other way around in mind, I had chosen to run at a pace I’d been able to maintain on some of my previous long runs. A pace which would yield a satisfying PR. And the race day conditions were cooperating as well: cool temps with overcast skies and a light breeze. Mentally and physically I felt good, and when I checked my watch and saw my first split, I sped up just a tick keeping in mind the pacing discipline to not go out too fast. My plan, however, had what would soon become an obvious flaw.
I was trying to maintain a 7:47 minute per mile pace which would yield a finish time of 3 hours and 24 minutes. An odd finish time to be sure, but dictated as I said before by a pace I’ve maintained on longer training runs. The problem is, there’s no 3:24 pace group, and no one was handing out bracelets with 7:47 splits at the expo either. So, I had decided to keep track of my pace as if I were scoring a round of golf. When I hit the split marker on my watch I noted the time and either added or subtracted the seconds I was above or below my pace time. For example, after Mile 1 I was plus 4, and after Mile 2 I was minus 9 which put me 5 seconds under my goal pace. As I cruised along Crissy Field with the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge in the distance my plan was on track. On the bridge however, with drivers honking encouragement and a fog horn booming away at my feet, I noticed a distinct lack of mile markers. If I was going to continue to use my golf scoring method of keeping track of my pace, I was going to have to quickly add up some pretty weird numbers in my head. Under the best conditions, I’m a bit math challenged, and now, trying to ingest GUs at the right time, while hydrating properly, keeping proper running form, all while enjoying the view and having a good time turned out to be more than the abacus in my head could handle. I kept dutifully recording splits, but I had no way of knowing if I was on my goal pace or not.
With math no longer a concern I was free to focus on enjoying the race, which is easy to do in a place like San Francisco. As if running on the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t enough of a treat, Mile 10’s long downhill hugs the edge of a cliff overlooking some of the city’s finest beaches and the mighty Pacific Ocean. At about mile 12.5 our half marathon friends bid us adieu and we full marathoners began a six mile loop through Golden Gate Park. I am fortunate to run this part of the course almost every week as I train, so I felt very comfortable on my tour past the Bison Paddock, the grey fog misting through the cypress trees, and the old folks getting their early morning groove on to pulsing techno. And thank goodness for the local Hash House Harriers balancing out all that Cytomax and water with the doses of cleansing ale they had on offer. I didn’t partake myself, but just seeing them there on the course made me chuckle as I passed.
Out of the park and a straight shot down Upper and Lower Haight where I high-fived Kelly, one of the co-founders of the dailymile website, who was cheering on runners. I was still feeling good at Mile 21 which barely brushes through San Francisco’s vibrant Mission District. Hopefully the race organizers can be convinced to change the marathon route slightly so next year we runners can experience more of this historic San Francisco neighborhood and less of the industrial blight which greets us around Miles 23 through 25. By the time I reached Dogpatch and the eastern edge of the course, I had definitely slowed down, and my mind was telling me to wrap it up and start walking. My body took a quick inventory, however, and over-ruled my mind. There was no obvious stiffness or cramping going on in my legs, my tummy felt fine, breathing was alright, I was still running upright, and I could see the Bay Bridge which marks Mile 26 in the near distance. In a few minutes I knew I’d be in the chute cruising the final point 2. I rounded AT & T Park and headed up the Embarcaderro clocking a respectable 8:08 for the last full mile. Not enough to make up for straying from my goal time for so many miles, but enough to get me across the finish line in 3:30:24–my second fastest marathon finish and a full five minutes faster than last year’s San Francisco Marathon.
I collected my finishers medal, which is designed to double as a coaster (brilliant I think), accepted heart-felt congratulations and a banana from my family, and headed home to clean up and enjoy the Pancakes of Honor I had earned. Next up is Houston in January, but I’ll be back to run San Francisco again.