San Francisco 2010 Race Report: Worth the Hurt

2010 Race Date: 25 July

Run it in 2011: 31 July

Finishers: 5,981

Other Races in Event: First or Second Half Marathon, 5k/Progressive Marathon, & Munchkin Kids’ Run

Winning Times: 2:23:29 (M), 2:51:55 (F)  Complete Results

Notes: My 4th marathon overall, first San Fran race; This race took place on my dad’s birthday, which I completely forgot about, well, because of this race. Sorry dad! Happy birthday!!!; Temps in the 50s, high humidity, winds mostly calm; Check out my companion blog for this trip, Love Letters to San Francisco which, among other things, thanks a lot of the people I needed to thank.

How do I put this lightly? The San Francisco Marathon is not a race for the faint of heart. Or lung. Or leg. Or psychological will. OK. There’s nothing light about it. The 5:30 A.M. gun assures starting in the dark and that you’ll be running the entire race through fog and cloud cover, since it’s too early for the city’s daily marine layer to burn off. The prettiest portions of the journey – and there are some amazingly beautiful scenes – also happen to coincide with some of the most searing ascents and knee-buckling downgrades you’ll encounter on this particular course. Soaking in the views is a bold move, as those brave enough to tackle 26.2 San Fran miles really can’t afford to have any more breath taken away. Even the second half, frequently dubbed “mostly flat/downhill” and “super-fast” has a small handful of torturous sections, especially for one whose legs have already been trashed by earlier grades. It seemed all-too fitting that the primary song I had in my head throughout the three hours and forty-two minutes I was on-course was U2’s “Vertigo.”

I feel the need to address one very good question right up front here. Why would you willingly put yourself through such agony? Or, even better, why would you travel all the way across the country and spend a good sum of money to do this? The answer, for me, is more complex than something that just “seemed like a good idea at the time” or “someone I know did it” or (for all the runners) “because it’s a good race to qualify for the Boston Marathon,” as it certainly is not such a race. The official race shirt states it’s a race for “the dedicated few.” The full scope of the answer to that question of “why” continues to reveal itself to me, now more than a week out from the race, after exploring such an amazing part of the country and reflecting on the experience through different and incredible lenses, but there is a story behind it that I find worth telling.

The San Francisco Marathon was the first marathon that made me want to run a marathon. That makes more sense if you read it a couple times. Before I’d ever ran a marathon, I had heard of the one in San Fran, probably through Runner’s World, some time in 2007 or early 2008, and decided immediately that I wanted to run a marathon. More specifically, I decided that I wanted to run the San Francisco Marathon. I can’t really explain why. Something about it just beckoned to me. When I added San Fran to the “goals” section of my training log, I wrote, “Something about this marathon holds an allure to me – a unique mystique of its own.” I tried to plan it as my first marathon, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Then, while training for the Philly Marathon (my first) in 2008, I met Bart Yasso at Philly Runner and got into a long conversation about the race. I’d remembered reading that he was fond of the San Fran Marathon, and his enthusiasm in discussing the event was undeniable. He went on to say that he thought it was better that I’d be running my first marathon on home turf, then, he said, “go out and explore.”

After finishing that first marathon, I wrote up my first ever “race report,” though I wasn’t familiar with that nugget of running linguistics at the time – I often still refer to it as a “reflection” – and shared the piece with friends & family. My mother passed it along to a few of her friends, one of whom was her high school friend, Karen. Karen passed it along to her son, Chris, who happened to be living and working in San Francisco. After reading about my experience, and also watching a friend compete in the LA Marathon, Chris decided that he wanted to try his hand at twenty-six-point-two. Karen put us in touch as Chris starting training to run the Philly ’09. Being from the area, Chris figured he’d also run close to home while visiting for Thanksgiving. We exchanged several lengthy emails, first about running, and later about life, and ended up learning quite a bit about each other in the process, much in the way of good-ole-fashioned pen pals.

While also training for Philly ’09, I started to consider when and where I would next go the distance. I somehow got the idea in my head that it would be an interesting follow-up to 25 in 25 if I were to run a marathon when I was more-or-less 26.2 years of age. When I did the math and took it to a calendar, I realized I would turn 26.2 on the Friday prior to the San Francisco Marathon in 2010. I knew I had to make it happen. Catching up on our respective marathon experiences a couple weeks after Philly, I mentioned my San Fran plans to Chris, who didn’t even hesitate to offer his living room as a crashing pad.

As if this whole thing couldn’t seem more “meant to be,” shortly after Chris & I spoke, Runner’s World announced that they would be holding their second round of the Runner’s World Challenge at four races in 2010, one of which was San Francisco. I was hesitant at first because of the price tag, but it seemed like you got a lot for your buck, and I really like what I’d read about the Challenge in a recent issue of the magazine, so I gave it a go. It was undoubtedly a good decision, as it did a great deal for both my training and for expanding my reach within the running community. Of the many great things I got out of participating in the Challenge, one that had serious personal significance to me was increased and more in-depth communication with Bart Yasso, who has served as a constant source of inspiration and motivation for my running since we first met in 2008. It was as if the conversation we had on that day in Philly Runner had come full-circle and it was finally time for me to fulfill this obscure dream of mine.

For anyone who skipped over chunks of that, or feels it was a bit excessive in terms of detail, I can’t blame you, but at the same time, the serendipitous journey I took in the 2+ years leading up to last Sunday undoubtedly contributed to the depth of my experience, and helps answer “why” I would go through all the pain.

Having never been to San Fran prior to my trip for this race, I only had its reputation to go on, yet I felt adequately prepared. To that preparation I owe a great deal of credit to everyone at Runner’s World who helped make the Runner’s World Challenge such a gleaming success, especially Jennifer Van Allen and Bart Yasso, who answered all of my (sometimes neurotic) questions with poise, enthusiasm, and incredibly helpful advice. Two weeks prior to race day, I was still unsure of how to approach this race strategically, so I sent them a message with a cascade of times, splits, figures, and other data. Bart proclaimed with confidence that I should run a sub-3:45 in San Fran “as a confidence builder for Chicago.” While it seemed perfectly logical to aim for some relative average between my 3:30 Chicago goal and my recent marathon PR of 3:52, the thought of averaging 8:30 per mile on a tough, hilly course was just a touch intimidating. But Bart made it sound simple. “Go thru the half way in like 1:53,” he said, “and run the 2nd half in 1:48,” assuring me it was a feasible negative-split for this course, given the amount of downhill over the final 5 miles. I still wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea, but who was I to argue with Big Bart? The guy really knows his stuff.

I knew those half-marathon times were doable, given my recent 1:47 (at the end of a high-mileage week) and a 1:43 overall personal best, but I needed to figure out exactly how I was going to make it happen. Over my usual pre-race breakfast of everything bagels & hummus, I tweaked a pacing chart I’d found on the back of a flier for another marathon at the expo to reflect how I’d break down the 1:53 and 1:48 into smaller, more psychologically digestible chunks, roughly as so (the math isn’t perfect, but it worked):

Mile 5 – 43:00; Mile 10 – 1:26:00

Half-Marathon – 1:53:00

Mile 18 – 2:33:00; Mile 23 – 3:13:00

With all of those numbers buzzing around in my head, there was nothing more soothing than Bart’s calm demeanor in the Runner’s World Challenge pre-race room on Sunday morning to help still my nerves. Unlike many of the conversations Bart & I had earlier in the weekend, I’m not even sure I can tell you exactly what we talked about, but I know it helped take my mind off of how I was going to execute the plan. I don’t even think we talked about the race. I know there was something about Bart’s new, nifty San Fran Marathon socks and the trip to Alaska he’d be leaving for after he helped kick of the San Fran race.

      Pre-race area at the Hyatt for Runner’s World Challenge Participants

Good conversation made time fly in a way I’m not used to on race morning. Minutes passed so quickly that I actually had to scramble a bit to get over to the start, just a few short blocks away. I linked up with fellow Challenger, Christina, and her friend Julie for the walk over to the Embarcadero, and within minutes I was standing in the back of corral number two with little time for last-minute ruminations. We were literally told to go as soon as I stepped into the corral, which was a nice break from the whole “standing around for 20 minutes” thing. I shouted to Bart as I passed the official’s tower, who announced, “Regular Joe is on the course, everybody…Regular Joe!” – and like that, it was time to see how all the long training hours and (mostly hot & humid) miles added up.

Within the first quarter-mile, I noticed a serious gear problem that I needed to address immediately, else risk great pains later in the race. My shirt was coming un-tucked (I tuck it in to prevent chafing) and my SPIbelt was starting to ride up over my shorts and onto exposed skin. In the early stages of such an important event, this could easily seem more damning than it really was. I took a moment, stepped to the side (easy to do because the corral starting was done well enough that the crowd of runners was far from overwhelming), tightened the drawstring on my shorts, adjusted the belt, and started up again. A couple minutes later, the problem repeated. I talked myself through it, kept a calm head, and this time addressed the issue without stopping. From that point on it was a pretty smooth ride as far as gear was concerned.

I did everything I could to refocus on the strategy I’d drawn up, channeling my thoughts on getting to the 5-mile mark in the vicinity of 43 minutes. It was incredibly helpful to have gotten into town a few days prior and explore the early portions of the course during my final training runs. I felt more relaxed knowing what the scenery looked like and, more importantly, where the first hill came in and exactly how it felt. I was able to “tune in” fairly early on and think about little more than my pacing and body mechanics. There were no mile markers for a good chunk of the first half of the race. I heard some people mumbling and grumbling about this, but I think it helped me relax and not over-think each mile, and concentrate more on the segments of miles as a unit. My mentality was that it doesn’t matter what I do in a given mile, but more what I do over a stretch of five miles. Within a couple miles, I was loosened up, and everything looked to be going perfectly in terms of pace – without feeling like I was overdoing it.

Much of the scenery throughout the first half is a haze in my memory, and not just because of the lingering fog. I recall more moments of reminding myself when my next pace/mileage checkpoint was, doing math to see if I was still on track for my goal splits, making sure I was drinking water and taking on electrolytes & solid food according to my 2-and-5 method, and being very conscious not to overdo it on the early hills. What I do recall has no real connection to where I was in the race. If it were not for the course map, I would have a hard time telling you what was where. I was definitely running much more from within than being present in the moment of the course itself. I figured I had plenty of time to take in the sights during the rest of my stay.

The scenic memories I have blend together in a blurry sort of collage. I remember looking to my right on the major hill approaching the Golden Gate bridge and catching a glimpse of Alcatraz before seeing a series of signs about the steepest hills in San Francisco, noting that this was not one of them. I also remember running on the bridge, if only because it was the Golden Gate Bridge, and being really surprised that, while a good portion of the roadbed was closed, there was still traffic in the non-runner lanes, something I definitely wish I had known up front. The bridge itself had many slippery surfaces and was fully engulfed in fog, which I’d often read would be the case. The coolest part about this section of the course was that, since the bridge was out-and-back, you could see other runners you know going in the other direction. I was so zoned out, though, that, with the exception of fellow Challenger Gretchen, everyone else noticed me first. Jeff Dengate and I exchanged high fives as his speediness was on the way back toward the Presidio. Chris Evans Gartley gave me a shoutout not long after I saw Jeff. Seconds after Chris cruised by, I noticed Frank, another Philly guy taking part in the Challenge. On the way back, now entrenched in my own “zone,” I only caught a quick glimpse of Jennifer Van Allen and Andrea (a favorite twitter friend), both of whom called out to me on their way toward Merin.

                 Alcatraz (view from Chris’ street, not from race course)

                              Golden Gate Bridge (taken day after race)

Before I knew it, more than 10 miles of the race had gone by and I was cruising down a steep grade toward the Presidio with the Pacific Ocean to my right. I was still on track and would soon be picking up the pace to gun for that hefty negative split. In my mind, the race was really just about to begin. Shortly after we wound into the neighborhoods of the Presidio, course marshals moved a line of caution tape and started directing runners to take a left. Another runner starting throwing a bit of a fit about it, and I went on to explain that this was something they do a handful of times throughout the course to help control traffic, and that we’d be running essentially the same terrain as other runners on a parallel street. I was definitely glad that I’d watched the course videos and heard about this beforehand, otherwise I would have been thrown off a bit as well.

After I explained what was going on, the fit-throwing guy started talking to me (a bit too much for my taste). We eventually started chatting about our times, and I noted that I was aiming for a 1:53 first half. Another guy chimed in, saying that we were way ahead of that, which I wasn’t sure to interpret as good or bad (turns out he started a corral behind me). At this point, we were getting close to where the first-half runners split to the left, and those of us in it for the long-haul took a right toward Golden Gate Park. This is where the scenes get really blurry for me. I had to tune-in heavily to my body to start picking up the pace, which was physically easier than I thought it would be, at least at first, but I knew it would take a sharp mentality to keep it up. The only real visual memory I have from the park was the buffalo, which I momentarily thought may have been a hallucination.

Shortly upon entering Golden Gate, “fit-throwing guy” and “way ahead of pace guy,” who I can now tell you is named Branson, were just ahead of me, close enough that I could hear their conversation was about Ragnar, and I thought I heard Branson say something about Ragnar New York. I picked up the pace just a tad so I could catch up and ask if that’s what he was talking about. As it turned out, Branson and I had in fact participated in the same event in New York back in May. We both mentioned some unique features about our team and realized that we’d seen each other on the course (for those of you who know what my team theme was, you can be certain this was an interesting conversation to have, especially in the later stages of a marathon). We talked for a couple minutes and realized that we were both pacing for about the same second-half time. I joked that we would probably be pacing each other for the rest of the race, and then told Branson I didn’t want to take him out of his zone and that he should totally put his ear buds back in. He did just that and scooted a few feet ahead.

I recognized pretty quickly that Branson was not wavering much from the pace I was trying to maintain, so I did actually try to keep him close. After a handful of miles, I caught up to him again, asked how he was feeling, didn’t say much else, and dropped back once again. At this point, 16 or 17 miles in, neither of us were in the mood, or had the capacity, for extraneous conversation. Somewhere just before mile 20, I pushed up again, told Branson I’d been pacing off him for a while and that I’d gladly take the lead for a bit. He was more than happy to concede the role.

Just after I took point on pacing, we hit another one of those route diversions, only this time I was the first runner of the whole pack to be directed through the switch. So not only was I on my own, with no crowd in sight, I was also tagged with the responsibility of pacing a guy who had essentially carried me through the last 6+ miles. I had to really dig deep to keep the pace, though aided by the fact that the diversion section was mostly downhill.

Without warning, right at mile marker 20, a shooting cramp started to take hold of the inside of my right thigh. It felt very similar to the one that marked the beginning of the end for me in Philly last November. In that race, I stopped and tried to stretch it out, which I assessed later was a huge mistake, because as soon as I did that, all kinds of other muscles started seizing up and I had to battle just to finish. I decided after that experience that if I ever felt anything like that again that I would run through it because I knew the pain of stopping was way worse. So I took some deep breaths, focused as intently as I could on forward motion, and rubbed the spot as best I could with my hand. It wasn’t easy – it hurt like hell – but I pushed through it, managed to hold the pace, and eventually it loosened up.

I didn’t realize until afterward that this was also where I made my only significant mistake of the race. Up until mile 20, I had been following my 2-and-5 nutrition method religiously. But at that point, I simply could not stomach the idea of downing half of a Clif Bar. I couldn’t even think about food without feeling nauseous, and I felt like I had plenty of energy left in the tank to handle the final 10k. Not to kill the surprise, but I would pay for it later.

Somewhere after mile 22, I saw Branson for the last time before the finish line. He had pulled up beside me, and we were feeding off of each other without saying a word. Eventually he dropped back, probably on one of the late-stage hills, and I realized after a mile or so that he was no longer right behind me. He was running in Vibram 5-fingers, which make a very distinct sound on the pavement with each footfall, and I could no longer hear what had become a familiar pitter-patter. Not looking back for the other was part of our unspoken agreement. It was just a simple understanding that if the one guy was to go down, the other should carry on alone, just as he’d initially set out. I pushed onward and did not look back.

I’m not sure what the exact mileage was, but I remember cresting a small hill and, for the first time since 5:30 AM, seeing the Bay Bridge, with AT&T Park in the foreground. If I had to guess, I had roughly 3 miles to go at this point, so I could see where the finish line was, but it still seemed an eternity away. I thought about what Bart said the day prior, regarding his experience with the Badwater Ultra, where he could see Mount Whitney, which marked the finish area of the then-146 mile race – and it was still 60 miles away. The thought lightened me up a bit, but I could tell I was starting to fade.

I was hitting a wall, and paying for that pass on the Clif Bar. I reached as far as I could to mentally battle through the final stretch. At this point, it’s all mind games. I thought a lot about the Students Run Philly Style kids, especially those at the Leadership Summit. I had written during the flight to San Fran that I would think about these kids and carry them with me to help me “finish stronger,” just as I had encouraged them to do at the end of our group runs. For some reason, I thought specifically about Greg, a student from the PA School for the Deaf, who, when I came back to help him finish the runs, would charge ahead with a big smile on his face, full of energy. The image of Greg made me smile and pushed me through some of the tougher spots. I kept thinking to myself, “If I were running with the kids right now, and they were telling me they couldn’t do this, what would I tell them?” - “Forget about your legs,” I’d say, “now is the time to run with your heart.”

Thoughts about Students Run carried me along into the final mile. I remember approaching AT&T Park from the opposite side of McCovey Cove and thinking “I just want this to be over.” At that point, I called up the tid-bit of advice that Dean Karnazes dropped at the end of his expo seminar. “When you’re getting down to that last stretch, and you’re running out of gas,” he said, “and all you want to think about is that finish line, think instead about that next step. Just think about that next step.” That’s exactly what I did. I started thinking about each step. I forgot about the Bay Bridge. I forgot about the fact that there was a mile left. I just focused on one foot and then the other, over and over, for the final 8 minutes. The last step I remember taking was the one that required us, after 25 miles and lots of excruciating hills, to hop up onto a high curb. Somehow this seemed like the most sadistic part of the course.

The next thing I remember after hopping up that curb is crossing the finish line. I was in no shape to “kick it out’ to the finish. All I wanted to do was hold it steady and come through with the honest effort I had put out. I really had nothing left to amp it up for the final point-two. I think the clock read 3:47-something when I crossed the line, but when I stopped my watch and looked down*, I was completely floored to see 3:42.

         Coming into the Finish (Taken by Amy Katz. Thanks Amy!!!)

Before getting my medal, or even a foil blanket, I turned around to wait for Branson to bring home home his very impressive 3:35 marathon debut. I smiled when I saw him lumbering along and walked over to congratulate him once he broke through. I think we mustered some form of a high-five-man-hug thing, but I can only imagine how funny it might have looked to an observer.

My body felt like it just got slammed with a serious case of the flu. The thought of food still made me nauseous, just as it did at mile 20. There was laughter. There were tears. It was beautiful. I really, truly could not believe what I had just done. I had pushed the limits of what I thought was possible, and I can’t wait to do it again. The San Francisco Marathon was undoubtedly “Worth the Hurt.”

*If you watch my course video, you can catch a glimpse of my stunned expression at the very end. To do so, click here, and type “5015” in the “Find your Athlete” box. Click on my name when it appears below the box. On the next page, click the green “Videos” button on the right hand side. It should pop up and start automatically.

For the extra-curious, my splits, map, and other data can be found here.

  1. regularjoerunning posted this
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