Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of the San Francisco Marathon, my third go at the SF full’s course, my fourth year as a social media ambassador for the event, my fifth year of being “with” the race in some capacity, and my 29th 26.2 rodeo; I’ll save the other stats for much later (scroll, scroll, scroll) in this absolute novella of a RR. The tl; dr version: I love TSFM. If you are enamored with the 26.2 distance, even if you’re intimidated by the hills that you fear adorn the entirety of TSFM course, you should absolutely run this full. You can run fast and run well here, and while it’s not easy — and let’s be honest, gang, what exactly constitutes an “easy” 26.2? — it is possible. It is such a good ride.
Pre-race: training, goals, the backstory
The last time I ran the full was in ‘14, shortly after my family and I moved from Chicago down to SJ. I had run it once before, back in ‘10, while we were still in Chicago, and after doing the 5k in ‘15 super pregnant, I was going to return to the full last year in ‘16 but got beset with colitis nonsense last minute and instead spent the weekend in bed/in the bathroom. Let me tell you: not being able to run it in ’16 blew. My ‘17 TSFM wasn’t about “revenge” on not being able to do the race last year — that’s dumb and doesn’t make any sense; on whom or what am I seeking revenge? my obviously messed up gastrointestinal system? — but instead, I wanted to run TSFM ‘17 as well as I could, knowing what I know about the course.
I came into TSFM ‘17 training fresh off a solid fall racing that led me to a PR in both the full and the half, a spring racing season that saw PRs in many distances, some a couple times over, and I knew that going into TSFM race weekend, based on training, the aforementioned racing from late fall until recently, and what I can only describe as intuition or feel (or maybe delusion), I’m in 26.2 PR shape. How things would shake out on TSFM’s course, though, remained to be seen. Having the luxury of racing here before, as well as being friends with many of the folks who pace this year after year, I knew that the race typically boasts anywhere from 1200-1500’ elevation, depending on your source (Strava v Garmin), and that for whatever reason, the course often measures fairly long on most people’s GPS, amounting to closer to 26.5 or even 26.6. In no way are these excuses or justifications for adjusting my race or PR goals; I think it’s more a matter of knowing the realities and challenges that the course presents.
A quick aside: that’s a healthy amount of elevation for a road race, even for the 26.2 distance IMHO. TSFM is all pavement, so the hills are completely runnable (read: non-technical). Simply stated, it’s just that there are many of them. Some are very steep; some are long; and while there are a handful of significant climbs on the course (that I’ll talk about later), sandwiched among The Big Ones are plenty of little hiccup hills, little ascents and descents that just keep you moving right along. There are precious few flat places on TSFM where you’re not working with or against gravity. Pacing, then, becomes preternaturally important on this course. In my decade and now 29 marathons’ worth of racing experience, I think I can wholeheartedly, if not enthusiastically, say that TSFM is a supremely strategic course — akin to Boston or NYC, though I’d say SF’s decidedly more challenging — and that it’s not impossible to race well or PR here; it’s just that it requires a healthier-than-normal amount of patience and course familiarity. Knowing when to push, when to ride the course, or when to keep it at “effort” is so key. You are always strategizing and gaming this course. It’s part of the fun.
Another aside about the apparent GPS disparity: take it for what it’s worth. TSFM, like all other major road races in the US, is USATF certified. If you run and race a lot, you know that our GPS devices aren’t the gold standard and that any individual course’s certification trumps the reading that we get from our watches. It can be frustrating when the distances don’t align perfectly, but honestly, what are you going to do? Stop when your watch says you’ve hit 26.2, even if you still have 400m+ remaining? Friends seem to think that the course’s misalignment begins in Golden Gate Park, when there’s a lot of back-and-forth, but I don’t know for sure. It doesn’t really matter. Most runners (myself included) often run longer than we need to at races simply because we don’t cut tangents as tightly as they are measured when RDs get their courses certified, so when any of us are striving to hit a specific time goal, it’s typically a good idea to factor in a bit of a buffer (ie. calculating what a 3:20 for 26.3 or 26.4 would look like instead of 26.2). Going into Sunday’s race, then, I knew that it’d really behoove me to cut tangents as tight as I possibly and legally could because I’d likely see that there was a significant discrepancy in distance between my watch and the course markers.
Race weekend: Saturday – expo and Erin’s
After an easy 2 mile shakeout of running in circles around home, kissing the family goodbye, and then stocking up on the pre-marathon staples in San Jose (and buying veg pho at 9am), I set off to SF to park over near Erin’s and then get over to Fort Mason to volunteer with my ambassador buddies at the expo for a few hours. If I’m not volunteering at an expo, I’m typically in and out as quickly as possible, but I find volunteering at TSFM’s energizing and a lot of fun. It’s one of the only times during race weekend and to be honest, the entire year, when I get to see a lot of friends — folks from the ambassador crew, race staff, as well as folks from the Bay Area (or elsewhere) I know who are pacing, racing, fun-running, whatever — and it quickly becomes a big social outing. It honestly leaves my heart filled, my face sore from smiling and laughing, and my spirit so elevated. Talking to race participants, too — perfect strangers who have a thousand questions about the race, some of whom are so obviously nervous as hell that they all but verbal vomit on you and end up telling you about basically the entirety of their training cycle (or lack thereof) — I love it all so much. I also really enjoyed seeing some of my #BOBTeamSF teammates, Christina and Paula and their respective families, as well as our contact from BOB/Britax, Melissa. Though I wouldn’t be toeing the line with them at the 5k in the morning, it was still nice to bullshit with them for a bit. Meeting Brian, bantering with Gregg, seeing Paulette and her husband Kevin, chatting with Kowsik and his friend, Yadhu — Kowsik, who’d be running the 52.4 mile ultramarathon (starting at midnight by running the marathon in reverse, and then running the regular marathon route with the other participants and pacing his friend to his first ever marathon) — it collectively made the expo hours fly by and was just so uplifting and encouraging to talk with everyone about their goals, training, and what they’ve been up to since we last saw each other. Hugs, fistbumps, high fives: it’s all so energizing.
Stephanie captured the awkwardness that was me picking up my subseeded bib for TSFM, and shortly after that adventure, I saw that a less-than-flattering picture of me was the cover shot on the Berkeley Half Marathon postcard that was circulating at the expo. Cool. I’m pretty sure I looked better in the throes of unmedicated childbirth, both times, but so be it; if nothing else, it’s excellent promotion for Wolfpack (taking one for the team, I guess).
After a few hours of gabbing with runners and old friends, I returned to Erin’s to begin my 4pm dinner (to accommodate a 5:30 race start, a 2:xx wakeup, and an as-early-as-possible bedtime). I rarely come into SF except to race, but usually when I come in, I can rope Erin into a visit or letting me stay at her place. A quick aside: I’ve talked before about how I have no interest in running Boston again for a long time because of how my last Boston training, race, and experience went, and Erin is a big part of that equation. We met in Chicago through the Fleet Feet Boston Bound group, trained together every Wednesday night and Saturday morning in a challenging Chicago winter in the lead-up to Boston, and shared the whole Boston experience together. I so cherish my friendship with her and our other friends with whom we trained for Boston that year, and when my family and I moved out here, she was one of the only people I knew in the SF Bay Area. I’ll save my treacly bantering for another day, but suffice it to say that I treasure any time that I can get with her. Hanging out in her kitchen, eating veg pho I had schlepped from 60+ miles away and Safeway’s finest veg sushi I had bought over by the expo, yakking about nothing and everything for a while over my senior dinnertime, was about as perfect a pre-marathon-meal as I could have gotten. After a bit of socializing with her, her husband, and their friends who were over, true to senior form, I retired at 8 and probably closed my eyes around 9. Ronda Rousey’s bio — at times very weird but also very motivating — and later, Matt Mira’s voice, put me over the edge, and I was out until 2:xx.
Pre-race: Marketbar, Jorge Maravilla, the elite/subseed Wave 1
Fortunately, marathon morning was uneventful. By virtue of helping with TSFM’s social media efforts, I had access to the VIP pre- and post-race party at Marketbar, a restaurant in the Ferry Building, very near the race start, so I had unfettered access to real bathrooms, more food and beverages pre- and post-race than I’d ever consume, and an easy and small gear check. I saw more of ambassador buddies there that morning (Bonnie, Stephanie D., Stephanie L. and her husband), and around 4:40, ran out-and-backs along the Embarcadero to warm-up for about 5 minutes. In the process, I saw Jorge Maravilla conducting an interview in Spanish and doing some photo shoot stuff before the race. He’s local and is just awesome — and was vying to win SF this year and qualify to represent El Salvador in the Olympic marathon — and after he finished his interview/I finished my warm-up, like a complete dork I went up to him, introduced myself, chatted with him for a minute and wished him well. I hoped the fist-bumps and high-fives he shared would somehow, osmosis-style, transfer over some of his speedy badassedness my way. He was cool as hell. Bless his soul for letting me fangirl for a second. (Spoiler: he won!)
Shortly thereafter, I ran over to the pacer/ambassador tent area, chatted up many more folks I hadn’t seen at the expo the day before (including Sunny, Linh, Amy, Sarbajeet, Alfred, and Adam) for a few quick minutes before getting myself into the elite/subseed wave 1 corral with about 50 other runners — including Jorge, the ever-lovely-and-awesome-and-speedy Verity, and a SRA Elite runner who had only run TSFM in its inaugural year 39 years prior (wild, right?). I laugh about the elite/subseed thing because the women’s open standards were pretty soft, IMHO: a sub-3:20 full (ok) or a sub-1:40 half (hmmm…). In contrast, men’s open standards for subseed were a 1:28/2:55 (a HUGE difference!). The other obviously-not-professional runners and I looked at each other and almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation, shooting each other looks like we clearly shouldn’t be up here, but here we are, so let’s enjoy it, eh? Don’t get me wrong, it was cool as hell to be up front and to start the race literally seconds after the gun went off, and I’m thankful that I got to experience it, but man, the imposter syndrome was fierce. Hilariously, as we were standing around, another woman and I started chatting, and she mentioned that she reads my blog! This little thing! How funny. (and what’s up! Hope you had a great race!). Anyway, after not much fanfare, we began the race in relative darkness — 5:30 start time, remember — and the proverbial journey began.
The front half: Embarcadero, Crissy Field, GGB (up and over and back), Presidio – and the weather!
(Eds. note: TSFM’s website features an excellent series of posts that outline the course mile-by-mile. I’d encourage you to check it out if you want to know more in-depth detail than what I’ll be able to provide here. My SF knowledge is limited, so I’m surely omitting some pertinent details about the course and some of these neighborhoods).
I don’t know this for sure, but I doubt there are many road marathons in the US that you can run in late July and be all but assured that you’ll a) start your race in the dark and b) have starting temps in the 50s: except if you run SF. With the lit-up Bay Bridge behind us, the race began in what initially felt like perfect running weather. I stayed very far behind the elites — as cool as it was to start so close to the people actually vying for contention, I’d be damned if I did something idiotic that’d interfere with their race! — and I spent the first mile chatting with the woman I mentioned above (Erica? I think? I’m sorry, I can’t remember!) and another woman, Stassja, whom I quickly recognized as someone I follow on Instagram (what a weird world we live in, right?). The first two miles of TSFM are pancake flat along the Embarcadero, and I was careful to ease into the race and not get swept up in the excitement of running near some reeeeeeeeally fucking fast people. The quiet and dark was very calming, and it wasn’t until a handful of minutes into my race that the folks who had started behind me in Wave 2 were starting to catch up and pass me. As is my norm, I rarely looked at my watch except to periodically check myself, and I just tried to cruise. Let them go, let them go, let them go.
The first “hill” on the course is a little hiccup hill around mile 3, over by Fort Mason, where the expo is, but it’s quick. Following that were more flats in Crissy Field as we approached the GGB. I’d say it was from around mile 3 onward that the weather got a little “California dicey” for a while, as it seemed to suddenly change from near-perfect running weather to super dense fog — enough to obscure any sighting of the GGB — that seemed to alternate between mist and rain, in addition to wind that seemed to start in Crissy Field. The wind took me back to Chicago: I’m talking cut-your-body-sideways, tuck your head down and grit your teeth wind, something that is a bit of a rarity here. It’s not uncommon to have a lot of fog in the morning over by the GGB, especially so early in the morning, but the fierce-for-CA wind was a bit of a shocker. I remember thinking well, this is a surprise, but I intentionally quickly dismissed it and tried not to think about it too much. There is a lot that we can control when we run, race, and train for marathons, but one thing that is always beyond our scope is the weather. That said, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to focus on it. Do what you can, and move on. Don’t waste your energy or your precious mental real estate.
Seeing Brian and Francis around mile 5, before we started to ascend to get onto the GGB, was a treat — side-5s and hollering for everyone — and mile 6, the steepest and longest climb on the course (I think), to get onto the GGB was fine. My goal was to come through the half around a 1:40-1, +/-, and I knew that I was running just a bit hot, so I could afford to/should back off a little bit. I think I took that mile in about an 8:30, what I had decided would be my slowest for the day (a bold claim to make so early in a 26.2, I know). I meandered on up the thing, taking in the sights (or what I could see anyway), and in not much time, we were over it and were fast approaching the completely ensconced bridge.
Karl the Fog was raging hard on TSFM race morning because he basically enveloped the entirety of the bridge and obscured any view of the city behind us, the headlands before us, or practically speaking, part of the road in front of us. TSFM actually closes down a few lanes of the GGB to accommodate runners — allowing us to run on the actual bridge and not on the sidewalks — and with the dense fog, the seeming rain, and that godforsaken cut-you-sideways wind, I felt like I was bordering on being overly cautious with my foot strike for the 4 miles up and over and back on the bridge. Wet metal and tons of runners seemed poised for a disaster, though fortunately, I’m happy to report that I didn’t eat shit. I’ll take my victories wherever I can get them. At one point, I thought that the severity of the wind was in my head — everything seems more pronounced and dire when you’re trying to race a marathon, right? — until I saw a random pedestrian walking on the bridge roadway (what was she doing?!), well before any of the leaders came through. Her poncho was so violently and fiercely whipping around that it made me think ah, yes, this wind is definitely for real. There’s nothing made up about it.
Seriously, the wind on the bridge was incredible though, and it damn near literally — and I do mean literally — sucked my visor right off my head; I remember actually holding it and pulling it as far down as possible with both hands because I didn’t want it to get sucked into the bay or the ocean. While on the bridge, I saw my 3:15 pacing buddy Don cruise by me before mile 7, urging me to draft behind the other runners, and made a new friend, Salman, with whom I discussed my conviction that SF can be a fast and possible PR course (much like Boston and NYC), and right after he carried on, my ambassador buddy Jason, who was running the first half, appeared out of basically nowhere. It was awesome to be treated to a practically revolving door of friends mid-run. Jason and I chatted for a while, he left, and as I was making my way back over the bridge, I saw a ton more friends making their “out” still, including Sunny, Sarbajeet, Adam, Paulette, and Becky. This race is like a fucking social hour! You can see everyone you know!
The GGB is a false flat in both directions, but as you come off it, you’re treated to a nice downhill, another uphill, and then a screamer of a downhill on Lincoln (the road we ascended at Nike Women’s Half in ‘14, if I remember correctly). The fog was still fairly thick, and the roads were all drenched, and it still seemed to be raining in some spots; again, the care I took in each footstrike was far greater than anything I usually do. I knew from Robin that her team, the Impalas (another PA USATF club), would be handling the aid station around miles 10/11, and the ladies in blue were great. It makes no sense to me, but for some reason, they almost got me in tears mid-marathon; yes, embarrassingly, I was almost *that* girl. For probably the first time ever in a marathon, I forgot to write my name on my bib or anywhere on my body, so as I approached the women and grabbed fluids, I honestly think that every single woman in the entire line of tables yelled something along the lines of “go, Wolfpack,” “looking great, Wolfpack,” “way to go, Wolfpack,” or some derivation therein. I’m talking sincere yelling, direct eye contact from each one of them, the whole nine yards; there was nothing generic about it. The support and encouragement was palpable. It sounds stupid as I think about it now, but I think their utterances just hit some emotional nerve that apparently jibed with some mid-marathon existential we’re all in this together kum-bah-yah mental melody I must have been musing. I don’t know; chalk it up to the power of a team, of a community, of a family, but for some reason, them being there, doing what they were doing, and calling me not by my name but by my team I was representing just about moved me to tears. Weirdest thing ever. Running has a profound way of messing with my head sometimes. Surely I’m not the only one.
The second half, part one: Golden Gate Park (~12-19)
What goes down must go up in SF, so after the screaming downhill came a nice and long uphill, around miles 11-12, that we grinded up up up to get over into Golden Gate Park. I had looked at my watch recently and calculated that I’d likely be coming through 13.1 right at where I wanted to be, so I took care to take another of The Big Hills at effort. Right as we were approaching the 12 mile marker, my friend Travis literally run-intersected the course — I had been looking for him all morning, knowing that he was going to be routing his Berlin training long run around the SF course — and despite me actually screaming his name — and him turning around to figure out the origin of the yell — we missed each other. Bummer.
I recalled from ‘14 that by the time I got into GGP and approached 13.1, I felt more tired than I had anticipated I would. When you run TSFM, most of your hills are in the front half, but GGP, itself, still has plenty of nice little hiccup ascents and descents that keep things interesting. GGP is a bit of a Twilight Zone mindfuck for me because I don’t know it very well, so I typically get completely disoriented in it. We split from the first half marathoners around my mile 12 and change, and by the time I hit 13.1 by the course’s measurement, I was around 13.2x on my watch and around a 1:42 — on the conservative side of where I wanted to be but pretty happy about it. I felt great though, far less tired than when I had gotten to that point in ‘14, and the field had thinned out considerably ahead of me. I could only see one woman ahead, and with a couple miles of seeming descents, I let gravity work for me and cruised right along.
In the back half of TSFM, in GGP, full marathoners take a loop around Stow Lake — the same Stow Lake where I notched a big 5k PR in the spring — and it adds a bit to the disorientation of running in GGP because you basically run and out-and-back in the park, run around the lake, and eventually get spit out onto Haight St (after some more back-and-forth action). Somewhere in that mix, the second half marathoners start their race as well, and we full marathoners run past the first half marathoners’ finish line area. It can be confusing as hell, and my explanation doesn’t do it justice. (I even saw a second half marathoner, presumably one of the leaders, somehow go through the finish chute of the first half marathon before realizing what he did and then backtrack to get out of the chute and onto the correct side of the road so he could properly run his course. Yikes). In GGP, fortunately, the wind backed off entirely, leaving the park still fairly cloaked in a light layer of fog; I knew I was passing some landmarks in the park, but hell if I knew where anything was because I couldn’t see anything off in the distance, not even the buffaloes!
I was still feeling pretty good, all things considered, and focused on each mile I was in, working with the downhills when I had them and focusing on strength and turnover on the hiccup hills when they appeared. If I had come through the half in about a 1:40-1 or so, I’d need flat 7:29s for the back half to hit an arbitrary 3:18 time goal, but I wasn’t at all fixated on that pace for each mile of the back half. Like I said, I feel like TSFM is such a strategic course that it’s not one that lends itself to relying on running a flat X pace for the entirety of the 26.2 mile jaunt; instead, I feel like if you want to run well at SF, you have to take the course as it comes, constantly calibrating and recalibrating your pace for each mile and accommodate (and reaccommodate) for any hills, screaming descents, or hiccups. By the time I was leaving GGP, I knew that I had hit 13.1 in about a 1:42 and that I wasn’t hitting 7:29s after 13.1, at least that I could recall, but I also knew that there was a lot of course left to run, including 2 flat finish line miles, a huge downhill on Haight, and some more hiccups and Big Ones left in the mix. Anything can happen in the marathon; that’s what makes it exhilarating, exhausting, terrifying, heartbreaking, and a total blast to run. It’s a series of decisions over and over again, and you have to hope — and trust yourself and your training — that you’ll make the right ones.
With many other marathons I’ve run, when I feebly start to do the math late in the race and begin to feel like the odds are profoundly stacked against me to hit whatever arbitrary or audacious time goal I’ve set out to accomplish, I think I subconsciously (or consciously, not sure) begin to ease up a bit. What’s the point in crucifying yourself out there when it’s more likely than not that you’re going to come up short? I didn’t have that monologue this time around though. Regardless of how the final 7 miles were going to fly, I was going to fight for it and put my best everything forward, not because some bullshit fitspo thing out there encouraged me race morning to believe the impossible dream! but because I know that I have so much more to give in the marathon — and conveniently, it’s an event that requires everything you’ve got. All it takes is all you’ve got, and I know I have a lot to give; file that under “cheesy things I tell myself that make me sound outrageously self-aggrandizing but that surprisingly embolden me more than I’d expect.” In addition, since SIB in the spring, I’ve kept a temporary tattoo from the race, something else that I tell myself before and during just about any hard effort: she fiercely believed in herself, and that made all the difference. File that one under the same category. Plus, I knew I’d be seeing Erin again soon. Those were all enough.
The second half, part two: Haight, ‘hoods I don’t know, Strava!, AT&T Park, Embarcadero
SF is known for its microclimates — its vastly different weather in different parts of the city — and it couldn’t have been more true on race day. We went from the perfect running weather, to rain/fog/mist/wind nonsense, and back to rain/fog/mist in the front half, and by the time we exited GGP and were at the top of Haight around mile 19, it was as though the weather gods flipped a switch and turned the sun on for the first time all morning. Anticipating the sun’s arrival, minutes before we exited GGP, I quickly threw on my shades that had been sitting on my head all morning, and I started to count blocks, eagerly and excitedly waiting to approach Erin near Haight/Ashbury. Even with sunglasses on, I couldn’t see a damn thing coming down Haight — the sun was directly in my face, so the best I could do was focus on the road and few runners ahead of me — but I fortunately heard her for about a block before I saw her. (Thank you!) She buoyed my confidence a bit, told me I was exactly on pace and that I looked good, and I happily parted ways from her and continued to try to barrel down Haight, one of my favorite parts of the course. I had momentarily thought of my husband, who had encouraged me to “remember to have fun because you can run a marathon any day of the week” before I had left; I had explained that yes, but you can’t run down the middle of major city streets in the middle of the morning any time you want! As I was descending Haight, reveling in the very cool sight of seeing handfuls of runners ahead of me, farther along in their descent, and the bay looming ahead further still, I couldn’t help but think how novel and fun it is to run a major city marathon. I mean, think about it: when else can you ever literally run down the middle of a street like Haight (or Roosevelt, or Hereford, or wherever) but on Race Day? It’s just a cool experience. We are so lucky to be able to do this stuff.
Following Haight’s big downhill, I knew we still had a couple more Big Ones to ascend around miles 22 and 23 — ones that caught me off-guard in ‘14 — and I came into them ready and willing to continue to grind. I hadn’t done any more mental math since my attempt before exiting GGP, but I think I knew I wasn’t going to hit the 3:18 by then or that it’d be a long, long shot, anyway. I refocused my efforts on finishing the thing as strongly as possible and on seeing just how close I could get to my goal. I was still having a blast, running what felt like as well as I could, still passing people, and as far as I could tell, no women had passed me for several miles, save for some 2nd half runners. I wasn’t feeling tired like I was in ‘14 — though of course, I still felt tired — but more than anything, I had a resolve to keep going and fighting like hell. One of the biggest takeaways I remember from How Bad Do You Want It? is that when you ask yourself if you have another gear, the answer is unequivocally yes. We shortchange ourselves when we ought not to because we get into our heads and write (and rewrite) our narratives that help compensate for our shortcoming. We rationalize our faltering to death, and in the process, we do ourselves a bit of a disservice. Our minds often quit before our bodies do, and figuring out what we need to do to get our minds on board is incredibly important for developing grit, for heightening our tenacity — basically, for just becoming better at whatever it is we’re pursuing, be it a marathon or something else. Don’t get me wrong, complacency sure is comfortable, but a challenge — even one wherein you’re sure you’re going to fail — can be a damn good time. I mean, what do you have to lose? Publicly failing might sting, but knowing that you put out the effort — that you gave yourself the permission to at least give a damn and try — is really satisfying, too.
By about mile 24, when we had finally gotten away from any more Big Ones or hiccup ascents or descents and were back on the flatland of the Embarcadero, it didn’t matter to me that I knew I’d come up short on 3:18 (and much longer than 26.2, as my measurements were getting further and further away from the course markers and were now up to .2 off, despite my best efforts at tangent cutting). I wasn’t doing any more math, I don’t remember looking at my watch periodically, and hell, I don’t even think I looked at my watch when it beeped at each mile marker. The game had transitioned into find that last gear that’s still there, and finish this as strongly as you began it.
As we made our way along the Embarcadero, with AT&T Park coming into view (around mile 25 on the course) and the Bay Bridge becoming ever more apparent (the marathon finishes almost under it), it took me back to seeing the Citgo sign in Boston: you see it, you know you’re so close to home, but there’s more work to do. Just keep hammering. I knew Strava, and potentially Gregg, would be at 24-25, and while I didn’t see Gregg, the energy of the Strava cheer station was just indescribably awesome; major kudos to Gumby.
I recalled in ‘14 that by the time I hit 24 and change, just as I had entered the perimeter of AT&T Park, I began to mentally check out. I had gotten tired, started to rationalize that maybe it was worth it just to back off a bit on the final couple miles because I was pacing in six weeks’ time at Santa Rosa, and I honestly just felt … sleepy. This time around, there was none of that. After we passed the Strava station, as various half marathoners passed me, a handful of them — all guys, weirdly — ran right alongside me for a few paces and basically commended me for running hard (I guess?), telling me how awesome it was that I was racing a full and how much ass I was kicking. I have no idea. You’d think I was doing something noble like curing cancer or something. In retrospect, I must have looked like hell for strange men to offer me some mid-race coaching and encouragement, but then again, I seem to have that happen to me a lot in races. (Bizarre, right?).
And before long, that magical part in the marathon happens, when you begin to realize that as quickly as the thing began, it’s coming to an end. We came out of the area around AT&T Park; I gave a course marshall a hearty side-five that’d make any Chicago runner proud; and I finished what I started. Fitbit had an excellent, clever, enthusiastic, and colorful cheer station around 25.5, and even when my watch beeped 26 well before the mile marker, as the Bay Bridge got bigger and bigger, and the baby blue finish line overhang came into view, I tried to outrun a guy in front of me and finished what became my 29th marathon, my 17th Boston qualifier, and my 3rd San Francisco Marathon, in 3:24:38 — enough for 5/407 AG, 25/2347 F, and 306/6535 OA — for what my watch posted as about 26.49 miles.
My ‘17 race was just a touch slower than my ‘14 race (3:22:42, but with very similar finishing statistics), and interestingly, while my ‘14 time had about a 20 second positive split, my ‘17 time had what I think was mirror-perfect even pacing from the front half to the back half, possibly down to the second, if my math is right, according to the race’s splits (right? Has my math gone to shit that much?). Assuming that’s correct, I can safely say that I have never before perfectly-split a marathon. I guess there really is a first time for everything. Also weirdly, my watch recorded my cadence at about 188, slightly higher than normal for me and probably the highest I’ve ever had it recorded for a marathon. Iiiiiiinteresting.
After the race, in the finish chute, I reconnected with Don, who brought the 3:15 group home on time, Salman, Stassja, who PRed and scored a solid BQ, and shared all the congratulations and kudos with another woman who BQed for the first time who was clearly beside herself; bless the photographer who insisted that she and I jump in a pic together (which was reminiscent of NYC, when that last happened to me — talking to a stranger about how she BQed and we ended up getting a pic together). Is it obvious yet how much I love this distance?
Sure, I fell short of my arbitrary time goal, but I finished the race knowing that I had run it intelligently and strongly. Though my time was slower than ‘14, despite my better training this go around, I was over the moon with happiness. I’m not so delusional to think that the marathon ever owes me anything, regardless of how tenaciously I prepare for it. The marathon distance owes you, me, anyone who runs it, absolutely nothing. It’s so easy to romanticize 26.2, but the reality is that it’s tough as hell. It’s physically demanding, of course, but it’s also mentally taxing in a way that’s fairly indescribable. Even when you have the race of your life, you work — hard — for every single mile of it. I am so very grateful to be able to do this stuff for fun, and I think my joy in the process, and in the pursuit, underlies my approach to it. My gratitude permeates everything — cheesy to say but couldn’t be truer or more real.
I train for and race marathons because the challenge is thrilling. “Marathoner” is one hat among many that I wear, and I wear it with pride. I have big running goals that I’m enthusiastically working toward over my lifetime, and at the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, I will say that I finished SF feeling strong as hell and totally buoyed by how my race fared, given some challenging weather conditions — nothing I can control but my attitude on that one — and a course that’s among the most challenging of any marathon I’ve ever raced — something that I can control, something that I obviously must tend to seek out, seeing as how I’ve raced this 26.2 thrice now. I want to continue to chip down my marathon time, and maybe at the risk of sounding like a cocky SOB, I know my fresh-from-November 3:19 PR isn’t going to stand long. Gauntlet thrown, baby!
After chasing my marathon with a piping cup of green tea at Marketbar, copious amounts of water, some slightly-palatable Nuun (better than what was on course – gag me), a free massage, some more quality time with Sunny and her family, plus Linh and Amy, and briefly chatting with and finally meeting Scott Dunlap (who, like Kowsik, had also run the ultra), before too long, I was off to Erin’s to get cleaned up and head home. The weekend was awesome, and days later, I’m still riding a very hearty high from it. At one point during the race, I imagined skipping next year’s iteration or maybe just casually fun-running it; 72 hours removed, I can’t imagine *not* racing it with my everything again next year. This is how it starts, gang.
If you’ve made it this far, kudos, thank you, and I love you (hi, sister!). Here’s your takeaway: if you want to run SF but are in any way intimidated by it, don’t be. Just sign up. If the hills scare you, don’t let them; train accordingly, and adjust your goals. I think it is absolutely possible to run fast and run well at TSFM, but it definitely necessitates a calculated effort, one that you don’t have to heed as much for a uniformly flat marathon like Chicago, Eugene, Two Cities, Modesto, or many others. If you don’t want to go all-in for 26.2 here, that’s no problem: take in the sights and more plentiful hills of the first half; go for broke and a PR on the speedier (though arguably less scenic) second half; or make your morning run in SF super short and sweet and go clinch a 5k PR on the speedy course along the Embarcadero (with only one hiccup hill; c’mon, it’s SF). And hell, if the marathon isn’t enough of a challenge, get on with your bad self at its 52.4 ultra. You’ve got choices.
I’ll conclude my already 7k+ word novella with one final rumination, probably one of the most important ones I can encourage you, or challenge you, to consider, and one that, if you’ve been around these parts for a while, you’ll already know I’m going to say: racing and running marathons needn’t exclusively be about PR-shattering. Don’t get me wrong, training for a race with the hope of a PR, and working myself into tip-top shape to show up ready to rumble, is a ton of fun; I love the work and am enamored with the process. However, if I singularly base my relative “success” with each marathon or marathon training cycle I complete on whether I showed up and PRed on race day, I will be disappointed — and will have failed — about 99% of the time. Such is the reality of the marathon. PRs are thrilling, but they are elusive; they are not the end-all, be-all. Experience has taught me that “training my ass off to race hard” and “have a fucking blast with training and race day” aren’t mutually exclusive entities like I once thought they were. At TSFM, even when I knew that the PR attempt — already a bold goal to attempt chasing on a course like SF — was likely shot, and even when I knew that I’d end up posting a time that was frustratingly a touch slower than what I had last posted here, despite having much better training this go around, I can honestly tell you that there wasn’t a single bone in my body that regretted or bemoaned anything that happened on race day: not.a.thing.
If my 7k words haven’t impressed upon this already, know that I had so much fun out there running such a calculated race, while seeing so many friends in the process and working my ass off, and to me, that’s enough. Whether justified or not, I finished TSFM feeling completely confident in my belief that I have still so much to give at this distance, and I am thrilled to train hard all fall to go destroy at CIM come December — after some recovery, pacing 3:33 at Santa Rosa in about a month’s time, and maybe some autumn XC action for the first time in my life. We’ll see. I can already taste the humble pie that I’ll likely be ingesting rather copious amounts of, rather regularly, this fall. Bring it on, baby.
My 2017 TSFM weekend was copacetic, man. Thank you for the flurry of support and encouragement. It both humbles me and fans the flame.