Monday, July 24, 2017

The 40th San Francisco Marathon - 2017 Race Report

A San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) car was looming behind me. A loud voice boomed saying, "We are opening the street, please run on the side of the street." Panic struck me, as I was just at Haight Street at this point, about 20 miles into the course. I only had 6.2 miles left, but as anyone knows, the last 6.2 miles is usually the hardest part of any marathon.


The San Francisco Marathon (TSFM) was celebrating its 40th anniversary of the race. Thousands of runners from all over the city, state, and country descended into this magnificent city on July 23rd, 2017. What's nice about TSFM is that it not only caters to marathoners, but also half marathoners and 5K runners. Half marathoners also get to choose from one of two courses: the "First Half", which starts near the Ferry Building in Embarcadero and finishes at Golden Gate Park, or the "Second Half", which starts at Golden Gate Park and finishes with the marathoners back near the Ferry Building in Embarcadero.

Runners were treated to spectacular, if not varying weather, during the race. The marathoners and first half marathon runners were treated to a spectacular orange tinted sunrise with the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island at the background, "Karl the Fog" blanketing the Golden Gate Bridge, and marathoners and second half marathon runners were treated to sunny but still mild 70s weather towards the end of the race.

It was my seventh year running the full marathon distance. I started in 2011, training with Run 365, the official training program of TSFM. While it wasn't my first marathon, it has been the one that definitely captured my heart as I had decided to make it my "annual" race out of all the other road and trail races that I have done over the past seven years.

I started the race as somewhat under trained. I had been cycling for the majority of April and May for a week long ride from SF to LA, called the Aids Lifecycle. I then switched back to running shortly to get some running back into my legs, but somehow chose to train on the trails, with my longest run being a 30K out in Pacifica.

Based on my performance at my last few long runs, I knew I was also slowing down for the past two years. I might have gotten into great shape cycling, but I think the weeks or so after that event led me to eat as if I was still cycling 60-110 miles a day for seven days. I had no else to blame but myself for my weight gain the past two months. I liked running as much as I liked eating. Were it not for my voracious appetite, I would probably be one of those skinny ultra marathoners climbing Everest and making a 100 miler throughout Colorado seem like a walk in the park.

The champion Cable Car bell ringer started us for the race, a very San Franciscan way to let us do so. I then settled into my rhythm. It was easy to fall into the trap of running fast and just running the entire length of the course from the start to Fort Mason, the first hill. Luckily, I had the company of other run/walkers so it made walking at certain points look more palatable and unembarrassing. It was my strategy to run/walk the race. I had thought of doing an interval, like 4 minutes of running, 1 minute of walking. Unfortunately, my Garmin watch was not charged after all (I probably left it on all of last week). I decided to just use my iPhone Strava app to track my run, but I put the phone at the back of my hydration pack as I wanted to "run by feel" instead. I would run whenever I can, walk whenever I felt like it. My best marathon time was actually using this method. Unfortunately, my worst course time (this year), would also be using this method.

Running felt sluggish for me, even for flats and downhill parts of the course. When I would usually be running 12-13 minute miles, I would be running at a 15 minute mile clip. I would definitely feel the weight of my beer belly (minus the beer) slowing me down the whole time. I would actually seem to put more effort when hiking the hills, like the one going up to the Golden Gate Bridge, and up Lincoln Boulevard after just finishing the out and back of the bridge. At certain parts of the race, I would also start feeling my feet cramping and the bottom of my feet having what felt like the start of plantar fasciitis. Having done marathons and ultra marathons didn't make doing this race easy, but at least it made familiar. I have the experience of slugging out tough moments, forging on despite constant setbacks. A marathon is also mental in addition to physical. Your brain can definitely mess with you throughout 26.2 miles.

What made TSFM hard as far as mental aspects go is seeing the first half marathoners split at around mile 12, make a left, and sprint towards the finish line. The marathoners, on the other hand, make a right and take a tour of Golden Gate Park. We got to see the water buffalos relaxing (and looking like rocks to some runners, until they looked closer). We got to do a loop around Stow Lake, which always felt like a long part of the race for me. It didn't help that just moments earlier, I was looking for the porta potties to do a number two. As a back of the packer, I was treated to one porta potty after the next not having any tissue paper left, and I felt like I had to go, really bad! Luckily the very last one out of ten porta potties had something. Not tissue paper, but paper towels grabbed from the nearby faux faucet and hand sanitizer. Not the best thing I would use, but desperate times called for desperate measures. I thought I brought some wipes from when I did the Aids LifeCycle, but apparently I didn't. I was relieved to relieve myself at that time. It might have cost me a few minutes, but at least there wasn't a porta potty line and those extra minutes is better than running with a bad stomach (and worse, crapping yourself while running like some nasty Youtube videos and still pics I have seen). I don't think I'm fast enough like the elites where minutes or seconds matter. I wasn't hoping to win, but I was definitely hoping to finish.

My fueling strategy composed of using just one water bottle with a hydration pack. I would have used two, but for the life of me, I can't find my two matching water bottles, and I know that gave good grief to one of my fellow runners (who might be reading this blog later, haha). I felt with the frequency of aid stations that two water bottles would have been overkill, but in hind sight, it's usually good to have one water bottle for water, and one for electrolytes. I planned to use a gel every hour, but I made the rookie mistake of trying a new gel for a long run, which probably caused my bad stomach issue. It also didn't help that the electrolytes on the race were not the exact mix I wanted (I usually want to be able to taste the electrolytes, and a strong ratio of water/powder), and the particular brand used, while working for some, made me usually bloated (and didn't have enough calories). Thankfully I also brought along some of the old gels I used to use at previous races, but they clearly weren't enough. I was bonking at Golden Gate Park, just right after doing the Stow Lake Loop. I asked to buy a can of Coke from a nearby vendor stand, but he wasn't open yet, but could have taken $2 in exact change. I had a $1 and a $5 and in hindsight, I should have given that $5 for that can of Coke, as I know that could have boosted my energy, given the sugar, caffeine and calories. Hindsight is always 20/20.

While I had no idea what time it was, or how my pace was like, I could tell by the thinning crowd of runners that I was in slight trouble. While there were still people behind me, and I can't see any sweep cars at all, I did see a motorcycle bike rider at Stow Lake who said he was part of the course sweep (but he never talked to us runners, so I just assumed he was early). I thought I was still okay. I was, until a police car was behind me, two to three blocks away.

A San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) car was looming behind me. A loud voice boomed saying, "We are opening the street, please run on the side of the street." Panic struck me, as I was just at Haight Street at this point, about 20 miles into the course. I only had 6.2 miles left, but as anyone knows, the last 6.2 miles is usually the hardest part of any marathon.

I decided to pick up my speed, if that were even possible, by running at least from block to block. The problem with closed down streets is now we had to dealt with stoplights. And as any runner in SF would tell you, it can be annoying to have to stop every single block when you're running. Unfortunately, it wasn't so bad for me, and maybe other runners, as it allowed us to catch our already dying breaths. It did slow us down even yet more significantly. I started to have a sinking feeling that I might not make it to the finish. Not that I can't complete 26.2 miles, but the fact that there might not be a timing mat anymore to cross, or people giving out medals. Despair was written on my face, as well as some others, but I quickly switched to the mantra of just moving forward. I was determined to finish this race no matter what, whether I get a medal or not, whether I get an official finish time or not.

I continued with my slogging (slow jogging) at parts, walking at parts. It was amazing to see some of the "Worth the Hurt" 52.4 ultra marathoners also "racing" towards the finish. These runners started at midnight, did the reverse direction of the TSFM course. Then they waited until at least 5:40, when Wave 2 starts and run the regular course with all the other marathoners. Pretty crazy, huh? If I was struggling, I can't even imagine what's going through their heads. One of them had a pacer, but he also ran with one of this fellow ultra marathoners. A lot of respect for these guys. It's hard enough running 52.4 miles, let alone on the pounding pavement!

What made the race even more interesting in addition to stop lights was the fact that aid stations were closing down. I had enough water for the last 6 miles, but I definitely still felt the lack of calories in me, and I even felt very slightly dizzy at times (not to the point of being dangerously dizzy, to those who would be concerned about me). What also made it "exciting" was we had to know what the course was. There would be volunteers kind enough to still be there to guide us, but they would only be there at key turns, and that wasn't something required of them. My knowledge of the course helped, but making a left at 15th street threw me off, as I was used to running down 16th. It turns out that 15th street is an alternate course. I whipped out my phone to look at the course map to help me, in addition to my memory. I think the other runners were thankful to have someone who knew the course. Getting lost while trying to race to the finish line is definitely not something any runner would like to do!

At the last mile or so, I had to battle the crowds who were walking towards AT&T park for a Giants game. There seems to be always a baseball game during TSFM, but that's SF for you, always several things happening at the same time in our beloved city. I was slightly thankful they let me run the last half mile (which seemed more like a mile), on the street. I was mildly lifted in my spirits as the passers by going to AT&T park cheered me on. I felt like a celebrity!

I saw the finish line and while I didn't sprint like I always do, I did run towards the finish. The finish line mat was on the sidewalk now and there was no announcer, but I was okay with that. I have an official finishing time and I also got my medal! While I was not proud of my time, I was definitely proud of my finish. I definitely need to go back into proper training with my Run 365 family and respect the mad distance that is the marathon.

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