It’s time to get this blog kicked off right, and with that I thought I’d start with reviews and recaps of the half marathon races I’ve run so far this year, starting with the San Francisco Half Marathon I ran back at the end of July.
Of all the half marathon races I’ve done in the past couple years, the first half marathon at the San Francisco Marathon, Half Marathons & 5K — there are actually two half-marathons at this race, as you can run either the first or the second half of the full marathon route — I would definitely say this race is my favorite.
Not because I was able to get anywhere close to setting a personal record time — in fact, this was my slowest half by more than 10 minutes — but because the race course for the first half marathon uses the city as a backdrop so well, it’s hard not to fall in love with San Francisco all over again when you’re running the 13.1 mile route. (And it’s hard not to wonder why you don’t just pack up and move there when you get back home, if it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to live there!)
I arrived on the Friday afternoon before the Sunday race, which gave me time to catch up with friends who lived there and see some of the city with my buddy Rob, who also flew out to run the race. The two of us took in the race expo on Saturday, where we picked up our numbers and got a chance to see some of the vendors, as the hall where the expo was held was pretty big (much bigger than the small venue where the New York City Half Marathon held its expo earlier this year, actually), and they had this sign out front:
That sign would actually tell us more than we realized about how the half marathon would go the next day, when the race announcer (and basically anyone we ran into) would remind us over the loudspeaker that this isn’t a race you can set any sort of record time in, and just to relax and have fun with it. And we’d find out why the next day when we started hitting some of the hills along the course.
By the time the morning of the race rolled around, it was still pretty dark, though the sun was starting to come up. My hotel was literally a stone’s throw from the race start along the Embarcadero, right next to the San Francisco Ferry Building. When we went out into the street where the runners were gathering before the race, there was some pretty interesting people-watching (as most races are!), from runners stretching and warming up together…
…to runners dressed up in costume, of which there were only a relative handful, which perhaps made runners like this guy stand out even more:
Though we probably warmed up and stretched in the starting line area for 30 to 40 minutes or more, it didn’t feel like that long, and before we knew it, we were crossing the starting line and heading into the first mile of the race. The course begins on the northeastern side of the city, and first couple of miles are somewhat surprisingly flat and fast, considering the city’s reputation for its hills and all we’d heard from friends heading into the race.
That made for a fairly relaxing start to the race, and at least a few miles for runners who are concerned about their time to get in some miles quickly when their legs are fresh, along sections of Embarcadero that look like this:
As the miles and the pier landings pass by along the Embarcadero, there were quite a number of locals out to cheer us on, but not huge numbers considering the early hour (the race starts at 5:30 AM). The route keeps bringing you around through the Telegraph Hill and Fisherman’s Wharf districts, where you’ll definitely see the more touristy side of San Francisco — with cable car wires overhead and the Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum along the way.
After you make it through the Fisherman’s Wharf stretch, however, the city’s natural beauty takes over once again. The stretch out of Fisherman’s Wharf leads into the area known as Fort Mason, where the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory and visitor center is located, and which runners pass by along Marina Green Drive, as we entered the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which really stretches around a big part of the northern end of the city, looking over into the San Francisco Bay.
This starts what was probably my favorite part of the race. The architecture changes back to the row townhouses I see in my mind when I think of San Francisco, and you can also look out onto the water and see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, which you’ll be running over in just a short couple of miles:
But before you get to the bridge, you have to head through the hills that everyone had told us about, and which even the Wall Street Journal had published an article on the week before the race. I have to say, Rob and I really took this course nice and easy so we didn’t push ourselves too hard on the hills or really anywhere along the route.
What we gave up in recording a good race time, however, we gained in just enjoying the course, as I stopped at several points along the way to take pictures of the views, which were just gorgeous. To give you an idea of what the hills were like, here’s a couple that show us heading through the part of the city known as the Presidio, which once served as a U.S. Army post and today is part of the national park system:
This spectator was particularly enthusiastic about helping us make it up the hill, he banged this gong for what seemed like an eternity as we were running up:
Running up the hills through the Presidio, there were plenty of places to stop off by the side of the road to take pictures, which of course we had to do, like with this one Rob took of me just before we made it to the bridge:
Which, of course, was promptly followed by more hills like these:
As if it’s not obvious by now, that’s really in a nutshell why you have to gear it down a bit for this course, or it can really come back to bite you — with muscle cramps, especially — if you’re not careful.
Next of course, came the highlight of the race: the just over a mile-long run over the Golden Gate Bridge, which the race advertises as the only race in San Francisco that runs in the road bed of the bridge. There are a few other half marathon races during the year in the city (including the two US Half Marathon races in the spring and fall), so they must run along the sidewalk area of the bridge, which looks like it would be plenty wide, depending on the number of runners crossing it at any one time.
The view from the bridge can really be dependent on the weather — the day of our race, there was certainly fog, but not so much that it marred the view, in my opinion:
When you’re on the bridge, one of the things I enjoyed is that you can take it up close all those things you see from so far away, like the massive rust-colored columns that support the whole thing:
On the other side of the bridge, of course, is the race turnaround point, at the appropriately named Vista Point in the area known as the Marin Headlands. There was a band here and race volunteers passing out packets of Gu energy gel, and I have to say it was really the perfect time to take it b/c we’d run between 7 and 8 miles at this point, so we were in need of a little pick-me-up.
Next, we started the trek back over the bridge. One of the things that both of us noticed was that the miles really seemed to peel off almost without you noticing them; by the time you get to the other side of the Golden Gate, you’ve passed the mile 9 marker and are heading into the final three miles of the race, and you almost feel like you’re still just getting started.
Once over the bridge, you’re back in the Presidio, this time heading downhill for the first time, with some really beautiful stretches like this one:
The final three miles don’t go by quite as quickly as the first 10, I’d say, as they also have some hills like this one final hill before you make it into Golden Gate Park:
After this hill, however, you’re basically done with the big hills (yes, there’s a slight incline once you get inside the park when you’ve almost made it to the finish line, but it’s hard to compare it to the earlier hills ;). Once inside the park, the race organizers start splitting everyone up between those who are about to finish… and those who have 13.1 more miles to go:
The only thing left at this point is the finish line, just a few hundred yards away:
I have to say, I’d love to do this race again. I hope the photos and the recap here do it justice, because it’s truly one of those really neat experiences to enjoy at a race. Two big thumbs up, way up.