I stepped out of the darkness into the dim yellow glow of the electric light. I lifted up my shirt to show the hulk in the brown leather jacket the number pinned to my singlet. He nodded and grunted, “Have a good race”.
From the safety of my corral, I noticed that all the guards wore brown leather jackets. I looked closer: all the jackets were adorned with a collection of Harley Davidson patches. Really? They hired a motorcycle gang for security duties? Are the race organizers not familiar with the fable of the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert? The moral of the story: do not get a motorcycle gang to be responsible for security at your event. Perhaps the organizers calculated that everyone in attendance is a marathoner and, in case of trouble, can just run away?
I was one of the throngs of people lining up to run the San Francisco Marathon in the early hours of a late-July morning. My training had been going particularly well for the last few months and I was looking forward to a good race. In the end, the Harley Davidson Club of San Francisco seemed to do a fine job of providing security, and unlike Altamont, the only fatality was that of my lofty aspirations.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
The race was to start at 5:30am. This created an environmental conundrum. On the race website, there were several items touting the race’s green credentials: admonishments to recycle this and don’t print that. But at that hour of the day, the public transportation system wasn’t yet up and running, meaning the only way to get to the race was for all 20,000 participants to drive their own cars (or stay in a very expensive downtown hotel; perhaps the green really stands for money?).
At 5:15 I was in my corral. It was still dark. The San Francisco Bay Bridge loomed just behind us to the west. Looking at it, I first thought I was still bleary-eyed. The lights on the bridge were turning on and off in unusual patterns that made it look like some kind of goo was dripping down the guidewires. I was told afterwards that the light show is extremely popular in the city and there is a crowd-sourcing effort underway to secure funding for the installation beyond its one-year contract. I can’t say whether or not it’s worth the 12 million dollar price tag, but the display is definitely out of the ordinary and had me entranced while I waited for the race to start.
I struggled to get the slow-moving goo out of my head and focus on my soon-to-be fast-moving race. At 5:30 sharp, the command was given, and off we went.
We ran down the Embarcadero and past Fisherman’s Wharf, one of San Francisco’s many tourist districts. It was still dark. The lamps lining the street there are cutesy little things that don’t give off enough light to be able to see a watch, so I couldn’t get a split until mile 3, which was, in turn, much too early for the sense of foreboding that punched me in the face. That three-mile split was ominously slow for the effort I felt I was putting forth.
I was not running like the well-oiled machine I had spent the last eight weeks pretending I was turning into. My strategy had been to start solid, feel good, and then pick up the pace. The first two elements of that scheme had failed to materialize, and the third was now laughably impossible.
I did not have a contingency plan. A wise runner would have decided to slow down, adjust expectations, and perhaps speed up in a few miles when things settled down. But, despite having worn glasses since kindergarten, no one has ever made the mistake of calling me wise. My resolution of the dilemma was elegant in its simplicity: just keep going. So I maintained my pace, knowing full well that it was not going to last for 26 miles. The piper started typing up my invoice.
The Raison d’Etre
At mile 4 we entered the hills of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. That made the early splits even more depressing, as they had been on a flat course. Still, onward.
There were no lamps along this stretch and we ran in near total darkness on the winding road through the trees. But we were not alone. From the void I could hear bursts of periodic and spookily disembodied applause. These are hard-core marathon fans, I thought, coming out before dawn to cheer on a bunch of people they can only see as shadows.
I started up the steep on-ramp to the Golden Gate Bridge. People like to run on bridges. Most of the marathons I’ve done try to incorporate them into the course, and they are certainly advertised prominently in the race propaganda (the t-shirt I got for entering this race has a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, and nothing else). I have no argument with that – I like running on bridges too.
Later in my trip, I talked to people who would say things like “Yeah, I ran the marathon a few years back, “ then look down and sigh, “before it went over the bridge.” And it turns out that they have every reason to be depressed about it, because running over the bridge is spectacular.
I felt a twinge of excitement for the bridge miles when I passed the “Entering Freeway” sign. We ran past the toll booths, and the towering network of suspension cables welcomed us aboard.
The bridge is attractive on its own account; that is no secret. But on top of the usual aesthetics, I was at the midpoint just before the sun came up; the eastern sky glowed purple and red over San Francisco Bay. A thin veneer of fog still hung over downtown, creating a ghostly skyline. I would have been happy just running back and forth over the bridge and taking in the view for the entire 26 miles.
Turning Swords into Plowshares, and Bike Paths
But life, and the marathon, goes on – we ran across the bridge, around the overlook at the edge of Marin County, and back to San Francisco. Leaving the bridge at mile 10, a steep half-mile long hill greeted us at the entrance to the Presidio, an old army base now converted into a park. Much of San Francisco’s north and west shorelines, which we spent several total miles running along, are now park land. The city’s coasts have been home to various military bases for the past couple hundred years, a side effect of which has been their exclusion from the region’s real estate explosion. After recent rounds of decommissioning, these former bases have now become attractive waterfront green spaces. Given San Francisco’s current reputation and political leanings, it’s amusing to consider how much of the city’s history is based on, and how much the city has benefitted from, the presence of the US military.
The preservation of a valuable resource for the common good did nothing to lift my spirits: the hills in the Presidio walloped me. The facade of my earlier pace was crumbling; the “maybe I’ll loosen up” gambit wasn’t working and I was slowing down precipitously.
We made a short bolt across the Richmond neighborhood into Golden Gate Park. As I entered the trees, I wasn’t considering dropping out, but I was mulling a hypothetical “what would happen if I did drop out?”. Amongst several other reasons for scrapping the idea, I couldn’t see an easier way to get back to the start than to just keep running.
The course spent the next seven miles meandering through the park. In most circumstances I prefer that a marathon course lead me through the city and its monuments to human activity. In this case though, the quiet solitude of the park suited me just fine. When I am having a bad race, I prefer to be left alone in my misery than to have people cheer me on (at every “You can do it!” I have to stifle a “No, I can’t!”). Here, in the peaceful emptiness of the trees I could shuffle pitifully along without any self-consciousness.
At mile 19 we finally got out of Golden Gate Park. The next five miles were through the Haight and Mission sections of town, the only extended segments of the race that were in real neighborhoods, their authenticity verified by the smell of tortillas in the air.
Watching the Watch
At mile 23 we passed under the 101 freeway and headed towards San Francisco Bay. Based on the lackadaisical attention I had given my mile splits, I had guessed at a 3:10 finish time, 20 minutes slower than my pre-race goal, and spent the last hour reconciling myself to that result. Passing the mile marker, I looked at my watch and caught a blurry glimpse of the overall time. I looked again. And a third time. I spent several seconds checking and re-checking the calculations in my head. My arithmetic felt a little foggy, but, dare I dream, could I still break three hours?! I didn’t feel good, but this unexpected piece of good news put a spring in my step.
The last two miles were along the bay through the warehouses of the Dogpatch. The finish line lay just beyond the looming Bay Bridge, which had apparently been put on wheels and was now being rolled away from me at the same speed I was running. My infatuation with the bridge, born of the light show three hours ago, was nowhere to be found.
I ran past Giants baseball stadium and landed back on the Embarcadero for the final quarter-mile to the finish. I did not break three hours, but because I had spent so many miles not trying very hard, I had enough energy to look good running down the straightaway to the finish.
I crossed the line and two medics immediately descended on me, ordering me to keep moving, because of my heart, or something. I tried to take a bottle of water from the water table. They reprimanded me, “No, you need to keep moving.” Either I didn’t look as good as I thought I did, or those medics didn’t have enough to do.
Disappointed in the result, but ecstatic that the debacle had finally ended, I hobbled the interminable half-mile back to the hotel. I spent the next couple days performing a post-mortem of my race. There are some changes to my training that I can put on the drawing board, and my pre-race tapering schedule could probably use some work, but as much as anything, in situations where a race isn’t unfolding perfectly for me, I need to come up with a Plan B that is better than “try Plan A again.”