The Dallas Marathon begins at 8:00 AM. The Austin Marathon begins at 7:00 AM. I always complained about that; 7:00 AM in February is about the coldest possible time and day of year, and in February, the sun isn't even up yet by 7:00. And since Dallas starts at 8:00, why can't Austin? Boston, which has a lot more weight to throw around, starts at 10:00 AM, giving you enough time to sleep in and even get a full meal down. Most of the Coastal Trail Runs start at the decent hour of 8:00 AM, except Big Basin, which started at 9:00.
San Francisco inexplicably starts at 5:30 AM. Holy schnikees. I guess they really wanna get those roads re-opened early. I was staying with a friend that wanted to wake up at 3:45 AM, even though we were only taking a 10-minute cab ride to get there (she likes a long morning routine). I managed to get enough sleep (maybe just enough), having gone to bed while it was still just a little light out. I may have eaten just a little too much the day before. I put down a somewhat smaller amount for breakfast and hopped in the cab, still very dark outside.
San Francisco had plenty of port-o-potties (which I needed), but didn't make it very clear exactly how many there were (they just kept going all the way down a long street). Meant you either had a long or short wait, depending which line you found. Got everything done that I needed to do just in time, lined up, and started off in the second wave. San Francisco has multiple starts, depending on your expected finish time, so you don't have to shove past slow people that lined up in front for no good reason. Take a note, LA. And almost everyone else, for that matter.
Despite starting with a fast wave, I was mostly passing people early on. Even when I got stuck behind someone for the first half-mile, we were at least moving. We started spreading out just as the course rounded a corner and headed almost due west, along the ocean. Headwind. I made it a point to hang out behind tall people for a moment when I caught them, rather than passing them immediately. Stay outta the wind, save your strength.
I dunno why, but I felt a little odd in some spots in those early miles. I couldn't tell if I felt like I was running harder than normal or too easy. Looking at my watch, my pace looked OK (though since I almost exclusively do trail runs, what's my "normal" pace, anyway?). But it almost felt like I was running in a body other than my own. An in-shape one, but I just didn't feel the same as I always did.
Here and there, the route got off the road and onto a walking path, only about two meters wide, thinner than a lane of auto traffic. That was fine in the crowd I was in, but when the masses came through? I dunno how they expected a few thousand to run on that path together.
Five miles in, we headed up a hill to the Golden Gate Bridge. First main hill. I passed a number of people. Hills must not bother me as much as others, at least after taking up trail running. During the hill, we saw our first fans on the course. Five miles and no spectators until now. But that's what happens when the race starts at 5:30 in the morning.
"Good morning!" I chirped as I approached. They laughed. I guess that's an unusual thing for runners to say to spectators.
I always forget how long the Golden Gate Bridge is. When you first start across, it doesn't look that far. One mile later, you're still only two-thirds of the way across. Felt good running across the bridge though, especially as you make it towards the end, as it bows back down. A turnaround in a parking lot, complete with a solid cover band, and back across the bridge the other way. Looking at how many people had already passed me going back across the bridge, it looked like there were about 50 in front of me.
Heading back across the bridge, I got to see all the people behind me. Goodness, there were a lot of them! 6-7 miles into the race, and they still hadn't separated much, still bumping elbows. I'd hate to be in that mess. Now back in the headwind, I did my best to follow tall people again.
Felt good to break off the bridge and be alone again. A tough uphill almost immediately, then a great downhill. And when you looked to the right, outstanding views. My stomach started to act up. Almost immediately, I saw an aid station complete with port-o-potties. Should I? It wasn't affecting my running yet, just discomfort, so no. But I would probably have to later. No biggie.
A few rolling hills later, we were in Golden Gate Park. Closing in on the halfway point, I was well under 1:30. Not bad! I had noticed that to this point, I was much better in the hills than other people around me, both going up and down (trail runs, how adaptable you have made me!). Just at mile 13, another aid station. This time, I took the opportunity to use the toilets. Cost me a minute, but it would probably pay back later. Felt great getting back on pace.
Hitting the halfway point, I looked at my watch. Pace was 6:22/mile. Considering that included a bathroom break and the "tougher" half of the course, not bad! I'd probably slow down in the second half, but maybe not by much. A couple miles later, my average pace improved to 6:20/mile. So halfway into this thing and I'm getting faster?!? Yeah, I'm OK with that.
Miles 14-19 are a gradual uphill. In some spots, you get a decently challenging uphill, though never a long or a particularly steep one. In other spots, it gets pretty flat. But it's certainly never downhill, and it's an incline a lot more often than not. Every mile, I kept checking my lap time. Every mile was between 6:10 and 6:20. Seriously?!? My PR was at a pace of 6:29/mile. Breaking that not only seemed possible, but...likely! I'm still running better than that, and while running uphill! I was almost exclusively passing people at this point. My feet were starting to hurt.
There were bands dotting the course in the second half, probably at least one per mile. A number of them were only two people, just a minimal drumset and an acoustic guitar on a street corner. Just shy of mile 19, I saw another one. There may not've been anything particularly special about them, but, well...
For one thing, they were playing a type of music you don't usually hear from a band at a marathon. Low-key, easygoing acoustic music. Again, it was just two people, a guitarist and a drummer. The guitarist was a cute blonde with a very pretty voice. She was smiling. Just after I rounded the corner and they came into view, she turned, looked at me, and smiled bigger. I kept looking at her and smiling back. Maybe she was just smiling to see any runners paying attention to them, or maybe I looked like hell by that point. But who cares? I just liked how she was smiling at me. She was singing in some foreign language, I couldn't tell what. I have no idea what she was singing, nor in what language, but it was awfully pretty. I kept running. Was only able to take them in for about four seconds, but for one reason or another, understated as the entire fleeting experience was, her face and her voice stuck with me for another mile or so.
I hadn't fully realized how much time is spent in Golden Gate Park, but it wound up being over six miles. About a quarter of the course. Upon exiting, the course flattened out quite a bit and headed east, smack in a solid tailwind. Better conditions! The sun was just now coming out and we were pointed right at it. Not only that, but the street had that perfect shine to it, causing everything in my field of vision to be nothing but glare. I kept my face scrunched for the next several miles. The streets were completely empty. Silent. A ghost town. I hadn't noticed so much in Golden Gate Park, since I'm used to being surrounded by serene nature. But when it was silent streets and empty, unlit buildings, it was very noticeable. There were still virtually no spectators to speak of, maybe a group of four or so every half-mile. The cops directing traffic outnumbered them by far. This is clearly not a race you run for crowd support.
This might sound strange, but probably the worst part of the course was a downhill. At mile 20, and then again at 21, there was a short, steep downhill, the kind that's enough you have to hit the brakes to keep from losing control. I had hoped that all the uphill we'd gone through would give us a downhill we could really use. But no. Coulda been worse, but I'm not a fan of steep downhills. At least my feet were feeling better, probably just from hitting the ground a different way for once.
Still holding strong, I kept looking at my watch to get an idea when I'd finish. Apparently my watch was off by a little, over-estimating how far I'd run, and I'd actually be crossing the finish line when my watch read about 26.4. It looked like setting a PR was a given! And was 2:45 possible? Every time I looked at my watch, it looked like maybe just barely, but no. But every time my watch beeped to tell me my last mile's time, it kept getting faster, until I was running sub-6:00 miles. Holy crap! What the hell was going on?!?
The toughest spot in the last stretch was probably mile 23, when the course turns south for at least half a mile, finally into the wind again. Slowed you down, but not so bad. Turned back out of it and headed down to the water. Hitting the water felt great, just a little flat to go, all tailwind.
Rounding AT&T Park (where the San Francisco Giants play), you now know there's exactly one mile left; you're at mile 25.2. I turned around the stadium and saw a long straightaway. 2:45 looked like it was in the bag. Where the hell was the finish line though? It's only a mile...
Half a mile to go, I still couldn't see it. Really?? I started worrying that my watch somehow got off by even more and I wasn't as close as I thought, maybe 2:45 wasn't happening after all. I finally rounded a corner and saw the finish almost right there. Crossed the line strong and started walking. Unlike usual, somehow, my legs didn't cramp up right away. I actually felt...good!
Saw Larry at the finish line, a guy I've run with at work. He looked genuinely elated to see me that early and to learn I set a PR. I gave him a high five, smiled, and kept moving. A banana, scone, yogurt, chocolate milk, beer, and popsicle later, I was feeling even better, dancing through the bag pick-up area. Grabbed my drop bag and my SF-LA Challenge medal, stretched, and waited for my friend to finish, then took a cab home.
My official time wound up being 2:43:52 (which I'm just calling 2:44), a PR by six minutes on probably the hardest urban course I've ever done. And not only that, but I ran my first-ever negative split. And to think that all included a friggin' bathroom break; my day could've gone even better. No point doting on that though. There's hardly a thing I can feel about this race aside from happiness (OK, pride too). After worrying about beating my BQ time by more than one minute and hoping to beat it by five minutes, I beat my BQ time by a solid 21 minutes. Yeah, that might be enough to go to Boston.
Went to visit my aunt for the rest of the day, and we wound up going for a bike ride all over Golden Gate Park (oh, the irony). A great meal, a good beer, and some good times.
So far, the Gauntlet has gone fairly well: a dominating win at Canyon Meadow, a decent second-place finish at Big Basin (second to an Olympian, I might add) that was my fastest trail run ever, and now a marathon PR by a wide margin. Can't wait to find out what the San Lorenzo River Trail Marathon has in store next week.
Boston, this one was for you. I hope I did you proud.