San Francisco Marathon 2012 Race Report: Death By A Thousand Hills

Man, that San Francisco Marathon is something. The marketing campaign is based around the slogan "Worth the Hurt." There's a reason for that: this race hurts, but the incredible scenery, conditions, event organization and the tag of pride that comes with conquering the course makes it all worth it.

I wish the San Francisco Marathon got more talk and consideration in the California running scene. I see why it doesn't, but I think it has the makings of a "must-do" that hasn't come close to hitting that level of attention. I mean, you run over the Golden Gate Bridge ... during a marathon! That's pretty awesome!

Most of this report will be about the race, not my race. But indulge me for one paragraph.

I didn't train for this, my second marathon, particularly well. It came to my attention around the beginning of May that preparing for a marathon during April (NBA season winding up), May (playoffs), June (more playoffs and the draft) and July (free agency, Summer League and pre-Olympics) is problematic for an NBA writer. We all make sacrifices to feed our running habit. But in this part of the year, there is little give for me. So I came in feeling underprepared somewhat. I have been doing fairly regular hill workouts, but only as separate, fairly short workouts (6-8 miles), not as the part of a long run because my town is militantly flat. So I was prepared for the nasty hills (at Mile 5 in Ft. Mason, at Mile 6 or so approaching the Golden Gate and at Mile 19 climbing out of Golden Gate Park). But I wasn't well-prepared to kill those hills (up and down) and then run a lot more after that. This was a marathon, so this was problematic. My splits on the two halves were +26 minutes ... in my first marathon (CIM 2011), they were +25. So yeah, there's a trend. (I did PR by more than 6 minutes, so my first half in S.F. was really good!) I spent much of the final eight miles struggling due to brand new pain in my right quad that, when stretched, seized up my right hamstring. Good times. Now I know real running pain. My old plantar and IT band stuff was child's play compared to those. But I kept shuffling along, I didn't get negative like I did at CIM, and I enjoyed (well ...) the rest of the race. I had a good time, though I'd hoped to do better. I'll be working on overall stamina, incorporating hills into long runs and slowing the hell down early before my next race.

About the race itself ...

EXPO EXPERIENCE: It was a fine expo with quick, easy bib and shirt pick-up and good boothes. (Stunningly, samples of CLIF's 2,000 flavors were popular!) But the location is a disaster. The building is good, but it's miles from the host hotel/start line, and parking is a mess. And there's no mail or race day pick-up, so out-of-towners who aren't staying in the city before the race have to make two weekend trips in. I'd think a place closer to downtown, where everyone stays for this race and where access is pretty easy, would be available.

RACE MORNING ORGANIZATION: Flawless. Sweatbag trucks (provided by UPS!) were clearly marked and accessible. The race worked with a parking vendor to make garages available really early, and they were relatively cheap. Portajohns were plentiful and spread out. The wave corrals were easy to understand. They played Phil Collins. Flawless.

THE COURSE: Oh my God, the hills! They never stop. They just stop being insane. Some runners are under the impression they end when you get off the bridge (which itself is a hill you run twice), but they don't. Some runners think they end once you're safe in Golden Gate Park, but they don't. (One jerk before the Park likes to tell everyone "this is the highest point! all downhill from here." No, sir. It's a net downhill from there, with like 2,000 more hills of varying grade and length that very much include uphill portions. The Park is surprisingly rolly, and there's a non-negligible ascent out of the park. But really, you're not done running uphill until you're done. There's always another hill around the corner. (The best part: this is probably the least hilly loop course incorporating the bridge possible in San Francisco. It's just like Seattle: there's no way around the hills because the city was freaking built on hills.)

There's really not a bad part of the course. I was nervous about getting unbearly bored during the Potrero section that begins around Mile 20, but there's good support there. The Hell's Angels provide traffic support, and they were some of the best cheerleaders. There were lots of folks who seemed to coincidentally be at the course (walking the dog, getting coffee) who cheered us on. It's not what I imagine New York or Boston to be, but there are good people, and I think most of the city is beautiful, so there. But of course, the Embarcadero (miles 1-4), Ft. Mason (mile 5) and the bridge are basically perfect, so I understand why the second half of the course gets a bad rap.

A few more course notes:

MOST UNFAIR OLFACTORY TEASE, INSTITUTIONAL DIVISION: Boudin on the Embarcadero. Very close to the start. You can see them making the sourdough through giant bay window. You can smell it, and the smell does not leave you. It's brutal.

MOST UNFAIR OLFACTORY TEASE, SITUATIONAL DIVISION: The Giants are hosting the Dodgers this week. You pass by the AT&T Park parking lot around mile 25. Tailgating at 10 a.m.? OK! Bratwursts just a chain link fence from someone 25 miles into a brutal marathon? You suck.

CONDITIONS: Started at about 50 degrees, overcast and misty. Ended at about 50 degrees, overcast and misty. You can't ask for better conditions. It seemed almost unfair that the race is held in July. Driving home to another 90-degree day made me want to grab the fam and turn around.

POST-RACE GRIND: It'd be great if a race could have Barcaloungers and pizza, but alas. The food was OK (more on the healthy side with yogurt and fruit), and hey, there was a beer tent where runners got a free brew. (First half runners had an irish coffee booth in Golden Gate Park.) And if you can't find what you want to eat in downtown San Francisco, you're not looking hard enough.

All in all, I think it's a great marathon. I think it needs to continue to tap into the regional and statewide running culture to get to the point where it can sell out the full regularly. That's starting to happen: there's a S.F./L.A. challenge where folks get a shirt for running both, and they've deployed ambassadors to get people excited about S.F. But it's not a P.R. course like CIM, it's not quite Big Sur in terms of scenery and it's not yet famous as a challenging course or a must-do urban race. It'll never be a P.R. course, it'll never beat Big Sur in terms of scenery ... but it can become the California race whose finishers wear it like a badge of pride. I certainly do. I hope more and more join me over the next few years.

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