Adventures at the SF Marathon
San Francisco, like many big cities, has a city marathon. The race started by the Pamakid Runners had modest beginnings in 1977. The marathon course, initially limited to Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway, soon expanded to include many of the city’s landmarks such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, North Beach, the Haight, and of course the Golden Gate Bridge. Title sponsors came and went. Long-time Pamakid Runner, Tony Rossmann, has written a terrific re-cap of the first twenty years (1977-1997) of the San Francisco Marathon.
A major challenge for the race management has always been closing city streets for the race. To get around this problem the race has historically had a very early start to get runners on and off the streets before street closures would bring the city to a standstill. This is why the race has a 5:30 A.M. start time.
The San Francisco Marathon has never been able to become a summer version of the Boston, New York, or Chicago Marathon in terms of number of participants and elite runners. In San Francisco’s favor is the “San Francisco summer” weather, which is almost sure to be overcast and cool – ideal for running a marathon. But the topography of the city itself insures that any course design will have more than its share of hills and turns; hills and turns being a turnoff to those attempting to run a fast time. San Francisco will never have a fast course.
However, the race is what it is. There is currently no title sponsor. Run concurrently with the full marathon is one 5K and two half marathons. One half marathon is run over the first half of the marathon course and the other is run over the second half of the marathon course. The First Half Half Marathon shares the full marathon’s 5:30 A.M. start and is on a slower course than the Second Half Half Marathon but it does go over the scenic Golden Gate Bridge. The Second Half Half Marathon starts at a more normal time of 8:15 A.M. and is run on a faster course than the first half because it is a net downhill course. But runners in this race have to share the course with marathoners running a four to five hour marathon pace.
The 2010 San Francisco races had over 19,000 finishers, which is a good number of participants but is less than the 45,000 at the Chicago and New York Marathons, and the 25,000 at the Boston Marathon. At those races all the participants run a full marathon. In San Francisco there were 5,989 finishers in the marathon, 8,426 finishers in the First Half Half Marathon, 3,466 finishers in the Second Half Half Marathon, and 1,557 finishers in the 5K.
One Second Half Half Marathon finisher in particular drew some attention. Tyler McCandless, a recent graduate from Penn State (he placed twelfth at the NCAA Championships in the 10,000 meters in June) decided to run the half marathon. His goal was to run under 1:05:00, which would qualify him for the 2012 US Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials.
McCandless described his adventure in his blog. He messed up his watch at the beginning of the race so he never knew for sure what his total time was. He spent the first six miles of the race dodging marathoners. Initially there were no mile markers and then later in the race there were only marathon course mile markers, not mile markers specific for the Second Half Half Marathon runners. At one point the Second Half Half Marathon lead bicycle made a wrong turn, which cost McCandless some time when he had to turn around. At the end of the race some runners who had cut the course ended up finishing ahead of him, this temporarily put him in third place until the results got sorted out. These obstacles were made all the more frustrating for McCandless because his time of 1:05:02 was two seconds too slow to qualify for the US Marathon Trials.
In a recent interview with Duncan Larkin, McCandless explained why he chose the race in San Francisco. His options were between San Francisco and the Chicago Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon. He decided that the risk of high temperatures hampering his performance in Chicago was too great and chose to race in San Francisco, where he had a friend and thus free accommodations.
Before I comment, I want to make it clear, I was not at the race so I did not see what it was like. What I know is from what I’ve read. I am not involved in the management of this race. Nor am I involved in Tyler McCandless’ training, race planning, or race strategizing. I’m just a runner from San Francisco.
My first thought is that a runner of McCandless’ ability, with the goal of running an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, should have done his homework. He should have done more research about the course, especially the potential overlap with the marathon. If you have high aspirations for a race, then you should leave no stone unturned in your preparation. Other than the lead bicycle taking him the wrong way for a brief moment, most of the other mishaps were things race management is not responsible for. We’ve all done it, but it was McCandless who messed up his own watch at the start. The race management doesn’t hide the fact that the Second Half Half Marathon shares the course with the full marathon. A runner of McCandless’ ability who is trying to hit a particular time should be focused on himself and not frazzled by slower runners suddenly being ahead of him. To McCandless’ credit, he does not seem to be blaming the San Francisco Marathon race management for the fact that he did not get his time goal.
My second thought is that the San Francisco Marathon has some real shortcomings. Unfortunately the race was negatively in the national running news because of the mishaps that McCandless experienced. Perhaps the race management’s goal is not to attract the top runners. To do that, the race would need to have mile markers for every race, lead bicyclists who do not make wrong turns, and enough course monitors so that people don’t accidently get directed into the lead of a race that they are not winning. Like I said before, San Francisco is never going to have a fast marathon course because of the hills and turns necessary to cover 26.2 miles within the city. But there are some changes that could happen (some of which are probably political and much easier said than done) to make it a better experience. The overlapping runners on the course is a big problem. I am not a big fan of the 5:30 A.M. start either. Sure you get to run over the scenic Golden Gate Bridge, but in order to do so you have to be willing to start the race over thirty minutes before the sun rises (sunrise in San Francisco for July 25, 2010 was 6:08 A.M.)
My third thought is, that as a runner from San Francisco, I hope the San Francisco Marathon does not go away. The Pamakid Runners were there when this race started in 1977. The first marathon I ever ran was the San Francisco Marathon in 1994. San Francisco may never have a race that rivals the big city marathons in New York, Boston, and Chicago but I hope race management can find a way to put on a successful event so that the San Francisco Marathon is widely known as a solid race to run.