Sunday, August 10, 2008

Race Report from the 2008 San Francisco Marathon

The Start

Although SFM08 was not my first marathon (actually my fourth overall), it was nevertheless a celebration of multiple ‘firsts’ for me. For starters, it was my first destination marathon. I decided on this marathon a year ago when I saw that it would give me an excuse to visit my second most favorite city in the continental United States (after my hometown of course!) Secondly, it was the first marathon I’ve ever run on my birthday. I thought it was the ultimate birthday present I could ever give myself. It was also my first summer marathon as well as my first marathon that started before daybreak.

Quite naturally then, I was full of nervous energy as I anxiously awaited the start of my 26.2 mile journey through the streets and bridges of San Francisco. Because I had given 3:05 as a predicted finishing time for the course, I was starting my race from Wave 2, or just behind the elites. I found the 3:00 and 3:15 pace groups and scooted into the crowd between them.

It was dreary and dark, with temps in the 50s when the marathon officially began for me at 5:32AM. Aside from the giant clock telling time on top of the Ferry Terminal Building, it was impossible to tell whether dawn was about to break over the horizon or whether we were slipping further into the night. Ahead and on both sides, the streets were as quiet and desolate as it is back home on a cold winter’s morning in December. Everyone around me seemed to be struck by the surrealism as we crossed the start line. In contrast to the pomp and circumstance that I was used to at the beginning of every one of my other marathons, the atmosphere surrounding SFM08 was rather quiet and subdued. There weren’t thousands of spectators packed liked sardines lining the sides of the road. There wasn’t a ten-piece orchestra serenading us runners as we unleashed ourselves onto the town. Heck, the Star-Spangled Banner wasn’t even included as part of the pre-race festivities. I would have been disappointed if I wasn’t already humming a birthday song to myself, so excited and ready to have fun.

The Early Miles (1-5)

The first few miles along the Embarcadero were straight and flat. I used the opportunity to establish an easy and comfortable pace for myself. Even before starting, I had planned to run this section as a warmup for the longer and tougher middle miles that would come up later in the race. Indeed, mile 1 for me clocked in at 7:18, which was slightly slower than what I had anticipated running. I shed off my throw-away cotton long sleeve (it was quite chilly at the start) and sped up a bit in the second mile to recover some of my speed (6:52). Making my way around Fisherman’s Wharf and onto Fort Mason, I was feeling happy, running strong, and keeping what I felt was a fast but comfortable pace, when suddenly I heard a loud synchrony of footsteps coming up from behind me. I turned around and saw the 3:10 pace group moving up closer and closer towards me. I checked my Garmin, confirmed that I was still maintaining a 6:56 pace, and sped up ever so slightly to keep ahead of the 3:10 runners. Why, oh why, is the 3:10 pace group running so fast and pushing my pace? Don’t they know a 3:10 marathon averages to 7:15 min/miles? What is this sub 7:00-min pace business? Someone should tell those guys that there are hills, massive hills coming up. Don’t burn your legs out so early on in the course. I thought to myself as I made the little hill climb onto Marina Park and down into the Marina District. Passing the mile 3 marker at 6:58, I again heard footsteps from the 3:10 getting louder behind me. WTF? I increased my leg turnover ever so slightly to keep my distance. Up ahead I begin to make out the Golden Gate Bridge in all its majestic splendor arising out of the dull misty fog and I get excited.

It is starting to get brighter now as I make my way out of the marina and on to Crosby Field. I am still moving fast to keep the 3:10 runners at bay. But as I see the bridge get closer and closer, I start to worry that I may not be able to hold this blistering pace for very much longer. Mile 4 clocked in at 6:50, my fastest mile pace so far, yet for some reason, I was not able to shake the large group of 3:10 runners nipping at my heels. At mile 5, I make the executive decision to slow down and allow myself to first blend in, then run behind this pace group. I figured that if they were meant to run 3:10 like they were supposed to, I will catch up to them later on in the race. It just wasn’t worth it for me to burn out so early in the race just to keep up with their intense pace. The mile 5 marker arrived (6:57) just as I approached the foot of the long steep incline that would carry me up and onto the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. I was careful not to get caught up in the anticipation of our arrival at the bridge and slowed down significantly to make the climb as effortless as possible. Muttering to myself, but almost at a decibel level loud enough to be heard, I repeated the mantra “I eat hills for breakfast!” over and over as I slowly make the trek uphill.

The Bridge Miles (6-10)

After cresting the hill and making a sharp right, I found myself at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. To be honest, I had been looking forward to this part of the race since the start. I’d figured that I’d get here at around 6:30am which meant that I should be just in time to experience a spectacular sunrise on the bridge. Unfortunately, my plan was foiled when daybreak brought nothing more than an overcast haze across the region, preventing any of us on the bridge from seeing more than 50 feet to either side. Left without the inspiration of a spectacular view, I turned the focus back to my running and quickened my pace somewhat. Because the course involved a quick out and back over the bridge, I was able to catch a glimpse of the frontrunners as they made their way back into the city. By the time I reached the far end of the bridge, I once again saw the 3:10 pace team running about a quarter mile ahead of me. In my mind, I thought they were much farther ahead than they actually were. I made a quick turn at the turnaround and resumed my pace, which had been slowly increasing by about a second or two per mile over the bridge. Two miles later, in the middle of mile 10, I finally caught back up to the 3:10 pace team and left them behind. Even though I knew I was still way behind my intended pace, it felt great to have lost and regained my position back ahead of the 3:10 runners. My pace throughout the entirety of the bridge ranged between 6:46-7:09.

The Middle Miles (11-13)

Although some would call the rolling bridge miles the toughest of the course, I knew from studying the elevation maps that it served only as an appetizer for the steady diet of steep and unforgiving hills up ahead. After a quick descent off the bridge, the course leads to a series of steady climbs, each about a quarter mile as we make our way over to Golden Gate Park. The 3:10 runners were slowing down and taking their time to gingerly run up the hill, so I took the opportunity to build a little separation between us. The crowd was sparse in this part of town. Aside from some bikers directing traffic and the impromptu water stations (with cups too small!) every couple of miles, it felt more like a long training run with friends than an actual marathon. Signages were few and far between as well, which made my usual exercise of reverse spectating during a race somewhat dull and uninteresting.

After the long and strenuous upward climb to the 10.5 mile point, we were treated to a long downhill stretch of road which was as steep as it was windy. I ran down the road as fast as I could, daring my legs to surrender completely to the forces of gravity. It felt cool to sprint down the side of the hill even if I had flashbacks of when I broken my collarbone on the side of a mountain with a similar grade during last winter. I paused to take in some water and Cytomax from a water station at the end of the downhill segment as I strategize my game plan for the next uphill portion of the race. Because of the multiple changes in elevation, my pace through these 3 miles fluctuated erratically from a low of 6:34 pace for mile 11 to a high of 7:14 for mile 12.

The Park Miles (14-19)

I had mixed feelings when I finally entered the park and crossed the half-marathon checkpoint at 1:33:19. On the one hand, I was happy that I was done with the tough miles (or so I thought at the time). On the other, I was extremely disappointed with my time for the half, which was the slowest I’d ever been at the halfway point of a marathon. Off to the side, but still visible to me, the half-marathoners who had been running with us since the beginning, were finishing their races and receiving their medals. Lucky them. Although I was still feeling relatively strong at this point of the race mostly because I had been running so conservatively up to this point, I felt very unmotivated to finish the rest of the race. All of a sudden, I asked myself, what am I doing here? The weather sucks (Overcast, cool, and damp for some reason didn’t seem so enjoyable to me at the time.) The scenery was so much less than spectacular. It’s way too early. There’s practically no crowd…because everyone’s celebrating with the half-marathoners and no one’s even out here cheering for us marathoners. Would anyone even know or care if I just casually slipped off the course and disappeared? Needless to say, my pity party of one made the remaining 13.1 miles seem like a hundred. Luckily, I remembered my list of 26.2 reasons why I was running the marathon, and made myself list and recite every single item while I battled through the rolling hills of Golden Gate Park. Once in a while, when I was within earshot of an unsuspecting runner, I’d catch myself thinking and talking aloud. I got more curious sideway glances than I care to remember during this exercise, but at least it served its purpose, as I was able to regain my confidence and focus by the time I exited the park. Although I had planned on running a negative split and a fast time through the park, my pace throughout these six miles only ranged between 7:12-7:28. Still, I considered it a victory just to have battled through the doldrums.

The Street Miles (20-23)

After battling through six miles in Golden Gate Park, which had more rolling hills than I remembered from the course elevation profile, I finally made it onto the Haight, one of the most famous neighborhoods in all of San Francisco. I had heard about this part of town from a cousin of mine who once led me on a tour of these parts. This area, which is subdivided into the upper and lower districts, was made famous during the hippie movement of the 1960s when large crowds of people would gather around these streets for scheduled and impromptu psychedelic rock performances and illicit drug parties. Today, remnants of these wild times can be seen in the stores and shops that line theses streets. I was really looking forward to running and visiting this part of town for its rich history and resemblance to Greenwich Village or so I’ve been told. Unfortunately, by the time I made it to this part of the marathon course, most of what I had come to see were not there. Shops were closed, people were home. Nothing I saw that morning resembled what I imagined I’d see. (Of course, what else would normal people be doing at 9AM on Sunday morning?) All that were left were some Harley Davidson biker guys looking really out of place, urging us runners to run faster and harder.

Around this time was also when the course took a dramatic and drastic turn, one that I hadn’t anticipated from the course elevation maps. The gradual and rolling hills that I had been running on for much of the way over suddenly gave way to the steep and mountainous streets that San Francisco was famous for. Not only were there a series of these backbreaking climbs mile after mile, but their topographical configuration was such that they seem to all have a long mild uphill segment followed by a short and steep downhill portion. The down slope in some of these streets was so dramatic that I felt as if I were running down the side of a mountain. I was so terrified that I’d trip, fall and tumble all the way down the street that it took all my strength and energy just to keep my balance. As a result, I wasn’t able to speed up on these parts like I had wanted. Besides, thirst and fatigue were beginning to set in, and it was all I could manage just to keep running at a steady pace. My time for these miles slowed from 7:16 for mile 20 to 7:31 for mile 23.

The Last Miles (24-26.2)

I felt extremely tired and fatigued during these last miles. The lack of nothing but old factories and warehouses to look at did not help matters either. I remember having imaginary conversations with friends and families as I forced myself to labor through these parts. But even as I got closer and closer to the end, I could feel myself moving slower and slower. At the final water stop at mile 25, I stopped to take an extra cup of water and Cytomax. As I did, I saw the 3:10 pacer and his team (remember them?) passed by in front of me. Oh, they are so annoying! Until that point, I hadn’t realized that I had been so off my pace. In that single visual, I saw my faint aspirations of setting a PR vanish before my very eyes. It was all I could do to drop my cup and take off for a dead sprint toward the finish line. As I counted down the tenths of miles I had left to go, I concentrated on the fact that although I didn’t get close to 3:00 or 3:05, and this race wasn’t going to be a PR for me, I did beat the 3:10 pace team and re-qualified for Boston.

As I took the final turn for the last 0.2 and the finish line, I suddenly remembered that it was my birthday, and I was happy. I also remembered the message that Bart Yasso, the larger-than-life race director for Runner’s World, had left for me a day ago at the marathon expo when he graciously spoke and autographed a book for me. He told me to always remember that running a marathon isn’t so much about how fast you finish, but the experiences you had while running it. How true! How true! Happy 33rd birthday to me!


*aron* said...

great report!!! just made me re-live the marathon :) completely agree with everything you said too. awesome job on the course!!

Laura said...

Happy belated birthday Lam, and thanks for the great report! Like Aron, it was great to look back and remember the race. That hill at 10.5 was awesome!!! Glad you enjoyed it too :)

Andrew is getting fit said...

Congratulations on finishing even though you were tempted not to.

And happy birthday!

The Happy Runner said...

Thanks for the report! I love that you recited your 26.2 reasons to yourself when things got tough.

Congratulations on an excellent marathon!

Run For Life said...

Excellent race report as usual. Congrats on BQ-ing again and fighting through the low points!

nyflygirl said...

a BQ for your BD...doesn't get any better than that :)

sRod said...

Thanks for the race report. Only makes more more excited to tdo this race in the future!

Xenia said...

Happy belated birthday!

Great report and race. Congrats!

I'm currently debating whether to run my first ever marathon on my 30th b-day later this year. We'll see. :)

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