30,000 strong. We ran SF.
And to give you a little idea of the race-day craziness, that image above is mile 10 of the race. Usually the pack thins out two or three miles in, but not this one!
Let’s start at the beginning, though.
Since the start time was 6:30 a.m., I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. to give myself plenty of time to get up, get dressed, eat, digest and triple check all my gear (no forgetting my timing chip this time!).
I happened to roll over and look at the clock at 3:45 a.m., so I figured I’d just get up…better safe than sorry. My cup of coffee went down well, but I had to choke down the rest of my breakfast (yogurt, fruit and granola) because the nerves were starting to hit.
And before I knew it, it was time to take off. Hubby ushered me out the door and dropped me off a few blocks from Union Square.
Here’s a shot of what the starting area looked like…organized chaos.
I say organized because Nike had a method to the madness: Runners were grouped by pace, as is standard in these races, and divided into corrals.
Mine was the Powell Street corral (estimated 8:00-8:59 per mile), so I used the walk over as a quick warm-up, then got in line for one last pit stop before the gun went off.
Here’s what it was like to be in the thick of things. Wall-to-wall runners!
I distracted myself by snapping a few quick pictures before things got going. This one was actually taken as the race began (literally, with a bang) around the corner under a wall of fireworks.
We slowly started making our way toward the start, but everything was happening so quickly, it didn’t really sink in until I crossed the mat, started my watched and thought, “Well, here we go!”
Miles 1-3: Should have been flat and fast, but it was packed. And there were definitely a lot of people in the corral who were nowhere near a 8:00-9:00 mile. No judgment – to each her own speed – but it was super frustrating bobbing and weaving through walkers and slower paces when you’re running for time and trying to get focused, find a rhythm and get in your groove.
I didn’t want to burn too much energy jockeying for position, so I played it safe and stayed put, trying to suss out what would be a comfortable, sustainable pace. Around Fisherman’s Wharf (mile 2), my hip felt a little tight, but it loosed up by mile 3, thank goodness – just in time for our first few hills near Aquatic Park and Ft. Mason. I’m not sure if it was the adrenaline or my training, but I didn’t even feel ’em, which I took as a good sign either way.
Miles 4-6: Once we hit the Marina, it was flat again. But still crowded. There were more spectators along this stretch, so I tried to take in all the signs (one of my favorite parts of races) as we ran past. I’d been contemplating when to take my first chew (too early could mean stomach issues, too late could mean an energy crash), but I started feeling hungry around mile 5, so I ate my first Sharkie and drank a cup each of water and nuun at the aid station (my plan was to hydrate at each station throughout the race).
It was a good choice, because around mile 5.5 we hit this long stretch of hill into the Presidio. It wasn’t horribly difficult, most likely because I’ve been training around here and am used to the hills…but it’s definitely tough on the legs when you’ve got 20 more miles or so to log.
Miles 7-9: Over the course of the next few miles, we hit hill after hill…after…hill. At one point, a woman yelled, “What goes up must come down!” I was grateful that she was able to make light of the situation because it was starting to feel like a real grind. Not that I was struggling on the hills – I actually felt pretty good and kept my pace consistent – but more that I knew my legs would make me pay for it later. And it was foggy, so it was tough to see too far ahead…although maybe that was a good thing. All I remember is that a song came on around the hill at mile 9 that reminded me of my sister, and it gave me the push I needed to get to the top.
Miles 10-12: Sweet relief! We hit the ocean and got to coast downhill for about a mile and a half, so I took the opportunity to take care of some business. After texting Ben to let him know where I was, I switched over to my Powerbar Performance Energy Blend fuel. Oh, and I made sure the cameraman along the course knew just how happy I was that we were done with the steepest climbs of the day.
The full marathoners split from the half marathoners around mile 12, which was tough, mentally. As they made their turn for the final stretch, cheered on by the growing crowd, we turned off in the exact opposite direction. It was chilly, it was foggy, there was no crowd, and we still had more than half the race to go. I caught myself before I started spiraling, though, and focused on my music, settling into a good pace. The upside? There were so few of us now that we could stretch out and enjoy the extra space.
Miles 13-15: As we ran through the rolling hills of Golden Gate Park, the morning’s adrenaline wore off and I took stock of my physical situation. My lungs felt good and my pace was steady, but my legs were starting to talk back. The left hip tightness had morphed into a tight left quad, and my right glute was starting to respond in kind.
I met up with Ben and Kevin at the mile 15 aid station, where they gave me a few words of encouragement and a second PowerBar packet. I didn’t stop for more than a few seconds to grab water and nuun, though, because I knew if I slowed down, it’d be hard to get my momentum back up. By now, my right glute knot had traveled down to my right IT band and was starting to pull at my knee, but I kept on, hoping it’d work itself out.
Miles 16-18: Mile 16 was a mental turning point; we left Golden Gate park and turned onto the Great Highway. A “mere” 10 more miles to go, and it was just an out-and-back down to Lake Merced, so I dug in. The weather was foggy and cool – perfect – and I was keeping a consistent pace despite the growing stiffness in my legs.
It was along here, too, that we could see the faster runners returning from the lake and heading toward the finish. Ben caught this shot of the leader with the pace car…very cool. It was both exhilarating and slightly terrifying, though; like peering into your future. Some runners looked strong, some looked like they were on the verge of breaking, and all of them had painful looks on their faces. One girl was even crying as she was running, so I offered a, “Keep it up; you’ve got this” to try to give her some support.
Miles 19-21: Still feeling pretty good at this point, as you can tell from the mile 19 picture below! Ben and Kevin pulled alongside me on their bikes and we exchanged a few jokes, even. They said I looked strong, I was in the midst of a second (or maybe third or fourth) wind, and I told Ben, “I’m going for it!”
But as quickly as that burst of energy came on, it started fading as I approached mile 20. I heard a man cheering for the “four-hour ladies,” and before I knew what we was referring to, the 9:09 pacers began passing me. Oh, crap.
I did a mental assessment and knew I wouldn’t be able to hold onto them – at least not in that moment. Maybe I could catch them in a bit, but it wouldn’t be smart to try to match their pace; I’d just have to run my race to the best of my ability, whatever that is, I told myself. And I came to peace with it. I had been pacing at a sub-four, and I was so close, buy my right knee was really starting to seize up, so I was worried that if I pushed it too hard it would be to the point of injury.
As I mentioned in the shorter recap, this was the most difficult part of the race: Physically, you’re breaking down. Emotionally, you’re coming to grips with the fact that you may not make your “awesome” goal for the day (however ambitious). And mentally…well, your brain is screaming at you to just STOP, but you have to use everything in your bag of tricks to keep yourself moving.
I put all my focus on making it to the final turnaround – mile 21 – because then it was just a straight shot back around the lake and up to the finish line. Luckily, they had set up a big jumbo-tron at the turn so we could watch ourselves, which I think was meant to distract us (at least momentarily). It worked!
Miles 22-23: So close, yet so far away! We were now doubling back along the lake, but each rolling hill becomes a mini battle of its own. My right knee was tight, and my right Achilles decided to start getting in on the action, too. I knew it was a razor-thin line between finishing strong and getting injured, so I tried to just keep as steady a pace as possible.
Somewhere in mile 23 there was another decently-sized hill. Ben must have seen the look of dread on my face because he left his bike with Kevin and matched stride with me as we marched upward. I don’t remember what we talked about (he said I was saying, “My legs won’t work!”), but it diverted my attention long enough for me to make it to the top.
Miles 24-25: Mile 24 took us back onto the Great Highway – the final stretch to the finish. I remember looking at the mile clock and reading 3:44 as I passed it…just as my playlist ran out. I fumbled with my iPhone to restart the music and quickly did the math: I’d have to do 2.2 miles in about 15 minutes to make my sub-four goal, and there was no way that was happening with my legs in their current condition. But I was close enough to that four-hour mark to still make my goal of a new PR, so I re-focused and dug in again.
It was foggy and I couldn’t see that far ahead of me, although I could see the runners on the other side of the street as they made their way to the lake. Oh, thank God I’m done with that part. I focused on my music, drank at the last aid station just before mile 25 and took my last bit of gel at mile 25.5. Time to bring it home! Here’s that smile I promised for the finish line…almost…there.
Mile 26: Wow, this has to be the longest mile ever. Seriously, I think they mis-measured. But it always feels this way at the end of a race. The crowd is growing again, so I know we’re getting closer. I’m monitoring my watch, trying to move to the beat of my music to keep myself moving…and apparently I’m also squeezing in a quick mid-marathon nap, from the look of this picture.
Last .2 Mile: I think the next shot speaks for itself. I call it, “Finish line in sight.”
As soon as I can see the arch, I hit the gas and give it everything I’ve got. Surprisingly, I have a little something left to pick up the pace and race toward the finish. As I cross the mat, I look up and see that the clock reads 4:10, but I know it took me a few minutes to cross the start line after the gun went off, so I’m well within the PR zone. YEAH!
Official time: 4:07:46, a new PR by 20 minutes!
Now, you can never really predict how a race will go – or how you’ll feel or react upon completing it. But I can tell you that this was a much different feeling from my Chicago Marathon experience in 2002.
Last time, I remember I crossing the finish line and bursting into tears – partly out of sheer relief, partly out of a need to let some pent-up race day emotions loose…and partly because I was in my early 20’s at the time and in a much different head space.
This race was one of redemption, however. I’ve identified myself as a runner since my track & field and cross country days in high school, but when my body broke while training for the New York City Marathon back in 2004, it took me a long time to bounce back, both mentally and physically, Actually, the physical healing came much sooner than the emotional; ever since then, I’ve had nagging doubts in the back of my mind about my body being able to ever complete this distance again.
But as I mentioned at the outset of training back in June, I had to give it a shot. And this time would be different: I would train with my heart – and my brain.
Crossing the finish line on Sunday felt…surreal. I was happy to be done and proud of my new PR. But I was also keenly aware of an overwhelming sense of peace in finally conquering 26.2 miles again…on my terms.
And although I experienced my own small sweet (sweaty?) victory, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the real winners of the race. They are true superstars, inspirations and had the honor of lining up next to Olympians Joan Benoit Samuelson (far left) and Kara Goucher (third female from right).
And, yes, there’s also some great bling associated with this event! Here’s a shot of the much-anticipated “finisher’s medal” from our 2013 race.
So, you’re probably thinking…what now??
Well, after taking some much-needed time for recovery, I’m going to slowly ease back in to running and start planning my race schedule for the rest of 2013 and into 2014. I’ll also be doing a follow-up post here on KineticFix about “coming down” from a race and transitioning into the next thing.
After all, the race may be over, but I feel like this is just the beginning. There are always new goals to set, PRs to break, stories to tell, and different distances to try as #werunsf. Stay tuned…