Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Race Report - San Francisco Marathon 2011

Official timing. Click to enlarge.

OK, this report is very late. Sorry. And if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, or have read either of those panels on the right you'll already know that (to my continual amazement) I ran a massive PB in SF on July 31st. By finishing in 3:49, besting my previous time by over a quarter of an hour, I finally achieved the sub-four hour dream I've been chasing since summer 2008. That's the punchline spoilt, but there's so much more to say... 

My pre-race week will probably be used by amateur athletics coaches in years to come as a guide to what not to do with your 'A' race just days away. Due to delays and cancellations, it took us 27 hours to get from Edinburgh to San Francisco, which coupled with the cumulative weariness one only gets from three flights, four airports, an eight hour time difference and wearing the same pants for more than a day, I arrived in SF three days out from the race, somewhat less than chirpy. 

Next came the sightseeing. Frantic, ruthlessly efficient and above all on foot, we took in everything the city had to offer, walking about seven miles on the Thursday, out and on our feet all day and evening on Friday, then cycling 10 miles up and down massive hills on Saturday. In fact we were so busy (and I say this with absolute honesty) I had more or less forgotten about the marathon which I spent seven months of my life building up to, somehow neglecting the fact that it loomed very large in the very near future.

I did just about remember to go to the expo to pick up my bib number on Friday afternoon - it was a mile and a half from our hotel so I decided to run there and back. Oddly, we received our finishers' T-shirts at the expo, which I thought a little presumptuous. Surely one has to earn these things? It seems a shame to me that those who DNF'd, for whatever reason, are allowed to own the same gear as those who did manage to finish it... At least it's a decent piece of kit - a long-sleeved dark grey technical shirt with the marathon logo, strangely, on the back and in gold.

With my wave (3:45 - 4 hours estimated finish time) scheduled to start at exactly 5.52am on Sunday, I set my alarm for 3am and breakfasted in our hotel room, in the dark and completely silent to avoid waking my still-sleeping crew chief. Surreal barely covers it. Aware of the cold and fogginess that would characterise the early miles of the race, I decided to run the race in my finishers' shirt (a pleasing oxymoron) with my Union Flag vest over the top. If I got too hot I could always leave the shirt with the crew chief at one of our planned rendez-vous - 4, 12, or 22 miles. I finished the ensemble with my best blue racing shorts and a ludicrously overstocked fuel belt. In the last year I've never had more than one energy gel on even my longest run - why I thought I needed seven for this race I just don't know...

Ready for the off. More or less.
At 5am we hailed a cab outside our hotel and made for the start line. Thanks to Runner's World (pick up the November edition for my report!) I had a press pass to the VIP area, the main advantage of which was private toilets before the race, neatly bypassing the ubiquitous queue for the portaloos. As ever in this situation, anticipation translates to reality all too quickly, and before long I had sent Linds off to find the spectator shuttle and found myself nervously pacing the starting pen on my own, occasionally exchanging nervous banter with other runners. And just like that, we were off.

Ridiculous though it may seem, I was grateful for having done that 10 mile bike ride the previous afternoon, as we had explored the early miles of the course and I had a good idea of where the worst hills were. In short: they were everywhere. To refer to them as rolling hills would be to disguise their aggression - I would call them spiking hills. Incredibly steep climbs often immediately followed by a quad-busting descent, repeated for miles and miles and miles...

Coming off the bridge.
Nonetheless, and like any long run, the early miles disappeared almost without my noticing. Despite being waylaid by a very necessary pit-stop at mile 2 (astounded that I still can't ready myself for a race properly), I was enjoying the vibe, the view and the rhythm enormously. I saw Linds at mile 4 with my watch showing 34 minutes, exactly according to my race plan, and by mile 6 we were tackling the brutal hill up to the Golden Gate Bridge. It's hard to express the immense feeling of running across such an iconic structure. We had biked it just the previous afternoon, but forced to stay on the restrictive bike path at the edge of the bridge. In the race we had half of the roadbed all to ourselves. To run directly under those massive red arches, with the Pacific stretching out on my left and the San Francisco Bay stretching out to my right, was humbling and strangely moving: perhaps because the bridge is so synonymous with SF and I had long thought of it as a symbol of the race, or perhaps because the view and the ocean in particular reminded me just how spectacularly far I was from the daily grind. It really was quite an extraordinary and (if I dare be so lexically unambitious) special moment.

After 1.7 miles out comes a reassuring 1.7 miles back, and around mile nine, back in the city we hit more hills, clinging to the coast with beautiful beaches and coves sneaking into view. I chatted to a Californian called Rob, and between us we discussed the more bizarre of our fellow runners. A lone, short man running a 3:20 pace in bondage gear was hard to miss, as were the surprisingly large number of people running in Vibram FiveFingers, and in a few cases entirely barefoot. Shoe-less running is big in America right now, and probably nowhere more so than in California...

After quite a lot of blocks of residential streets (which in a less consistently beautiful town would probably be the most desirable of real estate) I caught my first glimpse of Golden Gate Park, where Linds and I had our second rendez-vous at 12.5 miles. Dawn had thoroughly broken by now and the day was starting to warm up, so after quite a complicated manoeuvre I rearranged my gear and removed the baselayer, ready to pass it to Linds when I saw her. However, when I did catch a glimpse of her she was on the far side of the street, fast-moving traffic between us. Desperate to ditch the extra weight, I motioned to throw the shirt over the passing cars, but to my great astonishment Linds started running up the street to keep up with me. I slowed a little, but she was adamant that I was to keep going and she would keep up. I know when to do what I'm told, so I did, and she quite comfortably jogged alongside until a break in the traffic allowed her to cross over. With a suitably disgusted face she accepted my sweat-soaked garment, offered words of encouragement and snapped a few photos, before I took off and entered Golden Gate Park. I had ten miles to run before I'd see her again.

Linds manages to chase me and take photos
In SF one can choose to run the full marathon (like a real man) or opt run the first half (hilly, early start, great views) or the second half (less hilly, later start, less impressive views). Fewer than 6000 people ran the full 26.2, with the rest of the crowd made up of halfers. Just before mile 13 the first half runners peeled off to the left, readying their sprint finishes and best smiles for the camera. We who had doomed ourselves to longer mornings continued to the right, and suddenly the crowd was reduced by more than half as we started the extensive tour of Golden Gate Park. A herd of buffalo, botanical gardens, the California Academy of Science and man-made waterfalls are on offer in this amazing urban jungle - I should know, seven miles of the marathon are spent there. I went through halfway in 1:53, still spot-on my race plan. At mile 15 the local Hash House Harriers did their best to hand out free beer, and by rejecting it I must have angered some karmic beer gods, as my watch packed in just as I passed the mile marker. I coaxed it back to life but the timer had reset: from here I would be calculating splits based on the actual time, knowing that I started at 5:52am.

At mile 16 we rejoined the halfers, running parallel to their finishers' chute. Here's a tip if you ever finish a half marathon in the vicinity of people running a full marathon: get the hell out of the way. I'm afraid that I may have been slightly less than polite to those who loitered in my path.

In GG Park, oddly happy.
I went through peaks and troughs of energy as I took my gels. They were very effective, but I craved real food. The gels made me hungrier every time I took one, and I was so overjoyed when I passed a stand handing out orange slices that I almost forgot to take one. Aid stations were getting more frequent, a good trend, though almost all runners were forced to walk or at least slow down through them as water was dispensed in tiny plastic cups, impossible to drink from whilst on the run. I for one was grateful for the walking breaks. Somewhere around here I overtook the formerly-fast guy in bondage gear - whereas earlier he looked proud, confident, but above all fast, now he looked awkward and a little embarrassed, suddenly aware that he was walking, early on a Sunday morning, among thousands of runners, in a pair of leather pants and a dog collar. A sad sight.

At mile 19 we were finally spat out of the park and straight into the oldschool hippie district known as Haight-Ashbury. Sadly 8.30am on a Sunday is not the ideal time to be visiting such a colourful and vibrant neighbourhood, but at least the hills were becoming less severe. Knowing that I would see Linds at mile 22 forced me to maintain my pace and maybe even pick it up a little, and as the morning grew a little older more crowds of supporters appeared, waving some superb and quintessentially American signs: in particular 'I don't even know you, but you're my hero', 'looking for a man with great endurance' and 'why do all the pretty ones run away?' made me smile and lifted my spirits. Linds was waiting at a cheer station at the crest of a hill, well placed to make sure I didn't let the incline beat me. More photos, more crucial encouragement, and a cheerful challenge of a race to the finish. Linds had one final bus to catch if she was to make it there on time, and I still had four miles left to cover.

I could feel the wall approaching. I had a plan though: theorising that all I needed to beat it was a change of pace, I decided that instead of resigning to walking I would sprint. I told myself words like 'fast-twitch muscles' and convinced myself that this was brilliant. Books would be written about 'The Haines Technique' for years to come. I was to be celebrated as a genius.

Of course, it was a terrible idea. My thighs cramped ever so slightly, a warning shot telling me to back off or suffer the consequences. But the change was just enough - I knew I had overcome the first temptation to slow down.

A mile later, as the next wave of exhaustion hit me, an amazing thing happened. Out of nowhere, a tall,  long haired runner in white loped into view, running directly towards me, against the flow of the race. To my astonishment I recognised him as Michael Wardian, one of the world's greatest ultramarathoners: A prolific elite finisher at the Badwater Ultramarathon, Marathon des Sables and Comrades Marathon, among many others. Here. Running directly at me. Fast.

I prepared to get the hell out of his way, but just before the last possible second he pulled up next to a guy and a girl a few feet ahead of me. Michael offered them a cheery, casual greeting and, enthused by his presence, they sped up. The trio took off into the distance, chatting and smiling. It was a very surreal moment, as if some sort of running guardian angel had been sent to carry these two to the finish. I was insanely jealous, not knowing that mine was waiting at mile 25.5.

Things started falling apart, fast. I was still moving at a decent pace but I felt like death - my left foot blistering, hips aching and muscles exhausted. It was awful. At mile 25 I couldn't take any more and dropped down to 'only just running' pace, cursing everything and inconsolably miserable. I knew that the point immediately under the Bay Bridge was the 26 mile marker and I could see it in the near distance, but my sleep-deprived, dehydrated and generally ruined brain couldn't work out how close that was to the finish (yeah, 0.2 miles, duh. It's quite straightforward now). As I rounded the corner and prepared to run around the exterior of AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, I was really suffering and started frantically removing then discarding unused energy gels in a desperate weight-saving exercise. Even the knowledge that the finish line was really quite close wasn't any consolation.

Then I was spotted. A young, fresh faced Californian shouted the standard American race-supporter's lie at me: 'you're looking great!'. 'No I'm not!' I screamed at him, as my leg finally cramped up and I almost folded double in pain. 'Come on!' he shouted, urging me to run. 'Are you gonna come with me?' I countered sarcastically, furious that he was just standing there, judging me, while I was in so much agony. 'Yeah alright' he replied, and stride for stride we somehow picked up the pace.

The blessed finish
His name was Colin. He was a marathoner. He knew exactly how I felt. He spoke calmly and with good humour as I grunted replies, noticing that he was wearing Converse, carrying two large bags and wearing several layers. As we closed in on the finish he pointed out landmarks and in particular the huge balloon arch which flew over the line itself. He left me to enter the finishing chute alone. I was utterly overwhelmed with gratitude for his half mile of pacing, but he stopped without a word, before I could thank him. He disappeared into the crowd - I never saw him again.

If you're reading this, thank you Colin. You're awesome.

It was over. Linds had beaten me to the finish line, only because I'd been slightly ahead of schedule at mile 22 and she'd been able to catch an earlier bus than planned. There was free beer at that point too, but I still didn't want it. What have I become!? Surreally, I found out my official time (3:49:53) from my Mum, who had got it online back home in Kent and texted it to Linds. She had the result within seconds of me finishing, and I struggled to believe that I had actually beaten not just four hours, but 3:50 as well. I still have to keep checking the website to remind myself it's true.

Very happy and VERY sweaty
That press pass got me back into the VIP area, where I had the opportunity to chat to Michael Wardian and Dane Rauschenberg , another well-known American marathoner. You can read Dane's report of the race and his Charity Chaser Challenge here, and while you're at it check out the rest of his blog too. I finally managed to work out what Michael was doing on his guardian angel mission: he had won the race, then immediately turned around and ran back to find runners who he coached, and then paced them in for a strong finish. Unbelievable. He introduced me to his protégées, one of whom had run an 11 minute PB. I congratulated him, and told the group I had just run a 15 minute PB. Michael joked that I should be coaching him. I'm a little embarrassed to say it, but I may have actually blushed.

So in conclusion, next time you have a big race coming up, perhaps long haul travel, jetlag and lengthy bike rides are the answer to all your race prep needs? That or seven months of devoted training. Probably a bit of both.

Michael Wardian kindly doesn't question
why I've already changed (hint: extreme sweat)
Happy racing.


2011 to date - miles: 825.79, parkruns: 6, races: 4, miles biked: 78.47, metres swum: 1225


  1. Well done, sounds like you had a great time!

  2. Fantastic PB on a tough course!

  3. Thank you Fifi! The more I think about it the more surreally brilliant it all was. Thanks Dane, it was a pleasure to meet you.