Home Field Advantage: The 2019 San Francisco Marathon

After my first marathon, I started training again for a race on my home turf. This time around, I resolved to be much more consistent with my workouts, cutting down on skipping longer and harder runs. My goal would be the same this race – to get the Boston Qualifying mark for my age bracket: 3:00:00. However, it would be a much taller ask as the San Francisco Marathon course included a total elevation gain of 1175 feet. This would not be a fast course.

Nevertheless, I trained consistently as possible, routing my runs along portions of the actual course. I didn’t skimp on the fast finish long runs, pushing myself at a sustained fast pace for the last 6-8 miles.

The days, minutes, and seconds melted away quite rapidly, and sure enough, I found myself toeing the start line behind the seeded and elite runners. The San Francisco Marathon had a 3:00 pacer this year to accommodate the quicker Boston Marathon qualification brackets. I spent the last few minutes before the 5:30am start talking with fellow runners in the pace group, and the pacer himself. The pacer said that he wanted to go a bit harder on the flat miles so that the lost time on the incline would even out just under 1:30 pace for the first half.

After the seeded and elite runners took off, it was our turn. I didn’t get ahead of myself in the first mile and a half, even though I was feeling fantastic. I kept myself beside the pacer, slotting behind him and the rest of the pace group after mile 2. From my practice runs, I knew that there would be some heavy headwinds on Marina.

I was still feeling comfortable – the pace didn’t seem like a tough ask. I made sure to eat and drink at regular intervals, taking a little bit of my GU gel every aid station, and drinking water every other aid station. We made it to the 5.5 mile turnaround shortly after, with the biggest climb of the run ahead of us. We slowed down considerably, but I made sure to keep the same controlled stride up the hill. Following another minor incline up the Golden Gate bike path, we made it to the bridge.

The Golden Gate bridge carried the race over and back on the eastern walk path and the western bike path, respectively. Our pace group bunched up on the narrow walkway as the sun was beginning to rise over the city. I’d also run over and back on the bridge during one of my practice runs, so I anticipated some heavy crosswinds. I dropped back directly behind the pacer and some other runners headlining our pace group, drafting again. As we looped around back down a dirt trail underneath a bridge, we all caught a glimpse of the orange sun waking up a sleepy San Francisco downtown. In the midst of running 6:50 miles, it was a magical moment to behold.

Running off of the bridge, we spilled onto Lincoln Drive, rewarded with a largely downhill mile. I opened up on the downhill after the mile 11 aid station, pulling slightly ahead of the pacer. The road dipped and then pulled upwards, and the pace slowed again. Through the Richmond neighborhood, we fought a multitude of roller-coaster hills, crossing the half marathon timing mat in 1:29:30. The pacers swapped out, and a new pacer joined us to take us through to the finish.

Crossing Fulton into Golden Gate Park, I started to feel a bit tired. It was getting harder to hold the pace, but I was soon reminded why I had to stay on. My family was camped at the mile 14 marker, screaming, cheering, and willing me forward through the right turn into the heart of the park.

All of a sudden, the pacer and the rest of the pace group disappeared. There was a congealed mass of second half marathon runners, covering the large width of JFK drive. I panicked but quickly found the held sign, and darted in between the slower runners, rejoining the group. We curled around and made our way up another incline. My family was there again to cheer me on and will me through. I lunged forward, pushing through mile 17, and heading the pace group.

Negotiating the incline towards mile 17.

Running past the aid station at 18.5, I started to drift back. The 3:00 pace group pulled away through the traffic jam of runners, and I lost sight of the pacer’s sign. I dropped my pace slightly, but kept on running my race. There was still plenty of race to go, and I wasn’t going to lose more precious seconds dropping back further.

On the other hand, the runners had started to thin out. I focused on passing as many people as possible, chewing GU from the 19.7 aid station along the way. The miles rolled along, and moments later, I found myself near my old apartment passing the 23.5 aid station. Around mile 24, though, I felt the same sharp searing pain that I’d realized in my first marathon. This time, I sustained the jolt in my legs, corrected my stride, and didn’t stop to walk. I was fighting for seconds, and each one counted at this point.

Just before the 25th mile, the 3:05 pacer passed me. I focused again on running my own race, channeling everything I had for the last mile. The cheers from the finish grew louder and louder. This was what the speed training and fast finishes were for. I kicked as hard I could, crossing underneath the towering Bay Bridge. My legs tightened up some more, but I continued to run through the pain, giving it everything I had. I couldn’t hear much anymore except for my family’s cheers. I ran through the final timing pads, completing the race in 3:06:16.

Almost there! Moments before crossing the finish.

It was bittersweet to drop off the pace on a well-run race. How close was I to getting that qualifying mark? It was only 6 minutes, but what would it take? In any case, I’d PR’d by more than 22 minutes – a great race by any standard. I was also pleased that the spread between the first and second half of the race dropped from 34 minutes to just under 7. Pacing myself evenly and hanging on after mile 20 would be the keys to getting the BQ next time.

There would be plenty of time to think about strategy, room for improvement, and pacing in the coming days before my next race in Santa Rosa. Until then, it was my day, and all I wanted to do was to share it with my supportive family and friends.

The loudest and the proudest fans on the course!
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