When you first start running, you tend to think small. Maybe running around the block is your goal. Perhaps running an entire mile without stopping to walk. Eventually, you start to think a little bigger. Maybe you train for that first 5k. Maybe a 10k. And for some people, that is enough. But there are those ambitious enough to start eyeing a half marathon. And if that goes well, the possibility of a full marathon comes into view. At some point, you get comfortable on long runs. You find a rhythm and pace that feels like cruising and you realize that distance is no longer the challenge. Your new enemy is time. There are so many great races out there; so many incredible places to see. Deciding on a race can be overwhelming. But there are those destinations that make the decision easier. Places so spectacular to visit that they top the list of any vacation plans, let alone a destination marathon. San Francisco easily fits that mold.
My personal relationship with running can likely be characterized as obsessive. Nothing clears my head at the end of a workday like a hilly 10k. No weekend is complete without at least a half marathon training run. If I’m exploring a new trail, cruising along a river, or tackling technical trail to find an expansive mountain view, even better. But when injuries crop up that prevent me from running, I’m nothing short of distraught. I feel aimless. I get cranky. That’s the position I found myself in two short weeks ago.
I stepped off a bar stool and my right leg locked up at the knee. The pain was excruciating. I could barely ride my bicycle home that evening. Six months ago, I had put the San Francisco Marathon on my calendar. Now it was 9 days away and I could barely walk. I was fortunate to get an appointment with my physical therapist, who rubbed, massaged, poked, prodded and beat on my leg until I was able to perform various exercises satisfactorily. I felt mildly better after the appointment and improved greatly over the following days. Once I had my confidence back, I was able to continue with my taper week running, although I missed out on an 8-miler that would have been my last somewhat long fitness run before the race. I asked my PT for a couple sentences on just what in the heck happened to me.
Your tibia/fibula joint was “jammed”, likely due to a mild strength imbalance in your hip extensors. The speed work increased the demand on these muscles and the stability of the joint causing it to get “sticky” and when you put your foot down quickly, the joint stuck, or jammed, and as a result, you also got a muscle spasm of the popliteus/plantaris, the muscles that unlock the knee from extension. When you increase the output demands on your body, the mildest imbalances can get highlighted and cause “alignment” issues.
Right. So that hurts about as badly as it sounds. On the bright side, by the time the race rolled around, I had no lingering effects and I was excited to get out there and set a new marathon record for myself. Even though San Francisco features double the elevation gain of the Portland Marathon, I am a much stronger runner than I was ten months ago for my first marathon. I felt that I had every reason to be optimistic.
My wife and I arrived in San Francisco Saturday, one day before the race. We headed to the expo to pick up my race bib and various other swag. We got settled into our SoMa AirBnB and went out to The Flying Pig for dinner. If you happen to be gluten intolerant, you should seek this gem out for everything from breakfast to late night fare. The food was fantastic. Because my wave 3 start would leave the starting line at 5:42am, we decided to turn in early. Unfortunately, our home for the night turned out to be a door-slamming factory of some type. I estimate that I slept less than an hour all night. On the bright side, I didn’t need my alarm because I was already awake.
We ordered an Uber and rode to the starting line for a few quick photos before I headed to my corral. The weather was very mild and the temperature was comfortable in the low 60s. There was some issue with the audio technology and nobody could hear the emcee barking out instructions near the starting line. Before we knew it, our wave was being shuffled to the front. A quick countdown and we were off. We left the starting line right on time, while it was still dark outside.
I was a little disappointed at mile 1 that the darkness and fog prevented a view of Coit Tower. I didn’t dwell on it too much, as I knew there would be many landmarks still to come. I made quick work of the first 2.5 miles, passing Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Mason and the first aid station at a 7’28” pace. Unfortunately, my smartphone GPS had failed me. I had no idea how fast I was going. My goal pace was in the neighborhood of 9’40” per mile. According to my Nike+ feedback, I was hovering close to 9’30” per mile and I was feeling confident. Soon, I found myself buzzing through Crissy Field on the way to the first real climb of the day. A guy behind me tripped and fell flat out. Fortunately, he had a handheld bottle and he slid on that for a few feet, dragging his legs behind him. He quickly gathered himself up and moved on. Close call.
From the Presidio, I passed through mile 5 and up to the Golden Gate Bridge. The sun was up now, but the fog showed no signs of lifting. The bridge looked like a haunting goliath waiting to destroy my pace, but up I went. The elevation gain here wasn’t as bad as I thought. I pulled out my GoPro and shot several videos while crossing over the bridge. I was happy to see that Alcatraz was in plan view from the bridge. Once across, I hit the aid station for a package of Gu Chomps and hustled back out to recross the bridge. While crossing the bridge for the second time, I heard my GPS announce that I was at mile 9.75. This was curious, because I was staring at the Mile 9 course marker. I knew my GPS was way off now, but it seemed to be swinging wildly from underestimating my distance to overestimating it. I had no idea what my actual pace was. I started listening for my total time and measuring that against the miles I had already covered. I’m not great at math in my head. Particularly when hurtling through San Francisco at breakneck speed trying to avoid other runners and stay vertical on wet pavement and metal beams that hold the bridge together. By mile 11, I figured out that I must be under 8’30” per mile. I started to relax a little bit on the hills.
Between miles 10-13, the course featured a great deal of vertical climb heading into Golden Gate Park. My wife had planned to meet me at the halfway point, but because my pace was so far ahead of expectations, I got there before her Uber arrived. She called me and we agreed to meet up at mile 16. I continued on my way through the park. I was excited to see the bison paddock and was still feeling strong around mile 15. That’s when I noticed a curiously familiar pain building up in my right leg. My tibia injury was back. At first I jostled the leg while running, hoping to just pop it loose. By the time I reached my wife, I was in agony. There would be no quick fix on this run.
All this time, I had been carrying a whole lot of gear. I had a portable charger for my phone. My phone battery had barely survived the previous marathon and I didn’t want to take any chances. I removed that and handed it to my wife. I also unloaded the GoPro. I wasn’t in any mood to shoot additional video. Finally, I got rid of my sunglasses. Had I taken any time to view a weather report before the race, I never would have taken them along. Down to only the essentials, I hobbled toward the last ten miles of the race.
By mile 17, my pace had risen to 9’09” per mile. I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that each step was proving very painful. I was also hungry. I can only eat so many Gu gels. My wife had offered me a Picky Bar, but I was craving real food. Bacon and eggs. Maybe some pancakes. Something. I entered Haight-Ashbury during the breakfast hour and the smells caused my stomach to rumble. I swallowed another Gu gel and did the best I could to ignore the aromas.
From here on in, I walked the aid stations and alternated between water and electrolyte drinks. I was surprised by how much of the second half of the course was uphill. I knew that miles 15 through 17 were tough, but 18 through 20 didn’t seem any easier. Frustrated and in pain, my pace continued to rise. By mile 23.5, my pace was up to 9’32” per mile. I actually stopped at one point to eat a gel and rest my leg, but the pain became worse. I tried to walk for a stretch. The pain decreased at first, then increased. As painful as it was to run, it was the only way to consistently keep the pain down. Somewhere near the end of mile 24, a man held out a tray of watermelon. I scooped up a block of it and hungrily destroyed it. It was the coldest, most delicious thing I could imagine at that moment. Only one aid station had cold beverages, and that was very early on. I had run out of water in my handheld bottle around mile 20. There were plenty of aid stations, but I was still running low on fluids. I don’t know that I was ever in danger of overheating, but I tend to be wary of that sort of thing.
One thing that made this race even more difficult was a lack of mile markers. After mile 19, I didn’t see a single marker. With my GPS acting screwy and no idea of my actual pace, I became totally frustrated. During long races and big efforts, it’s easy to go to dark places mentally. Every race is an opportunity to practice your response to these dark places. I had shared my Nike+ run on Facebook and I was receiving cheers every time someone liked my post or commented on it. I was glad I shared. Some of those cheers were the reminders that snapped me back to reality. I told myself to live in the moment, take one step at a time, and just get this done.
Finally, at mile 25, I arrived at AT&T Ballpark. I had run here one time previously when I visited San Francisco in 2014. The familiarity of it was encouraging and I felt a bit of confidence for the first time in many miles. Maybe I was delirious from pain and lack of nutrients. It didn’t matter. I perked up a little and would run from here on in. No more walking. Perhaps it was hobbling. Or stumbling. It didn’t matter. Running is moving forward. Good enough.
Just past the aid station at mile 25.5, a man behind me tripped and fell. I stopped at first to help him up. I saw his head raise and then slowly drop back down. It was immediately apparent that he was unconscious. Several other runners and spectators were already surrounding him screaming for a doctor and running toward the aid station for help. Realizing there was nothing I could do, I moved on. It’s a frightening thing to see. I had seen this twice in the Portland Marathon as well. People falling and knocking themselves out. Just three days before the race, a friend bragged to me that she thought she could finish a marathon, no problem. She isn’t a runner, but she claims to be in decent shape and doesn’t see what the big deal is. I immediately thought of her when I saw this man fall. He was in great shape. But things go wrong. Maybe his nutrition was off. Maybe he was dehydrated. Maybe he did everything right, but just happened to catch his toe on a manhole cover. Whatever the issue, marathons are not to be taken lightly. Don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise. Marathons are a test of will. They push you further than you ever thought you could go and they will destroy you if you don’t respect them. I encourage everyone to try one someday, but prepare yourself physically and mentally for one of the toughest challenges of your life. Pulling myself back together, I turned for home.
As I passed under the Bay Bridge, I finally saw the finish line. I could have cried. I was passed frequently in the final quarter mile by runners who saved something for that last home stretch. Unfortunately, I had nothing left. I just kept my pace and crossed the line safely, happy to be done. I shut off my GPS and headed back to the AirBnB. We had to check out in an hour. Later on, I checked my official time on the marathon website. I finished in 4 hours and 15 minutes with a pace of 9’46” per mile, 4 minutes slower than my Portland Marathon time.
I was so depressed with my leg situation and my finish time, that I didn’t even take the time to enjoy finishing the marathon. It wasn’t until several days later that I started to appreciate the effort. My wife and I spent a couple days recuperating in Napa. I found a hot tub at the hotel and in less than 10 minutes, my leg pain disappeared. Apparently, bubbles are the key. Either way, I will be seeing my PT again very soon.
Now, I set my sights on the Chicago Marathon in October. Chicago has virtually no elevation change. And I have plenty of time to heal before then. I suppose I better get to it. I really want that marathon personal best. Training begins now.
Enjoy some of the GoPro video and sights from the marathon in the video below.