Guest Blogger Charlie Johnston

One of the best inadvertent benefits of running is that it presents the opportunity to explore a city and its inhabitants in minute detail. From marveling at the fluid synchronized movement of rowing teams along the Charles River while running in Boston’s Back Bay to watching the first rays of sunlight paint the Midtown skyline during a run atop New York City’s High Line Elevated Park, there is no more intimate way to get to know a city than by running through it.

I have been visiting San Francisco since I can remember and have loved the city since I first laid eyes on it. With each visit, I got to know the city a little better. I would explore the eclectic shops of Haight-Ashbury while waiting for friends to get off work, wander through secluded groves and tree-shrouded paths in Golden Gate Park to fill an afternoon, or discover mouth-watering maple-bacon doughnuts while strolling through the Mission District on a Saturday morning. But as well as I thought I knew Frisco, it wasn’t until running the San Francisco Marathon almost four years ago that I really got to know the City by the Bay. I’ve run the marathon every year since, and grown more enamored with the city each time thanks to the delightful memories and snapshots of the city that only running through it can provide.

At 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday, the Embarcadero is devoid of its typical throngs of tourists and street performers. If not for the waves of marathoners and half marathoners filling the roadway, it might as well be a ghost town—a ghost town permeated by the tauntingly wonderful smell of baking sourdough bread. I do not know the source of the aroma, nor do I much care. What matters to me is that it means the San Francisco Marathon is officially underway. A small hill at Fort Mason, between mile markers two and three, gets the blood pumping and sets up a pleasant flat stretch through the Marina District and to Crissy Field and mile five.

This is a good time to dispel what is perhaps the most pervasive San Francisco Marathon myth around: Contrary to the city’s reputation for menacingly steep streets, the hills along the race course are really not that bad. Much to San Francisco Marathon Ambassador Eric Jorgensen’s chagrin, the race doesn’t climb Lombard Street, nor does it climb or descend any of the notoriously steep Nob, Russian, or Telegraph Hill streets, for that matter.
There are only a handful of significant climbs on the course, and with the exception of the incline from the Presidio to the road deck of the Golden Gate Bridge (about 170 feet in half a mile) they are pleasantly gradual. I’ve actually found the ups and downs of the course to be very good things, as climbing and descending hills alternately utilizes different leg-muscle groups, thereby preventing muscle fatigue.

The arch of the Golden Gate Bridge is slight, and the feeling of running a marathon on one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world bolsters runners’ energy better than perhaps any other spot on the course. I’ll never forget the times I’ve run the out-and-back over the bridge during the marathon: watching in awe as the top runners in the race flew past on their way back into the city in 2009, and soaking up the cheers from other runners when I was among those top runners in 2011. A tip for middle-of-the-pack runners: I’ve often heard that the bridge can get a little congested for folks on pace for four- to five-hour finishes (and two- to two-and-a-half-hour finishes in the half marathon), be patient and courteous of other runners, don’t stress over the crowd, and just appreciate the view of a lifetime.

The steepest drop is on Lincoln Boulevard on the west side of the Presidio, where runners descend more than 200 feet between miles 10 and 11. I’ve run this section conservatively and I’ve run this section at full speed on the brink of tumbling end-over-end. My suggestion: run it conservatively. Shorten your steps, shake out your arms, and take in the lovely view of the Pacific past Baker Beach. There is a lot of race left—assuming you’re running the full marathon—and flying down this section WILL come back to haunt you later.

The race returns to neighborhood streets in the Richmond District before entering Golden Gate Park near 25th Avenue, if you’re running the half, take a left on JFK Drive (don’t worry, it’s well marked) and kick in your finish pace, your race is all but finished. If you’re running the full, which turns right on JFK, get ready to check your half-marathon split and start mentally preparing yourself for the scenic, though occasionally lonely, six miles you’ll spend in the park. Mile 17 passes near the finish of the half marathon, where an exuberant crowd is a welcome change from the relative quiet of the rest of the park.

Mile 19 marks the entry to Haight-Ashbury, where runners are greeted by encouraging cheering and excited cowbell jingling on nearly every block. Haight Street is a slight uphill for a mile and a half and is followed by a pair of abrupt downhills as the course approaches Market Street and crosses into the Mission District. By this point, your legs will probably be starting to feel the hurt, so it is wise to approach these descents conservatively and save your energy for the generally flat miles to the finish.

Spectators and bands along the course start to wake up through the Mission District just in time to provide runners with the extra encouragement needed to make it through the final miles, and the Bay Bridge coming into view around mile marker 24 (the finish line is slightly past the bridge on the Embarcadero) is a reminder that the race is nearly over. In the last couple of year, a group of Burners—enthusiasts of Burning Man, the counterculture festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert—has taken to the typically lonely 24th and 25th miles of the course with exuberant cheering, trance and techno music booming from their attention-grabbing Art Cars, and chocolates and shots of Crown Royal for weary runners. As a Burner myself, I am particularly touched by their support…even though I reluctantly decline the shots.

The home of the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park, marks the start of the final stretch, and although signs and many spectators and volunteers are on hand to warn runners, be especially mindful of the huge step that leads to the walkway around McCovey Cove—I know it’s there, am reminded each year that it’s there, and invariably stumble over it anyway.

After rounding the ballpark and hitting the straightaway to the finish, well, things quiet down a little…actually, a lot. I’m not complaining, but spectators are sparse along the final mile of the marathon. Maybe your friends and family are looking for a good place to cheer you on, and maybe you’ll let them know that the last mile is where their support will make the most difference.