The San Francisco Marathon 52.4 Mile Ultra PT. I: Two Sides Of a Great City

Curious what experiencing The San Francisco Marathon’s Ultra is like? Here’s an in-depth review of last year’s Ultra, courtesy of technology entrepreneur and trail runner, Scott Dunlap! Don’t miss your chance to run with him this year – register today!

Have you ever been to the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco at 1am, weaving through the loud and crazy nightlife revelers, only to have those city vampires stare awestruck and say “whoa…now THAT guy is strange!”?

Ever run through the eerie calm of an empty Golden Gate Park and Presidio, dodging nocturnal wildlings of all shapes and sizes, and having to sprint from an owl attacking the glow of your headlight?

How about tracing that same route the next morning, joined by 29,000 others and cheered by a half a million more?

Thus is the unique experience that is the San Francisco Marathon 52.4 Mile Ultra, a double marathon option of this iconic big city race. Run the San Francisco Marathon course backwards at midnight with a crew of mobile aid stations, then join 29,000 runners at 5:30am to run the full marathon as the sun rises…a true urban ultramarathon to show you two sides of the same city.

It was Dean Karnazes who cooked up this scheme six years ago (he’s known to run to the start of many of the big city marathons), and I’ve always wondered what it would be like to double up. Is it similar to back to back long runs? Or more like a 50-miler with a reaaaally long aid station break half way through? This was a chance to find out, and do so in the experienced hands of Race Directors Karen Tancuan, Lauri Abrahamsen, and Jason Clendenning, with the Immortal Race Crew handling mobile logistics. I was definitely in!

The San Francisco Marathon Ultra – The First Lap

Fans cheering on The San Francisco Marathon Ultrarunners
The run format shook up my normal race routine from the moment I left for the midnight start. I put the kids to bed, left my pajama-clad wife watching Game of Thrones with a glass of wine in her hand (and shaking her head in disbelief that I would opt for running over this), and suited up. About 60 other ultrarunners were there at the start, and I heard lots of different planned approaches to the race:

  • Four-time 52.4 winner and marathon fanatic Graham Hedger was going out fast with the ideal low 60’s weather.
  • Kowsik Guruswamy was going to take it easy so he could pace his friend through a first marathon in the morning.
  • Abel Alejandrino was raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, proudly displaying his daughters picture, and prepping for the Angeles Crest 100m in a month.
  • Another runner planned to make it back in time to officially pace the 5-hour finishers (or not!).
  • A young man from L.A. (with mother in tow) said he wanted to check the boxes for “saw San Francisco” and “ran an ultra” before he headed off to college in Pennsylvania in a few days.

Dean Karnazes was here to make friends and enjoy the day, and was well on his way to both when he welcomed everyone at the start. The horn sounded right afterwards, and we headed down the Embarcadero. Let the adventure begin!

I cruised along at my aerobic 7:30 min/mile pace (my goal for the whole day), and within two miles was well behind Graham Hedger in the lead. The lead bike had to go with the fast Brit, and the next thing we knew we were on our own for navigation! There were arrows and signs, but the city was alive and bustling with traffic, so you had to keep your eyes open (ears too – RunGo’s turn-by-turn navigation of the course was a must). Abel and Carlsbad, CA’s Stefan Asbock were smart enough to pair up a half mile behind me, as did most of the other runners.

The San Francisco Marathon Ultra Aid StationI had foolishly thought the streets would be empty, forgetting this is a perfect summer night for clubbing in the Dogpatch, Mission, and Haight districts. The sidewalks overflowed with bacchanal on busy corners, and given the roads weren’t blocked off for the marathon yet, we did our best to navigate through them. Luckily the cop-like brightness of my headlamp split most packs like Moses through the Red Sea. I’m sure a “you there…freeze!” would have been an order of magnitude more effective.

A few enlightened souls joined me running down Haight Street (mile 6), happy to share wine, herb, laughter, and song. My water bottles were empty, so it was tempting, but soon enough I found Robert Rhodes managing the mobile aid station (mile 7.5). He filled me up and sent me into Golden Gate Park, where I poorly navigated the sprinklers popping up everywhere.

The park was eerily quiet and foggy, and aside from a few large raccoon and deer, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Usually this park has thousands of people in it…so strange to find it empty! Like the zombie apocalypse had drowned out the sun. Somewhere in the fog around the lake I made a wrong turn, but RunGo had me back on track within a half mile, and Chris Blagg and the Immortal Race Crew magically appeared to point me downhill towards the ocean and get back on track.

The San Francisco Marathon UltrarunnerI got one last glimpse of Graham (easily two miles ahead of me now) at the half way point, which I hit in 1 hr 44 min. That seemed like a good pace – fast, but not so fast I couldn’t hold it through the next 1.5 marathons. The ocean tugged the fog in ebbs and flows as I ran along the Great Highway, and the headlights of fellow ultrarunners sparkled in the distance. I ran back up into the park, and made a quarter mile detour to get another runner back on track (she would have done the same for me) before hitting the neighborhoods. There aren’t many neighbors out at 2am, but surprisingly, those that are walk their dogs and meet each other just like any other time of day. There wasn’t anything strange about a guy running with a headlight and a number either – they just nodded!

As I got to the Presidio (mile 18), the street lights were few and far between, amplifying the solitude. I felt the wings of a bird come within a few feet of me….then again….then on the third try I realized it was an owl going for my headlight! Wha?!? What is the proper defense strategy for owl attacks, anyway? Go big and loud like you do with mountain lions? Play dead like with grizzly bears? I opted for the former, throwing in a sprint to the next aid station (mile 20.5), where Robert and the gang said they had been seeing that owl for the last 10 minutes. I guess we are on his turf!

I took the familiar path down to Crissy Field, watching the lights of the Bay Bridge reflect in the still waters of the Bay. This was fun! As I crossed into Fisherman’s Wharf, dozens of rats scurried away from the trash cans set outside the chain restaurants, pretty much guaranteeing I will never, ever eat down there. Mary the bike guide rescued me and pulled me down the idle trolley tracks and into the finish in 3:36:29.

I had two hours to collect myself for lap #2, so I followed Graham’s lead and got a full breakfast, plenty of water, and a 15-minute massage. Graham had finished in a screaming fast 3:05(!), but was already worried it would cost him in the second half. We were both far too energized from runners coming in to take a nap, so we changed into dry clothes and got ready for part two! The fresh pair of Injinji socks felt great, and the cushy inov-8 Trailroc 285’s were handling the uneven pavement with ease.

Stay tuned for The San Francisco Marathon Ultra – The Second Lap!

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