Beyond Golden Gate Park

Taking the Race Through the City

Contributed by Erin Mara, a writer and runner living in San Francisco.

Above: August 19, 1984 – San Francisco, California, United States: Runners in Golden Gate Park, with the Conservatory of Flowers in the background, during The San Francisco Marathon. (Steve Ringman / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris)

After the inaugural San Francisco Marathon in July 1977, the race was off to a bright start. The running community was thrilled to have a local marathon in their city, and the participation numbers proved it — the race tripled in size its second year, and continued to grow exponentially.

“Local runners rallied around The San Francisco Marathon,” said Mike Fanelli, an accomplished and prolific Bay Area runner who was part of the original organizing committee. “Everyone just embraced the race. It was exciting to have a marathon in San Francisco.”

SF Marathon

August 19, 1984 – San Francisco, California, United States: Runners on Grant St. with 13 miles left of The San Francisco Marathon. (Steve Ringman / San Francisco Chronicle)

But in the early years of The San Francisco Marathon, the race only touched the western span of the city — Golden Gate Park, the Great Highway, and Lake Merced — and race organizers were eager to showcase all of San Francisco by hosting a cross-city course.

“We wanted to reach more people, and we wanted to create a race that represented all the city has to offer, all the neighborhoods,” said Scott Thomason, who became the first executive director of The San Francisco Marathon in 1979. Thomason had big dreams of bringing the race out of Golden Gate Park and through the city.

An avid runner himself, Thomason saw first-hand the popularity of the New York City Marathon in the late 1970s — and the fiscal benefits it had on the city. The New York City Marathon took runners through Central Park and through the city’s boroughs. At the time, only Boston and New York had major, citywide events, and Thomason wanted to emulate them in San Francisco.

“We wanted to create something really spectacular when showcasing San Francisco, something authentic — not just the touristy, iconic sites, but authentic San Francisco,” Thomason said. “We wanted to create a course to attract people from all over, and show off the city.”

Thomason and his running buddies Tom Benjamin and Mark Scheuer, got together after work one night at Scheuer’s store, the iconic Scheuer Linens off Union Square, pulled out a map, and drew a big circle around the city. The circle was a 20-ish mile loop that was Scheuer’s training route, and it became the foundation for the future course of The San Francisco Marathon.

“These guys (from the local running clubs) knew how to avoid the hills,” Thomason said. “We wanted to overcome the misconception that San Francisco was all hills. If you have a hill, you have a valley. Our course actually had a net elevation loss.”

Thomason befriended the well-known New York City Marathon founder and race director Fred Lebow, and together with San Francisco Marathon race organizers, took their ambitions to then San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein.

Though “fiscally conservative,” and at first skeptical, Feinstein was “the race’s biggest supporter,” Thomason said. “She took a chance. She put her best foot forward to showcase the city.”

Race organizers tout that Feinstein understood any major sporting event done well would generate favorable publicity for the city and drive tourism.

In 1982, with Feinstein’s support, The San Francisco Marathon moved forward with taking their race beyond Golden Gate Park.

The first cross-city course started at the California Academy of Sciences museum in Golden Gate Park, stretched out onto the Panhandle, then zigzagged through the Haight, Mission and Noe Valley neighborhoods, and down to the Embarcadero. It spanned the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf and Aquatic Park, along Marina Green to Fort Point at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then it came back around along the Embarcadero by the Ferry Building to Market Street, through Chinatown, and finished at the Civic Center in front of City Hall.

“You really felt like you were going somewhere, and seeing a lot of the city,” said John Medinger, a former race organizer and Pamakids Runners Club president.

“The finish was spectacular — right in front of City Hall,” Thomason said. “And running through Chinatown was magical. There were so many people out. It really felt like something.”

In 1983, The San Francisco Marathon was the first marathon in the United States to award all finishers with a medal. “The accomplishment felt greater that way,” said Thomason, who had seen the gesture at the London Marathon and duplicated it. “When we put a medal around everyone’s neck, they’d all felt like they won. ”

The San Francisco Marathon grew from a few thousand to nearly 10,000 participants in its first year outside of Golden Gate Park, continuing on its course to becoming one of the country’s top races.


Origins of the Race