Ever wonder what running the The San Francisco Marathon course is like? Let writer and runner Erin Mara, along with the SFM staff, take you through the experience of running the The San Francisco Marathon mile-by-mile. Get a sneak peak, then get registered and get training!


It’s race day and runners begin their Half Marathon journey in tranquil and beautiful Golden Gate Park alongside iconic Stow Lake.

Man-made Stow Lake, completed in 1893, is Golden Gate Park’s largest body of water. It was designed for leisure boating, as a promenade for horse-drawn carriages, and as a reservoir for park irrigation. The 12-acre, doughnut-shaped lake has a paved path surrounding it, and an island in the middle. Strawberry Hill Island is a densely wooded area named for the wild strawberries that once grew there. Strawberry Hill is the highest point in Golden Gate Park at more than 400 feet. Breathtaking views and much of the western portion of the city can be seen from the summit, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Transamerica Pyramid. A reservoir at the top of the hill supports a network of high-pressure water mains that supply fire hydrants throughout the city. Two bridges connect the island to the mainland, the Stone Bridge, built in 1893, and Roman Bridge. Stow Lake is surrounded by redwood trees, cypress and pine, and the lake is home to mallard ducks, Canada geese, and even Great Blue Herons. Turtles, small fish and crayfish live in the lake.

The first mile offers a nice, long, downhill and open stretch on John F. Kennedy Drive through Golden Gate Park, surrounded by a handful of grassy meadows, passing Spreckels Lake and the Polo Field.

Runners pass Hellman Hollow (formally Speedway Meadow) on the left, an expansive grassy meadow renamed in 2012 after one of the park’s biggest benefactors, Warren Hellman. For more than a decade, Hellman funded Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free, annual, three-day musical festival in Golden Gate Park, featuring more than 100 artists on seven stages and drawing in nearly a half-million people. Core performers have included Emmylou Harris and the late Hazel Dickens, and the festival has brought Bright Eyes, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, and Dolly Parton to its stages. Hellman, a  financier and philanthropist, co-founded the Hellman & Friedman private-equity firm, which made its name taking jeans maker Levi Strauss & Co. private in 1985, a $1.6 billion transaction that at the time was the largest-ever buyout of a publicly held U.S. firm.

Across JFK Drive from Hellman Hollow is Marx Meadow, another grassy patch perfect for picnicking and surrounded by one of the park’s signature features, the Disc Golf Course,  a tightly wooded 18-hole course enjoyed by beginners and experts alike.

The course continues down past the expansive Lindley Meadow, a popular picnic site with tables and grills tucked into a eucalyptus grove.

A bit further down on the right, Spreckels Lake is an artificial reservoir built in 1904 for racing model sail and power boats. The lake, surrounded by ethereal Monterey Cypress trees, is named for sugar-fortune heir and San Francisco Parks Commission President Adolph B. Spreckels. It is the home to the San Francisco Model Yacht Club, which sponsors free-sail, radio-controlled sail, and model powerboat events.The lake is inhabited by ducks, geese, migratory birds, fish, turtles, and even freshwater clams, presumably dropped by seagulls.

Across from Spreckels Lake is the Polo Field, which has a rich history in bike racing. Constructed in 1906, the Polo Field was called Golden Gate Park Stadium and featured an arena for track cycling. Before and after the Second World War, the best cyclists in the region would frequent the park, known as the hot spot for bike racing on the West Coast. Today, the Polo Field is still enjoyed by cyclists, as well as joggers and walkers.