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!


Just past Spreckels Lake and the Polo Field Mile 2 begins with a course highlight: the Bison Paddock. The herd of American bison have been a beloved institution since since 1890 when a bison cow and bison bull were transported from the Great Plains. Before San Francisco opened its first zoo in the 1930s, many animals were kept in Golden Gate Park, including elk, deer, bear, sheep, and bison. An emblem of the American West, bison had been driven nearly to extinction by the time Golden Gate Park’s herd was established. The herd has grown–numbering up to 30 bison–and dwindled. Many died from bovine tuberculosis before the herd was rebuilt in 1984, as part of a birthday present to then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein from her husband. About six bison remain at the Bison Paddock. The bison mostly roam and laze around, but they have the ability to run inside the paddock at up to 30 miles per hour.

Moving past the Bison Paddock runners pass North Lake on the right, one of only five natural lakes in Golden Gate Park, and one of the three lakes in the Chain of Lakes. Before Golden Gate Park’s builders transformed the landscape from sand dunes to lush greenery, there were 14 marshy lakes nestled within the dunes. Now only five natural lakes remain, although they have been substantially altered. The rest of the park’s lakes are artificial. North Lake is largest of the three chain lakes, and features small islands creeping out of its shallow waters. It is long and ovular-shaped with a paved perimeter, favored by walkers.

Just a bit further down JFK Drive on the right is the Golden Gate Park Golf Course, a nine-hole par 3 public course that locals love because there are no reservations needed to play; tee-times are first-come, first-served. Behind the golf course is the Golden Gate Park Archery Range, a unique feature of the park with open, hay bale-dotted fields where archers bring their own targets, bows and arrows.

Just past the golf course, runners come to a fork in the road and turn left onto Bernice Rodgers Way, which becomes Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Just to the right, a bit further down JFK Drive, are two park favorites, the 112-year-old Dutch Windmill, which stands about 75 feet tall, and its surrounding Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden. Completed in 1902, the windmill was one of two constructed in the park to pump groundwater for irrigation, as much as 1 ½ million gallons daily. Today it stands as simply a charming and picturesque piece of history. Surrounding the windmill is a garden filled with thousands of colorful tulips and Icelandic poppies which bloom in February through April.

The course starts to climb a bit as the street becomes MLK Jr. Drive and runners make their way up past lush green palm, cypress, pine and eucalyptus trees on their right.