(Originally Published on Runners World Loop on July 31, 2011)
This morning I set a new Personal Best of 3:10:26 at the San Francisco Marathon. As with every marathon, I also gained some valuable experience that will hopefully help me to continue to improve.
First, some background: I returned to marathon racing in January at the Rock ’N’ Roll Arizona Marathon. I had a good run, and my time of 3:17:35 at that race beat my previous PB of 3:29:30, set many years ago. That race gave me confidence that I could go faster. So I set a personal goal to work towards a sub-3 hour time, with the plan to hit that target in 2012. I knew that expecting too much, too fast in the marathon would be foolish so I purposely put down 2012 as the year to do it.
In June, I ran my second 26.2 of the year at the San Diego Rock ’N’ Roll Marathon. Although my time of 3:13:30 suggested an improvement, in reality I made the classic marathoner blunder and consider that race to be a near-disaster. I felt sooo good early on, and ran a much faster pace I should have – at mile 20, I was on track to run a 2:58 marathon. However, the blazing sun and heat finally got me and my pace devolved rapidly around mile 23. Up to race morning I planned to run a 3:10 pace and probably would have run that easily if I had not gotten greedy. Lesson learned: Stick to your plan!
As disappointing as that was, it was perhaps the best thing that could have happened as it taught me to respect the distance and weather conditions. So I went into the San Francisco race determined not to let history repeat. One challenge in this race that I was not sure about was the hills. San Francisco is famous for hills, and the race didn’t disappoint. The Wall Street Journal ran an article last year calling the race “the marathon that even marathoners fear” because of the hills. The elevation chart really didn’t prepare me for what was to come, but I had done some hill work and felt like I’d be able to handle them.
My wave began at 5:32 a.m., and I found a 3:10 pace group and tucked in for a nice conservative pace. The weather was reasonably cool, although Bart Yasso mentioned at the starting line that this was the warmest SFM that he could remember. Humidity was high and there were some breezes. The first few miles were in twilight and ran past Fisherman’s Wharf and up to the Golden Gate Bridge.
By the way, the pictures in this blog were taken by my son Brad, who joined me for the trip. He rode a bicycle with a friend and they popped up at various points along the course to shoot pictures and encourage me. Here’s one of my favorites – they rode up on the Bridge’s sidewalk and stopped about halfway. This was about mile 6 or so, and the authorities actually had two lanes of traffic closed for the runners, as we ran over and back on the bridge!
I did have one major bummer on the Bridge. The early start meant that I couldn’t wear my sunglasses, which I am very used to wearing while racing. So I decided to carry them until it brightened up. Unfortunately, they slipped out of my hand on the bridge while I was fishing for an energy gel packet from my belt, and I never saw them again. So long, lucky shades!
There were LOTS of runners for the first half (both full and 1st half marathoners ran together), so plenty of jostling was going on and I even got tripped up twice, but didn’t fall. I ran with the pace group until about mile 14, which was in beautiful Golden Gate Park. Unfortunately, they were going too slow and t I realized we would finish almost two minutes behind our target at that pace. The first half is quite hilly, with plenty of steep uphill jaunts, so I thought perhaps they were doing that on purpose. But when I asked the pacer if he was planning a negative split, he said no, that they were ahead of pace – maybe his watch wasn’t correct because we were close, but definitely not on 3:10 pace.
So, I decided to pull ahead a little bit to try to make up some time. Not a fast panic pace, just a few seconds per mile quicker, as I really wanted to hit that 3:10 target. Timing your pace in a marathon is tricky, since just a couple of seconds per mile can add up to almost a minute by the finish.
The park is really scenic and I enjoyed looking around at the lush foliage and small ponds. At one point, we even ran through a small tunnel. The full marathon course passed the 1st half finish and 2nd half start a few times so there was plenty of cheering going on. My race shirt had my name on it, and sometimes a spectator would call out “Go Keith!”, which was encouraging. I was feeling pretty good all the way through the park.
After the park, the course was still hilly, but this part was more downhill than up. While downhills can be helpful at times, there were several downhill stretches around mile 20 or 21 that I can only describe as brutal on the quads. These hills were basically the ridiculously steep hills that San Francisco is famous for – cars use their emergency brakes, and my legs were trying to do the same. Late in the course, we ran past AT&T Park, the baseball stadium for the San Francisco Giants, and then along the bay. I was beginning to hurt but there were some nice sights to see including ships in the bay. Unfortunately a headwind was blowing and was actually quite strong at many points along the last few miles.
As I reached the final mile, I realized that the wind and my weariness were taking a toll on my pace. The 3:10 pacers flew past me in the last mile, but none of the group from earlier was with them – I guess when they realized they really were behind pace, it was too late for everyone else to pick up. I tried hard but the kick needed to cut a half-minute or so just wasn’t there.
I’m still happy with my time – “3:10 and change”, as they say – but I can’t help thinking that if I had just squeezed out a single second per mile of faster speed, I would have broken the target, arbitrary though it may be. I do feel pretty good about taking more than 3 minutes off my PB on this tough course, and I think it’s safe to say that a flatter course would have yielded an even better result. So I think my sub-3 quest is still a reasonable one and progress is continuing. Assuming things go according to plan, I will still have a couple more opportunities to improve, or at least gain some important experience, in 2011.
And of course, I did get some new race bling to add to my collection!