Barb and Tom at the starting line.

In the cool morning fog of Sunday morning Barbara, Cait and I stumbled out of the Kabuki Hotel in Japan Town and into our car.  The moist air had settled on the windshield and I turned on the wipers only to smear the remains of the bugs we’d collected on the glass during our drive from Los Angeles the day before.  The time was 4:15am and we rolled out of the parking lot toward the starting line three miles away.

The garage at the Embarcadero Center parking lot opened at 4:30 and we followed other marathon participants into the underground structure and found a spot.  I’d been awake since 2:30am so I could eat a homemade sweet potato muffin, a banana and drink a cup lukewarm coffee I’d made before turning in around 9:30 the night before.  According to several online sites the pre-race combo of caffeine, carbs and potassium would keep me going well past the ½ marathon juncture of the race.  While I love to sleep, I felt it important to try this “three hours before the race start” meal.

As we walked up the ramp to the outside world I could feel the race jitters coming on.  ‘Would I be able to break four hours?’ ‘What if I bonk?’ ‘Will my hamstring seize up like it did in Los Angeles?’ Cait kept the conversation light – and going – so I couldn’t dwell on these thoughts.  She was taking pictures all the time – dad stretching, mom walking, dad stretching again, group shot at the starting line!  She is great at keeping things moving!

At the starting line. Barb, Tom & Cait

As dawn began to break the misty fog acted like a thick white blanket keeping things from becoming too bright.  I continued to stretch, drink my sports drink, check that the high calorie chocolate waffle wafers I purchased at the running store for the 2nd half of the race were still safely lodged into my water bottle holder and waited with a calm exterior while still working to suppress the nervous interior voice bouncing around the corners of my mind.

Cait continued snapping random photos when the announcer said, “Runners to your corals.”  I gave Barb a kiss and Cait a hug. She said, “Good luck dad!” We then went our separate ways.

I’d put together an Apple Genius play list on my iPod for this run.  Having just read Gregg Allman’s ‘My Cross to Bear’ I decided to start this marathon with his mega-hit, ‘Melissa.’ The list goes on to a variety of like tempo music from my teen era.  In the registration process I had to tell the organizers that I thought I’d finish between 3:50 and 4 hours so they put me in the 3rd coral.  That meant, me and my other sub-four hour runners would be starting ten minutes after the elites heard the word, “GO!”

I’d planned for this additional wait time by putting Dire Straits “Romeo and Juliet” (6min) and Foo Fighter’s “Doll” (1:25) ahead of Melissa giving me plenty of time to shake out any last minute muscle issues or random negative thoughts.  The additional songs also allowed me time to deal with the iPod holder strapped to my arm.  It was a goodie I found in the bottom of my NY Marathon bag but after three years on the roads and in other races it is on its last Velcro loving legs.

Fiddling with the iPod.

As for my play list, I’d gone as far as to roughly guess what would be playing at certain moments of the race.  Greggs voice would be crooning in my ears as I crossed the start line.  Jimmy Hendrix as I crossed the Golden Gate.  Jack White at the half way,  I was so wrapped up in what was ahead of me that I spazzed-out and started the iPod as soon as the racers in coral 1 and 2 took off.  Meaning the Allman Brothers started to play well before we got to cross the starting line! I fumbled with the iPod holder, wrapped the ear-bud cable and restarted Dire Straits!  Flustered and not wanting to worry about it anymore I let the song continue.  “GO!” someone yelled and Melissa didn’t start until about 2 minutes into the race.

Wave 3 Start!

In addition, I couldn’t find my family.  I’d moved to the left of the starting line thinking they’d be in with the rest of the crowd.  I crossed the start line without seeing them (turned out they’d moved to the right side).  I was still spazzing out so I forgot to start my Garmin GPS running watch.  1.4 tenths out of the gate I realized this and pushed START.  I’d have to calculate my time and mileage to accommodate the difference throughout the race.

“Get out of your head – just run – relax – enjoy this!” I told myself.  As Fisherman’s Wharf appeared and the smells of early morning bread baking at Boudin’s wafted through the field of runners I took a deep breath and began to run easy.  So what if the music is a little ‘off’ it’ll be fine – and it was.

At the five-mile mark was the 2nd water station on the north side of The Presidio of San Francisco.  As I approached I could see several American Flags waving in the light breeze, their poles dotted the lawns opposite the ex-military barracks.  At the flagpole bases were photos of servicemen.  Written across the photos it read, “wear blue: run to remember” with the soldier’s name, his KIA date and photos of them with family or during much happier times.  The flagpoles gave way to people holding the flags – cheering us on.  There were dozens of these photos and flags. I looked to my left and a guy going much faster than I, looking very much like he was x-military, ran with a crisp salute as he passed.  I couldn’t help but tear up.

photo care of: Wipro SF Marathon

I felt good as mile five ticked off and I powered up the hill to the Golden Gate Bridge.  I’d planned to stop every 5 miles and stretch my hamstrings but decided I could make it over the bridge and stop for a one-minute stretch at the 7k water station.  The misty fog covered the top of the bridge like a dream and the cool water in the air kept me from overheating.  The short pause was great!  I ate my first chocolate waffle as I forced my hamstrings to stretch!

Coming back across the bridge Jimi Hendrix was singing “All Along The Watchtower” in my ears.  I could also see my breath and that of several other runners.  I don’t think it was that cold probably more of an effect of the fog and hot air from deep within our lungs.

Once off the bridge there is a steep incline then a 1 mile downhill that lives up to San Francisco’s famed stretches of road.  Using some of the training I’d learned I let the hill do the work and clocked a 7:21 mile!  That’s really fast for me.  I’d been averaging an 8:40 so far.

I entered Golden Gate Park and found it as advertised – beautiful!  Redwoods, eucalyptus and lots of green.  The organizers suggested that we look to our right as we passed the golf coarse and sure enough there were the Bison having breakfast as we humans ran by.  If they ever bothered to think about us runners I wonder what they’d say?

I’d read before starting the race that the park was series of rolling hills but what I remember about it was a combination of mild inclines.  We just seemed to keep going up.  I reached the half marathon mark in just about two-hours and was feeling good but was counting the miles to the park exit because I knew around mile 20 there was a long downhill.

Mercifully I ran out of the park, leaving the duck ponds and smells of eucalyptus behind and into the city.  The course goes through Haight Ashbury where as I had been praying for, another long downhill street forgave all the inclines in the park.  Again the hill did the work!  Clocked in at 8-minutes and that pace helped me overcome the 8:53 pace I’d been maintaining past the Bison.  “Only five miles to go!” I thought.

Mile 22 included a water station.  I stopped once again to stretch – just for a minute.  During the LA marathon my legs cramped at mile 24 and I missed breaking a four-hour finish by two minutes because I’d spent so much time trying to get moving again.  I was determined to not let that happen in SF.  One of the guys filled my water bottle for me – two sips and I was on my way.

I’ve read that the last 4 miles of a marathon are all mental.  This being my third, I can agree.  Growing up there was a movie my brother and I watched every time it came on TV – “The Outlaw Josie Wales.”  In it, Clint Eastwood plays a drifter who ultimately teaches a band of mid-western farmers to defend their land.  In the final chapter there is a shootout with the bad guys and Josie (Eastwood) inspires the clan with a rally speech – “When things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean.  I mean plum mad dog mean! ‘Cuz if you lose your head and give up, then you neither live nor win.”  At mile 24.5 my left hamstring twinged!  Pulled me up and I had to stop.  “Damnit!” I yelled and noticed a little boy with his parents watching me.  I grimaced and slammed my foot to the ground and stretched that hamstring for about 20 seconds.  It was time to get mean, plum mad dog mean… I regained my composure and pushed off for the finish line.

“Sub-Four! Sub-Four!”

As Leo Kottke & Mike Gordon’s guitars thumped out an old Aerosmith tune, “Sweet Emotion,” every bit of me was asking to stop. I was going to have to will myself to the finish line – with a smile!  As I rounded AT&T Park and into the final mile I started to look for Barb and Cait.  Less than 2 tenths to go, there they were – cheering me on – giving me the last bit of inspiration I needed.

I yelled, “Sub-Four! Sub-Four!” as I ran by.  Crossing the finish line the clock read 3:51:55.  I pumped my fist in the air.  The hours, weeks and months of training had paid off!

This race will fade into memory but as a good friend of mine once said, “I leave a little bit of me behind in every marathon.” San Francisco will always have a part of my heart and a few shavings off the soles of my shoes.

The finish line.


You can see official photos here.