This past weekend was my third year running the Golden Gate Half in San Francisco, CA. This is one of my favorite events, and is one of several local races that crosses the Golden Gate Bridge. I was especially excited this year, as my partner was running it as well and I knew that some friends would be there.
It's nice to have run this one before, because I knew what to expect at each portion of the race - when I could gain some speed, where it flattened out so I could get some nutrition in, what incline points I'd want to reserve some energy for, etc. This year they changed the course a bit, having it both begin and end at the same point near Ghiradelli Square, thereby cutting out some switchbacks mid-race. I actually liked this change, albeit I thought the extreme downhill right at the finish was borderline dangerous. More on that later!
This event starts off in the Marina, cutting through Crissy Field along the water and out to Fort Mason before making the climb up hills through the beautiful forest of the Presidio. During mile 4 you make the approach to the start of the bridge. I always tell people new to this race to ensure by this point that you're hanging in a pack of runners going around your same pace, as once you enter the bridge it's a thin passageway for a couple of miles that makes passing difficult. I'd located the 1:50 pacer around this time, and made an effort of trying to stick with him.
In previous years, the 7am lingering morning fog characteristic of San Francisco made it difficult to have much of a view. On this day, however, we all experienced some magic when the fog burned off early and presented everyone with a gorgeous clear view of the bridge and skyline. It was hard to not smile while taking it all in.
You spend around 2 miles on the bridge one way, entering Marin County and looping around the lookout point before dipping under the bridge on a dirt trail and climbing back up to the other side. This section can be a bit harrowing, as the unstable dirt path is a downhill where you really have to watch your step. Runners get a unique experience of seeing the bridge from underneath! The next couple of miles are spent crossing the bridge back to San Francisco with a west-facing view. This is a point where I've often seen runners struggling or collapsing, so I'm careful to watch out for people experiencing any problems that might need help. One thing that folks who have crossed the Bridge by vehicle might not realize is that a bridge is like a big gradual hill. When you're running across it, you really feel it.
Once you exit the bridge around mile 9.5, things get a lot easier. I knew from experience that I could make up some time from this point on. I pushed ahead of the 1:50 pacer and picked up the speed on the downhill segments tracing us back down to Fort Mason. Running past the Crissy Field marshes, the rays of the sun started to hit, and I was glad I'd elected to put sunscreen on.
It was around this moment I realized that I hadn't yet eaten either of the Sport Beans packs I'd brought. Typically I make a point of having one at mile 7, then a caffeinated pack at mile 11 if needed, as that practice had always treated me well in the past. Mile 10 I began to feel that glucose crash and knew I'd messed up. I fumbled to open a pack and get it down quickly. Approximately a mile later I felt that hit and felt better. I knew I wanted to PR this race; my training had gone well, and even though this was a more difficult course than the one I'd run a 1:49 at in March, I felt through the speed I'd gained in previous months that I could hit the 8:10 pace mark.
The aforementioned change to the course this year meant that instead of finishing on the flat ground of Marina Boulevard, we instead made the mile 12 climb up Marina Green and peaked the hill right at the mile 13 mark. This had plenty of people groaning and saying with an almost masochistic laugh, "seriously??!!!" The relief came in the form of a steep decline leading to the finish line. I'm lucky to be adept at going down hills (thanks, 30-year-old knees), but I worried that this could be a spot where some runners' legs could give out and cause them to fall. Thankfully, nobody in my vicinity did. I crossed the finish line at a personal record time of 1:47:18, 9 minutes faster than the previous year!
After hanging around to watch Gary finish then a stop by the Nuun tent for some electrolyte replenishment, we took off in search of a shower and burgers. Although this is a challenging course, it's one I'd definitely recommend for the experience of running the northern portion of this beautiful city. How often can you say that you ran a half marathon that took you to a different county AND across a national landmark? :P
Very glad to have done this one, and I look forward to seeing what even faster PR I can hit on a flatter course in 2018.