Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The 2017 San Francisco Marathon 52.4 Mile Ultra - Two Sides Of A Great City

Have you ever been to the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco at 1am, weaving through the loud and crazy nightlife revelers, only to have those city vampires stare awestruck and say " THAT guy is strange!"?

Ever run through the eerie calm of an empty Golden Gate Park and Presidio, dodging nocturnal wildlings of all shapes and sizes, and having to sprint from an owl attacking the glow of your headlight?

How about tracing that same route the next morning, joined by 29,000 others and cheered by a half a million more?

Thus is the unique experience that is the 2017 San Francisco Marathon 52.4 Mile Ultra, a double marathon option of this iconic big city race. Run the San Francisco Marathon course backwards at midnight with a crew of mobile aid stations, then join 29,000 runners at 5:30am to run the full marathon as the sun rises...a true urban ultramarathon to show you two sides of the same city.

It was Dean Karnazes who cooked up this scheme six years ago (he's known to run to the start of many of the big city marathons), and I've always wondered what it would be like to double up. Is it similar to back to back long runs? Or more like a 50-miler with a reaaaally long aid station break half way through? This was a chance to find out, and do so in the experienced hands of Race Directors Karen Tancuan, Lauri Abrahamsen, and Jason Clendenning, with the Immortal Race Crew handling mobile logistics. I was definitely in!

San Francisco Marathon Ultra - The First Lap

The run format shook up my normal race routine from the moment I left for the midnight start. I put the kids to bed, left my pajama-clad wife watching Game of Thrones with a glass of wine in her hand (and shaking her head in disbelief that I would opt for running over this), and suited up. About 60 other ultrarunners were there at the start, and I heard lots of different planned approaches to the race:
  • Four-time 52.4 winner and marathon fanatic Graham Hedger was going out fast with the ideal low 60's weather. 
  • Kowsik Guruswamy was going to take it easy so he could pace his friend through a first marathon in the morning. 
  • Abel Alejandrino was raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, proudly displaying his daughters picture, and prepping for the Angeles Crest 100m in a month. 
  • Another runner planned to make it back in time to officially pace the 5-hour finishers (or not!).
  • A young man from L.A. (with mother in tow) said he wanted to check the boxes for "saw San Francisco" and "ran an ultra" before he headed off to college in Pennsylvania in a few days. 
(Dean gives us a few words before the race starts, photo courtesy of Kowsik)
Dean Karnazes was here to make friends and enjoy the day, and was well on his way to both when he welcomed everyone at the start. The horn sounded right afterwards, and we headed down the Embarcadero. Let the adventure begin!

(There are friends who cheer, and then there are friends who show up at midnight with signs to cheer...Gabi wins!)
(The few, the crazy, the SF ultrarunners!)
("When the lights...go the city", we run!)
I cruised along at my aerobic 7:30 min/mile pace (my goal for the whole day), and within two miles was well behind Graham Hedger in the lead. The lead bike had to go with the fast Brit, and the next thing we knew we were on our own for navigation! There were arrows and signs, but the city was alive and bustling with traffic, so you had to keep your eyes open (ears too - RunGo's turn-by-turn navigation of the course was a must). Abel and Carlsbad, CA's Stefan Asbock were smart enough to pair up a half mile behind me, as did most of the other runners.

I had foolishly thought the streets would be empty, forgetting this is a perfect summer night for clubbing in the Dogpatch, Mission, and Haight districts. The sidewalks overflowed with bacchanal on busy corners, and given the roads weren't blocked off for the marathon yet, we did our best to navigate through them. Luckily the cop-like brightness of my headlamp split most packs like Moses through the Red Sea. I'm sure a "you there...freeze!" would have been an order of magnitude more effective.
(City night running is fun! When it's empty...)
A few enlightened souls joined me running down Haight Street (mile 6), happy to share wine, herb, laughter, and song. My water bottles were empty, so it was tempting, but soon enough I found Robert Rhodes managing the mobile aid station (mile 7.5). He filled me up and sent me into Golden Gate Park, where I poorly navigated the sprinklers popping up everywhere.

(Dean gets a refill at the mobile aid station, photo courtesy of Robert Rhodes)
The park was eerily quiet and foggy, and aside from a few large raccoon and deer, there wasn't a soul to be seen. Usually this park has thousands of people in strange to find it empty! Like the zombie apocalypse had drowned out the sun. Somewhere in the fog around the lake I made a wrong turn, but RunGo had me back on track within a half mile, and Chris Blagg and the Immortal Race Crew magically appeared to point me downhill towards the ocean and get back on track.

(Raccoons get to work, ha, ha)
I got one last glimpse of Graham (easily two miles ahead of me now) at the half way point, which I hit in 1 hr 44 min. That seemed like a good pace - fast, but not so fast I couldn't hold it through the next 1.5 marathons. The ocean tugged the fog in ebbs and flows as I ran along the Great Highway, and the headlights of fellow ultrarunners sparkled in the distance. I ran back up into the park, and made a quarter mile detour to get another runner back on track (she would have done the same for me) before hitting the neighborhoods. There aren't many neighbors out at 2am, but surprisingly, those that are walk their dogs and meet each other just like any other time of day. There wasn't anything strange about a guy running with a headlight and a number either - they just nodded!

As I got to the Presidio (mile 18), the street lights were few and far between, amplifying the solitude. I felt the wings of a bird come within a few feet of me....then again....then on the third try I realized it was an owl going for my headlight! Wha?!? What is the proper defense strategy for owl attacks, anyway? Go big and loud like you do with mountain lions? Play dead like with grizzly bears? I opted for the former, throwing in a sprint to the next aid station (mile 20.5), where Robert and the gang said they had been seeing that owl for the last 10 minutes. I guess we are on his turf!

(Robert Rhodes mans the mobile aid out for owls!)
I took the familiar path down to Crissy Field, watching the lights of the Bay Bridge reflect in the still waters of the Bay. This was fun! As I crossed into Fisherman's Wharf, dozens of rats scurried away from the trash cans set outside the chain restaurants, pretty much guaranteeing I will never, ever eat down there. Mary the bike guide rescued me and pulled me down the idle trolley tracks and into the finish in 3:36:29.

I had two hours to collect myself for lap #2, so I followed Graham's lead and got a full breakfast, plenty of water, and a 15-minute massage. Graham had finished in a screaming fast 3:05(!), but was already worried it would cost him in the second half. We were both far too energized from runners coming in to take a nap, so we changed into dry clothes and got ready for part two! The fresh pair of Injinji socks felt great, and the cushy inov-8 Trailroc 285's were handling the uneven pavement with ease.

San Francisco Marathon Ultra - The Second Lap
The SF Marathon, now in its 40th running, is a BIG race these days. I've run it a few times, but the record setting 29,000 runners who showed up today for 10k, two half marathon options, and the full marathon distances leave no doubt this race is now one of the biggies. In the starting corral, I heard no less than six languages, all of them excited to see the historic sites, and more than one busting out Journey's "Lights". I was feeling tired from the all-nighter (I am no spring chicken), but their energy was better than an espresso double shot!

(And the marathon begins!)
The rats were gone by the time this army of runners made their way to the Golden Gate Bridge (thank god), and I wondered if they were under the grates looking at us in a similarly disgusted fashion. The weather was cooler and windier now, the bridge a faint dusting of red in the fog. I assured the tourist runners "it was just there a few hours ago, I swear" as we climbed our way up into the wind.

(Friends find each other in the fog)
Four runners came across the foggy bridge in diamond formation, leading the race like the Blue Angels as we begin our out and back. Our own Jorge Maravilla was the lead jet, confidently pulling the pack through the headwind. The fog had a nice cooling effect, and most of the runners around me said it was preferable, despite missing the scenery.

(Kowsik has some fun crossing the bridge with runner cops)
My friend Joe Palubeski miraculously spotted me among the runners (he has a gift!) as he paced his buddy through his first marathon and captured it all on his GoPro. As we made our way across and back on the bridge, I realized this pace was going to keep me close to about two dozen runners around me. A Canadian women with rainbow braids, a 70-year man from Mexico with the coolest mustache, a 30-year-old guy from the Tahiti Tri Club, and a husband/wife couple from Spain with matching outfits, right down to the lycra pants covering their respective thongs (yes, you read that right). Hey, whatever makes you go fast!

(Runners take over the bridge, photo courtesy of Chris Lundy)
Once we entered the park (mile 10), the SF Marathon applied its genius logistics to infuse new runners from half marathons every mile or so. Some were fast, some were slow, and everyone was having a good time. I ran along with a group of 1:45 half marathoners, enjoying the look on their face when they asked "half or full?" and I responded "double". "What the faaaaahhhh.....duuuuuude!!!". ;-)

(Watch for sharks...)
It was easy to get around the lake correctly this time, and soon enough we were heading through the Haight again and downhill towards the Bay (mile 18). My energy started to wain (much like it often does at mile 40), and it was fascinating this felt exactly the same as if I hadn't taken a two hour break. I gorged on Stroopwafels, and leaned into the hill.

The sun burned bright in the last few miles, and I slowed to a 9 min/mile pace as the sun drained what little was left in my tank. It felt anti-climactic, right up until the announced said "an ultra finisher!" and the crowd went crazy. How fun! So rare to have such an audience at an ultra finish. I had crossed in 3:41:02, good enough for a combined time of 7:17:21 and 2nd Overall in the ultra. The volunteers jokingly gave me two of everything (water, bagels, protein bars, etc.), and when I took them up on two beers, I was asleep on a cot within five minutes. Whoops!

(With Penny "rubber chicken lady" Macphail, who said Jorge's son had stolen her chicken and hadn't been caught yet)
I woke up 20 minutes later, and rallied to come out and cheer on the other ultra finishers and thank the volunteers. Graham Hedger added his fifth win with an outstanding combined time of 6:31, and Stefan Asbock had an 18-minute negative split to come in third in 7:28. Abigail Cannon (9:50), Gabriel Anderson (10:18), and Alyssa Perry (12:32) filled out the Women's podium. (results) Jorge Maravilla had won the marathon in a crazy fast 2:28:23 (!), with Stanford student Devin McMahon winning the Women's in 2:52:49. (all results) The finish line was full of bling, with all kinds of extra medals for completing both half marathons, all distances, at least 40 miles, and more. The celebration was in full swing!

(Jorge Maravilla for the win!)
Was the double worth it? Hell yes. Would I do it again? Absolutely. I have two new sets of memories to broaden my perspective on this great city. One thing for sure, with vampires, scavengers, swooping giant birds, and an unstoppable army, Game of Thrones has nothing on the San Francisco Marathon Ultra. My thanks to Dean, the RD's, and Immortal Race Crew for making it happen!

- SD


  1. The concept of this double-Marathon has always fascinated me - I love that it's available as an option. I have little interest in running the SF Marathon, but this sounds really interesting. (Not that I could manage it - I'd have to run that first loop significantly faster than my PR just to be at the start in time to run the second, but a guy can dream.) Congrats on your finish! (And not getting taken out by that owl!)

    1. There are a group of mad people here in SA who have doubled up on every run they've run... from a 10km to Comrades (+_90km). But they run that for charity.
      I'm lucky my wife wouldn't let me run a double marathon, but that said your race did sound like fun!

    2. I sure enjoyed the format. I think you have six hours to finish the first loop, and six and a half to finish the second. You can do it!!!

  2. Dean Karnazes is a legend! What a great experience. I salute anyone that can do a marathon, let alone the double! Well done :)

    1. It was great to have Dean there, per usual. I think he cooked up a fun format!

  3. glad to hear graham was cruising again! i lead-bike rode with him two years in a row, that guy is incredibly fast.

    1. 3:05 for the first marathon! As you know, that's on sidewalks, dodging people, stopping for lights, and everything. He's wicked fast!

  4. I've been contemplating doing this for the past year or two. Living in the city and balancing running and family has me out at the wee hours often (more so in the past). Golden Gate park at 4ish in the morning has always been a favorite. Once as I was running along Kennedy I spotted a critter loping along in front of me. I eventually caught up and discovered it was a fox (it was misty so I had removed my glasses, for a while I wasn't sure what it was). It and I continued side by side about ten feet apart for a good half mile. Magic.
    -Charles Z

    1. Hooray for Mr. Fox! I agree - it's a convenient way to get long runs in without disturbing the family schedule. They were all still in pajamas by the time I finished.

  5. I enjoyed your recount of the race. This was my first ultra, and my 4th and 5th time running the San Francisco full marathon. I had similar experiences running the first loop, but with people mostly asking if the marathon had started or if I was just "practicing." The animals in Golden Gate Park definitely gave me the creeps especially when I found myself alone on the way back after running through Great Hwy and saw a silhouette of a large raccoon, I guessed, limping across the street. I went in unsure of what my strategy would be. Should I go slow enough the first loop, so I don't have a long break in between but have time to eat and change clothes or just see what pace feels right and go with the flow? I wasn't sure if a 2 or 3-hour break would be good for my body or not and was afraid I wouldn't be able to get going for the second loop. I ended up finding some people to run with in the first 10 miles before I found myself lost at GGP and, luckily, caught up to a few other runners that had also missed a turn to get out of the park. I ended up adding a couple of extra miles in my first loop, and decided to speed up in the last 5k, so I could just be done with the first loop. The massage was great, but I had to wait a while for my turn and ended up starting the second loop with the last wave. I planned on doing a run/ walk in the second loop, but I found myself not being able to run the downhills as it was too painful and my quads would give way when I tried.
    This was definitely an awesome experience and I am also thinking of running again next year. Maybe I will see you there! And congrats on your second place finish. You ran an amazing time!
    - Abbey Cannon

    1. First ultra, and a win! Congrats, Abbey! I hope we will see you on the ultra circuit soon!

  6. Wow! Incredible narrative from a man for whom I have so much respect. Congratulations on your awesome run, Scott. Always a hero in my book. -Debby

  7. Wow! Incredible narrative from a man for whom I have so much respect. Congratulations, Scott, on your awesome run. Always a hero in my book.

    1. Good to hear from you, Debby! I hope you are enjoying Florida.

  8. Scott, great writeup as always and it was awesome seeing you at the start line! We'll I think I saw you twice. One at the start and once you were long done before I got back to the tent. :)

    1. Great to see you too! Congrats on the finish. Thanks for letting me borrow your great pictures!


I LIVE for comments! Please add your thoughts, let me know you stopped by, etc., and be thoughtful of others. Always best if you sign your name, of course.

Latest Excursions