Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Marathon Weekend in San Francisco

Runners traverse
San Francisco's Presidio
“Marathon Weekends” are becoming a popular phenomenon around the world.  As more people turn to running to stay in shape, the ability to experience a new city while also challenging your endurance and potentially setting a new personal record for race time all in one weekend is very appealing.  Go to any marathon expo or runners magazine and you will see ads for races across the country – from the desert of Nevada to the chill of Alaska, each race offers a unique experience in order to draw in runners.  A race offers the host city a chance to show off what makes it special, surely an economic development boon not only during the weekend of the race as runners pack local hotels and restaurants, but also when the same runners return for longer vacations after their race weekend sneak-peak.

Hanging out a cable car, looking towards the Bay
Last month I participated in a marathon weekend in San Francisco, CA. (Actually, it was to run the US Half Marathon, but as runners say, 13.1 miles is not “half” of anything!)  Three days is time enough to begin grasping the essence of a city; no doubt there are many great treasures that would be discovered with a longer stay, but in a three day span there is time to walk a few neighborhoods, eat at local restaurants, and even indulge in a couple of tourist activities.  There are several things about San Francisco that make an immediate impact: the continuous urban fabric and regular grid of streets on the steeply sloped terrain set dramatic vistas in every direction.  Many streets have direct views to the bay in one direction, and views of city streets, sloping uphill, lined by buildings in the other.  Riding the cable car is a uniquely San Francisco experience – even as modern streetcars have been introduced to connect residents to other parts of the city and the surrounding bay, the cable cars (now designated as historic structures) remain.  It is interesting to learn the history of the city and specifically the cable car; the inventor was viewed with quite a bit of skepticism and his innovation was called a “folly”… until it worked.  Today the cable car is one of the most beloved attractions the city has to offer, with long lines of tourists waiting on each end to board.  (Locals know enough to board one or two stops after the end with no line – a trick we quickly picked up).  Even the iconic Golden Gate Bridge was viewed with cynicism when it was planned and constructed, as the thought of crossing the wide bay with a structure seemed improbable at the time.  One lesson we can take away from San Francisco as planners and urbanists is to think big, and not be dismissive about new ideas.

With its cool climate and stunning natural and urban backdrops, San Francisco is an ideal city to host a marathon weekend; it is so popular that there are a number of marathons and half marathons run throughout the year.  On Saturday morning, we walked the waterfront area and found many out-of-town runners doing a pre-race warm-up, enjoying the views.  We also witnessed local triathletes swimming in the bay, before retrieving their bikes for a ride through the Presidio.  These locals are lucky enough to live here and take advantage of San Francisco’s public waterfront and park system year-round.  On Saturday night, pre-race pasta was easy to find in the Little Italy neighborhood (and pre-race wine from neighboring Napa Valley was hard to resist).  Sunday morning was race day.  Although the route avoided the most steeply-sloped streets, there seemed to be no land that was flat; the run presented a great challenge to those of us from South Florida.  The race started off running uphill for a quarter mile, but then leveled off as we entered the Presidio, and then climbed again as we went over the Golden Gate; once we crossed to the other side of the bay we turned around and did it all in reverse.  The views made it all worthwhile; many runners forego setting a personal record in order to stop and take photos along the route. (Or maybe they were using their cameras as an excuse to stop and recover from running up a steep hill – either way, the number of runners stopping for photos seemed unique to this race!)

Needless to say, I did finish… and did not set a record for race time.  However, I enjoyed every minute, and look forward to returning to San Francisco soon.

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