Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Race Report: San Francisco Ultramarathon

In September 2013, I was (begrudgingly) signed up for a 10K mud run in the Bronx, despite having never run anything longer than a mile in my life. At the time, I was a member of Mark Fisher Fitness, a gym that helped me to lose some weight and put on some muscle, and after doing some training, I realized it also brought out the endurance in me. Not long after the mud run, I signed up for my first full run 10K in October 2013, then regularly ran races with New York Road Runners (NYRR) through the fall of 2013 and winter of 2014.  I began to up my mileage, joined Front Runners New York, and by March of 2014, ran my first half marathon, the NYC Half Marathon. A few months later, I ran the Rock 'n' Roll Chicago Half Marathon, where I met Donna, who would become a good friend and planted a seed in my brain about running half marathons in all fifty states. And a few months after that, I ran my first full marathon - the 2014 Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

Fast forward to today - I have gotten a chance to go all over the country (and a couple Canadian provinces...) to run a half marathon in all 50 states, as well as half marathons in Curaçao and England (and more countries eventually!) and then also put several notches of full marathons under my belt. With all these goals being met or in the process of being met, I found myself looking for a new challenge... So, why not do The San Francisco Marathon?


On June 1st, I made the decision to run the San Francisco Ultramarathon challenge... a 52.4-mile run through the City By The Bay. This hallowed race is one of the nation’s few urban ultras, offering two challenging loops of San Francisco, and under very different sets of circumstances. The Ultramarathon begins with a midnight start line at the Embarcadero. Runners tackle a reverse loop of the course (with a slight detour along the Great Highway, instead of running on the Golden Gate Bridge) and race through the city as it sleeps. At dawn, ultramarathoners merge with the energy of thousands of runners to begin the iconic full marathon course. This challenge is a true test of endurance and bravery.

When I pulled the trigger to run this race, I also decided to run this race raising money for charity. I chose the SYTA Youth Foundation (SYF), an organization that my longtime friend Kendra had been running with for the last year. SYF is an organization that provides scholarships and financial aid for students and youth who would otherwise miss valuable educational travel experiences and group performance opportunities. Through long distance running and their "Running for Youth" program, participants use long distance running and walking as a symbol of endurance and hope and to raise money to provide access to travel opportunities for young people and students that would otherwise be unavailable due to family economic hardship, school budget cuts or lack of access to education about travel as a learning experience. What SYF does speaks to my own passions for travel, having done so much of it in the past couple of years; I thought, why not pay it forward to someone who may not be able to get a chance to have an experience that helps enrich their life a little more. In fact, it was a school trip at my high school that brought me to NYC for the first time, and now I've established my roots here.

On July 19, students from Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida flew to NYC,
taking in Times Square through a SYTA Youth Foundation trip of a lifetime!
With 60 days between making my announcement and race day, I set out a goal to raise at least $1000 for the charity, and also put in some miles with my first double marathon weekend, which I got to accomplish in Portland a mere four weeks before the ultra.  I took the weekend just before the ultra off from racing to rest up my legs for what would be a high-mileage day.  Also, in mid-July, Kendra invited me to join her for dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square with 25 young people and their chaperones from the SYF's Silver Lining Program and several board members and staff of SYTA and SYF. These young folks from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida were granted with an all-expense paid three-day educational experience to New York City. Every student has a different background but they are all engaged in their community. Some of these kids may have never left their home near the Orlando area - or even flown in a plane until the morning of their trip! The Silver Lining Program's mission is to recognize deserving students who have demonstrated through their action, intention, or circumstance the desire to expand their awareness, creating a dramatic life change. It was great to see firsthand the work that the SYF does to enrich the lives of children, who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to experience something like this.

Flying into San Francisco Saturday morning.
At the expo...
Purposefully, I decided to schedule my flights to be in San Francisco for about 36 hours, moreso to be able to disrupt my body alarm clock into sleeping during the day so that I had all the energy I needed for the run starting out at midnight.  I flew out from LaGuardia to SFO (via Denver) super early on Saturday and arrived around 11am, taking an UberPool into the city to meet up with my friend Andrew at his job so that I could get his keys from him to his place in the Castro since he was working all day.  After retrieving said keys, I headed up via another Uber to the expo at Fort Mason. The Uber dropped me off on the wrong side of the park, so I got to preview part of the marathon course by climbing the ugly and steep hill along McDowell Avenue (whilst FaceTiming with my friend and FRNY Pride Run co-director Ryan, who was in town to run the half) and then a set of stairs to get down to the Festival Pavilion.  During the FaceTime, Ryan told me he'd run/walk with me for the second loop of the race, since he'd been having fun going out with his friends all weekend, and hopes for a decent half were out the window - that I'd need all the support I could get for my second 26.2 of the day.  I told him to find me at the Ultra tent at the start on race morning, hoping to reach there by the time the runners went off.

Front bib and back bib!
I retrieved my bibs and visited with a few friends at the expo (Almi, Adrian, and Jennifer), but tried not to spend too much time there, as I was a man on a mission to ensure I gave myself enough time to rest back at Andrew's apartment because of my late night ahead.  I figured, get back to Andrew's place before 4, to give myself 6 to 6 1/2 hours of good sleep, before heading out to the Embarcadero at midnight.  Andrew agreed to stay out a little late after his shift ended and wait for my call to let him know when 1) I was awake, and 2) when I was about to leave so I could let him back in and return his key to him.  Camelbak filled, and drop bag complete with everything I needed for the next ~15 hours, I ended up leaving around 10:30pm, and Uber'd yet again (I'm in San Francisco, where Uber began... why not?!) out to the eastern coast of the San Francisco peninsula, to the Embarcadero where I was one of the first folks to show up to gather for the start of the Ultramarathon.

More from the expo. (Photo taken by Almi del Villar)

What am I getting myself into?!?
At the Ultra tent before midnight.
To say I was anxious was an understatement.  An hour before the start, I was nervous as heck, hoping I'd be able to survive the onslaught that my legs would go through over God knows how many hours it would take me.  The clock ticked down as I met the other crazies who planned to run the ultra.  All in all, 62 of us were registered to run the race, but 10 didn't show up.  At ten minutes til, we walked over to the Ferry Building with the coordinators of the ultra, who briefed us about the aid stations, timing, and ideally what time we should be getting ourselves to the start line to record our first loop time, which would be done manually.  We were all given paper maps to help us with the route since there would be minimal markers up to tell us the direction of where to go, despite the race being six hours later.  We also had some guides on bicycles to help us with the route in case we got lost.  I was going to run with Ken, who initially put the idea in my head to do the ultra, but I couldn't find him at the midnight start.

The group ready to begin!

Bay Bridge at night
With minutes left to go, I got the chance to sing the national anthem for this small group of folks, which was nice to be able to do since some of us may not be back in time to hear the anthem at the start of the race.  It became my national anthem for the state of California, state number 13 in that challenge of singing the anthem in all fifty states! At midnight, we took off into the darkness, heading southward along the water, with the Bay Bridge as our only real visible landmark in the distance.  A few of us kept at an easy 10 minute mile clip for the first few miles.  Since we were following the course in reverse, we headed toward AT&T Park, enveloped in darkness, and then took some back streets as we headed down toward South Beach and into Mission Bay on nice flat sections for just under three miles.  And then the hills came, as we made our way around Dogpatch and Potrero Hill, residential neighborhoods that were obviously turned down for the night.  Around the 5K mark, Ken came running up to us, having made up lots of time by turning in some super fast miles at first in order to catch up to the large chunk of us roughly running together.  On his way to the start, his GPS made him make some wrong turns, so he didn't get started at the Ferry Building until about 5-10 mins after we had already left.  We made some wrong turns here and there making our way through Dogpatch and then took 17th Street westward as a big group instead of 16th Street as we made our way into the Mission District, but we covered roughly the same mileage, finally realizing our mistake as we crossed Mission Street, covering a few blocks before heading northward onto Guerrero Street.  Guerrero Street northward was a super steep section all the way up to Buchanan Street, seeing us go from 56 feet above sea level to 180 feet in just under 3/4 mile.  We then continued westward along famed Haight Street, casually heading uphill again until we reached Stanyan Street, at the eastern end of Golden Gate Park.  Heading through the Mission and the Haight neighborhoods was fun, especially at this hour, when most of the bar patrons along this strip were hanging outside of their establishments, dumbfounded by the group of us running (seemingly organized) at this hour, and knowing the marathon wouldn't be until the following morning.

On Stanyan Street at about mile 7.5 before heading into the park, we reached our first of four aid stations laid out for us on the course.  Here, and at all the other stations, we were to check in with a volunteer who would ensure our safety and that we hadn't dropped out.  Our next station would not be for another six miles, and it would be after making our way through a VERY DARK Golden Gate Park.  At night, much of the route does not have any streetlamps, making headlamps necessary for the ultrarunners attempting the night loop.  Add to the fact that at this hour, the marine layer began to come in, and everything was enveloped in the notoriously thick fog that San Francisco is famous for. Things went smoothly as a large group of us made our way down JFK Drive into the center of the park, but things went awry as we attempted to make our way around Stow Lake.  We successfully made the turn onto Stow Lake Drive, and made our way about 9.6 miles in before heading out onto MLK Jr. Drive, which we were to only be on for a short while, before going back onto Stow Lake Drive; unfortunately, this didn't happen, and we found a group of about 12-15 of us on the corner of Crossover Drive and MLK Drive, trying to figure out where we made the mistake.  Out came the maps to figure out our positioning, while the thin paper began to slowly disintegrate every time those maps came out in the crazy humidity.  We decided to go northward on Crossover Drive, along a slightly muddy path before finding ourselves completely off of the map, and cut through some trail before getting back onto JFK Drive again, where we were finally back on the right course.

Dean Karnazes and I at the aid
station near the Great Highway
We were maybe off by just a a few tenths of a mile, but we maintained course as we got onto Transverse Drive and then turned right onto the winding MLK Jr. Drive, finally reaching the next aid station located at the southwestern end of the park at Lincoln Way and the Great Highway.  Here, we encountered runners who were on their way back through the park, having taken the out-and-back along the Great Highway that was our detour from the regular route, as being on the bridge in the middle of the night was not going to happen.  One of those runners I encountered at the aid station was famed ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes, embarking on his second San Francisco Ultra, and we snapped a quick pic as he continued on his way, and I gulped down some Mexican Coca-Cola and then continued on along the super quiet Great Highway. 

The Great Highway, 2:45am.
Hearing only the sound of the waves of the Pacific and my shoes hitting the pavement, I ran alongside Ken, as we made our way along the Great Highway for a little over a mile out and the same headed back.  After some hilliness, it was nice to run on a flat surface for a bit, and we took advantage of this less strenuous push on our bodies.  We headed back toward the park for a last check-in with the vehicles, before making our way back onto MLK Jr. Drive and then out onto Transverse Drive, exiting out onto Fulton Street on the north edge of the park.  Somewhere along the way, I slowed down, and Ken continued on, but I could still see him a few hundred feet in front of me.  It was definitely lonely coming back through the park, and the tiredness began to seep in as it was 3:40am by the time I exited the park.

We then headed northward on 27th Avenue through the Richmond District, passing the Marina-style homes popular in the area.  The rolling hills here felt arduous as we ran through the 19th mile of the first loop.  We turned right onto the nice downhill dip on El Camino del Mar, before we were subjected to the toughest uphill battle of the first loop, the ascent to the Presidio.  Here was where I would encounter the steepest sections of the race course, which I admittedly would love coming down, but would HATE heading up. The fog seemed thicker here, the closer we approached the highest point of the course. Ultimately, we were rewarded with the last aid station at mile 20.5 and then a steep descent making our way down toward Crissy Field.

The Golden Gate at night,
covered in fog
We followed Mason Street eastward (neglecting to do the little dogleg onto Jauss Street... oops) and then made our way onto Marina Boulevard, passing homes along the Marina District.  The sun still hadn't risen yet, but volunteers were beginning to make their way to the aid stations for the start of the actual San Francisco Marathon, with the first runners beginning at 5:30am.  I passed some houses along the marina which still had their patio lights on for the evening, at one point encountering a family of raccoons crossing from the marina, across the usually busy street, into the backyard of one of the likely million-dollar homes.  Alongside a course monitor on a bicycle, we made our way around the Fort Mason area alongside Bay Street (which was a detour from the actual route, being that Fort Mason was closed at that early morning hour), but being that it was 5:00am at that point, us runners really didn't know if we were going in the right route.  Unfortunately, and frustratingly, neither did the bicycle monitor.  Eventually, we found our way to the correct route, taking Van Ness Avenue to the path alongside the Aquatic Cove next to the Maritime Museum, and then onto Jefferson Street through Fisherman's Wharf, as we saw runners heading toward the startline in the last two miles of the race.

Racing against the clock and wanting to get a decent amount of time to change clothes and do whatever I needed to do in the transition area, I pushed myself to complete the first loop, catching up to a small group of six of us who were racing back toward the start area, so that we wouldn't be beleaguered by the onslaught of runners coming in our direction and the runners gathering in the start village preparing to begin.  I pushed toward the 52.4 Ultra tent, and registered my first loop in 5:33:47.  The first wave of non-elites began at 5:32, so I just got there as the race was starting.

Already spent, but Ryan is ready to kick my ass into gear for Loop 2!
Here we go... my second 26.2!
Waiting for me at the tent was my good friend Ryan, who, like he had said before, was going to run this second loop alongside me.  I rushed into the tent, retrieved my bag and changed out of my sweaty and humidity-laden clothes - even socks and shoes - into a completely new kit, ready for my second loop.  I had my second watch ready (as I had borrowed my friend Seth's for the first loop, as I knew my Garmin wasn't going to last all 52.4 miles), so I threw that on, and grabbed my signal and was ready to go.  I refilled my Camelbak, threw in some of the food I had bought the day before which I knew was going to be a necessity for my second loop, and got a quick bite to eat from the bagels and other items that the 52.4 Ultra coordinators had laid out for us. I took one bite of a PB&J sandwich I had purchased from a Walgreen's then threw it away -- case in point, never buy pre-made PB&J from a drug store.  Ryan and I then proceeded out to the corrals, and made our way into the huge throngs of people before the start and before long, I was back out on the roads, crossing the startline for my second loop at 6:13am, a mere thirty minutes after I registered my finish time for the first loop.  Ryan was only signed up for the first half of the course, but told me he was going to be here as my mobile support for this second loop, and boy did I need him.

I look tired AF,
he looks fresh.
(Official photo by
The SF Marathon.)
Of course, within a few minutes, I was already walking.  I had warned Ryan that this was going to be a VERY slow marathon, as my tiredness and hunger was going to wreak havoc on me for being back out on the roads.  The sun had obviously risen already, but was hidden by the clouds, but still at 57ºF, the 82% humidity saturated the air.  Ryan stuck with me the entire way, even through the walking (which I knew was tough, since he can bust out a half in an hour and forty-five minutes) and he was actually quite a rock for me when my body was starting to rebel...  We passed our time while playing the cast recording to the Broadway musical, HAMILTON, while he joked that I was currently a "Peggy," but needed to graduate to "Eliza" status by finishing the damn race.  I remember as we began our trek along the north edge of the peninsula, an area I had JUST run hours before, I had already begun to put on a sour attitude, swearing like the Scots did to Donald Trump when he exclaimed he was happy for Brexit and for Scotland taking their country back.  Except, my marathon-addled brain could only think of the word "cocksplat," which I would end up repeating multiple times over those 26.2 miles.  Ryan was kind enough to retrieve my bag of beef jerky for me as the need arose, force-fed me whatever else he found in my Camelbak (gummi bears FTW) and also egged me on to do a modified fartlek, having me run to a certain landmark in the distance before continuing to walk again.

Running waterside near the Maritime Building.
The stupid hill headed up to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Fog still in the area, before we realize how cold and windy it would be up there.
Not really interested in ever
running on this bridge again.
The marked difference in this loop (other than my obvious fatigue) was the out-and-back on the Golden Gate Bridge.  We took on the northward lanes of the bridge, slick with dew and the rain that had continued to fall lightly throughout the early hours of the marathon. I encountered a few friends on this out-and-back (Hi Seth), while nervously crossing the expansion joints, and shivering through the wind and chill that marked this section of the race.  The turnaround couldn't come any faster, and we made our way back with lots of cheering for the people who were embarking on the same path we had just completed, wishing them to complete it quickly to get out of the cold.

Alcatraz in the distance.

With Winnie in the Presidio!
Exiting off the bridge and into the Presidio, I knew we were heading to the hill that I hated so much going up, but this time... yay, we were going downhill!  I also ran into my friend Winnie, an NYRR employee, who was also in town to run the marathon.  The downhill of course, was nice, and gave me some marked improvement in my split times, but they were still considerably slow since I was (at that point) 36.5 miles into my day.

The park is much nicer during the day.
Ryan continued to help me out as we trudged on through the Richmond District.  As we entered Golden Gate Park, and he neared the 13.1 mile mark part of his race (and the finish where he could collect his medal and bag), he started to notice my face turning pale, and sprung into action, finding some carbs I had thrown into my bag in the form of a bag of pretzels for me to munch on.  We also found another runner completing the first half who gave me a spare lavender-infused honey stick she had, which was a nice addition to my fuel for the race.  At 12.9 miles, we separated for the first time in the race, and I was on my own for the out and back along MLK Jr. Drive.  Golden Gate Park looks a lot better when you can see in front of you, haha.  Ryan reappeared near the 15 mile mark, and remarked that I looked MUCH better than when he last left me.  We continued on past the first half marathon's finish line, and proceeded to make our way around Stow Lake.

I've eaten something
and actually have energy.
(Official photo from
The SF Marathon)
We made our way around Stow Lake, continuing to sing along to HAMILTON, when we ran into Ingrid, a very sweet lady from Vermont, who was wearing a rainbow colored singlet.  We finished the loop around the lake together, wished her a great day and congratulated her for doing a marathon on her birthday.  We took JFK Drive to a path exiting the park in a tunnel under Kezar Drive at roughly mile 18.5, emerging onto the Haight.  The next couple miles along the Haight were a complete 180 from the 1am run.  Surprisingly, there were not very many people cheering the runners along on the route.  Either they had all left after cheering on the second-half runners, or that's just the nature of the San Francisco Marathon 4 1/2 to 5 hours in.  The police, by this point, were already pushing runners to the sidewalks, which was not easy considering the regular bystanders using them and the fact that aid stations were still operating on the roads themselves.  The route included a bus-box detour, having us turn onto Scott Street in the Lower Haight, and taking Waller Street to Buchanan Street before proceeding on to Guerrero Street.

Feigned happiness. (Official photo by The SF Marathon)

Can I have a nap? (Official photo by The SF Marathon)
We welcomed the downhills that I so painfully dreaded when going in the other direction ten hours earlier. We reached 16th Street, running from Mission to Potrero Hill, continuously being stalked by the police to move to the sidewalks.  We also came upon a strange sight along 16th - Ryan and I spotting a leather harness, mask, and tutu-wearing hirsute man (a bear, as the gays would describe him as) shaking his booty in a doorway of a building along the route.  Was I hallucinating?  No... Dore Alley, the "dirty little brother" of infamous BDSM, fetish and leather-subculture Folsom Street Fair, was being held a few blocks away from the route - so seeing something like this wasn't much of a surprise, lol.

She has had it.
(Official photo by The SF Marathon)

Trying to look like I'm feeling it, but I'm really not.
(Official photo by The SF Marathon)

With Ingrid and Ryan after the finish!
(Photo by Ingrid Sell-Boccelli)
We made our way into the flat elevation on the turnaround in Dogpatch, which would continue to stay flat all the way to the finish.  The only problem was, after 49-50 miles of roads, running on flat surfaces felt much more difficult, with shooting pain up my legs.  I would begin to complain that my ankles were starting to feel pinched.  As six hours approached, I was walking way more than running toward these final miles.  With a mile and a half left to go, Ingrid caught up with us, and we dodged traffic and spectators tailgating for the Giants v. Nationals game at AT&T Park happening that afternoon.  The three of us made our way to the Embarcadero, passing the Bay Bridge, and made our way toward the finish line.  By this time, operations began to take down the finish, so they had moved the finish timing mat to the sidewalk adjacent to the finish.  I completed the second loop in a hard-fought 6:30:47, easily my worst marathon time... however, consider the fact that I just completed 52.4 miles, it's not so surprising. I completed the entire race in 12 hours, 4 minutes and 34 seconds, officially coming in 40th out of 46 official finishers of both loops.  Three had dropped out on the first loop, and two more in the second.

The final miles of the race, with AT&T Park in the distance
Victory Headstand with the Ferry Building's iconic Clock Tower.
I headed back to the Ultra tent to get some much needed sustenance and took my customary headstand photo, while meeting up with Seth to return his watch to him (he had lent his Garmin to me so I could run the second loop with a fresh watch).  Ken had finished earlier, and headed back to his hotel and he was nice enough to let me take a quick shower there before I headed back to meet with Andrew to get his key again and then head back to his place to sleep the rest of the afternoon away.  I agreed to meet up with Ryan a little later at a nearby bar for some food and drink, before our redeye flights back home via SFO.

Ken and I. Officially Ultramarathoners!
All in all, I have to say...What an experience. Never in my lifetime would I have thought I'd be able to accomplish what I did in San Francisco - not only in my twelve hours of running, but the logistics it took for me to reset my body clock in the time around the race.  For my first ultra, I chose a really tough course and a considerable distance... which shouldn't surprise many, as I've always been a "go big or go home" type of guy. I wouldn't have been able to do it without the support from friends across the country encouraging me on as I checked thru my phone during points during the second loop where I wasn't sure I had the ability to continue. And I can't thank enough the amazing support of my fellow ultra marathoner friend Ken, who planted the seed of doing this challenge in my head, and who posted two extremely respectable times on his first go around at this distance.  I also have to thank my amazing friend Ryan, for not only force-feeding me and ensuring I was fueling properly, but also helping me keep putting one foot in front of the other even though I effectively got him to run his slowest ever half marathon and marathon times.  Sure, I myself posted two of my worst marathon times, but I frankly, I could care less... Now, I can say that I'm an ultra marathoner.

Ahhh, sweet victory.
Additionally, I'm so thankful for my donors who helped me with raising money for SYTA Youth Foundation -- in just two months, I raised $1650 for this AMAZING organization that will help several young people broaden their life experiences through educational travel programming. Thank YOU from the bottom of my heart!

There are definitely some parts of the ultra that needed work in the overnight loop - better maps (lamination would help, as the paper they gave us disintegrated in the fog-saturated air), better course markings (reflective markers telling us where to turn, especially in the dark of Golden Gate Park would've helped, as well as laminating these things too!), bike marshals actually knowing the course turn-by-turn (ugh, over near Fort Mason!); and I wish there was just overall better crowd support during the regular marathon itself.  A friend once told me that he believed there were marathon cities - cities where the marathon is well supported by its people; and cities with marathons - cities that don't get nearly as much support as they should despite being major population centers.  San Francisco is a city with a marathon in it.  I felt the crowd support lacking compared to marathons in cities of similar size and density.

Showing off my bling in the office.
I took my flight home from San Francisco to JFK, with a stop in Detroit, and in first class because I deserved it, lol. I was so tired that I slept that entire flight from SFO to Detroit, and hobbled out of the airplane to the gate, where I insisted that I get a wheelchair to take me to my next gate (Which was absolutely necessary as my legs had tightened up and the gate for my flight back to New York was in another terminal, a good 15 minute walk away on normal legs.)  In a twisted turn of events, the gate we landed at at JFK was the last one at the end of the concourse in Terminal 4, easily the biggest terminal at the airport. It took me over 20 minutes to waddle through the terminal and out of the airport, as waiting for a wheelchair would take just as long.  And... as per normal? I head to the office to work that Monday.  But I was back in my office an ultramarathoner!

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