Race Report: San Francisco (Second) Half Marathon

Success is an easy thing to desire, a tricky thing to define, and a trickier thing to achieve. Being successful — or at least considering yourself such — largely depends upon how you’ve decided to define it, what it is that you’ve come to desire. Whatever your definition is, one thing is certain: None of us ever achieves anything without help — some help — from others. Whether it’s a coach, a friend, parents, a loving partner who supports you when you decide to take on a challenge — all of our hard work must be supported by those around us. We’re social creatures.

But of course this is just me being deep-and-thoughty. I ran the San Francisco Half Marathon this past weekend. It went well. I came short of my goals, but still: I consider it a success.

My goals were, admittedly, ambitious. I was shooting for a 6:30 mile, which doesn’t sound too crazy considering I did a 6:49 at the Oakland Half four months ago (my first race ever). With that much time to prep, my second race should be even better. I hurt my foot in May, missing enough training time to basically be training for my second race ever on about a month. But still, felt good.

In the end, I finished in 1:26:36, good for a 6:36 mile pace, 13 seconds per mile better than my Oakland time. See? A success. But I couldn’t help finishing and thinking, “Man. If only I’d pushed myself harder, I’d have done better. Six seconds per mile isn’t that much. I could’ve — should’ve — done 6:30, or even better.”

I wouldn’t have done even that well, though, if I hadn’t been effectively adopted by an ultra-marathoner from Marin County named John. At the start, I noticed a pace group for a 1:25 half-marathon, or a 6:25 pace, a little better than I was aiming for. But I decided to latch onto them as long as I could. One, two, three, four miles fly by, as the course loops around inside Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. (The SF Marathon is cool in that it has two half marathons, one for the first half of the full, and another for the second half. I did the second half.) I stuck with them, two pacers are two or three other guys. I’d never intended to use pacers, intending instead to practice the strategy of racing, rather than racing. But this was a chance to push myself as hard as possible, and I couldn’t pass that up.

Somewhere in Haight-Ashbury I started to lose my strength and ultimately lost the pacers, and then the course — which has a couple “alternate” sections where runners are pushed onto different streets to ease congestion — pushed me into one of these alternates. Alone on a different stretch of the course, I decided to use the downhill sections of hilly SF (not to mention the promise of an energy station coming up) to catch them. Shortly after I regained the main course, I caught back up with one of the pacers, who had slowed down to push another one of the runners needing pacing.

“I thought I’d lost you guys,” I said as I pulled up behind them.

“I thought we’d lost you,” said the pacer. The other one was continuing the actual 1:25 pace with another runner maybe 50 yards ahead.

“You had.”

“Way to use the downhills for speed.”

Shortly after, the other guy running with the pacer dropped off, and it was just he and I. Then the other pacer, the one actually going 6:25/mile, lost the last runner going with him. He kept up the pace, and the other stayed back with me, shouting encouragement and generally coaching me through the last 5 miles or so.

At mile 10: “Okay, basically just a 5K left.” I haven’t run a 5K since middle school. I’m not sure what that distance should feel like, but it sure felt longer than it should have. Every time there was a slight uphill section and I slowed, or when I was starting to look fatigued, he’d tell me to push it. Not shout, just instruct. We’ve been running together for an hour, I have no idea who the guy is, but he’s teaching me how to run.

In the middle of a race through one of the most famous cities in the world.

The race itself was fun enough. It was well-organized if a bit crowded, and I don’t think I like the big-popular-city-race thing as much as the smaller race in Oakland.

But point is, I’ve got the bug. I’ve got it really bad. Not sure when the next race is, but there’s only one option: to keep running, to keep improving, and to recognize the people who help you every step of the way.

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