San Francisco Half Marathon

… or, how to run a half marathon with almost no run training.

For a bit under a year, I’ve been going to a local CrossFit gym: Mad Dawg Fitness. If you haven’t heard, CrossFit involves doing a little bit of everything, with a goal of getting decent at everything. This involves power lifting, Olympic lifting, pull ups, push ups, hand stands, jump ropes, box jumps, dips, short runs, rope climbs, farmer walks, lunges, etc. etc. On a typical night we’ll focus on technique/increased load in one lift, and then do a 5-15 minute high intensity circuit workout. The most I’ve ever run in a workout there is 2k (either as 2x1k, or 5x400m) which happens maybe once every other month. (I only go 3 times a week. Some people go more often.)

Danielle and our friend Jasmine had signed up to the the 1st half of the San Francisco Marathon when Danielle hurt her knee and decided she couldn’t run. She’s done a few half marathons while I’ve always been of the opinion that running sucks and is miserable. But partly to do something hard, and partly to not let Jasmine run alone I decided to run in Danielle’s place. I decided some time near the end of June. Here’s all the running I did in preparation for the half: July 1, 2.5 miles in my Vibram Five Fingers before giving up with an arch cramp. July 4, switching to shoes, 4.3 miles before giving up because the inserts were shot. July 8, after buying new inserts, 3.2 miles. July 11, 7.5 miles. July 15, 5.2 miles. July 18, 12 miles. This was supposed to be a 10 mile run, but I misread my map. July 20, 4.2 miles. So with a grand total of 38.9 miles run this year, I went into today’s half marathon. (Actually, I ran 2.1 miles on February 6, too, but I’ll call that experimental error.)

I won’t spend more than this sentence complaining how early I had to get up, but it was early. Jasmine’s friend dropped us off near the start, and we found our wave easily. It wasn’t super cold, but cold enough that I was glad to have brought a trash bag to wear while waiting around. Everything seemed well-organized and was running smoothly. After 20 minutes or so it was our time to start, and to loud cheers the front of the last wave got going. Once there was some room in front of us we got going too. We’d decided on 7 minutes of running followed by 1 minute of rest and with our easy pace that meant a break before the first mile was up. Our first mile took 11:54, which seemed perfect for our stated goal of finishing in two and a half hours.

The next few miles went by without a hitch in 10:54, 11:28, and 11:41. The weather was perfect for running: cool and overcast. Somewhere on this stretch we ran on a bike path headed straight out to the bay, and I remember thinking how pretty it was. In the air was a mix of cut grass and seawater smell which I both like. But then I did feel like it’d be a lot prettier without a thousand people running in front of and behind me.

Our first little hill wasn’t much of a problem, and we felt alright climbing up to the Golden Gate Bridge. We must have slowed down though, because miles 5 and 6 took us 27:46. Part of that was probably due to traffic on the bridge. 3 lanes were closed for the half marathon: 1 for outgoing runners, 1 for returning runners, and 1 as a safety barrier between the runners and the real traffic. 1 lane was just too narrow, and we found us often slowing down, waiting for a gap between the people in front of us. One downside of the run/walk interval is definitely that you then have to be passing people while you’re running and there wasn’t always space to do that.

At the turnaround point in Marin County we used the water station. They were all well staffed and well equipped, but all but the very first one we passed had run out of gel. Jasmine was regretting not carrying one with her, and I had been counting on getting one at the water station but there were none to be had. There was a fun band playing though, which helped us get going for the way back across the bridge. Miles 7 and 8 took 23:53, again under the 12 minute mile pace we were shooting for.

This is when Jasmine really started hurting. She’d been complaining about a crampy foot almost the whole race, and now her knee was starting to bug her. During our walking breaks she’d be limping a little bit. But she’s a real trooper and just kept on going. Aside from tight calves, and a pinky toe that was rubbing against my shoe, I felt alright. I barely even breathed hard. I guess that’s what you’re supposed to do, but when running by myself I always go faster than that.

We did mile 9 in 10:52 due to a perfect downhill coming from the top of the bridge. Mile 10 inexplicably took just 8:46. I suspect a marker wasn’t quite in the right place, or I just didn’t push the buttons on my watch right. It was at the top of a pretty steep hill. From then on I thought it was all downhill but it was more up-and-down than just down. By mile 11 Jasmine had to start taking breaks aside from our scheduled ones. It took 11:06, but mile 12 took 13:09.

At mile 12 I went ahead by myself. I didn’t want to feel like I’d spent the whole race taking it easy, and while 1 mile of hard running can’t make you feel like 13 miles of moderate running I did my best to make it hurt. I didn’t keep a very consistent pace though because I wasn’t familiar with the course, and I didn’t see the 13 mile marker so I didn’t start sprinting until I could see the finish. That last 1.1 mile took me 9:16 and got me winded enough that I wondered if I was going to pass out after the finish. It was pretty fun though, passing people left and right, darting through clumps of runners and weaving around others.

It took me 2:30:41 to finish the half marathon, or an 11:30 minute mile pace. The 12 mile run the previous week I completed in 2:07:47, or a 10:36 minute mile pace. That run definitely felt harder than the real race. I’m guessing of course, but I think hanging back with Jasmine probably cost me about 10 minutes overall time in the event. But instead of 2:20 of misery, I got to mostly take it easy and enjoy her company rather than run the race by myself. That was totally worth it.

After I’d picked up my medal and space blanket I went looking for Jasmine and saw her just before she crossed the finish at 2:34:58 (11:50 minute mile pace). She was a lot worse off than I was. I just spent my time stretching out my super-tight calves. Jasmine instead went to the medical tent to ice her foot. Not that that was the only part that needed icing, just the most pressing one. Jasmine’s friend picked us up at the finish, which was awesome because the lines for the buses back to the start were huge. Luckily he’d found a parking spot fairly close. It took Jasmine just another mile time to hobble over there.

So now it’s done. I’m sitting at home drinking water, with two very tight calves and a blister on my pinky toe. There’ll be some foam rolling later that’s sure to hurt like hell. I need to catch up on sleep, and I probably won’t feel up to working out tomorrow. And the race was pretty easy for me. Jasmine’ll take longer than that to get back. I just hope she doesn’t have to walk any stairs tomorrow. In return for all that work we got a shirt, a medal that looks like it belongs on a key chain, and the knowledge that we can cover 13.1 miles in about two and a half hours. (It is a very nicely designed key chain thing though, and I similarly like the shirt’s design.) I wasn’t really excited for the race, either before or after it. I just spent a couple of hours following the people in front of me.

Instead I could’ve gone on a pretty hike which would net me memories of beautiful places and some pictures. Or I could’ve spent the time finishing my cabinet, which (eventually) will get me a cabinet I can look at and be proud of. Or I could’ve tried to set a dead lift PR without waking up early, and with only being miserable for a few minutes while lifting the weight and spending the rest of the time hanging out with friends. Or finally get back to practicing playing the harmonica. Or get back on my slackline. This feeling is very similar to after the triathlon I did a few years ago. I just don’t see the point.

But I’m very impressed with how easy it was to go from never running more than 2k in a workout occasionally, to easily finishing a half marathon in the top 77% (in my age group). If I’d gone my own pace (2:20) I would’ve ended up in the top 62%. (And 2:10 would’ve put me right in the middle of my age group.) Nothing spectacular, but not embarrassing either. The get-you-ready-for-anything aspect of CrossFit seems to really work.

About the author

Living the good life in Seattle, occasionally sharing something interesting with the Internet.