S.F. Marathon Course Notes

Possible Bottleneck

Possible Bottleneck

Last year’s San Francisco Marathon was my first race at this distance, and now I’m running it again. There will be some differences this time, but I’ll get to that. Although this is mostly for my own benefit, I hope anyone who is running this course for the first time might find some useful things here, including those who are running one of the two half marathons.


The summer weather is following it’s usual pattern with temperatures at about 55 at race start, rising to the low 60s later. Pretty much ideal, but then there’s the wind. It gets quite breezy even this early in the morning (the race starts at 5:30). Fortunately, most of the course is quite sheltered. The only exposed sections are the Marina Green and Chrissy field at miles 3 and 4, then the Golden Gate Bridge, where it’s a chilly crosswind about 250 feet above the bay. The rest of the course is either sheltered or downwind.

Other Runners

First, some finisher stats. Here in increasing order of hilliness are the distributions of finish times for CIM, SFM, and Big Sur, courtesy of MarathonGuide.com’s results pages:

As might be expected, CIM with it’s fast course and deep talent pool is noticeably faster than the others. SF appears to show a bigger speed disparity between men and women than either of the others. Your guess is as good as mine. The real reason I included these is to get an idea of what pace the main pack moves at, and how fast does one needs to be to have a clear road. The importance of this was brought home to me after Big Sur, when I compared notes with other runners who had been behind me. They had problems with crowding at aid stations and walkers in line abreast. I escaped all that by finishing just under 3:30. Plainly the 4:00 to 4:30 folks had the worst of it.

My target for next week is 3:20, which would put me roughly in 200th place, going by last years results. I should have a much cleaner run than last year. Some complications: The race has wave starts, and the marathoners in the first two waves are outnumbered by half-marathoners. Wave one (sub 3:30 pace) was already full when I signed up, so barring a last minute upgrade, I’ll be starting in wave two with the 3:30 to 3:45 folks. The good news is that wave two starts only a minute behind wave one, but 15 minutes ahead of wave three. So I’ll be in a race with about 750 other marathoners and 1,000 halfers until we catch the wave one tailenders. More than I would like, but way better than last year, when I was in wave four. The two waves combined will comprise 2,500 runners total.


California International Marathon


San Francisco Marathon

Big Sur

Big Sur International Marathon

One Lane Each Way

One Lane Each Way

Why does any of this matter? Well, you see that bridge pictured at the top of the page? We run across that twice, with just one traffic lane in each direction. It’s tight, and lasts for four miles starting at about mile 5.5. Last year it was quite a jostle, with zero time to admire the view! It will pay to be in a relatively thin group of runners. We’ll see how that goes. Most of the rest of the course is full road width, and the occasional narrow bits are short.


Here is the elevation profile (pdf) and course map (pdf) Basically, there is a short steep hill at mile 2, but it’s only 75 ft high. The hill up to the bridge starts at mile 5 and goes up 200 ft in a mile. Congestion apart, the bridge is an enjoyable run because the gradient gradually changes, and you slowly accelerate. Then there’s a 150 ft half-miler in the Presidio, followed by a really nice downhill mile. That was the point where I went out ahead of my pace group last year, and never saw them again. Some steepish rollers just after that, and most of the serious uphills are done before the race reaches halfway.

The second half starts on a downhill trend, until the turn at the ocean end of Golden Gate Park, then it’s gently uphill for 2.5 miles. I don’t think the profile is accurate for miles 17 to 20. Perhaps it’s for an earlier version of the course. There are some steep downhills in this section, then it climbs up again. Some more downhill dashes. and we’re back by the bay.

The final two miles is flat and comparatively dull. You can see the ballpark and the Bay Bridge in the distance, and know that the finish is slightly beyond them. Ugh. My policy this year is to just look at the runner in front during this section, and take it block by block.

Putting all this down has helped me to visualize how I’ll run this race. Logic suggests I should be able to run 3:25 fairly easily, and 3:20 with a bit of effort, but I’ve been nervous about it. This helps.

Weather Update

Clear skys are forecast for Sunday. It was mostly overcast last year. I checked where the sun will be using an online astronomical calculator. At the time I’m starting eastwrds it will be 20แต’ up and directly in line with the street grid. Gonna need those sunglasses, even though it starts in the dark!


3 Responses to “S.F. Marathon Course Notes”

  1. 1 Flo July 19, 2009 at 3:13 am

    Great rundown! Love the dissection of the other courses compared to this one, too. I’m betting you’ll go sub 3:20, due to your Big Sur result, but no pressure or anything. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Fantastic that you ran it last year, too. There’s something very soothing about knowing what’s around the bend, plus it helps you visualize it beforehand. And 55 degrees? Cool breeze? I feel like I’m reading a National Geographic special because the temperatures sound that foreign to me. Couldn’t be better! Sucks about the massive start and being stuck one corral back, but it’s going to be a night and day experience having moved up two.

    Sending you all the best marathon, speedy vibes a gal can muster. You’re going to have a phenomenal race! Taper well, m’boy, S.F is yours.

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Race PRs

5K20:43 (LMJS 6/28/09
12K54:36 (Across Bay 3/21/10)
15K1:09:51 (LMJS 19/27/09)
Half1:31:28 (Kaiser 2012
Marathon 3;13:14 (CIM '11)


July 2009
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