Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon San Francisco

Ever wondered what happens when you try to run a half-marathon with barely any training? Last Sunday, at about 6.30 in the morning, that’s exactly what I tried to do. I was on the startline for the San Francisco Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon. I had only run about 50 km in the last 6 months, but had cycled thousands. My fitness will carry me through, right?

This was my hope, as I stood there in the cold, with a target time of about 1 hour 35 minutes. It was ambitious, but my cardiovascular fitness has never been better. The big question that remained was how my legs would cope having done almost exclusively one motion for six months, only to be forced to do another, for 13.1 hilly miles. The course looked spectacular; starting on the Pacific Ocean, we would then cross the Golden Gate Bridge and back as the sun rose over San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz, before heading along the waterfront and into the city, to finish in front of the Civic Centre. The conditions were perfect, cool and calm. But going out for a jog is one thing. Trying to break a PB and race flat out for 21 kilometres is completely different.

The start of the race was slightly chaotic. Each runner had been assigned a corral based on their expected finishing time, but unfortunately, a lot of people chose to ignore this. This meant, that as I set off with the first wave, there were numerous runners who clearly had no intention of even breaking two hours. It was very frustrating. Finally, after about a mile, I was able to start running freely. My legs felt great! I was ticking along at a good pace, happy to relax into the race and not burn out early on. There was a testing hill away from the ocean but a long downhill run swiftly followed and after about two miles, I was going at about 7.30 minutes per mile and feeling great. This was just wonderful. My body was working well and I had settled well. From 2.6 miles to 3.6 miles there was a very steep hill, but I knew this was coming. I had to accept that this would hurt and take a bit out of me, but it was important not to get too frustrated and push too hard. 

Coming over the crest of hill was just magical, as it meant the start of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is hard to describe the scale and grandeur of this bridge without seeing it “in the flesh”. It is remarkable. As promised, the sun was peering up above the horizon and some runners were even pausing to take photos. At four miles into the race, it was time to push on a little and try to maintain a fast but steady pace, just on the limit of really hurting. I managed to do this and wonderfully, there was barely a flicker of pain from my previously injured right knee. I was loving it. One issue was that crossing the bridge, the mile markers seemed to disappear. In the mass of runners going in either direction, I could easily have missed them, but they really weren’t obvious compared to the earlier ones. I felt like I was going well although there were a few people passing me and it was quite hard, not knowing whether I was maintaining my target pace or not. Having crossed the bridge heading north, the course immediately doubled back on itself to re-cross the bridge and head for the city. I tried to lift my pace a little, but concerningly, my muscles were really starting to tighten. In hindsight, this was inevitable, but it didn’t make it any less painful at the time.

Coming off the bridge, there was a very steep downhill section. Most people used this as a chance to kick on, but by this stage my lack of running fitness was becoming more apparent. I just couldn’t run freely with the gradient, and it was the one point that I was acutely aware of the screws in my repaired knee from 2013. Nevertheless, as I finally spotted a distance marker, mile 9, I was going at 7.28 per mile. 1:35 was unlikely but breaking 1:40 seemed entirely possible. There was some great on course entertainment (the Rock n’ Roll element of the race) and I maintained this same split through mile 10. A live band were playing as I turned into the city and I decided this was the time to really go for it, just as they struck the opening chords of a great song by The Who. Unfortunately my legs disagreed. It would appear that 10 miles is about my limit for running without any specific training. The remaining three miles were just horrendous. 

San Francisco is a very hilly city and the route to the finish was very up and down. My legs just wanted me to stop. If I can take one thing from this race, it is that since beginning cycling, I have become mentally a lot stronger. I just refused to let them stop. My splits started to really slip though. All I had to do was run roughly eight minute miles to break 1 hour 40 but I found myself dropping further and further away from this. With just over 1 mile to go, I had been running next to one guy for a few minutes and managed to say to him, “let’s go, let’s kick for the finish”. He duly did. I just couldn’t. The race day photos from that last mile are just horrific. I look like I’m in total agony. I was. I dragged myself down the last stretch to the finish, desperately trying to stop my left hamstring from cramping. To give my muscles some credit, this wasn’t really a fair demand I had put on them. They wouldn’t let me forget it for days after.

I finally crossed the line in 1 hour 42 minutes and 9 seconds. I could barely stand as they tried to take finisher photos. I was proud to have given it absolutely everything, but a bit gutted with my time. I struggled to walk as I headed back out to the final straight to wait for and cheer on my friend Natascha, but I was just crushingly disappointed not to have broken 1:40. The agony of trying to step off a curb should have told me how much I had given, but at the time that just didn’t register. My final three miles were run at 8.36 pace and that had clearly cost me.

Natascha finished a short while later, and as we headed off for breakfast with some of her friends from her triathlon club, I started to feel a little better about things. I had beaten my personal best by about 10 minutes. I had run a half-marathon on 8 short training runs in six months. I had put myself through more pain than I thought I could. A few years ago I would have just given up. Just remind me, that if I’m going to do this again, I need to do some training! The human body is capable of some amazing things when the mind tells it to, but it would have meant an awful lot less pain and made getting up from the table much easier, if my legs had been used to running.

So that’s what it’s like to run a half-marathon without training for it. Not pretty! Overall, with the benefit of hindsight, I couldn’t have done much better though. 1 hour 35 was a big ask and to have been just outside this with 10 miles run, was very positive. I just physically couldn’t maintain the pace until the end. I still finished about 300th out of over 6000 competitors. It wasn’t all bad! The course was just spectacular, with views worth the entry fee alone. It really was impressive. The Rock n’ Roll race organisation was great as well, with regular entertainment stands and cheer squads helping maintain a great atmosphere for a lot of the distance. There are loads of these races across North America and also the UK I believe, so why not give one a go? The medals are huge!

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