In Spring of 2010, I wrote about my experience running the Oakland Half Marathon – the first officiated race of my young running career. Since 2010, I have completed an additional half marathon as well as 4 full marathons finishing respectively, but falling short of the ever elusive Boston Marathon Qualifying time. Nonetheless, running has been extremely formative for my twenties – an anchor (and, at times, a lifeline) in college and a series of measurable benchmarks in an otherwise incalculable, nebulous adulthood.
Each race, both half and full, has been 2 to 4 hours of contradictory emotions – at once painful and cathartic, beautiful and cumbersome, invigorating and fatiguing. Like all things worthwhile, there is a beginning abundant with energy, hope, glitter, and spandex. There is a middle that oscillates between uncertainty, assuredness, and angry commuters wondering why the fuck so many people want to run 26.2 miles on the day they really, really need to go to Safeway. There is an end in which the events that preceded the finish line are colored so gorgeously by the stunning hues of accomplishment and retrospect. Hell yeah, you think to yourself. I just ran 26.2 miles just as everyone is recovering from their Saturday-induced hangovers. And good bye marathon-enforced sobriety!
Today, in San Francisco, I opted to run the San Francisco Full Marathon to see, taste, and feel the city, once more, solely on the power of my two legs. The mist of a cool morning air gently blanketing the Bay, the blur of red dusted beams and rivets in my peripheral vision as I darted across the Golden Gate Bridge, the signs emphasizing some kind of marijuana paraphernalia in the Haight, the scent of smolder from charcoal grills tailgating outside the Giants baseball stadium, the pandemonium of excited, annoyed, and befuddled pedestrian spectators witnessing another San Francisco affair, the embrace of a deeply beloved sign holder at the end of it all.
Like all the races that came before it, this race was inundated with feeling, particularly since I will be departing San Francisco – the city in which I learned what it meant to truly learn – in mere weeks. In 3 years, I have more or less walked every piece of pavement that was pounded, accumulating memories both wonderful and unpleasant – all significant, unforgettable, and routed along these 26.2 miles.
At miles 6 and 7, when thousands of runners get the opportunity to run in a lane across the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, the striking cascades of the city’s terrain and the beautiful blue palette of the Bay reminded me of my first trip to San Francisco – on a bus filled with old Chinese people and my perpetually motion sick sister yakking in empty grocery bags. In a concerted effort to block out the actual bus ride, I distinctly remember the awe I sensed when I looked into the Bay’s waters. It is an awe I still felt as my plane drew closer to the water’s ripples on my first day living in the Bay Area and, today, as I ran with early race elation across the Golden Gate Bridge to a slew of terrible Kelly Clarkson songs. I suppose if this race does not kill me (which it could), it will make me stronger.
From the early teen miles to mile 20, I traversed a stretch that connected my current residence to the Haight, the neighborhood I lived in for more than 2 years. It is the sight of my first apartment that I christened by doing the twist against the hard wood floors of my room. The memories of laughing and endless conversations about books, love, careers, and the oh so difficult existential crises of educated twentysomethings were juxtaposed with the regrets – the friends you never called back, the people you should have gotten closer to, the grandiose promises you never fulfilled, the projects, born of youthful vibrancy, that dissipated with careers and exhaustion, the father you only recently started to understand, the girl whose heart you broke because you weren’t honest with yourself. Some have asked what I do during my four or so hours of running a marathon – do I just run and listen to Britney Spears express, over and over, that she Wanna Go somewhere? Between miles 10 and 12, when the initial enthusiasm begins to fade and the realization that I have come so far, only to have an additional…16 miles to go, I settle into a rare space of extended reflection. This is one of the things I love the most about this sport – suddenly time, runners and crowds fade away and all you can do is think and run.
Run, run, run past the restaurants in the Mission in which you shared meals with friends, toward the ballpark in which you witnessed the home team win the World Series, along the waters that seemed so intimidating and lonely that they provoked homesickness just a few years ago. Your muscles begin to gesticulate with pain, your joints begin to buckle in weariness, your sanity questioned with each passing mile. You have to keep moving – past the pain, past the arduous incline of San Francisco’s hills, past whatever preconceived notions you have of your abilities. Time will not stop nor will the pacer before you. And to stop, falling short of your own expectations, is the greatest pain of all.
And at the end waits the finish line – as I once described, a raucous crowd of the proud and the confused. To finish is a glorious feeling, a high greater than whatever those typically San Francisco signs with ganja weed references purport. This, in my perspective, is the most magical aspect of marathon running: no amount of money spent on shoes, technology or coaching will singlehandedly decide whether you walk away at mile 21 or continue running. To carry your weight for more than 20 miles, without collapsing in a fit of insanity, on two legs and will power is perhaps more awe-laden than the Bay itself.
Perhaps this is why, after this particular race, I have decided to take a two year hiatus from competitive long distance running as my life veers in a different direction – to sustain the magic for years rather than risk literally running my body out of marathon commission and to only revisit the sport when I am ready for the discipline that comes with it.
Until then, to San Francisco, marathons, and all that is in between – thank you for your terrain, your course, your city of lively spectators and culture.
We shall meet again.