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San Francisco 2023 Marathon review: The First Half/Bridge race
A challenging, expensive, imperfect, but special race.
The San Francisco Marathon is a large running event in late July comprising seven races. There are two half marathons on the same morning. There is also a full marathon. Plus an ultra marathon, where runners begin the night before and complete two loops of the full course. And a 10K and a couple of 5Ks. Although this review focuses on my experience running one of the two half marathons in 2023, much of the content is also relevant to the other half.
This year was my seventh time running one of the two half marathons. Over the years, I have run both, although each has evolved over time. The first was in 2012, so I have known the event for quite a while. The two half marathon races — and the overall event — have their pros and cons. And I have somewhat mixed views. But somehow I keep on coming back.
Maybe one reason is that there are not many Northern Hemisphere large running events during this part of the summer. High summer is low season for distance running. But contrary to what tourists sometimes assume, California weather in the coastal regions, especially toward the north, is not uniformly hot during the summer. So late July can work in San Francisco in a way it wouldn’t in many other North American or European cities.
This running event is the largest in the city. But keep in mind there is also a completely separate — and smaller — race called the “Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon,” which takes place in February and follows a net downhill, much less ambitious course. So don’t confuse the two.
The two halves no longer make the whole
The two half marathons in the July event used to correspond to the first and second halves of the full 26.2-mile course run at the same time. And they were named the “First Half” and “Second Half” races, respectively.
Then, a few years ago, they changed the First Half course so that — unlike the Full — it no longer crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. This dismayed many runners, as the bridge crossing was really the highlight. But the First Half name remained. As for the Second Half, that used to begin in Golden Gate Park at the halfway point of the full and it then took a net downhill course to where the Full ends at the Embarcadero on the water’s edge in the heart of downtown (very close to where the Full, which is a loop course, begins).
In 2022 and 2023, the organizers implemented some major changes to both half marathons. In 2023 they brought back the bridge crossing to the First Half. However, unlike previously, the First no longer starts at the same place as the Full at the Embarcadero. Instead, it starts at Crissy Field, part of the Golden Gate National Park, near to the bridge. That’s about four miles into the Full Marathon course.
From there, the new First Half overlaps with the Full going across the bridge, and with a few miles on the other side, before crossing back over and then heading up to Golden Gate Park where the race ends at what is roughly the 17-mile mark of the Full.
The Second Half race used to start at roughly the same place where the First Half ended. But it now starts at or very close to where the First Half starts, but almost two hours later, and mostly follows the course of the Full except that it doesn’t go over the bridge and takes a shorter route in the park.
With these changes, the “First Half” and “Second Half” monikers have really lost their original meaning, since — even though one is still “first” in the sense that it starts earlier — neither corresponds to the first or second halves of the Full. So the organizers, while still using the old names, are now also referring to the two 13.1-mile events as the “Bridge” and “City” races, respectively. And I suspect the First/Second nomenclatures might eventually be dropped entirely.
Change for the better or worse?
I’m not convinced these changes are all a good thing. Bringing back the bridge to the First Half is definitely a plus. But it used to be part of the course when the two Half courses were the first and second halves of the Full.
The new version of the First Half isn’t as good as the original bridge-crossing version. It includes a much longer stretch on the other side of the bridge. This makes what was already a challenging race even harder, as the portion there adds some additional and very tough uphill (albeit with corresponding downhill). And whereas earlier versions of the First included five miles of pretty flat running at the start of the race, the new course only gives you one mile before the start of the ups and downs — with more ups than downs — that define the remainder. Also, the First Half is more separated from the rest of the overall event than before, as it no longer either starts or finishes with the Full or any other race.
I think I can figure out why this change may have come about in the way it did. When I ran the original First Half, the bridge crossing involved two lanes of vehicular traffic being closed for runners. So the width allowed one lane for runners in each direction, making the turnaround to go back across the bridge quite simple. Now, there is no vehicular road closure on the bridge. Instead, runners are kept on the fenced-off walkways on each side. But those walkways are too narrow for two-way running, so it is one walkway for the outbound and the other for the return. And I think in order for runners to get from the outbound side of the bridge to the return walkway on the other, they have to go through the circuitous and hilly loop that involves going under the bridge and then climbing back up.
I think the original bridge crossing — with closed-off lanes of traffic — was the better option. But maybe it was no longer feasible in terms of the negotiations that take place between race organizers and the various agencies that have to sign off on everything. Some major cities in the world are willing to shut down or reduce traffic on major bridges to accommodate races. Others are not, or demand too high a price.
As for the Second Half, that used to be a much easier course than the First, being net downhill. But, although it is still the easier one, it is harder than before since runners now have to climb up to Golden Gate Park rather than starting at elevation in the park as before.
The choice between the First and Second Half Marathons used to be simpler. If you wanted the scenically more interesting but more challenging run, go for the First. If you wanted a much easier, net downhill race in which you might PR, go for the Second.
Now, both races are harder than before. I’d say the First Half is probably the better pick for most people, as the course visuals make it worth it. And the Second begins almost two hours later than the First, meaning you may find yourself running under a hotter sun — with the last miles of that race offering little in the way of shade.
If I lived in the Bay Area, I’d probably alternate from one year to another. But if I was traveling any distance to do it just once, I’d go for the First. However, be prepared for the fact that it is a really hard course.
A very expensive race
Both the half marathons are priced the same. And they are the most expensive I have ever come across. I paid $201 roughly three months before the race, including the processing fee, net of a 10 percent discount (coupon codes aren’t too difficult to find). You could save a bit by registering further ahead, but even then it would still be way over the average.
San Francisco is an expensive city overall. And costs there to put on an event like this are doubtless higher than average. But it is still hard to feel this race is a great value when you consider what races cost in other world-class cities — 70 Euros for Berlin, for example. And that’s apart from the imperfections in organization discussed in this review.
The race numbers — less than you might think
The number of finishers for the Full Marathon in 2023 was 4,886. And the numbers for the First and Second Half Marathons were 6,064 and 3,390, respectively. As far as I could tell, none of the races sold out. They were still selling spots at the Expo.
So for whatever reason, San Francisco has not become a magnet running event for either the full or half distances on a par with other world-class cities such as New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo, and so forth. Not only are races in those cities generally much larger, but they can be very hard to get into. It is inconceivable that you could just saunter into the expo in any of those events the day before and sign up.
Maybe a reason why San Francisco doesn't sell out is, in part, to do with the cost. But it may also have something to do with the hilly terrain. And not just for recreational runners. World-class races often achieve their status by the elite professionals who take part. And maybe elites prefer flatter courses that lend themselves more to breaking records.
Packet pick-up takes place at the Health & Fitness Expo, held over the two days before the Sunday race. The Expo is quite a large one. It takes place at Fort Mason, a chill sort of wharf/warehouse complex that used to be a military base and is now home to a variety of businesses, including shops, eateries, and bars.
But it’s a bit of a hike from where most visitors are likely to stay or from a BART — subway — station. The race used to offer free shuttle buses for the three-mile journey from the Embarcadero — where the Full starts and the First Half used to start — which is adjacent to the Hyatt Regency, the official race hotel. But those were gone this year. And Ubers for the three-mile trip from the Embarcadero were showing $15 one-way. So the removal of the shuttles potentially removes $30 worth of value from this already pricey event. However, I made my way to the Expo mostly on foot and partly by public bus and walked all the way back.
The Expo houses the usual types of vendors. There were some live presentations throughout the day by running gurus, but not many people seemed tuned in while I was there.
San Francisco has always given out long-sleeved race shirts as a signature item. The shirts aren’t a famous brand these days, but are pretty nice and fit true to size. This year’s was white with red lettering and accents.
There was also a mail option for getting your race pack. But I like large race expos, even when I don’t really do much there, as they provide a mission during the final count-down and get the adrenaline going. So I was happy to have gone.
The race start: from buses to bushes
This year, I ran the First Half. That race started at Crissy Field at 6:30 AM. The Second Half started there at 8:15 AM. For both races, there were shuttle buses on race morning from side streets close to the Embarcadero. The ones for my race were slated to run from 4:30 AM until 5:45 AM. I stayed at the Hyatt, the official race hotel, and it was a very short walk to the buses. Nonetheless, I left my room around 5 AM as I wasn’t sure how plentiful the buses would be if I got there much later and there were masses of runners showing up at the last minute. When I arrived, there seemed a lot more buses lined up in the side streets than were needed and I suspect later arrivals would have got on just fine.
I was on a bus at 5:15 AM and — after traffic congestion close to the drop-off point — was off by 5:45 AM. So this part of race morning reflected efficient planning by the organizers. But the next bit was not so impressive.
The first thing many runners do on arriving at a race start is to scope out the porta-potties. So, per standard operating procedure, I looked. And looked. And looked. Other runners seemed to be wandering around doing the same. But there were none to be seen. Eventually, an event staffer told me a truck bringing them had apparently broken down. I’m not sure whether that was true or not. I doubt all the porta-potties that were meant to be there for over 6,000 runners would have fitted on a single truck. And, presumably, they would not have been set up at the very last minute. So it seems odd that a single mechanical problem would result in the complete absence. I’m sure the plan had been to put up porta-potties, so that the absence of any was a snafu, not deliberate. But the reason is unclear.
Some runners noticed about four porta-potties set up — perhaps for construction or something — in the parking lot of Sports Basement, a store close to the start line. But it turned out these were locked. And a bad-tempered Sports Basement guy with a megaphone kept on shouting that runners were trespassing by being in the parking lot and must leave. This was despite the fact that the store wasn’t even yet open. Ironically, the race announcer close by was simultaneously lauding Sports Basement as a sponsor of the event. That same announcer made no acknowledgement of the porta-potty fiasco, but did periodically tell runners there would be ones available along the course.
It turned out there was a small permanent public toilet close by in Crissy Field, but this was not nearly large enough for an event like this — it could only accommodate a few people at a time. So a massive, very slow-moving line formed outside. Rather than face the likelihood of not reaching the front before the race started, some runners — mostly male — chose the time-honored European method of seeking out bushes. Others opted to use porta-potties at the water stops along the race. I saw lines outside those as I passed, and felt bad for runners whose hopes of a good official time were spoiled by having to stop.
Shit happens. (Or, maybe, in the absence of porta-potties, it doesn’t.) But my main complaint here isn’t that the problem occurred, but that the race organizers never owned the problem. There were no announcements at the start acknowledging it. There was no follow-up communication by email. There is nothing on the race website. And that is not good. If you drop the ball like that in a major race involving thousands of people — especially when they have paid more than average money — you should acknowledge it. The failure to do so does not inspire confidence. This is especially since this was not a charity event. It was a for-profit endeavor.
Anyway, back to the running. While runners in the First Half were gathering, participants in the Full were passing by. Once those runners had passed, the corrals for the First Half started to open up. The temperatures just before the start were in the high fifties, which is great for a summer race. And I don’t think they went much into the sixties by the time I finished.
Runners were separated into three corrals, but there was no effort at policing who went into each. I was preassigned to the first, which slightly surprised me based on my estimated finish (although, in hindsight, the estimate was a bit optimistic for this course). Each corral was supposedly divided into separate waves, and the race announcer kept on telling people to check their bibs to see both their corral and wave numbers — even though the bibs showed only corrals, not wave numbers. I placed myself toward the back of what was meant to be the third and last wave in my corral, but which ended up going out with the second.
The race began on time. Which was good, except for the fact that quite a lot of runners — presumably delayed by the porta-potties problem — had still not made their way into the corrals.
Running the course
Another shortcoming in race planning was evident about a mile into the course. There was a point as the uphill began when the course made a short loop, sending runners out to the left before they looped round and returned.
But the problem was that at the point where the outbound portion of the loop intersected with the return, runners were literally going in two directions on the same piece of course — those headed for the outbound crossing the path of ones on the inbound and vice versa. It’s hard to imagine who thought that was a good idea.
However, annoyances like that subside once you start crossing the bridge and experience the views. When I’ve run that bridge previously, it was somewhat foggy. Fog on the bridge can be quite atmospheric — especially when it teases glimpses of the city and sky — and it keeps temperatures cool, but it’s obviously not so good for views. However, the weather this year was clear and the views really are magnificent. They continue once on the other side of the bridge where you enjoy great panoramas of the city skyline across the Bay. I never stop to take photos in a race, but if I did made exceptions, this would be one.
As mentioned above, you run in the fenced-off pedestrian walkways when crossing the bridge — not on the vehicular portion, which remains fully open for traffic. And these walkways are quite narrow. As are portions of the approaches to the bridge on both sides. The result is a crowded pack in which faster runners may be frustrated at being unable to pass. To be fair, the organizers warn of this on the race website and even suggest runners hoping to PR might for that reason want to choose the Second Half (although good luck to anyone trying to PR on this difficult course regardless of the crowding). As a middle-of-the-pack runner, it didn’t bother me too much. But I can see why it might not be ideal for some. And perhaps the problem could be mitigated a bit if the organizers made some effort to police and better organize the starting corrals and waves.
The bridge is not flat. But it is not difficult. There is a gentle climb in each direction to the center point, and then a corresponding descent to the other end. By the time you are back across the bridge, you have about nine miles under your belt. After a further climb, you can enjoy over a mile of downhill before starting the uphill through a residential neighborhood to where the race ends in Golden Gate Park.
The final climbs are not the steepest. Those are in the approach/departure areas around the bridge on both sides. But it’s at a point in the race where you may be feeling tired.
Course support all along seemed fine. As usual, the volunteers were great. And there was more crowd support than I had expected.
There was quite an upbeat atmosphere at the end. Lots of runners gathered on the grassy area, while runners in the other events continued on their course nearby headed to their Embarcadero finish.
There were lots of buses nearby waiting to take First Half runners back to the Embarcadero, which were as efficiently organized as the ones taking runners to the start line earlier in the morning. The drop-off was close to the finish line festival adjacent to the end of the Full and Second Half. But I suspect most runners of the First Half are done at this point. I just walked back over to the Hyatt.
The hills in this race are what they are. Sometimes hills aren’t in the end as bad as feared, but, here, the sheer number — and the steepness of some — made the reality as difficult as the thought. That is not a drawback of the race — the information is plainly out there to see before you sign up, and it would make no sense to run the race and then complain about the elevation profile. But it is a characteristic of the race to keep in mind when choosing whether to run it.
I finished in 2 hours 15 minutes 32 seconds. Not a great time — and I wasn’t particularly pleased with how I ran the race and managed my energy — but the new version of the First Half was probably the hardest course I’ve ever run. And it still put me 12th out of 38 finishers in my Division and in the top half overall — so I guess I wasn’t alone in feeling challenged. I’m tempted to run the race again in order to run it better.
Was it really 13.1 miles?
My Apple Watch Ultra showed me as having run 12.94 miles that morning, shy of the full 13.1. Yes, it is possible that the watch recorded an incorrect distance. But this watch — which I have used in seven other half marathons since getting it in October 2022 — is generally very accurate, having dual GPS bands to provide enhanced pinpointing even when satellite line of sight is compromised. And, normally, one would expect a GPS watch to show a distance of over 13.1 miles, because the official distance assumes a perfect course in terms of how you take the curves and, in practice, runners tend to add a tenth of a mile or two with imperfect curves and weaving.
There was no part of the race where it was not clear where one was meant to run. And I never deviated from the herd. So while I cannot be sure either way, I would not be entirely surprised if there was some error in the official measurement for the new First Half course. (Perhaps my doubts are influenced by a thought at the back of my mind that an event organizer that manages not to deliver a single porta-potty at a race start might also be capable of making an error with the course measurement.)
Hyatt Regency review: As mentioned earlier, I stayed at the Hyatt Regency, the official race hotel. It’s a regular, big city sort of large Hyatt, with rooms arranged around an atrium. Staying in the “official” hotel can have limited practical benefits, but, here, the location — right next to where I had to be at 5 AM to catch the shuttle to the race start — made it worth it. The hotel did make a bit of an effort for runners, such as arranging a pasta dinner — which I did not sample — and having bananas and water out in the morning. So it’s a decent choice if you are an out-of-town runner. It’s also very close to a BART station with direct connections to both SFO and OAK airports.
The rate was $289 plus taxes, which is more than I’d generally want to spend on a hotel for a race, but it would be difficult to spend much less if you don’t want to deal with Ubers or other transport logistics that early in the morning when thousands of other people are trying to get to race starts, too. The fact is that San Francisco — like this race — is expensive.
San Francisco issues: Talking of “expensive,” the wealth of the city, and the expense of visiting it, creates an awkward juxtaposition with its social problems evident on the streets. San Francisco can provide a depressing, at times stark, reminder of the chronic failure of some major cities in the U.S.A. — and the country as a whole — to make progress in solving the intertwined problems of homelessness, addiction, and mental health.
I had not been to San Francisco since before the pandemic and, based on some of what I’d read, expected the worst. But it was one of those times when having set expectations so low, the reality on the streets seemed less bad than I had anticipated, even in parts of the city — such as around Civic Center — where one might expect the problems to be most visible. And walking around other parts reminded me of why people love this city. The close-in, low-rise residential neighborhoods. The stunning urban views. The walkability. The good — by U.S. standards, at least — public transport. The easy climate.
Crime levels in San Francisco are actually lower since before the pandemic. (Notwithstanding incorrect suggestions by Elon Musk in the aftermath of the street murder of a tech titan that turned out apparently not to be a random crime.) Perhaps the biggest change since I was last there is not so much that the problems on the streets have increased as the fact that some of the city’s commercial life was sucked out by the pandemic, not to return, so that, in parts, there is an emptiness — growing on account of some high-profile retail withdrawals — such that issues on the street can appear more prominent.
Carb loading: There is no shortage of excellent Italian food in San Francisco. For my eve-of-race pasta dinner, I chose A Mano, a lively, agreeable, moderately priced place in the Hayes Valley neighborhood — walkable from the BART — with indoor and outdoor seating. I hadn’t been there before, but would go again. It was pretty full when I arrived at 5 PM without a reservation, but I was able to get a table with no wait. The portions — with home-made pasta — were a bit smaller than one expects in the U.S., but maybe that adds to the authenticity. The food was decent, and the service friendly and efficient. I learned while researching the menu that tagliatelle contains more carbs than spaghetti. Useful to know.
For: Big city race at a time of year when there are few major Northern Hemisphere options; great, iconic urban course in a world-class city. Against: Expensive; not a course lending itself to PRs, if that is what you are looking for; imperfect race organization (at least in 2023). Sum-up: The hills make this a challenging course, which is neither a pro nor a con — it’s just what you should know when you sign up. It’s by no means a flawless event, but somehow I have kept on coming back over more than 10 years. Nonetheless, until I am reassured about the race organization, I cannot unreservedly recommend it. ✈️ 🏃
Next race: Copenhagen, September 2023.
Previous race: Sydney.
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