We were awake before first light last Sunday morning. After teaching my class on Saturday morning and a 300 mile drive north, the last thing most people would want to do is be awake at 5 AM. But we were in San Francisco, for the Nike Women’s Half Marathon. Kierstin and I (and even Simba!) stayed the night across the street from Union Square so that Kierstin, her cousin, and a couple of her cousin’s friends could roll out of bed and be at the starting line by 6:30 AM. At last year’s race, I borrowed a bike from our hotel and spent the day climbing up the hills of the city and flying down them, coasting through the foggy Presidio of San Francisco and discovering the Central Park of the west coast that is Golden Gate Park. I was excited to spend this year seeing more of the city by the bay.
This year, though, as I mentioned, we had Simba with us. If there’s a recurring theme or a revealing insight in these posts about Kierstin’s and my life, it’s that, to some, the way we treat our dog might seem a little overboard. As Kierstin’s cousin once told us, when they had a baby, their dog became just a dog. But we don’t have a baby, and so our lives revolve around our floppy-eared pup. So when Kierstin’s mom told us about the hotel she booked and I found out that they were dog-friendly, there was nothing that was going to stop Simba’s paws from hitting San Francisco pavement.
So, the bike trek route for spectating was out the window this year. Instead, I laced up my running shoes, hooked Simba to his leash, and wished the runners good luck before setting off on ahead of everyone else on the course. I turned my music on shuffle, and, appropriately, Train’s Save Me, San Francisco started blaring through my earbuds. Besides traffic cops directing cars away from the course and the occasional early-rising spectator, Simba and I were the only ones on the dark streets, dimly lit by orange glowing streetlights. Most of these streets would normally always have multiple cars in sight, rife with battles with taxis and cyclists zooming by during rush-hour traffic. But at 6 AM, with the streets blocked off, Simba and I were in a world where we ruled the road.
We veered on and off the race course, stopping to snap pictures of the foggy morning streets or to marvel at the bright, flashing lights that spun above the six tow trucks on a narrow road that had clearly been marked “No Parking” for race day. The streetlights illuminated thin Victorian homes that brand San Francisco, with their bay windows bordered white, round columns holding up clapboard siding walls, and tall turrets jutting up toward the foggy sky. We made it to the big screen, in a more literal sense than is normally used, when a camera projected our likenesses onto a giant screen that flashed motivational messages. But we couldn’t be occupied for too long; we had to beat the runners (or at least the ones we were cheering for) to Golden Gate Park, mile 4 of the half marathon. I was about to turn off the blocked-off roads to take a more direct route to the park when blue and red flashing lights turned the corner as a motorcycle cop brigade led a lone runner down San Franciscan hills; only about 15 minutes after the starting gun, the race leader was already nearly a quarter of the way to the finish line.
We moved to the sidewalk as we hit a busy street, trying to take a shortcut to get to mile 4 a little faster. But as I was crossing an intersection, I saw a massive beast with a hundred legs and fifty heads crawling along the street; the first group of runners had already caught up. We decided that we wanted the glory and encouragement that the race participants were enjoying and ran back in that direction, sneaking into the race and blending right in – except for my panting four-legged friend attached to my right hand. Simba pulled hard on his leash as if he needed to pass runner after runner. Now, his alacrity is normal, but when spectators clapped in encouragement, he responded in the same way when Kierstin and I clap to call him over, with a force that has broken leashes and bowled over children. Eventually, the gray city sidewalks and black asphalt streets opened up to grassy fields and California redwoods as we entered Golden Gate Park.
Simba and I had made great time, and so we walked along some of the tree-lined boulevards, reading engravings on the statues that filled the empty fields and rolling around in the dew-soaked grass (I did more of the former and Simba, the latter). The Conservatory of Flowers overlooked a misty landscape; an idyllic early-morning scene. We impatiently watched as people sprinted by; we were waiting for Kierstin and her cousins. They finally showed up and took a quick break at mile 4 to give Simba a little nuzzle and to snap a quick photo. Then, they ran in the direction of the race while Simba and I headed for Stow Lake.
On our way, we saw a few memorials for US presidents and renowned poets while checking out the California Academy of Sciences, which was naturally closed that early in the morning. We ventured around Stow Lake, a manmade lake in the center of Golden Gate Park. I think Stow Lake epitomizes a certain surrealness about the entire park. In this bustling city, where steam rises from the sewers in that classic big-city fashion or where you can sometimes bike across town faster than you can drive, there is a wilderness escape tucked away in a small corner and its guise only revealed by the faint sound of traffic a couple hundred yards away. Tall reeds and misty fog shrouded the view of the oversized pond that is Stow Lake. Green and white and brown and yellow ducks filled the water, swimming over in hopes of some crumbs but quickly veering away when Simba lunged in their direction, looking for a friend or possibly a snack.
We found a bridge that connected the banks of Stow Lake to an island, a tall mound smack dab in the middle of the lake. Strawberry Hill, I learned it was called, as we made it to the top of the miniature mountain. Other earlier risers had already trekked to the top, apparently a perfect place for 7 AM tai chi. After a quick look, we rushed back down, knowing that we only had about 45 minutes to get to the finish line. The runners took a less-direct route through the Presidio, and so Simba and I were able to cut through the winding and climbing streets of San Francisco. We climbed nearly to the top of the city, to the peak of Lyon St. I had to imagine the beautiful view of the bay at the top, since the Bay Area fog had settled down and obscured any possible view of Alcatraz in the distance. I hadn’t known what lay ahead on Lyon St., but we stumbled upon a carved public staircase and small garden right after Lyon St. dead-ends. We hurried down the steep steps, taking a quick glance at the mansions that bordered our right and the Presidio on our left.
Despite numerous trips into San Francisco with my grandparents when I was younger, I have no sense of street names or direction in the city and was pleasantly surprised when Lyon St. spit me out right in front of the Palace of Fine Arts and the Exploratorium. Just across the street, there was a small fountain that Simba led me to, and I let him take a quick drink. He ended up plopping his entire self into the water, exhausted from our climb and descent. I quickly scooped him out, and we turned back toward our route, hoping the finish line was near.
Only two blocks later, we spotted a large pack of runners at the end of the street. Thinking that I might have spent too much time enjoying the parks and sights of San Francisco, I called Kierstin; I knew she kept her phone strapped to her arm so that she could listen to music while she ran. She answered, and I discovered that they were at mile ten. I thought I was way behind, and so Simba and I ran a little faster to see where we were. We made it to the race: mile twelve; we were had made excellent time! Less than twenty minutes later, Kierstin and her cousin were jogging by, looking nearly defeated by the rolling hills of this Bay Area metropolis. They were not vanquished, though, and soon crossed the finish line, knees aching, hearts pounding, and lungs begging for oxygen.
After we met up, we rushed back to our hotel to check-out before noon. Before we left the city, we answered our stomachs’ growls and grabbed a quick bite to eat. It was just a little burger/pizza combo restaurant, with cheap neon signs and a walk-up counter, sort of like you’d see in a food court at a suburban mall. I don’t know whether it was the seven hours since the last meal or my leg muscles just craving sustenance, but the thick double-cheeseburger, topped with a thousand island sauce and a greasy fried onion ring, was one of the best burgers I had in a long time, and a cold beer washed it down nicely. We got our stuff packed into our car, and drove another five hours home, where warm beds with soft pillows awaited our aching joints. I wasn’t signed up for the Nike Women’s Half Marathon, and so I didn’t expect to have sore calves and ponderous steps the next day, but Simba and I ran nearly eight miles through San Francisco last Sunday. We could have just ran the entire race. It was a unique way to discover the city, though; worth the evanescent muscle soreness that followed.