Saturday, June 11, 2011

previewing Zombie Runner - Coastal Trail Runs San Francisco Half Marathon Course

Last week I registered for the Coastal Trail Runs San Francisco Half-Marathon, part of the Zombie Runner series. This race happens to follow virtually all of the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon run course, plus more. The notable difference, it appears, is the Coastal Trail Runs race avoids the famous Baker Beach sand ladder.

Here's the official route map:

So after riding my bike to Sports Basement / Presidio, I locked my bike on their rack, changed to my running shoes, transferred my Garmin 500 to my wrist strap, stored my cycling shoes and jacket in my backpack, and checked the pack in the store. Sports Basement is an excellent hub for activities. So I was ready to set out.

The map had been unclear and I'd assumed the paved loop around Marina Green came first. In fact, when I later checked this course description, I discovered it had been last. My legs were still feeling the 30 km run I'd done a week ago: that had been a bit over my head. So I started nice an easy, at least until a woman passed me and I tried to at least match her pace to take advantage of the draft into the stiff headwind.

As I finished the loop I was feeling okay, and was ready for the run to the bridge. First this goes along the smooth, wide dirt Presidio Promenade until it passes the Warming Hut, then after navigating around some fenced-off construction hits the stairs leading to the coastal trail above.

I wrote about these stairs last time, when I described watching Alcatraz. I tested my claim they were better run one-at-a-time. I felt as though I was going well, but I heard someone breathing behind me, and it sounded as if he was gaining. I held him off, although I was tempted at the top to turn and ask him if he'd run the stairs one or two at a time. This is early in the run, though, so I prefer to save my legs a bit here so will stick to my one-stair-at-a-time approach. The goal isn't to KOM them, although a good effort can be made because there's some recovery after.

After the stairs there's a bit of gradual uphill, then a right (assuming we follow the Alcatraz course) and a dark tunnel with low headroom, especially on the exit. The floor of the tunnel is also irregular, so I usually slow down here.

The tunnel emerges at a small "picnic area" from which it's a short distance to the paved bike-pedestrian path to the bridge. This path is always crowded with both walkers and cyclists. Just before the pavement turns for the bridge, however, the hiking veers to the right.

This leads to a somewhat rugged route past old military buildings and eventually to a narrow path along busy Lincoln Boulevard. This is sufficiently early in race that there will be no returning race traffic here to create conflicts.

The path first climbs, then descends a bit before arriving at the turn-off for the Baker Beach sand ladder. We're not doing this, according to my reading of the map. Instead we continue further then take a series of switchback turns down to the beach.

The trail at the beach is through loose sand, what you'd probably expect for a beach. Here on my run I stopped at a public toilet, stopping my Garmin while I did so, then forgot to turn it back on. From my return route, I estimate I lost around 1.6 km of run data from this error.

At the end of the sand there's a short stairs which ejects runners into the cul de sac of 25th Ave. This is a super-rich neighborhood, and the houses are impressive, but the loss of the Coastal Trail here is unfortunate. While I ran here, I had fantasies of the owners of the houses having their land confiscated, the houses demolished, and the natural coastline restored with the continuation of the Coastal Trail, which claims to go all the way to Mexico. Not likely to happen.

25th leads in short order to Sea Cliff, then to Camino del Mar. Here's where I got a bit confused, but I think I was correct. I ran along Camino del Mar for awhile until the I saw the turn-off for the Coastal Trail and Lands End. So I turned.

It was here I realized any hope of a fast time on this half was lost. There's a considerable number of steps on this trail, also known as the Lands End trail. But having to spend a bit of extra time here is a gift -- the views are absolutely spectacular. Heading westward, the view of the open sea beyond the rocky coast below. Returning the Golden Gate Bridge lays beyond the coast. This is really going to be special.

It's not so much going up the stairs that's the issue, but down them. Sure, going up is slow, but at least I'll be working hard. Going down, however, is more a matter of care in foot placement. I expect I'll be passed here by runners with more experience on this sort of terrain.

After pausing a few times, confused over side paths labeled "Coastal Trail" which were actually out-and-back spurs to the water, I arrived sooner than expected at the Sutro Baths. Wow -- I've lived in San Francisco for most of ten years but while I've been to nearby Lands End several times I'd never before visited the ruins of the Sutro Baths. Really spectacular: I felt as if I was back in Greece. I was glad I had pre-run this so I had a chance to stop and admire the scene, rather than being tempted to do so during next weekend's race.

With the pause, I realized I was a bit tired, but once I started the climb of the steps which had led down to the Baths I started to feel good. Except for a small loop at the baths, the course is a pure out-and-back. Fortunately there's plenty of room on the Coastal Trail approaching the turn-around except for a few staircases on which people will be going slowly anyway.

Back at Baker Beach, I decided to go off-menu and try the Sand Ladder. This was fun: having not done a hard swim and ride beforehand, not to mention my relatively relaxed pace on this run, helped me avoid the struggle experienced by so many during the triathlon.

Returning to the bridge, I took a wrong turn, however. I tried to follow a sign for "hikers" and ended up on Merchant Road. The name is misleading: there's no merchants here, just way too many cars. Fortunately, I know the way well from cycling, so was able to get back on course.

I had a considerable tailwind which pushed me the rest of the way to Sports Basement. Remember during the race there's still that lap of Marina Green which I'd run at the start.

I'm really looking forward to next Saturday.

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