My first encounter with watching a marathon was when I lived in the Boston area and watching The Marathon was virtually mandatory on Patriot's Day, the day which marks Massachussetts' emergence from a long, grey, cold winter. The huge number of runners in the race were dwarfed by the number of spectators, with many sections stacked on both sides with cheering viewers.
Later I lived in Austin, Texas, and while the marathon there wasn't in the same class as Austin, it was still a popular event, and people would follow the race and cheer the runners all along the fast route.
San Francisco, on the other hand, despite providing probably the best terrain for a marathon in the country, treats the race as a necessary evil to be gotten out of the way as painlessly as possible. With an ungodly early start on Sunday morning, well before most potential spectators are awake, earlier even than many East coasters are awake despite their three-zone head start, there's very few accidental pedestrian encounters with the race. The winners finish the race before most first-tier marathons even begin.
Austin in Texas starts bright & early @ 7 am. Chicago starts at 7:30 am. Boston starts at 10 am (elite men; women start at 9:30 am). And at New York the first wave starts at 9:40 am. Each of these races embraces spectators. In the case of Boston it's a virtual obsession.
At San Francisco the elites heads out into the darkness at 5:30 am. Spectators? Hardly any.
So back to Sunday -- I headed out on my bike at 10:56. I heard whistles ahead -- what was that? Oh, no -- the marathon, I realized; I'd forgotten!
Fortunately runners were still out there. These guys had been on the road for a bit more than 5 hours: the slowest wave at started at 6:32 am. I saw a mix. Some were jogging along at a steady pace, no doubt close to their goal. Others, perhaps from optimistically earlier waves, were asymmetrically limping, barely walking. I asked a runner how far to the finish: 3.5 miles, I was told.
After stopping in Whole Foods for some bars for my upcoming hike, I rode my bike along the sidewalk, upstream on the route. At an intersection a cop was waving traffic through. A runner waited to cross, glancing nervously at his watch. First one car, then another, than another crossed the intersection at the cop's encouragement. Then a big rig slowly, carefully, entered the intersection as it began a turn, perhaps to deliver a load to the market I'd recently left. The runner was still waiting.
I moved on. The irony of this was the intersection had been unsignaled. Without a light, pedestrians have right of way. On a normal training run he'd have been able to head right across after a brief check to make sure drivers were aware of him. And even if there'd been a light, the signal phases in San Francisco are mercifully short: he'd have been waiting far less time than he was forced to by the cop. And this was supposed to be the signature marathon of a major U.S. city?
Next intersection and the cop was more sympathetic to the runners. A few cars were waved by, then a group of runners apprached. She put out her arm, stopping the next group of cars. Another gap, and more cars were allowed to pass, but then a solo runner approached. She put out her arm, blowing her whistle. But this time, an approaching car didn't stop, instead accelerating and veering around her. Fortunately the runner hadn't trusted her right to pass, and waited.
This all made me very sad. Marathons are great events, a celebration of the human body, of dedication to training and perseverance. Yet San Francisco seems to view its event as an unfortunate obligation to be executed with as little inconvenience to Sunday morning drivers as possible. For example, it would not do at all if they were late to church.
The "complete streets" movement is premised on the paradigm shift that roads are too valuable a resource to restrict only to car use. Yet people view it as a violation of their fundamental human rights if they can't drive their vehicles where they want, when they want, as rapidly as their engines, handling and reflexes allow. Once again San Francisco shows it lags behind east coast cities like New York and Boston in this realization.