Half Marathon Reviews

Race Recap & Review: San Francisco Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon

After a half marathon I normally head home and, after a well-deserved nap, immediately write up a recap and review. Now, four days after the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Francisco Half Marathon, I’m struggling to put my experience into words because I simply had such a blast.

Going into this race, I didn’t really have any goals. I decided to use it as a training run and the perfect excuse to visit my friend Natalie, who moved out to San Francisco in early December.

In the two days leading up to the race, several people mentioned how difficult a course is because of the hills. I knew this when I signed up, but hearing so many runners — many very experienced — discuss the tough terrain had me re-evaluating my somewhat goal of finishing between 2:10 and 2:20. I started to think more along the lines of 2:30, especially since my legs were tired and sore from all the sightseeing, including an amazing hike on Land’s End on Saturday.

Check out this course tour to see all the hills we climbed:

In the end, I finished with an official time of 2:20:43. My watch time put me at 2:13:34. The difference is because I stopped to take ton of photos and had a fueling mishap after mile 10.

I’ve had a lot of fun at other half marathons, but I’m pretty sure this one takes the cake in terms of having a smile absolutely plastered on my face for the entire route.


Natalie and her friend, Michael, were also running the race. We set our alarms for 5 a.m. with the intention of being at the race at some point before the start at 6:30 a.m. None of us was stressed or really cared about making it there super early, even though we snagged VIP bands at the last minute.

SFHalfI ate my normal race day breakfast of Cheerios and a bagel, this time without cream cheese because I had been dealing with annoying stomach issues pretty much since I landed. I think the long flight Thursday left my system all backed up because I was dehydrated, then it tried to catch up. There were issues both Friday and Saturday that forced me to take some 1-2 hour long breaks from touring the city.

Luckily, my race day meal went down without issue and I didn’t develop any of the gas cramps that plagued me the day before. I partially credit my rebound to taking ample Gas-X on Saturday afternoon and evening, as well as making sure to have a super bland but good dinner that night — a chicken and hummus wrap.

We decided to Uber or Lyft to the start line and kept that plan despite Michael mentioning he heard surge pricing could be an issue. We started checking out the apps at 5:40 or so, and sure enough it was true. We ended up taking Uber at a 3.4x surge. It took 8 minutes to arrive, so I got in a last real-bathroom potty break by dashing back to Natalie’s apartment. It was a little before 6 by the time we left.


When we got closer to the start line, we asked the driver to turn into Golden Gate Park, hoping we could get closer to the start line from there since the Pacific Highway area would be closed for all the corrals. We didn’t get very far into the park before we needed to ditch the car. I looked at my watch. It was about 6:15. The drive cost a good $35, but split between three it wasn’t too bad.

I had no sense of how far from the start we were, but it ended up we weren’t far at all. We were at the VIP area dropping off our gear bags and hitting the bathrooms one last time around 6:20. We ended up using the outdoor porta potties at the VIP area versus standing in line for the indoor restrooms. The porta potties were cleaner and nicer than your average race day ones so it was perfect — and super quick. Then we stood inside the VIP area for all of a minute or two before heading outside to get into our corral — No. 3.

At 6:33, we were off and running!

SFelevationIt takes all of a quarter mile before you hit the first hill. And it’s a doozy. It goes up, then levels at a cross street, then goes up again. Repeat that several times until you get to somewhere around mile 1.5 or so. I didn’t want to stop to take a photo or walk in the first mile. I snapped a quick pic closer to the crest of the first major mile+ long climb. It looks deceptively small here.

12923260_10110524824728764_6918207674389787330_nAfter the initial hill a quarter of the mile into the race, the second didn’t feel so hard and neither did the third. That being said, I’ve never seen so many people take walk breaks in the first mile of a half marathon, and I definitely don’t blame them.

The first downhill felt amazing. I am not a fan of uphills, but I love love love downhills. This little stretch felt great and while the elevation map seems to indicate the downhill stretch is brief, it wasn’t until much closer to mile 3.5 or so that I really felt the uphill.

That’s when we hit the Presidio. I knew this would be the hilliest part of the race. I had already given myself permission to walk at some point during the course — multiple times if needed. It wasn’t until I hit the steepest part of the Presidio hill that I got to the point where it made more sense to walk and conserve some energy than continue to run.

That mile is marked by the Wear Blue to Remember crew, with images of our soldiers who died in wars. It’s incredibly humbly and inspiring. I walked for a bit — maybe a minute or two — to get past the steepest part, then picked it up back to a run again.

The Wear Blue to Remember mile in the Presidio.

The Wear Blue to Remember mile in the Presidio.

At the top of the hill, which really does seem to go on forever, the Wear Blue to Remember crew held American flags encouraging us on. There also was an incredible view of the Golden Gate. I stopped and exchanged taking photos with some very nice folks, one of whom pointed out an even better view was right down the path.


After the photo stop, it was pretty much all downhill to the Golden Gate Bridge. Everyone will tell you the bridge is not flat. That is true. Also true: It felt a hell of a lot flatter after running all those hills.

I loved running across the Golden Gate. At this point I was nearly half way through the race and while I could tell my legs were still tired and sore, they weren’t hurting too much so I started to run just a touch faster. I am pleasantly surprised by how many sub-10 miles I logged, even if they contained some or a lot of downhill. And I even saw Natalie around the 6-mile point heading the other way.

After you cross the bridge, you go up to Vista Point, where there are incredible views. I stopped again and exchanged photo-taking duties with two other runners.


Then it was time to run back across the bridge. I thought I might be bored of the bridge at this point — I’d already run about two miles on it — but that didn’t happen. I stopped a couple times to snap some more photos, first of the herd of runners on the bridge, then a quick selfie.


Heading back over the bridge from Vista Point.

I read somewhere there were supposed to be selfie stations on the bridge, but I never saw them. On the way back however, there was a tiny step-up shoulder you could use to take a photo without impeding other runners. Note to future runners in this race — please use this option. It was hard enough to weave around all the walkers on the 2.5 or so lanes that the city closed for us. Those stopping to take photos made it much worse.


Golden Gate Bridge selfie

After the middle of the Golden Gate, there was a slow downhill until we stepped off the bridge.

There was a lot of that decline, including one rather steep portion, as we headed to the Embarcadero, which is at sea level. I ran most of this portion of the race on a 5-miler on Friday. Luckily, that run was in the sun, so I really got to see the best views — once in the sun on my Friday run and once on race day in the fog, which settles over the bridge in such a lovely way.

The 1.5 mile flat stretch along the bay ended up being the only part of the race I felt bored. I was even longing for some sort of hill — preferably downhill but at that point I would even take uphill.

I got my wish around mile 11, with the final set of hills. Leading up to them, I wondered how my legs would hold up. There were certainly more sore and tired than when I started. I was pleasantly surprised they did pretty well. I made sure to take the hills at a slower pace and was able to get over them all. I definitely was looking forward to the downhill finish, though.

For about the last three-quarters of a mile, the course turns almost completely downhill. I knew I wanted to hit this stretch hard and finish strong. I pushed to make mile 13 my fastest of the race.


As you can see from my Garmin data, the hills on this course are no joke. A total of 1,312 in elevation gain. That’s more than double the Rock ‘n’ Roll D.C. Half Marathon I ran three weeks prior. That being said, this race felt totally doable. That could be a reverse effect of so many runners in advance of the race talking about the difficult, hilly course: I anticipated it would be worse than it felt.

12909606_10110531609327374_4797033527966509121_oOverall, I loved this race. I kept remarking after the finish: “Let’s do that again.” I’ve never have felt like I want to run any longer after completing a half marathon, until now.

I am also proud of my watch time. My normal training long runs are between 10 and 10:10 with nowhere near the hills I experienced on race day. Yet, the pace I kept for the course felt easy.

After the race, I met up with Natalie and Michael in the VIP area. It was my second time in the private area Rock ‘n’ Roll provides with unlimited, free food, beer and mimosas. This time, among friends and sitting in the warm sun, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Because I didn’t push the pace, I was able to eat (and drink) right away. Plus, I wasn’t in a rush to take a long trek home to get in a shower and nap. Eventually, we left the VIP area and walked the mile or so back to Natalie’s place.

This race was such an awesome experience that I’ve been on cloud nine ever since.


Course: A+++

12901036_10110520763886724_8711163308927140566_oYes, there are hills — both up and down. If you hate both, this course might not be for you, but I still implore you to give it a go. There’s so much to see along the way that it wasn’t until mile 9 that I even noticed the race was well more than half over.

VIP area: A+

I liked the D.C. VIP area, but this one was a total blast. I attribute my increased enjoyment at the San Francisco VIP to having a friend, perfect weather and not being in a rush to leave and get home.

Race support: A

The water and Gatorade stops were on point. I took in Glukos gummies at mile 10.3, but it took me like a minute to open the package. Then the gummies were a bit hard, so I only ate three, chewing wildly, before throwing the rest of the pack away. Later, another runner mentioned letting the gummies warm up and sort of melt in your mouth before chewing. The packaging, however, definitely needs improvement — its huge and it’s not in a shape you can easily tuck in the small pockets of your running pants.

Expo: A

I didn’t stick around the expo too long because my stomach wasn’t feeling great, but everything looked great there. I stopped at the We Run Social meetup for a quick photo, and ended up getting a free Run All Day tank — can’t wait to wear that in the summer. I also bought a three-quarter zip, long sleeve running top and fell in love with a T-shirt that had a California bear with running shoes on its feet. I caved and bought that one after the race at the finish line.

Spectators: B

If you really thrive off spectators, this might not be your race. There’s just not a lot of areas they can easily get to and cheer you on. But where they’re able, there were plenty of spectators on the sidelines, most notably the first couple and last couple miles. Because of noise ordinances there are also fewer bands along the course. Honestly, I didn’t mind. I don’t run these races expecting to hear music every single mile. In fact, it was enjoyable to hear the birds chirp coming into and leaving the Presidio.


Photo credit: Rock ‘n’ Roll San Francisco Facebook page.