It’s in the hills – running in San Francisco

So it’s been a while I guess since I posted on here – but I was quite conscious that I didnt want my last challenge (Brighton Marathon followed by a Brighton to London run and then the London Marathon the week after) to get in the way of Andy’s excellent fundraising effort for Sense.

Me on the Golden Gate

Now that’s over and done with though, I feel a bit more comfortable with coming back to post, plus I’m joining the 1095mile Plodders for the first time in ages tonight… who would have thought the birth of twins would mean Tuesday nights were almost a no-no for running, unless I wanted an imminent divorce!

Anyway, I thought I’d pop on and give a quick run down of one of my most enjoyable recent runs, a running tour around San Francisco with the excellent Michael Isgar of SF Run Tours.

I’d contacted Michael a week before arriving in San Fran and he’d gladly agreed to show me around the city while under our own steam. “Where do you want to go?” he’s asked and I replied: “Across the Golden Gate if possible”. Then I left it for a couple of days, and then I looked up his times on the net. 3’13” for a marathon? Oh dear.

Nonetheless, I met him at my hotel lobby as directed at 8am, we’d decided to do somewhere around 12 miles through the city itself, along the shore, over the Bridge and back to my hotel again by a different route.

It turns out Michael is actually from the UK, a Greenwich-born Londoner who emigrated to San Fran some 25 years ago and, after a couple of other business outings, decided to set up his running company. “I use it as an excuse to train more,” he confided as we set off towards Union Square where we made our first stop for a quick bit of history.

Union Square is one of San Fran’s central points; smaller than you might expect but littered with high-end boutiques, the city’s main Levi’s store (Levi Strauss actually first set up shop here in 1873) and some top, top hotels. In the middle there’s a statue on a plinth that’s dedicated to the victory of Admiral Dewey in the Spanish-American war. The statue – Victoria, the goddess of war – was modelled on local good-time girl Alma Spreckels who eventually married a sugar baron almost twice her age, which is where the term Sugar Daddy comes from.

From here we headed up (no sniggering at the back) Nob Hill and I realised that Michael’s stick-thin perfect running physique was not just down to his weekly mileage topping 50, but also because San Francisco is literally covered in hills – there are 43 of them in the city centre to be precise. Luckily, there was another pause at the top to allow for a breather as we looked on the Fairmont Hotel, one of the city’s best.

A long, low stretch followed along San Francisco Bay, where the docking piers end and the Aquatic Park starts. The reason for the flatness here is two-fold, on the one hand, you’re at sea level, on the other it’s all landfill. The beautifully neat rows of posh houses around here wouldn’t stand a chance in a repeat of the 1906 earthquake Michael claims, they’d be straight in the sea.

A little ragged stretch followed along Marina Drive, pretty but unremarkable and from where the views of our ultimate aim the Golden Gate were magnificent. There’s works going on around the approach to the Bridge itself, particularly around the area that was once a former army base Presidio and Fort Point Historic Point (from where Hitchcock fans will know Kim Novak tried to commit suicide in the film Vertigo before Jimmy Stewart came to her rescue).

Michael was concerned about a pet cemetery that used to be here under the bridge and whether it had been moved with the works taking place so we took a small detour to find it closed off to the public but still with the little crosses in place where the companions of kids from the base were buried.

As we approached the bridge, it started to speckle with rain and Michael suggested not going over as the weather can make it pretty grim going. But it was one of my main reasons for wanting a run in San Fran… and so I left him at the tacky visitor shop and ploughed on alone.

The Golden Gate may be one of the most famous bridges in the world, but it’s not even San Francisco’s longest bridge – that honour goes to the Oakland Bay on the other side of town, a whopping 8.5miler that you can only cross by car. No one’s quite sure why the Golden Gate became so famous, but it could well be to do with the fact that it leads to San Francisco’s most expensive real estate on the other side.

Another bizarre fact is that it’s actually not Golden at all but a deep red as the paint is actually primer rather than real paint. And like the Forth Bridge in the UK, painting never really stops, when they’re done, they’re almost ready to start again.

Half way across, I began to understand what Michael was talking about when it came to the weather. One of the most surprising things about San Fran is that, despite it being in California, it’s mostly freezing, to the point where Mark Twain once quipped: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

As the wind whipped up from the Pacific came towards me with nothing but Japan some 5,000 miles away to halt it’s progress, it brought rain along with it. Big juicy drops that turned into what felt like huge icicles as the wind got even stronger, stinging my face as I battled my way back from the half way point, certain that at any time a huge gust would have me over the edge into the freezing water below. Chances of survival? Two per cent apparently. No wonder Michael is reticent when the weather is bad.

Nonetheless, emerge unscathed at the other side I did and we made out way back into town. By now I’d got 12 miles on my legs and, thanks to the hills and rain, was almost ready to call it a day but one more major San Fran sight needed to the conquered: the world’s most crooked street: Lombard Street.

A series of eight switchbacks over just a couple of blocks earns Lombard the title and it’s famous for appearing in the 1972 film What’s Up Doc? in a comedy car chase scene.

Michael Isgar on the world's crookedest street

Somewhat stupidly, I hadn’t realised that to get to the top of it in order to descend the crooked part, we had to climb Lombard itself, one of the steepest hills in the city. As Michael trotted up with the agility of a mountain goat, I faltered to a walk a couple of times: the gradient is incredible. “I forget there’s nothing like this in London,” Michael said…. “Streatham Hill?’ I ventured knowing it’s little more than a mound in comparison.

And then it was back through China Town to my hotel. A lovely couple of hours out discovering the city and almost 15miles later. Michael claimed he was off to catch a bus, but I swear I saw him run off into the distance. Only another four or five miles to his home in The Haight neighbourhood.

SF Run Tours charges $40 an hour for running tours in San Fran. Contact Michael by clicking here


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