Thousands of runners compete every year in the San Francisco Marathon. But what happens when you walk 26 miles across the city instead of running?
On a recent Saturday, a group of friends and I tested this question.
Our journey through San Francisco took us 13 hours and approximately 60,000 steps per person. We ate or drank our way through four restaurants and passed through dozens of neighborhoods. Early on, it rained on us. Then, we got fogged over. Next, we had clear skies and glorious views. Finally, it got dark; we didn't complete our trek until well after sunset. We had met up at 8 a.m. and walked in the door at just after 9 p.m.
The adventure was organized by Eric and Olivia, two Tahoe residents who make it a point of returning to San Francisco often since moving away. They’ve completed walking marathons before, and warned those of us participating that it would be a long slog.
“For anyone planning to join for the whole shebang, I'd recommend 1.5-2L of water, a hat, some just-in-case snacks, 3 pairs of socks and comfortable shoes,” our intrepid leader Eric texted in the days leading up to the hike.
So I knew I’d be tired—and I was. But I never imagined it would be the people I met—the smiling faces, sobbing bodies and everyone in-between—that would bring me to my knees.
City of Contradictions
Eric and Olivia planned our route, the first 17 miles of which followed the aptly named Crosstown Trail. It’s a popular long-distance path that connects southeast San Francisco to the northwest through an amalgamation of hidden trails, public parks, community gardens and commercial corridors.
After that, we blazed our own path, heading east through Golden Gate Park and south to the Castro before eventually limping down 16th Street to our final destination.
Along the way, we witnessed the best of San Francisco: adorable corgis, impressive views of the Golden Gate Bridge and countless families and friends out for walks across the city’s many parks.
One particularly cute scene unfolded early, when we met and chatted with a tai chi group enthusiastically celebrating a beloved member’s birthday. They asked for a photo, we told them about our marathon and it turned into a mutual admiration club.
Yet just two miles earlier, at the start of our hike, we’d taken off from a flooded road in Candlestick Point State Recreation Area. It was raining when we spotted the very first person we’d see along our hike: a ghostlike figure wandering amid trash and rubble left over from recent storms. She was thin, pantsless and alone, more likely than not embroiled in San Francisco’s entwined homelessness and drug problems.
We ran into incongruities like this throughout the day.
The Enduring Hunt for Restrooms
For much of our hike, we had no problem finding restrooms. With many of the city’s multimillion dollar homes under construction, we discovered an incredible toilet hack: unlocked port-a-potties. In Sea Cliff, we used a clean portable toilet complete with toilet paper and hand sanitizer—the owners apparently unfazed by concerns of theft or vandalism. Ditto for Forest Hill.
Yet in the Castro and Mission, we struggled to find bathrooms of any kind, public or private. Bathrooms across the city are not created equal.
Speaking of poop, we also dodged a lot of it, peppered along San Francisco’s park pavements and streets.
Lending a Helping Hand
The city’s contradictions came roaring into us—literally—around Mile 23, when a young man sprinting down 18th Street tripped in the dark and face-planted onto the asphalt beside us. We helped him up, checked his hands and face for abrasions and asked if he was OK.
He was not.
He’d been running inebriated to escape the extreme pain that comes with heartbreak. Between sobs, and clenching his face in his hands, he told us he needed help getting home.
We changed our route and dropped him off at his door—adding an unplanned mile to our journey. We made him promise he’d be kind to himself. And we told him he wasn’t alone.
Days later, he’s still on all our minds.
So, should you, too, walk a marathon through San Francisco?
Absolutely. But be ready for more than you bargained for.
Sophie Bearman can be reached at [email protected]