Running the San Francisco Marathon in Under 3 Hours

“I want to run enough marathons to qualify for Boston. And I want that number to be 1.” —Me in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018

Strava_SF_Full_MarathonI don’t like social media, but Strava isn’t half bad

So why am I writing this post? San Francisco is home to a large group of runners and running a sub-3 hour marathon is a common goal and huge achievement for a distance runner. A few weeks before my first marathon, I googled ‘Run a sub-3 hour marathon at the San Francisco Marathon’ and nothing came up. I ran my first marathon a few weeks later and found out just how to get a sub-3 hour time so I thought, “Why not share some insight into how I ran a 2:56:23 marathon on the San Francisco course?”

For reference, running a sub-3 hour marathon means one has to average roughly 6:52/mile. 

It’s been a couple of months since I ran the San Francisco Marathon. I remember the day I signed up… it was the day of the SF Marathon in 2017 and my fiance and I (girlfriend at the time) were cheering runners on through their last 2.5 miles in the Dogpatch. I was so inspired watching them power through the final miles that I decided to sign-up for the 2018 SF Marathon that very morning. At the time, I told myself that I wanted to do this once, and only once, and I just needed to qualify for Boston. The qualifying time for my age group is 3:05, but given how the system works, I was told going sub-3 would get me a spot. So, that’s exactly what I set out to do.


Having a pretty good base of running over the years, I didn’t need to pump up the miles or figure out how to start from scratch, I already had the base. The goal was to increase the distance and feel comfortable at the pace. I had been running roughly 2–3 days a week for the past year. I would do workouts on Tuesdays with a local running store, a mid-distance run on Thursdays and if I was up for it, a long 8–13 mile run on the weekends. I hadn’t completed a run over 13.1 miles in over 4 years and I thought to myself that this was not going to be easy.

To be honest, I didn’t search ‘Marathon training plan’ until May. Going out for 10 miles at 6:30 pace was like clockwork for me. I wasn’t as scared about that pace, but more the distance. So a couple weekends before the marathon, I went out trying to run 17 miles at my goal pace (6:50 / mile). I was feeling really good the entire time pushing out 6:20s and 6:30s, to the point where I didn’t want to stop. I ended up knocking out 17 miles at 6:21 pace. After that run, I gained a ton of confidence. I told myself I just need to do that for 9 more miles and slow it down 30 seconds per mile…that can’t be too hard, right?

Races Leading up to SF Marathon:

My First Half Marathon

I haven’t raced since 2013 and that was a 5K and I’ve never raced more than a 5K. After running with my local running group for a year, my fellow runners convinced me to do a half marathon. I run 13 miles every other weekend, so the distance wasn’t a concern for me. I didn’t know how to pace the race because I had never done it before so I just stuck with a group that I felt comfortable with. Mile 1 was 5:40, mile 2 was 5:50, and I kept knocking out 5:50ish miles and felt great… until I hit that wall. I’ve never hit the wall before, but when I did, I knew why everyone calls it ‘the wall’ and it was as bad as everyone said it would be. My legs felt like bricks and I just wanted to stop. I immediately began second guessing my choice to do this race. I then told myself, I’ve already done 10 miles, it’s just another 5K. I slowed down those last three miles, but crossed the line at 1:19 and was pretty happy with the time. After all, it was good training and I learned a lot about pacing and about my body, both of which would prepare me for my next race.  

Double Dipsea

Ever want to test your mental capability along with your endurance? Run the Double Dipsea. 14 miles, 6K feet of elevation change, and hell. I hiked the Dipsea trail once and walking it was hard, but it wasn’t terrible, so I decided to run it with a good friend of mine. Overall, the race was awesome (now that I completed it, hah). I’ve never ever ever walked during a race or a run, but after climbing uphill for 3 straight miles, I had to take a quick break. It killed me to do it because I’ve never walked during a run, let alone a race… and to be honest, it was a degrading feeling for me. I didn’t hit the wall like I did during my half, but I second guessed my decision to do the race, that was for sure. I powered through the last 5K and ended up coming in 43rd place, which I was pleased with. After that race, I knew I could conquer any hill, so any SF Marathon hill was nothing to me. Until next year, Double Dipsea!

Race Day


I woke up and my fiance was running the first half, so she started an hour after me, but she was nice enough to drive me to the starting line (#blessed, she made me add this). I had no idea if I should warm up or not, but I ran a mile just to keep warm and ate a banana. I headed to the start line and found my place. I was nervous, but not super nervous… it was a marathon after-all, I had 26 miles to figure it out. Bell rang, I went out.

One of the coolest moments was running along The Embarcadero with no cars and just hearing footsteps. Most of my training was running along that road filled with people, cars, bikes, and pedicabs. This time, there were no distractions, only the sound of feet hitting the grand, allowing me to focus on the race.

I told myself multiple times before the race, “Shawn this is a marathon, don’t go out guns blazing.” Guess what my first mile was? 6:05. When my watch buzzed, I said ‘F***’. I needed to slow down because there were still 25 miles left! It took me a couple more miles, but I got to cruising pace, was feeling good and enjoying the beautiful scenery around me.

I think the one thing that makes running marathons so hard is understanding that it’s a marathon. Essentially, in the beginning, it feels like a long run and you feel great. It was mile 6 and I was just cruising along feeling great and there was a group in front of me. I am super competitive, so I wanted to pass them, but you know what I had to tell myself? “Shawn it is a marathon. You are trying to run a certain time. There are 20 miles left…chill!” That, by far, was the hardest part. Knowing you can go faster at the moment in time, but realizing you have so much more ground to cover and you need to conserve your energy, is a difficult thing to do. After that I found a group of a few people and just ran with them. I made sure I was still pacing how I wanted and was feeling good. Tired, but good.

Oh, no one told me about the GU thing until the week of the race. They’re like OMG, you haven’t been training with GU?! You need fuel every 5 miles. I was like, I don’t even drink water on my long runs, let alone eat food. I should’ve eaten the GU…

Mile 24. Do you know where mile 24 is in the San Francisco Marathon? It is the exact spot where I was cheering for the runners the year prior. You know what happened at that spot? My calf started cramping and my leg would give out every 5 steps. I was so pissed. I worked so hard for the last 24 miles and thought, “Now I’m screwed and won’t even make it to Boston…this is ‘bullsh$$’.” I looked at my watch and calculated if I could walk and still make it. Luckily, I just pushed as hard as I could and the cramping went away and I just kept going. You’ve probably heard that you should make small goals the last two miles. Just make it to the stop sign, make it to the next block, etc. I made my goal the Bay Bridge. You know how far away it was at the time? A little over a mile. Yet another bad idea Shawn.

Getting back on The Embarcadero path, I knew I had it. I just needed to keep pushing until I saw the finish line. My legs felt like 500 pounds, but my brain told me to just get there because you know what? The faster you get to that finish line, the sooner you get to stop. I crossed the finish line, went to the fence, leaned on it just to get pressure off of my legs. I took a few deep breaths, smiled and then walked to find my fiance trying to keep my excitement in because I cared more about how her race went than mine.

What’s Next?

Well, I did it! I am going to run the Boston Marathon because, why not? I just registered this weekend, which inspired me to write this post. It will be awesome and I put so much effort into making it. I’m 27 so I have a solid 2–3 more years of speed left in me. That said, after Boston, I’m going to focus on speed in 10Ks and halfs. When I hit my 30s, I will start going the distance. Who knows? Might just have to run the double SF Marathon!

Shawn_Helana_SF_MarathonMy legs were shaking here! My Fiance PR’d too!

This is my first blog post about running (Hell my first personal blog post). I like the idea of writing about running and my life as a Product Manager. If you like one of those, then great… follow-me!

To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift. — Steve Prefontaine

If you’re interested in learning more about my training or just want more detail, share this story or leave a comment! I’m happy to provide more detail.

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