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Which SF Marathon Race is Best for You?

SF Marathon logo

As many of you know, WearTesters started in the San Francisco Bay Area and we’ve still got a ton of audience members that live in the area. So when Puma reached out to tell me they’re now sponsoring the SF Marathon weekend and wanted me to run it, I answered yes as quickly as possible. Go to one of my favorite cities for a beautiful race in fantastic (for running) July weather? Easy decision.

But then Puma asked, “Which race do you want to do?” And that’s where the San Francisco Marathon schedule of events diverges from other big-city marathons and can even feel a little complicated. You’ve got options. Seven options to be exact. Seven different races.

In order to make my choice, I went through the SF Marathon race list, did some research, chatted with some knowledgeable friends, and figured out the best race for me. Now, I’m sharing my research and recommendations so you can choose the best SF Marathon weekend race for you.

Use the table of contents to jump straight to info about the SF Marathon race you’re interested in or just browse the whole thing to see which one catches your eye. Either way, you’ll learn something new and can then follow the direct link to learn more and register. See you in San Francisco!

Full Marathon

SF Marathon - Full Marathon Map

The first option and the one for which the SF Marathon is named, is the full marathon. The 26.2-mile course is a great way to see a lot of San Francisco tourist sites while burning an immense amount of calories. The course runs by the Ferry Building, the Embarcadero, the Palace of Fine Arts, across the Golden Gate Bridge, through the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and several iconic San Francisco neighborhoods. It’s a great way for a fitness-minded person to experience the city.

However, if you’re looking for a fast marathon, the SF Marathon isn’t your best bet. It’s scenic and has great weather but the 1,700 feet of elevation gain means it’s not easy. You’ll experience some rough climbs at miles 11, 13, 15, and 16. Although, I will say, that does make this marathon an authentic San Francisco experience. When I lived there, I would endure various quad-burning hills while walking to work meetings or meeting up with friends.

SF Marathon - Full Marathon Elevation

The SF Marathon does deliver a very, very good final 10k. Starting at mile 21 you’ll descend like you’re rocketing off the top of a roller coaster. Miles 21, 22, and 23 are all downhill and will allow you to coast into the relatively flat final 3.2 miles. So while it’s not going to be a particularly fast course, I love that the easiest part of the SF Marathon is at the end. That’s right where you need it in a marathon. To top it off, you finish almost exactly where you start, making race day logistics super easy (something that’s often overly complicated at many marathons).

Learn More/Register: SF Marathon

First Half Marathon (Bridge)

SF Marathon - 1st Half Marathon Map

If a marathon is too many miles for you, the second option is the First Half Marathon. It follows the marathon course from mile 4 to mile 17. So while you don’t get to see the Ferry Building or the Embarcadero, you start in the Presidio, get the full Golden Gate Bridge experience, then go back through the Presidio to finish in the middle of Golden Gate Park.

This route has quite a bit of elevation change but it’s 100% the BEST way to run across the Golden Gate Bridge. If you’ve always imagined running the Golden Gate Bridge with no traffic, this is your time. And the finish in Golden Gate Park puts you right in the middle of San Francisco’s version of Central Park.

This is probably my favorite option of all the SF Marathon races. I didn’t choose it this year, because I’ve run across the Golden Gate Bridge before, but it’s scenic and awesome. I’d recommend any runner who hasn’t run the bridge to sign up and run this race.

Learn more/Register: 1st Half Marathon

2nd Half Marathon (City)

SF Marathon - 2nd Half Marathon Map

The 2nd Half Marathon, or City Half Marathon, is the less difficult of the two half marathons on SF Marathon weekend. Its elevation is a much more doable 790ft total with good climbs in miles 1, 2, 4, and 5. That’s balanced with big downhills during miles 3, 8, 9, and 10.

The City Half Marathon starts in the Presidio at the same location as the First Half Marathon and follows the SF marathon course for miles 4-5, then turns and again follows the marathon course for miles 14-26. Everything I said about the end of the full marathon applies here too. The last 10k is either downhill or flat.

SF Marathon - 2nd Half Marathon Elevation

The course profile sets up the 2nd Half Marathon to be the faster of the two half marathons. And that’s why I chose it this year. I’m running with a friend who wants to go fast and set a personal record (PR). I’ll be pacing her and we decided this was the better race to make a PR happen.

And along the way to her PR, we’ll get to run through the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, Haight/Ashbury, the Mission District, and see Oracle Park where the San Francisco Giants play. I’ll still get a fun, touristy course, but with the potential to run fast and finish strong.

Learn more/Register: 2nd Half Marathon


SF Marathon - 10k Map

As I was researching the courses, I was tempted by the 10k. If you’re trying to get faster over the summer and focusing on shorter races, the SF Marathon 10k is a race to consider. It offers plenty of Bay views (including of the Bay Bridge), passes various tourist attractions, and maxes out at 79ft of elevation. Racing along the Bay with a nice breeze and cool weather is a recipe for running fast.

SF Marathon - 10k Elevation

If you’re looking to set a new 10k PR, and want to make a fun trip out of it, I don’t think you can beat the 10k along the San Francisco waterfront.

Learn more/Register: 10k

5k Races

SF Marathon - 5k Saturday Map
SF Marathon - 5k Sunday Map

The 5k races on SF Marathon weekend are intriguing.

The Saturday 5k is a fun and flat waterfront race held entirely in the Presidio and in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s one of the more picturesque 5ks you’ll ever run. Since it’s targeted as a fun run for families, both strollers and dogs are allowed. It, along with the Lollipop 1k, is the best way to get your family or non-runner friends involved in SF Marathon weekend.

The Sunday 5k follows a similar course to the 10k and offers epic Bay views alongside a relatively flat and fast course. Dogs are allowed and can be seen running up ahead of their humans wondering why humans can’t run faster. It’s definitely a PR-ready course for both humans and dogs with a short climb at the beginning followed by a flat and fast two and a half miles. And as with the 10k and marathon, the start and finish are extremely close, so logistics will be easy for you and your spectators.

Learn more/Register: 5k Races

Family Lollipop 1k

SF Marathon - Family 1k Map

While this race was never on my particular radar, it’s a great option for locals or tourists with children. A quick 1k around Crissy Field, located in the Presidio with awesome Golden Gate Bridge views, is an efficient way to get your kids exercising and learning to enjoy running.

Learn more/Register: Family 1k


SF Marathon - Ultramarathon Map First Loop

I didn’t choose this race because I’m not ready for an Ultramarathon yet, but as far as road Ultramarathons go, it looks like a good course. Starting at 10:30 pm on Saturday and running through the night so that ultrarunners end up alongside those running the SF marathon, it covers all the cool locations of the marathon while adding in a scenic trip along the Pacific Ocean.

It’s 52.4 total miles so it’s only going to attract a certain type of person…but it’s a cool way to put in that distance while visiting one of the best cities in the world. If you’re an Ultramarathoner, comment down below with what you think of this course as I’d love to hear your expert opinions.

SF Marathon - Ultramarathon Map Second Loop
SF Marathon - Ultramarathon Map Second Loop Elevation
Learn more: SF Ultramarathon

SF Marathon Summary

No matter what race you choose for SF Marathon weekend, you’ll be running a solid race in one of the world’s most iconic cities. San Francisco’s July weather also makes this a fantastic option to beat the heat wherever you live and take a mid-summer vacation.

And, as someone who lived in the San Francisco Bay area for many years, there’s no better way to celebrate a hard race effort than with the incredible San Francisco food scene. Whether it’s clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, a Ghiradelli chocolate sundae, seafood straight out of the Pacific Ocean, or authentic Chinese food in Chinatown, you’ll easily find great quantities of carbs and protein post-race.

Hopefully, I’ll see you in late July on the streets of San Francisco as you run whichever SF Marathon race is right for you. And if you decide to run the City Half Marathon, be sure to say hi when we’re on the course.

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