Falling for the City — A Shaggy Dog Story

Robert Watson
5 min readFeb 12, 2021

Part 1 — The Race — 6:50 am, June 21, 1987

I was trying to clear my head before the race. I knew it would be a big week, but little did I know I would participate in a cliff rescue, have tea with San Francisco Rock and Roll royalty, and find myself on television. I was just a skinny broke student living in the city off ramen and coffee in a run-down flat. But hey it’s San Francisco, anything can happen (and often does). Ten minutes until the gun and the air begins to still. Pre-race stretching is done, warm-up jogs are over, and people are packing tightly on the road behind the starting line, thousands. A note of sports rub lingers against raw nerves throughout the pensive mass. Clouds drape the coast. This year’s race starts near the mouth of the bay in the grounds surrounding Lincoln Park where the fog is always thicker.

Many of us have been here in thin shirts and shorts for over an hour. If you look closely some people are peeing down their legs. Understandable as restrooms are scarce and runners are downing bottles of water to hydrate before the marathon’s momentary start. In this last minute I was trying to lower my heart rate and quiet the distractions to focus on my breathing and game plan. In the moments before crossing the marathon starting line, time stands still. You might be prepared and ready, even excited, but putting your body through several hours of running flat out across a city can be rough. This was my third marathon. I had a pretty good idea how the race could go until I sprained my ankle near this starting line the week before. I hadn’t run since. Still, I made it to the start and was ready to give it a go. What kind of day would I have? My ankle hurt, but would it hurt bad enough to keep me from finishing?

I trained months for this day and couldn’t possibly give up without trying. I was committed, investing considerable time and energy to prepare. Most days I was up early to make time for the long runs needed to build strength for the race. Often out the door at 5 am before work, school and the sun to put in the distance for my goal — running the 26.2 miles in about two and half hours. Although that time wouldn’t be competitive for the elite runners in the race, it would be a solid time for a full-time student and worker, as well as my personal record.

One minute to start, final deep breaths to calm the nerves. Shit what am I doing here at daybreak on a cold windy hill side with six thousand plus clammy bodies tightly pressed against mine?

I really don’t remember much after the gun, until the fall at 7.5 miles in. You can skip the first part of the video (but that part is interesting too) and go to 2:40 to see the fall. Look for the tall, skinny guy in a white and blue tank top and blue shorts (#5463 that’s me).

I was in a groove at this early stage in the race. Able to push any pains or fatigue away until my focus was locked on the slight breeze against my skin and trying to stay in sync with the flowing strides of the runners around me. My progress was good with splits consistent at 5:40 minutes per mile. I broke into a nice sweat for the first time as the fog lifted crossing into China Basin. All the pre-race jitters were finally gone. Stretching out my stride, going with the flow — it felt super. Just as I was smiling at that thought, from the corner of my eye I see a person going down hard and fast. Damn, did that guy just cut off and trip another runner? Who does that and just keeps going!

The woman who fell was in first place at the time and probably in a rather good zone, like me. Coming to a jarring stop with a fall like that can really set you back. I felt and saw a wave of panic as she hit the deck, but she was able to spring right back up and into the race, ultimately winning! I gave her (I later learned her name was Eileen) a gold medal for that fall and recovery. She had moved into first place just a hundred yards back and if she remained on the asphalt for too long the second-place woman could overtake her and that would have been a mental blow I am sure. I am glad I was there to give her a hand up and cheer for her after the fall. It all happened quickly and I just thought, “hey here is a hand, grab it and get the back into this race, you got this”.

In all honestly she probably would have been fine without my help but how many times in life do we get knocked over like this and everyone around just seems to keep going? On the flip side how good it feels to lend a hand and support to someone who’s fallen? I’ve always seen those in my life reaching to help me as saviors. I moved to the city this year and I had already seen a lot of people fall. I had crashed a bunch as well — school assignments, motorcycle, relationship, we all fall when we’re moving forward, it’s getting up that’s important (and being lucky enough to have a hand there when you need it). I had learned to fall for, and in SF, but the people and beauty always seem to be there to pick me up.

The rest of the race was smooth and at about the same pace, perhaps a little faster for the back half. People were out in droves to support the runners lining the streets in many places to cheer for us. Bands played music on the sidewalks, street performers held court before crowds at most every venue, flags were blowing in the wind along the promenades, and tourists were snapping pictures while scampering everywhere as the race preceded then through the Financial District, Pier 39, Aquatic Park, Marin Green to the Golden Gate Bridge and then snaking back ultimately to City Hall.

After crossing the finish in a chute leading to the steps of City Hall with hundreds of people lining it on each side and cheering, I looked back on a decent race and beautiful day! My time was a personal record, 2:42 and change. It felt sweet but I believe it would have been faster if I was not injured helping another person, with a far more serious fall who needed significantly more help near the start of this race one week before. On that day I saw death on a person’s face for the first time — a sight and feeling I could never forget.

End of the race. Mom was proud. I went to North Beach for beer. It had been a long week!

Part 2 (click here)