Posted by: Joe English | October 16, 2007

Races: Nike 26.2 Women’s Marathon Course Preview

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

Each October San Francisco plays host to a unique marathon: the Nike Women’s Marathon.

Nike’s flagship marathon is special in two ways. It was both created as a women’s oriented marathon and it also serves as a major fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

A race built for women
In making an event more geared toward women, the race features Tiffany and co. finisher medallions, hunky firemen delivering the medals at the finish-line, and some unique on-course amenities such as a chocolate stop and an oxygen bar. And while most of these features are designed to attract women to the race, the race itself is not unlike other marathons. It is a standard distance, chip-timed, 26.2 or 13.1 mile race, with all of the traditional on-course support that you’d expect from a large urban marathon.

Although the Nike 26.2 (and 13.1) is tailored for women, the race itself welcomes men. In 2006, about 750 men ran in the event alongside thousands of women.

Start at Nike Women’s Marathon

The course
One of the most interesting things about the Nike 26.2 course to me is just how difficult it is. There are lots of tough marathon courses out there, but typically courses are tough when they include lots of rolling hills, like the Boston Marathon for example. But Nike is different in that it has large stretches of flat terrain and then some very large hills that come one right after another in the first half of the race. Because the hills are early in the race, it is easy to run them too hard and to burn too much energy early, leading to a very tough second half.

For a map of the course, click here. {Link updated for the 2008 running}

The course starts in downtown San Francisco at Union Square next to NikeTown. It heads slightly down-hill in the first three miles as it makes its way to the waterfront and then past Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghiradelli Square. There is a slight hill in mile three as the course sets itself up for a flat section in miles 4 and 5 along the water. This is a really nice stretch of the run through the Marina District. Unfortunately, that ends right about the mile 6 mark when the course turns dramatically uphill.

The first uphill climbs from mile 6 to mile 7 ½ and gains about 295 feet in that short distance. The hill is very steep right at the bottom, causing a lot of people to stop and walk as they hit the base of the hill. Some of my runners last year told me that they felt that this hill “went on forever.” It doesn’t go on forever though. At the top of the hill, the course plunges down about 150 feet in the next ½ to ¾ of a mile. It then immediately starts climbing again: this time a two-stage hill, over the course of the next mile and a half. Just before mile 10, runners top out near 295 feet again.

After the top of the hill at mile 10, the course then drops dramatically all the way back down to sea-level over than less than a mile. This is a very steep down-hill section. Runners need to be very careful here not to over-run this hill. And runners with knee problems may want to walk down it. The view, on the other hand, is pretty amazing as you descend down to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

The course flattens out briefly and then makes a hard left into Golden Gate Park after mile 11. This section of the course climbs slowly over the next four miles, gaining back 240 feet of elevation. If you’re doing the half-marathon, you’ll turn-around before mile 12 for a downhill finish toward to the beach. On the full-marathon course, you’ll start down-hill from about mile 15 to mile 16.

When runners emerge from Golden Gate Park, all of the hills are pretty much behind them and they take another left turn onto the Great Highway to head south for the next few miles. This section is flat for about two miles. It may also be mentally one of the toughest sections of the course, as you’ll be running away from the finish-line and possibly spent from all of the hills early in the early miles. Stick with it and you’ll soon be climbing a low hill between mile 18 and 19 and leaving the Great Highway for a short time.

The section off of the Great Highway comes between miles 18 ½ to 23 ½ and is a circular tour around Lake Merced. Everyone I talked to last year simply hated this section of the course. It is slightly uphill throughout and the road is somewhat cantilevered (angled) along much of it. This is a very tough section of the course mentally and physically.

About mile 23 1/2 , you’ll go up and over a small hill as you rejoin the Great Highway. You’ll be on the home-stretch now with a straight and flat section heading along the beach to the finish-line.


In preparing my own runners for this course, I had them add some fairly steep hills into their longest runs. Whether you’ve done this hill work or not, my suggestion is that you have very conservative pace goals for this race. That means not only taking it easy on the hills, but have a conservative pace goal for the flat sections before those first hills.

What I might suggest is backing off your pace goal by say 30 seconds per mile. This pace should feel relatively easy in the early miles. Then when you hit the big hills at mile 6, make sure that your heart rate and breathing stay under control coming up the hills. If you feel like your panting and really driving your heat-rate up, then back off the pace until you get to the top. The worst thing that you could do to yourself on this particular course is to run these early hills too hard and then leave yourself out of gas late in the race.

Also, because of the heavy workload on the hills, make sure that you eat and drink plenty. You’ll need more calories for the uphill sections than a flat run and you’ll likely be sweating more if you’re working harder as well. Keep on top of your eating and drinking to make sure that you avoid bonking and cramping late in the race.

Nike 26.2 is a unique event. The weekend really is a great time for women to be proud of their accomplishments in sports – and this is a perfect showplace for those accomplishments. For those running with Team in Training, you can feel great pride in being a part of a sea of purple that will be raising millions of dollars for Leukemia research. On top of all of that, Nike 26.2 is a tough marathon, but an extremely beautiful one. There is almost always something interesting to look at and experience.

Have fun out there all! Take it easy on those hills.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Managing Editor, Running Advice and News



  1. […] Team In Training program is available if you miss the sign-up period. You may also want to read my course preview to learn more about the course, which I consider to be one of the more difficult urban marathon […]

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