A Girl, a Bridge, and a Question

I had to poop. Now.

This was not up for debate. I had just finished a tall house coffee from Starbucks and five minutes from now would be starting a 13.1 mile race. Though half marathons are no joking matter, urgent bodily functions win every time. So it was not a question of if, but where. A hundred yards from the starting line, I scanned my surroundings, wide-eyed amidst throngs of runners streaming past me on the way to the starting chute.

I stared past the orange mesh of bag check, as panicked racers glanced worriedly ahead at the check line and anxiously down at their watches. Four minutes til go time.The early morning fog began to recede, revealing the green mountains of the East Bay in the distance; it was a beautiful day for a race. A helpful finger pointed me in the direction of the bag check, “That way”. Barely visible from behind the crowd, I spotted the glistening row of porta-potties: I was saved.

The US Half Marathon has a scenic out-and-back route that traces the edge of San Francisco from Fort Mason, along the Marina and past Crissy Field before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, which was being marketed as the highlight of the course. The official t-shirts for the race feature an image of the Golden Gate Bridge.  The tagline for the event read, “I ran the Golden Gate”. Now, I had nothing against this but I had never dwelled on whether the experience of running across the bridge would be notable. Certainly the bridge was beautiful. Certainly it was a San Franciscan icon. But would today’s race give me better perspective about the bridge’s true essence? Would “running the Golden Gate” be more enlightening than seeing it from the shore?

The answer to this question lay five miles into the course, and I vowed to pay extra-close attention to the bridge and the effect it had on me. But first I had to start the race. And I was late. I emerged from the porta potties to witness a stampede of runners making their way up the first hill of the race and I scurried to catch up to the crowd. It wasn’t long before I found myself in a rhythmic jaunt and plodded steadily ahead to my steely orange destination.


The Golden Gate bridge is the preeminent symbol of San Francisco. Allegedly the most photographed bridge in the world, its “international orange” structure graces every magazine, book, and article about San Francisco. It is considered one of the “Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers; Instagram and Facebook seem to agree, exploding with snaps of it from every imaginable angle. While it’s hard to imagine the city without it, it was only completed in 1937.  Indeed, the vast majority of this city’s existence has been without the Golden Gate Bridge.


The original “Golden Gate”, the Golden Gate Strait, has been with the city since it’s founding. This three-mile stretch separating the San Francisco Peninsula from Marin County has actually played a critical role in course of San Francisco’s history. This narrow sliver of water caused San Francisco Bay to remain hidden from the Western world for as long as it did; early explorers of the California coast sailed right past San Francisco Bay for over two hundred years before discovering its existence.


It first happened in 1542, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed north from Mexico in search of the elusive Strait of Anian, which was said to connect the Atlantic to the Pacific. He cautiously stayed away from the rocky coastline and consequentially sailed past the strait.  He made it to Point Reyes, which he dubbed “Cabo de Pinos”. No further explorers came until the Spanish conquered the Philippines and began to search for a good trading halfway point between Mexico and the Philippines. In 1579, Sir Francis Drake passed the Golden Gate Strait and landed in what is now known as (surprise!) Drake’s Bay. The year 1595 brought Sebastian Cermeno, who missed San Francisco Bay, but made his mark on history by changing the name “Cabo de Pinos” to “Punta de los Reyes,” giving the point the name it bears today. When San Francisco was finally discovered by the Spanish, it was not by boat; the rocks and fog made the coastline ominous enough that sailors kept their distance and missed the narrow strait. Instead, it was overland explorers that were searching for Monterey Bay that finally set eyes on San Francisco Bay. Gaspar de Portola had heard tales of the great Monterey Bay and led an expedition to find it.  Upon arriving, he did not recognize it and kept going, traveling for another month northward, discovering San Francisco Bay on foot in November of 1776.


Even after it’s discovery and the settlement of the peninsula that followed, the strait didn’t get its name until much later. In 1846 California obtained its independence from Mexico, and engineer John C. Fremont bestowed it with the name “Chrysopylae,” Greek for “Golden Gate”. This name drew inspiration from Istanbul, Turkey; Fremont found San Francisco’s strait reminiscent of Istanbul’s “golden horn”.


The Golden Horn, Istanbul
The Golden Horn, Istanbul
The Golden Horn, Istanbul circa late 1800's
Istanbul circa late 1800’s

As I approached the bridge,  I wasn’t really thinking about this majestic history.  Instead, I was gasping up a hill. I had just passed the two-hour pace group, and I wasn’t about to lose them on this hill. I needed someone to help me set my pace. A small girl with a swish of black hair trotted briskly past me, and it became my goal never to lose her. “Eyes on the prize,” as they say.


It wasn’t until halfway across the bridge that the glittering bay to my right caught my eye. The water was illuminated with sunshine, and white toy-like boats spotted its surface as far as the eye could see. My attention snapped back to my surroundings. This was it, the moment I was waiting for: the experience of running across the Golden Gate. I stilled my mind to allow myself to take in the occasion. I heard the swishing footsteps of my fellow runners, the rush and whir of passing cars. The front runner was visible on the other side of the roadway, already on the return stretch. All the while, the bridge was indifferent to these happenings. Despite my physical misery, it shone brightly in the sunlight, photo-ready at a moment’s notice. I felt a surge of anger. Where was the inspiration? Why wasn’t I emotionally engaged by this architectural marvel? This orange icon of the city I call home?


It was not for a lack of impressiveness. The Golden Gate is a marvel, a staggering “thirty-five million dollar steel harp”, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time it was constructed, it was the world’s longest suspension bridge and retained the title for nearly thirty years.  In addition to making its way into the hearts of locals and tourists, it has also made its way into the history books, being named a California Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1976 and National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1984.

 Image: Picture dated October 1935 of the Golden

Despite the beaming achievement that is the bridge, disappointment lingered on my chest, which at this point was on fire. I had lost my ebony haired pace-setter, and I had another hill to climb.

Did you know the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t flat? It’s not. The bridge arcs, peaking in the center and descending to the highway before leading you up yet another hill to the north. I hadn’t factored this into my pace, and I wasn’t feeling so great. The two-hour pace group passed me. The route veered right and down a grassy slope, and I was blinded by the searing mid-morning sunlight to the west.


We stampeded down this hill beneath the northernmost supports of the bridge before snaking back up to the other side for our southbound return. Passing underneath the Golden Gate offers a less-often-seen view of the bridge, the support beams spindly and latticed in contrast to the solid load looming dark and heavy above them.


As I took in the bridge’s intricate underbelly, anger diffused in an instant of clarity. My frustration had been aimed at the fact that the bridge seemed to lack a greater purpose. I wanted it to be an artistic creation, containing a message about peace or love or the meaning of life. But that was not its purpose.  It was not built to be an expression of an idea, nor is it art; it is just a bridge built to connect Marin to San Francisco. It is functional.


The Golden Gate Bridge, steadfast as I ran across it the second time, held me up as I chased the heels of the two hour pace group once more. Passing them, I identified a new pace setter, this time a gangly bespectacled man in a blue shirt. I then stepped off the bridge and emerged into San Francisco with a renewed enthusiasm to complete my journey with vigor. Narrowing my eyes, I locked in my pace and willed myself to focus, to be fast, to be light, to press onward and forward. But bodies and minds can have conflicting agendas, and my breakfast of a tall coffee did not serve me well. My energy began to leak, my empty stomach churning in anguish. I channelled my brainpower to my limbs, and plodded as nimbly as my heavy legs would carry me.


Though I was nearly finished with my race, the day was new.  Pedestrians emerged from their homes, dotting the grass along the Marina and convening at the nearby Safeway. I didn’t look behind me, but I knew that as I continued my race, my day, my life, the bridge would re-open to the public and new herds of people would fill its walkways.


And so I stumbled through the finish line, accepting my medal and sucking down water before stars sparkled in my eyes.  I sprawled onto the muddy grass in a stupor, eyes closed. 

It is a humbling to think that the Golden Gate endures decades of footsteps and cars and earthquakes and storms and photographs. The bridge is a selfless fixture that holds the peninsula together and serves us every day with aesthetic beauty and utilitarian strength. In the words of Chief Engineer Joseph P. Strauss:


Above the fogs of scorn and doubt,

Triumphant gleams my web of steel;

Still shall I ride the wild storms out,

And still the thrill of conquest feel.


The passing world may never know

The epic of my grim travail;

It matters not, nor friend or foe –

My place to serve and none to fail.


I conquered thirteen long miles and two long hours, and in a way, so had the bridge. It stood beneath the thousands of runners that flooded from south to north and back south again, a morning of trampling feet and heavy breathing.


We go about our lives, charging ahead through half marathons and weekends and relationships and life choices. As each of us fulfills promises made to ourselves to grow, to build, to move forward, the mighty Golden Gate Bridge upholds its promise not to move at all.



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