The Day I Ran Across the Golden Gate Bridge

by Ron Vitale

This weekend I needed to squeeze in a 12 mile training run as the Philadelphia marathon is only two months away. With being in San Francisco for work, I had an idea: Could I somehow figure out how to make time to run over the Golden Gate bridge? About three years ago I would have thought this idea insane and I would not have had the courage, fortitude or ability to make this dream become reality. But that was the past.

Beautiful view of the Golden Gate bridge. 

Beautiful view of the Golden Gate bridge. 

After the idea took root in my mind, I tried to figure out the logistics. Time was an issue and I had no idea how to get there. Thankfully, I met Brian at the front desk of my hotel who manned the concierge and he gave me a map and a suggestion. If I took a cable car or taxi down Market Street to the Embarcadero, I simply had to follow the paths through the Wharf and park to the bridge. He estimated that the run, one way, would be 7 miles. I filed his plan and the map and then did a Google search for “how to I ran across the Golden Gate bridge?” And, presto, an answer popped up.

Three years ago a guy (I can’t remember his name and I’m writing this on a plane so I can’t look it up) wrote a whole blog post that documented how he did it. He said that he ran along the bay and then off to the left saw a path that headed up. He followed the path, made a turn and there was the bridge. I thought this information would come in handy so I went to work and asked myself all day: Was I brave enough to pull off the plan?

You could feel the vibration from cars going by. 

You could feel the vibration from cars going by. 

After work, I changed into my running gear, headed to Market Street and walked all the way down to the Embarcadero. Right before I arrived I saw tents set up for a craft show and heard two girls screaming in glee. I looked up and saw that a zip line had been set up and the girls flew right me. I smiled and wished that I had time to do that as well, but my decision was made. The bridge awaited me.

There was a moment in which I waited for my GPS that my friends gave me (Butch and Jen , thank you) to synch up and I watched all the people, felt the sun on my face and just took in the scene. I turned out to the bay and couldn’t even see the bridge. That’s how far away it was. I took a deep breath, started to run and headed off. I weaved in and out groups of people as the Embarcadero was crowded. When I ran through Fisherman’s Wharf, I had to run in the street, zoom around buses and throngs of people. Once I cleared that area, I ran past the aquarium and could see Alcatraz and far, far off in the distance my goal. Like a toy model set across a train set, the Golden Gate bridge stretched across the horizon. I kept my pace steady and when I entered the park and fought against the steep hills, I did stop and walk for a bit and took some amazing pictures of Alcatraz. Time passed and I ran. I ran past the Family Kite Day festival, watching the kites swirling in the air and watched the sailboats on the bay. More time passed and I could see the highway that led to the bridge, but a sign said the walkway was closed.

I kept running and looked for a dirt trail, hoping that the blog post I had read was right. When I came to a fork in the road, I saw car traffic heading to the left and two guys with a dog walking down a very thin dirt path. I ran to them and, out of breath, asked if I could follow the path up to the bridge. They told me that I was headed the right way and I ran up (and then had to walk) the steep hills. When I came to the top, trees blocked the skyline and the dirt path changed to a paved bike trail. I ran on that and when the road shifted to the left, there in front of me loomed the main post of the Golden Gate bridge. It’s rust-colored beams filled up the sky. On my way up the bike trail, I took a few moments to stop and take pictures of the bridge and looked back at the city. According to my GPS, I had run more than 6.5 miles. At the top of the bike trail, I saw the visitor’s center and then the entrance to the sidewalk to walk over the bridge. To my right, I kept looking down and now I know why that blogger had mentioned the height. When I start running over the bridge, the wind buffeted me toward the railing and I had this irrational fear that the wind would blow me over. I felt weak, tired and a bit dizzy as I had pushed myself hard to make it to that point. I stopped a few times to take some amazing pictures and in my head I just kept saying: “I will face my fear. I will not stop. I will keep moving.” And the wind buffeted and at one point as I tried to put my smartphone back into a zip lock bag (that contained my id, hotel key and money), a gust of wind blew past and I nearly dropped everything. My hands were shaking a bit as I was so tired, but I made it to the main post of the bridge and the wind stopped. I took more pictures of the city and of the bridge and then zipped up my id and phone in my belt. What an amazing site to look out over the water, see parasails down below and sailboats look like tiny toys.

Sunset while looking back at the Golden Gate bridge on my return trip.

Sunset while looking back at the Golden Gate bridge on my return trip.

I ran onward and had to stop almost fully across because the sidewalk was closed. I turned back around and had a moment alone looking out at the city. The blue water, its beauty and white foam on the waves, and the wind caught me up in nature’s beauty. What an amazing moment to be there and this thought passed through my head: “I did it. I really did it. I’m actually on the bridge.” I walked forward and put my hand on one of the suspension cables and I could feel it vibrating. The bridge felt alive. Down below, so far that it made me uncomfortable to look, I saw the water and felt the bridge’s pulse. I stared back out at the city and then realized that now I had to run back. And I did. I made a quick pit stop, ate more GU gel for energy, sipped some Gatorade and was off.
When I made it back to the dirt trail, I ran down it and stumbled on a rock and fell forward, scrapping up my knee. I fell hard on the palms of my hands and dirt covered my whole left leg and my shirt. I pulled myself up, saw the blood around my knee, got up and started running again. I had been lucky. I had braced myself well for the fall and besides the scrapes on my leg, I was fine. Dirty and banged up, but fine. I retraced my route and once through the park I made it up the large hill, turned back and saw the sun setting to the left of the Golden Gate bridge. I couldn’t have timed it any better. I snapped some pics and kept running. When I arrived at Market Street it was fully dark. I had run 13.1 miles and had about 2 miles yet to walk to get back to the hotel.
I could feel my legs stiffening from the long run, but I had such an amazing experience that the adrenaline kept me moving. After I showered, I cleaned my cuts and saw that they were superficial. The day had been a long one and I took a few moments to relax and treated myself to room service. I had deserved it.

What a wonderful day and an amazing experience. I’m glad that I challenged myself to the run and faced my worries and fears. If I hadn’t, I would have missed out on an adventure of a lifetime.

Pacing and Acceptance

by Ron Vitale

20th Anniversary Philadelphia Marathon Finisher's Medal.

20th Anniversary Philadelphia Marathon Finisher's Medal.

I ran the Philadelphia marathon on Sunday, November 17, 2013 and had a blast. My goal was to finish in under 5 hours. When I last ran the Philly marathon, I came in at 5 hours and 6 minutes so I thought that I would be good. But it was not to be. The temperature for the race was around 66 degrees when I finished and the heat did me in. Not enough to drink and fatigue zapped my strength.

At mile 18, I saw the 5 hour pace group catch up to me and then pass me by. For a while, I struggled to keep up with the group and their leader holding the sign that read 5:00 on it, but I had a moment of zen. I had a chance to make. The Philadelphia marathon was the second marathon I had run in 2013 with the first taking place in April. Training for the marathon takes 4 months so I had spent 8 months of training for marathons in 2013. I had put a lot on the back burner (more on that in a bit) and as the pace group faded in front of me I saw my goal fall away.

The moment of zen that I had went like this: "Hey, you feel dehydrated and like crap. If you push yourself too hard, you're going to throw up, collapse and be dragged off the course. Not only will you not make 5:00 but you'll not even finish the race." I listened to my voice of reason and stopped. For the last 8 miles, I walked and ran toward the finish. I decided not to hurt myself and eased up.

I thought of my family waiting for me and knew that they would want me safe rather than fast. And I had raised $1100 for Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation (the online form is still open if you'd like to help!) and I had promised a good many people who believed in me that I would finish the race. I chose to run the race to raise funds for children sick with cancer. The money I raised would go toward grants to help fund research to find cures and treatments to fight pediatric cancers. All of this swirled through my mind and I slowed down. Yes, I wasn't too happy about failing to meet my running goal, but that is how life is sometimes. You work really hard and you still can't make the goal you want. How you respond to the challenge is what matters.

For me, I had a pretty interesting race. Thankfully, I was able to turn the situation around and think about the position things.

Running with a Partner

About a mile into the first half of the race, a woman came up to me and said hello. She told me that she had been following me for the last mile because she and I had the same pace and wondered if it would be okay to run with me. In all the races I have run, I have never run with anyone. I like running alone and do better that way. But I took up her offer and my experience in the first part of the race was totally different. She talked about her kids, her partner and we laughed at the various signs we saw people holding up for us as we ran by. "You're running better than the government does" was one of my favorites.

At mile 12, her partner ran up to her and gave her a big hug. I took her partner's iPhone and took a few pictures (we were all still running), gave the phone back and waved to them. It was the first time I acted as a pacer for someone, helping her stay on her target to finish her first half marathon. The experience was unique and it's not every day that I run with someone different than myself. I thoroughly enjoyed that part of the race.

The Wall

The second part of the race became a test of wills for me. The heat beat me down, I fought to not lose what little I had left in my stomach and I desperately tried get more to drink. I watched all the people in the bars in Manayunk eat and drink the day away as thousands of runners passed them by. I saw drunk women offering beer to runners and acting all sloping as we ran by. I saw two women who were completing their 50 marathon in all 50 states but I also saw a young woman on crutches "running" the race. Every person who ran had their own story and the thousands of people who came out to cheer had their own as well.

When I accepted that I could not keep up my pace, I walk/ran the rest of the way and I saw so many interesting sites. I took in the experience and watched old and young pass me by. I remained determined to finish. My time would be off but I would finish (and I did). It took me 5 hours and 22 minutes to finish 26.2 miles. Right before mile 26 I saw my wife and kids. I picked up the pace and ran strong past them as they cheered.

The night before I had talked to my son and told him how afraid I was of the race. I feared that I would fail and not be able to do it. I wanted him to know that his father was human and had fears just like he does. But I would stand up, face my fear and run. And run I did. Yes, I did more walking than I would have liked, but I finished. When I ran to the finish, I could hear the people cheering, the music blaring and I remember putting my hands together in prayer and thanking God that I had made it.

I stopped and a wave of emotion washed over me. Months of training, getting up before dawn, running 10 miles before work in the dark. Running at night. Stretching, being grumpy, tired, hurting--all of this hit me at once. I had fought hard and I accepted the fact that I had not made my goal. But I did complete the race and I had raised a good amount of money for children with cancer.

After the race was over, I walked through the finish chute, wrapped the space blanket around me and accepted my medal. (My first thought: Damn, this medal is way too big and gaudy.) I accepted a bottle of water and then had a moment of bliss: I took a small cup of chicken broth and its warmth spread through me. The pain, the emotion and all that I had sacrificed over the last four months was now done and over. I accepted where I was, what I had done and all the support from my wife and family.

Now I needed to give back and re-evaluate. Much had been put on hold. With the marathon in the books, I have more time for my family and on a personal level I now have time to finish my novel. Book 3 of Cinderella's Secret Diaries I'm looking at you. I've 65 pages left to rewrite. With no more 4 mile training runs on Sunday morning, imagine what I could now do!

But on a serious note: The marathon was hard and it beat me down. I'm humbled by the experience. Will I do another? Most likely yes, but probably not for another year or two. In the meantime, I have a lot of catching up to do with the rest of my life.

What It Takes to Succeed

Yesterday I ran my fourth Philadelphia Broad Street Run which is a 10 mile race through the streets of Philadelphia. I had decided not to run this year because the organizers had made the race a lottery with so many people trying to enter it. There's around 40,000 people who run the race and this year was no exception. With my mind set on other races, I decided that I did not want to run Broad Street and deal with a lottery and then the Boston Marathon bombings happened.

2011 Mud Run MS Philly

It's hard to see in this picture, but that's me with the gray hair all the way in the back with a fist in the air. My fellow team members of Boot Camp Challenge: Team Yankee and I are crossing the finish line at last Saturday's 2011 Mud Run MS Philly. The day before the race I decided that I wanted to run the 6.2 mile adventure run with 30 obstacles (all dealing with mud). Normally, I would have wanted to go yet not acted on it and the opportunity would have passed me by. But a friend helped me find an open slot on a team and my wife said she'd support me and come with the kids so bright and early on Saturday, June 11th my family and I arrived. By 9:30am my team had started, my wife and kids cheered me on and I was off. 

Way in the back on the right, but having a great time. 

Way in the back on the right, but having a great time. 

I had not known at the time, but the day would go down as one of the most life-changing ones I had had in a many years. For the last two years, I have worked hard on facing fears and trying to overcome them. In competing in the Mud Run MS Philly, I not only faced down my fears, but also helped raise money to fight against MS.

My team consisted of 13 people of all different walks of life. As we ran at our own pace, I gravitated toward members of the team who ran at my pace and I went through many of the obstacles with three other team members. Pictured to the left is "The Wall." Around 4 miles into the race, I came out of a pond of mud and had to climb up (with slippery shoes and all) over the wall, come back down and then finish the rest of the race (and the remaining obstacles). I climbed over logs, went through low tunnels, walked across ravines, slid down hills into mud pits, swung across a mud pool, climbed up a platform and then jumped down in a mud pool, and sunk waist deep into mud. My body was bruised, tired and yet I did not give up--neither did my teammates. Yet when I arrived at the wall, the intimidation factor kicked in. Tired and hurting, climbing over a wobbling "wall" with slippery shoes worried me. I feared that I would fall. The woman before me climbed up halfway and then had to stop as she thought she might fall. When it was my turn, I started climbing up and as I came to the top, this thought went through my head: "Are you nuts? Don't go up anymore! If you fall, you'll get hurt." I stopped for a moment and then made a decision: Onward and upward. I made it to the top, slung my leg over the wall, and then climbed back on down. I did not allow my fear to stop me. I simply kept going.

Climbing this while wet and muddy was not only difficult but scary. 

Climbing this while wet and muddy was not only difficult but scary. 

About a quarter of a mile further, we came up against the rope wall and waited our turn to try and climb over the four very tall obstacles. To my right, a woman in her late thirties was about to climb over the top. Fear suddenly gripped her and she started vocalizing her concern, pausing and she was frightened of the height and of falling. And then a magical thing happened, all forty so of us--all from different teams--started yelling up at her: "You can do it!" She looked down at us, we up at her and then she struggled with gaining her balance at the top and used her momentum to roll over the top and started coming down the other side. All of us clapped and cheered her on as she had made it safe and sound. What a great moment!

I'm on the right drinking down some nice and cool water. 

I'm on the right drinking down some nice and cool water. 

For the rest of the race, my team worked together to help each other up and over rope walls, out of thick mud pits until, as a united front, we held hands and slid down a large slide into a pool of water (yep, you guessed it--with lots of mud in it) and then on our bellies dragged ourselves under ropes until we ran the last 50 yards and came screaming across the finish. If you want a good laugh, watch the minute and a half video below:

Why did I sign up for this? Why did I put my body through this punishment? Seriously, why?

In the video above, you can hear my son and daughter cheering me on. I wanted to prove not only to myself that I could complete the race but to show my kids that it's important to help others and to not give up. My son's shouting "Go, go, go, go!" helped me get through that last portion of mud on my stomach. My knees ached, my legs were sore from getting banged up climbing over the wall and I was tired. But I did not give up.

Many people who read my blog are writers themselves or want to be writers. How often do we have to face our fears when we stare at the blank page and need to start writing? Or deal with problems in our personal lives or on the job? There is only one way to conquer our fears: Stand up to them and try to overcome them. I have failed more times in my life than I can enumerate here, but still I get up. On Saturday's Mud Run, I learned three important things: Challenge yourself, try new things and most importantly---many people you will meet in life are simply amazing. Our team Captain, Lisa Di Ciccio Caramandi, is a four year breast cancer survivor, a grandmother and a great leader.  Put simply: She rocks.

If I did not go to the race, I would not have met such wonderful people, learned much about my strengths or inspired my family to try new challenges. Now I need rest as I've earned it. Remember: Don't give up.

2011 Broad Street Run: Determination and Willpower


I often think that running is a lot like writing: It appears simple, but to excel at it you need lots of practice, patient, determination and willpower. Yes, some people are born star athletes or Shakespeares, but for the rest of us running and writing are skills that need to be honed. Earlier today I achieved a PR (personal record) in the 2011 Philadelphia Broad Street run. For those unfamiliar with the race, it's a 10 mile run through the city of Philadelphia, going down Broad Street. You start up at the Olney stop of the subway and race through the city, passing City Hall and heading past the sports stadiums to end up at the Navy Yard.

Last year, my first year running the race and my first long distance race, it was 92 degrees by the end of the race. Let's just say that I'm just happy I finished as it was so hot and humid. Runners were passed out by the side of the road, getting sick or just spent from the heat. Just like writing, I find that it's essential to pace myself. I have neither the time nor the ability to sit down all at once and whip out a 90,000 novel. Writing a book takes me a long time, working, little by little in the early morning hours before work.

What I thought I would share with this blog post are some thoughts about how my run went and how they mirror pretty damn close to how I have been approaching my writing in the last year and a half. First, some logistics: This year the Broad Street run sold out in 4 days (in early January). More than 25,100 people finished the race (with near 30,000 signing up). The race is extremely crowded and if you've never run in an event like this before it's pretty mind boggling: The sheer number of people cramming the streets of Philadelphia is just amazing. The above picture was taken by me while I was running. It's difficult to make out, but if you look at the top of the picture you'll see lots of little dots--yep, that's all the people in front of me. Behind me were thousands more.

Once the race started and I fell into my groove, there's a pattern that needs to be set up: I've learned that good posture, breathing and mindset are critical in a race. Trying to train your body to run 10 miles takes time and patience. But today, all that training paid off. I breathed normally, focused on relaxing and just ran. I'm one of those runners who chooses not to run with music as I prefer to take in the sights and sounds around me. And on this race course, there were many college bands, people playing drums and spectators cheering us along the way. I had plenty to keep me busy.

But what did I think about during the 1 hour and 41 minutes and 2 seconds that it took me to finish the race? My friend Carla said before the race, "Just think about all the hours of training that went into everyone coming to be here." The sheer numbers are amazing. Yet when I'm running, I like to look around at the sky, the people around me, the murals on the walls and anything that catches my eye.

I forget what mile it was, but while running down Broad, I did step over one of the Toynbee tiles that is an inspiration for my short story collection The Jovian Gate Chronicles. I did chuckle over that one. And I would be untruthful if I did not say that I was, umm, how do I say this, very thankful to God for all the beautiful women running around me. We'll just leave it at that. Yet I experienced some wonderful moments while running and a frightful one. The pure joy of running past people cheering you on or playing music for you is extremely uplifting. Yet I also saw some wonderful artwork in Philadelphia. There's a mural on Broad Street that said (I wish I could find a picture of it): When I am at peace... and then there were great words of inspiration on the wall (determination, etc.).

As I took in all the sights and sounds, I came up on City Hall and this feeling washed over me--clear, strong and true: This was my moment. The spectators were cheering all of us runners on. I breathed right, felt good, had good speed and the day was wonderful. I looked up at the blue sky and smiled as I knew that this is where I belonged and that to own this moment in time would be a memory that I would like to remember. All the hard work, the getting up early, the running in the rain, heat or trying not to fall on the ice back in February led up to today's race.

After I passed City Hall, thousands of people filled the streets by the old Academy of Music on Broad and it is here that I allowed myself to stop and think. In a recent article in Runner's World, one of the visual techniques that the writer uses is to imagine that as he's running a strong cord made of light is attached to his belly and on the other end is his home. He imagines being pulled home by those who love him. I tried that today and in my mind I imagined my wife and kids waiting for me at the end of the race and that they were pulling me home to victory, rest and their love. I kept a strong pace throughout the run and at mile 9 I sped up increasing my speed. I had hoped to make 1:40 but the field was so packed with people that I couldn't weave through all the runners at the end. I should have sped up further back in the race, but I was concerned of blowing out my energy too soon. Still, I have a PR and enjoyed the run.

Yet there was a moment of fear that passed through me as I neared the finish line, running hard and strong and turning to my left to see a man lying on the ground being treated by EMTs. He had heart defibrillator pads on his chest. When you're running strong and it's the last .25 miles of a 10 mile race, you're tired, you're going fast and as in slow motion you see things taking place but it's difficult to process as you're using your willpower to keep running. There I was running strong and so close to the finish and I saw a man who could be dying. I had no power to help him, could barely think more than to say a prayer for him yet seeing him made me realize that I could be gone tomorrow. People think I joke about Carpe Diem and wonder why I push myself so hard in running or writing or the work that I do.

I did not just wake up today and say, "Hey, I think I'll run a 10 mile race!" Or, "I think I'll just write a novel." I can't speak for others, but it's impossible for me to do that. I can't do either of those things just by wishing that I could do them. It takes damn hard work. I don't know how long I'll be around, but I want to try my best to take care of myself and share love with my friends and family. It's that simple. So, when I'm running and I hit that moment of feeling all's right with the world, that same feeling comes to me when I'm writing, I like to be thankful for that. Running is hard for me and so is writing. I see them very linked as they are often solitary activities, but today I was able to share my running with all my fellow runners and all the spectators just as I'm able to share my writing with those who choose to read or listen to my books.

If I plant a seed, it'll grow if it's watered and has sun. I've learned that the same is true with my writing abilities--I need to water and give them sun. Part of that process is exercise as running clears my mind and enables me to toss away what people say I cannot do. All my life people have told me: "You can't make money being a writer." Or: "Why spend all that time doing that? Nobody's going to care about what you write."

I will say this: After meeting my wife and kids and hugging them at the gathering area past the finish line, we headed back to the car and saw the remaining runners headed toward the finish line. Tired and sore, I held my son's hand as my wife pushed our daughter in a stroller. Then we saw a man, looking to be in his mid-30s, on crutches, trying to finish the race. I stopped, applauded and cheered along with those around me. How he was able to propel himself 10 miles on crutches is beyond me, but he did it. And that, in a nutshell, is what I love about running. People work hard to achieve their goals. No matter if it's the man I saw on crutches or a blind runner I met two years ago. People do not give up. They have faith, work hard and achieve their goals.

So, I ask you: What about you? What do you want to do? Dream, believe and do it. Even if you fail, at least you tried. And if you succeed, wouldn't that be wonderful?

I'm very thankful for the race I ran today and I want to send my love out to my wife and kids who have been so supportive with my running and writing. And of course, to my friends--thank you all for your support and love.