« BorderlandsCowpox, Smallpox »
02.28.2009

Getting Fit In San Francisco

On one of my first days at Yahoo, I looked around and realized that I was staring into my own future unless I took immediate corrective action. As much as I admired my co-worker's craftsmanship, I did not want to end up carving my own Gandalf walking staff to assist my overtaxed legs in getting me onto the wide-seated commuter shuttle.

Thankfully, San Francisco proved to be one of the most pleasant places in the world for outdoor exercise. Now that I have moved out of the Bay Area, I wanted to pass along three secrets that I was much too stingy to share while still a resident.

1. San Francisco Outdoor Fitness

Fitness 'boot camps' are proliferating in the city. Most of them involve four-to-six week intensive programs where you pay several hundred dollars in exchange for morning calisthenics and the chance to have an instructor look at a food diary and tell you to cut out the burritos.

Hidden among these boot camps is an outfit called SF Outdoor Fitness, a deceptively low-key fitness cult that for a hundred bucks a month got me fitter than I had ever hoped to be. The cult leader, Mike, is a former college football player with a sunny disposition and a strong desire to climb. I don't believe there is a hill or staircase in the city that he is not intimately familiar with the top of.

The group meets three times a week in Dolores Park, is full of friendly regulars (not the overstressed financial types who seem drawn to the more expensive groups), and gives you a chance to see some lovely hidden corners of the city. A typical workout includes a three mile run, some pushups and abdominal exercises, and mild resistance training using a partner. The trick is holding out for the first two weeks. In recognition of the attrition rate, the first three sessions are free. Runs on Saturdays cost nothing but hurt much more.

2. The Six Tax Bracket Run

This is a perfect longer (6.0 mile) run for anyone staying in a downtown San Francisco hotel, or near a BART stop. Beginning on Market St, run towards Civic Center, follow Leavenworth north all the way to the water, then take a right and run along the Embarcadero until you return to the foot of Market Street, completing the loop. This run starts in the heart of the Tenderloin, San Francisco's most visually unforgettable neighborhood, and climbs rapidly uphill both topographically and socioeconomically for around two miles. The nearly linear relationship between altitude and per-capita income breaks down as you crest the hill and descend towards the Marina, San Francisco's answer to Orange County. In a rare display of cosmic justice, the Marina is also the part of the city most likely to sink without a trace into freshly-liquefied sands when the Big One hits. Pick out your favorite plot of land now!

This is a very taxing run if you are not used to hills, but the pain is front-loaded. There are two long climbs and sharp descents along Leavenworth, and then you have a completely flat return along the Bay, giving your legs a chance to recover and hopefully not seize up completely once you've stopped moving.

If you are used to hill running, consider turning left at the water and running through pretty Fort Mason, then returning to Market St. via Laguna (Divisadero for the hardcore) and Geary. This is hilly in both directions, but does not require slaloming through waterfront tourists. The Laguna route is also 6 miles; Divisadero is 7.5.

Whichever route you take, there are beautiful views from the crests towards Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, and the hills south of the city, though you are more likely to have your attention caught by your freshly-expelled lungs, which will look surprisingly purple and dark against the sparkly concrete of the sidewalk.

3. The W Hotel Gym

Gyms in the Bay Area tend to be very expensive. If all you want is a place to lift some barbells, do some resistance training or possibly go for a swim, skip the costly day passes and go to the fourth floor of the W hotel at 3rd and Howard. Exiting the elevator, you'll see a spa desk with bored attendants — ignore them and stride confidently to the right. The door to the gym requires a key card to open, but you can stand across from it, out of view, and pretend to fiddle with your phone until an arriving or departing legit cardholder lets you in. As long as you look plausibly like a hotel guest, no one at the W will hassle you.

Inside the gym is a full set of free weights, treadmills, resistance machines and fluffy white towels; there's also a very nice shower. If you can get someone to let through the inner atrium door, you can go swimming in a small rooftop pool or sit in the Jacuzzi. Often one or both of these doors are left propped open, making it even easier to get in.

If you visit the W facilities, please do be considerate and keep it low-key, in order to keep this precious natural resource usable by others (that is, myself) for years to come. And if you know of other hotel gyms in big cities that are easy to get into, I'd love to hear about it by email.

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