Filling the bulbous end of the San Francisco Peninsula, the City of San Francisco is, famously, about 49 square miles. Google Maps will tell you that if you add up the distance of all the streets in the city, they’d cover 1,100 miles. But ultrarunner Rickey Gates knows there are really 1,313 miles of streets in San Francisco. He knows because he just finished running each and every one of them.

Gates spent six weeks hitting the pavement almost every day (he took two rest days), covering roughly 30 miles per day between November 1 and December 16 to run all 2,612 streets. Or so he thought. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he might have skipped a couple blocks, so on December 17 he laced up his shoes again and went out to double-check he’d covered a few streets that bothered him.

“I’d finish a 35-mile day then look at my map to see where I’d been,” Gates says. “Then I’d wonder: Did I really skip 35th Avenue somehow? Or did I really run 16th Street twice? All the streets can sort of blend together in your mind at a certain point.”

“The adventure part of it was being out all day long, being open to experiences that come your way, with no idea who you’re going to meet, or what you’re going to see. Normally, you don’t just walk out your front door and spend 8 hours outside, exploring your neighborhoods.”

Gates got the idea last year after finishing a five-month run across the country, from South Carolina to California, finishing in San Francisco. In recent years, he’d spanned the globe running in a number of exotic countries and destinations, from Japan to Antarctica, and seemingly every latitude in between. But Gates wanted to see more of his own country, to become intimately familiar with it. He’d been living in the Bay Area off and on for the past few years and decided after his cross-country race, he could have the same type of discovery right in his own backyard.

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“On my cross-country run, I’d go days on end without seeing anybody at all,” Gates says. “I could go a couple weeks without being in a town with more than 20,000 people. Cities can create a bit of intimidation because of their size and density, but they’re also places where we can really thrive and coexist. This experience allowed me to meet and talk to people I normally wouldn’t, because I wouldn’t be in their neighborhoods typically. The only thing holding us back from meeting more people is simple proximity.”

Figuring out how to explore each of those neighborhoods, in terms of route-planning, was a headache from the start. “Mapping was hands down the most difficult part of this project,” Gates explains.

Along with a friend who specializes in complicated route-planning, Gates tackled the “postman tour problem,” a branch of graph theory for finding the most efficient path leading through a maze of streets without repetition. They used an algorithm to calculate the easiest way to cover each street, and then Gates would run with a printed out screenshot of Google Maps and a list of streets in hand, stopping every few blocks to cross each street off as he went.

“People would see me standing at the end of a dead end street looking at a map and ask if I needed directions,” Gates says. “I’d tell them, no, this is where I’m supposed to be.”

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Gates spent most nights camping out in a van and relished the urban, diverse eating options available to an ultrarunner trying to consume major amounts of calories each day. He’d stop in for dim sum, Vietnamese pho, and devoured countless carnitas tacos.

For two weeks of his run, the Camp Fire sent a dark haze of toxic smoke over San Francisco, with most residents staying indoors and wearing breathing masks if they headed outside. Gates donned a mask himself and kept right on running.

“It was important to me run through that,” Gates says. “To witness that natural disaster along with the people who were out and about.”

For Gates, experiencing things like natural disasters, locals asking if he needed help, eating terrific food, and seeing nearly each square inch of San Francisco on a long-distance urban run was every bit the adventure a cross-country run through the Mountain West is.

“The adventure part of it was being out all day long, being open to experiences that come your way, with no idea who you’re going to meet, or what you’re going to see. Normally, you don’t just walk out your front door and spend 8 hours outside, exploring your neighborhoods.”

Gates began his run on the Golden Gate Bridge and ended it at the top of Twin Peaks, hoping for a grand view of the city he’d just so thoroughly covered on foot. But Gates was victim to typical San Francisco inclement weather, with fog and overcast skies obscuring what would otherwise be a grand view. Instead, Gates saw his girlfriend was waiting for him at the Twin Peaks overlook with a cold beer—a grand view of its own.

 

 

All photos courtesy Rickey Gates