Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sun and Wine at the Napa Valley Marathon

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of joining 2,300 marathoners for the 29th annual Napa Valley Marathon. This point-to-point race from Calistoga to Napa, CA, attracts speed demons and first-timers alike to cruise along the short rolling hills of the California wine country. I thought it would be a good way to check my speed for the upcoming season, and reward myself with awesome food and wine whether I'm fast or not. ;-) We ended up with a sunny day just chilly enough to set all kinds of PR's, whether it be to win the RRCA National Marathon Championships, set a personal best, or just finish your first marathon.

(The vineyards at dusk, photo courtesy of Corel)

I didn't realize until the last minute that there was no race day packet pick-up (which now that I think about it, is the right way for the Chamber of Commerce to plan a marathon!), so I booked a room at the new Gaia Napa Valley Hotel ($85/night) a few miles south of Napa for Saturday night. The girls couldn't join me for this one, so I had a night off to myself. But I couldn't get in too much trouble - there was a 5:30am bus ride waiting for me, and a marathon to run! I checked in, picked up my packet, and had a nice dinner at the bar at the Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, CA. Chef Jeanty kept bringing out wonderful French fare (with less butter for us runners), and I scarfed as much pasta provencale, fried smelt, and onion soup as I could. An 88-year-old local named Giorgio kept me company by telling me all about the good ole days when there were only six wineries (there are now 300+), and the "scandal" that created Lake Berryessa in two years instead of the planned 20. When I asked him how he could remember all that like it was yesterday, he simply said, "hard work, good wine". You gotta love that.

The next morning started bright and early as we took the bus to Calistoga. Most of the people on the bus were first-time marathoners, equally thrilled and frightened for what lay ahead. Kathy Cox and Brett Astell came all the way from Lee's Summit, MO, to see if they had what it took to go 26.2 (turns out they did - 4:05). I saw some familiar faces from the ultra crowd as well - Dean Karnazes, Jasper Helekas, Mark Lantz, Rena Schumann, Mary Coordt, Kathy D'Onoforio, and more. Mark and Rena were here for a training run before Way Too Cool 50k next week, while Jasper was early in his training for the Wasatch 100.

(Rena Schumann and Mark Lantz at the race start)

One look at the starting line and you could tell this wasn't a simple backyard marathon. This was the RRCA National Marathon Championships, and gazelles like Tom McGlynn, Mike Wallace, and Steve Sundell were going to set the pace. As the gun went off, they clocked sub 5-minute miles right out of the gate in hopes to run a 2:20 Olympic Marathon Trail qualifier. By mile marker 2, the lead pack of seven had already disappeared into the distance.

(Go, go Gadget legs! The leaders line up at the start)

I found a good pace around 6:30/mile, which is fast for me. This was my tactic to "check my speed" - go out 10-15% faster than usual and see how long I could keep my form. I could also see what started to break down first - was it my calves? quads? energy? Finding the weak spots would help me focus the training for the next month or so. If I had to drop, that would be fine - there are plenty of wineries along the way where I could recover in the shade with a nice Sauvignon Blanc.

By mile 4, the top 50 runners had spread out along the Silverado Trail. I was somewhere around 25th or so, still trucking along at a 6:30/mile pace. The short rolling hills were perfect for alternating muscle groups, and there always seemed to be a nice stretch of downhill around every corner (the course is a net 400 vertical foot drop). I caught up to the first women, 24-year-old Devon Crosby-Helms, who had the fast leg turnover of a triathlete. Just as I began wondering if she had the experience to make the distance, we passed mile 5 and she said "hey look, only 15 more miles until this race actually starts". Yep, she's gonna do just fine.

(Runners spread out along the Silverado Trail Road)

Devon and I paced along with Michael Taylor from Salem, OR, who at 42 years old was running his 11th Napa Marathon. Michael had the stride length of an elite distance runner (he said his PR was 2:38) and a road runner cartoon tattooed on his calf, so we knew he had the chops. Michael had an interesting race technique - he was actually running 6:20/mile pace, but every mile he would walk for 5-6 seconds. For the next hour or so, Michael would pass us (meep! meep!), and then we would pass him. But he stayed diligently on pace.

The sun began to burn through the clouds as we passed the Rutherford Ranch Winery around mile 11, warming us up to the high 50's. I got to chat with Devon during the downhills and found out that she had recently crossed over from triathlon training to distance running with great success. She ran her first 50k in 5:05 at the Headlands 50k in August, 2006, against an elite field. After honing her skills a bit more, she ran the Jed Smith 50k last month in 3:32...that's right, 3:32...for 3rd overall. Her goal is to do well at the 100k road nationals this year. Such a talent! She's also hilarious. It was great to run with her.

(Devon is all smiles at the halfway mark, just ahead of Michael)

We hit the half way mark in 1:26:40, which is wicked fast for me. I looked at my watch and said "oh, boy...this is going to hurt at the end". Devon said she was going a bit too hard too, and we both slowed down to a 6:40/mile pace to catch our breath and refuel. I felt better after easing up a bit, and was able to stomach a few Clif Shots. Michael the road runner went flying by us once and for all, and gave us a smile and wave before chasing down the next runner.

We used the downhills over the next four miles to keep our pace just under 6:40/mile, and at mile 18, Devon kicked in the afterburners and took it up a notch. I did my best to keep her in sight, but she was on the war path.

(The mandatory self-portrait, this time at mile 18)

The next few miles were peaceful and quiet, with a cool headwind that had kept us company since mile 15. The towns of Oakville and Yountville were awake for walks and coffee, and plenty of supporters were out to cheer on the crowd. I watched a hot air balloon work its way up the valley towards us, and the hawks soaring along with the runners headed south. Majestic chateaus peaked out from miles of vineyards - remove the guard rails on the road, and we could have just as easily been running through Alsace.

(Long, peaceful miles in the final stretch - that dot is a hot air balloon)

The last long (but small) hill at mile 21 wasn't too much trouble, and I took one last handful of Clif Shots at the top. My watch said 2:14, which meant I was on a 2:54 marathon pace. But Devon said it right - the race had really just begun at mile 20, so it's a little early to claim success. Still, I was suprised I was holding up so well on the pavement.

No matter how much training you do, mile 22 always has some surprises. I think that's part of why marathons and ultras are such a challenge - it's not a matter of "if" something will go wrong, it's a matter of "when", and success is defined by how well you handle adversity in the moment. For this race, it was a combination of things that was signaling to me that I wasn't nearly hydrated enough - twitching calves, dizzyness, and I was really thirsty (oops, too late!). I'm not sure why I didn't carry water on this race - it probably would have been a good idea even if I didn't keep it full the whole time. When I turned the corner onto Oak Knoll Avenue at mile 23, I lost the headwind breeze that had kept me cool and the nausea hit me hard.

(The vineyards made a beautiful backdrop over the entire course)

Thank God for the little aid station at mile 24, where I drank three cups of water and poured a quart on my head. I wasn't feeling great, but I kept running and leaning into the downhill. At mile 25, two women passed me (Mary Coordt was one of them), and I quickly counted in my head that they didn't have enough ground to catch Devon. Knowing that she was about to become a national champion gave me some extra adrenyline to keep my turnover going fast.

The cheering of volunteers and spectators carried me through the last mile of slight downhill grades, and I crossed the line in 2:56:43 (when I didn't have my number on me, they counted the ~20 seconds it took to pull it out of my pocket, so my official time was 2:57:00). Even after fading hard in the last two miles, I had run my fastest marathon ever. What did this mean for my season ahead?!? Only good things, I imagine. I couldn't stop smiling.

(Steve Goddard helped pace his friend, Kevin Conner to a new PR of 2:59)

After some food, water, and a brief massage, I caught up with many of the finishers. Devon had won first female in 2:52, and was busy taking pictures for the press as the new RRCA National Champion. Jasper had finished 7th in a blazing 2:40, while Michael had finished in 2:51 and claimed the 40-44 championship. Steve Sundell had won the race in 2:21:03, just a few seconds ahead of Tom McGlynn. A few minutes behind me, Kevin Conner from Cupertino, CA, finished his first sub-3 hour marathon by chopping 19 minutes off his PR and was already being swarmed by his kids in congratulations. In fact, most everyone I met had made the most of the day to set a personal record of some sort. I sat with my Gatorade and just soaked in the smiles.

(Devon sports her 1980 Napa Marathon t-shirt - all cotton!)

When I went into the cafeteria for one more round of chow, I ran into Devon who was waiting for "her weight in wine", the grand prize for winning. She unzipped her jacket to show us her real prize - a t-shirt from the 1980 Napa Marathon that she got from her uncle. Another runner asked if she had run it, and she replied "yes, I won the zero and under age group". We all had a good laugh, then wished each other luck on the year ahead.

I drove home with the sunroof open, and my mind clear. Sure my body was drained, but my spirit was full of scenery, smiles, and new friends. If this is how the season is going to start, it's going to be a great year! My deepest thanks to the RD and volunteers for putting on a flawless race.

- SD

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