Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cool Running at the Napa-to-Sonoma Half Marathon

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of joining 2,000 runners for the Napa-to-Sonoma Half Marathon, a pleasant point-to-point road race near Sonoma, CA. We met our friend (and Runners World writer) Kristin Armstrong to soak in as much wine country as the weekend could offer, and it turned out to be plenty! Such a wonderful weekend retreat.

We ventured up to Sonoma on Saturday, the day before the race. The Sonoma Mission Inn didn’t know what hit them when Sophie came barreling into the lobby with Rocky (the pug) and Martha (the Bernese Mountain Dog) sniffing and licking everyone in sight. The recently adopted pro-dog policy at the hotel was about to be fully tested with a 2-year-old at the reigns! We stashed our gear and Kik joined us to battle the afternoon heat with poolside cocktails, laughter, and dipping our toes in the water (Sophie went all the way in, of course).

(Sophie loves "jumping" in the pool)

One of the first things you notice every place in the Sonoma/Napa area is that the locally grown food is out of this world. Even Sophie’s side of fruit came with blackberries the size of my thumb, deep dark blueberries, and strawberries so sweet you would swear they were soaked in honey. Dinner at Café La Haye was no exception, with perfectly seasoned carrot soup and fresh pasta with English peas that melt in your mouth. It’s heaven! Carb-loading heaven, that is. But calories don’t count the day before a race, right?

(Headphones abound at this race)

The next morning came early (ugh), as we took the bus to the start. Kik and I both pulled the classic idiot moves by assuming it would be warm at 5:30am. Turns out it is freezing! So we did the best we could with the drop bags provided and dressed condom style. Fashion by Kirkland! It made it a little less awkward when leaning up against larger and warmer people…at least they are protected. 7am came soon enough, and we were all sent off into the Domain Carneros vineyards.

(Kik and I geek out with our Kirkland condom outfits)

It didn’t take long to get warmed up, since the biggest hill starts about 300 yards into the course. But it felt good to get the blood pumping. Kik took charge right away, a sure sign that her trail running in Santa Barbara is producing some mountain goat skills. I keep trying to convince her to join us at the Santa Barbara 9 Trails this year, but ultras remain too mysterious to her. That’s okay, since it wasn’t that long ago she was saying a marathon was too long. Judging by her curiosity, I bet we’ll see her in an ultra in the next year.

(Kik leads the charge up the hill)

We topped the hill and began a long descent into a maze of vineyards. The road ahead of us was a sea of yellow jerseys from the uber-large Team Challenge fundraising group. One of them told me they raised over $2 million, which is pretty impressive. Kik and I made conversation with others while cruising along at a 7:45 min/mile pace. The leaders were long gone, throwing down 5 min miles for a chance at the $1,000 prize. One was even a Kenyan, so you know you gotta be fast to beat this crowd!

The fog began to burn off a bit around mile 5, and the volunteers from the Hanna Boys Center were ready with water, Gatorade, and snacks. You wouldn’t know from their smiling faces that many of these kids came from at-risk situations to attend the Hanna Boys Center residential facility. Clearly there is something magical going on at that place, since those 100+ boys were the happiest folks on the course. We did our best to thank them all for putting on a great race.

(Friendly folks at mile 5)

We found flatter ground around mile 9, and I was amazed at how fast the time was passing. Kik had a great pace going, just fast enough to break a sweat, but slow enough to talk about life, love, kids, and point out the beautiful scenery. Kik is an ideal running partner in that way. She is always exploring her physical, spiritual, and emotional worlds, pushing all of them just enough to stay familiar with the boundaries and stretch them as needed. If she is in the moment, she is fully in the moment. If not, it’s because she is recalling a time that she was. Add in her natural gift for prose, and the miles just fly by effortlessly.

Although the course was fairly flat, it did have its challenges. The toughest part of the course for me was the uneven pavement, which had more odd angles that most trails I run. I guess in an area where there are as many tractors as cars, this kind of thing happens. But running backwards to get a picture can be deadly!

(Kik laughs as I stumble)

Right about the time I said “holy cow, we’re almost done”, we turned onto Broadway St and headed towards Sonoma Square. The guy in front of us said “follow me to Murphy’s Irish Pub for beer!”, and we cracked up. I pointed out that it probably wouldn’t be open at 8:30am, and he just replied “I own the place…it opens when I get there”. Kik and I stuck with him right to the finish!

(Cruising down the final stretch)

Christi, Sophie, and the dogs were there to greet us at the end, where we finished in 1:45:15 (only 37 minutes behind the winner!). We collected our wine glasses, got some early morning tasting in, and enjoyed the live music. Sophie chased the ducks at Sonoma Square, requiring me to put in mile 14 and more. It was so much fun to just get out there and enjoy it, and still have enough energy left to make a day of it.

(Sophie finds the ducks, so I get to run some more)

(All smiles at the finish)

Kik should be writing up her experience for RW, so be sure to keep an eye out for that condom picture. My thanks to Race Director Matt Dockstader, Austin runner Sam Kelley (who gave me his race transfer), and the wonderful volunteers for putting on a great weekend. I now know why it sells out every year!

- SD


  1. Great fun out there Scott. Those really are some beautiful roads out there between Napa and Sonoma. I liked Kiks top ten reasons for not doing a trail ultra and how none of them withstood the Rocking Chair Test. Very true.

    Cheers, Paul
    Kind of related note: If anyone wants to visit those same Napa/Sonoma roads and do some great charity work, I would highly highly recommend the BORP Revolution ride in Oct. http://www.borp.org/revolution/

  2. YAY Sophie! Chase them ducks down! :-D

  3. I've never seen such huge medals for a half-marathon before! Had I known there were big medals to be had, I might have opted to run that race instead of doing my local trails (I never warmed up in my 18 mile run on Sunday, btw).

    Cool report, thanks, Scott!

  4. Yeah, the medals were pretty crazy! All in all, I give the shwag top ranks. The shirt is the same logo as the top of this entry, which is a custom logo each year made by a famous French guy. You also get the big medal, an etched wine glass, and an option to upgrade to a performance tee. It is all about the shwag, after all!


    Miss you, Paul! Hope NZ is good.

  5. Scott, it looks like you could have placed in your age group if you ran fast. Worth it for the pics? 8-P

  6. Wonderful life.

  7. Hi, Scott

    My apologies for barging in on your comments page like this, but I couldn't find an alternative way of contacting you.

    My name is Anna and I work for Hachette Book Group USA. I handle web publicity for Dean Karnazes' new book "50/50" and I was hoping I can interest you in receiving a book or audiobook for review, feature, or giveaway on your site.

    You can read more information about the book here:

    If you're interested, please let me know by emailing me.

    Again, I apologize for posting on your comments page.

    Anna Balasi
    Associate Web Publicist
    Hachette Book Group USA

  8. Thank you for posting your Napa-to-Sonoma running experience! A fine read!

    My first visit to the Napa Valley area was this time last year and I knew then that I wanted to go back one day. Running a half marathon through this beautiful area is an even more enticing reason to come visit again!


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