napa valley marathon

Napa Valley Marathon Race Report

Photo by Leigh Ann Wendling 

I never get too hopeful that I will actually make it to the line at Napa Valley marathon. Since winning in 2007, I have been signed up twice more and both times have been thwarted by serious illness. After spectating the race last year, I was excited to run the race again for myself. The timing of the race was perfect for my 2012 schedule. It allowed enough time for me to recover from the Trials and was a perfect lead up to first big race of the year: Two Oceans (April 7 in Capetown, South Africa).

I recovered well from the Trials and was back up to training hard starting about two weeks after the Trials. Since then, I have had some very confidence boosting workouts with Nathan and have sought to dig deeper than ever before. My coach Howard threw some of the hardest workouts I have ever done at me and I really have started to enjoy really really really pushing my own limits.

I came into Napa with a race plan that suited my continuing training schedule. I wanted to keep my training volume up before the race, so I only did a short taper. I ran 40 miles the week before the race and part of me was wondering if I had too steeply curbed my training. I didn't want to run the race rested, I didn't want to run the race tired, but I also didn't want to completely miss the mark and run it flat. I crossed my fingers the week of the race and hoped for the best. Nathan was racing again and I looked forward to getting dusted by him (he was 3rd last year in 2:33) or possibly, using him as a rabbit to pursue.

We headed up to Napa mid-afternoon on Saturday and enjoyed a nice dinner at Bounty Hunter in Napa. We had my favorite pre-race meal: steak, baked potato and green salad. And a glass of Pinot. I figured, why not? I am actively trying not to be on the "no fun diet" (aka what Nathan calls the way I eat leading up to a major race), so a glass of wine was a nice pre-race treat.

We woke up at 3:30 am and Nathan fired up the Jet-Boil to make a French Press of coffee. I was not feeling that good. I had all sorts of niggles in my legs, my breakfast had to be choked down and I was not feeling the way I would like to on race morning. It made me a bit worried of how the day would play out. Or more, it made me completely relinquish any pressure I put on myself for being the race favorite. I was just going out for a hard long run and focused on my plan.

It was cold and calm at the start and I was happy for my sleeves and gloves as we got ready to start at 7am. Nathan and I did a bit of a shake out run and lined up with the other 2,500 runners. Off we went. Three guys (who would finish as the top 3) shot out on mid 2:20 pace and I settled into a nice group with Nathan, Victor (fellow ninja), Elvis (aka Ian Sharman) and one guy I didn't know. It was like a fast, road ninja run! As soon as we started going I felt pretty comfortable, I think my body just found that switch and flipped it. We cruised out just about 6 minute pace and rolled our way towards Napa for the first few miles.

6 min pace felt effortless and I just tried to lock in and not be tempted to go any faster. I knew the course would keep rolling and I didn't want to push it too hard on any of the hills. 6's felt good but when we would let the pace creep down into the mid 5:40s, I could tell I was working harder (duh, I know).

My race plan was to run 6 min/pace (if it felt controlled and comfortable) until mile 20 and then push it if I could. I was rocking my new Timex Run Trainer watch and had it set to take mile splits (It was a fantastic watch and really easy to use/read). Even from the very first mile it was doing splits before the official race sign, but I didn't worry about it since my pace was showing up spot on and Ian, who is an absolute metronome, confirmed via his GPS we were right on pace as well. I had noticed that the start was moved back a ways since the last time I ran and there is a huge variance of tangents one can run to add extra distance.

Photo by Rick Gaston

Somewhere around mile 6 or 7, our group of 5 splintered as Nathan took off on what I would consider "his pace". I was actually surprised he was with us for so long but he soon disappeared down the road like he was riding a bicycle. Victor and the other guy gave a bit of chase and I consciously stopped myself from pursuit. I had a plan and I intended to stick to it. If I was feeling frisky at 20, then I could do all the chasing I wanted to. But until then, I held back and stuck with Ian, who is a fellow North Face teammate. He was going for the Guinness World Record for fastest marathon in an Elvis costume and needed to run a 2:42 to do so. He said he was planning on 2:37 pace as long as his fitness would allow him, so we carried on, chatting and rolling down the Silverado Trail. Every time we'd pass a mile marker, Ian would tell me what our pace was and what pace we needed to run to each break our respective records. Going in to this race I knew the course record was 2:39:42, so I used it as a motivator to not let up the pace just because I was far ahead of second place.

We made it through 10 miles on target in 1:00:xx and blasted on through the halfway mark without losing any ground in just under 1:19 (can't be exactly sure of the splits since my watch was not splitting on the mile markers as I mentioned).  I was still feeling really good and controlled at the halfway mark and was also feeling a bit antsy. My energy was good and my GU that I had taken was not bothering my stomach as it had in Houston and NYC. It was getting much warmer and I was really happy that I had shed my sleeves and gloves along the way. Around mile 17, I decided to put a bit of a move on for a bit and see if I could let the pace out just slightly to spice things up for myself. I knew there was a pretty big hill around mile 20 which would slow me down, so I wanted to let out a bit of the reins to see how my body handled it. It felt really smooth to transition to a slightly faster pace and I just went with it. I am really trying to experiment with my limits in the faster racing, so I figured if I was going to make a mistake, a training race was the time to do it.

 Mile 18, pulling away. Photo by Rick Gaston

I started pushing it a bit and Ian dropped off me a little bit, but not far. He would charge back on a downhill and we were still pretty close heading up the climb at mile 20. I came through mile 20 under 2:02 and figured that if I could just maintain or even speed up, I would make the record. I thought back to the hard long runs Nathan and I had been doing with fast finishes and the various hard tempo workouts I had done leading up to this race. I was confident that barring an epic blow-up, I could finish this race strong.

Around mile 20, I did notice that my left foot was hurting. I had once again tied my shoes in a way that was putting pressure on the top of my foot. I had done this in Houston as well in fear of a shoelace coming undo. Instead, it was hobbling me a bit and I tried to decide if I could make it the rest of the race without fixing it. I kept running trying to navigate pushing harder and overreaching. I was tired so "pushing harder" translated more into "maintaining earlier pace". I was close to 6min/miles as I hit the valley floor and started making turns to work my way to the finish line. 

It was gorgeous out and super sunny but it was also quite windy after leaving the Silverado Trail. I remembered from my previous run at Napa that the last 6 had a pretty steady headwind. I appreciated the wind only because it kept me cool, but it certainly did nothing for speeding up. At mile 23 I couldn't take it anymore and stopped to adjust the tongue of my shoe. I came to a complete halt, yanked the dang thing around and relieved the pressure on my foot. It was a risky move since I knew stopping meant my legs would have a chance to seize up. In the 15 or so seconds I was stopped, my legs definitely tightened and it took me another 30 seconds to get them moving again. My foot felt much better, so it was worth it to me to stop.

Throughout the race, I had a race marshall on a bicycle nearby and she would call in updates on my times to the finish. I was back cruising pretty hard, trying to calculate how close I was going to cut it to the course record with the stop. I passed mile 24 and a large group of spectators. I noticed that there were cones blocking off the streets where we weren't suppose to turn and I felt confident in the obviousness of the course. I ran passed one such intersection and was about 10 feet beyond it when the bicycle pacer screamed, "STOP!!! You missed the turn! Come back!" I screeched to a halt, about faced towards here, looked at the intersection where all the spectators were now yelling, "No, no, no keep going!". Even though it was obvious I was suppose to continue straight this was an official race marshall telling me I was about to go off course, so I had to take the time to make sure I did not in fact go the wrong way. Another 20-25 seconds lost. I sprinted off in the correct direction, now with no room for error. I was starting to doubt with the time lost that I would even make it under 2:40. I felt surprisingly calm about it. Found it humorous even. Sure I would have loved to run a PR, but circumstances were not in my favor and things had conspired otherwise. My effort was there to run a PR, so I was pleased with that. 
I really had to push it, I had less than 13 minutes to make it 2.2 miles to get the record. I was going to go for it and push out the run in the way I had intended to: HARD. Now that the record was in jeopardy, I wanted it even more. It stood for 20 years, I was so close, I could not let it go.

Photo by Rick Gaston

I hammered it home, making the final 5 turns towards the high school. I churned my legs as hard as I could and used my arms, glancing at my watch to see how close I was. I turned the final straight away and charged to the finish line, victorious. And with a new course record: 2:39:37. 

Thinking about it now, I am so pleased with how this race went. I got to run on a beautiful, challenging course on an amazing weather day. Face some random debacles to test my head (and stay unfazed). Try out a different race strategy and paces. Push myself. Wine a ton of wine. The rest of the day was filled with good friends, delicious food (at Oxbow!) and savoring our accomplishments (Nathan was 4th!!). I am now looking toward Two Oceans in a month with excitement and am hungry for the challenge!

  Nathan and I at the finish
Photo by J.L. Sousa/Napa Valley Register

And of course, the best part: Wine!
Photos by Rick Gaston