Friday, March 11, 2011

Napa Marathon Race Report

I have been thinking about this race report for a couple of days and it has been difficult to arrange my thoughts into a cohesive statement. This race was both a success and a failure. I achieved a big PR but just missed my goal of getting the Olympic Trials B standard.

Napa is the 9th marathon I have completed. It is still a bit surprising to me when I talk to people around Marin and they wonder if I have ever run a marathon before. Back on the East Coast I didn't call myself a runner but instead always referred to myself as a marathoner. The marathon is the reason I started running in the first place. Talk about setting lofty goals! Actually I started with the goal of doing an Ironman Triathlon but since I had never run before in my life, I figured the marathon part would be the most difficult part and thus, that is where I should start. My very first marathon was 3:33 in Cape Cod in 2005 on a very hilly course and there I met my goal of qualifying for Boston, and I ran it after starting from scratch less than a year before. For many years after that I purely focused on lowering my marathon time and building a lot of endurance. For the first couple years of my running life I probably ran more marathons than all other distances combined! I had a serious fear of anything short and the burning, lactic acid pain of intervals. I didn't even step onto a track until 2007. I never imagined that I would be able to continue taking down my marathon PR year after year until I had a chance of making the Olympic Trials.

The last couple of days before Napa I started being very careful with my diet. I have had gut issues in the past and recently discovered that cutting out gluten before races and hard workouts helped to minimize my digestion issues. In fact, I am now a firm believer in the boring but effective pre-race Chicken and Rice diet. The day before Napa I ate eggs for breakfast and then several small meals of plain roasted chicken with white rice and plenty of salt. This allowed me to fuel up and top off my glycogen stores without the bloating that used to accompany my epic pasta-fests. I did a short jog in the morning with Camille, a great marathoner who flew into town to run Napa, and afterwards drove to downtown Napa to pick up my number. I did not hang around the Expo for very long, just a quick in and out. Once I got home I relaxed on the couch and watched silly vampire slasher movies. I believe I experienced the entire Underworld series that evening while eating a light dinner and packing up my things.

I used to pack every single item imaginable for a marathon and would end up lugging around a giant heavy bag all morning. Now, I travel light. If I don't need it on a long run, I won't need it during the marathon. I went to bed around 9pm on Saturday and set my alarm for the painfully early time of 3:15am. A very short time later I was wide awake at 3:00am. Ready to go. I felt already awake, excited but not jittery. I drank my coffee leisurely while listening to the pouring rain and Sean and I were out the door by 4:10. We hydroplaned several times on the freeway while driving to San Rafael to pick up Liz and that certainly started my blood flowing. I just started hoping that the rain would let up. We grabbed Liz from the park and ride and drove onward to Vintage High School where we were to catch a school bus that would take us to the start in Calistoga.

When we got to the high school, the buses were there and ready to go. I gave Sean a hug and kiss and boarded the school bus for what turned out to be a pretty long drive to the start. For the whole drive, Liz and I got to listen to a man in the seat behind us give marathon running advice to the poor woman seated next to him. I couldn't believe how much he had to say! It was quite amusing and Liz and I had a lot of whispered commentary about his one-sided conversation.

The start of the race was pretty uneventful. I visited the porta-potty, stripped off my sweats and did a couple of strides in what was now a light drizzle. It was finally light out now and the road was crammed with excited, cold runners. When the gun went off, I told myself to just hold back and stay relaxed. I did not want to get sucked out too fast and pay for it later. I saw Camille take off at a blistering pace, and a group of 2 or 3 women took off behind her. I was running around 6:40 pace for this first mile and once we passed the first mile marker I started working on picking up the pace and reeling in the runners in front of me. I checked my Garmin quite often to keep an eye on my pace but the rolling terrain called for more of an effort based assessment of pace.

The first 10 miles of the race flew by. I was constantly passing people and since it was raining, I was distracted from the distance. It was a beautiful morning to run through the vineyards. The course took a twisting path through the valley so there were many portions where I couldn't see that far in front. Nearing the halfway point, I caught sight of a tight group running in front of me. There were at least 2 women in this group along with a couple of guys and they looked like they were working pretty well together. I pushed it a little harder and slowly but surely began closing on them. Around mile 14.5 I made contact with this group just as we were heading up a big uphill. The head wind had picked up at this point and I desperately wanted to do a little drafting. I tagged on to the back of the group and found a little relief from the wind but then discovered they were starting to slow waaaay down. They were hitting 7 minute pace and that just wouldn't do. I reluctantly moved to the front of the pack and picked up the pace up the hill. The two women hung on to me and got right on my heels and followed me. I just pushed on at the pace I need to hit and waited to see if anyone would come share the work of pace making. Alas it was not to be and they could only draft off of me. I lost them around mile 18 and from that point I was pretty much all alone.

Through mile 20 I passed one more guy and then I saw no one. I hit the long straightaway stretch and really started to feel the head wind. My only company at this point was a race official on a bike. I could see no one ahead of me and I didn't turn around because I never look back in a race. It was time to suffer. I tried really hard and dug down to find enough energy to keep the pace but slowly and surely I was losing time. The last 3 miles were so brutally lonely and I started feeling the fear of losing the chance for the B standard. After mile 25, I knew it would be very very close, painfully achingly close whether I would slip in under 2:46. When I reached the neighborhood just before the finish I knew I had lost too much time and I wouldn't make it. I saw the clock, saw it tick over 2:46 and just wanted to scream but I was too intent on just crossing that line. 2:46:45. A lady immediately at the finish said "How does it feel to miss by 45 seconds?" I thought "Well, it feels awful but awesome at the same time".

I beat my PR by 8 minutes, but missed the standard by the smallest of margins. Only 2 seconds per mile. Just 45 seconds. Hey, maybe the course was long! I did finish in second place and was escorted to the media room for an interview, and I expressed my disappointment in not making the standard, but I was also elated to run so fast. To me, it still seems astounding that I can run such a time.

I gained a lot of confidence from this race. My diet before the race was perfect, my taper was perfect, my training went well, I went in healthy and I busted out a solo effort in less than perfect conditions. Better yet, I know I can continue to run big PRs.

I will take a week or so off, with some pool time and spinning time. I need to eat some ice cream and steak, get a little fat, sleep a lot and recover recover recover. And then, sign up for another marathon and go for it again!


  1. This is so amazing--I can't imagine how tough it must be to miss by such a small margin, but I'm so impressed and inspired by your dedication and hard work! Pretty exciting to know such a great marathoner :)