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February 9, 2006

The Napa Chronicles, Volume 1

I first heard about the Napa Valley Marathon when I was 3000 miles away from it, living in North Carolina.

One of my training partners was a displaced Stanford professor who had run the race twice before. He told me all about its natural beauty and small-town charm, and I immediately put it on my mental checklist of races to do when I moved back to California a few years later.

My first Napa Marathon was in 2000. I was a semi-accomplished marathon runner at that point, looking to raise my game to another level.

I had broken 3 hours for the first time in 1998, and again in 1999 at the same race – the California International Marathon in Sacramento. The CIM is world famous as the "Fastest Course in the West", with an ideal elevation profile that almost guarantees PR times.

By 1999, I had done lots of marathons, but was only able to break 3 hours in Sacramento. Before long, those CIM times seemed a bit dubious – kind of like dunking on a 9-and-a-half foot rim. So I had it in my head that I needed to break 3 hours on another course to leave no doubt as to my ability.

My first target in this new quest was Napa in 2000. Reviewing this Napa course profile beforehand, it appeared very conducive to breaking three hours. I trained as hard as I ever had, and envisioned myself running strong through the final miles of the race.

There was only one catch in the plan. The race was only 6 weeks before the Big Sur Marathon, which had already taken its stranglehold on my psyche and become my favorite, most important race of the year.

With the short period of time between races, I was torn about how much to taper before Napa. A full three-week taper before the race and a week of recovery afterward would take a full month away from quality training in preparation for Big Sur.

I was reluctant to go that route, especially after multiple conversations with training partners who sometimes entered Napa simply as a quality training run leading up to the main event at Big Sur (It should be pointed out - although I didn't fully realize it at the time - that some of my training partners are maniacs.)

I ended up cutting back my mileage only a few days before the race, and showed up at the 2000 Napa Marathon with excellent fitness but very little rest.

The course has moderately rolling hills through the first half, and I stayed right on sub-three-hour splits with the expectation that the course would trend downhill during the final miles.

So you can imagine my concern when I drifted through mile after mile of the last 10K thinking, “Where did all these hills come from?”

I know this sounds like whining, but really - look again at the course profile. It looks like the last several miles are downhill, right? The course certainly doesn’t run that way. While there aren’t any backbreaking climbs, there are enough gradual, lengthy rises to make you think “Hey, wait a minute – these are hills!” I remember getting bitter and resentful – toward whom, I wasn’t really sure – which is definitely not the mindset you want to have when laboring through the final 10K of a marathon.

Given the minimal tapering I did beforehand, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear what happened in the final miles. I gradually but inexorably fell behind pace, and missed breaking three hours. My gas needle hit “E” at about mile 23, and I tried to ride on the leftover fumes for as long as possible, but the entire last mile felt like I was pushing against a rear fender that resisted all attempts at forward momentum.

My time was 3:03. I had run the kind of race that would have broken 3 hours at the CIM. I probably would have run sub-3 with a decent tapering period. I still might have broken three hours if I had anticipated the hills of the final miles instead of being taken by surprise.

The entire story was a classic example of not giving a race the respect it deserves, which is a fatal error for marathon runners. I felt undisciplined for letting my emotions and my focus get away from me in the face of unexpected conditions. It was very clear that I hadn’t yet made “the leap” to becoming a consistently strong marathoner.

But I didn’t beat myself up too badly over it. I knew there would always be next year. I resolved to train harder and focus more energy on the race in 2001. And there was no doubt in my mind that someday I would break three hours there.

And that’s where we’ll pick up volume 2 of this story in a future post.


Anne 2/9/06, 9:07 AM  

I can't wait for the next installment. And you are so right that a lot of performances suffer from 'not giving a race the respect it deserves.' I learned that the hard way too.

robtherunner 2/9/06, 4:09 PM  

I am right there with the sub 3 hour marathon, but not ready to concede that I am a true sub 3 hour marathoner. I did it last year at Portland and am going to shoot for it at Capital City this year, but I am not sure I will be convinced of my success until a few more sub 3's on different courses.

olga 2/9/06, 4:52 PM  

Great memories, and can't wait to hear if you got your goal next year or another course. may be should search you on Marathon guide:)

backofpack 2/10/06, 8:29 AM  

You're blog is one of the ones I was lurking on when Rob started calling me Lady Lurker. I love the way you write. You pull a person right into the story and make the reader feel like they a
re right beside you. I particularly liked the Candyland post and the Carmel Valley Idol posts. (Probably has something to do with working in a preschool!)

I can't wait to read the next installment of the Chronicles!

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