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February 15, 2006

The Napa Chronicles, Volume 2

In 2001 I was determined to conquer the Napa Marathon.

My goal one year earlier had been to break three hours, but I didn’t take the race seriously enough, and came up a few minutes short (or long, as the case may be), finishing in 3:03. I took it as a learning experience, and committed myself to better training and smarter preparation the following year.

During the winter, everything went according to plan. I had run my fastest marathon in December 2000 (where else, but at Cal International), then taken a couple of easy weeks before resuming high mileage training weeks.

January and February rolled along smoothly, without any injuries or major setbacks to my training schedule. I tapered for two weeks prior to the race, and went to Napa in early March in prime racing condition.

I hadn’t counted on the weather.

The first week of March 2001 saw one of those wickedly nasty Canadian storms sweep down the American west coast and remind us Californians why we could never live in Canada. The wind was cold. The rain was colder. The sky stayed dark for three days.

I remember lying awake in bed at midnight in my hotel room the night before the race, listening to the storm howl through the windowpanes of my hotel room, and thinking, “This isn’t starting well.”

Race morning brought a slight lull in the storm, just long enough for runners riding the bus to the start line to think that maybe we would be spared the worst weather during the race. I clung to a glimmer of hope that today would be a great day for racing.

Those hopes were dashed as soon as we got off the bus and felt the prevailing wind. It wasn’t terribly strong, but it was a headwind. Napa is a point-to-point course. That’s a bad combination.

Just prior to the starting gun, light rains started again, and we set off directly into the path of the gathering storm. I wasn’t exactly optimistic.

Yet I was still determined to make a race of it. I stayed on my goal pace through 5 miles, then 10, and on through the halfway point. I first got nervous when I looked at my halfway split and saw it was 1 hour, 29 minutes.

I was right on pace, but I already knew that I was working way too hard to maintain it. To make matters worse, the storm was intensifying.

During the second half of the race, I faced the absolute worst weather conditions I have ever seen. The rain came down in sheets. The headwind was steady in the 30mph range, with gusts greater than 40mph. The temperature fell into the 30s.

The race in general, and my race in particular, came apart at the seams. Aid stations had to be collapsed because cups were flying off of tables that couldn’t be secured to the ground. Spectators smartly abandoned the course in droves. And I was working harder than ever just to run 8-minute miles.

(The only positive thing about this weather was that it was the runner’s version of the perfect storm - almost certain to never be duplicated. A few of my training partners ran the race also – and now, whenever we’re running in foul conditions, someone invariably says, “Well, it’s not as bad as that year at Napa.” It’s like we had this rite of passage together that bonded us in toughness. Or maybe we’re just too emotionally scarred to talk about it rationally.)

The final 10K was simply a miserable ordeal. I crossed the finish line in 3:14 and immediately staggered into the medical facility, shaking uncontrollably and unable to speak. I had a lot of company there. Many of us wore a shocked gaze, like we had climbed out of a train wreck and just wanted to feel ourselves breathe for a few minutes to confirm that we were still alive.

The physical pain gradually subsided over the next several hours, but the psychological bruises took much longer to heal. I was emotionally devastated that I had prepared so well for a race only to see it blow up for reasons I couldn’t control.

I couldn’t think rationally. I considered my bonking in the final miles not a sign of running too hard early, but of not having the toughness to hang in there late in the race. I wondered if I was too fragile to be a marathon runner.

Worst of all, the race sent me into a bit of long-term depression. I started questioning why I placed so much emphasis on running a certain time, or for that matter, why I cared about races so much anyway. It seemed like there were a lot of other ways I could spend my time that weren’t so all-consuming.

Some of these effects were prolonged. I couldn’t motivate myself to stay in training mode for that April’s Big Sur Marathon, and ran one of my slowest times ever at that race. I did a few more races in 2001, but I was never in proper race condition and struggled through all of them.

And it would be four years before I could bring myself back to Napa again. That's where we'll pick up volume 3 in a future post.


backofpack 2/15/06, 11:37 AM  

Wow. Isn't it amazing how focused we can become on a goal, and how devastated we are when we don't make it? I'm looking forward to hearing about what brought you back.

stronger 2/15/06, 12:06 PM  

Sounds like you and Napa have some bidness to take care of.

olga 2/15/06, 12:44 PM  

Did you break 3 or this is why you're going there this March?

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