Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Race Report: Napa Valley Marathon

(This is the race report about how my race went & my thoughts about it - If you're interested in all the logistical information, you might want to check out this post. :) )

Soooo....I ran this marathon on Sunday, and it was weirdly...fine/good/NBD? In a good way?

(A bit of background in case you're new 'round these parts --

So this wasn't an all-out PR attempt or anything--just a chance to complete 26 miles at a comfortable pace and give me a chance to see a) what all this base training has done for me and b) what kind of shape my right hip (which is much improved, but still touch-and-go-at-times) is in when it comes to that distance.

Our plan had been to drive to Napa, hit the expo, do some wine tasting, have dinner at Morimoto, then drive to Calistoga & crash. Which still basically is what happened except that a) we needed more sleep Saturday morning than we'd anticipated so got up late, b) someone was blocking our driveway so we had to deal with that, and c) traffic from SF to Napa was utterly horrendous. So we rolled in around 3pm ready to gnaw our own arms off & FINALLY made it to the expo (which was pretty much par for the course in terms of small, boutique-y, wine country races).

(Sidenote: There wasn't really time at this point to do much proper wine tasting, so I give you: Most Bang for Your Buck in Downtown Napa:

  • The Vintner's Collective. A bit pricey at 3 tastes for $15, but they have a massive selection, staff who know the wine really well, and everything we had was delicious.
  • Smith-Anderson Wine Group. We went here because they were right across the street from VC. Not quite as good, but they had some tasty things, and it was less crowded & slightly cheaper.
  • Oxbow Market. Kind of the Ferry Building of Napa. I particularly recommend a visit to Napa Valley Distillery, which I promise has the largest collection of bitters you will ever encounter in your life.)

Napa Valley Distillery's bitters collection at Oxbow Market.

Morimoto was indescribably amazing; borderline uncomfortably full and VERY happy our dinner reservation had not been any later than 6:30, we drove to Calistoga, I did my usual pre-race OCD bib-man ritual, & tried to sleep (which....didn't work out so well. Sigh.)

My memory was that the hotel was about a mile from the start, but Google Maps said .7, and when I jogged over Sunday morning, my Garmin clocked less than .5. So, if you run this race & decide to stay in Calistoga instead of Napa, you could do worse than the Sunburst Hotel. (Be warned, though...while this was a cheaper option, nothing in Calistoga is ever cheap.)

I dropped my bottles into the labeled crates (surprisingly few people seemed to be using them -- maybe 50 or so out of a field of 3,000?), jogged a super easy mile or so to get warmed up, finally shed my jacket, checked my bag, & tucked into a warm pocket of people behind the starting mat.

As expected, the beginning of the race was cold, but maybe because I'd been mentally preparing myself to feel utterly miserably cold, it wasn't horrifically bad. (Mostly, I really, really wished I had gloves.)

I intentionally didn't set any time/pace goals for this race because I wanted it to really, truly feel like there was no pressure, the only caveat being that I didn't really want to be out there on my feet for much over four hours. In the end I didn't go so far as to cover my watch, but I didn't pay much attention to it except to glance at mile splits (mostly out of curiosity; the beauty of not having a time goal is not feeling like you have to do anything in response to splits).

Lately my long runs have mostly been in the 9:30-10:30 range lately, so mentally I'd sort of roughly estimated 10:00 miles for the first hour, 9:30 for the second, 9:00 for the third, & 8:15ish for the fourth, hoping I'd be able to speed up & clock some GMP miles at the end. (Fast finish long runs & all that.)

(I'll be honest, though - originally I'd typed "8:00/mile" for hour four, then changed it to 8:15, remembering how running 10 miles at 8:00 pace at Foster City had been tough, and that was *without* an 18-20 mile long run first.)

Nothing much of note happened in the first handful of miles. Mostly, I spent the first couple feeling uncomfortably cold & desperately wishing I'd worn throw-away gloves, & kept reminding myself that as much as I envied everyone around me in tights and knee socks, the tables would likely turn before too long given the forecast. It was also slightly demoralizing that my watch ticked off mile 1 about .05 miles before the marker, an interval that would only get longer and longer with each one. Sigh.

In mile 3 I happened upon a phantom aid station which totally threw me off for a minute because I didn't process that the first official station wasn't until 4.2. There was no special drinks table & the volunteers handing out water & Gatorade looked at me like I had seven heads when I asked about it. I spent maybe 45 seconds trying to make sense of what was going on, then gave up, took a cup of water, & moved on. It threw me off for a minute or two (mostly because I was afraid I had misunderstood how the bottle situation worked) but I got over it. Gel-wise, I just decided for simplicity's sake to do one every three miles regardless of my pace.

    Mile 1: 9:41
    Mile 2: 9:31
    Mile 3: 9:58 (phantom aid station confusion)

Official aid station #1 appeared around 4.2, exactly where it was supposed to be. The special drinks were on a little table at the far end of the aid station, and since there were only maybe 15 bottles on it at that point, it was super easy to spot mine & grab it. (Clearly the majority of people using the special drinks option were running a lot faster than me, which makes sense.)

The next few miles passed uneventfully. I ran at a completely relaxed and comfortable pace on the flats and downhills, tried not to push too hard on the occasional short uphill parts, and mentally broke things up into three-mile chunks with my tangy little dollop of motivational sugar at the end of each one.

I also really liked the way the six-ounce Gatorade bottles worked out. They were small enough that they were light and easy to carry, but contained enough liquid that I could make it last a good, long while (sometimes up to two miles). I also liked being able to sip whenever I felt like it, vs. grabbing two cup from a volunteer & frantically trying to guzzle both without choking or pouring it all over myself instead of into my mouth. It also eliminated the aid station panic I get sometimes if I don't carry my own bottle (OH GOD OH GOD HOW LONG TO THE NEXT ONE). I found it to be a VERY civilized way of getting fluids & am already plotting to see if I can convince other races to let me do this in the future.

    Mile 4: 9:08
    Mile 5: 9:11
    Mile 6: 9:14
    Mile 7: 9:00
    Mile 8: 9:00
    Mile 9: 9:02

By hour 2 I was already thankful that I hadn't worn extra layers. The temperature was cool with a light breeze, but no longer cold, and the sun was climbing higher.

Somewhere in there was when I had my first hint of "Oof, this is starting to feel like more than zero effort." I had a brief moment of panic as I flashed back to my recent 20 miler where my legs started feeling mushy at mile 11, but in retrospect, I think this was probably just a matter of paying excruciatingly close attention to every teeny tiny sensation anywhere in my body (like you do in a marathon or other goal race) and blowing that first inkling of "Hey look, there's kind of work involved now!" a bit out of proportion. I let myself stay relaxed and comfortable, though, and it really didn't get any harder than that.

    Mile 10: 9:22
    Mile 11: 8:57
    Mile 12: 9:16
    Mile 13: 9:10
    Mile 14: 9:11
    Mile 15: 8:54

I got a little mental boost when I passed mile marker 16 because I could now count down from 10. It was also the first point at which I let myself consider that I felt really good and pretty strong still, and maybe I could let myself run a little faster and not regret it at mile 23. Don't get me wrong, there was definitely effort involved, but I didn't have even the faintest inkling of fatigue or dead legs or any of that. Still, I didn't want to push too soon, so I made a deal with myself that I had to keep it in the super-easy-relaxed zone until mile 20, and after that I could do whatever I wanted.

    Mile 16: 9:11
    Mile 17: 8:55
    Mile 18: 8:28
    Mile 19: 8:40
    Mile 20: 8:48

STORY TIME: Back in grad school when I played polo, our team had a string of maybe 30 ponies, which ranged from utterly lethargic (the Volvos) to high-end, well-trained ones on loan from or donated by local pros (the Lamborghinis). Only a few of us were allowed to ride the Lamborghinis because as soon as you got on, you could feel this creature who loves nothing more in life than chasing polo balls practically vibrating underneath you, ready to spring the second you shifted your weight. With these horses, it was not so much a matter of urging them to run as it was a matter of holding them in check, and the second you turned them loose, you'd better hold on.

This was how I felt approaching mile 20. I had three hours and two minutes of comfortable, restrained jaunting behind me, and while that had been pleasant enough (like, more pleasant than any long run ever), I was done with that business. The closer I'd gotten to the 20 mile mark, the more jittery and desperate I felt to just cut loose and tear it up on these last 10K between me & the finish.

Part of me wanted to go back to my original, secret goal of attempting to crank them out at sub-8:00 pace, but I had no idea if that was realistic, and I didn't want to try it & then end up crawling the last two. So instead I just sped up to a pace that was comfortably hard and fun but that I still felt pretty sure I could hold for six more miles. I didn't look at my watch until it ticked off mile 21, and when I saw 7:59 for the split, I knew I had a realistic chance.

It was quite warm & sunny at this point & as I passed scores of runners in black tights and jackets and long sleeve shirts, I felt incredibly grateful for my clothing choices. It never felt miserably hot, but I still appreciated the man standing out front of his house with a garden hose spraying down anyone who asked (and I totally did).

Those last miles were just a blast. I mean yes, they were hard because I was pushing myself, but only because I felt good & really wanted to shoot for doing it at a sub-8:00 pace. The closer I got to the finish, the harder I let myself run, passing people like they were standing still at this point. When I came around the corner towards the finish, I saw that I was running at 5:xx pace according to my watch. (Garmin says I hit 3:39 at some point in there but that really just strikes me as utterly absurd. I mean come on now.)

    Mile 21: 7:59
    Mile 22: 8:08
    Mile 23: 8:01
    Mile 24: 7:53
    Mile 25: 7:54
    Mile 26: 7:44
    Mile .2: 1:16 (6:17 pace)


1) Leap into the air as I crossed the mat:

2) Pose for these:

3) Cry.

Seriously. Generally I am not a cryer, but so much of me was like, Holy shit, what the f#@$ just happened?!?!? Regardless of my pace or how well my race is going goal-wise, I've always been one of those people at mile 21 who's like, "If someone could just kill me now, plzthnx." Every single time, at mile 18-20, I've found myself thinking, "What kind of sick joke is it that I still have nearly AN HOUR to go???" There was even once where I remember thinking, "If I ever find the effing bastard who decided 25 miles wasn't good enough I will goddamn effing murder them in their sleep."

And I think part of me has just internalized those feelings & secretly thought maybe they were inevitable, that maybe it was just part of my genetics, to be someone who can run reasonably fast and strong for 13-15-18 miles and then dissolve into an emotional and/or physical puddle of Jello.

But that didn't happen. Like, not even close. I felt great the whole way. Not passably okay, not just hanging in there until it was over. I felt better than I ever have at mile 20 (even on slower long runs) and enjoyed the heck out of the last 10K. I could have run it faster. I could have gone farther. I haven't even been sore.

And I get it if you're like, "Uh, DUH, Angela, you barely even tried for the first 20 miles." Which yes, I get, but at a 9:08 average pace, those 20 miles were still considerably faster than any long run I've done in the last six months, and way, way easier. But then, on top of that, basically running the same six-mile GMP workout--faster, actually!--that I've been doing almost weekly for months and has still not become reliably easy when I do it not after a 20 mile long run?? It was still so, so far beyond anything I had expected I would be able to do.

Which is why, on the one hand, it felt like a huge, amazing, landmark type deal. I am not genetically programmed to suck at all marathons all the time! And why, on the other hand, the running of the race itself felt like no big deal. I just kind of did it, waited for the abject misery, which never came, and then before I realized it, it was over, and I still actually felt pretty human.

    Official: 3:52:35/26.2 miles/8:53 pace
    Garmin: 3:52:38/26.39 miles/8:49 pace

I think it can be trouble to try to pinpoint exactly what causes specific races to go really well or badly, because there are just *so* many variables, both from training cycle to training cycle and from day to day. But, I also think it can be useful to do some kind of reflecting about it, so if I had to guess at why I finally had this one awesome-feeling (if not particularly fast) marathon, here's what I've got:

1) SERIOUS BASE TRAINING. I was just reading something recently by Greg McMillan talking about how his younger athletes are often surprised at how well they can run just on half-decent base training, and that's kind of how I felt about this. I was hoping I might be able to negative split, but up until a few weeks ago I was 100% just planning to do this race at maybe slightly-faster-than-long-run pace & finish in the 4:15 range because that's all I realistically thought I had the training for. I solemnly swear to never, ever let my aerobic base training lapse ever again.

2) Longer runs, more rest days. I made this decision on my own because I've just found that a six mile easy run and a ten mile easy run beat me up physically about the same amount, but having more rest days lets me recover faster. So I've been doing about the same mileage as usual but with more rest days. But, I think there was an unintended bonus, which was doing 9-10 mile runs significantly more often than I have in the past, and I think that I've gotten more benefit endurance-wise from running weeks that look like rest/10/rest/8/10/rest/18 than from ones that look like rest/6/4/6/8/4/18.

3) Train low/race high. This, I learned from all the Racing Weight books. Matt Fitzgerald talks about training your body to use more fat & less carbs for fuel on long runs (limited carb storage being the relevant factor when it comes to bonking/hitting the wall) by doing at least some long runs with no fuel or limited fuel. Honestly I've never found that fueling on training runs has been all that critical for me, so one of my "fake training" experiments was basically never taking any types of carbs whatsoever (with one exception, one time) on any runs, even very long ones. And then on race day, I effing mainlined that shit. I learned last summer that I can tolerate 50-60g per hour pretty well, which is exactly what I did for this race, which did not make me sick and very well may have made a big difference in how strong I felt, particularly at the end.

4) Good weather. Not that I can take credit for it, but still. I don't think I would have had the race I did had it been super hot/windy/muggy/pouring rain/etc.

PHEW! That is quite enough for one blog post, wouldn't you say? I'll post something about all the logistics in a day or two. (**Update** - You can find the logistical/nuts & bolts post about NVM here!)



  1. That's how you finish a race! Great job, and really validates a lot of the training changes you've been pursuing. I know it has to feel good to be back racing marathons and doing well, too. Congratulations on the hard work and the results!

  2. Awesome race! Especially those last 6 miles! Your training and base building is really paying off.

  3. What a great race experience! As Gracie said above, it absolutely validates the training changes you've made. CONGRATS!!!

  4. YES! You negative split that sucker, and you felt fantastic! Best feeling ever!! Congratulations on staying the course and on a great race!

    As for the bottles, I learned in Ireland that many European races give out miniature disposable water bottles instead of cups. It was fantastic, because I could take actually drink (rather than pouring it all over myself). And elite marathoners always have bottles on the course -- they never have to try drinking from cups!

  5. Awesome, awesome race. To finish a marathon feeling that good ... that's something I dream about. Enjoy your recovery.

  6. Love those last 6 mile splits! As a chronic positive-splitter, I'm way envious. Congrats on a mighty fine show, it's so nice to read about a marathon going smoothly & comfortably. And assuming that no news is good news, here's to your hip still feeling good after 26.2 on asphalt. Hopefully Napa is a sign of PRs soon to come!

    I've also begun doing the occasional long run and even tempo run sans significant carbs, so it's validating to hear that the same strategy worked well for you. And I'd guess that the lack of race-day PR pressure also helped... so many times it seems like the best races happen when runners let themselves relax (runners, type A? NEVER), rather than bouncing up & down nervously like coiled springs at the start line.

    So then you're discounting the possibility that your styrofoam-housed SoCal taper takeout helped fuel you to a fast finish...?

    Of course you know what I'm going to point to as the wild card that turned the day in your favor, and you said it yourself: "I felt incredibly grateful for my clothing choices". ;)

  7. Good job cranking it out near the end! I am totally the opposite normally. I've wanted to do the Napa race for quite some time, but maybe someday??

  8. Such great stuff, congratulations! You made me think I def need to learn to negative split :) So glad you finally got a decent marathon experience!!

  9. Congratulations, sounds like a really ideal race! I can't believe you finished feeling so strong; maybe we should all try this race strategy ("bein' chill"). Also, obviously, it's amazing to have challenged this old idea you've had about yourself & marathons. Congrats again!

  10. wow, congrats! This is like, my dream race.

  11. Yay! Awesome! Congrats!!! #ALLYOURBASE

  12. That is a darn awesome race right there! A most excellent split and I am in awe of how strong you finished.

  13. I would have cried, too. Such a serious negative split is a *big* deal.