Wednesday, October 12, 2016

'Race' Report: Healdsburg Half Marathon

Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon was the race where I ran my current half marathon PR in 2012 (as I recall, all three of us in fact PR'd at that race!), so although it is kind of a wind-ey and hilly race, it holds a special place in my heart. Ever since Cat, Jen, and I first met there in 2012, we've been talking about doing a "reunion race" there, but this is the first year that timing (and the injury gods) has allowed it to happen. Cat was running it as her 'A' race, Jen was doing it as part of a long run (also training for CIM), and our friend Jess also flew up from Oklahoma to join us!

Jen, me & Cat. Ah, how young and fresh-faced we were! #tbtfouryearsago

Sadly, our friend Kate was not able to make it, but she was there in spirit. Also in 2D cutout.

The three of them were way more on the ball than me and booked a nearby AirBnB while I was still hemming and hawing about my plans, so I was extremely grateful that by the time I got my life worked out they were still willing to let me bring my sleeping bag and tag along. (Since I needed to run 7 miles before the 7:30 start, that probably would have meant getting up at 3am for the drive to Healdsburg. Not appealing!)

Healdsburg WINE COUNTRY Half Marathon ;)

Since my tune-up half marathon (Folsom Breakout Blues) is in two weeks and I want to be (marginally) fresh & ready to run all-out, I wasn't planning on "racing" Healdsburg. But, I did have a fast finish 20 miler to do, which is hard to get all that enthusiastic about alone and unsupported on my same old-same old route.

Like tempo runs, I feel like the point of a fast finish run (I guess some people call them progression runs?) is to run continuously and really make a sincere effort to keep up the prescribed pace and effort level in as close to actual race day conditions as possible, and having to deal with traffic lights and water stops and whatever else makes that a bit of a challenge. The fact that you're actually trying to run certain paces--and that those paces get pretty fast towards the end--also makes a race atmosphere a little more appealing. I definitely find it mentally much easier to push myself and suffer more when I'm on a race course with other runners, spectators, volunteers, etc. I also think it's good practice for me to go through the night before/morning of routine, especially for something that is pretty long and not all at "easy" pace.

I've run several fast-finish long runs and many a 20 miler, but this was my first time combining the two, and I was nervous about doing it at the end of my biggest week so far and just two days after my longest tempo/run. (The tempo run itself felt good and I finished strong, but MAN, it left me feeling zonked Friday night and Saturday morning.) My loose plan was:

  • Miles 1-8 (6.9 pre-race + first 1.1 of the race) - Super easy; just stay comfortable & get warmed up.
  • Miles 9-11 - 9:30ish pace
  • Miles 12-14 - 9:00ish pace
  • Miles 15-17 - 8:30ish pace
  • Miles 18-20 - 8:00ish pace (~goal marathon pace) or faster

On the other hand, I remembered that this course was VERY hilly, & was also prepared to make some adjustments on the fly in terms of pacing for that.

I didn't start out feeling optimistic. My legs still felt tired from Friday and I didn't sleep particularly well. When I started my easy pre-race miles at about 6:15am, it was still dark, my legs didn't want to move *at all*, and I felt like I might fall back to sleep at any moment. My whole brain & body were drifting around in a general "I-don't-really-want-to-do-this-right-now" kind of haze. I felt a little better as I got out onto the course the sun came up and other people arrived, but I never felt great and the thought of a) running 13 more miles and b) finishing at 8:00 pace or faster was kind of deflating.

Pre-race miles 1-7 - ~10:20 average pace

These facial expressions pretty much sum up how excited I was feeling about this run.

I took the first mile of the race pretty easy still as planned, and was happy to see that when I hit mile 2 & started to pick it up a bit, it wasn't that hard and actually had to rein myself in a little. Then around mile 3, I started having trouble breathing.

At first I didn't think it was asthma, because asthma usually feels like not being able to get enough air into my lungs, whereas this felt like there wasn't enough oxygen in the air, almost like being at altitude. Still, any time when I start to have breathing problems in a race (which is almost never) I instantly go into crisis management mode & start thinking a lot less about my time goals and a lot more about how I'm going to manage to not die of hypoxia.

    Mile 8 (out of 20)/1 (race) - 9:50
    Mile 9/2 - 9:15
    Mile 10/3 - 9:21
    Mile 11/4 - 9:19
    Mile 12/5 - 8:54
    Mile 13/6 - 9:00
    Mile 14/7 - 9:00

The breathing issues were manageable, though, so I carried on with my plan. 9:30ish miles--check. 9:00ish miles--check. But after mile 7, I felt like that was kind of it--whether it was the fact that I wasn't getting enough air or just plain old cumulative fatigue, I couldn't consistently get my legs moving faster than 9:00 to save my life. (Random thought I actually had while gasping for air: "Wow, I hope it doesn't actually come to that...") I also started some having some pain in my right knee around this time, which didn't help my general state of mind. The pavement quality was definitely at its worst in miles 7/8/9ish (confirmed by my racing buddies afterward). Sorry, knee!

I probably could have fallen apart around this point if I wanted, but I've been getting a lot of practice in recently being positive and upbeat in my running even when things get shitty, so it was still pretty much impulse to reach for the "What's happening is happening, accept it & do what you can with it" card. I also think this is where all these long interval & tempo sessions I've been doing really showed their value; even though I was working pretty hard and my breathing was uncomfortable, something in my brain went, "Less than an hour left, no big deal. Less than 5K and then less than 5K again." By then I knew I was having a full-blown asthma attack; I knew I probably couldn't hit the paces I'd intended at that point, but I still decided to try to run as hard as I could in the last six miles without actively putting myself in a dangerous situation medically.

    Mile 15/8 - 9:05
    Mile 16/9 - 9:20
    Mile 17/10 - 9:01

Another kind of weird reversal during this run was how in most long runs, I feel totally fine cardiovascular-wise start to finish, but start feeling heaviness and fatigue in my legs around mile 14-16. But on this run, for all that I could barely breathe, my legs felt strong the whole time. When my pace started to suffer, it was definitely not my legs that were giving out, which is encouraging. (For that, I credit the fact that I've done way, WAY more and longer long runs than I have ever done in a marathon cycle before. Which...honestly, is sort of embarrassing. XP)

Fortunately around maybe mile 9ish (I don't actually remember), my breathing started to open up a little, and mentally having only 4-5 miles left felt HUGELY better than having 6. It was getting hotter and there was less shade in the last miles and people around me were starting to fade, or walk up hills, or just walk in general. All of these things together put a bit more pep in my step, and I actively started thinking about the last miles as a tempo workout: Push for just 400 seconds, 300 seconds, 200 seconds, 100 seconds, start over. Really trying to power up those last hills was also weirdly motivating, though that may have had more to do with being able to pass people, which is always motivating to me, no matter how slowly those people happen to be moving.

    Mile 18/11 - 8:38
    Mile 19/12 - 8:23
    Mile 20/13 - 7:05

That last mile, though. WHAT.

I may not have "finished fast" over those last six miles the way I'd planned, but I did prove to myself that I can in fact run one VERY FAST (for me) mile after just running 19 others (in the sun! On big hills!). Which, realistically, probably means I need to do a better job mentally in the miles right prefer that around "No really; I know there's more in the tank so woman up already."

I definitely went straight to my car for my asthma medicine, but otherwise, I could not believe how good I felt after this run. Did NOT feel like I'd run 20 miles. 10, maybe. Or 13.1, even, but surely not 20. In fact for the rest of the day I kept running over it in my head, going back through the Garmin data thinking, "But did I? Did I screw up the pre-race miles? Cut the course somehow?" But no. It's all right there (well; 19.95 of it) in black & white.

(I suspect the asthma was allergy-related in some way. It tends to get triggered by things like dust, mold, mildew, pollen/grasses, and animals, any of which could have done it. I noticed when I pulled my sleeping bag out that it smelled a little musty, and there was a lot of dust kicking up on the course, and we've also been feeding our neighbors' cats recently. So who knows.)

The four of us all finished the race within a few minutes of each other, grabbed our souvenir wine or pint glass & complementary plate of Mexican food (rice & beans never tasted so good), & proceeded to take silly pictures & jam with 2D Kate.

After that it was back to the AirBnB for showers & then off for a pizza lunch (or fish tacos, or tripe, or whatever).

And honestly, I felt great until I had to sit in my car for 2.5 hours. Suddenly the lack of sleep & early alarm & OH YEAH 20 FREAKING HILLY MILES IN THE SUN finally caught up with me & by dinner time I was barely a person.

BUT, still a person who ran 57 miles in the previous week, including three pretty tough double-digit workouts.

We are traveling to Texas this week for my sister's wedding and it feels so luxurious to say that I "only" have to fit in 50-52 miles, including a 15-mile "long" run that does not in my head sound even remotely long.

I also have to do a ~14 mile (!) tempo run with 10 miles at marathon pace. For that I signed up for, yes, you guessed it, another half marathon about 20 minutes from our hotel, because I'm not sure that with all the wedding craziness going on I'd be motivated to get that done otherwise, at least not well.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~LOGISTICAL STUFF~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

run wine country healdsburg half marathonLocation: Healdsburg, CA

Date: Mid-October (Oct 9, 2016 this year).

It's important to note that there are two half marathons in Healdsburg in October that get referred to as the "Healdsburg Half Marathon." This one is put on by the group Run Wine Country/Events With Sole & generally happens in mid-October. The other one, whose official title is Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon, is put on by Destination Races (the same group that does NVM) & usually happens on the Saturday before Halloween & has kind of a costume theme. I have heard lots of great things about the other one but never run it because it is a) more expensive & b) happens on a day I generally want to be staying up late doing spooky things in SF.


    Half Marathon:

    * Before 5/1: $85
    * Before 7/1: $90
    * Before 9/1: $100
    * Before 10/1: $110
    * After 10/1: $120
    * At Expo: $125


    *Before 10/1: $40
    *After 10/1: $50

It makes me a little sad that this race (which was not super cheap to begin with) has gone up $10-$15 for the half marathon, but if you register super early it's not awful. But man, I don't know about $40 for a 5K.

Deadlines/sellout factor: The half did not sell out in 2012 but apparently this year it did. Not sure when, though.

Field Size: 700 finishers in the half, 206 in the 5K

The Expo:

In the past the expo has been at the Kendall Jackson wine center with a smallish version of what you usually see at race expos (sunglasses, running clothes, reps from other races, local business, etc.) but this year it was in the start/finish area at Healdsburg City Hall & really just bib/shirt pickup & a table from Healdsburg Running Company. Since there wasn't much to see or do there, turnover with parking was pretty fast & I was able to park right away just across the street, & got my bib & shirt in about five minutes, maybe less.


The start and finish were across the street from the Healdsburg City Hall. In the City Hall parking lot was morning-of bib pickup, water & Gatorade, post-race food, & the wine/beer tasting area.


The Course:

The half marathon course is a USATF certified loop that more or less follows mainly Dry Creek Road & W. Dry Creek Road. The start and finish were slightly different this year than in 2012 due to some road construction, but it wasn't problematic at all. The last .75 mile or so before the finish actually ran along a very nice little path instead of on the road, which would have been too narrow for the start but was fine with people spread out at the finish.

I believe I've mentioned that this is not an easy course, & in fact is probably the most challenging half marathon course I've ever run (seriously, how is that still my current PR????), but it's really gorgeous, weaving through pretty fall foliage with some lovely views of vineyards & wineries if you have the bandwidth to appreciate it. It's all on paved roads with at least one lane blocked off, though be aware that the pavement is a bit chewed up certain places, and because a lot of it is in one lane, those who are bugged by canted roads might have trouble. No super SUPER bad hills, but many not-significant ones up and down; be prepared for short-to-medium rollers non-stop.

I would call the course "partially shaded" as far as that goes. In 2012 it was a moot point since the race started a half hour earlier & we had cooler weather as well as mist & fog the whole time. This year it was still cool for wine country but full sun (60's maybe?), so during the exposed stretches on the blacktop it definitely felt warmer than it was. I was glad I had my hat but wished I'd gone with white instead of black!

It is worth noting that there are fewer aid stations on this course (only four) than most half marathons I've run, which I just think has to do with where on the road it's practical to place them. I don't think they're sparse enough to be a problem, especially if you're aware of it going in (I was totally fine grabbing one cup each of water & Gatorade at each stop), but those who want more should probably plan to carry a bottle. Aid stations were roughly at miles 3.1, 6.2, 8.9, and 10.5


Logo tech shirt & finisher medal, plus your choice of a logo wine glass or pint glass:

All bibs also came with a ticket for post-race food and a ticket for beer or wine tasting. (Don't worry about your ID; your age is printed right on the bib. Which is weird.) Age group winners also get a free bottle of wine. (Or, if you get really unlucky, a bottle of alcohol-free grape juice. D: )

If you decide to run:

  • Register early & save yourself up to $40.
  • If you're planning on getting accommodations in the area, do yourself a solid and a) book early, b) consider an AirBnB instead of a hotel, particularly if you're with a group, & c) look in nearby towns like Geyserville, Santa Rosa, or Rohnert Park instead of Healdsburg proper, which can be rapishly expensive because wine tourism.
  • Ironically, although my time from 2012 is STILL my current PR and Cat, Jen and I all managed to PR there that year, I can't say it is a PR friendly course. I still love it and find the hills to be a fun challenge and think it's a great, well-organized even, but I would not recommend putting all your PR eggs into this particular basket. (I still wonder what might have happened had I run a flat half that weekend instead!)
  • Plan for the sparse aid stations
  • Weather-wise, plan for anything from cold, wet fog to bright warm sun. Fall in wine country -- you never know!

Overall Assessment:

I wasn't sure how my memories of this race would hold up, but I really enjoyed it. It's quite well organized and my favorite size of fun local race. I kind of wished I was *actually* racing vs. just doing a long run, because powering up & down those hills is really just a blast, even if I'm not sure I'll ever be able to do it at sub-1:40 again.


  1. Nice job! I love using races as part of longer training runs. The first time I tried it, I wasn't very disciplined and ran too fast, but since then I've reined it in and really enjoy doing it that way. It helps to do the extra miles first rather than after for sure.

    Have fun at your sister's wedding!

  2. You're killing this training cycle! I can't believe you finished 20 miles with a 7-min mile. That's gutsy.

  3. According to Strava, there was a 20-second "GAP" on the last mile -- meaning, it thinks I was technically running a 8:34 pace, but because of the downhill section, I actually rain 8:14 instead. But still - awesome work! Hope you're having fun in Texas!

    1. Ha! Well that would definitely make more sense. I'll take it either way!