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March 13, 2012

If you ever desire to challenge yourself at competitive sports (or want to consider a new venture in a growing market), running is definitely the thing to turn to. Racing has become a multi-million dollar industry with millions of Americans competing each year.


Here is a snapshot reported by, but there’s got to be double counting as I can’t imagine over 12 million of Americans raced in 2010. I bet the stats are for each registered runner and many runners compete in numerous races each year.

Even still, the numbers just keep going up:


Median Times for U.S. Marathon Finishers 1980 1995 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Males 3:32:17 3:54:00 4:20:29 4:19:31 4:20:04 4:20:04 4:13:54 4:16:14
Females 4:03:39 4:15:00 4:51:19 4:49:57 4:49:48 4:43:31 4:41:29 4:42:10


With running being such a popular activity, there is wide range of races to please every runner out there. From rocking to live bands, to being cheered by Marines and Navy SEALs, to diva dashes with free chocolate and champagne at the finish line, you can find an event that makes your run even more memorable and fun.

For me the choice was easy. Once I heard about the “largest small race on the West Coast” through Napa Valley with dozens of wineries along the course, I was in. The 2012 race was the 34th year for the Napa Marathon and each year the race gets filled up very quickly (amazingly, lots of runners share my passion for good Californian wines). The towns around the start and finish are quite small and can’t handle more than 2500 runners (and their cheering family and friends). So there is no half marathon option as they can’t scale to accommodate both.

Eric and I landed at SFO on the morning of Saturday March 3rd, picked up our rental car, and headed straight to the Expo event. The expo was held at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Napa, and was quite small. Expos tend to match the size of the race. The more runners, the more sponsors and booths with free goodies. Two things impressed me right off the bat. First, they gave out free ASICS long-sleeve girl tech shirts (I am actually going to keep this one. The rest of my race shirts go straight to Goodwill). Second, they had a wine tasting at the expo, sponsored by a couple of Silverado trail wineries. Although I had vowed not to drink until after the race, there was little hesitation on my part as I reached for some free wine (again and again).


The winner of the marathon gets a large bottle of wine with their name and accomplishment etched in the bottle, and their weight in wine. That’s motivating!

After the expo, we drove to Calistoga, the town at the start of the race. With warm weather (~70F) and sunny patios to stretch out on, I threw all caution to the wind and ordered another glass of wine for lunch at the Calistoga Inn.


The Brannan Cottage Inn would be our home for the next two days.

Doug and Judy were most welcoming and accommodating, and took great care of the runners and their support crews. All the Inns in Calistoga organized a complimentary home made pasta bar at the community center the night before the race. I had all intentions of taking photos of the dinner, but only remembered to pull out my camera after the second serving of creamy cheese mushroom linguine was happily nestled in my belly. Oh well. You’ll just have to take my word that dinner was delicious and there were more local wineries giving out more tastings. As tasty as that evening was, it was not the best pre-race option, but I figured I might as well enjoy the moment and the hospitality as it’s all part of the marathon experience. At the pasta bar, Dick Beardsley, the course record holder for the Napa marathon at 2:16:20, was our guest speaker. Dick did about a thirty minute motivational speech while propped on crutches due to foot injury and a recent knee surgery. He described how he took out a little kid who was playing in the middle of the course when he got his marathon PR of 2:09. Despite his good public speaking skills and laid back personality, I found Dick’s injuries, story and fundraising cause (for adults with chemical dependencies) to be disheartening. Good thing I won’t ever have to worry about those problems, as I won’t be running marathons at 4 min/mile pace any time soon ever.

On Race Day, it was early wake up time at the Brannan Cottage with a special 6am runner’s breakfast. Even though the forecast for the day was high of 74F, at 7am my phone and my internal running temperature gauge were reading 38 degrees.


After a big hug and a good luck kiss from my number one fan, I was off.


Good things about small races:

  • You actually start on time
  • No corrals to worry about
  • Plenty of room to pass and spread out for the runners and the spectators
  • Your support crew can actually get a bunch of good photos of you at the start line
  • You can easily spot folks in fun costumes


While flipping through the pages of the runner’s packet before the race, a wave of cold sweat hit me. “No MP3 players, Cell Phones, Cameras are permitted during the marathon run. Runners who are spotted with these electronic devices will be disqualified from the race.” I’ve heard of this rule at smaller races like 5Ks, but never for a full marathon. I panicked! I’ve never run a race without my music. I’ve used the  same songlist since college, with all my favorite fast beat songs that are almost my good luck charm. How the heck was I going to run for 4 hours with no music and no friends to talk to? Just me, the open road and 2499 other runners. Yeek! I could not help but ask Dick at the pasta bar for advice on running with no music. His answer was a little too high road for me “I’ve always run without music. It’s just me, the lord and the sounds of birds chippering and winds blowing. I don’t need anything else.

Ok, I guess when you are zooming at 4 min/miles that might be the case, as for the rest of us mortals, one fellow runner gave me a much better perspective. He said he used to run with his music all the time, but once he stopped he noticed that he is able to run faster by listening to his breathing and adjusting his pace. I figured I’d try it.  Not like there were any other alternatives although I saw some folks trying to cheat by having one earpiece in or a cellphone strapped on with a speaker on. Once I started on my journey watching the sun rising behind the Napa hills lighting up the empty but pretty grape wines, I forgot all about my music.  


I just ran! Eric and I arranged to meet at miles 7, 12, 18 and 23. The course was a straight stretch on Silvarado trail from Calistoga to Napa, so while I was running on the paved trail, Eric drove to our planned mile markers via Highway-29. If we have a do-over, we’ll rent a bike and he can bike along rather than stressfully looking for parking and hiking to the course.

At mile 7, I handed Eric my jacket as I was pretty warm by then, grabbed a pair of sunglasses and continued on.


I was going so fast the camera (or the cameraman, at least) could not keep up. Smile


Seriously though, I was going fast! I did not check my Garmin and just ran listening to my breath, and Eric almost missed our next meet at 12 miles as I was beating my estimated time of 1:30.


At mile 13, the heat was starting to get to me. My training weather is 45 degrees, overcast with light showers, not 65, blazing sun and no shade anywhere. I was glad to take a short water break at mile 18 when I spotted Eric again.


Mile 19-20 was a nice rolling hill, which allowed for me to catch a bit of a breeze on the way down. There were a few rolling hills through the race which I surprisingly liked as they got my legs fired up and led to a nice momentum on the way down. The part that sucked is that the course was uneven so you end up running with your feet, knees, hips out of alignment most of the time. Lots of runners were zigzagging from one side of the trail to another seeking shadier, more balanced ground. I just tried to flex my abs and suck in my belly as much as I could in hopes of relieving some pressure from my lower back and hips. At mile 23, fatigue was settling in, and I did not let Eric take any close up pictures. Nothing pretty to see.


Many people think that when running a marathon you should start slow to pace yourself. That advice does not work. In a marathon, you are going to slow down in the last ten-twelve miles either because you started out fast and it’s getting harder to keep the speed as you get fatigued, or you started out slow and you already clocked a bunch of time and your body is fatigued. Either way, you will get to a point where you will get tired because you’ve been running for hours. I hit that point in Portland last year, and my strategy this time was to start at a fast strong pace I could sustain for at least halfway, roughly 8min/mile. Then I slowed down to sub 9s, and eventually to sub 10s in my last 6 miles. The last 6 miles were still killer. The ground feels like it’s covered with glue and you have to use every bit of force to peel your feet off the pavement. Your legs are heavy like they are filled with lead. Your body aches, and your mind plays tricks of shooting pain to various parts. There is a little voice of doubt in your head. “You won’t make it. You are not strong enough. Why are you doing this? You already did this once. You made your point. Just quit!” I had mixed feelings when I saw Eric waiting at mile 23. I was happy to see him and there were only 3 miles left, but then I wanted him gone so I would not try to follow him to the car. My non-time goal was to run the full race, including the last 6 miles, something I choked on in Portland. I told myself, it does not matter how fast, just keep running. The toughest part is finding internal determination not to give up, especially when folks around you are taking walking, stretching, sitting-under-a-tree, talking-on-cell-phone breaks.

At mile 25, I felt better. 1 mile to go (more like 1.5, but at that point rounding errors were permitted). I heard a guy from the crowd cheering “Just three short turns to the finish line after you hit the Stop sign.” After turn 1 and 2, I started to ramp it up. I am almost there. Turn 3 came and went, then turn 4. Where is that Finish line? Dude, that was not cool! Learn to count your turns! Finally, I spotted a small arc with black FINISH letters on it a quarter of a mile out. With the visual in front, I started to sprint– yelling at the male runner ahead who attempted to cut me off at a small turn. I so wanted to be done! I heard my name and time being called out as I bounced on the timing plate.


I came in at 6:50min/mile and had to walk it off for a bit before grabbing my well-deserved medal. I stretched on my tip-toes looking for Eric. The marathon finished at the Napa County High school yard. I spotted a pile of bananas at one of the booths. As my shaking hand was reaching to snap one, the gal at the booth said “Those are for RoadRunner members only!” With my eyes filling with tears and lower lip quivering, “I just finished a marathon” I replied. Where are all the refueling stands? In Portland they guided me through streets of food, babying me with pealed bananas and ready-to-eat yogurts, sandwiches, bagels, etc. All of a sudden a volunteer lady ran up to me and asked “Have you been to the cafeteria where there are snacks for runners?” The snack station failed terribly in comparison to Portland, but I was able to find a banana, a couple of orange slices, a yogurt, and a teenager willing to lend me his cell to call my hubby who was frustratingly still looking for parking.


I killed the time in PT room until Eric picked me up and we headed back to Calistoga to shower, refuel and show off that gorgeous medal.


Besides shaving off 27 minutes of my previous time, I know I am a better runner as I was able to avoid blistering and chafing. These feet look like they just rolled out of bed; you’d never guess that they already pounded 26.5 miles of pavement.


Onto the wineries next…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. kristin tidd permalink
    March 13, 2012 7:46 am

    Congratulations on your sub 4 Jane, your hard work & determination are inspiring. I can’t wait until we can run one together!!


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