Race: Napa Valley Marathon 2011
This is the first time I’ve run the Napa marathon, although I’ve heard good things about it and had it on the list. I’ve had a persistent cold lately and was not feeling very fast, so had trouble deciding on a goal pace for the race. A PR seemed unlikely, but I noticed that a 3:20-ish finish would have been good enough to place in my age group in some previous years. I decided to head out at 7:40 pace (3:20 finish time) and see what developed. I was in an experimental mode, and trying several new things in this marathon. I have had trouble eating gels while running and usually only manage two or three of them. This time I had four diluted gels in a small flask which was much easier and did not make my fingers sticky. This worked really well, and now I can experiment with different mixes.
Experiment number 2 was the Garmin. I’m reluctant to use it in races because it’s a lot more to think about than a simple split timer. I used it this time because I really wanted to record my heartrate for future trining purposes, and to see if the “average pace” display would be a reasonable no-brains way to keep track of pace.
We had dinner the evening before with some of my online buddies. James, who has been running for just two years, was shooting for his first sub-3:00, and Amy was also gunning for a PR in the low 3:0x area. Carrie, who was looking for an improvement on her 3:10 at CIM, had gone and injured herself in the last week playing a computer dance game and seemed a likely DNF. She planned to start anyway in case of a miracle recovery.
The buses deposited us on the Silverado Trail – despite the name it is a road – at the edge of Calistoga while it was still dark. Two rows in front of me on the bus were two older guys, one of whom had been talking nonstop the whole trip. I found this a little wearing and filtered it out, but I gathered that this guy had run a whole lot of races. I was glad to get out into the gentle rain. The temperature was comfortable. The drop bags – choice of duffle or backpack, were the best I’ve received from any race. My bus was one of the early ones so I got to the porta-potties while the lines were just forming, so no problems there. Some later arrivals had to get creative in this department, the announcer even suggested the oak tree! There was a vineyard nearby, but at this time of year the vines were bare and provided no cover. A few trees and bushes saw good service I think. It was light by the time we started at seven.
With no pace groups, start corrals or pace guide markers at Napa, lining up is somewhat chancy. I probably put myself too far back, since I had to pass quite a few runners in the first half mile. After a bit of weaving, I found the edge of the road had fewer runners and was easier to navigate. Unusually for a rural road, the Silverado Trail has bike lanes and is thus quite wide. We had the whole width to play with, and it seemed that many runners stayed clear of the bike lanes because of the camber.
Mile 1 is slightly downhill and was slightly fast despite the manoeuvring. We were mostly sorted out by then and I eased up slightly. I heard a familiar droning voice, and the two guys from the bus came past me at a good clip. I was impressed, they appeared to be in their 60s. I hoped they were, anyway. I was already looking out for people who might in my age group. One such was playing cat and mouse with me already. He was studiously avoiding the bike lanes, even crossing over to the outside of the curves on the uphills to reduce the gradient. He passed me on each uphill, but so did everybody. My uphill running was just terrible, which just shows how quickly you can lose something if you don’t keep at it. I was trotting past him on the downhills though. that’s more of a skill than a muscle-strength thing, and I still had that going for me. Miles 2-3 were slower thanks to the hills, then I got back on track with in the next two miles.
This became the pattern for most of the first half. It rained harder for a while which caused me some concern about my choice of shoes. My Brooks Green Silence, new for this race, are lightweight shoes with a lower heel than most, and a novel tongue-less lacing arrangement. These features were just fine, but there’s a very shallow tread pattern which made for some splashing. The roomy toe box had some water squishing around inside too. For a while I was running with the same set of people.
Around mile 12 a tall young guy in a red shirt came by. It had stopped raining, but there was a noticeable headwind. I tucked in behind him and drafted for about two miles. He betrayed no awareness of my presence – my feet were now quietly dry – but I let him go around mile 13. This burst of speed pulled me away from anti-tangent guy and the others I had been running with, and I never saw any of them again. This was good because my speed had been lagging somewhat.
An unusual feature of this race is that you can have your own bottles placed on a table at aid stations that you designate. I did not use this but I did glance at the bottle tables. The secret seems to be to have a short stumpy bottle, because those get placed at the front. Some aid stations only had a half-dozen bottles while others had thirty or more, so it helps to pick non-obvious aid stations for your pickups. It generally seemed workable though. I did just fine with the cups, and the volunteers were really good, often jogging a few steps to ease the transfer.
Now that we were into the second half, it was time to push a little, and I started picking off occasional runners. Red shirt passed me again – huh? pit stop? He was going quite fast after his little breather so I did not follow this time. I was passing some other runners though. As the miles advanced I started to push harder. My splits show that I did not really speed up, but it sure seemed like it. I was overhauling runners whom I had not seen since mile 1, including a couple of age-group likelys. Hey, I was even catching Red-shirt! He walked though an aid station and was gone.
There is a very gradual uphill from mile 19 to just past mile 20, and without many runners around I just had to work it myself. At the crest there was a view of the coming downhill and of nearly three miles of road ahead. Hm, cluster of runners a short way ahead, looks like at least two older guys in it, then dribs and drabs, another cluster about a mile away. dont think I’ll be catching them… I set to work catching the group ahead. Any guys with grey in their hair must die! That’s two disposed of, I can see two more, work, work… The other people that got passed were just collateral damage. I was enjoying this. In no time at all we were at mile 23 where the course abruptly left the Silverado Trail and went on a winding gentle uphill. I had been warned that this section really takes the wind out of peoples sails, so I pushed hard. There’s a walker, being passed by a couple of older guys. One of them is taking about something. Hey, it’s those guys from the bus, and they really flew away from me at the start! “Looking strong” I said going by, “Nice work” came the response.
Another straight road with trees either side, more runners, and a couple of walkers, to pass, and here were a knot of supporters. They started whooping at this solitary runner, and I felt like quite a star. With limited road access to the course, we saw these clusters of spectators every few miles. Some looked familiar, since they had been moving from pace to place. One woman was holding a large sign: “NICE LEGS”, and shouting “Marathon runners are sexy!”. On spotting her again, I pointed at my thigh and gave a thumbs up. “Yeaaah, that’s what I mean!” she cried.
Another straight, another corner and we transitioned from rural to suburban streets in the last mile. I overhauled two more runners, then heard footsteps behind. Was one of them coming back? No, it was a twenty-something guy, the first person to pass me in about 14 miles. I was miffed. More corners. Where the heck is the finish? Vintage High school came in to view, and we crossed the road towards it. Time to start kicking. I was plainly not the only one with that thought, as another young guy came flying by. Where did he come from? I managed a sub-7:00 spurt in the last quarter mile, but there was no catching him. At the finish, the volunteers kindly enquired if I was feeling all right, hung a medal on me, and pointed me towards the refreshments.
James got his sub-3 (by 6 seconds), Amy got a big PR at 3:04, and Carrie called it a day after just a quarter mile. No miracle recovery for her. Me? 3:26:06, 3rd in my age group. Nearly 10 minutes slower than CIM just three months prior. I had abandoned the dictates of the timepiece and paced most of the race by feel, arriving at the halfway point in 1:41:16 or so. This would have set me up for a negative-split 3:20 but I was just not that fast. The ingredients are equal parts: Poor health, compromised training, the weather, and the self-fulfilling knowing-I-was-slow bugaboo. Throw in a minute or two for the course, which is a little slower than CIM. Never mind, I still really enjoyed this race.
Coming up: Two weeks rest, and a short-race-appropriate training program, then some shorter races.