I knew when I went into the Napa Valley Marathon on Sunday that I would earn a PR. The only question was, “By how much?”
The only other marathon I have run (Nike Women’s Marathon 2010) was something of a disaster time-wise. I bonked badly after mile 16 and cannot clearly recall how I managed to get from there to 26.2, but I did. Thanks to that experience, I knew that I could get to the finish line of any marathon as long as I did not have a medical emergency. Plus I knew I was bound to get stronger with time and training. So with 17 months between that and Napa, I knew I would improve.
The answer turned out to be 16 minutes. My finish time was 4:20:39. I should be thrilled, but, figuring Napa is easier than Nike, I had my heart set on a 4:15 finish and feel a little remiss about being off by 5 minutes. It’s funny what a minute means to a runner. Think of all the minutes we while away without concern while sitting in front of a computer or lingering over a cup of coffee on a weekend morning. And yet that same increment of time means so much when it comes to running. Each minute is sixty seconds of dedicated movement. It is the difference between a win and a loss. Making it and not making it. It can feel like nothing at all or a world of pain. For me, those 5 minutes, compounded by the huge dip I felt in the middle of the race, are keeping me from feeling ready to retire from marathoning. They are making me want to do one more.
Here is everything I learned about the NVM and a playback of my experience:
THE NVM COURSE AND HOW TO RUN IT
At the expo’s marathon college on Saturday, there was a panel presentation on how to run the NVM. This is what the experienced NVM marathoners had to say…
The Silverado Trail is canted in alternating directions to manage heavy winter rainfall. The angle can be hard on runners’ joints. Best to run in the middle even though it will add a little distance (about 0.2 mile).
For the first 10 miles, the trail winds through a narrow valley. The Silverado Trail is a quiet road. First mile is perfectly straight. Then there are 3 short hills from 2-3 miles, not steep. After the 3rd mile, it becomes flat again until you reach the first significant hill at 5 miles. It lasts half a mile, and is not very steep or long. Watch out for pot holes at 6 miles. From 6-10 you have a steep then gentle descent through an area shaded by oak trees.
In the second 10 miles, you start with gently rolling terrain then come to 3 hills which are less steep but longer than the ones in the first 10 miles. You are now out in the open. Mile 13 is your first hill, then another longer one at mile 15-16. You then run down to mile 18, and up a bump to 18.5. Mile 19 is a rise to mile 20 – don’t look up. You will be tired, you will slow down because of hill you don’t really see. From the top of mile 20, you can enjoy a gradual downhill to the flats.
The last 10k is completely flat. You will feel like you are stuck on a long endless road. At one point you will see a red barn on your right, and it will be like a painted ship on a painted sea. It will seem like it never gets any closer. Check in with your body, gait, evenness; shake out your hands. You turn at mile 23 into Oak Knoll. It is flat but watch for potholes from 23-24. At the mile 24 turn, you can hear the finish line. From 24-25 is a flat stretch. The last 1.2 miles weave through a residential area to Vintage High School.
THE 2012 NVM AND HOW I RAN IT
I woke up on my own at 4:50 a.m. Turned off the 2 alarms that I had set. Got dressed. Ate my usual oatmeal, drank my beet juice and got into my car to head to the shuttle bus area.
It was pitch dark at Vintage High School. The parking lot was filled. Cruised around and pulled into the first spot I could find. Wove my way around the dimly lit clusters of buildings, following the sound of human voices, to the bus boarding area. Boarded the only one with an open door. The time was 5:40 and apparently that was the last bus. We departed at 6:00.
We arrived at the start area in Calistoga (near Solage Resort) at 6:35. Stepped out of the bus into fog and my body immediately stiffened up screaming, “Holy cow, it’s cold!” It was apparently around 39 or 40 degrees. I had no problem walking briskly (past a long row of buses that had arrived earlier) to the start area. Not wanting to miss a chance to warm up and loosen up, I took off my hoodie and sweatpants, stuffed them into my duffle bag and dropped it off at gear check.
“Goodbye, worldly comforts,” I said to myself. Time to live with what I had in me. This moment at the start of every run when you surrender all else and commit to the road ahead is one of the things I love most about running. Every run (or hike or open water swim or ride down a snowy mountain) is a test of fortitude. It’s your mind and body versus what Nature hands you.
After a quick 200 yard warmup on a small road parallel to Silverado where I felt surprisingly comfortable in my shorts and two layers on top (tank plus fleece zip neck), I did some dynamic stretching next to a row of grapevines and promptly inserted myself amidst the pack near the front. There were no pace sections, no rules around where you could line up. This was a tiny race so everything was very laid back. There was something very fun and homegrown about it and for a small race it was abuzz with great energy. I think the nippy air made us all huddle a little closer and feel bonded in our zany undertaking.
Soon enough someone crooned the “Star Spangled Banner” and then we were off. I put forth a comfortable effort. I got startled by fresh roadkill on the center of the road in the first mile (a rabbit, I think), but otherwise kept thinking about what a seasoned marathoner friend said about not starting out too fast: “If you think you’re feeling good at a certain pace, go even slower.” I slowed myself down several times on the downhills but made sure my pace averaged out on target at every mile marker. The temperature stayed in the 40’s from 7-8 a.m. The throwaway fleece top (a great piece of advice from another experienced marathoner) finally came off at mile 5.
The miles flew by quickly and played out just as described to me by NVM veterans. I saw the camber in the road and stayed on the yellow lines. I was very internally focused, but could not miss how the glorious early morning light cast a golden hue over the vineyards and made the yellow of the mustard fields appear almost fluorescent. I pretty much continued to run in a mindful, solid way, steadily hitting all my splits at a 9:35 pace and average 150 heart rate until mile 14.
From 14 through 18, I imploded. Pace fell to 10:05 then 10:35-45 at an average 153 heart rate. We were out in full sun by that point and temps just reached the 60’s. I remember two hills in this section, neither as steep as the ones in the first 10K. Yet everything hurt – my knees felt rickety, my upper quads were angry, there was numbness in my left middle toes and a stabbing pain in the ball of my left foot at the base of those toes. The warmer temp (remember, I live in the land of perpetual 45-55 degrees) made me uncomfortable. I fell into a mental wasteland. Saw lots of people stopping to walk. That was discouraging. But at that point it was flat, so I was determined not to stop running. Plus I was already entertaining the idea of quitting and was afraid stopping would be the death knell.
At mile 16 I saw my family for the first time and perked up. I smiled for them even though inside I felt lousy. Seeing them convinced me I could not quit (how could I not run across the finish line with my kids and husband waiting for me?), and I gave myself permission to stop/walk twice for about 10-15 seconds each (once after getting water and once to repin my bib). Not sure if those stops did the trick but I felt better from mile 19 on, which is strange given it was a slight hill at that point. Maybe I was just motivated to get past this last incline to mile 20 and go down to the flats. That was my mental strategy for the rest of the race: tackle a couple miles at a time, fight through each little segment.
From 20-26, I worked back up to a 10-10:15 pace. At one of the aid stations, I spotted an angel: a woman was holding a plate with little globs of vaseline. I had been licking my lips for the last few miles from the dry heat, so I gladly swiped up a smidgeon with my index finger and slathered it all over my lips. The turn onto Oak Knoll was another welcome sight: I appreciated being among some trees and going over the quaint little bridge, didn’t mind the pot holes really. After mile 23, I looked for the famous sorbet people and sure enough there they were – bestowing silver trays dotted with red, orange, and pink goodness. I grabbed a red one – raspberry! Soon after that I saw my family again. The boys ran alongside videotaping me and shouting, “Mommy, Mommy!” All I could think was I hope they don’t trip. My husband yelled out that my buddy Beth was waiting for me at mile 24 to run me to the finish. Hallelujah!
Got to 24 and saw Beth’s smiling face. Her good energy was a godsend because the warning held true about the mile 25 flag seeming like it never gets closer. It felt like I was on a treadmill! Thank God Beth was chatting me up heavily because I would have lost it otherwise. She was so good to ask at one point, “So, less talk or more talk?” to which I requested, “You talk,” and she did just that. Her amusing tales were the perfect antidote to the final surreal miles of this “no headphones” marathon. By mile 25, I was able to pick up the pace to the point of emptying the tank the last 1/2 mile, which I ran in the 8’s. So apparently I had energy reserved. Why then did I feel so crappy back in 14-18?
Through the race, I ate and hydrated well — ate all 4 gels, drank at every aid station, and alternated electrolyte capsules between gel and Gatorade. This last part, by the way, breaks the golden rule of not trying anything new on race day. I never trained with Gatorade or electrolyte capsules but made the last-minute decision to add those elements in because it was going to be warmer than I was used to and I didn’t want to bonk. I have no regrets about the change-up and now know what my marathon fueling should look like if I get to do this again.
I am okay with how I did, but with reservations. I had several goals, a couple of which were met and some of which were not:
1) beat my Nike time of 4:36 – check!
2) fuel properly – check!
3) maintain a consistent level of energy – nope
4) finish at 4:15 – middle tier time goal and the goal I thought I trained for – nope
5) finish at 4:10 – top tier time goal – not even close
I think a couple of the missed goals was due to cutting out too much volume in training. I only ran 4 of the 6 prescribed days, leaving out the shorter easy runs designed to induce fatigue and focusing only on the four quality runs. The Hansons surely would not approve.
I also obviously have some biomechanical issues to resolve around the wobbly knees and the foot pain (suspected Morton’s neuroma). That numbness still crops up today whenever I walk barefoot on bare floors.
And I think my non-GPS Garmin is partly to blame. Dang thing told me I ran 28 miles at Napa at a 9:17 pace. Pretty confident it was duping me when I thought I was training at specific paces and distances. Time for an upgrade!
To put everything into perspective though: 17 months of additional running experience – 30% fewer running days than prescribed = I should be happy for the 16-minute improvement over my last marathon rather than bellyaching the additional 5 minutes that didn’t materialize. Also, you never know what any given race will hand you. I should be glad the x-factor didn’t beat me up worse.
In fact, I should celebrate all the gifts that I got – the great energy at the cold foggy start; the man dressed as a bunch of purple grapes bobbing up and down cheering us on from the roadside; the beefy guy who yelled, “Marathon runners, YEAH! Ain’t no 5K runners here. You guys RULE!”; the abundant sunshine at this year’s race (often it can be cold and rainy); my husband and kids cheering me through what turned out to be the hardest part; feeling good enough to keep my head up and smile on at every photo op; the raspberry sorbet at mile 23; having Beth there for the home stretch; and getting to know other inspiring women runners on race weekend, including one of Oiselle’s elite runners from Colorado (who finished 6th in women overall), Oiselle’s director of sales, and her running friends.
My marathon glass may not be filled to the top, but it is still half full. Hopefully I can fill the rest at marathon #3 and finally feel deserving of a victory toast. Til then I cheerfully applaud all those who run 26.2 (and beyond) regularly and successfully. Conquering distances like that is nothing short of amazing.