Napa Valley Marathon 2019

In Running, Travel, Longform, Race

Today was hard. It started with optimism, concern at the 13.1 miles, then despair at mile 19. It ended with a desperate comeback attempt at mile 22, that faltered over the last 5K, and a wheelchair brought out for me after the finish line.

The goal today was sub-3 (my new 2019-2020 BQ standard). But, after today’s effort, that goal continues to eludes me, after 1.5 years of trying. Even in the last couple miles, I still had hope. When that hope was crushed, I was ready to cry.

I had dug so deep to ultimately fail. As I finished, I was so close to passing out, there was no room for sadness. I think this one will take a while to heal…

The Box Score

Chip Time: 3:02:18 (6:57 min/mile)
Overall: 37/1696. M25-29: 9/107. Men: 32/954.
6.2 mile checkpoint: 41:55 (6:45 min/mile)
13.1 halfway point: 1:28:45 (6:46 min/mile)
20 mile checkpoint: 2:17:04 (6:51 min/mile)
Bib #1754. Marathon #13… marking two years of marathoning.


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I not only ran into people I carpooled with, and knew were coming, but also others as well!

I carpooled with Mark and Amber to Napa. On the way, I found out how much Mark likes to ask questions! Importantly, I mentioned that for every race, I tend try something new (I’m a rebel like that). He was curious what I had changed this time. Major items:

  1. Vaporfly’s. I raced a 5K relay leg last week in them last week. They felt good, so I now wanted to try them at the marathon distance!
  2. Bottle drops. I’ve run 12 marathons, and countless other races, in the last two years. But I’ve never had a chance to bring my own bottles at a road race (and I’ve never taken the opportunity when presented at previous 50K trail races). In fact, I didn’t even know this was possible until SF Runs group leader Leonard told me a couple weeks ago.

    There were drops available at Miles 6.6, 13.9, 16.1, 18.4 and 22.3. Leonard recommended using GU Roctane mix. So I bought a tub this past week. Then I filled 5 bottles with it.
  3. Compression socks. I usually use compression socks for “recovery”. I don’t know if they actually work, but I wore them today for the first time during a marathon because they’re my thinnest socks. Thicker socks mess up sizing with the Vaporfly for me. The biggest risk here was not knowing what my blister risk was, with these particular socks.

I was also somewhat close to wearing contacts as well, given how fogged up my glasses got under similar cold/wet conditions at FOURmidable. But I’ve never run with contacts, and I thought that’d be too much of a risk to take on race day.

As for eating, I had a minimal meal at the Concierge lounge with Claire, courtesy of her parents. (Thanks Claire’s parents!). Unfortunately, I accidentally picking up a beef skewer (I try to avoid meat as much as possible immediately before a race) — oh well. We did end up eating a piece of tiramisu at the end, haha. Other than that, I had a few granola bars the night before, and the morning of.

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Packet pickup!
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The usual festive atmosphere…
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And the usual race expo ritual. Medium-sized race = medium-sized expo. Nothing that fancy here…

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Wine outside, though! It is Napa, I guess!
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Smiling to hide the nerves.
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The Marriott where the race expo was held. It was rainy but not too wet. I would be back early next morning.
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The AirBnB I stayed at had a few cats! The owners told me that since this one was new, and as also an outdoor cat, they were leaving him outside until he could get vaccinated.
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This one was fond of me!
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Slightly concerned I might have to sleep on the ground…

Getting to the Friggin’ Race

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This year, the Napa Valley Marathon decided they needed a half marathon option for the first time in 41 years. I don’t blame them; a lot of races have been adding a “half” distance option to get more bang for their buck (since the same roads are closed anyway).

But, because this race is point-to-point, there was additional complexity: there’d be busses “departing at 5:10AM” to Saint Helena, the half-way point, for a 7AM half-marathon start. Then half an hour later, more busses would “depart at 5:40AM” for Calistoga, for the 7:30AM full marathon start.

Long story short: I got on a schoolbus at 5:34AM, found myself in Saint Helena around 6AM, got on another schoolbus requested specifically for an idiot like me by 6:30AM, got to see the course in reverse (since my bus was given special permission to take the closed off race course road), and made it just as the actual full marathon busses finished arriving, by 7AM, half an hour before race start.

I felt bad for the driver who was asked to take me. In the beginning, she had to argue with road marshals to let her through (though marshals down the road apparently heard about my mess-up). It also seemed like she was carpooling home with some of her coworkers after her shift. In the end, when we finally got to the Calistoga start line, she ended up at the back of a long line of schoolbuses that wouldn’t leave until after the 7:30 start. I really wish I could’ve tipped, but I wasn’t carrying cash.

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Repurposed school busses. Gear check (in case it wasn’t obvious).

Race Start

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Guy putting random boxes into his truck. Runners wondering why boxes for certain aid stations are missing.

The first thing I did after getting to the starting area was ask where I needed to leave my drop-bottles. I was directed to a row of boxes just ahead of the starting line.

But when I got to the boxes, a guy got out of a nearby truck and started hauling them away. I knew I definitely needed bottles at 6.6 and 22.3. I found the corresponding boxes on the truck. Then I started putting bottles into the remaining boxes on the ground. That’s when I realized that there was more than one box per aid station… and the guy had closed up his truck (and started bringing out more empty “duplicate” boxes). So I couldn’t check which aid stations I had already put my bottles. In the end, I crossed my fingers and hoped that I wouldn’t see more than one bottle, or no bottle, at any given station. (Hint: don’t ask me to do anything remotely complicated morning of a race.)

Side note: I was impressed by how creative some people decorated their bottles. I especially liked the one with wind spinners (those things you put in gardens).

Claire arrived the correct way. So she was already all set up when she found me as I lined up for the porta-potties. This was her first marathon, her excitement was palpable, and I couldn’t help feeling better overall.

Since I had arrived late, there wasn’t time to warm up (not that I ever intentionally warm up before a full marathon anyway…), and Claire and I split up to our respective “corrals” (nothing formal for this race — just signs from pacers).

I lined up next to Andrew Lee, a Berkeley neighbor who was recruited last-minute to pace 3:05. I noted that there was no 3:00 pacer; he unironically suggested that I be that pacer, haha.

Then, we were off.

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Snapping a quick photo before ducking into the corral!

Miles 0-13.1

To run a 2:59:59 marathon, one needs to average a 6:51.88 minute/mile pace. But no one ever runs exactly 26.2 miles. One good thing about this course: there’re literally 4 turns (incidentally all at the end). The “bad” thing? How twisty it is. I had heard that this averages out to about 26.4 miles (pretty average for road marathons).

I was also hoping to for some buffer, if I were to BQ. Obviously, the more the better. For this race, the goal was a one-minute buffer, at 2:59. So my goal pace was 6:47.

As it turns out, there was a whole pack of about 6-7 guys and 1 woman (a top-10 female who was clearly being paced by one of guys) who had the same idea. We become a sort of impromptu 3:00 pace group.

The only hiccup here was at the Mile 6.6 aid station. Because apparently a bunch of people, including myself, were did thoroughly shoddy jobs at decorating our bottles, I spent crucial seconds frantically (though successfully) looking for my own bottle (I had skipped earlier aid stations thinking I would have my own bottle).

With much credit going to the pseudo-pace group, I hit my goal pace without any overt problems… until the half-marathon mark.

Miles 13.1-19

As I approached the halfway point, I saw 1:28:45 on the clock. This was faster than the mid-1:29 I was hoping for, but also not a disastrous “too-fast” start.

But I had a problem: I was expecting my heart rate to be around 85%. Instead, I was shocked to see steady 92-95% readings. In pretty much every marathon I’ve run before, I’ve suffered neuromuscular failure or GI distress before enduring cardiorespiratory distress. But even before my watch confirmed it, I had already started to feel it.

In hindsight, I think the rolling hills combined with my timing strategy contributed to this breakdown.

I knew this course would be just as hilly or even hillier, than CIM (which really only has hills for the first half, then flattens out).

But I still decided on a simple strategy: never go slower than my goal pace for more than roughly a minute. I had my watch on instantaneous pace for the whole race: If I checked my watch and I was slower than 6:47, I would check again sometime later (hopefully around a minute). If I was still over 6:47, then I forced myself to turn over faster (this makes for a very interesting cadence graph) to make up time — within that specific mile.

This could’ve worked on a flat course. But, even if no individual up or downhill was especially difficult, I paid an unexpectedly heavy tax maintaining an even pace over hilly terrain (I’m actually surprised how relatively even my pace graph is until Mile 19).

Miles 19-22

At Mile 19, there was a hill. It wasn’t a terrible hill (averaging about a 1% incline). But it went on for a mile. Even if it didn’t really break me physically, this was where my mental game gave out — for two reasons.

  1. I just couldn’t maintain that strategy of keeping a 6:47 goal pace on a mile-long hill, and
  2. This was where I really lost my pace group.

The problem was, I had dropped off somewhat from my pace group at another bottle drop earlier, at Mile 18.4, but expected to catch up as soon as I was done rehydrating. Ultimately, they powered through the hill, and I couldn’t recoup lost time (as I had done before).

Miles 23 to The End

At the end of the uphill, there was a corresponding downhill, and I attempted to capitalize on it. But it was too little, too late.

Finally, as I entered the last 5K, a tingling numbness invaded my face and hands. This only happens to me sometimes, but whenever it happens, I know I’m going to have a bad time — specifically that I’m about to have a massive headache as more and more blood go to my legs. (Simultaneously, my right calf threatened to seize though fortunately it never did.)

I tried to run through it, but as the tingling sensation spread through my arms, abdomen and scalp, I ended up dividing my attention between trying to pick up my pace… and not passing out before the finish line.

I did make a final push, which surprised me. I wish I had known I still had that much left in my legs. But the push was for naught. I saw 3:02 on the board.

Scott Maurer was there, which was a pleasant surprise, and he helped me to a bench and got me soup. But I was so messed up that all I wanted to do was vomit, though I had nothing to vomit except stomach acid. A race official came out and asked me if I was OK. And though I insisted that I was, she rolled out a wheelchair to my amusement (I’ve only needed a wheelchair after a race before once, and that was when I DNFed at Skyline and visited the ER…)

Of course, I had to see Claire finish her first marathon, so Scott and I went back to the finishing area, where I prayed that Claire would run faster, so I could head over to Medical. 😛


Two weeks ago, a couple teammates and I ran the FOURmidable 50K. While I had only had a below-average day, they both had it worse — enough for one to wonder out loud whether he was cut out for ultra-running — if it was something he should continue doing.

I admit, at the first moment of clarity I had after this race, the first thing I wondered was whether I should continue running marathons. Weirdly, I’ve been finding more success at shorter races now despite nominally training for longer distances. So, even as the physical and mental pain from today’s race has subsided, I wonder whether I should put my marathoning goals on pause for now, while I work on squeezing out any short-distance speed I have left.

But I know myself. I’ll probably soon be updating everyone with the next marathon I’ve added to my schedule; I already have one in mind for August (looking at you, Chris!).

That teammate, by the way? He went out for another 50K yesterday in similarly punishing conditions. I’ll be joining him again soon. 🙂

Up Next

I’m running the Oakland Marathon in 3 weeks, heheheh.

Not racing it, of course. I’ll be one of two 3:25 (7:49 min/mile) pacers. It’ll be my first time pacing a full marathon… I hope I don’t blow up at that event.

Then lots of fun races:

  • April 21st: Anguish to Angwin Half. A sub-ultra race on the PA MUT schedule, look at that!
  • May 12th: Yosemite Half. Looking forward to this one. First “vacation race”, and second camping race.
  • May 19th: Tilden Tough Ten RRCA 2019 California 10-Mile Championship, to kick off the East Bay Triple Crown!

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