Oh man. They got me. One solid road race performance and all I can think is, I wanna do that again. Faster.
It doesn’t hurt that this is undoubtedly one of the coolest half marathon races going. Wine country? Yep. Elite athlete field with — in running circles at least — household name appearances? Got that. Gorgeous scenery? Uh-huh. Fast course? Well, ask new course record holder Sara Hall, who ran an impressive 1:13:16 or defending four-time champ Tesfaye Alemayehu who ran a 1:03:22, and holds the men’s course record of 1:02:38, and I’d venture to say, yes, the course is fast. Just enough spectators to make you feel appreciated and add an energy boost? Definitely. Rare combo of a small town feel, but decent sized race? Yeah, it’s got that too. Apparently there’s also a pretty awesome party on the Sonoma town Plaza after the event, but I had a plane to catch. Next time.
The race begins at Cuvaison winery, with truly awe-inspiring views of rolling vineyards as far as the eye can see. It would be a good way to start, well, anything. The day before, I had driven the course and to be honest it made me a smidge nervous. They don’t call that first incline “butt burner” for nothing. Says an ultrarunner. But you know what? On the day, it barely registered. I should have known. I frequently find hills that seem intimidating from the perspective of car windows are much easier on foot. Plus, since the hill occurs at the very start of the course – with, thank you very much, a nice down-slope leading in to it to get turnover going — I felt like I just floated right up and over. It didn’t hurt that for a few seconds at least I was running only a little behind Runner’s World columnist, 5000m specialist and Oiselle pro athlete Lauren Fleshman. That’s pretty decent motivation, even if I had to cool it after that so as not to race the first few miles like a 5k, which would have spelt disaster. The few rollers that followed were fairly gentle, and net downhill. There was plenty of stunning scenery to distract if you looked, but the truth is, most of the time I was so focused on my race, my breathing, my pacing, that it all went by in a blur. A shame really, but I’d had the whole week in Napa to enjoy wine country already.
My coaches had emphasized the importance of trying to negative split the race, that is, to run the second half faster than the first. Wise advice, especially since my tendency is to go out burning hot and find I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. It’s simply lack of experience, ridiculous enthusiasm for this incredible sport and, yes, unwarranted over-confidence. I’m getting better. Still, I imagine it’s something I’ll always struggle with, particularly over shorter distances which seem deceptively “easier” somehow — which in reality, of course, they are not.
Each mile took focus and concentration to sustain the effort, but I felt in control and capable of more, more, more. Then, right around mile 7, I started to feel an uneasiness in my stomach. Having dealt with some monster stomach issues in the past, this made me, let’s just say, a tad anxious. The plan was to take my one and only gel around mile eight. Aid stations were spaced around miles 7.5 and 8.5 for this portion of the course. If I was going to take my gel as scheduled, I had to choose an aid station, since I wanted a gulp of water to accompany my gel. I took a gamble that the nausea was simply the very beginning stages of fatigue or an indication of my effort-level and that the gel could help, so I downed it right before the 7.5 mile aid station, grabbing some water on the way out. I have great faith in my gels, which has been a real trial and error process for me — mostly a series of big, ugly errors — and now that I have found ones that work it makes taking a risk with a dodgy tummy at least plausible. (In case you’re wondering, I use VFuel gels and have never, not once, suffered stomach issues with them no matter the pace. Also, no, they don’t sponsor me but, yes, wouldn’t that be lovely. Hey, a gal can dream). Miraculously, the gel settled my stomach and I continued on my way feeling better than ever and determined to keep up the pace until the finish line.
I’ve been reading a lot about mental conditioning for races lately. It’s a topic that fascinates me, especially since I tend to struggle deeply with negativity toward the end of an ultra. I was determined to push any unproductive thoughts away the moment they entered my head. I kept telling myself all manner of reasonably cheesy self-cheerleading things like “you got this!” “stay strong” “make it happen” and my personal favorite “how bad do you want it?” (oh, I want it bad). You know what? Not one single negative thought successfully crept in. I did stay strong. I did make it happen. On that day, I gave what I had to give. I even negative split (who, me? yes, me!).
Now that the race is over, I can’t wait to do it all again at November’s Temecula Wine Country Half Marathon — only, you know, faster.