I woke up Sunday morning feeling I had a job to do: I had to run the 2009 Napa Valley Marathon at my goal pace or better. My brain, on some level of consciousness, must have known it was better to go on autopilot than to approach the race with any depth of thought or feeling.
Complications had resolved, anxiety abated. I had trained and planned. I slept and ate. I pooped. I was ready to go.
It was raining in Calistoga and would rain the entire 26.2 miles along the course, which cuts through the valley on the Silverado Trail (which is a paved road through the vineyards, not really a trail). I had watched and worried about the weather forecast the entire week leading up to Sunday. Getting dressed in our room before the race, I stopped worrying and put on a poncho.
Only Morgan — my mordant, mulish Morgan — could knock me out of this impassive state of mind and make me laugh. He had paid an extravagant amount for us to have a room a short jog to the start line at the year-old Solage resort in Calistoga, a place conceived at the peak of the stock market that now seems painfully divorced from reality. Receptionists greet you with chai tea, retro cruiser bikes rest outside each room in case you want to hop on for a ride, and “the ultimate guide to soy candles” lies next to the toilet for bathroom reading. Morgan seemed determined to get his money’s worth by spending as much time as possible there. I attempted to rouse him Sunday morning in time for him to eat and digest breakfast before the 7 a.m. start. He pushed me away like a snooze button until finally proclaiming at around 6 a.m.: “I wonder what is wrong with my life when I spend my weekend running down a soggy road for fun.”
I made Morgan coffee, told him to eat his instant oatmeal, and suggested he get dressed. He obliged but refused to be rushed. He got back in bed wearing his running shoes and curled up reading his new Kindle. At 6:30 I announced it was time to go, to which he replied that the starting line was just outside the door and he would leave at 6:50 at the earliest. “You can go stand in the rain if you want,” he said. So we wished each other well and said good-bye. I’ve learned to let him do things his way and love him for it.
I walked alone toward the start, looking at Solage’s studio cottages that sprawl across acres where a pasture with horses and yellow mustard flower used to be. This was my fourth time running the Napa marathon, and I missed seeing the horses canter nervously back and forth on marathon morning, working up a sweat and flaring their nostrils as hundreds of runners filed past their normally tranquil corner. Nostalgia for the past and guilt for staying at the resort stirred in my stomach, along with butterflies hatched from knowing I was about to put myself through more than three hours of strong discomfort, but I doused those thoughts and focused on the line of yellow school buses that carried nearly 2000 runners to the start. With 20 minutes to wait, I hopped on one of the buses to stay warm (giving Morgan credit for being right to stay in the room longer). Then it really was time to line up at the start, and once there I was very glad to see Jennifer Ray, a longtime friend and seasoned runner. Our conversation was more shorthand than small talk; we’ve been through this start line routine together before, and our comfortable familiarity was just what I needed to relax.
Jasper Halekas, a top-ranked ultrarunner whom I had the good fortune to train with a bit during this training cycle, once noted that race reports tend to be “all kind of the same: ‘I felt good, then I felt bad, then I felt good and sprinted to the finish.'” True, too true, and I may be guilty of such. But at least what follows will differ insofar as my emotions and physical state followed the gently rolling course profile — mostly flat and steady.
After far too much navel gazing and kvetching about my Napa goal (see previous posts, or spare yourself), I decided to go for a 7:12 average pace. That works out to a 3:09 finish — enough time to walk a few steps through water stops, use a bathroom if I absolutely had to, and squeak under 3:10. My marathon PR, earned at Napa in 2007, was 3:11, and I wanted to get under 3:10 not only because it’s a round number, but also because it’s the men’s Boston qualifying standard. On long runs during the past 6 weeks, I struggled to hold a sub-7:30 pace, so 7:12 seemed ambitious but do-able after a two-week taper.
I took off and realized in the first mile that my legs felt sharp and I was having an auspicious beginning. I hit Mile 1 in 6:57 and instead of saying “Uh-oh, I’m going out too fast,” I said, “This feels right.” I settled into a groove that might be called the Magic of Race Day, when you’re able to go faster than on any training run. My splits for 2 through 13: 6:57, 7:04, 6:46, 6:57, 7:03, 7:05, 6:58, 6:59, 7:10, 7:09, 7:12, 6:57.
I could have had a lot going on in my head during these miles. I could have reflected on my 15 years of running and how it all started here in Napa, where I was inspired to start running after watching Jennifer and her husband Adam run this race in 1994. I could have lapsed into reverie by looking ahead to a year of change on the horizon and all that Morgan and I are planning in terms of travel. Or, I could have sunk into depression if I opened the mental door to explore news that reached me on Saturday via a college friend, who contacted me about our mutual friend’s utterly unexpected suicide. But whenever big thoughts, negativity, or flickering bliss began to gain momentum like a wave, I refused to ride it. I was determined to focus on whatever mile I was in.
People sometimes compliment me for running focused and relaxed and ask me how I do it. I’d like to reveal the secret but it’s incredibly corny, as cringe-inducing as the Barney theme song. But for the sake of possibly helping other long-distance runners, I’ll go public with it: I repeat mantras in my head for the first 10 miles that rhyme with the mile number and go in rhythm with my stride, as in “Mile 5 and I feel alive” or “Mile 8 and I feel great” or “Mile 10 let’s do it again.” Then it’s “Go to 11” (as in the Spinal Tap quote “It goes to 11”). I can’t think of rhymes in miles 12 through the teens so I repeat phrases such as “keep it steady” and “run from your core,” or I pick a runner ahead to focus on and say “If he can do it, so can I.” That’s all — I simply repeat short, positive phrases that help me stay mindful of the mile I’m in. (It worked well until around mile 18 when I tried the phrase “chi run, chi run” to remind myself of the principles from the book Chi Running, and instead I got the jingle to the Chia Pet commercial stuck in my head, as in, “Cha-cha-cha Chia!”)
I knew objectively that I was having my best race ever, but I didn’t get excited about it. “Don’t be cocky” I repeated. I was running hard, breathing hard, feeling fatigued but also remarkably fine. No sharp pain, no blisters, no digestive problems (unlike the last Napa marathon when I lost a lot of time in porta-potties). I stayed steady but a bit slower on the long, dull straight-away between miles 20 – 23. My legs finally started to stiffen in the cold and I found it difficult to keep a relaxed and long stride, but I fought off complacency in miles 24 and 25. The phrase “dare to dream” came to me, and I thought of my dream time of 3:05. I also thought of the inevitability of a woman coming up behind me, and I didn’t want to get passed. So I pushed and sprinted just like everyone else does toward the end.
My second-half splits tell the story: 7:19, 7:01, 7:16, 7:27 (I spent more time gulping Gatorade at an aid station there), 6:52, 7:06, 7:07, 7:03, 7:12, 7:16, 7:12, 7:10 and the .2 in 1:29. Finish time: 3:05:53, fourth-place female and more than 5 minutes faster than my previous PR at Napa.
At the finish, I had a feeling that went beyond “I did it.” More like, “I nailed it.” I was flush with gratitude and satisfaction, and that’s about it.
Except for the postscript on Morgan:
He and I planned to meet in the finish area outside the men’s locker rooms at the Napa High School. Suddenly I saw him, with a finisher’s medal around his neck and silver mylar blanket around his shoulders. He looked invigorated, exuberant, salt-streaked, and soaked — but he had a wild look in his eye and something wrong with his walk, something beyond typical post-race stiffness. He approached me with a quick double-time side-to-side shuffle, as though he were imitating the herky-jerky gait of Tim Conway, the world’s lamest comedian, doing his character Dorf. “Be right back!” Morgan told me, breezing toward the men’s room like Dorf on speed.
Like a lot of guys who run long distances, Morgan chafes in his most intimate, sensitive areas, especially when his shorts get wet in the rain. As soon as he crossed the finish with a PR of 3:45 — a great time considering he runs only a couple of times per week and never does speedwork — he sought relief.
The previous day we had received lots of samples in our race goody bags, one of which was Udderly Smooth, a lotion with a cow pattern on the label. I told him to put it in his bag for the finish line, along with a change of clothes, because it would feel good to slather on some lotion at the post-race showers. But he grabbed the Bio Freeze sample instead. (Bio Freeze is like Icy Hot times ten.) Desperate to soothe his chafing and in a post-race daze, he retrieved his bag right after the finish and opened the Bio Freeze. Then he stuck his hands down his shorts and applied the mentholated cryogenic goo to a bright red rash that covered all the places where the sun don’t shine.
One can only imagine that everyone within earshot took Morgan’s “Yow!” to be a victory cry. Balls burning from Bio Freeze, he hobbled as quickly as possible to the showers to rinse off. He recovered and experienced gratitude and satisfaction as well. Now we both can say the 2009 Napa Valley Marathon was unforgettable.