Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Napa Valley Trail Marathon Race Report

Murphy signed up for a marathon that took place a few weeks ago; she'd been itching to run one for some unknown and baffling reason (they're horrible, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise). Well, she's done one, but that was at the end of an ironman, and I suppose she wanted to do one without warming up for seven-something hours beforehand. So she picked the Napa Valley Trail Marathon on the recommendation of a workmate who'd done it a few years prior and who called it "pretty and nice" or something else non-specific and obviously aided by the effect that passage of time has on pain.

She did her long runs on the weekends with our friend Dave, ultrarunner stud, and I tagged along on most of them. I had nothing better to do, really, and I've devolved to the point where waking up early on Saturday to get in 20 or 22 miles seems like a reasonable start to the weekend instead of gratuitous self-flagellation. Or maybe both. Anyhow, she worked up to a 24-miler that happened to climb and descend just about every side of Peavine, our local winter running mountain, allaying her fears that the distance and elevation profile of this race would be a problem.

It was around the time of that 24-miler that I realized that I could theoretically do this race too. I'd been pretty unmotivated, largely inactive, and slammed with work since my Don't Race Sick lesson at CIM a few months prior, and getting out and about felt pretty good. I was running at most twice a week in addition to the weekend session, so I was far from fit, but I also wasn't buried in the kind of fatigue that builds in when you allow an impulsive and healthy young man decide what's best for him. Of course I'm not referring to myself, as "old and decrepit" is a more likely form of self-identification than "healthy and young," but rather reminiscing what it used to be like when I could dump 25 or 30 hours a week into structured and motivated training, way back in the distant past.

On that note, if I manage to enter any triathlons this year, it'll be in the 35-39 age group. Jesus.

Anyhow, Murphy's race week rolled around, registration remained open, and I was feeling both healthy and frisky. So a couple of hours before online registration ended, I threw caution to the wind, unleashed the credit card, and voluntarily paid hard-earned money to go fling myself through the hills near Calistoga. What a sucker.

This race has a published elevation profile that is a complete and utter lie. Well, I can accept that the low points and high points are accurate, but looking at it would deceive one into thinking that the elevation gains and drops are gradual and consistent. To reiterate, complete and utter fucking lie. This course is a tangle of rocky singletrack that swoops, climbs, and dives like a Luftwaffe ace pilot. Who's drunk.

Looks cute

Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. All we have to go on before the race is the map, the profile, and then a little bit of local knowledge. You see, I have an aunt who lives nearby, and she and her husband graciously allowed us to post up at their place before and after the race. We'd been there before, and the road that climbs to their property is a precipitous paved ribbon up into the sky. We'd always joked about how awful it would be to bike or run up (or down; it's that bad) their road, and then I realized that the race course covered the same types of hills on the same aspects as the road to their place. The elevation profile suggests a consistent climb of about 900 feet over 2 miles (TO BE DONE 3 TIMES), and when we got to the bottom of their road on our way there the night before, I turned on a GPS and piloted the car upwards. 900 feet over 2 miles, almost exactly.

Welcome to hell.


Race day starts early with pre-dawn breakfast, tea, and lounging about. Those couple hours before a race starts are among the only times where it's perfectly acceptable to be totally lazy and scold those who may implore you to lift a finger. When you sign up for a race two days in advance, your tapering strategy drills down to the hours and minutes...

The race website has stated that the only aid station is at the start/finish line, which we'll be visiting four times during the race, and as such, they highly recommend carrying food and water. I detest carrying stuff with me when I race, but I decide to heed their advice and have come prepared with a water bottle that has 5 gels of different flavors squeezed into it. It tastes like Skittles and shame, but if it keeps me alive, I'll proudly rock it.

We get to the race start about half an hour before go-time; so much easier logistically than a triathlon! Show up with your shoes, then run! We get a quick briefing from the RD, which includes a minor change to the course. Instead of loop-outnback-loop-outnback-loop, we'll do loop-outnback-outnback-loop-loop, largely to scatter the marathon racers from the larger hordes of half-marathon and 10k racers. With little more than a rudimentary understanding of the course (Mongo follow orange tape!) and a naive faith in the elevation profile, they count down from 10, I kiss Murphy and tell her to smash it, and then point myself in the direction of the Great Unknown.

Off we go

One great thing about barely training and impulsively signing up for shit is that your expectations get to be justifiably low. No pressure, and I feel strangely at ease with going out at the front and simply seeing what happens.

Well, by the first turn, the pitter-patter of footsteps has dwindled to two sets; mine and one other. I take the time to introduce myself to the kid, figuring that if we're gonna be spending a few hours sweating in close proximity to each other, we should at least get some formalities out of the way. We chat for awhile, but within the first mile or so, Dustin fades back and I'm enveloped by the near-total silence that comes with being at the front of a race: the only sounds that come through the brainfilter are breathing, footfalls, and fear.

This 10k loop that we'll be doing three times sure as hell climbs 900 feet in the space of 2 miles; that's pretty conservative given the ups and downs. And this ain't no smooth fire road, either. Rocky, rooty, and narrow, the trail makes me realize just how screwed we'd be if it had rained recently. The first climb on any course is all fun and games; fresh legs and adrenaline will carry you through most any heinousness. I note which parts are steeper and more precipitous (goal: no broken ankles, legs, or feet), but they all seem runnable, even late in the race. The downhill back to start/finish is so steep at times that my legs want to run out from under me, but hey, fast is good, and I'm thankful that the stream crossings are low enough that I can pick my way through and stay dry.

I've got the throttle open as I run through start/finish and start the double out-n-back section of 4 miles apiece; I've opened a gap and would like to stay away as long as I can: out of sight, out of mind. What looks like a little bump on the elevation profile is actually one of the steeper hills on the whole course (so much for "recovering" on this section...), so I quickly accept that this race is going to be a study in Who Dies Slowest. I make the turn at the Old Grist Mill (made official by smacking a hand on its wall). Coming back the other way, I keep a mental tally of how much time passes before Dustin appears around a corner; it's about 2 minutes (thus, a 4-minute lead), and another couple minutes until third place appears. And yay, that little hill is just as steep on this side as on the other side, confirming that this'll be a sufferfest.

Hammer down

Slicing sideways through rapidly increasing oncoming traffic, my goal now is to grow those gaps on the next out-n-back, so I keep the throttle open. I see Murphy come the other way, so we high-five and get back about our business. Next time through the bastard-hill out-n-back (and now 4 miles later), I've grown the gap another couple of minutes, which is encouraging. I know that once I get back onto the 10k loop for two more laps, I won't be able to monitor the gap until it's too late. The double out-n-back means I get to see Ethel a couple more times, too, which is awesome as she's feeling frisky and looking good.

Murphy, happy

Coming back into start/finish, now for the third time since the beginning of the race and 14 miles deep, I grab a quick cup of water, land most of it on my face, and enter the fray of the slower half-marathon traffic that is just starting their second lap. As the trail pitches up and narrows considerably, my silent swooping past the halfers turns into a never-ending stream of "'scuseme/pardonme/onyourleft/onyourright/sneakinby/pleasekillme," which actually uses a fair bit of oxygen.

I still feel strong on the second climb up that infernal loop, but I start becoming aware of a couple hotspots on my heels and balls (of my feet, thank you) when the descent starts. Near the end of this loop, I'm VERY relieved to see Dustin just starting up, so I'm confident that just so long as I don't end up walking it in (or falling off a steep slope into a rocky creek), I'll have a good result. By the time I get down to start/finish again to turn back around and go back up that same goddamn hill, my feet are starting to feel precipitously agitated, but my legs, gut, and mind are full speed ahead.

Going up that hill the third time, the crowd of halfers is virtually non-existent and I only catch the occasional marathoner, so I find myself back in the blissful sensory deprivation tank of leading a race in the woods. On every uphill section, the balls of my feet chatter at me, but on the downhills, my heels scream like banshees. I end up slowing considerably simply to do some gratuitous damage control, as the hotspots are now officially blisters of indeterminate seriousness.

Sometime during the last descent, I catch Ethel and slow down for a few seconds to chat (and probably smack her ass). She feels cold (and not in a good way) and without energy and tells me that she'll be dropping out at mile 20. We're WAY past the point in our relationship where I'd suggest that she should toughen up and finish the race, so I tell her to trust her judgement and to get back safely, after which I careen at full speed down some craggy excuse for a trail. Do as I say, not as I do, snookums!

I spend the last few miles running delicately and playing every mental game I've got to ignore the growing pain in my heels, which works great except for the moments when I turn a little bit and feel the skin crash from side to side. That drags me back to reality pretty quick, and Tyler's voice courses through my head: "This is your pain. This is your burning hand. Look at it."

Builds character

I'd rather be in my cave.

One good thing about slowing down for non-fatigue reasons at the end of a race is that it means I'll be less shattered than I would be otherwise. When I finally turn the last couple corners and watch the assembled crowd light up, I can almost forget the squishy feeling in my shoes. I'm happy nonetheless; really happy! I've made it through in 2:51 and change, which, given the terrain and the profile, I think is something to be proud of. I managed to come within 6 minutes of the course record, but that simply wasn't meant to be. There's not much in the way of post-race nibbles, so I drink about a gallon of gatorade and lie down on the ground, but not before collecting my prizes: a bottle of red wine and a rubber chicken.

I feel remarkably fresh, considering, and further examination suggests that carrying those pre-squeezed gels with me was a good idea. I've frequently found myself not eating near the end of races because opening a gel was Too Much Work, and simplifying that process for my late-race Lizard Brain was certainly wise.

Ethel does indeed drop out at mile 20, which is totally the right thing to do, no matter how frustrating it may be. She will live to run another day, and that's always goal number one. Jesse and Lisa have come up from Berkeley to cheer us on, D-squared soon wanders back out of the woods with his camera, and Skye soon wins the women's race (damn straight, woman!), so just like that, we're a complete crew with no further obligations.

Skye shreds her way to a win

Thus, we invent the further obligations of burger and beer at Gott's Roadside, followed by an outrageously expensive dinner supply stop at Dean and Deluca (motto: "We Carry $160/lb Prosciutto to Make You Feel Poor"). We then retreat up into the hills to lounge about, drink wine, and snack the afternoon away.

It's sometime after we make it back to our refuge that I decide it's finally time to peel my shoes and socks off; I didn't want to do that until I didn't have to travel any more. Fortunately, Lisa is a licensed medical professional, so she's ready with advice and skills to help me stabilize what used to be my right heel:

This felt special

Let's just say that there were some enlightening moments in that process. Enjoy your breakfast.


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