Saturday, April 20, 2019

Napa Valley Half Marathon: much different plan!

Quite some change today! First, we had added our first Trail race in our MUT (Mountain, Ultra, Trail) Pacific Association (PA) Grand Prix. For 25 years, our MUT schedule only included ultra races, from 28 miles at the grueling Quad Dipsea to more than 100 miles with 24-hour events. From trails to roads to tracks, quite a range of formats! Yet, this isn't even representing the full variety of our MUT sport which includes three types of running: ultra of course, with an easy definition, anything longer than 26.2 miles. M stands for Mountain Running whose definition is a bit lose, with a consensus around this metric system-based specification: 10-12K long with 100m of positive elevation per km. Then T stands for Trail, typically any event run exclusively on a trail, shorter than a marathon and longer than cross-country distances, so let's say more than 12K.
We are adding three of these sub-trail races then, and we had our first one scheduled for this Easter Sunday, close to Napa: Angwin to Angwish Half Marathon. Unfortunately, due to low registration, the event fell through early April. Thankfully, Adam Ray, from Scena Performance, had a half marathon option to his Napa Valley 50K event, conveniently in close by Calistoga and one day earlier, this Easter Saturday. Great response from our PA members and the half marathon quickly filled up. Back to the change mentioned in the title, I was myself looking forward for a shorter run, after my MadCity 100K Nationals (cut short to 80K for me) and Boston Marathon double last weekend.

My legs still felt a bit tired but that wasn't a good excuse as I wasn't the only one at the start line who had run Boston on Monday: Jason Reed, David Tran, Karl Schnaitter and Simone Winkler, Chris Jones, and maybe others. Well, I might have been the only one running 80K just 2 days before Boston though...
Agnès and I left home at 5 am to drive to the start which we reached at 7 am, leaving ample time to check in as other runners had checked in the day before.
Adam sent us off on the trail at 8 am, after his usual briefing full of humor. When he mentioned that the trail was technical, especially on the ridge (Pallisades), I thought he was joking too. After all, we weren't in the Alps! I've never ran something really that technical in California, and I was just here for a hilly yet fast half marathon.

Chikara took off and the lead right away, as usual. Followed by his teammates, Jason, David Tran and Karl Schnaitter, the yellow jacket singlets. Plus one fast dude from the Pamakids, Erik Gobbell.

I had seen in the entrant list someone from South Lake Tahoe, not only in my age group but with the same UltraSignup score/ranking, Alan Reynolds, running for the Tamalpa Runners club. I scanned all the runners at the start (they must have wondered why... if I was officiating as USATF Certified Official! ;-) ), looking for Alan's bib, #11. To no availability, although I noticed a runner who could fit the bill, wearing Salomon shoes and a wind breaker, hiding his bib. Other runners in my age group were Jerry Flanagan and J.R. Mintz, two prolific runners, Jerry with USATF in particular, and J.R. typically racing 100 times a year. Yes, that means 2 races every weekend... (You see, with 18 races a year, I'm still quite reasonable, am I not? ;-) ).

After the first flat mile to cross Calistoga, we reached the 5-mile uphill on which we'll gain 2,000 feet. I tied up with the lead 50K runner and was impressed by his pace. We got ahead of Karl, I was now in 5th place in the half. We were clocking 9:30 to 10-minute miles, not only because of the slope, but all the rocks on the trail. It wasn't a fire road indeed, or rather one requiring quite a solid 4-wheel drive, and a small one because there were a few narrow sections. By the way, Adam had promised gorgeous views of the Napa Valley but we couldn't see a thing as we were running through a cloud.

By mile 4 we closed on David, yet I couldn't get much faster and was thinking of keeping some energy for the downhill. Karl closed on us as well and passed me. Then, before mile 6, we hit the first bump in the trail, a super steep climb which reminded me the Hawk's Nest section on the Ohlone Trail. Then a big tree to go over, then slippery rocks, that became way too technical for me to run. Here is the thing: since I broke my shoulder falling on the Tahoe Rim Trail in 2012, I refuse to take more risks and trip. That made for some miserable counter performance at UTMB the past 2 years and resetting a few personal goals with regard to ultra trail. Now, I could tell that Adam wasn't joking at all in his briefing!

I was slowly and carefully hiking that section then when I heard a runner approaching behind. As I went on the right of the single track to let him pass, I hit a branch and lost my sun glasses. I stopped and saw a bib displaying that number 11 I couldn't find at the start! Dang, Alan had caught up with me as I was barely moving and he was moving with such ease in this technical section, there was no way I was going to keep up with him in that section! Besides, I had some other business to take care of first, finding my glasses... I retraced back the trail, nothing. After a minute or so, I saw them way below the trail and carefully went down to grab them. And then went on with more scary moments, sliding on rocks or the trail itself. To my surprise, I crossed Erik first, with Chikara not far behind. I don't recall exactly in which order the next three Excelsiors were (Jason, Karl, David) but I remember Alan was already on their heels. And still no sign of the aid station at our turn around. It took me a few minutes to finally hear the volunteers' cheering and remember a very alpine landscape there, although I didn't stop and was so focused on my footing. Now that my age group win was out of reach, my main goal was not to trip and fall.

On the way back we were crossing all the other runners. Like at Miwok, most of them went out of their way to let us pass, I'm so grateful for it. I actually lost my breath thanking them and return their messages of encouragement with my own, including many "good luck" ones... Among the runners I had crossed, Jerry then J.R. weren't too far behind, I had better keep moving to save my second place in our competitive age group!

After I got out of this treacherous section, I felt better. My ego was bruised but there wasn't much to do about it. Actually, there was one thing: enjoy trail running and the stunning view of that mythical valley as the cloud had dissipated: as gorgeous as advertised by Adam in his pre-race emails. I kept pushing the pace but I was paying so much attention to my footing, I had issues getting faster than 7:30-7 min/mile. In the last 3 miles of the trail, before the last mile on the road, there were also hikers to pay attention to (sorry for the lack of eye contact, that's key for me to avoid tripping).

I couldn't spot anyone ahead, not beyond, and was glad to glance at my GPS and catch a 6:30 min/mile pace finally! A few course monitors were guiding us through the crossing and turns of the last mile in Calistoga, and I finally reached the finish line in 2:09:39. Wow, so far from the 1:30 I had given to Agnès without knowing it was going to be a technical trail. Adam was busy so my arrival wasn't announced in the mic and Agnès missed my finish, focused on grading her students' tests.
Chikara had managed to take the lead back and win by 35 seconds, not without a bad fall somewhere and a bloody knee. Erik second, followed by Karl.

Then Alan passed Jason and David to take 4th and win our age group in 2:01:30, great performance!
My other M50-59 buddies Jerry and JR finished in 9th and 11th in the Men division, respectively in 2:17 and 2:18, close call!

On the women side, great news, the famous blazing fast Impalas joined us this time, jazzing up the team competition. As a matter of fact, it was also nice to see Elizabeth Gress from Pamakids, taking 3rd place on the podium, behind Angela Tieri and Lauren Creath, while 2 more Impalas completed the top 7 (Simon Winkler in 6th, and Kristine Barrios and Jeanine Holmlund from Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders in 8th and 10th, respectively).
At the finish area, there was some serious massage going on, see for yourself!
Overall, a great event and hat off to the 20-milers and 50K runners who endured many more of these technical miles on Palisades. I totally understand why the 50K earned its finishers 3 ITRA points, very well deserved! (ITRA points are required to register at certain international races such as UTMB, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.) Adam and his team put another very professional event, including full lunch and drinks at the finish, and a very cool custom wooden finisher medal.
I'm still bummed with my 82% performance which reflects how slow I've been on that technical section, which I didn't see coming at all. But at least I didn't fall and jeopardize the mission I have next week. It was supposed to me a weekend off from a racing standpoint, one week before Miwok 100K, but I just got in the Big Sur International Marathon to join Chris Calzetta to pace the 3:10 group. More tapering is in order this week then!

And Happy Easter to all!

PS: perfect opportunity to get a Napa Valley experience... We got a mud bath (a first), stopped by the Clif Family wine tasting room, then a French restaurant in Napa. A full day, thanks to a shorter than usual race in the morning. For a change! :-)

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