Entwined in a grape vine: The Napa Valley half marathon experience

It’s a very hilly route”, the lady at the expo told me apologetically. I was mentally prepared for it as I had heard a lot about the rolling hills at Napa. This was just a training run and I was hoping to go easy and finish it in an easy 2:20 or so. We had arrived a day earlier for the race. The two-hour drive from Stanford city gave us a glimpse of the scenic vineries albeit from a distance. Checking in to our rooms at the Best Western plus inn, we decided to just relax and catch a game of American football on TV. It was too late to do the wine tours so we decided to do them post the race the next day before heading back to Stanford.

The race was at 8:00 am and the start point was just 5 minutes from the hotel by Uber. Skyline park-where the race commenced was a huge area that overlooked some mountains and wineries.  There were stalls serving bananas and oranges before the run.   People were slowly assembling near the start point. They looked a carefree lot who were out there to enjoy the experience instead of stressing about pace and time. While I was doing my stretches in the holding area, I overheard a few people discussing the route and comparing it to the grueling San Francisco half marathon and the Big Sur terrains. “Gosh it’s pretty hilly. You will be fine only if you have trained for it.”

I decided not to let that bog me down and averted my eyes to the hot air balloons that were cruising down the valley.  As a little girl, I loved watching balloons and seeing them float away-no boundaries, no direction-like free spirits they would wonder, basking in the light breeze that would carry them where they were destined to go.  It was almost 8:00 am and the announcements had begun.

Starting with the National Anthem, they went on to introduce a rather special guest for the day. One of the runners amidst us namely Dean was hit by a truck while he was cycling in North Carolina. He was paralyzed waist down and after a year of treatment, he was here at Napa to conquer the hills along with his doctor, the truck driver who had hit him and whom he had the large heartedness to forgive and befriend.  Hearing this story, I felt goosebumps as I glanced in admiration at Dean who waved to the crowd. It required immense strength to run a hilly terrain but even more to be able to forgive someone who almost landed you on your death bed.

 

After the countdown, we began our run. An incline greeted us within the first 100 metres. It was not going to be an easy route, I thought. Besides, the heat was already setting in, making me feel thankful that I hadn’t worn my jacket or leggings. I had plugged in some retro music besides my usual EDM that would keep me going on a daunting terrain. More slopes greeted us as we were surrounded by the lush green vineyard on both sides.  It seemed tougher than any other route that I have run on. By the 4th km, I felt drained as these slopes sapped my energy levels. Looking around for some inspiration like I normally do at events, I spotted an old though a strong looking lady who as cruising along in an effortless manner. Deciding to keep her as a pacer, I dutifully followed her. She seemed to be comfortable on a hilly terrain, probably a local who has run her practice runs on this same route.

At the 13th km mark, I spotted some horses galloping away in the ranch. Seeing their free-spirited stature seemed to help in my momentum as I cruised along.  The sun started beating down hard. Back in India, it was more humid than hot unlike here where the heat was raw and brutal- probably enough to make a barbecue out of you.  My ‘pacer’ was still in sight and 15 km were already done.  The volunteers guided us at every juncture and there were Gu gels and water every 2 miles.

 

I observed a lot of hefty people overtaking me on the hills emphasizing the fact that one’s body weight had not much to do with speed if their training was strong and adequate enough. Personally, I have seen people with a good amount of flab able to clock terrific timings which attributed to their lung capacity or in technical terms the vo2 max.

 

At a couple of points, the slopes resembled a tsunami where we literally had to look up to them. Some runners decided to walk on those while I jogged up slowly with the intention of getting done with the heat and hills. I was told that a bottle of wine would be gifted to us at the end of the run long with the finishers medal. The thought of the red wine bottle waiting for me at the finish line was enough incentive to pace up my strides, overtaking my ‘pacer’ in the process. At the 18th km however, I was horrified to see the road turning uphill which left me wondering if these hills would ever end.

Gathering all my reserve, I kept going, trying my best to not let the awful heat get to me. I ran and ran till I crossed the finish line in a surprisingly decent time of 2:10:17. I collected my medal, my bottle of red wine, posed with my Indian flag and rushed back to the hotel.

It was now time to be entwined in the grape vine this time in a more relaxed manner as compared to the pounding amidst the hilly contours of the vineyards in the morning.

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