This past Sunday I ran the Destination Races Napa to Sonoma (N2S) Half Marathon for the second year in a row, and once again, it did not disappoint! The N2S is the premier race in the Destination Races Wine Country Half Marathon series. Other venues include Santa Barbara, CA, Purcellville, VA, Carlton, OR, Kelowna, BC, and Geyserville, CA. Thus far I have run N2S twice and Santa Barbara once. I love these races so much, I’ve made it my goal to run them all, and in fact, after last year’s race, I became a Destination Races Ambassador!
Race registration opened on November 11th, and because it sells out so quickly, I was sitting at my computer about 10 minutes before launch, ready to click away. My friend from California and I were each lucky enough to get spots but unfortunately, she had another commitment come up and couldn’t make the race. No worries, though. Destination Races allows bib transfers, and I was able to convince my niece that despite the fact she’s not a runner or a wine drinker, a half marathon in wine country is a good thing!
My niece and I flew from Chicago to San Francisco on Friday morning and met my friend for lunch. From there, we drove to Sonoma, where we stayed at a beautiful ranch property just minutes from the race finish (you can check them out on VRBO using this link). We had a quiet dinner at the ranch on Friday night, then on Saturday morning we headed up to a friend’s vineyard in Healdsburg, about an hour north of where we were staying.
Our gracious host treated us to some beautiful wines and amazing food pairings. Our intent was to leave at around 1:00 p.m. to head back south to the race expo, but with such great wine, food, and conversation, before we knew it, it was 4:00 p.m.! We got out of dodge as quickly as we could, but unfortunately, we missed the race expo by about 15 minutes. Oops. We were assured we could pick up our packets at the race start the following morning, so off to Sonoma Plaza for drinks and dinner we went. I might have had a little too much wine for a pre-race night, but hey—we were in wine country (and yes, we had a designated driver)!
The following morning was race day. I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m., but my body decided it wanted to be wide awake at 3:00 a.m., thanks to the two-hour time change. UGH. I got up and made some coffee and checked my e-mails; pretty much this insomniac’s early morning routine. I had my usual pre-race ‘breakfast’ of some nuts and a banana, and we were on our way. We got there early enough to park on the street right outside of the race’s finish. We boarded the luxury bus and headed up to the race start at the Cuvaison Winery in Napa. Picking up our bibs at the race start was no big deal, and we were told we could get our t-shirts at the race finish. I will say, I was a little skeptical that our shirts would be there by the time we finished the race.
As with most races, the excitement was tangible as we waited for the start. This race seemed a little different, though. Because we were essentially in the middle of a vineyard, there were no spectators to see us off, so everyone in the immediate vicinity was either a race participant or a race volunteer. The DJ was playing great music to get the crowd going as we awaited the start of the race. At around 6:50 a.m. it was announced that the race start was delayed until 7:05 a.m., and then 7:10 a.m. No biggie. The morning weather was mild, and the race announcer kept us all excited about the start of the race.
At 7:10 a.m. sharp, the singing of the National Anthem started, and within a few minutes, we were off! I remembered all too well the butt burner hill from last year, which reared its ugly head within about ¼ mile of the race start. I ran up the first half of the hill, but then walked the remainder until I got to the top and started to run again. No need to kill myself this early in the race.
The first three miles were great and in fact, I was about a minute ahead of my usual pace for each of these miles. The difference was in my runs. I am a runner/walker, running when I can, and walking when I have to. In those first three miles, I did more running than usual, and my running pace was much faster than I’m used to, thanks to the many hills and my taking advantage of the downhills.
The next two to three miles were more on pace with my usual times. I knew I wouldn’t sustain those early paces, so I took advantage and got them in when I could. The weather was already warm for an early morning race start, and from there the temperature continued to climb. By mile five the heat was already starting to get to some of the runners and I saw the first of three ambulances I would see that day, breaking through the crowds to get to someone behind me. I was carrying my liter bottle filled with Tailwind, and was just about out at this point so I stopped at a water station to refill. This would account for the 30-or-so second drop in my time for this mile, but I made up for the loss in the next mile.
For the remainder of the race, my mile pace was anywhere between 30 and 45 seconds slower than usual. I attribute this to the heat and doing more walking than running. At about the seventh mile another ambulance passed to get to someone behind me in the crowd, and I decided it wasn’t worth trying to kill myself at this point. Somewhere around mile 10 a big guy ran ahead of me and was breathing pretty hard. About a half mile further up the course he was down on the ground, with a group of people around him. Someone was holding his legs up to help the blood drain back to his heart. I stopped for a second and saw that he was talking and not complaining of chest pain, and said he didn’t have a history of heart problems. I think it was just heat exhaustion or dehydration, so with the sound of yet another ambulance looming in the distance, I continued on the course.
As per usual, I picked up my pace a little for the last mile, and as I came down the chute to the race finish, I kicked it into high gear. The announcer announced my name as I approached the finish, which is always exciting and gives me that needed extra boost. I received my finisher’s medal and grabbed a banana and an apple, then headed to the volunteer tent, which was right next to the finish line. I was happy to see that yes, indeed, my t-shirt and packet were available as promised.
I texted a pic from the finish to my husband, and he texted back that he was tracking us and my niece would soon be coming through. I positioned myself to take a few pics of her first official half marathon finish. She did great, but quickly let me know that it would be her last half marathon. We’ll see about that!
After a few obligatory pics at the finish line, we headed over to pick up our souvenir wine glasses. The lines were long but moved very quickly and we were able to enjoy some of the post-race festivities. I sampled a few wines as we enjoyed some music, and then we headed back to our beautiful Sonoma ranch for a nice, relaxing swim.
I pretty much loved everything about this race. The online registration process was easy, but the race typically sells out in an hour or less, so you need to register as soon as registration opens. If you don’t get a spot, bib transfers are allowed, so just watch for offers on their Facebook page. Though we missed the race expo this year, I know from last year that it is loads of fun. There are several vendor booths, a spot for pre-race photos, and a few wineries offering free tastings.
Unlike last year when I was dropped off at the race start, this year we parked at the finish and took the shuttle to the start. Honestly, it was much less of a hassle taking the shuttle since there is absolutely no place to park near the start of the race, and cars are being pushed through pretty quickly as they are trying to drop off runners. There is ample free parking at and around Sonoma Plaza (where the race ends), especially if you get there early. Having our car right at the finish area was a nice bonus on race day.
The race course itself is undeniably one of the most beautiful I will ever run. Yes, it’s fairly hilly (and I do hate hills), but the scenery is simply breathtaking! Oh, and did I mention the lamas? At about the fifth mile, a woman, surrounded by her lamas, was standing at the end of her property with a long garden hose offering the runners a cool spray as we ran by! A few other property owners along the route did the same, and it was so appreciated! We also ran past several properties where there were cows, horses, sheep, roosters, and chickens!
Though my time for this race was a few minutes slower compared to last year, I am still happy with my finish. I felt great at the end and was able to run/walk at a pace that allowed me to appreciate the beautiful scenery around me. I will definitely try to get in again next year, and if I don’t get a spot, I will be looking for a transferred bib for this awesome race!
What’s your favorite destination race? Have you ever run through wine country? You can save $10 off of registration for any of the Destination Races Wine Country Half marathons (except for the sold-out Napa to Sonoma race) using my #promocode DRAMBJUR at checkout. The code is multi-use, so share it with your wine-loving running friends!