Friday, February 17, 2012

Top 5 Reasons to Run the Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon

**Note: This is the third piece in our Top 5 Reasons series, featuring posts on the top 5 reasons to run (or not run) a particular race.**

Karl (white tank) and me (yellow tank) walking to the
starting line of the 2010 Napa to Sonoma Half Marathon.
It’s tough to find a more beautiful race course!

One thing you need to know about me right up front is that I love wine. I’m a member of four wineries in Napa and Sonoma, and I have a wine collection that makes a lot of people’s jaws drop open. Once upon a time, my husband Karl and I lived in the Bay Area of California – a perfect location for any wine enthusiast. We took regular day trips up to Napa and Sonoma at least once a month, and when people ask what I miss about living there, “The wineries” is my standard response.

I first heard about the Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon in 2009 when Karl and I moved back to Indiana from the Bay Area and I was looking for a reason to go back to California for a visit. I couldn’t think of a better reason than running a race right in the middle of one of my favorite places on Earth. So we both registered for the race sometime around October of 2009 and flew back to the Bay in July 2010 for the race. We were able to squeeze in a little vacation time, visiting with some of my former Saint Mary’s College students, spending a few nights in Monterey, driving up Highway 1 through Big Sur, visiting wineries in the Carmel Valley, then finally ending the vacation with the race and a few extra nights in Sonoma to visit the wineries there. The entire vacation was wonderful (you can read my review of it here) and Karl and I loved the race so much that we decided to go back in 2011 for a second round.

Standing along Highway 1 and the Pacific coast
on our first trip to the Napa to Sonoma Half Marathon.
We talked up the race so much that my mom, her husband Mike, and our friends Justin and Claire all decided to go in 2011 as well! Karl was supposed to run the race, but he ended up having knee surgery just a few weeks before, so he was resigned to cheering on the sidelines. My mom, Claire, and I all ran the race and the men cheered us on. Once again, we managed to turn the trip into a little vacation, but this time we spent a night in Berkeley and then spent the rest of our time in Sonoma. Here’s my race report and comprehensive trip review if you’re interested.

Our whole crew at a great restaurant in Sonoma
during our second year attending the race.

Now that I’ve given a lot of back-story on my personal experience with this race, I present you with the top five reasons that you should run it. A few disclaimers before I begin: 1) some of these reasons are mostly applicable to runners who live in South-Central Indiana or regions of the U.S. with a similar climate and terrain. 2) If you don’t like wine at all, it’s still a beautiful area of the country to visit, but keep in mind that wine is a big part of why this race is so great!

Here are my top five, in no particular order:

1) The weather.

Don’t let our attire fool you…
we were freezing before the race started!
As I mentioned before, this race takes place in July. If you live in Central Indiana like I do, you know that this is one of the hottest, most humid times of the year. For me, running in the heat and humidity is like some form of cruel and unusual punishment. I despise summer running. Thankfully, the weather in Napa in mid-July is almost completely opposite of the weather in Indiana. Both years I ran this race, the temperature was no warmer than 55 degrees at the start line and it never got hotter than probably 65 degrees during the race. After training in the sweltering Indiana heat, this is a nice break and can definitely present PR-worthy conditions. I ran a then-PR at this race in 2010, and was about a minute slower in 2011. Please note that the temperatures can reach up to the 90s in Napa and Sonoma later in the day (though they’re not nearly as humid as Indiana), but the mornings are glorious!

2) The course.

Gorgeous views along the course.
Once again, if you train in or near Bloomington, IN, you have an advantage in this race. Kristin Armstrong once wrote about Napa to Sonoma in a Runner’s World article, and said the course was “hilly”, then later described the “rolling hills”. Apparently Kristin doesn’t train in a place like Bloomington, IN. The first year Karl and I ran it we were so surprised at how tame the hills were compared to what we train on day in and day out. We seemed to fly past people on the uphills, and to be honest it was not a course I would really describe as “hilly”. I’d call it “gently rolling” instead. Aside from the hills (or lack thereof), the scenery along the course is hard to beat. You run from Cuvaison Carneros Winery in Napa to the town square in Sonoma, passing by hundreds of gorgeous vineyards growing some of the world’s best wine grapes along the way. There aren’t a lot of spectators on the course since the roads are closed to traffic and therefore it’s difficult for spectators to drive to various spots on the course, so if you absolutely require a lot of crowd support in your races, you won’t find that here. There are pockets of crowds here and there, though, and plenty of water stops.

3) The size.

Runners at the beginning of the race.
This is as congested as it ever gets along the race course.
Napa to Sonoma registration closes very quickly each year due to the fact that the race organizers only allow 3,000 entrants. This is definitely a good move on their part. The race is never too crowded to the point where a runner feels boxed in or claustrophobic because of the other runners around. Both times I ran it there were still a few people around me, but never a huge pack, which was nice. The downside is that race registration closes very quickly. The 2012 race is already sold-out, so if you are thinking about running this in the future, your best bet is to register for 2013. You can sign up for “The Grapevine Newsletter” here to receive updates on the race and registration open dates. The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s “Team Challenge” is the race’s official national charity and training partner, so some runners are able to bypass regular registration by raising money for Team Challenge and registering that way.

4) The post-race wine festival.

Claire, me, Justin, my mom, and Karl
enjoying the post-race wine festival.
As soon as you cross the finish line, a huge wine festival is waiting in the Sonoma Plaza. Every runner receives a complimentary wine glass with the race logo, and over 20 different wineries have booths set up throughout the plaza for sampling. While wine tasting at 9:00 a.m. might not be the most appealing thing to some people (myself included), when you finish the race and feel the joyous party atmosphere that lingers in the air, it just feels right. Both years that I ran the race, I had enough time to go back to the hotel room to put on sandals, grab my phone, and get a quick snack to eat before partaking in the wine festivities. While the lines to each wine booth become longer and longer as more people finish the race, people are always kind and courteous while waiting for their next pour. We all just finished running 13.1 miles through wine country…who could be rude at a time like that? You can also purchase a wine glass for your spouse/significant other so that they can also enjoy the wine festival if they don’t run the race.

My race t-shirt, wine glass, bib number and
finisher’s medal from the 2011 race.

Other fun aspects of the post-race wine festival include a live band, Clif Bar sample stations (Clif also owns a winery in Napa, which I highly recommend visiting), and very cool medals – nothing cheap or cheesy here! Last year’s medal actually had a wine stopper mounted on the end of it!

5) Location, location, location.

One of many gorgeous views from Napa Valley.
As I said in my introduction, both times I’ve run this race we turned it into a bit of a vacation. The Bay Area is a wonderful vacation spot whether you enjoy wine or not. San Francisco is only about an hour away, which clearly includes a plethora of leisure options ranging from shopping, to doing the touristy thing at Fisherman’s Wharf or Chinatown, to art museums, to catching a Giants or A’s baseball game, to just wandering around the city’s steep streets for hours at a time. Additionally, the gorgeous campus of Cal-Berkeley is only an hour from wine country and a short train ride from SF, San Jose is about two hours, Monterey and Carmel are a few hours away, and of course there is more to do in Napa and Sonoma than just drinking wine. The cuisine is first-rate, there are tons of hiking/biking/running trails, golf courses, spas, shopping options, and it’s also just a great place to relax.

View of San Francisco from across the bay in Berkeley.
If you have any questions about this race, feel free to include questions in the comments section of this post! Also, if you decide to plan a trip to the Bay Area to run this great race, check out my Napa Valley Winery Guide and Sonoma Winery Guide, which I wrote based on my experiences at the wineries in both areas. I am always happy to answer questions about the Bay Area, so please don’t be shy!

Finishing the 2011 Napa to Sonoma
Half Marathon. Bring on the wine!
My name is Andrea Eagleman, I’m 31 years old, and I run to burn the calories consumed with all that wine!

ANDREA EAGLEMAN is one of Perspective's regular columnists. She is Assistant Professor of Sport Management at IUPUI and conducts research on media portrayals of athletes. She lives in Bloomington, IN and has been running for 17 years. Andrea re-entered the world of racing three years ago and enjoys various distances from the 5K to the marathon, running the Boston Marathon in 2011. Andrea won the Magnificent 7 Road Race Series Overall Female championship in 2009, 2010, and 2011. She enjoys traveling, blogging, reading, photography, and hanging out with her husband, Karl, and her cat, DC.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like an awesome race! I'll definitely be considering it next year.

Chris said...

This is a great post! Thank you so much for all the information. My friend, my sister-in-law, and I are traveling to run this race for the first time this year. Two of us are from South Carolina (extremely flat land) and the other from Michigan. What hotel did you stay at? It sounds like you were pretty close if you were able to run back to change your shoes. We are starting to make all our travel plans now. We are going to stay a few extra days to do the wineries & sightseeing.

Ruth Ann said...

Great post, Andrea about your experience at this half all of the extras regarding Wine Country and the Bay Area. We have such fond memories of all of our trips to California. I am going to put this race on my list of half marathons to run.... before my running legs wear out :-)

Andrea said...

Thanks for the comments! Chris, we stayed at the Hidden Oak Inn, a bed and breakfast just about a block from the Sonoma Square. It was a wonderful B&B and I highly recommend it. The first year we were there we stayed at The Sonoma Hotel, which is actually on the square. It was just okay. We had some issues because the air conditioning didn't work in our room and then the power went out for a while. I suggest checking out hotel reviews on if you aren't able to get a room at the Hidden Oak!

Jenn said...

Do you get to see any of the hot air balloons taking off?!