Si se puede
Notes from the Wine Country Half-Marathon

"HUGH!HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!" I ran into the house and screamed out the name of the good Samaritan who had taken me in to his home the night before when there was no room at the inn and a desperate gal had to turn to Craig's List for a bed.

Everything had gone eerily well the day before the race. I had borrowed my friend Charli's car in exchange for taking her kitties up to be vaccinated and boarded for her trip to Denmark. Despite my being navigationally challenged, I managed to find all five new places I needed to visit with no problems, including the home of Hugh W., a gregarious, kindly man who had been looking for activity partners on Craig's List and ended up playing B&B host instead. The evening finished off with a class at Ramekins Cooking School and B&B, where I was researching a potential story for Natural Home and Garden magazine. I love it when my research involves making cutesy hors d'oeuvres like curried rock shrimp in wonton cups and grilled peaches with proschuitto with suburban moms and getting tipsy on Pinot Noir during our in-class cocktail party.

So I was feeling cocky. I had seen the exit for the race parking lot Saturday evening and figured it would be no problem finding it at 5:45 the morning after. But whether because I didn't get a good night's sleep or a good morning's teeth-cleaning (Hugh's saucer-eyed beagle, Missy, used my toothbrush to sharpen her canines), I was completely turned around in the morning and unable to decide whether I should be heading north or south on the highway, even after heading in both directions. So I did what every woman in trouble does: find a hero willing and waiting to save a damsel in distress. I zoomed back to Hugh's as if I were in the Indy 500 this morning and not a half-marathon.

"HUUGH!!!" I called out, charging into his house and frightening Missy off the couch. "Heellllp!"

It was now 6:25 am, when the last bus was to pull out from the Marina and take everyone to the starting line. The race started at 7am. I was sure that all these months of training had been for naught as my bad planning ruined the day yet again. (Not only will I be late for my own funeral, but for my little meeting with God on Judgment Day when he punishes me for all the hours I spent making people stand on street corners waiting for me to show).

Hugh was cool as the proverbial cucumber, and calmly and slowly drove me to drop-off point, where people were casually strolling the half-mile to the start.

I felt like an uptight American, having taking the schedule so literally and taking it all way too seriously. But cut me some slack – it was my first race, and didn’t know what to expect. Had I been more laid-back about it all, Murphy’s Law says that they would have closed the roads off at the dot of 25 and I would have been SOL, and I don’t mean standards of learning.

The day was already warming up, along with about 2,000 runners and race-walkers (a bona-fide category) from 44 states aged 14 to 78. We didn’t take off until about 20 after, waiting for the Port-a-Potties to clear and the dozen elite runners to get set up at the front of the pack. It took 20 times longer to cross the starting line than the finish, as the foot traffic took some time to clear. Suddenly we were on our way, utterly quiet besides the melodious patter of a few thousand pairs of feet on asphalt. The course took us throw the rolling hills leading from the Napa to Sonoma valleys, past endless stripes of grapevines, full early morning sun on our faces, quite a difference from running through the fog banks I had in my SF training runs over the Golden Gate Bridge. There was next to no one on the course other than volunteers handing out water every few miles and the occasional vintner standing by his mailbox in wonderment.

Despite my online coach (another Craig’s List connection) telling me to lay back the first couple of miles, I charged out at a pace just over 8 minutes a mile (my training pace being closer to 10). With glee I picked off beefy men and cute-bootied girls, mentally inspired by all the people, places and things who had help me get here: my high school gym teachers, who would pat my back condescendingly when I was chosen last for the class teams (it took me about 20 years to find my athletic spirit wandering lost and lonely on the track, despite my athletic mom’s heroic efforts to reunite us); the Conakry, Guinea Hash House Harriers for their on-ons and down-downs (if we tell you, we’ll have to haze you); my stepmom, who would drop water bottles along the parched Slippery Elm Trail for my training runs through the Ohio cornfields; my stepdad for accompanying me on my short runs in Deep Run Park in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia; the Richmond and San Francisco Road Runners Clubs, with which I had done some group training runs; the Guinean boxing team for challenging me to go faster than my feet thought possible; the nation of Guinea for giving me record heat and humidity to train in; the city of San Francisco for giving me hills to muscle up my calves and toes. And let’s not forget my African wonder-dog Quatorze, who had trained with me all the way up to the half-marathon length, 13.1 miles, panting from heat exhaustion but loving every minute. I often wondered if I was asking too much of my beloved furball, but the fact that she would literally leap for joy when I pulled out my beat-up running shoes and satiny red boxer shorts, knowing the sight and smell of my training wear, told me that she was ready, willing and able.

I managed to keep my pace for much of the first half of the course, rasping for air but telling myself I could make it until the next mile marker before considering slowing down a bit or stopping to pee. I snatched the water from volunteers on route without stopping more than 3 seconds to gulp it down and speed off again. (I did not however accept the two-oz. wine pour offered at one point in the course – a cheap gimmick that wasn’t going to slow this cat down.) I felt strong and mighty.

At 6.6 miles they announced the halfway mark and the crowd dynamic suddenly shifted. Those who had been laying back the first half suddenly picked up the pace and before the mile was up a good 20 runners had passed me up. Over the next few miles I felt my legs start to turn to lead and the blisters chafe my feet. Still I stuck with the mental mile method – could I make it til the end of the mile? The answer was always yes, preventing me from thinking ahead further than that next mile marker.

At the 10 mile mark, I was truly gasping for air and now taking my cue from a handsome Latino man with a red Si, se peude (Yes, we can) Cesar Chavez shirt. We did a little Si, se peude call and response and I caught up to him. Everyone had been silent on the course around me, so it was nice to chat with someone and take my mind off the pain. He had been left in the dust by his friend, a two-time marathoner, and was just trying to beat his PR (personal record). I complained of being demoralized from people passing me and he shared with me the method of doing the same: You pick a person ahead of you, throw out your line and reel them in – mentally fly-fishing to get the strength to pass them up. We ran together up to the penultimate mile, when I couldn’t keep up and let him go. Later I talked to a few women who used my red Guinee maillot as their fish to reel in.

Reaching mile 12, however, as we ran into the Sonoma High School stadium, I found new strength and picked off my fly-fisherman, calling out Si, se puede! as I passed him and others up on the final leg into downtown Sonoma. As we approached the blue inflatable finish, I found superbionic energy and passed a woman I was 100 feet behind just before she crossed the finish.

I looked at my watch – 1:51 and change, a few minutes better than my coach and predicted and a full 40 minutes faster than my training runs. The announcer let me know that I was in the top ten percent of runners (later I would see the results posted: I finished 119th overall out of nearly 2,000 runners, and 29th in my age group for women). The winning time was an astounding 1 hour 9 minutes, by a 24-year-old from Colorado. Next time you are in your car, try going 13 miles an hour and imagine running that pace for an hour – that’s what this cheetah boy accomplished.

I gulped down some “smartwater” (the latest sportsdrink), orange slices and a stale cookie; got a free massage in the “recovery tent” to de-tense my hamstrings and unclench my lower back; picked up my finisher’s medal, free t-shirt and wineglasses; and made a beeline for the Chardonnay at the wine fest being held in the plaza. My dear old friend Lucy and her mate Jason came to meet me soon after and we sat in the grasses getting loopy on wine far too soon before noon for my own good. (Next time I suggest they do a food and wine festival, rather than simply the latter… not very safe to have dehydrated, famished, exhausted and drunken athletes on the road running red lights as they relive their race glory).

All in all, despite the morning’s meltdown, the day was a success. Yet in the back of my mind loomed the fact that this was just the halfway mark. My real race, the 26.2-mile Richmond Marathon, was still three and a half months away, and many miles of training lay in between.

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