I’ve done a lot of different races over the years, which means that I’ve also been to a lot of post race parties. Depending on the type of race, the location, the sponsors, and a number of other factors, post race parties can range from a couple tents with some snacks and beer all the way to full blown rock concerts. There’s one post race party that really stands out in my mind though – so much so that even though I PR’d in the actual race itself, I still remember the post race party more than I remember the race…. and that’s the Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon.
Now don’t get me wrong though – the race itself is awesome too and even if it wasn’t for the party, I would still recommend running it. In fact, it’s probably one of the best half marathons I’ve ever done, for a number of reasons….
The weather is super mild. I did the race in 2008 but from what I’ve heard it’s pretty close to the same every year – slightly overcast and high 50’s in the morning, warming up to high 60’s / low 70’s and sunny by midday (perfect conditions for growing wine grapes). This is already nice by itself, but what makes it even nicer is that the race is in the middle of July when it’s not always easy to find places to run that aren’t unbearably hot and humid. I’ve done races in April and May that weren’t as mild as this one weather wise so it made for a really enjoyable experience.
The course is amazingly scenic. The name of the race pretty much describes the course: the start line is in Napa, the finish line is in Sonoma and you spend the entire time running through rolling hills and vineyards to get from one to the other. Surprisingly, the course isn’t as hilly as one would think based on the location (at least not compared to some of the nearby races like the San Francisco Marathon anyway) and elevation isn’t an issue either. There are a few uphills and downhills but they’re mostly gradual and with the scenery and mild temperatures, it’s easy to forget that you’re even running on them. Like I mentioned earlier, I PR’d in this race and I trained for it in Chicago where there are hardly any hills at all so they really weren’t much of a factor on race day.
Another thing I like about this course is that it’s only a half marathon – there is no option to choose between a full or a half. This is an interesting distinction that a lot of people don’t always think about but something that I’ve noticed at times is that when there’s a race that has both a full and a half marathon, anyone who signs up for the half ends up walking around at the expo and start line saying “eh I’m just doing the half” when someone asks them which race they’re doing, as if running 13.1 miles is somehow not as big of a deal. In a race like this, there’s no need to ask because everyone is doing the same race. For anyone who really enjoys doing half marathons, if you haven’t done a race like this before, you should really try to find one – knowing that every other runner at the start line has the exact same goal as you creates a completely different dynamic.
There are also plenty of water tables, aid stations, restrooms, and other services available along the course.
The best thing about the race though, like I said, is the post race party, which is basically a several hours long wine tasting fest. The way it works is that in addition to a finisher’s medal, every runner also gets a wine glass when they cross the finish line. Then right on the other side of the finish line is a series of tents with dozens of local wineries offering free samples… along with crackers, cheese, and other snacks. You just bring your finisher’s wine glass around to the various tents and sample whatever you’re interested in. The party lasts throughout the afternoon (so if you want to head back to your hotel and shower and change first, there’s plenty of time) and by then it’s a little warmer out so you can relax in the sun and drink wine or go for a walk around downtown Sonoma (which is a beautiful town) and check out some of the arts and crafts…. or if you’re interested, you can pick your favorite wine and go on a tour of the winery since they’re all local to the area and easy to get to.
A couple quick tips for anyone that’s interested in doing this race:
- Sign up early. This is not a huge race as far as the number of runners that are allowed to participate, but it is a really popular race (mostly for the reasons I mentioned above). Even though the race is in July, registration usually opens in the fall of the year before the race and tends to fill up pretty quickly.
- If you’re planning on flying, there is an airport in Sonoma…. but it’s a small regional airport and it’s probably cheaper and easier from a scheduling standpoint to fly into either San Francisco or San Jose and drive (about 2 hours from either place and it’s a nice scenic drive). That also gives you the opportunity to extend your trip by a couple days and head back down to San Francisco after the race.
- There are a lot of hotels in Napa and Sonoma. In most cases, when I travel for a race, I try to find the closest hotel to either the start or finish line (ideally within walking distance or one that has a shuttle) that also costs the least amount of money. This is one of the few cases where I would say that it actually is worth spending a little extra to stay at one of the boutique hotels that are listed on the race website. Most of the hotels in Napa and Sonoma are just as expensive as the ones on the site and there really aren’t very many hotels that are super close to the start or finish lines anyway, so staying at a spa hotel with ponds and waterfalls and nice artwork and beautiful scenery will just enhance the whole Napa/Sonoma experience.
- The course is point-to-point so picking up your car after the race can be an issue. Unless you’re planning on turning around and running the course in reverse after you finish, you won’t want to park near the start line (and there isn’t any official race parking there anyway). There are a few places to park at various spots along the course but if you’re planning on driving, your best bet is to park near the finish line in Sonoma and take a shuttle bus to the start line so your car will be waiting for you when you finish the race.
- Enjoy – like I said, this was one of my favorite races and I really wouldn’t even consider myself to be a big wine connoisseur (I’m more of a beer guy). The weather, the course and just the atmosphere during and after the race make it an awesome time and you’d be hard pressed to find a better Half Marathon in the middle of July.