Race Recap: Virginia Wine Country Half-Marathon

After having run so many races in such a short amount of time, this was one of those races that I didn’t care about racing, but I also couldn’t let go of wanting to do well either. I think it’s safe to say that I have race fatigue. It’s hard for me to be behind a starting line and not take a race seriously, so running four half-marathons, five 5Ks, and a 10-miler in two months is tiring, especially when I’ve got a knot in my calf that is plaguing me again. I’m partially trying not to make it worse right before marathon training begins and partially trying to maintain a minimum weekly base mileage because, in about two weeks, I’ll start running 25 miles a week at least. So, for this race, I didn’t want to put myself through a hard race that I ultimately didn’t “care” about. But I am willing to admit that it’s time to put racing on hold for awhile.

That’s my preface because, to be honest, I didn’t have a great attitude about this race. I noticed that, when it gets hard, instead of embracing it as an opportunity to grow and prove myself wrong, I blame the race for being hard and then I get mad because it’s “the race’s fault” for keeping me from getting a personal best time. That may be true in some cases (as I will get into below, this race had a lot of challenges that didn’t make it ripe for a PR), but for this race, I played the victim. Isn’t that stupid?? I mean, no one forced me to do this. I signed up for it myself and here I was, mad at the race for being hard. It’s supposed to be hard! It’s a half-marathon, and running hurts.

At the same time, even at the momentary expense of my integrity, I don’t want to invalidate those feelings because I run these races all of the time. If this was a language I was training to speak, I would be fluent by now. It’s annoying to put in so much work and not get progress. So, yeah, it’s frustrating that I haven’t beat my own record for this distance after trying so many times. It’s frustrating to have a misalignment problem that hasn’t gone away with squats and planks and barre exercises and that showed up after only three speed work sessions that I should be a pro at running by now.  I’ve seen my paces go back up again, and it feels like a lie to “be okay” with them and tell myself that “this is where I am right now as a runner.” But, one of the hardest things to keep in mind about being a runner, is that it’s a constant struggle between mind and body.

I have one more race– the Baltimore 10-Miler, which is my long run of the first week of marathon training and part 2 of the King Crab Challenge. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to partake in some magnificent race experiences this year, but for now, it’s time to hang up my racing shoes and start looking ahead to training.

Virginia Wine Country Half-Marathon 

When I first heard about the Virginia Wine Country Half-Marathon, I literally thought it was a joke. Not only because, in my experience, Virginia wine is still, shall we say, evolving as an industry. But I had never heard of this race before in my years living and running in DC and, considering how much wine our nation’s capital consumes, I was certain this would have made greater waves in the running circles here. This race is only about 5 years old and, in looking up some other race recaps before deciding to register, it sounds like the company who hosts the event, Destination Races, has made some major improvements along the way. So, back in February when my friend Katy decided this would be her first half-marathon, I decided to register, too. I have to admit, the idea of running through sunny, summery farmland was enticing after a rough winter.

Virginia Wine Country Half-Marathon course elevation (Gain: 483 feet; Loss: 485 feet; Max: 618 feet)
Virginia Wine Country Half-Marathon course elevation (Gain: 483 feet; Loss: 485 feet; Max: 618 feet)

One downside that I’ll leave here is that this race is expensive for a half-marathon. I paid about $115 for the race, plus another $25 for the post-race wine and music festival (comparable price for that–you get a wine glass). The field was about 2,500 runners, so it’s mid-siz to small and it winds through the countryside. That price feels a little high for the setting and base, considering the course was not blocked off for traffic and the official timekeeper did not have a record of my crossing the finish line. **

Expo

My friend Jodi (who was also running the race with me and Katy) and I went out to the Landsdowne Resort in  Leesburg, Virginia (about 45 minutes from DC) to pick up our packets and attend the race expo. The race does give local options for packet pickup for those who don’t have a car to get to Leesburg, and I honestly wish I had taken them. For one thing, I had to take a day off work to go (but also do other stuff), because I figured it’d be a great place to stock up on summer training merchandise. I was wrong. The race expo was probably smaller than the expo at the Frederick Running Festival. And this was a corporate race event. Newton Running was there, Camelback (who helped with course hydration), Sols shoe inserts (who gave free massages at the post-race festival to those lucky enough to get a spot), Krave jerky, Red Fox cordless earphones, and Potomac River Running with a small rack of clearance apparel (at nearly half off, but most of it was winter running items and there was no place to try on what I needed most: pants). Lucid Photography supplied the course photos, and their deal was killer: all races photos for $19.99. The race swag (which included wine accessories) seemed pretty good, but the inventory by 3PM was sparse. I usually try to get a t-shirt because I plan to use my official race shirts to make a t-shirt quilt, but there were very few in my size left. Jodi and I walked away with mugs that actually seemed really cozy at second thought and we were fine with them. But for those who didn’t attend the expo, that was the right call. You didn’t miss much, and the same vendors were at the post-race festival.

Race Morning

For a 7AM start time, Jodi, Katy, and I agreed (painfully) that leaving DC by 5AM would be our best call. The race warned us numerous times about traffic getting to the wineries, so we didn’t want to be late. For those who run it in 2016, this is no joke: people were still driving in at 6:57AM. The race start was moved to 7:05AM to accommodate for stragglers. Getting there early was a great call: we parked in a field right next to the winery, after Jodi took some back roads to come in from the north that had Katy and I convinced we were lost, and we had plenty of time to hydrate, eat, and get race ready before the start. We even had time to grab a few photos while we waited in line for the john (of which, there were only about 4 at the race entrance but many more at the start line). Also, the weather was perfect at the start (key words: at the start). Foggy and humid, but cool. For a day that was expected to climb into the very sunny 90’s, this was more than a welcomed forecast.

Once we got in line at the start, we were feeling ready to go. I had no idea what this race would look like for me, but I decided I would just try my best and go from there. Katy and Jodi, who weren’t even sure if they could finish and had decided to walk instead, stayed at the back of the line while I made my way to the front. It turns out I should have stayed with them. They finished close to 3 hours and had a LOT of fun together. In retrospect, I felt like, if I had just let go of the fact that I wasn’t going to get a PR with this race and that I’d likely end up with a time I couldn’t feel proud about, I should let it all go and have fun. After all, I finished the Disneyland Half-Marathon in 2:45 because I just wanted to have fun instead. Like I said, it’s hard for me to get behind a start line and not take a race seriously. Perhaps it’s sheer optimism or pride, and Katy and Jodi both understood that I wanted to run well, but I do wish I had been more willing to let go and really have fun. If there was ever a race to do that, this was it.

Chilled wine and bucket atop the start line. Cute!
Chilled wine and bucket atop the start line. Cute!

The Race

The race started off on gravel roads with a slight bottleneck at the beginning. Usually, I get mad about that because this is where I set my pace for the race. That’s not a good strategy though: it’s always better to ease into things after the first mile. But I was in a good mood at the start with my leg not hurting and being in the moment. I love running races, and I was doing what I love! But almost right away, I was nervous about my pace endurance. I didn’t know if I’d be able to maintain my mid-9:00’s pace for the whole race. I tried to remind myself, this was how I started running all my races this year, and more often than not, I surprised myself. I then tried to zone out and enjoy the race.

By the third mile, I was famished. I felt ready to walk. I wanted to walk. I should mention here that this part had the most down-hills of the entire race. By mile 4, I was a hot mess. Literally. The cool morning had dissipated and the mugginess was sinking in as I held my pace steady. I was breathing hard– another runner heard me as I came up on her left side. That look sort of affirmed to me what I’d been thinking to myself: it was too early in the race to be breathing that hard. More importantly, though, I was so hot I wanted to stop. My watermelon Nuun was warm in my hand. There was no breeze. I felt fine, health wise; I was just dying for cool relief. At the next water station, I grabbed two cups of water. I drank one and splashed myself with the other. That did it! Suddenly, I was awake, cool, and alert. I finished that mile strong and thought that perhaps, the next 9 miles wouldn’t be so bad. Also, on mile 4, a sheriff’s motorcycle came from behind the running field on the left side of the road to escort a pickup truck driving through. I found that to be really annoying. Thanks for the notice? I didn’t read anywhere that cars would be driving along the course and from behind, no doubt. Also, way to break our concentration. Remember when I said I thought this race was a little expensive for a country road course? That’s partially why.

Mr. Incredible riding on his bike playing tunes and giving high-fives!
Mr. Incredible riding on his bike playing tunes and giving high-fives!

At the back end of mile 5, the course entered a dirt road with rocks the size of paperweights sprinkled all over them. It was like that until about mile 9.25. If the course was beautiful anywhere in that stretch, I wouldn’t have known because I spent the entire time looking down to make sure I wasn’t going to roll an ankle. I did, of course, roll my ankles several times, even as I tried to run on the flat tire tracks. My pace also dropped from the low to mid-9:00’s to up about another minute slower. Oh, and it was pretty much all uphill from there. Uphill on rocky dirt roads. You read that right. Oh, and in a forest where the gnats and bugs multiplied. So, for about 3 and some change miles, expect to be looking down at the road so as not to step on a boulder and waving bugs away from your face. I was already pretty tired and cranky, and this part of the race sent me over the edge. Even as we were just rounding Hiddencroft Winery at mile 6 where they had cups of white wine ready for us runners. Yes, I took some. I can’t decide if that was a good decision or not– you can imagine, almost right away, I felt like I wanted to hurl. When in Rome?

I stopped for white wine at mile 6!
I stopped for white wine at mile 6!

As I mentioned before, I was already in a crabby mood. I’d given up on running the whole thing and took frequent walk breaks, mostly going uphill. I tried not to care, but I just knew my race time wouldn’t be great today. I hated being mad about it. This was not the attitude that nearly got me a PR at the Virginia Beach Shamrock Half-Marathon two months earlier on a course that took all of my mental energy to get through. But all I wanted was to be done. I was tired. Bored. Thirsty. Sick of rocks and hills. Splashing water on myself helped keep me cool, but I was drenched in sweat and uncomfortable. The cool morning was not cool anymore. Everyone, I noticed, was soaked very early in the race. The great thing was that the sun wasn’t out. I hate to imagine what kind of race I’d have run if it was, given how irritated I was now. I tried as hard as I could to just enjoy the scenery instead, and it was amazing. I tried to make it fun by snapping a few selfies— something I don’t usually do in races because I’m always trying to race them. I tried to just talk myself down from my bad attitude. But it was definitely a moment-to-moment battle.

I don’t know when the rain came, but it did. I think it was around mile 10. I had just splashed water on myself, still surprised at the shock every time I did. My paces had crept down into the lower 10’s, and I was finally back on concrete road, feeling feeble from the graveled portion. And then I felt rain on my face. Again. And again. The runners nearby turned to each other an asked if that was rain. It was. For about half a mile or so, the rain fell deliciously. It felt better than crossing the finish line feels to have rain coming down at that moment. It took away the bugs, it gave me back my badass runner feeling, it cooled me off. It was exactly what we all needed. That was my favorite part of the race.

During the final mile, I stopped early on to walk uphill– a strategic move that would conserve enough energy to barrel through the last half mile. Usually, I love the last mile, but I’d stopped caring long ago. And then the pacers for a 2:15 passed me. My first thought was shit!! I can’t have a 2:15 finish!! My worst time (besides the Disneyland Half-Marathon 2013, in which I stopped for character pictures) was the Lincoln National Guard Half-Marathon in May 2014, and I’m still disappointed with that time (even though I say in my recap that I’m proud; I’m lying). Having a time that “bad” again would crush me. So, I knew I had no choice but to keep up with them for .85 miles, even as I was breathing panicky and my legs were heavy. The finish line literally did feel like more than a mile away. I could hear the announcer, but it just looked far off. I was ahead of the pacers, but I knew if I stopped and slowed down, they’d have me beat. I just…I couldn’t let it happen. Even if what I would consider to be a “good” time for me was long gone, I had to go get the best time I could now. When I crossed the finish line, I was running an 8:48 pace– the pace I would have needed to PR on that course. A pace I very nearly beat twice this year running two half-marathons. And it felt hard. The clock said 2:14:39 as I crossed I was crushed. Not a good race for me. Not what I wanted.

The last mile
The last mile

Glad I was done, yes. It was my 13th half-marathon. But I was mad at myself for trying when I knew I couldn’t try my best.

Wine and Music Festival

I think the reason they have alcohol at post-race events is so everyone who didn’t do as well as they wanted can drink away their irritation. Or not, but that was my theory about today’s wine festival. The race took place at the Doukenie Winery in Purcellville, which I had never been to before. It’s spectacular– I have no excuse for not having come here before. The winery is set right against the mountains which stayed the same blue-green color all afternoon. The property looks like it was once a farm or perhaps was never one but is based on a farm theme. A silo stood in the middle of rows of grape vines. Even being from Nebraska, I’d never taken more photos of a silo! There was a pond with bridges and landscaping. It was so beautiful.

Once Katy and Jodi finished, we grabbed our wine glasses and stretched, and then made our way over to the party. The sun was out by now, and it was really hot. We got in line for a winery that was serving sangria, but this is where the annoying part about the wine festival started. There were so many people packed in a tiny space with huge lines for every winery, people who were just not paying attention to the line or stood at the booth forever or came back for seconds at the booth instead of going back to the end of the line, or were just so confused they cut in line. It took awhile to get through each line when really, all we were there for, was to drink, not taste wine. While I loved the wine I did try, like the Tarara Winery Chardonnay and Hillsboro’s White Merlot (enough to maybe change my mind about Virginia wine!), I’d have preferred not to stand in line with 45 other people for 30 minutes in the hot sun to get a tasting size pour of something and then have to knock it back quickly so as to be courteous to the people behind us who, I’m sure, were probably annoyed, too. What would I have preferred? Well, if the winery had opened up the entire property to us all so we could spread out and not be crammed in one little place and had the vendors set up offering full bottles or carafes of wine for us to enjoy in the grass at our own leisure. Katy, Jodi, and I were familiar with a lot of the wineries there, so we were happy with not sampling wine and just drinking it and enjoying ourselves on our own terms instead. Not to mention, standing on your feet after having run a half-marathon was the biggest reason why we three left before trying every vendor there. My recommendation? Pick one line, buy a bottle or glass of whatever you like best, take your chances. You can always go back for more.

Do I sound like I am complaining? I sort of am, but then again, I’m also not the kind of person who likes big crowd events. I prefer the more intimate setting of an actual wine tasting and the slow buzz that comes with it, not to mention picnic foods. Maybe running doesn’t pair well with wine (sorry not sorry). However, I have to give a shout-out to the free, all-you-can-eat farm fresh strawberries at every table. Literally, that was like a heaven-sent snack. Every time a basket of strawberries emptied, someone was right there with another basket. And they tasted juicy, sweet, and like summer. Perfect touch!

My Recommendation

Virginia Wine Country Half-Marathon Medal
Virginia Wine Country Half-Marathon Medal

Would I run this race again? Honestly, probably not. Even when trying to be fair and account for the fact that I had a tough time with this race personally, I don’t think I’ll be back for another Destination Race, at least in Virginia, unless my friends want a repeat. The course was hard for me, yes, because I don’t know any gravel roads around here to practice running on. The bugs were also too much for me. The wine festival was fun, even with the minor crowd rage that I had, having some wine at the end of a half-marathon is pretty awesome. You have to do it the right way– get a glass or a bottle to enjoy on your own time, then go back. The medal, for me, was a minor let down. I’m not a fan of “functional” race medals– you can see in the photo that it has a corkscrew, bottle stopper, and beer bottle opener. I will probably literally never use those, even if they are obvious choices for a wine-themed half-marathon. I’m happy that I did run this race, though. I wish my personal race experience had gone the way I wanted it to, but that can’t be all of them. Even though I wouldn’t run it again, I’d still recommend it to anyone who wants to try it. The course is beautiful and peaceful (which may also be due to the fact that there were very few spectators), the wine glasses are classy, and the logistics were relatively well-run. Destination Races did a good job making sure runners had transportation to and from DC on race day (even though those options will add to the price of your registration) and the volunteers that I did run into were very helpful. All of that makes this race at least worth the try.

As for me, this race gave me a lot to think about as far as why I felt the way I did when I was running. I get to process the emotions I had about not being able to do well and why and channel it into marathon training. I’m sure I will figure things out. For now, I am embracing the opportunity to learn about myself. I’ve seen how I handle tough situations– sometimes I have pushed through; other times I break down. Not every race and not every run is going to be perfect, and that’s okay. But like life itself, it’s not what you get that makes the difference: it’s how you handle it.

**Update: Bad to the Bone, which was the official race timekeeper, did not have a record of my official finish time. I reached out to them for correction, and received an immediate response.**

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4 thoughts on “Race Recap: Virginia Wine Country Half-Marathon

  1. Ugh sorry to hear about your race experience. That is a pain you had to pay the extra $25 for the wine glass (I think I read they had to do that b/c of VA laws or something). I ran the Healdsburg Half Marathon in California and it was wonderful (October Cali weather is nice) and the medal was much nicer/traditional then…although I was not a fan of the shirt. I was considering this race for the future…but maybe not after reading similar reviews year after year. I would have to agree with you the medal is not very nice. Congrats on finishing though!

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