Disclosures: I paid full-fare for this race and all associated expenses. Yes, I went into this race under-trained which was 100% my own fault. I’m not upset that I took a DNF (despite the 3:14:11 that shows in the race results). I AM pretty salty about some of the apparent mismanagement of the event itself, as well as the blatant lie that was the “3.5 hour course limit.” The TL; DR here is that if you are a slower runner–someone who either plans to walk large segments, is at or near a 16-minute mile pace–and want to do the full distance I absolutely DO NOT recommend this race because your chances of getting to finish are zero.
The ongoing global pandemic rescheduled thousands of races, from local favorites to the iconic Boston Marathon. While this created conflicts for some, it created opportunities for others. When I learned in April that Napa to Sonoma–one of my favorite half marathons, one that in years past sold out promptly–was moved from summer to December, I asked a friend to join me on a December getaway. I last ran this race, then owned by Destination Races (more on that later) in July 2014 and sang its praises in my subsequent blog review. I just knew we’d have a blast based on my past experiences with Destination Races in the past in general, and Napa to Sonoma in particular–gorgeous course, generous 3.5 hour course limit… Yeah, hold that thought.
Napa to Sonoma is Spendy
Let me start by explaining that this is an EXPENSIVE race. My bib was $195. (Compare a pre-sale not-Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon at $65, or the local-to-me Appletree Half at $70-95 depending on when you register.) In order to avoid crowds at the Saturday packet pickup, I also opted to pay $25 to have my bib and shirt mailed to me. (Worthy.) I also paid $19.99 for a photo package from Finisher Pix. (In hindsight, a Bad Idea.) Add a donation to the American Cancer Society (the official charity partner) and a $20.47 Active processing fee (I’m an Active+ member, but they only gave a $10 discount) and I put down $270 before I even booked airfare, a rental car, and lodging.
To be fair, the $195 plus processing fees covers more than many half marathons. In addition to the usual shirt and medal, runners are shuttled to the starting line because this is a point-to-point course. After the race there is a wine tasting festival with live music, and each runner is given a wine glass. (Based on Instagram posts from prior years, it looks like they bought the glasses in bulk a few years ago; the glass we received this year looks just like the one from years past.) This year the fee also included use of a coaching app called Bird, free to all runners. (While I did not make full use of Bird, I imagine I would in the future–but that’s a post for another day.) That said, $195 plus fees is on par with what Disney charged for the 2021 fall half marathon–still very expensive.
What’s the Motiv?
No More Destination Races. Next, I should note that Destination Races (who I knew as the owner/operator of Napa to Sonoma and other runs in wine country) was acquired by Motiv Running. Or perhaps Motiv just bought their races, I don’t know exactly. What I do know is that Motiv Running, in turn, is owned by a big conglomerate named Black Shamrock Partners (formerly known as Consumer Concept Group). I was familiar with Motiv because they began to buy up a bunch of races that had been local to me before I moved from California to Oregon in 2017. All I really knew is that they were a big Denver-based conglomerate of some sort, and based on the rate they were buying up events in California I assumed they had some sort of venture capital or other outside funding. According to this 2018 press release, at that time they had already purchased a bunch of races the company referred to as “investments,” including “the Sydney Marathon, Love Run Philadelphia Half Marathon, Napa-to-Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon, The Surf City Marathon and Half Marathon, The Wildflower and Malibu Triathlons as well as the Denver Oktoberfest.” You can see a list of some of their current “investments” on the Motiv website linked above. (I’m sad to learn they now own Portland’s Shamrock Run.)
In hindsight, I probably should have paid more attention to Motiv between its creation in 2015 and the buying spree they took up during the next two years. (If I had, I might have chosen a different race.) Instead of taking a hard look at the changes to the races, I was wowed by their roster of “content creators.” (The content creation seems to have fallen by the wayside, since there are no articles or commentary on the Motiv website right now.) Initially the company seemed to be all about preserving the “local race” experience–ironic, since it was in fact eating up actual local race companies–but the more recent press releases I found are all extremely corporate “identifying opportunities for growth” and not about presenting the best possible running experience. Priorities noted, Motiv.
Let’s Talk Pre-Race Weekend
Communication prior to the race seemed excellent. Emphasis on the “seemed” part. About ten days prior to the race I received an email with a very clear schedule of events, including information on the on-course amenities (water, nuun, Base gel) and a link to the detailed final participant information (where to park, etc.). The email also included links to pre-order race merchandise and wine developed for the race by Meadowcroft wines.
As I mentioned, I paid to have my packet shipped to me. Communication there was also excellent (I received tracking emails before the packet arrived), and everything arrived in November–plenty of time in advance of race day. Bonus: I got to run my race shirt through the wash.
Ominous Weather! As race day neared, I received multiple emails warning me that the weather forecast was for rain, and advising me to dress in layers, consider bringing a cover-up layer to shed after the start, and to pack dry clothing to change into after the race. At least one email also mentioned the cooler temperatures (race day high temp: approx. 47 degrees). I had planned ahead with layers for race day–long sleeved shirt, quarter-zip, jacket–and plenty of medical tape and Squirrel’s Nut Butter (to prevent blisters on my feet). I also packed a full set of dry clothes, including shoes and socks, for after the race.
Comedy Tonight! The first moment of “oh this is ridiculous” was the night before the race. I went to lay out my race kit and discovered that I had left my bib on my dining room table in Oregon. After putting it there so I could not possibly walk out of the house without seeing it. After planning for weeks to use it as a bookmark in the book I would take for the plane. D’oh! But hey, at that point it was way too late to do anything about it, and I just figured it would all work out.
Race Day: Let’s Start At The Very Beginning.
Parking and Shuttles. I personally thought communication about parking and shuttles was fairly clear, but others may disagree, and it doesn’t seem like Motiv followed through on their shuttle plans properly. In any case, this is a point-to-point course with runner drop-off but NO PARKING at the starting line. As I did in 2014, I chose to park near the finish line and take one of the shuttles to the start. There were three identified parking locations (not including plentiful on-street parking).
It was raining on race morning, as we got up in the dark and made our way from the Air BnB to Sonoma. Sunrise was supposed to be 7:17 a.m., and the last shuttle was supposed to leave at 6:20 a.m. in order to make the 7:00 a.m. start time, so we planned to arrive between 5:45 and 6:00 a.m., aka Ouch O’Clock. I had intended to park at the Sonoma State Historic Park, but the address provided (and which I pumped into Google Maps) did not lead to the parking lot, so I ended up on the street, which was fine. There were shuttles waiting right across the street from us, waiting to transport us to the starting line. Since masks were required on the shuttles–I’m fully vaccinated and have my booster, but I expect races to follow best practices vis a vis preventing COVID-19 transmission–we planned to use the shuttles.
The LOLs Continue! As I got my post-race gear bag out of the car and took out my rain poncho, I realized…it wasn’t a rain poncho at all. I’d somehow managed to pack one rain poncho (the kind you buy at Disney World when it rains on race weekend) and one…shower curtain liner. I still have no idea how a newish, clean shower curtain liner ended up in my closet packed with my rain ponchos, but I just laughed–after leaving my bib at home, I guess anything is possible!
Step Two: The Starting Line
First, The Good. The race begins at the Cuvaison Carneros Winery in Napa. I have mostly good points for the starting area. (1) The bag drop truck was easy to find–you had to walk past it to get to the waiting area–and there were plenty of clear plastic bags, bag tags, and markers available. The area to stuff and mark your bag had one of those square canopies over it so the supplies stayed dry. (2) There was another canopy nearby with coffee and enough cups for everyone. (3) I went to race day packet pickup and explained I’d made a mistake and left my bib at home, and they quickly assigned me a new one. (4) There were plenty of porta-potties.
Now, The Bad. (1) It wasn’t a great idea to leave the paved but lumpy path from the bus to the runner holding area at the winery, up a hill, completely in the dark (no lights at all and with sunrise more than a full hour after the first arrivals). I’m not sure who failed to think that through, but runners did stumble and fall. (2) Since the race organizers had repeatedly emailed the runners to warn us it was going to rain, I thoroughly expected that the race’s starting line would also be prepared for rain, with some dry pre-race accommodations–inside the winery, under some big rental tents, or otherwise a cover to keep runners dry. Nope. I get that you can’t control the weather, but after all of the extensive email advice about dealing with weather I expected the race would also make accommodations of some sort. (3) The speakers on the P.A. system were terrible. Even 10′ away they sounded like an adult character from “Peanuts” talking through a broken Fisher-Price toy. It was difficult to hear and understand the pre-race announcements, to the point where my friend with less race experience could not tell what was going on; I was barely able to piece it together based on the hundreds of races I’ve done. (4) There were a few of those outdoor gas-powered heater-trees (like you see at restaurants) but there were not nearly enough for all of the runners–by the time I arrived, there wasn’t space near enough to get warm. (This was fine by me–I brought plenty of clothing–but distressing to some of the runners who waited more than an hour for the race to start.)
Finally, The Ugly. The published starting time for this race was 7:00 a.m. I heard a garbled announcement that I interpreted as a 15-minute delay, and later heard “7:30 or 7:35” and–based in part on lack of movement back down the hill towards the starting line–assumed that was further delay. I’d left my Coros back in Oregon (charging in my office) so I don’t know what time we moved down towards the starting line but some people had been waiting long enough to need to pee again and with the porta-potties way back up the hill and no indication when the race might really start there was quite a bit of peeing in the vineyards of Cuvaison! As a slowpoke I was near the back, so couldn’t hear anything from the speakers at the starting line itself. Eventually, runners were released in groups–a smart move, to prevent bottlenecks and crowding–with a minute or so between groups. Group 6 (mine) crossed the starting line at 7:42 a.m. but I wasn’t worried since there was a published 3.5 hour time limit and there were PLENTY of people behind me–not to mention those still arriving at the bottom of the hill as shuttles continued to drop off runners after the start. (Listen, I don’t know what the problem was here, but this race has been going on for like 10+ years; to have the shuttles turn into such a cluster was pretty much inexcusable.)
Step Three: It Was A Dark And Cloudy Morning…
The Course is Beautiful. Even in the rain. Due to the point-to-point nature and limited road options there are a few features that most runners find somewhat unfortunate. For example, the course starts on a downhill leaving the winery, turns, and then immediately begins a hill climb. Another example is the transition from well-maintained, flat asphalt to a road made almost entirely of potholes; this transition happens exactly at the point you move from Napa County to Sonoma County (and you can tell because it is spray-painted on the road). Pretty minor annoyances though when you consider how gorgeous the wine country is! Even with grey skies, wrapped in a shower curtain, I loved being out on the course. How often do you get to run on a semi-closed course (the race had half of the road, vehicles had the other half) in such a beautiful place? Sure, I liked it better in the sun we had in July 2014 but I still loved the scenery.
On Course Support Was Solid. The pre-race emails identified the aid stations by mile marker and on a map of the course. In addition, the emails spelled out which aid (water, hydration, gels, bars) would be available where, and the brands, so there was no excuse for arriving unprepared on race day. I knew my tummy liked nuun, but I also brought my Orange Mud pack and filled my bottle with Hydrant. I packed Honey Stinger chews, also friendly to my tummy, for fuel. At mile 8 there were gels, bars, hand warmers, rain ponchos, and other assorted supplies. The hand warmers and rain ponchos would have been a million times more useful at the starting line so I’m not sure what the race director was thinking.
About that 3.5 hour course time limit…it’s a lie. Or at least VERY misleading. The website with the race FAQ states: “The half marathon course limit is 3.5 hours. You must maintain a pace of 16 minutes per mile to finish the race.” If you do the math, this is accurate. As far as my experience of 100+ half marathons has taught me, the course time limit is measured from the time the last runner crosses the starting line. If you’ve run a Run Disney event, you know those last runners as “the balloon ladies,” runners who carry balloons and keep a strict 16 minute pace. Other races use literal “balloon ladies” (the last runner carries balloons), though some just have a final pacer. That is NOT how this race works…
…which I learned when I was swept nearish to Mile 10, around 10:30 a.m. Instead, the 3.5 hours is measured from the published start time for the race–not even when the first runner starts! So the 3.5 hours began to run about 45 minutes before I did. The poor runners who got stuck in whatever problem the shuttles had? Some of them did not start until 8:00 a.m.!
Again, I knew I wasn’t properly trained for this race (all on me, 0% on Bird), and it was cold and wet. (A pre-race email advised, “Respect your limits. Cold temperatures restrict blood flow, which can cause muscles to contract and even cramp.”) According to the one timing mat (okay, bib scanner thingy) I was a 17:00/mile at the 10k mark–definitely behind pace, but only by 6 minutes at that point. I passed mile 8 and the aid station and was well into mile 9 when a truck pulled up and a race official told us that they “have to get the runners off the course by 10:30” and so the shuttle bus behind us was going to pick us up and “bump us forward.” Since I know how much work goes into planning a race and how stressful race day can be, I will not give a race official any smack talk on race day. So I got on the bus.
There were already a dozen runners on board. We picked up another dozen as we passed the markers for mile 10 and 11. Frankly, at that point I was disappointed–I paid $195 and had certainly not had 3.5 hours on the course–but the weather was crap and I was developing a weird, new blister in an inexplicably puzzling location on my right foot, plus again with the not giving smack to the race officials–but I determined that I’d have a good time anyway. I made new friends on the sag wagon and we all cheered each time a new person boarded.
Honestly I don’t know if they ever intended to “bump us forward” or if that was a lie too (given I boarded around 10:30, which appears to have been the actual course cut-off, 3.5 hours from the published start) but they took us all the way to the finish area. The bus dropped us off one block from the finish line (which we all then ran across and yes I accepted a medal, and no, I’m not adding this to my Half Fanatics record since I did not finish). My friend Melissa later told me that after she crossed the 12 mile marker she heard there was a head-on collision at the intersection just before that, which may explain why we were sent to the finish line. Or maybe not? The starting line was such a mess I’d believe almost anything.
Step Four: The Finish Line
Finish Line Food Was NomNom. I picked up a bottle of Oxigen water (the one time I drink bottled water because that’s all they had), a banana, Bob’s Red Mill peanut butter coconut bar, squeezable apple sauce pouch, and a bag of Sonoma Creamery cheese “crackers.” Despite the encouragement to “take as much as you want” I knew the people who were not scooped up by the sag wagon would also want snacks, so I limited my grab to one of each. I saw the nuun truck was nearby with four flavors on tap and made a note to head back. Then I went to find the gear check truck, which was all the way across the entire park–literally as far from the finish line and chute as possible.
Naively, I Expected A Changing Tent. In every race where I’ve been advised to pack dry post-race gear, there’s been a changing tent. Most races do not have such a thing, so why did I expect one here? Motiv told me to! For example, the December 7th email contained the following advice: “Check some warm gear. Be prepared for outdoor conditions at Cuvaison Winery before the race starts. Wear your warm clothes to the start and then check them at gear check, which closes at 6:45am. We’ll transport your gear check bag to the finish line so you can get out of wet clothes immediately after the race. It’s important to change the clothing closest to your body to stay warm and dry. Plus you’ll have a much better time at the post race wine festival.” Also this: “Make sure you change out of cold or wet clothes before attending the wine festival.” This seems to imply there will be a place to change clothes, no? Actually, NO. There was no place to change clothing. No tent, shelter, building, or other area to change clothes. I suppose I could have stood in the rain and changed outside in the park, but then I didn’t want to get arrested. So I enjoyed the post-race wine festival in my wet racing duds, shower curtain, and an added heat sheet.
Wine Festival! In July 2014, the wineries were distributed towards the edges of the downtown Sonoma plaza/park. This ensured that the line for one winery didn’t impede traffic flow. This time, all of the wineries were crammed into the center of the plaza. Since it was still raining, and there were zero other covered places to stand, people tended to jam themselves under the little tents that had the wine. While there were some larger wineries, I was thrilled to see smaller winemakers present as well. I did go back to get some more nuun, and I also took the opportunity to try the other Sonoma Creamery cheese crisps. Michelob Ultra was in a beer tent and since I dislike beer I wasn’t going to go there until I saw that Michelob Ultra now makes hard seltzer. Surprise! It is actually delicious. I tried two flavors (because I’d also been sipping wine and I had a brief but winding drive back) and the spicy pineapple is my favorite. I’m looking forward to finding this locally.
The only completely covered place that wasn’t crowded to the gills was the merch tent. Pre-orders were ready and waiting for pickup. I scored some new goodr, which I clearly needed because I only have like 20 pair. It was still raining, I was still wet, and after grabbing a cup of coffee we headed to Sonoma’s Best for a grab-and-go breakfast (mocha and an egger) before heading home to showers, a nap, and the Air BnB’s hot tub!
What Others Said
The following are direct quotes from the race’s Facebook page, posted in response to a race-day announcement that the company knew about the delay. I have used the initials of the names as used on Facebook (which may or may not be a person’s legal name). So far, there are no response from the race.
- “Really disappointed in this race. Reeked of greed with no regard for the safety and well-being of the runners. Between the poor transportation, late start leaving underdressed runners standing in the cold rain for an hour waiting to start, and having cars driving both ways on the course, you’re lucky someone didn’t get seriously hurt. And a $200 ticket price? No thanks. Never again and will never recommend to anyone.” B.J.
- In response to B.J., above, J.G. wrote: “well said. A total slap in the face.”
- “Last shuttle arrived at 8 am to start after waiting an hour in the rain. Just to be told “run that way” no warm up no excitement no start line experience.. Doomed to get picked up by a van to drive us to the finish because “despite the late start” they had to open the roads. I feel cheated out of what should have been a great experience.” J.P.
- “Ran this one in 2017. Enjoyed my time there, but the race was not well-managed. Would not recommend.” A.T.B.
- “This was such a disorganized mess of a race. No lighting on the walk to the top of the hill waiting area. Tripped on a wire the guy was installing at the starting line as I had to use phone flashlight to try and see. Delayed start waiting 30+ min in the cold after having warmed up AND my checked bag was lost. I love this race but this was just too much. Hoping my bag gets found!!!!” W.J.
- “This is the worst company – all they really care about is signing you up for next year! They actually pretended there was NO wetgear concern at all[.]” J.D.
- “Stood in the cold rain for 30 minutes trying to get a shuttle… now the shuttle driver is blasting the A/C… is this a joke? I’ve run many many races… so far this one is a double thumbs down[.]” J.G.
- Pre-race: Good communication, timely packet mailing. Misleading published start time and course limit. Misleading statements about changing clothes after the race.
- Race Day, starting line: The shuttles were inexplicably a hot mess. Do not wait until the last shuttle, please. If you do, don’t demand a late start. It is obnoxious. If it rains, expect to get soaking wet at the start, and possibly stand around for an hour in the rain–plan ahead for this.
- Race Day, post-start: Do not believe the published course limit. You absolutely do NOT have a full 3.5 hours unless the race starts on time AND you are the first across the starting line.
- Course: Beautiful! Lovely! Amazing!
- Post-Race Festival: Have fun!
- I’m not sorry I went to this race, but this will be my last year running it. The experience doesn’t justify the cost for me (and I can run other races and enjoy wine country).