Chris Mocko didn’t have the highest of expectations when he ran the Kaiser Permanente Napa Valley Marathon in 2011. He took a very conservative approach to the race, but was able to go about picking off those runners who were ahead of him and win.
“The first year was definitely very much a surprise,” Mocko said.
Mocko returned last year and went out a little bit harder than he wanted, staying with the leaders in the 26.2-mile race from Calistoga to Napa along the Silverado Trail. Again, he won, breaking the finish-line tape at Vintage High School in 2 hours, 24 minutes, and 38 seconds, an improvement of 2 minutes and 24 seconds over his 2011 winning time.
“The second year I came in very fit, very excited to defend my title. And the results paid off,” Mocko said last week. “Last year was definitely very competitive. It was very emotional — the last couple of miles where I was just kind of battling just to get to the line. It was a battle of attrition. The emotions that go into that are pretty fantastic. It’s really awesome to reflect and know how much effort was put into it.”
Mocko, who makes his home in San Francisco, will attempt to ascend the winner’s podium for the third time. He is one of the elite entrants for Sunday’s Napa Valley Marathon, which has a sold-out field of 2,600 runners with the start at 7 a.m. on the Silverado Trail and Rosedale Road in Calistoga. To date, no athlete, man or woman, has won the race three consecutive times. The record for the most wins at NVM is held by Mary Coordt of Elk Grove, who captured the women’s crown four times (1997, 2005, 2009, 2010).
“It’s going to be a game-day decision, which approach I take,” said Mocko, 27, who ran cross country and track at Stanford. “The worst thing I could do is just have regrets finishing the race. I definitely want to give myself a chance. I think just being up front, being near the lead van and the photographers and everything will give me a lot of adrenaline. In terms of fitness, I know I’m not quite where I was last year. But I’m experienced on this course.
“I love marathons. There’s definitely some Napa magic that may come out. I’m excited to give it a chance.”
The NVM is conducted on a fast and scenic point to point course that takes runners south along the Silverado Trail. It’s one of the most firmly established and popular marathons in the U.S., with the course remaining exactly the same since its inaugural running. This year’s race has been selected by the Road Runners Club of America as its National Marathon Championship.
“The size of the race is perfect, for beginner runners or for experienced runners,” said Mocko, who is with the New Balance Silicon Valley Running Club. “The course itself is gorgeous. There’s definitely hills and there’s challenges along the way. But it’s a very doable course, especially for first timers. The support along the route, the finish line festivities, are all just absolutely wonderful.”
Other contenders are Matt Flaherty (Springfield, Ill.), Frank Corrigan (Port Costa, Calif.), Oz Pearlman (New York, N.Y.), Cheyne Inman (Vacaville), and J.K. Withers. The course is certified by USA Track & Field.
Top finishers are expected between 9:15 and 9:30 a.m. The course closes at 1 p.m.
Mocko recorded his marathon personal record of 2:23:40 at the 2011 San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.
Mocko races throughout the year, but it’s the Napa Valley Marathon that he looks forward to the most.
“It’s definitely a magical course,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has been disappointed running along vineyards for 20-something miles. Every time I go up to Napa, I have just amazing memories. Whether I’m first or 40th, I know that I’ll have some memories to take away from it.
“I love this race so much that I want this to become kind of a yearly thing. Twenty years down the road, I want to be able to say that I’ve run this race every single year. It’s that important to me. You have to make sure that you’re doing the stuff that you really enjoy.”
Mocko clearly enjoys distance running and putting in the training for races. Last year, he ran in the Oakland Marathon, Big Sur International Marathon and San Francisco Marathon.
In October, he won the Wine County Half Marathon, which started in Geyserville and finished in Healdsburg, in a time of 1 hour, 10 minutes, 12 seconds.
He ran in his first ultra marathon, the Coastal Trail Runs 24-Hour race, which began on New Year’s Eve, finishing on New Year’s Day. He covered 127.3 miles for the win, a race record. Previously, Mocko had never covered more than 40 miles in a single run.
Each finisher in the Napa Valley race gets a medal.
“I know that I have a very strong base, but I’m not sure if the same fitness level is there,” said Mocko. “So it’s going to be a lot more about just being very strong mentally and staying focused and seeing what happens. Every year it seems like there is a lot of nervous tension going into the race.”
Mocko works at Square, a San Francisco company that makes mobile credit card readers and applications.
Napa Valley Marathon Notebook
• Saturday’s Napa Valley Marathon College, celebrating “Women in Marathoning,” is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Napa Valley Marriott, the host hotel and race headquarters.
Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist, will be on hand for a special NVM panel presentation. Additional panelists include female running pioneers Jacqueline Hansen (1973 women’s Boston Marathon champion), Lorraine Moller (1992 Olympic Games marathon bronze medalist), and Nina Kuscsik (1972 women’s Boston Marathon champion).
The panel presentation will be part of NVM’s annual Marathon College, which includes varied presentations by a faculty composed of respected running authorities and celebrity runners. The Marathon College is free and open to the general public.
• Marathon weekend includes a sports and fitness expo on Friday, from 1 to 6 p.m., and Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Marriott. The expo is free for the general public.
• Entry slots are still available for the companion Kiwanis 5K Fun Run, which starts (8 a.m.) and finishes at Vintage High on marathon morning.
• All proceeds from the Napa Valley Marathon (a non-profit organization) are donated to local charities and schools in the Napa Valley region.
• For more information, visit the marathon’s web site at www.napavalley marathon.org