It was the birth of the Napa Valley’s newest running event — and, at the same time, perhaps the wine country’s biggest women’s weekend out in recent memory.
From preteens to seasoned road racers to grandmothers — and a few men sprinkled into the field — an estimated 5,000 runners gathered Sunday morning for the inaugural Napa Valley Women’s Half Marathon and 5K, on a course that led the heavily female field through downtown and many of its runners north of the city past the valley’s famed vineyards.
As the lights of downtown and Copia still twinkled before the half marathon’s 7:30 a.m. start, the mass of waiting runners stretched down much of McKinstry Street in the Oxbow Commons, the starting and ending point for the event.
With a signal, the competitors hit the pavement on a path over the First Street bridge into downtown and down the Third Street bridge back across the Napa River before heading east. While the 5-kilometer runners looped Alta Heights, others took on the full 13.1-mile distance into Coombsville, north on First and Vichy Avenues, and back into town again on the Silverado Trail, passing through the south end of the county’s vineyard corridor.
Joanna Standfield had made the trip to Napa as a steppingstone to a much larger goal — the Boston Marathon, in which the Castro Valley resident will compete April 15. But the experience of Sunday’s race had her planning a return visit for 2020.
“It’s one of the best courses I’ve run,” she said back at the Oxbow Commons after completing the half marathon in one hour, 38 minutes and 30 seconds, good for 36th place. “It’s got the gentle rolling hills, which I like, it’s got variety and it’s got great weather. Yes, definitely I’ll be back next year.”
The Napa half marathon is the creation of Bill Burke, a longtime promoter of road race and triathlon events who operates Premier Event Management out of New Orleans. Premier announced the race’s debut in March 2018, adding the Napa run to a slate of similarly female-focused 13.1-mile events in the Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. areas.
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While saying the creation of a women’s running circuit has nothing to do with political considerations, Burke described his goal as “empowering women to race by themselves without a bunch of guys stealing the spotlight.”
“Four years ago, my wife told me ‘I think you can do running event for women, because women like to do things with other women,’” he said Wednesday. “Women like to do things with other women without a bunch of guys involved.”
Sunday’s race took place three weeks after the wine country’s long-established running event, the Napa Valley Marathon, which has been staged from Calistoga to Napa for four decades. But Burke predicted that trends among young and old athletes alike will favor a shorter event than a full 26.2-mile run.
“I did this because 65 percent of half marathon finishers are women, so I thought, ‘Why not have a race just for women? And that’s really how this race came about,” he said, pointing to the Napa marathon’s addition of a half-length race earlier this month. “The population is aging, and millennials are not participating in long-distance marathon events. I’d say 13.1 miles has been the optimal distance for the last five to ten years.”
A road race gathering thousands of women together was an ideal time for mother-daughter bonding for competitors like Terri and Nina Robinson, who were among several dozen runners to fly into the Bay Area from Washington, D.C. for the event.
“It gives a chance to hang out, to do what we like to do together, which is run — plus it’s Napa,” said Terri Robinson as she, Nina and numerous others readied themselves near the starting line on McKinstry Street. “There’s a lot of camaraderie, women from everywhere getting the chance to be together, and just be girls.”
Race organizers reported entrants coming to Napa from all 50 states as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, France and Switzerland, among other nations.