Over the last four decades, the Napa Valley Marathon has become more than just a race. It brings thousands of runners and spectators to the Valley every year in the spring, at a time when the tourist industry is usually slow. The race helps bring attention and prestige to Napa County and acknowledges our position as one of the country’s most scenic and desirable destinations.The race is routinely picked as one of the best marathons by running-related media, most recently by Forbes Travel Guide, which included it in the list of “13 Top Marathons Worth Traveling For In 2018,” joining events in Tokyo, Rome, London, Boston and New York.
“When the gun goes off for the 40th annual running of this prestigious Napa event, expect to see stars — literally,” the guide wrote of the March 4 race. “Joan Benoit Samuelson, two-time Boston Marathon winner and gold medalist of the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984, will be the featured runner in this 3,000-person race that will weave its way through Wine Country.”
The Road Runners Club of America has recognized the Napa Valley race as one of its National Marathon Championships events.
“There is no better race than the Kaiser Permanent Napa Valley Marathon, celebrating its 40th running, to help kick off the 60th anniversary of the RRCA Championship Event series,” said Jean Knaack, executive director of the RRCA, which hosted its first championship event in 1958.
The race has also become an institution in the community. It attracts thousands of volunteers who help organize the event, support the runners on the course, and clean up afterwards. Although the race runs on a modest budget, it has donated about $71,000 over the years to scholarships at high schools in the county.
“Since the beginning of the Napa Valley Marathon, giving back to our community has been a guiding principle of the board,” President Richard Benyo said in announcing the 2017 awards to 10 students. “Over the years, youngsters who have volunteered to help during race weekend, and who are in good standing in their respective schools, have received support to continue their education. We believe that in this way, we can demonstrate the values we try to impart to our runners.”
More than two decade ago, the race attracted the attention of the health care giant Kaiser Permanente. At first, the organization provided medical personnel to be on hand to assist runners along the course. By 2006, however, Kaiser had come to see the race as something bigger – a forum to promote the health benefits of running, and of exercise in general. Since that year, Kaiser has been the main, or “presenting,” sponsor of the event. Kaiser and the staff and board of the marathon are now deeply intertwined and the formal name of the race is the “Kaiser Permanente Napa Valley Marathon.”
The editorial board met recently with race organizers, including staff from Kaiser. They were rightly proud and excited by the way the marathon has grown over the years, and by the place it has come to occupy in the community.
But they told us an interesting and surprising thing: the world of marathons is changing rapidly, so the race will probably have to evolve with it.
The marathon running community is aging, they say, with most participants in their 30s or early 40s. Younger runners are gravitating toward different kinds of events – either shorter 5ks and half marathons or the longer, more grueling ultra-marathons, which offer courses from 31 miles up even to 100 miles.
The marathon market is also well saturated. As the Forbes Travel Guide lists suggests, there are many scenic and high-profile events around the world for runners to choose from, and there is also a generous supply of smaller and more obscure marathons to join.
It’s not yet clear what the Napa Valley Marathon may look like on its 50th or 80th running, organizers told us, though they seemed confident in their ability to weather the changes in running culture. Already the race features a companion 5k for more casual runners. The organization is putting more effort into social media to attract younger runners still interested in the traditional 26-mile course. The prestige of Napa Valley and the opportunity for a premium wine experience while they’re here likely gives our marathon an advantage in reaching out to new runners in a competitive market.
We congratulate the marathon, its organizers, volunteers and sponsors for 40 years of helping to make the Napa Valley the special place it is. And we look forward to many more annual runnings of this iconic race.