Sonoma is ground zero for fitness with annual Napa to Sonoma Half Marathon

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Early Sunday morning, July 21, about 4,000 men and women of all ages will gather in their skivvies at sunrise at Napa’s Cuivaison Winery, double-tie their shoelaces and stash their energy snacks in whatever locations they have available, then hit the trail for the annual Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon.

But the party starts the day before, as the 5k Rosé will be held on Saturday – opening the Plaza to a full day of health, fitness, food and music even before the main event.

The 16-year-old race, one of the oldest and most successful half marathons in America, is once again being produced by Motiv Sports, who first partnered with then took over from founding operator Destination Races.

The race is known not only for its scenic route through vineyards and wetlands, and the epic finish at the historic Sonoma Plaza, but its family-friendly diversity. More than half, 70 percent, of the participants are women, and for about 20 percent it will be their first long race.

“This is a good entry point for people who want to get into running – it’s a race people have heard about from their friends,” said Dan Cruz of Motiv, a marathon runner himself. “And women are really driving a lot of participation in these sports, like the World Cup we just saw. Having a healthy active lifestyle is important to them.”

It’s also a prime destination race – and the fact that a “girls weekend” can include not only wine and fine food but a fitness challenge makes women “a big driver for this event,” said Cruz.

Different this year is that the 5k Rosé race will be held separately, on Saturday, July 20, on a course that begins and ends at the Plaza. The shorter “fun run” usually attracts another 1,000 runners. It begins at 8 a.m., heading out East Spain Street to 4th Street East, looping through east Sonoma up Gehricke Road and back to the Plaza, via Brazil Street and the Sonoma Bike Path.

Applications are still being accepted for this race as of press time, but it’s expected to be a full chute when the starting horn goes off. Registration for the half marathon filled up months ago.

Following the Saturday morning race the Plaza will be open for a free Health and Fitness Expo, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sports-related sponsors will provide samples and products, from granola bars to sweat-wicking paraphernalia, and live entertainment will be provided by Briget Boyle, Bray and the Dawdlers at Grinstead Amphitheatre.

The longer, world-class Wine Country Half Marathon begins at 7 a.m. on Sunday, and race officials think the fastest runners will complete the 13.1 mile route will be in a little over an hour when they arrive at the finish line at Sonoma Plaza. Last year’s winning time was a brisk one hour, 10 minutes (1:10.03) from Sean Gildea of Dana Point.

The route begins at Napa’s Cuivaison and heads south on Duhig Road, over “Butt Burner Hill” then down through Carneros to take a right at Ramal Road at about Mile 3. It crosses Highway 121 (Fremont Drive) on Burndale at about the halfway mark, winds through the east valley vineyards to Denmark, Seventh Street East and finally East Napa, to end at the Plaza.

True to form, Sunday’s finish line will turn into a party, the annual Wine Tasting Festival, where runners can relax to enjoy wine from more than 35 wineries, enjoy food truck fare, explore exhibits and discounts from local businesses, compare finish times and brag about their fitness to friends and family.

The Keller Sisters, a San Francisco-based “Americana” band, will provide the music from the Grinstead stage from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. “They own the kind of close harmonies and vocal timbre that only siblings can share,” says local music journalist Tim Curley.

This year’s competitors will once again come from 50 states and 15 countries. Among them will be Glen Ellen’s John Litzenberg, the cross country coach at Sonoma Valley High, who asserts he’s run in every half marathon since its inception in 2004. “It has become an annual tradition for me since its inception in 2003, and I was elected into the race’s Hall of Fame last year,” said Litzenberg. His time in 2018 was 1:18.33, and he’s always placed high in his age class (he’s 49).

The other inductee last year was Janet Cain, 68, who has run the race 13 times. Both were chosen for the race’s Hall of Fame because they had competed in every or almost every run since the event started 16 years ago.

The American Cancer Society has joined seven other charities as a national featured charity partner this year, as part of its DetermiNation program. Charities have raised over $25 million for their causes through the Napa to Sonoma Half Marathon over the history of the event.

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