My First Half Marathon in Sonoma Wine Country

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The more time we spend travelling, the more travel becomes the norm. To continue to grow we have to find new challenges, try things that scare us, that we never thought we were capable of.

I’ve written before about discovering a passion for running on our travels, as a way to test myself mentally and physically, and to explore new places. I felt so good after completing my first 10k run in Thailand last Christmas that I set myself the goal of running a half marathon in 2014. Last month I did just that. I ran it faster than I expected. And I loved it.


I managed the 10K without a training programme, but to run the daunting 13.1 miles I needed more guidance. I followed the Hal Higdon Novice 2 training programme which consists of four runs a week for 12 weeks. It helped to take the guesswork out of the training and during difficult moments I reminded myself that if thousands of others have successfully completed races by following Hal’s advice, I could too.

The start of the programme was the hardest. The heat and humidity of Southeast Asia’s hot season had taken its toll, and I hadn’t been running as often or as far as usual. In the first week of training I couldn’t even run for 3 miles without walking; only a few months before that would have been easy for me.

Running 13.1 miles seemed impossible and I didn’t sign up to any of the California half marathons I’d researched; I had no faith that it was achievable.

It didn’t help that I started the training during our challenging housesit on a farm in the Alpujarran mountains in Spain. The farm work itself was physically demanding, and we were also horse riding three times a week. I was running on rocky trails and I tripped and fell a couple of times, further knocking my confidence and leaving me with bruises and scrapes. I carried on—slowly.

My first half marathon- training in Spain
Running with four dogs during our housesit in the Alpujarran mountains in Spain

Despite the initial challenges I continued with the programme, trying to trust that it would get me to the 13.1 miles. Things improved once we left the farm and went to England. The weather was cooler, I had more time to focus on running, and there are plenty of good running routes. The shorter midweek runs got easier but I was intimidated by the long runs.

The Long Run

The long run is the most important part of the training. Every weekend it increases by a mile from 4 miles up to 12. 7 miles was longer than I’d ever run before; 8 miles seemed an impossibly long distance.

I struggled through and they got easier—I actually found 11 and 12 miles easier than 7 and 8. The gradual increase really worked and I couldn’t believe that by the end of the programme I was running for two hours and enjoying it! The long runs gave me the opportunity to explore, one of the things I love about running while travelling. They took me along English canals, Portland’s river, and San Francisco’s bay with views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

My first half marathon - training in England
Running along the Liverpool to Leeds canal in England

As I wrote before, the most important aspect of running is not your fitness level but your mindset. Staying positive, trusting in the programme, and believing I could do it were all vital to my training. After I ran 9 miles I signed up to the Healdsburg Half Marathon in California and there was no looking back.

Before I started training I read The Non Runners’s Marathon Trainer. Although I wasn’t running a full marathon it had lots of useful advice, with a particular focus on the mental aspects of running. One tip I adopted was to have a mantra for tough times during runs. Mine was “I am strong. I am fit. I run half-marathons.” Repeated over again in rhythm with my steps it helped me to focus and stay committed when my energy was flagging.

Cross Training

The programme calls for cross training once a week. For the first month on the farm I went horse riding and after that I did a vinyasa yoga class, using online videos as I didn’t have access to a class. I also did more gentle 20-30 minute yoga videos around three times a week to stay flexible. I love this yoga for runners video, as well as Yoga with Adriene. 

I think yoga is the perfect complement to running for strength and flexibility; it really helped me when I started feeling aches in my hips and knees on long runs.

Fuel & Hydration

One of the difficult aspects of running longer distances was figuring out what to eat and drink before and during runs. I run first thing in the morning and don’t usually eat beforehand, but most advice says to eat before runs over an hour. I started eating a banana with honey and drinking a little orange juice before I went out, although it was a balance not to drink too much.

I tried running with a water bottle but I found it too uncomfortable. Luckily my last few long runs were in San Francisco which is well set up for runners and there were a number of toilets and water fountains on my route at Crissy Field.

My first half marathon- training in San Francisco
Despite the hills I loved running in San Francisco. There are loads of other runners, toilets and water fountains on route, and I had views like this!

I didn’t bother eating anything during my runs, except for one long run when I tried a GU energy gel in case I needed one during the race (they provided them at water stations). I didn’t notice much of a difference and I’m not that keen on eating something full of artificial ingredients, so I didn’t bother again. That said, while struggling at 10 miles in the race I did end up having one.

The night before my long runs I tried to stick with simple, carbohydrate-rich meals that wouldn’t upset my stomach, usually pasta with tomato sauce.


Until a few weeks before my half marathon I ran in non-technical gear, but when you run 11 miles you discover why the experts recommend not to run in cotton. I needed clothes that would wick sweat away from my skin, so I treated myself to some fancy running gear.

I got an Athleta Chi tank top that’s soft and lightweight, and the Athleta Be Free Knicker, capris that come just below my knee and have four handy pockets. Both are made using Unstinkable technology so the fabric never smells. Seriously, it really works—ideal for travel!

The biggest problem was my running shoes. Since I began running nearly two years ago I’ve been running either barefoot on the beach or in my hiking/sort of trail running shoes. These were heavier than I liked and just before we left England for the US I got rid of them and picked up a pair of minimalist running shoes—the Merrell Road Glove Dash 2.

It turns out transitioning to thin-soled running shoes a month before a half marathon isn’t a good idea; my first 3 mile run left me with aching calves for a week.

It’s a slow process to get used to the barefoot running style and I just didn’t have time. I bought some cheap trainers from Target for the rest of my training and race, and would figure out the transition to minimalism afterwards. They worked out just fine and I continued my training with no problems.

My first half marathon -Hal Higdon Novice 2 training plan
To keep myself motivated I marked off each week of the training programme when I completed it. You can see that I didn’t stick exactly to the schedule and moved around lots of runs. I didn’t do the 5k and 10k races but used them to catch up on missed long runs.

I was surprised by how confident I felt at the end of the training. Having a race goal really helped me find the motivation to run, and to run farther than I ever had before. Before starting the programme I only ran 32km in June; in September I ran 137km. I’m enjoying the satisfaction of the weekly long runs and want to continue with them beyond the race.

The Week Before

The race I’d chosen was the Run Wine Country Healdsburg Half Marathon in Sonoma county, an hour north of San Francisco, and an area we loved exploring last year.

Sebastopol airbnb apartment
Our Airbnb apartment near Sebastopol – the perfect place to relax the week before the race.

We arrived in Sonoma early, spending a week renting a gorgeous Airbnb house just outside Sebastopol. The tranquil setting surrounded by a large garden of apple trees was just what I needed to rest up before the run.

We had a much needed digital detox, staying off the internet, and enjoying a blissfully relaxing week of reading, watching films, cooking, short hikes at Bodega Head and Armstrong Woods, and indulging at the amazing Wild Flour Bread bakery—I still dream of the apple, rhubarb, and lavender vegan scone I was delighted to find there.

For more tips see our guide to the best things to do in Sonoma California

I was rested and ready—until two days before when I felt the beginnings of a cold. In a panic I began drinking green tea and eating every antioxidant food I could get my hands on, desperate to fend it off, for all this training not to be wasted at the last minute.

The day before the race we moved to Healdsburg, stopping at the race expo at a winery to pick up my race packet. There were free wine tastings on offer but that didn’t seem like a good idea the day before the run, even if it would have calmed the nerves that were building.

Instead we had a relaxing afternoon watching films and enjoying the vineyard views at our apartment.

Flipkey review- deck
The deck of our Flipkey apartment just outside Healdsburg.

The Race

“It’s very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit.” George Sheehan

I got up at 5.30am on race morning, nervous, but thankfully my cold hadn’t developed. We arrived in plenty of time, got parked easily, and used the toilets in Starbucks. I was ready.

My first half marathon - Run Wine Country Healdsburg Half Marathon
Waiting for the race to start.

The good thing about running in a small race (1028 participants) was that Simon could stand with me as I waited. Two minutes before the start I was getting my running app set up and discovered that almost all of our music had mysteriously vanished from the iPhone, including the running playlist I’d spent hours compiling. Argh! Simon tried to calm me down as I freaked out. There was no time to do anything; I had to make do with the random selection of remaining songs on repeat.

As the gun went off the crowd surged forward and I began to run. I was unnerved by the last minute panic, but tried to calm myself and focus on my running. I didn’t need the perfect running songs. I could do this.

My first half marathon - Run Wine Country Healdsburg Half Marathon
Setting off

It didn’t take long to get into it and I found myself caught up in the race excitement, running faster than usual almost effortlessly, having to remind myself to slow down and not burn out too soon.

The first half was fairly easy. It was perfect running weather—clear blue skies and cool temperatures at the 7.30am start. We ran past the wineries on West Dry Creek road, the golden autumnal vines glowing in the early morning light. I felt euphoric. I was doing this—I was finally running a half-marathon.

My first half marathon - Run Wine Country Healdsburg Half Marathon
My first half marathon - Run Wine Country Healdsburg Half Marathon

I’d been worried about the hills. The course is described as having “gentle rolling hills” but I didn’t know what that would feel like. The inevitable hills on my San Francisco training runs paid off though, and I found the hills easy, even speeding up as I tackled them, to prove to myself that they weren’t a problem.

Halfway through I started to feel it. My hip and ankle began to ache, but I was still running strong. The views were beautiful, but the route meant there was no easy place for the crowd to watch. There was hardly anyone cheering us on and I didn’t see Simon again until the finish line.

I could have done with the support in the last four miles when things got tougher. The temperature had risen and we turned back towards Healdsburg, the sun beating down on us with very little shade. I ached. I was hot and thirsty. I longed for the next water stop. I kept going.

As one of the signs on the course said: “Running is like mouthwash; if you can feel the burn, it’s working.”

I finished 13.1 miles in 2:02:12—a lot faster than I expected. I felt amazing. It was such a feeling of achievement to do something that three months before had seemed impossible, beyond my capabilities. I had stretched my limits, fought my fears, I’d run a half marathon.

I want to do this again.

My first half marathon - Run Wine Country Healdsburg Half Marathon
Celebrating at the wine tasting after the race wearing my wine stopper medal
My race results
My race results

For more running tips see my Beginner’s Guide to Running While Travelling.


  1. Inspiring indeed. My bro has been participating in Delhi Half Marathon in India. I have only seen him running very year. I find running the best exercise, thus, I have started with my new regime where I run for 25-30 minutes every day. It’s fabulous. I agree, it’s not about the fitness level, it’s about the mindset.

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  2. Congratulations! I’ve followed your guys blog for a while and just wanted to thank you for all of these inspiring posts. My wife and I are saving for a world trip and have learned so much for you two.

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  3. So inspiring!!! Thanks for all the tips! Your post makes me feel like I could accomplish a half marathon too. Maybe I should add it to my mantra like yours ;)

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