when in nor cal

I’ve been living in the Golden State for three years now, and just recently ventured north. My travels have taken me to San Jose for work, Monterrey for the Big Sur Marathon, and Paso Robles for the Wildflower Triathlon, but when it came to the Bay area and the adjacent wine country, I was green as the grapes on the vines.

Ironman 70.3 Vineman is one of a handful of classic Californian races, and on July 14th, I finally joined the club. I set a new PR by 20 minutes, with just 42 seconds wedged between me and a sub 5-hour finish. The race was bookended by delightful road trip companions, gracious hosts, and a week’s worth of indulgences.

But rather than bore you with the details of my race,* I’ll leave you with three bucket-list To Do’s when racing, eating, and drinking the region. A place new to me, but with so much left unexplored—rambling roads through the sunny picnic counties of Napa and Sonoma, deep mysterious old-growth forests whispering of history in the Redwoods, and back-lane treasures and gaudy tourist haunts in San Francisco. I’ll be back. If not to race, then to eat and drink with friends both old and new.

When in Nor Cal: Race

As I said, Vineman is a classic race put on by people who love this sport. I’m guessing it just keeps getting better every year, but there are a few things you’re going to want to watch out for if you’re racking your bike at Johnson’s Beach for the first time.

1-Bring clear goggles for the swim start. I got this advice from a friend who’s raced here multiple times, and was grateful for it on race morning. The morning fog still hadn’t lifted by the time my 8:06 a.m. wave went off, and it was downright dim on the shores of the Russian River. (Unfortunately, my magic high-visibility goggles were no match for my ability to swim straight into the triangle point of a huge red course buoy.)

2-Practice your bike skills. Thankfully, training in So Cal comes with its share of gnarly descents, narrow shoulders, and nasty road conditions, because Vineman is no smooth ride. This course features, hands-down, the roughest road I’ve ridden in a race—worse than Ironman Cabos in Mexico. Add to that the fun and technical twists and turns and you have yourself a 56-mile jaunt that won’t suit indoor-training addicts.

Thank goodness for my own little crew of spectators!

Friends and Nytro Women teammates at the finish.

3-Bring your own run mojo. Spectators and crowds, whether we like to admit it or not, are an integral part of racing triathlon. Though I’m sometimes annoyed by a mis-timed “you’re almost there!” I would never trade the energy of the crowds for a quiet day. There have been numerous times where a stranger in the crowd has boosted my morale more than they’ll ever know. Between miles 2 and 11 at Vineman, it’s a very quiet day. Aid station volunteers are cheery, but I wouldn’t call them especially animated. So rack up your mottos and motivational quotes. You’re going to need them.

When in Nor Cal: Eat

This area is simply a foodie’s haven. I was glad I burned a wheelbarrow full of calories on Sunday because the rest of the week held indulgence after indulgence. One Sonoma standout happened to be our hosts’ wife’s top-secret homemade carrot cake (I’ll let you know when I manage to score the recipe), while the Santa Cruz area offered up el Salchichero salami “spiked” with Douglas Fir and popcorn-chocolate chip cookies at Verve coffee … not to mention our friend Lea’s mouth-watering pork belly. In San Francisco there was everything from eggs Benedict to oysters to more charcuterie to rich bone marrow, not to mention at least three Vietnamese meals. Nevertheless, here are my standouts:

1-Hit up the girl and the fig restaurant in the historic Sonoma city center for “country food with a French passion.” Among the many memorable food experience we had on this trip, this one was highlighted by friends who’d come to cheer me on, and enjoyed fall-apart duck confit, tender but crispy-skinned trout, and of course, ample cheese and charcuterie—as if setting the stage for the rest of the trip. 

2-On the opposite end of the spectrum stands Saigon Sandwich, a tiny little bahn mi shop we happened upon in the middle of San Francisco’s rough-and-tumble Tenderloin district. It was one of the simplest and best versions of the sandwich I’ve ever had, and the fact that it cost 3.95 in the middle of a wallet-bleeding type of vacation put it solidly on this must-do list.

The best sandwich slingers in town.

3-Please promise me that you won’t leave San Francisco without visiting Tartine Bakery in the Mission. There’s a reason Mark Bittman calls it his favorite bakery in the country. The 20-minute wait in line was worth it when I sunk my teeth into one of their signature morning buns dusted with cinnamon-orange sugar, and a still-warm impossibly flaky Valhrona chocolate croissant. Go.

OMG Morning Bun. (Photo courtesy of abelin.net)

When in Nor Cal: Drink

1. I couldn’t leave the area without raising at least a glass of vino or two to my new PR. The area is pack with them (duh), and I had recommendations clogging my email inbox. The day after the race, we slept in, and then met some more experienced friends at their choice (Paraduxx in Napa) to start the day. Then we hit V. Sattui for cheese and sandwiches. Lastly, we passed a few hours at Frog’s Leap, also in Napa. Both choices offered a relaxing place to put our feet up, catch up, and drink up. The wines weren’t too bad, either (and solid introductions to what the region has to offer). Bonus: Frog’s Leap has lawn games (aka: cornhole) and apple trees if you need a snack.


2. By 5 p.m. I was ready to be welcomed back into the arms of my one true love: beer. Despite the fact that being around all that terroir and vines and such made me appreciate wine even more than I normally do, by the time the winding backroads led us to Russian River Brewing Co. I was so ready for beer. Luckily we arrived there smack dab in the middle of happy hour, and were able to sample pretty much everything for $3 a pint. And then gorge ourselves on nothing-to-write-home-about pizza. Hey, it’s the beer that counts.

All I need.

3. Finally, a trip to the land of bean-worshippers. While we enjoyed great coffee at Ritual Coffee in Napa’s Oxbow Market (the one morning we didn’t make hand-grind six mugs worth of Aeropresses!) and the aforementioned Verve in Santa Cruz, the city offered a favorite: Blue Bottle. We visited three of their locations: Hayes Valley (latte), Mint Plaza (drip), and the booth at the Ferry Building Saturday farmer’s market (New Orleans iced). An unexpected treat was Front, just around the corner from our hosts Ashley and Ross’s apartment in Potrero Hill. Their drip was spot-on and the guys were super friendly.

*The good: My fastest run yet in a 70.3 (1:46:31, finally a sub 1:50!); the second-fastest amateur female bike split (2:31:37); awesome support from team sponsors Zoot, Giro, Powerbar, Nytro, Oakley, Rehab United, and Betty Designs. The bad: A super slow swim despite improvements in the pool; watch malfunctions that will always make me wonder if I could’ve hit 5 hours had I been able to see my cumulative time. The ugly: Dealing with gut issues I just can’t seem to nail.

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