12 Glasses and the MW Marathon

Anyone out there a wine-drinking runner?  Among my running friends, the two go hand-in-hand although it may seem an oxymoron to more hard-core athletes.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the parallels between marathon running and the Masters of Wine (MW) program in recent months since I got my Stage 1 exam results.  In the “you can’t make this stuff up” strange karma of life, I was in Germany visiting wineries with my Dad (courtesy of the MW Reh Kendermann bursary I had won earlier) when the results arrived.

I already knew what they would be thanks to a disastrous tasting exam on my part but humans have survived millenniums of time based on hope, as futile as that may be.  So I was suitably disappointed to find my instincts were correct and that I had to re-take Stage 1 but I was also happy to be given the opportunity to re-take it as not everyone gets that chance.  The MW program is not for the faint of heart and there is a reason that only 354 people worldwide  have passed in 60 years – it’s just hard.

I was sitting in one of the coziest B&Bs (HinterConti) in one of the most idyllic towns (Bretzenheim, Germany) with one of my most favorite people in the world (my Dad) when I read through the results.  To feel such disappointment amid all that goodness seemed surreal but it also helped numb the pain.  My Dad and I promptly headed for the B&B’s honor-system bar and poured some glorious German Rosé and Riesling.  While I wish it had been a celebration, I couldn’t be more grateful to be with my Dad in that moment.  First of all that he’s healthy and still likes to travel and second to be with someone who has cheered me on and up my entire life through all sorts of growing pains as well as celebrated many great moments with me along the way.  So it was strangely the perfect end to this first MW year (aside from the results of course).

Since then I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what I did wrong, why or if I should continue, and also trying NOT to think about it and just keep going. This is where marathon running comes in.  I have been a runner most of my life starting from junior high track.  In college I started running longer distances and soon after got into marathon running which I still do today (or at least maintain the training for).  Any runner knows that once you’re in shape, running becomes more of a mental journey than a physical one. Quite simply, it’s hard to keep going when you’re in pain, are tired, lack motivation, or face inclement weather.  The only thing that gets you to the finish line of your goal or of the race is the strength of your mental desire.

You don’t have to be a fast runner to know how hard it is to finish a marathon.  In fact, it may be harder to be a slower marathon runner because it takes so much longer to finish.  Most humans weren’t really built to be running for 4-6 hours at any speed.  Finishing alone is a heroic feat but finishing in a time you want is even harder.  Half my running life I, like many others, chased what some view as the Holy Grail of running – qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  I finally got there in 2002 and while I’d like to say that happened because of sheer grit and determination, it was also a lot of luck.  Many things have to go right to run a consistently-timed marathon (weather, training, sleep, the natural biorhythms of one’s body, mental attitude, fitness, etc).  The day I qualified was actually more memorable and special than the day I ran the Boston Marathon with the exception of being with my Dad who met me at mile 17 near the Newton Hills to run in with me.

boston103

During all of this training, I started wondering why everyone cares so much about Boston.  I suppose it’s the history of the course, the challenge, and the fact that you have to qualify to run it meaning it’s a select few that ever get there.  And I wondered what is it about us that makes being in the elite few so interesting?  It’s the same question many ask about very difficult wine programs like the Court of Master Sommeliers or the MW program – why isn’t just knowing a lot about wine enough and why does one need this title to feel knowledgeable?

In the end, for me at least, it’s not about the title.  Sure, it’s a nice achievement just like running Boston was.  But the real win is in the mastery of the journey.  In running, there are few things more satisfying than running a consistently timed mile-by-mile race for 26.2 miles.  In order to achieve this, it means that you are running with patience, strength, experience, and utter control of your body and mind.  It doesn’t get any better than that with or without Boston.

On the MW front, it’s about knowing things off the top of your head like different grape varieties, where they originate, how certain wines are made, what vintages are special around the world, and how particular soils contribute to wine characteristics among many other things.  It’s about the sheer knowledge and depth and breadth of the wine world which is changing by the second.  In order to gain this knowledge, one also needs patience, dedication, mental strength, and experience as well as mind and body control (tasting is hard on the body too).

So while failing is not my favorite thing in the world, I remember that I’ve run 35 marathons with only 3 being Boston qualifiers but that I learned something valuable from each and every race.  Most importantly, I learned never to quit no matter how bad I feel.  There are lots of times you may not feel like you’re going to get there but you keep going anyway.  That’s how many running days feel.  But if you just don’t quit, you’ll eventually cross the finish line.  That’s true for almost anything in life not just the MW program or running a race.  So I’m starting Stage 1 again and I’m going to keep going.

Note: Please see the first post on the “12 Glasses” topic if you missed it. This will be a periodic and ongoing blog about what it’s like to be a student in the Institute of Masters of Wine Programme.

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