Sunday, April 20, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile

I sat at my laptop, hitting the refresh key every 5 seconds. Then, the page changed, and there it was: a registration link. Last years Lake Sonoma 50 Mile filled up fast, under an hour by some accounts. Ten weeks before States, LS50 is a perfect tune up; I had a strong base and there was time to recover. I completed the forms as fast as possible, hit submit, then the site crashed. My Facebook status began filling with comments. Nervous trail runners were stuck in various states of registration while the server struggled. The race sold out in 37 minutes.

And so it went for the final open registration of the Lake Sonoma 50. The 2015 edition will go the way of so many other races, and institute a lottery. Lake Sonoma deserves the lure. Race Director "Tropical" John Medinger and his stellar staff put on a low key event with well placed amenities. No blow up arch, no blaring music, just a well marked, rugged course with craft beer and handmade tamales awaiting you at the finish. Not only is there a pre-race dinner, but a day-after wine tasting! All proceeds benefit the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, funding scholarships for the children of vineyard employees.

There are three words thrown around when one discusses this race: relentless, rugged, fast. It took running the actual race for me to comprehend how those first two ended up with the third. The relentlessly rolling, out and back course circles the lake on sometimes rugged trail, but the hills are either short or gradual, and in the end, runnable. The vertical profile looks more like a polygraph than a race course:

Seismograph or trail race?

The long way round

After a winter spent building an aerobic base, my training faltered in the weeks preceding the race. Tendonitis in my foot had me gun shy at the end of March; not to mention I had changed coaches. I took solace in the fact that I had taken a week off before last year's North Face 50, and performed to my expectations. Ergo, I tapered.

My goal was to finish sub-11 and keep my heart rate under 150. I figured eleven hours on that terrain would translate well for a strong showing in June. If I can muster less than two hours of slow down at States, I may be in the hunt for a 24 hour finish. My fuel consisted of concentrated Tailwind in handheld bottles and a hydration pack for water. Occasional bananas with nut butters at aid stations would provide some variety, and I'd carry one gel for emergency energy. Twirly would provide Tailwind replenishment and MAP at five points along the course.

Twirly dropped me at the race start before heading to the first crew access at Warm Springs Aid Station. We learned at the pre-race dinner that the runners follow the road at the start, and she wanted to get ahead of the pack. I milled around in the dark finding some familiar faces. John assembled us all on the road, and turned us loose with little more than "go!"

Start 0:00

As the field jogged up the road, a camera drone hovered above us in the dark. Cars inched by in the opposite lane, and the runnable hills stretched out the pecking order. I continued to see familiar faces, and kept up with some people who are much faster than me. I went out too fast, but running  an 8:35 mile on downhill pavement felt good. At 2.5 miles, we left the pavement for good and descended into the canyon. The single track wound through a dark mist as the conga line held a steady pace. There was an accordion effect as the short hills interrupted everyone's rhythm.

I ran through the first aid station (water only) and took stock. My pace was solid, and my foot felt good. I held my place in line without losing sight of those I followed. On some hills I would let my heart rate drift over 150, knowing that recovery was near. My run/walk transitions became smoother as the morning developed.

Lake Sonoma Trail Art

Around the 8th mile, my right ankle locked up, causing me to alter my foot strike. I immediately pulled over and popped an Ibuprofen. I had a long way to go, and was not willing to limp it in for 42 miles. After some stretching, and letting twenty runners go by, I rejoined the freight train. The pain worked itself out after a few minutes, and it did not bother me the rest of the day.

The creek crossings were mild, and the overcast kept temperatures low. Perfect conditions for trail running. I hoped that the sun would prevail later in the day, as I need some heat training. I eavesdropped on the conversations around me. Many runners either found friends along the trail or were running with a partner. Normally, talkers motivate me to put a gap on them or let them go, but sometimes they provide beta on the course. One man mentioned than it would get steeper after the Warm Springs Creek crossing. Taking that to heart, I made a plan to back off after seeing Twirly.

Warm Springs Aid Station (2:06)- 11.6 miles, 10:52 pace; 650 calories

Warm Springs #1, photo by Mrs. CK
I found Twirly right away and got a fresh bottle of Tailwind. I saw some friendly faces from the pre-race dinner. Russ and Lisa Wenter were crewing their son, Ben, who was minutes in front of me. Mrs. CK was also there; her energy is always welcome. On the fly I decided to have Twirly record my calories and water consumed. I wanted to be able to correlate my condition with my fueling and hydration. In hindsight, we should have discussed that before the race. In my hurry to get out of the AS, I forgot to take some MAP. I wanted to get some in me every other hour. I left the station 20 minutes ahead of 11 hour pace.

As planned, I dialed back my effort and cruised the next seven mile section. A steady effort at the slower pace felt good. I lost a few spots, but was successful in calming my competitiveness, realizing I still had a long way to go. There was a wide creek crossing after the aid station which had a log bridge spanning the gully. Of course, I didn't notice the bridge until I was across the creek. I made a mental note to utilize it on the return trip.

Traversing above Rancheria Creek, photo by Nate Dunn
The trail followed Rancheria Creek as we climbed higher above the lake. Exposed, rolling grasslands provided gorgeous views of the lake, where we had come from, and where we were going. I was in the midst of a body check (no niggles, great energy levels) when I happened upon Nate Dunn from and his new puppy Rosie. I was tempted to stop and meet Rosie, but kept my momentum instead.

The front runners tackle the single track, photo by Nate Dunn
Terrain opening up

I ran through the water stop at Wulfow Aid Station and encountered a couple on horseback. They were picking their way down the trail between runners, and as I cleared the second horse, I almost got stepped on. The rider apologized, saying she had not seen me. I shed the event like water off a duck's back and continued on. My thoughts turned to wondering when I would encounter the front runners.

Approaching the middle miles

I ran alone for much of this stretch. The course was runnable, and I felt like I was moving efficiently. Arriving at the Madrone Point Aid Station, I decided to have a couple pieces of banana and half a Pocket Fuel nut butter.

Madrone Point Aid Station (3:35) - 18.8 miles, 12:13 pace; 1260 calories

While I was having my hydration pack refilled with water, Zach "cruise ship kid" Miller came FLYING through. The volunteers said he had passed through just one hour and twenty minutes before (12.4 miles in 1:20 = 6:27 min/mile). I left the aid station in awe. Just minutes later, Rob Krar, Sage Canaday and Alex Varner passed me running down the steep gravel road. They made it look easy, but I could see the focus in their eyes. I don't think they saw me.

On the climb, I realized I felt really strong. I began passing people, and when the crest of the hill came into sight, I could see Twirly and Mrs. CK cheering on the runners. I picked up my step, and jogged to the spot she had set up to crew me. "Did you see those guys? Holy shit!" was all I could say. I remedied the MAP oversight, and refilled my Tailwind. Still feeling strong, I set out to cross the valley that lay between me and the turn around.

The marine layer began to thin, and the temperature noticeably rose as I ran the rocky double track. The front of the pack continued to parade past. I recognized a few and cheered on all. Highlights included seeing Ian Sharman and Nick Clark, Emily Harrison and Kaci Lickteig (who is this 12 year old running towards me?!?). Gary Gellin appeared to have a strong shot at the Masters win.

The course descended all the way to lake level before the biggest climb of the race. I recognized a few runners above me and set out to catch them. Not quite halfway yet, I realized I was executing well and felt really good. My effort was steady as I fell in with a pack of runners. The rolling middle miles were runnable, and I began leaving people behind.

No Name Flat Aid Station (4:55) - 25.2 miles, 12:30 pace; 1710 calories

Entering No Name Flat Aid Station, photo by Joseph Condon
More friendly faces greeted me at the turn around. Mrs. CK lent more of her positive energy while Twirly refilled my Tailwind and I gobbled some more MAP. Ann Trason was at the station and she offered me a sandwich, but I turned it down. Jorge helped me get ice and water in my pack and recommended I start taking in extra electrolytes. I thought the Tailwind might suffice and brushed his counsel aside. The stop felt disjointed, but I made it in and out still 27 minutes ahead of schedule.
Marine layer breaking

I hoped to negative split the return to Madrone Point and set out with determination. With only one big climb remaining, I knew I had "matches to burn". I crossed paths with more Bay Area runners and made some new friends on the descent back to the lake. The sun broke through the clouds and cicadas began their cacophony, filling the air with clicks. Wildflowers which had gone unnoticed in the fog opened their faces to the sun, making the return trip feel like a new trail. The temperature continued to rise.

Race selfie
Returning to lake level

My first discomfort appeared in the form of a chafe spot on my inner thigh. I made a mental note to apply Body Glide when I got to Twirly at Madrone Point despite having a small container in my pack. I should have stopped and addressed the situation immediately, because mental notes were becoming unreliable.

The climb to Madrone Point felt longer than the descent (duh), but I remained steady, and hearing Twirly cheering in the runners ahead of me spurred me to jog the final climb. My pace remained steady and I still felt really strong. More MAP, Tailwind and a quick kiss before I was off to the aid station. I forgot the Body Glide...

Madrone Point Aid Station (6:07) - 30.9, 12:38 pace; 2290 calories

Madrone Point crew access

I took more ice water in my pack, and inhaled two pieces of banana and the rest of the Pocket Fuel nut butter. The sky was blue and sunshine abundant as I set out on the rolling, runnable return trip. Within a half mile of the aid station, the next level of discomfort set in: bloated belly compounded by a side stitch. GI issues I had expected; a side stitch after 50k? That was a first. First I tried slowing down, and focusing on breathing. A descending diaphragm on the offending footfall usually works. It remained. At least it was taking my mind off my thigh and belly!

I wrestled with the stitch for about 5 miles before my thoughts led me to Jorge's advice. I was mulling over how cool it was that despite me leaving Mauka Running, he was still a role model. As if a snake had bit me, I realized that salt can help with cramps, and my stitch was a cramp! I popped an S!Cap, drank a ton, and within a quarter mile the stitch was gone. Thanks, Jorge!
Returning to Rancheria Creek

I had a bandanna in my pocket and began soaking it in creek crossings, sponging off my head to beat the heat. I plan to employ this technique at States, and it made a big difference in my comfort level. Usually I wipe my brow with a sweatband on my wrist, but it had become somewhat smelly. The bandanna felt rejuvenating, leaving me feeling refreshed.

Buff single track
Despite my GI issues, I continued to pass people. I ate a couple ginger chews, and my condition stabilized. I am not sure if the bloatedness was simply not as bad as it has been in the past, or I am getting better at running through the discomfort. Either way, I was making good time. And I was having fun!

Photo by Chihping Fu
I began recognizing landmarks, rockfalls and vistas. I took ice water in my bandanna at the Wulfow water station, manned by Chris Wehan. If I encountered other runners, it was in passing. Mostly I was running alone. As the trail paralleled Rancheria Creek, I became disoriented and expected the aid station to be before the crossing. Arriving at the creek confused me at first, then I remembered the log bridge and kept my feet dry for a few extra miles. Once again, I could hear Twirly before I could see the aid station. I love how enthusiastically she supports the field.

Warm Springs Creek Aid Station (7:44) - 38.0, 13:40 pace; 2740 calories

I finally remembered to apply the Body Glide to my thigh, took three Tums and scrounged two ginger chews from the aid station. Instead of going with my plan to carry two bottles to the finish, I fortified one bottle with 750 calories. I had a gel in case I needed an extra kick. More water in the pack, MAP and encouragement from friendly faces energized me as I set out on the home stretch.

The home stretch, finish line is ~center horizon
The south side of the lake offered brief relief from the sun as I ran the rolling, wooded trail. The  course felt new as I ran though alternating exposed and shady sections. I continued to pass people, mostly on the climbs. Descending had become uncomfortable, and I began feeling a twinge in my quads when I tried to pick up the pace going downhill. "Salt at the aid station" became my mantra in the hope that I would remember it upon arriving at the final aid station. I had given up a little of my buffer since the turn around, but still had about 15 minutes to spare.

A strange phenomenon began to occur: I would realize that I was running without having any memory of deciding to stop power hiking while going uphill. My body was unconsciously picking up the pace whenever the grade became runnable! I was slack-jawed at how my training was shining through after 45 miles of running.

The carnage along the trail began showing up as I approached the Island View Campsite Aid Station. Leaners, limpers and shufflers marched onward, and I tried to give them encouragement without slowing my pace. My bandanna continued to provide relief via the creek crossings.

Island View Campsite Aid Station (9:30) - 45.5 miles, 14:08 pace; 3065 calories

I took two S!Caps at the aid station, begged a couple of ice cubes from the cooler and refilled my hydration pack. I hiked back up to the trail with determination as I scoped out the runners behind me. I did not want to see any of them until the finish line. My stomach had settled, I had no niggles and one final climb ahead. I could smell the barn.

I ran out of Tailwind with about two miles to go, and ate my first gel of the race (VFuel Maple Bacon, mmmm). The gel kicked in and I continued to gobble up the carnage as I climbed towards the ridge. I began to hear traffic as the trail neared Skaggs Springs Vista, and I had to remind myself that there were still a couple miles to go; it was not the finish line. True enough, the course took a sharp turn down the next drainage, and began to traverse towards the finish.

I was surprised to come around a corner and find Ann hiking with a friend. She shouted "go, go, go" as I passed. I decided to put in a finishing kick, running it in the final 1.5 miles. I came upon two younger guys walking, and as soon as they caught sight of me they dashed off, obviously not wanting to give up any more positions. I had to chuckle. Even in the middle of the pack, after 50 miles, competitiveness remains. The race for 160th was on!

They put quite a gap on me, and I had to backtrack to the course after taking a left turn at the road outside the finish line festival. I laughed at how my mind was trying to take the most direct route to the end.

Finish (10:38:24) - 50.29 miles, 14:24 pace; 3490 calories

The mellow finish line festival reflected the overall atmosphere of the race. I finished to little fanfare outside of the spectators' cheers. No medal was hung round my neck, but an ice cold Racer 5 IPA, cool swag and a tamale were in my future. The elites still milled around, despite having finished over 4 hours previously.

I went to the car to change out of wet clothes and pound a couple bottles of Boost and a coconut water. My eyes grew wide when I dropped my shorts and found blood. The chafe on my inner thigh was the result of a blown seam in my compression shorts. As a result, I had a football shaped patch of road rash grade rawness where the hole had been. It was as if my running shorts were made of sandpaper, apparently. I lamented forgetting my flip flops, but stuffed my feet into an old pair of trainers. The sugar bomb from the boost upset my stomach, and it took me a while to begin feeling like I could eat.

I mulled over the idea of eating while enjoying an ice cold Racer 5 IPA and cheering in runners. The day began to cool off, out came the puffy jackets, and I then I went to get my tamale. I was told they were out! Two 50 milers in a row, I have waited too long to get my food. I asked Tropical John about it, and he assured me pizza was on the way. After a few minutes, I was able to discern that there were in fact three tamales left. I pleaded for one, and eventually got to eat. In the future I'll grab a plate as soon as I finish and stash it until I'm able to eat. The sun set over the race course as friends new and old came across the line. Twirly and I hung out almost to the end, but headed off in search of more food and a shower.

Overall this event is stellar; another bucket list race. The course is worthy of respect, the atmosphere reflects the overall trail/ultra community at its finest, and the swag is awesome. I much prefer a jacket that I can wear outside of a race to a medal I'll wear for a few hours and hang on my wall. The course is fast because the hills are short or gradual enough to run without "burning a match". The aid stations were staffed by some of the fastest people I know of, and their support made a big difference for me. The complimentary wine tasting the following day is a great opportunity to talk with the speedier runners, exchange war stories from the race, and enjoy top notch Sonoma County vino. I got to chat up Nick Clark about the States course and running in general, which was pretty cool. I respect Nick a lot.

Every run is a learning experience, especially a trail race. I took home some good lessons in spite of executing my strategy perfectly.
  • I consumed over 300 calories an hour, and my energy level never faded (thanks Tailwind!). 
  • Eating at the bottom of a climb instead of just before a runnable stretch is something I will adhere to in the future, as is popping a salt tab at the first sign of cramping. 
  • Even though the thigh chafe did not slow me down or bother me too much while running, it caused significant discomfort in the days following. I'll be stopping to investigate hot spots more readily in the coming weeks.
  • A wet bandanna is a must have.
  • My feet held up to being wet all day pretty well. I think they were in the best shape of all the fifty milers I have done thus far. The creek crossings were mostly in the beginning and final thirds of the course (the north facing slope). I never felt like I needed a shoe change.
  • My slowdown was greater than I expected. I felt steady, but got much slower by the finish.
I hope the lottery gods smile upon me for years to come on this one. It was my favorite 50 so far. Now for the deets:


  1. Great report - I am right in the middle with you, I just can't write as eloquently. I love Tailwind and wish I had better drinking abilities but I lose track of calories in, so I started doing a regiment of a full bottle and a half of Tailwind (300 Calories) at the start with a couple of baggies (200 calories each) to use at the turn around. That combined with taking in Gels every 30 min or so after the first 30 min. Anyway just my experience and you have a lot more than I do.

    1. Thanks Jeff, I used to love Gu and other gels (VFuel most recently), but I recognized that I couldn't tolerate them for too long. They turned my stomach against me and I just couldn't choke them down after that. The double-strength Tailwind has saved my long runs!

      See you on the trail!