lake sonoma 50

Lake Sonoma 50 mile Race Report

Course Profile: 10,500 feet of ascent

After being very sick a few weeks ago and unable to race Napa Valley Marathon, Lake Sonoma 50 mile became my first race of the season. I have been training really hard and was excited about the race. I was also confused a bit. I had signed up for American River 50 miler, which is on April 10th long before I signed up for Lake Sonoma. Therefore, in my mind, AR50 was my focus of the two. 

A few weeks ago, I was really thinking about it and wondering why I was focusing on AR. My real goal of the first part of 2010 is Western States and trails. Thus, AR was losing its grip on my motivation. Lake Sonoma seemed to make more sense. It is brutal, rugged and hilly. 10,500 feet of ascent. On top of that, the entrant list was looking pretty stacked. I could feel myself being magnetically pulled towards Lake Sonoma over AR and no matter how many times I told myself that I would, could or might run controlled and easy in spite of competition, I really wanted to let it out a little bit more. American River has only 3,000 feet of climbing and is a good deal of road. While I feel that I could totally rock out on a course like that, right now that is not my focus.

The gangs all here (and goofy) ready to race. Photo by Kevin Luu

I made the decision that I would run comfortably and in control and if that put me in the hunt as the race unfolded that I would go after it, AR be damned. Part of me, okay most of me, decided along the way that I would rather kick ass and take names at Lake Sonoma than at AR. Why? I don't usually take much stock in what people say, but for some reason in the ultra-community I don't get much respect when it comes to really hilly races. Before TransRockies last year, one of my competitors was quoted as saying that she didn't know if I could handle the hills. During that race, I proved that I could run up well enough to keep up with my super uphilling teammate Caitlin and win. But it seems like my reputation is for fast and flat, not fast and trail and hill. Thus, it crossed my mind that racing LS as a trainer and AR as a goal (potentially placing lower at LS and winning AR) would simply bolster that appearance. 

Racers take your marks! Or kinda stand there-ish. Photo by Kevin Luu

Do I really care? No, in fact I find it awesome that after 3 years on the ultrarunning scene, I might be able to fly a bit under the radar (not off, but under just a bit). I find it even more hilarious since, when it comes to the 50 mile distance, almost all of my races have had more than 9,000 feet of climbing and some brutal terrain. Furthermore, when it comes to LS vs. AR, LS was looking to have a much more competitive field and I would rather test myself against some premier talent than have to test myself against myself and the course. And appearance aside, I have proven to myself that I can excel at the road 100k and other less technical "fast" races. Right now, what is the purpose of running another? 

All of that was pre-race theory. And then there is the reality...

I went back and forth about strategy all week before the race. But I never really felt pre-race nerves. Instead, I felt deadly calm. Much like before Vermont last year and even JFK, I felt more ready to be done tapering than being hyped to get racing. I guess I save my adrenaline for race day. I put together my plan, ate well and healthfully over the week and wrote down some splits for a goal time of 8:30. Nathan insisted I could run faster than 8:30 but the female course record was 8:43 and done by a runner, Suzanna Bon, that I respect as an intelligent, fast, strong runner. I don't balk at her course records, even when she admits them to be "soft".

Night before the race, we dug into steak, white rice with flax oil and some spinach. Got our stuff together and went to bed as early as possible. When the alarm went off at 3am I didn't have any trouble getting up and moving. I felt a bit better than I had the previous day. By Friday, I was fully feeling "taper-ish" i.e. sore, tired, fat and slow but thankfully by race morning at least I wasn't feeling tired and sore. Nathan made me a cup of coffee and we tucked into our respective toast (mine being gluten free english muffins, his being the superpowered bread he bakes) with peanut butter and a banana before jumping in my car and heading north. I actually didn't mind the 2hr drive up to the race start. It gave my body a chance to digest breakfast and get fully awake by the race start. We got to the start, chatted with friends, acted goofy, did our last minute preparations and lined up to start.

Lake Sonoma from Wulfow aid station miles 17.4/32.7. Photo by Stan Jensen

Much like I felt before Vermont 50 and JFK 50 last year, I didn't have any nerves before the race. That is not to say I was stepping confidently to the line, but I didn't have the sense of "I am racing NOW" internalized. My taper for this race amounted to really about a week, with the previous week being a bit of a cutback mileage wise (Salomon Advanced Week) but an increase in intensity. I felt rested enough, but not overly stir crazy from taper, as I mentioned above, it took me until Friday to really feel it. RD (and editor of Ultrarunning Magazine) gave us a quick debriefing and reminded us that at mile 4.5 we had to do a little out and back to the aid station even if we didn't want aid. Then we were off.

Photo by Kevin Luu

A few guys took off ahead, very quick off the mark, including Jady Palko and Hal Koerner. Jady is known for doing that and had said before the race that he wanted to run really hard for about an hour than cruise in. He did just that. I surprised myself by going out pretty fast. I felt really comfortable and just went with it. Nathan was right behind me as were my training partners Joel and Brett, along with Joe Palubeski and Jonathan Gunderson. I had written down Joe's splits for an 8:30 from the previous year as my guide and had to laugh when he told me what a poorly paced race he ran the year before. I kept asking the guys if anyone wanted by me, as I wasn't that comfortable being in front of all these fast guys. I just felt like I was slowing them down, even though I wasn't going slow.

After the first aid station at mile 4.7, Nathan took off ahead of me in hot pursuit. We all thought he was sprinting ahead to use the "bathroom", but we never saw him again. He told me after the race that he was trying to break up our small little train of people and wanted me to follow him, but he ran by me so dang quick I didn't even have time to think to try and hang on. Not that I could have.

The stretch from aid #1 to aid #2 is 7.4 miles and I finally asked Joel who was right behind me if he was planning on staying right behind me the whole race. It made me nervous to feel so responsible for 5 peoples pace. He said because it was his first 50, he would love to just stay behind me and pace off me. I said, "but you are way faster than I am!!" (which is true) but that I also understood wanted to take it out conservatively. 

So the "D-train" rolled on. I paced us steadily through the rolling, unrelenting miles up to aid station #2. We went through deep creeks, nearly lost our way and clipped along. I was feeling good and things felt extremely comfortable. I was running well within a comfortable pace and the only annoyance I had was that the waterbottle I chose to use wasn't staying in the waistpack (fanny pack for those in my running crew)  I tried to put it in. Thus I had to carry my Gel-bot in my hand with no hostler until mile 12.1 where I had a drop bag with the holster, which actually had the waistpacks proper waterbottle in it. I had planned to pick up a second bottle for the last 12.1 as it would be the hottest part of the day. I kept the Salomon Whisper waistpack on sans waterbottle, as I had my gels and Vespa and salt in the pocket. It was extremely comfortable, so it wasn't a problem.

When we pulled into aid stations #2, I took the opportunity to step off the lead. I didn't want to jump back in front and then have to pull off the trail in a 1/2 mile to use the bathroom which was exactly what I needed to do. I hoped on the back of the guys and ran for a bit until I had a spot to stop. It was nice to finally be alone and running so I could concentrate on my pacing and my race. I figured I was a good 10 minutes up at this point and wanted to stay very controlled until the turn around. That said, we had arrived at the aid station more than 6 minutes ahead of Joe's split from last year.

Photo by Chihping Fu

The big climbs start after aid station #2 and I was eager to test my legs on them. I didn't want to hammer the climbs but I wanted to test out my hard-earned climbing legs, born out of trying to keep up with the likes of Nathan, Joel, Brett and Zach a few times a week. They felt good, I cruised up them, powered hiked when the grade became ridiculous and generally just worked my way up them. Before I could think about it, I was cruising into aid station #3 and saw Peter Defty of Vespa. He gave me a Vespa Jr and the aid station crew filled me bottles and I was happily on my way. I really was enjoying the beautiful rolling green hills around the lakes and even enjoyed the cold creeks we got to splash through. I could tell my Drymax Socks were working because my feet were repeatedly submerged and were having no problems what so ever! Thank goodness for that.

I kept on my nutrition plan, doubled up on my salts and drank water like crazy as it was starting to really get hot and after that aid station it was really exposed. Nearing mile 19ish, I saw Joe, Brett and Joel on the rigid above me, maybe 2-3 minutes up. I was satisfied with that and decided if I was feeling feisty after mile 25, I might go after them. Jonathan had disappeared ahead of them. I just cranked up the long gravel hill to the top of the first major climb and hit aid station #4 feeling good. I was stoked to be almost  to the turn around and I filled up my bottle and headed out of the aid station. I followed the flags down, and started weaving my way closer to the lake. I suddenly could hear guys voices and I wondered if someone was catching me from behind (I would later realize it was Joe, Joel and Brett). I went for a few minutes without seeing flags but then saw one and some chalk and started heading along the trail weaving back in the general direction I had just come. I figured it was just a windy road. Until I saw Bev running towards me. Bev wasn't racing due to her knee problem, but was running the 25 miles out to the aid station. She said, "you are the first one coming back...??" I responded that I shouldn't be and it began to sink in that I had gotten off course somewhere but ended up looping back on course. I could see 10 feet away where I had gone down a different trail and the pink flag hanging right at the junction. I cursed, freaked out and turned around. I asked Bev and another guy what mileage they had and it was just slightly over 20 miles. My watch showed over 22 and I had lost nearly 10-15 minutes. 

So much for a lead. Bev assured me that I had a huge lead but I wasn't quite as sure. We were only 20 miles into the race (well 22 to me) and I didn't think I had gotten much more than a 20 minute lead over 2nd place. I figured 2nd place was Caren Spore who is a very very good climber and we were about to go up the biggest climb of the day.

I got stressed and started hightailing it. I was mad. Mad at myself for getting lost and blowing it. I was just pissed and anxious. I tried to shake it off but couldn't. A million things flashed through my mind. Would she catch me? Would I lose? I have never lost a 50 miler, did I want it happen like this? Am I going to be pissed off all weekend if I blow this and ruin our fun in Sonoma? How can I find a way to get the hell over this? It took me a while, admittedly to not feel like I was about to be caught. I had thrown my nutrition and hydration plan out the window for a while in my freaked out panicky state. I had to choose to run harder or possibly surrender to my fate if I chose to stay at my same pace. 

Climbing up the big hill to the turn around I could see Caren along the lake a few minutes back. The first guys started flying back and I was stoked to see Nathan coming back running strong in 3rd place. We exchanged a few words as he flew downhill, most of which we complain on my part for getting lost. I pretty complain to everyone for the next however many miles. I saw Joel, Brett, Jady, Joe and Jonathan all coming back as well as a few others. I was still in the top 10, but could see how much time I'd lost on the guys I'd run so much with. 

Returning to Wulfow, mile 32.7.Photo By Sten Jensen

I wish I could have laughed it off, but when you've been running well and hard, it is hard to find a sense of humor. I got to mile 25, told them what had happened, filled my bottle quickly and took off. I was not excited to see how close behind Caren was. Close she was, about 3 minutes. I knew that I was the superior downhill runner and that there was only one large climb left back to the mile 20.2/29.8 aid station. I figured if I could hammer the downhills and stay strong on the uphills and arrive to that aid station first that the rest of the race could and would be mine. The last 20 miles are rolling and mostly runnable, even if it is very hilly. I told myself that and ran as hard as I could back down from mile 25. It was pretty brutal, as the descent is decently steep. I finally started to take in calories and hydration again as I could definitely feel the affects of being freaked out. I had expended so much energy being mad and was not staying on top of my plan. I knew that that would not help me stay in front. I had to get back on my plan and execute it. I had to make her run me down instead of just feeling resigned to being caught. My legs were feeling great and I felt really strong and I was running strong. 

Returning to Wulfow, mile 32.7. Photo by Stan Jensen

I began to talk myself out of it. I went through mile 29.8 ahead but still not feeling confident. I cruised down to mile 32.7 where Caren's crew told me I was 6 minutes ahead. He told me I had nothing to worry about but I wasn't really ready to believe him. I was still trying to get my head back in the game. I had put my headphones on at the turn around and the music helped calm me down and put me back into a rhythm. Between the turn around and mile 37.9, much of the course is very exposed and I stayed pretty conservative on my pace as I was feeling the heat. I started changing my self-talk to more positive words and instead of thinking, "she's going to catch me" I started to think, "I am going to make her catch me and I am not going quietly". I pushed where I could and started to go outside of the comfort zone I was able to enjoy through the first 20 miles. And my legs responded brilliantly, "really?" they said, "we get to go faster? SWEEEETT!" 

Leaving Wulfow, mile 32.7.Photo by Stan Jensen

I survived the hottest portion of the race back to 37.9. I had been passed by David La Duc who had been ahead of me earlier in the race and had also gotten lost. I passed Jady Palko and Jonathan Gunderson. I hit the aid station at mile 37.9 grabbed my second bottle which I put in my waist pack, filled up my water and took a swig of coke. I felt like a million bucks. The last 12.1 are more shaded and very runnable if you have legs. We had made it 1:39 on the way back and I was hoping to be around 2 hrs for the way back or thereabouts.  I looked at Joe's splits and saw I was about 9 minutes back from him pace from last year and decided that I would run hard through the remaining miles. 

This was the moment of a bigger decision. I knew that running hard could brutalize my legs. I knew that it could mean a longer recovery. I knew it meant I was choosing Lake Sonoma over American River. At that moment, I decided that AR was out and I was going to use this experience, this race to its fullest. I just started going. I was giddy at how my legs responded. They churned and worked and didn't feel sore or tired. At 37.9 I was still 6 minutes up, but I knew as I hammered along, feeling like I was flying, that no one could catch me running like that. And no one would.

I arrived at the little out and back to the final aid station and returning to the main trail, I saw no sign of Caren. With only 4.7 miles to go and over a half mile (at least) lead, I knew (running the way I was) that she wouldn't catch me. I checked my time against Joe's splits. I was now 3 minutes UP on his spilts. I had run the previous 7.4 miles 12 minutes faster than he had last year. I realized that not only was the win mine to take, but I still had an excellent chance at the course record.

I bounded down the trail, giddy, playful, fast. I giggled as I was still able to run up the hills which were still constant and unrelenting. I danced to the music from my headphones. My nutrition, hydration and salts were on point and everything was firing. My legs didn't feel heavy or tired. I let out whoops of joy and laughed out loud thinking, "I am really glad I didn't blow this, I would have been a real pain in the arse for the rest of the weekend".

Photo by Brett Rivers

Finally I saw it: the 1 mile to go sign. I felt myself get choked up. I wanted to cry, but ran faster instead. I  pushed and pushed until I could see the cars on the rigid and the finish. The last mile is not a friendly one and I thrashed my way up the hill, crossed the road and emerged on the rigid less than a 1/4 mile from the finish line. I just wanted to cry and laugh and sigh with relief. It had been an emotional race. I ran across the grass and Suzanna and Lisa held up the pink finisher's tape for me. I crossed the line first woman, 10th overall in 8:26:53 with more than 2 miles bonus. A new course record.

 Calculating how many minutes I lost getting lost for RD John- 20minutes.
Photo by Brett Rivers

John congratulated me, it was nice to be done. But surprisingly I felt great! I could have just kept going! Nathan was waiting for me and I ran over to him and gave him a big kiss asking him how it went for him. He had ran amazing and came in second to Hal. He was well under the old course record and ran a blazing 7:24:15! What a stud. All of my crew: Joel, Brett and Joe had all already come in and posted fantastic times. Larissa would run a great race and it was awesome to see her finishing strong! Complete results HERE. What a day! I was so pleased in the end of how things worked out. And even more stoked that everyone had such a great day. I was awarded a huge bottle of wine as my trophy and we all tucked in to some fantastic fresh handmade tamales while we cheered our friends in to the finish. 

I experienced a lot during this race and I think it serves me well. Experiences like JFK taught me that I can run for 50 miles and feel great and never experience any adversity. This race threw a lot more at me. I had to battle my head and fear and emotion. While physically I was grand and probably would have made a go at a sub 8hr time, I realized how much it can take out of you to let your head get away from you. I am so glad that I decided to race this race and challenge myself.

Post-race was fantastic. We stayed at Boon Hotel and Spa and ate a fantastic dinner at Boon Eat+Drink. On Sunday, Brett, Larissa, Nathan and I met up for morning pastries at Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg (thanks for the recommendation Suzanna!) and then headed out to some great wineries and lunch in and around Sonoma! What a fun weekend. Great running, great race. Amazing friend, food and fun. I couldn't ask for more! I look forward to next year and the possibility of racing Lake Sonoma again!

My gear:
Shoes: Salomon S-Labs 2
Socks: Drymax Trail Running Socks
Apparel: Salomon Trail III Short Tight
               Salomon Impact II Twinskin Tank
               Salomon XA Cap
Waterbottles: Salomon Whisper Belt
                      Gel-bot handheld

My fuel:
Gels ( about total 700 calories, mixed brands, all but 1 non caffeinated)
FRS chews
Saltstick Salt Caps