The Lake Sonoma 50 is an out and back race that follows the Warm Springs Arm of Lake Sonoma. I’d heard that it was a race that can sneak up on you with its unrelenting up and down nature. It also had three significant climbs that were clustered around the turn around point at mile 25. All told, it had over 10,000 feet of elevation gain. It had plenty of creek crossings, it could be hot, and it was also beautiful. I’d wanted to run this one for a while and when registration opened last December I jumped at the chance. Good thing too because it sold out in 37 minutes, yet another race that will probably be going the way of the lottery next year.

A lot of things can happened between registration and race day. After the Monument Valley 50 in March I fell into a funk. Not accomplishing what I set out to do did my head in. I had always read about how the mind plays a huge role in these races but I’d never been as acutely aware of that until my mental game had all but disappeared. I felt absolutely no confidence in my ability to finish a 50 mile race and that maybe I needed turn in my Ultra Runner Membership Card. Knowing Lake Sonoma was going to be another tough one, well, I didn’t want to do it.

In short I was terrified.

Course map
Course Map courtesy of Lake Sonoma 50

Up until what seemed like the last minute I was unsure I’d even show up at the start line. That’s how scared I was. I even emailed Race Director John Medinger to see if there was an early start option. I had met him at Monument Valley where he’d seen me moping about in the Ultra Adventures trailer after I DNF’d that race. I figured it was worth a shot. Maybe he’d feel sorry for me. But John gave me a firm no and encouragement that I could do this race within the 14 hour time limit. I’d never considered an early start before but I couldn’t face getting two DNFs in a row. My last two 50 mile races were difficult for me. I had felt confident going into both those races and proceeded to have my ego handed to me on a platter. I was going into this race with two new companions, Fear and Doubt. But I also, gratefully, had a tried and true one in Jen.

Dark morning
Runner check in with Lisa and Stan. Photo: Gary Wang

Race morning was a typical affair. We got lost heading to the start and took a few cars with us that were following. It turns out the driver’s side headlight on Jen’s car was out and it was difficult to see so we blew right past the turn off. It all came at us in a rush – parking the car, picking up bibs and pinning them on, dropping off our drop bags, saying quick and nervous hello’s to familiar faces, and final bathroom stops.

The first few miles are on the road. It goes up and it goes down. We saw some friends – Christy, Alvin, Jody, and Rebecca. I haven’t been on the same race course with Rebecca since muddy North Face so it was a treat to be able to see her at the beginning and eventually throughout the day. It was a chance to settle in. The early miles once we hit the trail were fun and oh so runnable. It was cool, perfect running weather. The woods and the lake were beautiful. I had to remind myself not to get ahead of myself. Feeling like a superhero at mile 4 is easy. At mile 45, not so much.

The lake
Beautiful Lake Sonoma. Photo: Chihping Fu

Right after we left Warm Springs (mile 11.6) I felt a bit down. I was far enough in to have burned through the initial excitement and now had to own up to the double digit day I had lying in front of me. It seemed daunting. I mentioned this to Jen and she gave me some advice about what I was feeling, that everyone feels it at some point and to just accept it instead of wishing it was something else. It lifted the burden of trying to change it and just let it be.

Green
Rolling hillsides. Photo: Alvin Lubrino

A few miles before Madrone Point (mile 18.8) the leaders started coming back our way. It was really cool to see them and mind boggling to do the math and realize how fast they are. I’d call out the names of the ones I recognized and had a smile and a cheer for each person that I crossed paths with. This was fun. The woman following me was amused.

“Wow, you seem to know everybody,” she said.
“Not really. What can I say, I’m a dork.”
“No, I think it’s cool. I’m having fun running next to you.” I had to laugh at that.
“Yeah, it’s like playing ultra runner bingo.“

I got to Madrone Point in a really good mood made even more so by seeing another friend, Marissa, who I hadn’t seen in ages. As I got ready to leave she pointed ahead to a woman making her way up the first of the three climbs.

“You do know you are getting your ass kicked by a 70 year old woman?” Marissa said conspiratorially.
“Oh, believe me, I know.”

Rock star Eldrith
Eldrith and her signature smile. Photo: UltraSportsLive.tv/Nate Dunn

The woman in question was Eldrith Gosney, a local Bay Area legend. I had seen her on the entrants list and had thought to myself that if I could stay in contact with her I’d have a chance at finishing. I had recognized her during the first mile of the race and introduced myself. And indeed I was getting my ass kicked by her.

I was ready to get these climbs over with so Jen and I just started to power up them. I was behind Eldrith for a while and so many people cheered and called her name as we crossed paths. She was getting just as much acknowledgement as the elites who went by us earlier. It was quite something to witness. This section felt methodical and workman-like. Grind out the two climbs, get to the turn around, grind out another climb. When it got tough I remembered my Marincello hill repeats in the pouring rain and Eldrith’s words of wisdom – it’s just a hill.

And seemingly before I knew it we were back at Madrone Point again (mile 30.8). I was in really good spirits. The toughest climbs were now behind us. Jen and I were running for a bit with Christy and I came into the aid station whooping and hollering. Jennifer, one of the volunteers stationed there found me later at the finish and told me that I get the Best Spirit Award because I came into the aid station so happy.

Madrone Point
Jen and I shortly after leaving Madrone Point. Photo: Melanie Michalak

It was only a couple of miles to the water only aid station at Wulfow but things got a bit weird for me in this section. The cooling marine layer we had enjoyed for most of the morning had given way to clear blue skies and with it rising temperatures. At one point I remember looking around and the sky was really blue, the grass really green and the California poppies really orange. Too orange. The colors seemed saturated and unreal. Everything around me looked like it was in super sharp focus. What was going on?

Stay on the trail
Trying to correct the steering. Photo: Melanie Michalak

I got into Wulfow (mile 32.7) knowing something wasn’t right and thought I might be overheating. There was a water trough for horses nearby and I walked towards it. I’m not sure what my intent was, probably to crawl in, but someone intercepted me and started pouring buckets of water on my head. It was a shock to the system. I was vaguely aware of Jen getting the same treatment and heard her equally startled yelps.

“Do you want some ice?”
“Okay.”

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with ice since my pack did not contain a hydration bladder and the opening to the soft flasks was too small but it sounded like a good idea. The next thing I know one guy is opening the main pocket in the back of the pack and another guy is dumping ice directly into it.

“Let’s cool down your spine.”

Oh, that’s what they were doing with the ice. I’m going to remember this next time. It was genius. Wulfow was amazing. It was as if they were my own personal pit crew who knew what I needed even when I couldn’t seem to verbalize it. The dousing in cold water and ice soaking my back made me feel almost immediately better and brought back some much needed mental clarity.

Wulfow
The water trough at Wulfow that I was ready to become best friends with. Photo: Melanie Michalak

We caught up with Barb who we’d been playing leap frog with all day. I was feeling better and moving better and happy to stay in contact with her. I heard Jen call my name.

“I’m hitting a wall. I want to give you your gloves back in case we get separated and you need them.”

Barb was gone in an instant but it didn’t matter. There were still cut offs for Jen and I to beat and I wanted to make sure that happened. All day we kept in the back of our minds the need to get to the last aid station by 7:30pm because no matter what, if we met that, we’d be able to finish. We had to finish. Both of us.

“Have you eaten something recently? Then eat something. We’ve got some cushion so let’s slow down a little bit but we need to keep moving. I’m feeling okay and am moving pretty well so just stay with me. You’re hitting a rough patch. Let’s get you through it.”

I was pulling all sorts of things out of my head. I wanted her to stay in the game until we got over this little bump. We kept moving. Sometimes I’d be ahead of her. Sometimes I’d be behind her but we stayed in contact. We got into Warm Springs (mile 38) around 4pm, a solid 45 minutes ahead of the cut off there. We grabbed head lamps in case we needed them. My left knee had started to bother me so I grabbed some Advil out of my drop bag as well.

On the course
Just a little run through the woods. Photo: Joseph Condon

We had over three hours to cover 7 miles to meet the final cut off at Island View Camp. That was plenty of time unless the wheels completely fell off which is always a possibility. This segment felt so incredibly long and it was my turn to struggle. A couple of times I nearly went right over the hill side and had some close calls as I did my level best to twist my ankle. I think Jen might have even grabbed me once to keep me from going over the edge because the steering didn’t seem to be working. She was now looking after me as I started to be stubborn and feeling argumentative about not wanting to eat anything.

My left leg continued to bother me so I decided to take the Advil but I realized as I searched for it in my pack that I seem to have dropped (or never picked up) the small bag that contained the medication. I had similarly lost my reusable cup earlier. I started to have a melt down, frustrated with my seeming inability to keep items in my pockets.

“It’s okay. I’ve got some,” Jen reassured me as she started looking for it in her pack.

But that didn’t appease me. I wanted MY Advil. I was having a full blown temper tantrum over the most insignificant of things. Luckily I still seemed to have some ability to recognize this and see how stupid I was getting. I took a deep breath (and a few more) and calmly accepted Jen’s Advil.

Finally we arrived at Island View Camp (mile 45.5), the last aid station, the last cut off. I could finally let go of Fear and Doubt. It’s a quarter mile out and back to the aid station off the main trail so you can see people as you cross paths. It was around 6:20pm, over an hour from the 7:30pm cut off, when I left the aid station. Barb had left minutes earlier and I saw Eldrith come in just as I was leaving. Jen wasn’t quite ready to leave the aid station. Throughout the race she and I had fortuitously had our high and low points occur at different times and were able to help each other get to where we needed to be, this aid station before the cut off. She told me to go and so I went.

I chose not to look at my watch. Staring at it wasn’t going to make the miles go any faster. After some time I was surprised to see Barb just ahead of me on a climb. But I kept losing sight of her and I didn’t seem to be making any ground. Then suddenly I was right behind her. We talked a bit and then I passed her. I seem to have gotten a second wind on this final section. I looked at my watch now. If I was going to try and ride this late burst of energy into the finish I wanted to know how much distance I had to cover. It was a couple of miles. Then less than a mile from the finish I passed two more people. Now I was running scared but I could hear the finish line and soon could see it.

I sprinted or did my best imitation of one and let out a joyful yell when I crossed the finish line at 13:10. Jen came in 8 minutes behind me. We both finished.

Finish line
Joy and relief. Photo Chris Jones

I couldn’t have asked for the day to go any better for me. Low points were manageable and were greatly out numbered by the high points. I was in good spirits more times than I was not. Help came when needed. Most importantly it never once occurred to me to drop which seemed to be an ever present thought in my races of late. It was nice not to have that bouncing around my head. Maybe I don’t need to turn in my Ultra Runner Membership Card after all.

Epilogue

It was dark by the time we left the parking lot after spending time getting some food and talking to friends. Jen rolled down the window and thanked the volunteer who’d been personally hand delivering drop bags to runners.

“Do you know you have a headlight out?” he asked.
“Yes,” Jen said, “We notice that this morning.” I’m sure Jen wasn’t looking forward to driving on that dark country road again with one headlight.

Without a word he banged his fist on the hood over the headlight housing and it turned on. Then he wished us a safe trip and walked away. It was like a magic trick.

Jen and I looked at each other in stunned silence. Wow, thanks Mr. Wizard. It seemed, somehow, an appropriate way to end the day.

Tropical John
Jen and I with RD John Medinger. Photo: Chris Jones

One thought on “Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Race Report

  1. WAY TO GO! You have a permanent Ultra Runner Membership Card – I don't know anyone tough enough to take it away from you. This was a great race report – thanks for sharing the ups and downs. I love how you and Jen complement each other so well. the horse trough would have been pretty epic, but I suspect that ice and cold water was much more useful – so cool that the aid station people knew what to do.

    Way to get your ultra mojo back. (I don't think you ever actually lost it, but just challenged it so much that you came out even tougher than before.)

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