Lake Sonoma 50 Race Report: I Fought the Course, and the Course Won

I have heard the Lake Sonoma 50 mile race near Healdsberg California described as “death by 1,000 cuts” but I still underestimated this beast of a course. Sometimes you just have to learn a lesson for yourself the hard way. Despite hot conditions in the later part of the race, there were some awe inspiring performances from Jim Walmsley, who destroyed his own course record by 9 minutes, and Keely Henninger who ran ahead of course record pace until the final miles to finish in the second best time ever for a woman. Unfortunately, my day did not go quite so well and I can only partially blame the heat.  After running in 3rd place for the first quarter of the race, I dropped to 4th, and then 5th place and just barely squeezed in under 8 hours with a time of 7:59:54. I went into this race with mixed emotions (more on that in a bit) but am still disappointed with how the day went. After sleeping on it I landed on realizing that every finish line is a victory and even though I missed my A goal by quite a bit, I was able to adapt to my circumstances mid race and still worked my butt off in the final miles to achieve my B goal. That is the beauty of this sport: you never know how a race is going to unfold and being able to adjust expectations and strategy mid-race is important to have a good experience. I swear I wrote that before Monday’s historic throwdown at the Boston Marathon, but if anything exemplifies this point, Desi Linden’s win is it.

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The day started out fun enough with some rolling pavement miles with my buddy Elan. Photo: Kim Gaylord

When I was planning my 2018 race schedule at the end of last year, Lake Sonoma was my spring priority. I chose Way Too Cool as a local primer to get my racing legs back under me to be able to take on the undulating, unrelenting hills at Lake Sonoma. Then in mid March, I found out I made the US team for the IAU Trail Running World Championship in Spain a month after Lake Sonoma. My training shifted gears a little bit, but I think most importantly, my mental focus shifted to that race. I came down with a cold the week before Lake Sonoma and kind of didn’t care. I didn’t get my typical pre-race jitters the week leading up and wasn’t obsessively studying past results and the course like I normally would be. I was conflicted. I really wanted to run this race well and give it the effort it deserves but I couldn’t find the fire. I thought I could still do it justice but when the going got tough around mile 6 (more on that in a bit), I didn’t have the juice to push through. Finding myself in this predicament with 44 miles to go was tough and honestly I battled mentally all day. I flip flopped between wanting to give it my all and do well and dropping out to save it for worlds. In hindsight, I wish I had made a more clear choice ahead of time. Either go into the race with no expectations and use it as a training run, or really commit to it. The waffling back and forth for 8 hours did me no service and made for a much less enjoyable experience than I would have liked.

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“eeehhhh, I’ve felt better” still making funny faces at mile 30. Photo: IRunFar

All that being said, something was off physically. My legs started to feel not great around mile 6 and from there on out, I struggled to maintain pace on anything that went uphill (much like at Way Too Cool). I am going to have to crack this nut if I want to do better in future races and I plan on having a full debrief with coach once he gets back from Boston and stops shivering.  Hindsight is 20-20 but I definitely underestimated the course despite all of the advice I received from veterans. Though it didn’t feel like it at the time, I probably went out a touch too fast.  I like to work my way up a field over the course of a race but this time I found myself dropping from 2-5 over the course of about 30 miles which messed with my mental game. I found myself looking back from about mile 8 onward which meant I was running scared for over 40 miles. Camelia caught me just after Warm Springs and we ran together for a mile or so but I just couldn’t respond on the uphills. It was great chatting and sharing some miles with her and afterwards I realized that we had both run North Face and that she was one of the two women I passed to move into 10th position in the final miles that day. Well she got me back this time and I was really excited to see she held onto 3rd (and almost caught 2nd!) AND got herself a Golden Ticket. So rad! When Gina Slaby came out of no where to pass me at about mile 40, I didn’t even pretend to try to respond. I let her go and only saw her on the out and back to Island View. Around Island View it became clear it would be a struggle to even get in under 8 hours and this – completely arbitrary – time goal lit a fire under my ass. I pushed hard to maintain pace in the last few miles despite running out of water and developing a pain in my left foot that made downhills really uncomfortable (it turned out just to be a pressure point – thank goodness!). I was so relieved to cross the line at 7:59:54 and said something incomprehensible to Tropical John before promptly sitting down. I had been looking forward to this moment for about 7 hours.

I learned after the race that Jim Walmsley had a very similar experience his first time at Lake Sonoma, so that bodes well for me. All kidding aside, I think there is definitely a lot to be said for experience on this course. Granted, plenty of people put down great performances on their first time out, but I learned some things that will help me out next time. This was my third 50 miler, and I am still figuring out how to nail the pacing aspect. Nutrition was great and I had the best crew who made it impossible for me to actually drop out because I wasn’t in any aid station long enough to convey that desire, and believe me that desire was strong.

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Take your BCAAs kids! Thankful for my crew and all the support from my Gu family on course!

In the end, I am really glad I participated and that I finished. I think if I had shifted my mentality to account for all the contributing factors, I could have run a similar time and enjoyed it more by starting slower and having minimal expectations. The whole weekend was amazing with wonderful hosting by Michael and Renay Fanelli at Asti winery, a great packet pickup atmosphere at Healdsberg Running Company and a lovely after party at the Pezzi King Winery. The course was absolutely stunning and the finish line party was lots of fun. I highly recommend this race to anyone wanting to run 50 miles! While I running I said, “Never again”, but I know I will definitely be back. Me and that course have some unfinished business.

For now. On to Spain and looooong sustained climbs and descents.

Update: I have since been offered the Golden Ticket for Western States. I am sitting on it because I want to give this decision due consideration. I said before the race that I wasn’t running for a ticket and that I want to wait to run States until I am ready for it so I can do it justice. That is all still true, however when the signup link for States is sitting in your inbox and you are 33 years old and the competition for Golden Tickets just keeps getting younger and faster, a girl really has to think about it.

Thank you to Salomon, Sufferfest, Gu Energy Labs, InsideTracker and Mt. Tam Sport and Spine for their support. Thank you to Andrew, Cheri and Braden for crewing – especially to Braden for continuing to crew the next morning when I demanded McDonald’s for breakfast lol. Thank you to Tropical John, Lisa, Mary and all the other volunteers for putting on an amazing event and providing stellar athlete support and hosting. Finally, thanks to all the friends who came out to cheer and give out high fives and fist bumps: Devon, Kim, Tyler, Eric and his daughter Sunny, and many others who I was too out of to remember fully.

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