Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lake Sonoma 50

Sonoma County reminds me of home - Canterbury home, that is. The hills are a bit bigger, but the wooded, lush and rolling nature of the terrain has a very Kentish feel to it. Deep greens are always a welcome break from Front Range Brown, so feeling at ease with my surroundings on the drive north from Oakland on Friday, I felt like I was ready for a good run.

After a very restful night, it was up early to meet Darcy and Mackey for the quick 20 minute drive to the start at the south bay of the ridiculously scenic Lake Sonoma, a reservoir that feeds the vineyard covered hillsides of the surrounding valleys. Given the serenity of the lakeside route and the seemingly remote nature of the venue, the race had a certain calm about it that was really quite refreshing.  

We listened to a few brief words from race director John Medinger and then we were off up the road for a couple of rolling asphalt miles to stretch out the field before the singletrack stomp began. Despite the strong field, the road miles were run at a pretty casual pace, with runners seemingly more interested in banter and catching up than in racing.

We hit the trail at 2.5 miles and immediately got a taste of what was in store for the next six hours. The dirt track bombed downwards on some pretty sloppy trail, then just as quickly assumed an upward trajectory around one of the hundreds of drainage channels that feed the lake. This was then followed by some rolling turns, a couple of sharp up and downs and then some more rolling. If you want to run a jabby, rolling course then come out and run Lake Sonoma, as I believe the race is the dictionary definition of both 'jabby' and 'rolling.' In fact, let's just call it 'jabolling.'

I prefer my climbs and descents a little longer, but a little variation never hurt anyone, besides I was feeling decent enough through the early going that I was happy to be on the roller coaster tracks. The banter was good, with Mr. Koerner being in particularly fine form.

With all the mini climbs and descents, it became apparent early where peoples' strengths lay. Joe Uhan was steady 10 meters or so off the front, while Gary Gellin in second was running an awkwardly choppy tempo dictated by his heart rate monitor: hard on the downs and then trippingly slow on the climbs. A group of us edged around Gary a few miles into the singletrack and the pace quickened a touch as we bridged up to Joe.

After about 10 miles, the pace was apparently still too lazy for Timmy Olson who shot to the front and quickly gapped the peloton. Fair enough, I thought; nobody went with him. Jorge Maravilla led the pace of the chase group with, I think Dave Mackey and Dakota in front of me and a train of probably seven other guys behind. We hit the second major creek crossing after 12 miles, just before the second aid station, after having gone waist deep through the first water crossing at mile three or four. This one, while longer, was a little shallower but still deep enough that foot placement was something of a leap of faith.
'Warm Creek' crossing. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
Shortly after exiting the creek and coming into aid 2. Photo: Drymax

I should have just gone straight through at the aid station, but instead stopped to top up on water as I had no clue when the next water stop was. Jorge, Dakota, Dave and Hal all scooted through, and with Timmy already a minute ahead, I was in sixth leaving the aid station with a bit of a gap to make up on the chase pack. I figured it wouldn't take long, but as it turned out I wouldn't see Dakota or Timmy again until the finish. Hal and Dave, however, would remain in sight on longer stretches.

And so it went all the way to the mile 25 turnaround. I would get glimpses of Hal and Dave every now and again, then on the shoulder checks I would see that there was nobody in close proximity behind. Given that there was a one-mile loop for the turnaround before recommencing on the return portion of the 50 mile out-and-back course, I never got a check on the gap to Dakota and Tim. Too bad because I wanted to tell them both to slow the hell down. On the short spur to the halfway aid, I caught up to Hal, while seeing that Dave was a minute or two ahead. I got a quick refill, managing to get out just ahead of Hal.

The first mile or two of the return journey would involve an 800 foot drop on what had been the biggest climb of the day on the way out, followed by a climb of equal length to the 30 mile aid, then another decent drop before resuming the rolling theme of the day. I hadn't really been descending that well for most of the morning as my quads were feeling strangely 'off,' so I took it relatively easy on the first big descent from the turnaround, which allowed Hal to get back in front of me. Nonetheless, it was good enough to pick off an obviously ailing Mackey. I resumed the lead over Hal climbing back up to the 30 mile aid station and then tried to hit the ensuing descent a little harder to see if I could build a gap, but it seemed like Hal was feeling feisty and ready to race, sticking to me like glue.

Mile 28 or so, with Mackey behind. Photo: Gary Wang

There was no need for shoulder checks to keep tabs on Hal as his headphones could be heard a good ten meters ahead. I'd get the second-hand music all the way through mile 35 or so, after which I slowly, finally, began to build a gap. While there was still no sign of the guys in front, I had heard the gap was six minutes from a couple of people along the course, and then just as I was pulling into the penultimate aid station at mile 38 I got a view of Jorge who I hadn't seen in a good three hours. Bummer for him, I thought, as I knew he was after a Western States spot, but a race is a race. I passed soon thereafter on a short climb and wished him well. My legs were still feeling decent so I was able to get out of sight pretty quickly. From there it was just a question of maintaining a tempo that would get me through to the finish in the shortest order possible. I had no idea how far Tim and Dakota were ahead of me, so continued to run as if I had a shot at reeling them in.

Then I got to the final aid station at mile 45 and learned that Dakota had somehow built a 30 minute lead on me and that Timmy was 10 minutes ahead. The sails were officially deflated and I slipped into 10-minute- per-mile mode for the last grinding uphill miles to the finish.
Ready for a beer. Photo: Drymax

As RD John Medinger put it in a recent email to runners, "the course is a hard - but ultimately fair - test of your fitness and tenacity." I'd definitely go along with that. As a side note, I think the total climb is probably a little closer to 7,000 feet than the advertised 10,000 feet, but unlike some 10,000 feet courses with five or six big upper-cut climbs, this one jabs away at you with 60-70 unrelenting body blows and it takes its toll. 

The post-race scene was highly conducive to hours of lingering. Buckets of quality beer, an awesome Yucatan feed, perfect weather and good people a plenty. Yup, that's the ticket.

Thornley seems to get everywhere. One day he'll rule the (ultrarunning) world. Photo: Drymax

I'm not quite sure what to make of my race to be quite honest. Up until I learned that Dakota was 30 minutes ahead of me, I actually felt like I was having a pretty good run. Through the last five miles, I faded horribly and started getting down on myself for letting the leaders get away so early in the race. Three or four days later, and I'm calling it a solid training run. With the Lake Sonoma and NF50 showing in December, it is clear that Dakota is running at the top of his game right now; I've just got to figure out how to up my game to match.
Top 10. Photo: Drymax
There are plenty of positives to take away from the race. I ran hard all morning and felt like there would have been plenty left to give at 100-mile pace. My equipment worked fantastically. The proto PI 'Ultra' shorts are a thing of beauty. They held two 5oz gel flasks in the compression hip pockets flawlessly and with absolutely no bounce. I'm digging the new tops too: nice and loud. For fueling, I used EFS drink mix and the new Kona Mocha gel, which combined offered great energy and kept at bay any threats of cramping. I made a conscious effort to drink more than I normally would in a bid to promote digestion and absorption of calories, and I was generally successful with getting the extra fluids down.

A tweak here and a tweak there and we should be good to go for Western States. To be sharp for the back 50, I know that I need to incorporate longer trail tempo efforts and start cutting out some of the 'easy' fluff that I'm so comfortable pushing out in training. I've also got to start working the downs a bit, but that's all part of the master plan. Getting beat by 30 minutes was a good slap in the face. Time to start sharpening the volume. Tick tock.   

Rough splits from memory:

12 mile (1:29)
25 mile (3:15)
30 mile (3:52)
38 mile (5:01)
46 mile (6:05)
50.5 mile (6:51)


  1. Good stuff and great writeup, looks like you had fun, welcome back to your real home!

    May sounds like a good time to push some hard downhills.

  2. Always enjoy a Sir Clark(e) write up. WS is sure to be a barn burner with the top ten coming back plus a few other big names. Time for you to come home with a cougar.

  3. why wear a high-tech visor when good ole truckers hat will do the trick. Nice running Nick.

  4. why wear a high-tech visor when good ole truckers hat will do the trick. Nice running Nick.

  5. You wrecked my fantasy ultra picks, you bum!

  6. Solid race and report, as always.

    Say, those compression hip pockets sound interesting. Any idea when those shorts will be out?

  7. For a "handbottler" like me- the extra pockets on the shorts are key. As soon as I get a new pair of shorts (2 since 2008)- I go to my local seamstress and get a panel of 4 pockets across the back to accommodate 5 oz flasks of EFS. I generally only carry 1 at a time, but 2 or more could be done just fine without bounce if they are made right. This is an excellent system. It is exciting to see gear and clothing manufacturers begin to build ultra specific products. I have never tried the combo- spandex inner and flowy nylon outer type shorts- ala Salomon. They look pretty nice- I would like to see a closeup pic of the pockets.

  8. Robert - those truckers hats have been a big hit. Lots on display post race.

    Jon - they will be out towards the end of this year, I believe.

    SV - yeah, the hip set-up works really well. We went through a long and tortured process to get them just right, so it is pretty gratifying to find that the end product works so well. The pockets are integrated into the liner at an angle so it contours the sweet spot in the butt cleft, and makes for easy access and stowing, which is the key to their success. With the early protos, we did essentially the same as you described with a mesh attached to the short and that worked well enough too, but probably not so much for retail purposes.

  9. Yep, mine are ugly as crap. I look like a major tool in these things.

    "an angle so it contours the sweet spot in the butt cleft"...You really make it sound sexy to carry around gelatinous sugary ooze in your trousers.

  10. so when will the ultra shorts be available for purchase. Sound sweet. Do you know how long the inseem is? 7"?

  11. Solid run Nick! Seems like if anything it just stoked the fire a bit for WS

  12. Fluid enlglish writer you are with a fine memory to recall splits off hand.. oh and you're a kick ass runner too. Thanks for the rides from you and Darcy.. and Bryon. Good hanging out.