(Most photos courtesy of Ryan Martin)
I entered the lottery for the Lake Sonoma 50-mile race, looking for an early-season fitness test and also figuring it wouldn't hurt to be in the Western States "last chance" lottery. I found out that our friends Ryan and Kelly also got in, so it would be a fun weekend together in wine country north of San Francisco.
John asked if I was ready to race, and my response was basically that it's easy to tell when I'm not ready. Harder to determine when I'm in good form. Training has been positive lately (knock on wood) and the California (lack of) winter is treating me well.
Still, I wasn't quite mentally prepared to hit it hard from the beginning of the race, not to mention I've got competitive events every weekend for the next 3 weeks (not sure about that decision). Starting conservatively sounded good, also it's more fun if I'm still in good shape in the second half. So that was the idea.
Side trip - I detoured over to Point Reyes on Friday to see if any whales happened to be cruising by. And there were! I got really lucky and a group of folks spotted 2 juveniles from the overlook above the lighthouse. With their help in spotting the whales, I caught glimpses several times as they surfaced and then dove back down. They were not far from shore so it was easy to see them. Very, very cool. My first whale sighting in the wild. Admiral, there be whales here!
Back to the running stuff. The race started on pavement and generally uphill for a couple miles which was great for letting the field sort itself out before hitting the singletrack. I also appreciate an uphill start when I'm trying to keep from being competitive too early. Gordy Ainsleigh, creator of Western States and 100 mile races in general, passed me on the road. I've been enjoying seeing some of the west coast running scene, and seeing Gordy run last weekend was a highlight.
Ryan caught a photo of him later:
I wasn't the last person to reach the trail, but pretty close. I was mostly patient behind people going down the first hill but still couldn't resist passing a couple when it was easy to get by. No matter how much I'm "taking it easy" and running gently, I still go downhill at a decent clip. At least when my legs are working well (again knock on wood).
From there it was 9-something miles of gorgeous trail above the lake, in the trees, little ups and downs, ins and outs. I made it fine on one bottle of water (probably should have topped it off at the 4-mile mark) as it was nice and cloudy and cool. Toward the end of this section I started thinking I should have eaten more for breakfast (Friday's carbo loading not enough for you?) but having a closer-to-empty stomach through the first half seemed to work out.
I busied myself with trying to learn as much of the trail as I could, in the form of breaking it into sections and counting the approximate number of climbs. The race was mostly an out-and-back with variations at the start and a lollipop turn-around. There were several creek crossings but otherwise much of the terrain looked the same. It was all very pretty (love the CA woods around here) but not much to distinguish it. One creek had a small dam with moss that turned out to be not-slippery (there should be a word for that?) so I kept my feet dry for now.
The trail took us through a field where we could see the other side of the lake, and upon closer inspection we could see the lead (I assume) runners barreling down a hill on the other side. Cool! There was a houseboat on the lake and some people camping.
Excellent pictures that Ryan took during the race (thanks Ryan!):
I started a trend of gradually catching up to someone, finding a way to pass, then running by myself for a couple minutes before catching someone else. One guy said he had seen me at another race, turns out it was the Woodside Ramble - the shirt I was wearing. That was pretty funny. Kelly and I said good morning and she looked to be climbing well. I took it very easy on the uphills since I wasn't confident about my ability to climb 10,500 feet in a strong way all day. The downhills were fun and the flatter sections (there were a couple sprinkled in the mix of a mostly hilly course) felt great.
My breathing was very easy, getting warmed up and staying loose. I had an idea that I should work on my posture, and that turned out to be an excellent thing to focus on. Walking more upright going uphill was definitely less tiring in the long run. I've lost some of my steep uphill (calf) strength, but I can still march up a less-steep slope pretty easily when I can get my entire foot in the act instead of just the ball.
The long section ended at a creek crossing which was shallow but wide so everyone had to get their feet wet. We climbed up from there to the first full aid station where I found my drop bag, drank an Ensure, and carried a Spiz baggie out. The next section had a decent-sized climb that meandered around, over the top of a spur, down and up a few times, then finally down to another creek crossing. I was happy to hit a short section of road right as I was working on passing a group of 5 runners, and the downhill road made that easy.
One more wet creek crossing - hey, there's a runner crossing on a log bridge over to the side! I didn't see that until I was across and above him. I made a note about that for later. More rolling terrain, a nice climb up switchbacks, then a rather steep drop off the other side (noted for the return). The trail was rather high above the lake most of the time and the views across and around us were always pretty.
I saw a guy wearing a Mt Diablo 50K shirt so I asked him if he was running next weekend - no (what are you, crazy?) but he liked the race a lot. After the race I met the guy who will be doing the announcements at Diablo, and Kelly overheard the Diablo race director talking to someone on the trail. All agreed that it was a tough one. Hmm...
The eastern portion of the course (we're back to Lake Sonoma now) was mostly out of the trees and the clouds were starting to leave. It could be a warm afternoon. I was surprised to be running this section mostly by myself, but it was good timing because the lead runners started coming back toward me. It was enough effort to get out of their way that I was glad I wasn't also trying to pass people at the same time. A couple of the guys smiled and greeted me (thank you!), although I could understand why most were just concentrating quietly on the immense effort they were putting out. Impressive.
The section between the Wulfow and Madrone Point aid stations went quickly and soon I was getting my Spiz baggie filled and eating a couple Oreo's while walking up the access road. It was great timing to find a wide road, and I was happy that it continued through most of the section where runners were going in both directions at once.
This was the start of 3 "big" (600-700 foot) climbs and descents. I had been metering my effort all morning in preparation for this. I took it really easy up the first climb, letting several people pass me (I might have just passed some of them at the aid station) while cheering on the fast runners including the lead woman barreling toward us. I smiled a lot during the race, and I remember enjoying this part a lot.
Soon I was at the top, that was fast. A short bit of singletrack (and several fast women who weren't much for giving a little trail as I tried to get out of the way) later and it was back to a nice doubletrack road down the hill. Folks were running up the hill toward me, looking strong. It seemed like a long way down, almost to lake level, that's going to be a bear to climb back up.
The second climb was shady in parts, much appreciated. We also had wind off and on and it never got overly hot (although some who were running fast might disagree). The climb was steeper in parts so I continued to take it easy going up. We could see across to the south side of the lake, and hey I think the car is over there. After some little rollers at the top I finally found the start of the lollipop loop. This turned out to be a beautiful (but short) trail around through the trees.
On the short out-and-back to the turnaround aid station, a couple things happened. First I met Ryan going the other way - Hi Ryan! I had decided that I had missed him in the lollipop, but apparently not. Then I bombed down the hill past a couple people and heard one guy talking about how I kept passing him on the downhills. He was telling someone that I climbed "super slowly" but I was descending really fast. I didn't exactly think either was true, but either way I was about done with my "take it easy" portion of the race.
The volunteer filling my bottle at the aid station asked if I intended to start sweating anytime soon. Why yes, now that you mention it... OK, but first one more big climb to conquer. And cantaloupe to eat, yummy! Love fruit in a long race. A quick pit stop and drop bag sort, one salt tablet as a preventative heat measure, and I was outta there. 5:20 seemed more than reasonable for 25 miles.
Going back the other way now, it was fun to look across to see that other parts of the course were visible, from the next hill over to the other side of the lake to the south side finish line. You don't normally get such an overview of an entire 50-mile race route. Kelly was nearing the start of the lollipop when I saw her, looking good!
Ryan snapped a picture of her a few minutes earlier:
The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Back down to the lake again, I wasn't looking forward to the last big climb. It was mostly out in the open so I took it at a moderate pace and was happy I never felt hot. Partway up I trailed Ryan for a couple switchbacks before getting close enough that we could chat a little. He was still moving well and it was great seeing friends on the course.
I could see a woman in a light green shirt not far ahead, and since I was continuing to pass people, I suspected I might catch her sometime. Occasionally I'd get another glimpse of her but she was motoring along just fine, so I didn't think much of it. On the big downhill she was gone, so I wasn't making time on her there. She showed up again just below the Madrone Point aid station, looking up to see me heading for more cantaloupe.
The next short section to Wulfow went well again, still catching up to one guy here, another guy there. Light Green Lady disappeared, obviously passing the same people before I was. I had already decided that I would start pushing the pace a bit (just a bit) more on the uphills but keep the flats and downs the same as I had been running, or as near to it as I could. Overall a bit more effort, hitting the gas just a hair. At least for the 8 miles in between Madrone Point and the next drop bag aid station. No need to race anyone, especially not yet.
The folks at Wulfow were great, quickly filling my bottle and providing water for my Spiz baggie. I thought I heard them offering "pour overs" but decided they must have meant water over your head instead of coffee (oh well). Thanks for lugging everything out to the middle of nowhere to assist us! More little ups and downs, contouring around back toward the woods. Finally getting mostly out of the sun, that was a good moment.
One guy that I passed kept up with me and I let him by so I could finish drinking my Spiz. For the most part though, runners in this section seemed to be slowing down. I kept the foot on the gas pedal, with only a brief downshifting at the steep climb that I remembered from earlier (yep, it wasn't great, but at least it was short). In the switchbacks going down I passed a guy who was limping, that didn't look like fun. Several other runners were stopped at various points to stretch out their legs or rest. One guy was lying on the grass. This trail seemed to be taking a toll.
At the creek crossing I checked for any yellow "wrong way" flags on the little path to the log crossing, didn't find any, so decided to use it. It was nice keeping my feet dry a little longer, although my feet were still doing just fine and probably wouldn't have minded the dousing at all.
It was so nice to be back in the trees, I didn't even mind the next climb at all. What I did mind, however, were the rollers up on top. I sort of remembered a down and back up, but completely missed that this would happen multiple times. My first-half rememorization failed me here, causing a tiny bit of annoyance every time the trail went back up. OK, now this should be the downhill to the aid station. No, another upward turn. OK, this one? No. On the bright side, I caught another glimpse of the Lady in Light Green on the final (yes finally!) bit of climbing before we finally dropped down to the aid station.
She got out of the aid station quickly, while I had a couple things to attend to. While pulling stuff out of my drop bag I looked up to see a crowd of crew people watching. Hi! I don't normally have an audience for that, so it made me laugh. One woman responded with "yay, you got it!", more laughter from me, and thank you for the encouragement.
Someone at the aid station questioned the two guys behind me about whether they had seen a runner in distress? I was thinking, hmm, I saw one guy limping, several stopped on the trail for various reasons, and one lying in the grass. Could be any of them. They seemed to know who she was asking about, hopefully they got help out to that person.
OK, time to tackle the long section of endless hills. One creek crossing for real, then the relentless ups and downs started. I was ready to push just a little more on the hills, so I keyed off of anyone I could see in front of me. I'd work, eventually pass them (more often than not on the uphills by now), run by myself for a while, find someone else to help me push the pace.
It was great having a count of the sections and hills from my first pass through here. Some parts took longer than expected but others were actually faster. Some traverses took time but were still a nice break. The trail was mostly in great shape except for an occasional couple of rocks and I was still running well. Running well and happy about it.
I was impressed with the number of people that the woman in light green had been passing. Occasionally I'd see a light green shirt ahead, but it would be a guy. Or two guys in light green shirts, they took a while to pass. But the woman was gone again. I could see her at the top of the open field. Then gone.
Finally I started getting close enough to her that I could sense a pattern - I was making up ground slowly but surely on the uphills. She was bombing down the descents more than I was, so that was mostly making up for it for a while. I stayed patient, counted my sections and hills, knowing how many there were until the last section. The last 3.4 miles of trail would be new since we had bypassed it on the road at the start of the race.
Then there was no one else in between me and the woman in light green. I had finally caught up to her, but it had taken quite some time! She had a good 2nd half going, like I did. She paused to let me by and we both said a heartfelt "Good job!"
Right about then we caught a couple more women, which was a couple more than I had seen in a while besides the lady I had just passed. I flew by them on a beautiful gently sloping downhill (couldn't resist). Mostly I was happy that no one I had passed took up the chase. We were within probably 6-7 miles to go but there was plenty of work remaining.
Ryan running, possibly somewhere in here (or not):
The final aid station required a 1/4-mile out-and-back down to the lake. Coming toward me up the hill was a large bunch that included possibly 5 women. I wondered whether I would see any of them before the end, but I was starting to run out of extra oomph and not all that interested in chasing just for the sake of finding out. One final bottle and Spiz fill, at least no one was right on my heels pressing through the aid station. A volunteer remarked that I had brought my own coffee (referring to the Spiz), and I was like "I wish!" He offered some Coke as a substitute and I took him up on it.
Another slew of runners coming toward me as I climbed back up, all the folks I had recently passed. Glad to be done with the final section of having to pass people going in both directions on a narrow trail, at least none of it was ever too long or tedious. I was ready for the final 3 hills that I knew about. Those went pretty well considering that my legs were finally getting weary.
And now the turn-off onto the new (to me) section of trail. I was ready to go see these last 3+ miles. I couldn't remember exactly the elevation chart except that it went up and down. Nothing new there. The trail was nice, gradually climbing up to the end of an inlet. Through the trees I saw some runners above me, not too far ahead. It was a good motivator to keep climbing, keep climbing, posture, posture, posture.
About halfway along the new trail I was really ready to be finished. My legs were making quiet noises about possibly thinking about cramping, so I didn't want to stress them too much more. They were still OK with running the downhills, thank goodness. And no one came up behind me, thank goodness.
Just as I was starting to think that I was perfectly happy with this finishing position, just starting to say to myself "I hope I don't see anyone ahead of me to chase, nor anyone behind me to run from", there was a woman not far ahead. That pass was easy, OK no problem. Good enough.
Then two more women, for goodness sake. Right about then we were at the "1 mile to go" sign, which was really helpful to know. Also right at that moment I got a gift, in the form of a section of moderately technical rocks. I ran and danced through them while the other ladies slowed and picked their way. Somehow I felt really comfortable, flashbacks to Bandera, and my legs obliged. Probably a bit of adrenaline involved.
The best part was that none of the women tried to keep up, so I was free to run on ahead at a moderate speed without needing to tear up the trail to the finish line. Which was great because the last portion goes uphill. Then you see a parking lot but it's not the right one. Then you cross a road - what the heck? You can see the finish line but start to worry exactly where this trail is going to veer off to along the way.
Thankfully it only overshoots slightly, then it's a nice run down to the grass and around to the finish. I passed one last guy with a burst of speed at the end for good measure. I may have apologized to him as I was doing it.
I didn't quite manage negative splits, but ~5:31 return (vs. 5:20 out) ain't half bad. It was a good solid effort and I'm pleased with my fitness level at this point in the year. I was also excited to find that immediately icing my knees kept them from aching that night, hopefully that's something that will continue to work for future long races.
Awesome post-race food (tamales, BBQ), good conversation with other runners, listening to talk about the Boston Marathon, Western States, and other races, Ryan and Kelly finishing strong. And a lovely wine tasting the next day (photo at the beginning of the post) - you can't beat that for a California ultra.
While I spent a day running around a lake, John and Jason actually did something useful - go guys!