Friday, April 17, 2015

Lake Sonoma 50 - 2015 Edition

The finish line at Lake Sonoma 50: Truly a special place. (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

In its 8th running this year, the Lake Sonoma 50 has already become a Nor Cal Spring Classic. Boasting excellent trails with beautiful views of the lake, a relentless course, and some of the fastest trail runners around, it’s a race I hope to come back to every year. This was my 3rd time running it, and it’s hard to believe, but it just keeps getting better.

Heading into race week, where I definitely tapered, I had pretty conservative goals. As mentioned in my Way Too Cool report, I have not been a highly motivated runner this year. I had two great weeks of high volume training in March, but otherwise, it’s been pretty low grade. Thus, I had my sights set closer to last year’s Sonoma time of 9:19, rather than the 8:59 I had pulled off in 2012.

“You always do that,” Jenelle accused me, two days before the race. “You say you’re not going to do well, and then you run great!”

I digested that for a second, thinking about how much faster I’d run at San Diego last year than I had said I would.

“I know.” I sighed. “I’m a total sandbagger. I don’t mean to be though; I just don’t want to be disappointed.”

I decided to quit worrying about my race, and just have a good weekend. Jenelle was coming out to watch, and my husband Andrew was coming too, which is a very rare treat! I had reserved two nights at the hotel in Healdsburg, and our other friends Andrew and Yvette would come to the finish line and then hang out for the rest of the weekend. It really didn’t matter how well my race went – it was bound to be a fun weekend!

I rode to the start with Chaz, and we lined up together in the early morning light. We greeted many friends and enjoyed the pre-race nerves and excitement that we all felt. I was excited to see my friend Jenny Capel because I hadn’t realized she would be there.

On the starting line with Chaz. I swear it wasn't foggy out. This is just Chaz's idea of cool photo filters.

Starting off on the pavement, I soon found myself in a small friendly group of runners that included Erika Lindland, Scott Mills, and Kevin Skiles.

“Whatever you do,” I warned everyone, “don’t get in front of Erika. You’ll regret it later!” There was general agreement on this point, as Erika always runs a killer pace late in her races. She accused me of mowing her down in the final miles of this race last year, but I finished only a couple minutes ahead of her.

The awesome Erika Lindland, with Kevin and me back there trying to keep up. (Photo by Chris Jones)

We hit the singletrack, and everything was lovely. Our group stayed more or less together all the way to the first full aid station at mile 11. We joked so much about not wanting to get in front of each other, lest we get our butts kicked later in the race, that when Erika dropped something and had to pull off to pick it up, letting us all pass her, Kevin and I had to give her grief about it.

“Nice race strategy!” Kevin teased. Now I was suddenly leading the group. Noooo!

Eventually I found myself running up front with Scott. Looking back, Erika was nowhere to be seen.

“How is it that I broke my own rule about not getting in front of Erika?” I asked Scott. He laughed as we ran along together. The day was warming up beautifully, and I felt great. So far my splits had been pretty close to last year’s, as far as I could tell. I figured I was on pace for something in the 9:10-9:20 range.

After the Madrone Point aid station at mile 19, I was still running with Scott when we started one of the bigger climbs on the course. We had moved from singletrack onto a dirt road. The next ten miles back to this aid station are some of the most exposed on the course, but fortunately it wasn’t yet hot out, and there was a thin cloud cover.

The out-and-back course around Lake Sonoma

When we saw the first men coming back toward us, Scott and I could only laugh.

“That’s just not right,” he said.

“They make it look so easy!” I agreed. We were running downhill, and they were running up at the same pace. Actually, they were probably faster.

We both noted that we saw the first men much sooner than we had last year, but were undecided about whether that meant they were running faster than last year or we were running slower. I chose to believe the former.

Eventually I left Scott behind and moved through the next miles feeling strong. I enjoyed cheering for friends like Meghan and Pam who were already on their return trip.

I hit the aid station at No Name Flat (mile 25) in 4:20, which I had a vague idea was somewhere between my split from last year and my split from 2012. (Turns out I was right – it was 3 minutes faster than last year, and 5 minutes slower than 2012.) I was pretty happy to be faster at this point than last year because I knew I was feeling much better. I recall thinking at this point last year that it was going to be a painful slog back to the finish. By contrast, this year I felt great, and my spirits were high.

Seeing so many friends on this section certainly contributed to my fun. Smiling faces and many cheers and greetings filled the miles and kept me cranking along.

The only mistake I made was topping off just one bottle at No Name instead of leaving with two full bottles. Rookie move. I hadn’t realized how much warmer it had gotten. As mentioned, this section of the course is exposed, and there are some solid climbs. The cloud cover had vanished. I ran out of water. Stupid me.

I know this course fairly well by now though. When I came to a familiar singletrack climb, I knew it would soon pop out at the top onto a dirt road, and from there it was less than a mile of downhill to the aid station. Eric Schranz had long ago departed and taken his Golden Shower with him to follow the fast guys to the finish when I arrived at the dirt road right behind Craig Thornley and his green truck and followed him all the way in.

Although I was a little on the dehydrated side, I could tell it wasn’t bad. It’s a quick two miles until the next aid station, so I left Madrone with two full bottles and spent most of that time taking in fluids. By the time I reached Wulflow aid station at mile 33, I felt fully back on track with fluids and calories.

I was running alone at this point, although I had glimpsed Erika at the turnaround. The hardest part of Lake Sonoma is the return trip, and for me it has always been a huge mental struggle. Both of my previous runs here had me feeling slow, unfocused, and depressed through the lonely miles from Madrone (mile 31) to Island View (mile 45.5). The scenery is incredible – glimpses of glittering turquoise water in the lake below, grassy hillsides dotted with wildflowers in pinks, purples, oranges, and even a few reds, big shady oak trees interspersed with redwood glens and cascading creeks. But the hills are relentless, and it can be hard to keep a good rhythm. Somehow, miraculously, this year I completely found my mojo on this stretch. I felt great!

The beautiful trails of Lake Sonoma. (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Somewhere between mile 33 and 38 I caught up to Chaz, and we ran together for the rest of the race. I discovered that I was still totally capable of running hard on the downhills, which I think is part of what had me feeling so good. Typically I become a gingerfoot on the downhills when I get tired. Although my training mileage had been low, I had spent much of it in the canyons of the Western States trail, which will certainly help your downhill running ability.

I was in my groove and focused on the trail when I glanced up to see where Chaz was just in time to avoid a hard collision between a tree and my forehead. Phew! A little while later though, there was another one, and this time I wasn’t so lucky. Fortunately, this tree was hanging just enough higher to do little more than scare me and steal the hat off my head. I love running in my Big Truck trucker hat because the big brim provides good shade (or rain protection, as the case may be), but it definitely has its drawbacks. I guess I need to look up more.

As we headed in to the Island View aid station, Erika was right behind us, and I could see that we were on pace to finish in under 9 hours. I couldn’t believe it! I still felt strong, although I knew that wouldn’t last a whole lot longer. I rushed through the aid station and yelled to Chaz to hurry.

“We’ve got this!” I encouraged. With 8:04 on the clock, we had 55 minutes to finish in 8:59. Exactly 12 minute pace. I knew we’d been averaging close to 11 minute pace for the last 14 miles, but I also knew these last 4.5 had a lot of climbing.

I can’t remember the last time I felt that pumped up leaving an aid station. I was on the verge of a PR, but I knew I was really going to have to work for it. I had Chaz there to run with, and I knew he was gunning for it too. Erika was right behind us, and I was sure all three of us could work together to get that sub-9. Maybe even faster.

This mindset lasted for about a half mile.

Holy crap there are a lot of hills in the final miles of that race! I remembered running this section with Chris last year, and I tried to push my pace like I had then. I was breathing so hard on the climbs that I was kind of scaring myself. I worked and pushed and scraped every last ounce of strength I had, and around every corner was another goddamn climb.

I'm not sure this elevation profile does it justice.

 “Beer!” Chaz yelled back to me in encouragement. Hell yeah; that first Racer 5 was going to be heavenly. But there was work to be done before that. Painful work.

I watched the minutes slowly tick by on my watch. Chaz eventually pulled away as I faded, and I crossed my fingers for him.

Erika came up behind me for the last time right as we hit the “one mile to go” sign. I looked at my watch. 8:50.

“Crap!” Erika and I almost said it in unison. I let her go by and completely accepted my fate. There would be no PR today. And honestly, that was okay. I’d had a better day than I could have possibly hoped for, and now all I wanted was to be done running. That last mile took forever.

(Photo by Andrew Crisp)

High-five from the hubby on the way in! (Photo by Andrew Crisp)

The finish chute at Sonoma is long, but that gives you plenty of time to bask in the cheers of your friends and family. Andrew was there, along with Jenelle and our friends Andrew and Yvette.  I crossed the line in 9:03. Tropical John was there with a hug, and I was full of joy and relief to be done running.

Finishing strong and happy! (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

My first order of business was to find Erika and Chaz, give hugs, and find out if they had made it in under 9 hours. I knew it was possible, and I still had hope for them. But they both finished in 9:01. Gah! So close.

Thirty minutes, a recovery drink, and one beer later, and I felt worlds better. Now all that was left was to bask in our achievements in the beautiful spring day and cheer for more finishers. My definition of a perfect afternoon.

There’s no denying this race is hard. But there’s also no denying that I love it. Even though I was 4 minutes off my PR for the course, I still feel like this was my best Sonoma yet. I feel like I paced it perfectly. I felt absolutely great right up until those last 2 or 3 miles, (when I suddenly felt like I wanted to die). I think I just ran up against the limits of my training, and I am grateful that I made it all the way to mile 48ish before I did. I just needed a little more gas in the tank, and I came up short.

From mile 31 to mile 45.5, I was 4 minutes faster than in 2012. But from mile 45.5 to the finish, I was 6 minutes slower than in 2012. God only knows how I ran that section in 53 minutes that year.

The rest of the weekend is really what it was all about. Andrew, Jenelle, Chaz, Drew, Yvette and I had an amazing dinner out in Healdsburg that night. We followed it up with beer tasting at Bear Republic. We were taking a certain amount of pride in shutting down the brewery when I looked behind me to see that Bryon Powell’s table was still going strong outside. Those are the true professionals.

Enjoying my amazing trout and a sangria at Bravas (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

With Yvette, Drew, Andrew, and Jenelle. Andrew said Jenelle had enough hair for both of them. (Photo courtesy Jenelle Potvin)

Taster sets at Bear Republic. Yum!

This was someone at Bryon Powell's table at Bear Republic.

And if you have a spouse or significant other who just isn’t into the whole ultrarunning thing, I highly recommend you bring her or him to a weekend at Lake Sonoma 50. First, the prerace dinner at Spoonbar was fabulous! Then, a Saturday night out in Healdsburg is guaranteed to be delicious. And totally hip. (Something we dont get a lot of in small mountain towns.) Sunday always features wine tasting at a vineyard, arranged by John and Lisa. I have never stayed for the wine tasting portion of the race before, but I am here to tell you that I will never skip it again. Andrew assures me that he is coming, too. 

The view from Pezzi-King vinyards.

Enjoying Sunday wine tasting at Pezzi-King with Andrew and Drew.

A huge thanks, as always, to John and Lisa and their team for putting on such an incredible event. This one is top notch in every way and provides such a quintessential slice of our little ultrarunning community. 

Tropical John gives thanks. Gordy and Craig do their best to imitate his wardrobe.

Thanks especially to Chaz, Erika, and Scott for sharing so many miles on the trail with me. That was such a huge, wonderful part of my day. 

Thanks to Andrew for doing all the driving on Sunday!

I have been a thoroughly uninspired runner all season. Sitting here with a case of poison oak (boooo!), a case of wine (yaaaaayy!), and a case of full-fleged post-race glow, and I think, I hope, that time has come to an end. Sonoma is an incredibly challenging race, not just because of its 10K feet of elevation gain, but also because I always seem to push myself so hard there. 

I’ll save you the emotional sermon about why I’ve been in such a slump, but I will say this: There’s nothing to help you out of such a space like pushing yourself, making yourself hurt, feeling surprised at your own abilities, doing it all with friends, and celebrating afterward.

Thank you so much, Lake Sonoma. I needed that.

Two people who ran awesome at Lake Sonoma. (And one bull.)


  1. What a wonderful race report! And yes, you are a bit of a sandbagger! As I work my way through my own running slump, I find this really inspiring! Thank you! PS... I really need to run Lake Sonoma one of these days - I'll put it on my ultra bucket list despite how hard it sounds!

    1. I know, total sandbagger. Oh well. You should definitely come do Sonoma, and don't forget to do the wine tasting on Sunday.

      In the last few miles of the race this year, I told myself that one of these years I am going to run this at an easy effort level and just socialize with as many people as possible. I doubt I will be able to let myself do that, but it sure sounds nice! :)

  2. I will never believe when you say you are not ready, or have are a natural! Great joy to read about your race. See ya this August!