Lake Sonoma 50
Warning: this is a long one…
There’s been a lot going on in my life since I last wrote anything (I got a NASA Fellowship to fund the rest of my graduate research! I got married! I have worked almost ceaselessly on writing up my research for publication! I took over a new research project and it’s been a new circle of hell trying to get it to work!) and part of me feels weird suddenly jumping back into writing with almost a year since my last post. And of course there’s everything going on in the wider world that is so much bigger and scarier and also so deeply more beautiful (like that black hole picture?!) than anything in my little life. But I feel the need to share this experience because it was significant for me and if nothing else, I want to add to what information is out there about this glorious beast that is the Lake Sonoma 50.
Two years ago I started delving into this world of trail and ultra running (often called Mountain Ultra Trail running/racing, or just MUT), and my growing obsession led me to volunteer at whatever races I could get to. One of which was the Lake Sonoma 50. I volunteered at Wulfow water stop in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, I was so excited by the prospect of seeing the elite runners fly by, that I almost didn’t realize that there would be hundreds of “normal” people running too. The array of humanity that came through the aid station was not something I’d expected. From the elite (I think it was Alissa St. Laurent) who sat quietly for awhile before slowly moving onto the next aid station where she’d drop, to the mid-pack couple who were competing with each other (he’d been through a few minutes before her, she came into the aid station shouting at the AS captain, “How far up is he, dammit?!”) to the very back of the pack who were shuffling through, some laughing and joking, some looking completely miserable, all hoping to make the 4:45 PM cutoff at the next aid station.
By the time I volunteered in 2018, I had suffered through the Mt. Diablo 50k, gone through injury after injury, and had just passed my qualifying exam. It was the same array of runners, some I recognized, most of whom I didn’t. Towards the end of the day, Greg Lanctot, the AS captain and an amazing race director in his own right (PCTR), asked if I was going to volunteer with them next year. And I said “I want to run it next year!” It seemed almost ridiculous to say it out loud- who was I to declare that I could run this very difficult race, after having barely finished my only 50k to date? After being injured on and off for months? But I didn’t have time to regret saying it, because everyone’s reaction was immediately supportive and full of practical advice about the race, and the conversation turned to Lake Sonoma anecdotes and I felt…excited.
So come December, I threw my name into the LS50 lottery. On December 17th, my watch buzzed and I looked down to see an email notification from Ultrasignup; I was registered. I’d gotten in. And was immediately filled with that same excitement and a strong amount of dread. It was real. I had to do this.
I wasn’t unprepared at that point. I’d had a pretty decent training block up to the Mt. Tam 50k in November, although never actually got to run it after the heavy Camp Fire smoke blanketed the Bay Area and it was cancelled. (I can’t mention the Camp Fire without at least sharing this link to donate…there’s still so much rebuilding to do.) I had already signed up for the Salmon Falls 50k on February 23rd (there is a race report to come for that…eventually) and an added bonus of the Eldrith 36k on February 2nd (which would become my first DNF, or Did Not Finish, and yes, I do also intend to write about that…). I revised my training plan and then immediately had to change it after sustaining an Achilles injury while running in Arizona around Christmas. I was still able to get in a lot of long, slow miles out on the trail, with some shorter, faster (for me, anyway) runs during the week with my speedy lab mates, plus a lot of running up and down stairs in the Chemistry building. So while I wasn’t getting up to 60 miles a week like I’d initially wanted, I felt strong and ready….until 3 weeks from the race, after the Knickerbocker Canyon 35k, when something popped in my ankle and sent pain shooting up my leg. Unsure of what to do, I emailed Sarah Lavender Smith, a very accomplished ultra runner whose book I’d read many times. She basically told me I had to take it easy until the race, no more major training, but that many people have been successful at ultras after taking a longer-than-intended taper.
So I’d barely run at all in the three weeks leading up the race, instead trying to bike a lot and focus on staying healthy. Which worked, I guess, because by the day before the race my ankle was happy and I was pretty sure it would be okay.
Marcus and I (and our pups) stayed at an AirBnB in Occidental, around 50 minutes from the race start (I reserved it late, oh well). With race start at 6:30 AM on Saturday, I thought leaving at 5 would be plenty of time. But when we got there, there was a huge line of cars looking for parking along the side of the road, and we finally parked way up the hill from where the actual race start was. It was 6:11 when I got out of the car, grabbed my hydration pack and drop bags, told Marcus to meet me there, and raced down the hill. I guess it was a good warm up? I dropped off my bags, got my bib pinned on, and was in the line for the port-o-potties by 6:23. Marcus and the pups caught up to me while I was waiting. I distracted myself by giving Chena and Mikey some last minute cuddles. By the time I got out of the bathroom, there was about a minute to race start. I kissed Marcus, he wished me luck, and then we were off, down the road.
Chapter 1: The first 25
In my head, I’d divided the race into thirds. I didn’t think the first 25 miles would feel much harder than most of my long runs, so that was the first third. Then the second half, mileage wise, I split at mile 38, at Warm Springs aid station. The course is an out-and-back on many rolling hills, with a total of over 10,500 ft of ascent.
The first 2.4 miles were on pavement, starting by going back up the hill I’d just run down. I positioned myself towards the back of the pack, knowing that if I had any chance of getting through the day, I would need to start slow. I realized half way up the hill that I’d forgotten to start my watch. I was a little frazzled. But the views were beautiful and the sun was just peaking up over the hills. My left knee started complaining a bit on one of the steep paved descents, but soon enough we were on trails and I felt better. I chatted with the people around me, all way more experienced ultrarunners, and enjoyed the easy pace and gentle single track.
But by mile 8, the conversations had petered out and the voices in my head were getting louder. I tried to focus on breathing, on the beautiful rays of sun peaking through the trees, on putting one foot in front of the other, on being grateful to be out there at all. But the overwhelming feeling of having bitten off more than I could chew was getting to be too much. At some point, I turned a corner and realized I’d caught up to Ken Michal, maker of the Running Stupid podcast and a pillar of the Bay Area MUT scene. He’s run hundreds of races and I had just happened to be volunteering at a race he’d won: the Davis 2 Day, back in 2017 (the course was a 2 mile loop around a park in Davis, and the goal was to see how many laps each competitor could do over 48 hours). I’d seen him at some other races since then but had always felt weird about saying hi, sure he wouldn’t remember me or wouldn’t care about talking to me (even though I knew that he was a super nice guy). But finally, there I was right behind him, with a panic attack threatening. So I sucked it up and introduced myself as we crossed through a creek, mentioning that I’d gotten to see him win the Davis 2 Day.
And WOW, am I glad I said something. He was so friendly and so excited to reminisce about that race. After a bit he asked if I’d run LS50 before, and I said no, that it was my first 50. “Great,” he said. “Tell me what your plan is.”
A bit taken aback, I replied, “Keep putting one foot in front of the other until I get to the finish?”
“And how are you going to do that?”
“Um…as sustainably fast as I can?”
He laughed loudly. “No no no, that’s a terrible idea.”
“Okay, as sustainably slow as I can?”
“Better. Now tell me your plan for nutrition and hydration.”
It went on like this for a little while, while I explained in detail all of my plans. (If anyone is interested, I’ll share exactly what I did and how it worked at the end.) He gave me confidence in my preparation and my training, and said I was welcome to stick with him if I wanted to. I hung right behind him into the Warm Springs Aid Station at mile 11.6.
Ken left the aid station before I did, and I ended up running some of the next few miles alone. This section included a stretch through the redwoods and it was here where I started feeling the peace I usually find out on the trail. The panic was gone. I caught up to Ken and some others again, and we all leap-frogged each other until Wulfow at mile 16. This is where I’d volunteered the past two years, and it felt awesome to see it from the other side. I chatted with Greg Lanctot for just a minute (apparently his uncle has gone missing in the East Bay area?! Yikes.) and then kept moving. I knew I’d make it to the turn-around point before the cut-off at 1:15, but I didn’t want to cut it close. I kept glancing at the average pace on my watch. I knew I need to stay below 16 min/mile to be ahead of the cutoff, and I was around 14:30 then, but knew the big hills were yet to come.
The two-ish miles between Wulfow and Madrone aid station were pretty runnable, and also the only part of the course I’d ever explored (I’d gone on a short run after volunteering in 2018). I forced myself to run slow and keep my heart rate low, trying to just breathe in the course and the wide open views of the lake. I had started seeing the elite runners heading back to the start a little before Wulfow, and it was so fun to cheer them on and spectate the race this way. Even though they all looked super focused and were working hard, most of them still had a smile (sometimes more of a grimace but the good vibes were there) or something positive to say back.
I got into Madrone still feeling pretty good, although it was certainly warming up. I was real sick of gels at this point so enthusiastically chowed down on a slice of cheese quesadilla they had there. It tasted amazing, but I immediately realized that it might have been dumb to mix the heavy cheese with the impending heat and exposed climb. I’m not sure if it was the poor food choice that led to the next few miles of bleh, but I started feeling off as I climbed the big hill out of the aid station. Not terrible, just a noticeable difference from the joy I’d felt a little while ago.
The stretch from Madrone to the turn around at No Name aid station felt like the longest in the race for me. The hills are long and exposed, and I was being visited by all the ghosts of injuries past. The back of my left knee, the front of my left knee, the inside of my right knee, and especially my left Achilles were all taking turns popping and groaning. Hell, even my shoulder, injured after I fell on it two years ago, started to ache and cramp a little. After getting to the top of the hill past Madrone, the course wound all the way back down to the lake, right on the water. I made myself smile and enjoy this vantage point. But then we started up again, and up, and up, with lots of false summits and I was remembering the elevation profile and it just didn’t seem to match how much longer my watch said there was to the turn around. I kept feeling worse as I ran and hiked, every muscle complaining. I tried to keep smiling to combat this, and encouraged every single runner I saw, both those I passed and those who were already past the turn around, running towards me. Almost everyone had words of encouragement in return, and this constant back and forth helped pulled me along.
The turn around is not a straight out and back, it’s a mile long loop or so, and damn, but it felt good to reach that point. The course left the fire road I’d been on since Madrone, and turned back onto a single track trail with a sign that read “Turn Around, 3/4 mile”. Whew. I started to pick up the pace and rapidly felt more popping in my left ankle. Oy vey. I stopped and shook it out, then continued on with my much slower default ultra-shuffle (think running, but with every bit of pep vacuumed away). I saw some folks I’d run with in the beginning leaving the aid station as I was coming in, which helped lift my spirits a bit. Focused and determined to get out of there as quickly as possible, I grabbed my drop bag, plopped down on the grass, and started changing my shoes. Of course this took awhile because I forgot to put on the gaiters before the shoes, and had to take the shoes off again to pull on the gaiters. I debated changing my shorts, decided not to, stuffed more Honey Stinger gels and PayDay bars into the pockets of my hydration vest, then refilled my soft flasks, grabbed some cookies and potato chips, and high-tailed it out of there. I think it was 12:50 something when I left, about 25 minutes ahead of the cutoff there. Not ideal, but I still had a little bit of a buffer.
Chapter 2: Pickles to the rescue
Physically, I felt much better after sitting for a minute. My legs felt a little tired, but the major complaints had quieted. Or they were just getting over-powered by the complaints in my head. While I’d been sitting and changing my shoes, I’d seen multiple people come into the aid station and declare that they were dropping. And then all the volunteers would say nice, supportive things and offer them a ride back to the start, if they didn’t have friends and family already there. It seemed so easy, to just be done. To be happy with 25 miles, a solid long run, and then leave and move on with your life. That temptation was so delicious and I could not shake it from my mind.
At some point during this inner turmoil, I got back down to the lake edge and saw a few people just ahead of me. At first, I matched their pace from behind, but realized after a minute that they were going a lot slower than I wanted to go. So I passed one, and then another. I saw another guy in front of me, and passed him too at the start of the next climb.
This became a trend. Unintentionally, I began to catch and pass everyone I saw in front of me. Some of them I’d run with on the way out, and we’d exchange encouragement as I went by. Others just kind of grunted as I’d say “Nice work, passing on your left.” Now, this was absolutely not because I was going faster. I was just steady. I just kept moving, and kept passing people who’d succumbed to the heat and the climbs. It helped my mental state a lot, and I began to forget about that tasty tasty DNF.
Coming back down the hill into Madrone, things started to hurt again. My left knee got angry, my ankle popped, my quads started screaming. Just no good. I stopped to walk and popped two ibuprofen. I’d told myself originally I didn’t want to take any until after mile 38, but here I was at mile 30 feeling like everything was falling apart. (I don’t recommend taking ibuprofen during strenuous exercise because it can have some nasty effects on your kidneys, but a small amount had helped me a lot before when old injuries acted up during long runs, and I’d never had adverse effects. I wouldn’t push it, though.) I also sucked down one of the Honey Stinger gels with caffeine, which I hadn’t had since my coffee at 4:15 AM. I shuffled down the flatter part of the hill into the aid station and was immediately greeted by the same volunteer who’d helped me there last time.
“Okay, give me your soft flasks, what do you want in them, Roctane? Gotcha. I’ll do that, you eat whatever you want, then meet me over there and I’ll soak your neck in ice water.” It was amazing. All of it. I grabbed some pickles from the table, she handed me my soft flasks back, then squeegeed ice water onto my neck and head. I squeaked a bit, and the volunteers laughed, then cheered.
And it was like magic. I ran out of there feeling like a new woman. Some combination of the cold water, the salt, the ibuprofen, the caffeine; it worked. My head was completely back in the game. The only time I stopped between there and Wulfow was when a rattlesnake crossed the trail a few feet ahead of me. I’m so grateful it decided to loudly warn me it was about to cross!
There’s a short climb coming into Wulfow from this direction, and I knew the cheer from the tent at the top would be “Run! Come on, no one walks this!” (Almost everyone walks it after the front runners, of course.) At the last little section, I did run, though, and was able to bound up it easily. Justin, one of the volunteers, asked how I was feeling. I took a moment to assess and then replied, “Good. Almost too good.”
“Well, I guess you better pick up the pace then! 18 miles left.”
I ran out of there feeling even more energized, comfortably running (or, you know, fast shuffling) the flats and downhills, and hiking the uphills strongly. I knew I had two hours before the cutoff at Warm Springs, so I didn’t have to rush, just had to keep moving. The sun had gotten lower and the temperature was slowly dropping. The winding single-track felt comfortable, and I kept visualizing the finish line, knowing I could get there. The trail finally left the open fields and I was back in the woods, enjoying the cold creek crossings and the gorgeous redwoods.
One of the tips I’d utilized from Sarah Lavender Smith’s book was to leave a treat in a drop bag at a later aid station. In my Warm Springs drop bag, I’d put some dark chocolate with creamy espresso filling and a small bag of my favorite cereal. Coming into the aid station, I made a beeline for my bag, grabbed out the Cracklin’ Oat Bran, and tossed a handful into my mouth, smiling like an idiot.
Part 3: Waiting for the demons
Everything I’d heard about Lake Sonoma had made me believe that these last twelve miles would seem impossibly hard, really embodying the race slogan “Relentless”. So every time I had started getting overly emotional about anything, I’d tell myself to save it for the last twelve, where I could use that emotion to keep pushing on. In my first 50k, all my demons caught up to me after mile 24 as I limped the rest of the way on a busted knee. Leaving Warm Springs, I was preparing myself for the shit to hit the fan like that again, either mentally or physically. I was waiting for the hills to seem unconquerable, for my legs to give up.
I continued on, though, perpetually amazed that I hadn’t yet become a sacrifice to the trail gods. I did almost sacrifice something else, though. While crossing a creek around mile 40, I took off my hat to soak it in a small waterfall, forgetting that my sunglasses were on it. In slow motion, I saw them tumble into the foam at the bottom and disappear. One of the only race rules is “No Littering,” and I couldn’t believe I was going to unintentionally trash my sunglasses along the course. After feeling around in the water for a while, I announced to the universe, “Fine. I give up,” hoping it would take the cue and reveal them. And it actually worked! As I stepped out of the creek, I saw my sunglasses a little further down on the bank, totally intact and without a scratch.
This last section actually ended up being the most enjoyable of the entire race for me. I knew, even if I had to hike it in, I could finish under the 14 hour cutoff, and I think this kept the demons at bay. My mental struggles earlier had emerged because a finish didn’t seem attainable, and now, even with miles to go, it did. The late afternoon sun through the trees reminded me of summertime in the woods where I grew up. I continued to pass people. My legs, while tired, still felt strong, especially hiking uphill. And I was just so damn happy to be there.
It was 6:30 when I got into the Island View aid station at mile 45.5. As I was running down the hill, Ken Michal was leaving the aid station. I kind of shouted at him about how much his advice earlier had helped. I found myself behind him again right after I refilled my soft flasks and grabbed some pickles and potato chips. I briefly considered sticking with him into the finish, but my legs wanted to go faster. I let him know I was passing.
“Yeah, go get it! First 50!” he yelled.
The last three miles of the course were new to me, since we’d avoided this section of the trail by starting the race on the road. It was around when I got onto this section that my left knee started complaining a little louder, so I finally decided it was time for some music. I’d told myself at the start of the race that I could put on music if I needed it after the 50k mark, as another treat to look forward to. But it wasn’t until those last three miles that I wanted anything but the sounds of the woods. I pulled out my earbud and was granted the instant relief of hearing a song that had been in and out of my head all day, Brandi Carlile’s “Caroline.” From there the playlist rolled into Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas, Green Day (got caught singing and air-drumming along to “Jesus of Suburbia” when I came around a bend and saw two runners in front of me), The Lumineers, The Interrupters, Indigo Girls…just the perfect soundtrack to end the day with, and I mentally cruised through these last few miles despite my quads and knees starting to threaten mutiny.
With about half a mile to go, the trail turned into a giant mud pit. It was clear that hundreds of people had already trampled their way through, and any dry ground on the edges had long since eroded. I carefully stepped my way through until the very end, when what had seemed like a solid section crumbled beneath me and my right leg sank up to my knee. Swearing loudly, I crawled to the edge to grab a tree branch, and used the leverage to slowly squelch my foot out of the mud without losing my shoe.
I continued on, now looking like a swamp monster, and a volunteer just around a bend from the mud directed me towards the finish. It is a slightly awkward section right there. I came up to a road and could see the finish chute just a hundred feet or so away. But the actual course goes onto another trail across the road, up a short hill, and then wraps around to finish. By the time I got to the road, I could hear Mikey barking. I turned the music off and stowed the earbud, then “ran hard.” There was a log in front of the actual finish chute, and in my head I flew over it like a hurdle. Marcus and the pups were waiting just past the log, all very excited to see me. Chena jumped on me as I ran over, so Marcus handed me her leash. Chena and I ran down the chute together and were just ten feet from the actual finish when she suddenly pulled hard to the right to go sniff a tree. Oh well, almost a movie-worthy finish!
Skip Brand, the race director, gave me a big hug when I finally pulled Chena away from the tree. (This was his first year directing the race, after taking it over from Tropical John Medinger, and he did a phenomenal job.) Marcus and Mikey caught up to us and I found a lovely log to sit on. Then there was amazing, unlimited wood-fired pizza, beer, and an absurdly awesome swag bag. The sun had just set, and I finished 36 minutes under the cutoff. I had passed 48 people after the turn around, and no one had passed me.
But all of those are just details, the icing on top. I pushed myself into scary unknown territory, expecting it to be a fight to the finish. But instead, those last twenty miles were where I felt most comfortable, most myself. I was alone in the woods on a beautiful day, loving the strength in my legs and the air in my lungs. The pain just added another element to it, made everything seem clearer and more immediate.
The hurt really set in later that night, though. Climbing the two short steps into the AirBnB was harder than the whole last 12 miles of the race. I was thirsty and hungry but my stomach didn’t want anything to do with food or water. It took a long time to just be able to stand up in the shower without feeling dizzy. But there was a part of my mind that was still at mile 45, running through the woods, and I was content.
Epilogue: More Details and Many Thanks
If all you wanted was the story of the race, stop reading now. (And thanks for getting this far!) This part is mostly for my own record-keeping or anyone interested in the nitty gritty of what I ate, drank, and wore, as well as some specific notes about race details.
But before getting there, I need to acknowledge some amazing people. My family, who followed the action on ultralive.net and sent a deluge of congratulatory texts and emails. Fellow members of the Crabtree lab, who have yet to complain about the quality of the “sink showers” I take after running to work. The Chem Trails Outdoors Club (let’s actually make those damn t-shirts, guys). Sarah Lavender Smith, who helped a total stranger and ultrarunning nobody get to this start AND finish line in one piece. Ken Michal, for sharing miles and invaluable wisdom during the race. To everyone who helped make LS50 happen, especially the volunteers. And of course, my amazing husband (it stills feels cool to call him that!), Marcus.
I wore the Hoka One One Torrents for the first 25 miles, and then switched to the Topo Ultraventure at mile 25. I’ve had minor issues with both shoes but generally really like them. They have good traction and are pretty lightweight, but the Torrent is more responsive and the Ultraventure more cushioned. This combo kept my feet almost blister free, and I really appreciated the extra cushion in the second half. I wore Injinji lightweight crew socks with the Torrents, and Wrightsocks lightweight crew with the Ultraventure. I also wore Topo gaiters that clip onto the Ultraventure. (No gaiters with the Torrent. I regretted this after the first creek crossing when my shoes filled with sand and pebbles. Should have known better.)
For clothing, I wore basic Old Navy running shorts, an Under Armour shirt (I found both of these at a thrift store, along with most of my running clothes), and an Adidas climalite sports bra. I had a buff on my neck for soaking and one on my wrist for wiping sweat and my constantly runny nose. On my head was a Boco cap, and the almost-lost-forever sunglasses were Goodr. All of this worked great except the shorts, which caused some inner thigh chafing. I periodically applied Body Glide, but I think I waited just a little too long to reapply at one point, and then it was too late. But it wasn’t very noticeable.
My hydration pack is an Ultimate Direction AK Mountain Vest 3.0. Technically a men’s pack, it fit me better than the women’s packs, I think because I have broad shoulders. I used two Nathan 500 mL soft flasks in front and a 1.5 L Camelbak reservoir. Ultimate Direction does have their own brand of both soft flasks and reservoirs, but I’ve had better luck with Nathan and Camelbak for longevity and ease of use.
My watch is a Garmin Forerunner 630. The battery lasted the whole time, with about 10% left at the end. I set it to normal GPS and turned off the mile pace alerts. The earbud I used for music is marketed as a bluetooth headset. It’s a single, tiny earbud that was $10 and is waterproof. I found it on Amazon and it’s awesome for running. Music quality isn’t fantastic but for the price and convenience, it’s hard to beat.
Nutrition and Hydration
I think part of the reason I felt so good at the end of the race is that I nailed my nutrition. I set a 30 minute alarm on my watch and was really good about eating between 80-100 calories every half hour. This was usually in the form of gels (either Gu or Honey Stinger) or fun-size PayDay bars. On top of that, I filled my 500 mL soft flasks with the Gu Roctane drink they had at aid stations. It was the Summit Tea flavor, which is my favorite because it’s not sweet, so I never get sick of it. I used my 1.5 L reservoir for plain water, and took frequent small sips of both the Roctane and the water. All together, I think I ended up taking in 200-300 calories every hour the whole race, maybe a little more when I grabbed the quesadillas and potato chips at the aid stations. I do wish I’d taken more food options earlier in the race, since I got really sick of gels after 5 hours or so.
From the turn around point to the finish, I was sucking on cough drops almost anytime I wasn’t eating. I always finish long runs with my throat feeling dry and a little miserable, and these helped alleviate that.
I am so happy that this was my first 50 miler. The race course is gorgeous and never boring, and it was extremely well organized. The trail markings were very consistent, and every intersection had extra signage. Even as a back of the pack runner, the support and encouragement made me feel like a rock star. The only thing I wish was better communicated was the parking situation at the start/finish. I recommend getting there super early to be able to park closer than we did.
Something I didn’t realize until the next day was that they don’t hand out medals. I love this- I always feel like medals are kind of a waste; they’re cool for about an hour and then hide in a drawer. I’d much rather get a delicious meal and a pair of socks.
I would love to run this again, and will definitely be back to volunteer, too.