My first ultra was the 2017 Lake Sonoma 50. 50 miles. 10,000ft uphill. 10,000ft downhill. Sara kept asking me “why?” while I was training. Maybe I’m running from something. Maybe I’m too competitive. Nah, it’s just a good way to have second dinner and not feel bad about myself.
I had an awesome race. I made a plan, I ran the plan, and everything worked. I finished half an hour faster than my goal in 30th place. I think I’m hooked!
I decided to mix up my 2017 race schedule with something new – a trail ultramarathon. In 2016 I ran three marathons: Boston in 2:58, Santa Rosa in 2:54, and New York in 2:58 (by far the hardest of the three). I’d like to run the rest of the Abbott Major Marathons, but each has a lottery and a year-long application process and I wasn’t on the ball enough for 2017. I only managed to get into Berlin in late September. London, Tokyo, and Chicago will have to wait for 2018 or 2019. So I had a big gap in my race schedule in early 2017.
I signed up for the Lake Sonoma 50 lottery after hearing about it from friends. I don’t know if it’s a good entry vehicle into longer races, the word “relentless” is used a lot on the website for good reason. It’s 50 miles around beautiful Lake Sonoma and the course is only flat for the finish line – it has some 10,000ft of uphill and 10,000ft of downhill. That’s a lot of up and down!
I ran both halves of the course a few times in training and really fell in love with Lake Sonoma and trailrunning in general. Very different from flat pavement-pounding road racing. Stunning scenery, friendly and welcoming runners, lots more elevation, more wildlife, and a wide variety of terrain: soft dirt, small jump-over creek crossings, big wade-through creek crossings, rocks, mud, clay, pine needle carpet, gravel, and even some tree-trunk bridges over some of the water crossings.
Training for an ultra was harder for me: I needed more hours on the trail and those are hard to find with three little kids and a loving wife at home. My longest run before the race was only 27 miles and I only did two back-to-back long runs. There were definitely some raised eyebrows when I told people my plans and my limited training.
I tried a lot of different gear before the race and settled on a bunch of stuff that mostly worked for me. The Saucony Xplod trail running shoes have great grip, a good solid sole, and gave me a lot of confidence on fast downhills. I went with a single handheld UltrAspire bottle, which was awesome right up until I needed more hydration on the last two sections. I used shorts with two built-in mesh pockets for GUs and a zip pocket for salt tabs and other small stuff. No belt, no backpack, no shoulder harness. Light and fast.
The race starts at 6:30AM and we live only 35 minutes away, so I set the alarm for 5AM and couldn’t sleep much at all. Stupid body wants to keep sleeping when it’s time to get up but won’t go to sleep early. I kept changing my mind about dropping a bag at Warm Creek (mile 12 and 38; I ended up not leaving a bag; mistake) and ended up leaving the house later than I wanted to. Parking was a mess and I was in the porta potty when the race started. I hurried down the hill but was at least three minutes late. Oops, but at least there’s a lot of course and a long time to make up for it!
The race starts with 2.5 miles along Stewart’s Point Skaggs Springs Road and it was tough to stay patient while watching so many people snaking uphill ahead of me. Stupid, stupid, stupid to be late for the start. I really had to try force myself to slow down and not “catch up” and drive my heartrate to the moon. Mission unsuccessful- my fastest miles were #1 and #2. If I had been closer to the front at the start I wouldn’t have worried so much, but I was stressed about getting stuck behind people. Once the course goes offroad it’s mostly singletrack until mile 19 and passing is much harder.
I saw and chatted with Todd Bertolone, who I met randomly at 7AM one Sunday morning trail run around the lake, and Anthony Chavez, who I met at the LS50-organized training run, but once we left the pavement I put on my headphones and focused on running my own race. That’s what worked so well for me: I stayed inside my head the whole day. I fueled on schedule, I walked steep uphills and ran the downhills, and I kept my heartrate between 155 and 160. I didn’t chase people, I was in and out of each aid station as quickly as possible, and I tried to pass only when they would stick.
We left the road and yep, I was almost immediately stuck behind a train of people who were running uphill faster than I was walking, but were going down much slower than I wanted to go. I settled into the train and chilled out for a few miles before deciding I needed to push ahead, but it was hard to run on my own terms. I would pass on the downs and immediately be passed back on the ups, and each pass is tricky on narrow trails with a steep dropoff to one side. After a bunch of this yo-yoing back and forth I decided to burn a few matches and run some uphills to make passes stick. Hammertime; get outta my way. deadmau5 – Professional Griefers.
I really like the south side of the course (miles 5 to 12 and 38 to 45). The wildflowers are in full bloom, the grass is so green it’s almost neon, there’s a ton of shade, and the soft dirt trail is super comfortable. The temps were perfect, about 46-degrees at the start and still nice and cool. After getting some open trail I relaxed and really started to enjoy the run.
It rained a few days earlier in the week and the creeks were full. There’s one swampy field with a ton of boar sign that’s always been a little muddy in the few times I’ve run at Lake Sonoma and on Saturday it was a shoe-sucking mud pit. I tried dancing around the path and looking for some solid ground, but there’s no solid ground in a swamp, so I gave up and just splashed/squished through the muck.
The creek crossing at mile 11.5 was nice and refreshing. It’s a 50ft wide stream that’s 1-2 feet deep. No bridge, no rocks, just plow through and get yourself wet. Hey, at least you wash off all the mud! There’s a clay embankment on the other side and a small hill up to the first aid station at Warm Creek. The volunteers at the aid stations were awesome: I ran in, handed off my bottle and asked for gatorade, grabbed some GUs, and was out in a flash.
After Warm Creek the trail turns north and becomes more exposed, which was nice while the temps were still cool. The traffic also lightened up and I was by myself for longer and longer stretches. Everything felt good and I was totally in the zone. Just running, not racing, not pushing, no stress. It was impossible not to soak in the raw beauty of the lake and hills. I met another Strava buddy Kenny Brown for the first time in here. He was wearing the same distinctive shirt as in his profile picture. It’s funny to say hi to someone you’ve never met before, but you know enough about them from Strava to know they’re struggling. That brought me back inside my head.
Somewhere between Warm Creek and Wulfrow I saw Austin Meyer a quarter mile ahead, another Strava buddy who I met at the LS50 organized training run. He was doing a shoulder check and we exchanged a wave, but I would only catch glimpses of him for the next 6 miles. Wulfrow Aid Station at mile 17 was next and I barely slowed down to refill my bottle.
I wasn’t thinking about much, sometimes reminding myself to have fast feet on the downs, or checking if it was time to have another gel, or holding myself back from ripping up the occasional flat section. Mostly my brain wandered and I had two good really good ideas that of course I can’t remember now. Sara bought me an iPod shuffle for my birthday this year and I loaded it with my favourite tunes. I’ve never raced with music before but I really enjoyed it for this kind of race. Jarryd James – Do You Remember.
Madrone aid station at mile 19 marks the first of three long steep climbs. I saw Christopher Thomas here and he gave me a cheer as I ran through. The climb started right away and there’s nothing to do except power hike. I don’t really know what I’m doing on super steep stuff. I try to cross-country ski push my arms and legs forward, keep a good arm swing, lean into the hill, but I probably look like I’m just walking. Whatever, keep the HR around 160 and tough it out.
Austin was right in front of me the whole climb, sometimes running, sometimes walking, while I plodded uphill. I started wondering why this hill is even part of the race. Seems artificial, because as soon as you top out on the gravel road there’s a short segment that connects to Half a Canoe trail and heads right back down to the water. Whatever. The whole race is an out and back, we’re not running somewhere else, so I suppose there’s no reason to complain about unnecessary hills. The whole thing is unnecessary.
I caught up to Austin on the crossover to Half a Canoe trail and we chatted a bit. I couldn’t stay long though, the downhill beckoned and it was time to kick ass and chew gum – and I was fresh out of gum. Icona Pop – I Love It.
The downhill and short flat part near the lake was fun. I saw the leader and eventual race winner here, Sage Canaday, and was inspired by how smooth and effortlessly he was running. I had a short moment of peace and zen and reflection before the trail turned sharply uphill for the second super-steep climb and I was back to grinding out the uphill.
Okay, you’re 1600 words into this ultra-word-athalon and clearly committed to reading about running. You’re not going to get weird when this gets weird; I’m going to share a dirty secret with you. I realized I can pee while ski-walking uphill. Ski-pee-walk. Yes, it’s messy, but totally possible. I thought that I would have a brain lockout for moving and peeing, but I can say from experience that if you really need to do something and you don’t want to stop, you can probably make it work. I saved five minutes with this ski-pee-walk technique. Well, okay, maybe only three minutes. Still, that’s a lot of seconds.
This second super-steep up is long and relentless. It’s really a grind. Steepest up of the day. Gasping while walking. Legs hurting while walking. Feeling like a total wuss while walking. The only cool thing is watching the pros come zooming downhill and giving you a nod or a “good job”. I kept thinking “Don’t say anything to me! Watch the trail! Don’t trip!” Good news: no one bit it while being nice to me.
I finally got to the top and stretched my legs a little on Boar Scat trail, which is another wonderful little slice of heaven. You know what’s so awesome about this section? The fact that it’s not a 20% grade uphill or a -20% grade downhill!
No Name Flat is the mid-race aid station, and unlike all the other aid stations it’s a parking lot next to a road. It turns out there are a lot of people standing around looking at the trailhead where you emerge. They’re all looking for their runner or friend or whatever, but it sure looks like they’re all staring at me. What, do I have pee on my shoes? Hahaha. Another wonderful volunteer filled my bottle and pointed out the GUs while I felt bashful. I had to ask which way to go next. She pointed back the way I came and I said “oh yeah, right”. Duh.
The trip down the monster hill wasn’t the most fun ever, it was too steep to run and my quads were starting to burn. Poor form, slow feet, using muscle to slow myself down instead of gliding, shuffle, shuffle. Ugh, what a mess. For the first time all day someone went past me and scooted away out of sight. He was really moving and I felt like crap. That stung. I thought things were going well?!
The great thing about being in the zone is that disappointment doesn’t stick around, and a minute after the guy was out of sight I felt better and was back on track with the plan: ski-pee-walking up the third, final, and easiest of the three big climbs. It was too early to start pushing the pace and I had a great 15 minutes listening to Mozart’s Salzburg Symphonies – Divertimento in D Major, K. 136 – I, II, and III.
Well wouldn’t you know it – close to the top of Half a Canoe trail I see the guy who blitzed past me on the downhill. He’s not looking good. He’s not running anymore. He’s walking slower than I’m walking. Well how about that.
Down the last of the long hills into Madrone aid station and I was starting to feel my legs. 31 miles is the longest I’ve ever run before and the last 10 miles had three huge climbs and three huge descents. Christopher Thomas gave me another mental boost at the AS and I was back onto the awesome flowing singletrack heading towards Wulfrow. This is another choice section of the run and super enjoyable.
I passed one or two more folks before Wulfrow and two right after, then had the most enjoyable half hour of the day where I ran by myself, no one else in sight, in perfect harmony with my body, with the trail, and with the music. No niggles, no pain, just fun running in a beautiful wonderland. I felt the flow. I was smooth. Fast feet, shoulders back. Miike Snow – Ghengis Khan (love the video).
Mile 35 I finally see someone ahead and it’s Jady Palko! Jady and I work together at Keysight in Santa Rosa. He’s the one who told me about LS50 and ultra marathons and the awe-inspiring Western States 100. We’ve also gone back/forth on the leaderboard of most of the Strava run routes around where we work. He beat me by TWO SECONDS at the 2016 Kaiser Perminante San Francisco Half Marathon. Those seconds hurt.
But I’m still not racing yet. It’s at least three miles too early to start pushing. Plus I was starting to wonder if I had anything in the tank. So I didn’t catch up or try a daring pass or anything, I just kept chugging away doing my own thing. Fast feet, good form, watch the heartrate, fuel on schedule, DON’T START RACING TOO EARLY. I caught up about a mile later and we chatted a bit, he said he was hurting. I went past, we ran a bit together, and on the next downhill Jady just took off and zoomed out of sight.
I’m not racing yet! Plus I still wasn’t sure how much was left in the tank. When I’m running a fast marathon I’ll have conversations with my legs, hamstrings, feet, hips, and just check that everything’s going ok. I know what “ok” feels like and I know what “not ok, slow down or I’m going to blow us both up” feels like. I have no idea what a 40-mile fatigue failure feels like. I felt fine, but I had no idea if I could run 10 more miles hard, medium or slow. So I chilled out. Charlie Puth – We Don’t Talk Anymore.
Warm Springs aid station was on me before I knew it. Jady was nowhere in sight. I got more GUs and gatorade and kept moving – classic focus error. I knew Warm Springs to Island View is 7.5 miles. I knew it was starting to warm up. I knew this part of the course was fun, but I also knew it would be hard going. I knew I might want to start racing. Knowing all this I didn’t grab a second bottle. Maybe the mistake started six hours earlier: I didn’t even arrange for a second bottle to be waiting for me there.
I saw Jady in the crowd as I was leaving the aid station. Huh, ok, well, I guess I’ll keep going. I was thinking about chasing him, and then suddenly I was wondering about being chased, and then I guess I started to wonder if it really mattered. Aren’t we all in this together? Ha! I’m going soft! Holding myself back for six hours had drained me of my competitive spirit. Satchmode – Hall & Oates (how can this not have more views?!).
I turned on a little bit more gas and chased down two or three more guys over the next few miles. Fun running here, lots of shade on the south side of the lake, and nice soft single-track dirt trails. Coming back towards the muddy swamp/marsh I found myself stuck behind someone who just wouldn’t yield the trail. Let’s call him The Blocker.
I’m new to this distance and to trail running, but it’s not hard to figure out how to pass. If you want to go by you crowd the person in front and make enough noise they hear you even if they have headphones in. They move over ever so slightly (or a lot, or whatever) and you can squeeze by no problem. Even if they don’t move over, they don’t speed up when you go to pass and you just have to tromp through the underbrush until you get around.
The Blocker just seemed like he had his elbows out. He didn’t move over. I went wide on a corner to go around and he sped up and closed the door. I’m an ex-motorcycle racer. I know what closing the door looks like. Huh. Okay, whatever, no problem, I’ll pass you like the rest in just a minute buddy. Enjoy your moment in the sun. I settled in to run his pace and bide my time.
Jady blew by me out of nowhere. Really moving quick. I didn’t even know he was there but I managed to get out of the way when I heard/felt him coming. Jady started to pass The Blocker and when he stuck his elbows out and blocked, Jady gently and sweetly put his hand on the guy’s hip and pushed him right off the trail. Hahaha. I snuck by in the confusion and then we both had to eat crow when The Blocker was faster up the next climb to the swamp.
It was funny because I was tired. And starting to get thirsty. I was low on water now and still had five miles to go before the next aid station. I had a GU and then realized I hardly had anything to wash it down with. I checked my watch and felt nervous. Five rough miles without water is a lot.
I went by The Blocker in the swamp/marsh and Jady followed, and we turned up the gas a little more for the next few miles just to put him behind us. We shared a few laughs at the guy; I guess Jady had seen him blocking me before he decided to go past.
It was cool to be running with Jady and maybe I am mellowing out in my old age. I turned 40 this year. Maybe the competitive drive that blinds me to societal niceties is slowing down a little. Maybe I’m going to be the patient and disciplined Masters runner. Ok, maybe not, but for a few miles it felt like it.
What was I doing pussyfooting around eight miles from the finish? Who cares if you don’t have water? Who cares if you can’t fuel without water? (Jady shared some words of wisdom later: hydration is today’s problem, Giardia is tomorrow’s problem – drink from the streams) The fastest runners are those who lose the most weight while running. We runners tend to over-hydrate anyway. Time to fly. Brainbug – Nightmare (Sinister Strings Mix).
I shot into the Island View aid station, grabbed a huge jug of water and started gulping it down. The aid station volunteer calmly poured me a cup and took the jug away. I grabbed my bottle and was out like a flash, still probably should have drank more, but I was starting to get excited about the finish.
The last five miles of the race just plain suck. They’re uphill, the hill is really steep, and you’re so tired it’s hard to push. I wish I could say that I saved my energy for a last heroic effort or something, but I didn’t have enough energy to run the steep stuff and couldn’t even give the downs much justice.
I caught a woman just a quarter mile from the finish and I think I scared the crap out of her. I don’t know if she had headphones on, but when I went past she jumped about a mile into the air. Sorry about that but I need to sprint for the finish.
None of my cheering squad was there, I was half an hour faster than I had planned. I ran a 4:10 first half and 4:23 second half for 30th place. Now I’m wondering what I could have done if I had been at the front of the start!