Lake Sonoma 50 Mile

There’s a quote in the classic book Running with the Buffaloes where CU coach Mark Wetmore ponders the pain we endure as runners. “In football,” Wetmore says, “you might get your bell rung, but you go in with the expectation that you might get hurt, and you hope to win and come out unscathed. As a distance runner, you know you’re going to get your bell rung. Distance runners are experts at pain, discomfort, and fear. You’re not coming away feeling good. It’s a matter of how much pain you can deal with on those days. It’s not a strategy. It’s just a callusing of the mind and body to deal with discomfort. Any serious runner bounces back. That’s the nature of their game. Taking pain.”

I mostly agree with this assessment, but I think in ultrarunning in particular, there are degrees to the bell ringing you get. Some races are simply much harder than others. You know at some point the pain’s going to descend and that things are going to get a bit desperate. But you hope that by the time that happens you’re close enough to the barn that you can gut it out without too much of an internal mental battle. 

The more challenging days are the ones when the rough patches come early. It’s these days where you’re tempted to pack it in, or worse, DNF. Packing it in isn’t the worst thing in the world. When it’s not your day, I don’t know if there’s anything really wrong with slowing down, making things a little less painful, and simply getting to the line.

But that said, there’s a fierceness in the toughest competitors that rarely (if ever) allows them to give in like this. In these folks, you see a willingness to fight hard, scrapping for every inch, every second, even when they’re feeling like shit and not meeting their expectations. It’s a painful way to run, but it’s also what leads to greatness on the days when things are clicking. As well as the occasional epic come from behind victory (e.g. Geoff Roes at WS100 in 2010).

Thus, this attitude and approach are worth cultivating, even when you’re struggling through a bad day. I had ample chance on Saturday at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, where things didn’t go to plan but I still managed a finish I can be happy with.

Wrecked but smiling (Photo: Tyler Curley... I think)
It was my first time out to this perenially competitive race, a scenic and communal event put on my Tropical John Medinger. I had run some solid races in the buildup for this one (a win at the Mountain Mist 50K in January and a 3rd place at the Chuckanut 50K in mid-March), which were encouraging. My mileage hadn’t been the best, and in some senses I’m still gaining back lost fitness after missing half of last year with injury, but I still felt relatively confident coming in.

My take on the competition was that it would be the red-hot Jim Walmsley, Mario Mendoza, Dylan Bowman, and myself contending for the podium, with another wildcard or two likely having breakout performances and being in the mix as well. As it happened, there were two: Tim Freriks, making a stunning ultra debut with a second-place 6:17, and youngster Daniel Metzger, who ran to a very strong 5th-place finish in 6:37.

As we got started just after dawn, the lead runners cruised easily up a gradual road climb before dropping down to lake level for a long stretch of singletrack. Mario had gotten out a bit quick, but came back to us relatively quickly and the pack tightened up. It was DBo setting the pace, with Walmsley, Mario, Tim, and myself immediately behind. A small chase pack including Metzger and a few others lurked less than a minute behind.

We meandered easily along the lush, mostly-forested trails, trying not to step on the black salamanders constantly dotting the trail. Occasionally we would break through to a treeless clearing—steep, grassy slopes, with views of the lake and opposite shore.

Shortly before the Warm Springs Creek aid (mile 11.6), Walmsley got inpatient and bolted to the lead, immediately creating space. No one would get near him again, as he blazed to an incredible 6:00:52 finish, well under the old course record. I had been feeling pretty relaxed in our peloton, but as we came out of the aid station, my legs started to give some early warning signs of fatigue.

DBo leading the chase group out of Warm Springs Creek. (Photo: Mahtin Putelis)
I let DBo and Tim gradually drift out of sight, while I tried to stay relaxed. Mario, who had taken longer in the aid station, caught back up to me around mile 16, and we raced roughly in tandem from there to the race midpoint at No Name Flat.  This stretch included two big climbs, and though I wasn’t feeling great, it seemed like I was going to be able to keep working at a solid pace.

Hitting another downhill after climbing out of Madrone Point (Photo: Eric Schranz)
However, I had begun to struggle to take in my gels and fluids. I wasn’t too far behind on calories (maybe 700 or 750 by 3 hours), but in retrospect, it was probably enough to lead to a mid-race bonk—especially with the bigger climbs demanding greater energy expenditure. I was also struggling to handle the long downhills very well.

Mario pulled away as I spent a few minutes at the No Name aid station. By the time I left, Metzger was hot on my heels. He looked really strong as he cruised past me on the rollers before the big descent out of No Name. After a tough, slow descent I was really struggling on the climb back up to the road above Madrone Point. This was probably my lowest point of the day, dauntingly a mere 27 or 28 miles into the race. I was struggling to move, hiking on mere 5% grades, and feeling quite out of it.

At the top of the climb, I saw a number of familiar faces and a few folks asked me how I was doing. I said I was having a pretty rough day and made a comment about how at least there wasn’t much climbing left. This drew laughter. OK, still 4,000’ of climbing or so… but at least the bigger climbs were mostly done and I was just going to be on rollers for a while.

As I usually do when shit really starts hitting the fan, I tried to get down a decent amount of real food. I ate some chips, melon, and two big slices of quesadilla at the Madrone Point aid and headed back out. I felt marginally better as these calories started to work their magic, but it was still slow going. What was a little remarkable to me was that no one besides Metzger had passed me and I was still in sixth place. Apparently the course was taking its toll on everyone.

It was all along these rolling hills back to Warm Springs Creek that I tried to get my race going again. The worst of my low patch seemed to be over, but I was still having trouble getting my legs to move any faster. Maybe 10 minutes before I reached Warm Springs, Zach Bitter caught and passed me, definitely struggling, but looking better than I did at the time. He was in and out of the aid station quickly, while I took a few minutes again to get in more real food and water. As I left, I saw Ben Koss coming in just behind me.

As I headed back out on the course, I started to feel just a little better and to my surprise, I caught a glimpse of Zach not far ahead. This helped re-motivate me, and I caught up, settled in behind him, and we chatted and commiserated for maybe 10-15 minutes. I was recharging, trying to summon the will for a push. Zach started to hit a rough patch of his own, and I was worried about Ben charging behind us, so I put in a surge to pass Zach and try to put some distance on him and any other chasers.

The trail wound in and out of drainages, up down, neverending. Time was dragging, the tenths of a mile clicking by ever so slowly as I fought my way to the final aid station at Island View. That particular aid is a short out-and-back down to a lakeside campsite, which affords a view of what’s happening behind you for a 4 or 5 minute window. Mercifully no one was in sight. The final 4.7 miles—mostly climbing—would be a grind no matter what, but it was with relief I realized I probably had 6th place locked up. I was hoping to perhaps dip under 6:50 as I made the climb, but couldn’t quite manage it as I crossed the line in 6:53:34.

Neither the time nor place were quite what I wanted, but they weren’t too bad either. I can live with 6th place in the loaded Lake Sonoma field, especially considering the kind of day I had. If I had been weaker mentally, I could have easily fallen outside the top 10 and finished 20-30 minutes slower. However, I still think I could have been a bit tougher between miles 30 and 38 (Madrone Point to Warm Springs Creek) as it took me a while to spring back from my bonk and dead legs. 

Either way, it was good practice and a positive affirmation to come back from a pretty epic low like that—something to draw on during future rough patches. In ultras especially, you’re going to have highs and lows. Doing damage control during the lows and having faith that you’ll come out of it are a big part of being successful.

My next race is the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile on June 4 in Ithaca, New York, which is also serving as the US 50 Mile Trail Championships again.  I raced Cayuga in 2013 and 2014 and really like the race a lot.  I’m excited to have the time to put in a good training block before the race, hopefully going in a little fitter and vying for a US Title. I know RD Ian Golden has commitments from a number of very good runners, with a few more on the fence.  It should be a great race!

The best laid plans...   couldn't stomach my gels after mile 20, which led to some problems! (Photo: Richard Bolt)