Wow… Lake Sonoma. Man-o-man. This was my third go-round here and it was by far the most satisfying. The spring racing’s been fabulous and I brought some good health and fitness into April. After Marin Ultra Challenge in March, I licked my wounds and just worked on keeping my speed up for Sonoma by doing a few super-specific workouts, namely a few fun interval sessions like 3 x 4mi @ sub-50k effort, and then a week out from Sonoma, the Annadel Half-Marathon, just to try something new and see if I could bring some leg speed into this crazy fast 50. When things are going well you just have to roll with it, so with Marin and Annadel in the bank, I felt confident I could race like I wanted to at Sonoma, i.e., write the check my body could cash.
Sonoma County’s been my home and triathlon, cycling, and trail-running playground for the past 10 years. With the first 2+ miles of this race on my beloved Skaggs Springs Rd., I ran on the front and felt comfortably awesome being there. Right from the get-go, I found myself playing to my strengths—flying on the downs and the flats while keeping the perceived exertion in check. So on those Skaggs Springs rollers, gravity carried me up to the front, passed Rob and Sage and I found myself making the turn into the woods, in 2nd, behind Max, knowing full well, that as the trail started to pitch up, I’d start losing ground, but losing ground on my terms—holding back on the ups while picking up good momentum on the downs. Hey, it’s a race!! >>>
Last year, I entered the woods in about 20th and stayed there, so it seemed like a good idea to start the day well into the Top-10, and fight the whole race to stay there. Within a few miles, guys started to slip by on the ups as expected and I was having a blast running on my home turf, while catching fewer and fewer glimpses of Krar and Varner up ahead, slip, slip, slipping away from me. It was looking like the ol’ marine layer was in full effect, so I was grateful to have conditions that would encourage a personal best.
Up around Warm Springs Creek aid, two Nike guys in the form of Ryan Ghelfi and Dan Kraft went by, which put me back into 10th, though I wasn’t solid on my place at the time. I ran with those two for a bit, losing more on the ups than I was catching on the downs but staying within myself and thoroughly enjoying the glorious morning.
For Sonoma, I really wanted to better about consuming more calories over the second half so instead of just relying on gels, I thought mixing it up with some Shot Bloks would be a good idea. At the No Name Flat turn-around, I re-loaded with gels and Bloks. Soon thereafter I popped a few Bloks and something crunched hard in my mouth. WTF!?! I pulled the Blok out of my mouth and stuck to it was one of the crowns that was supposed to be attached to one of my back molars. Hmm, too bad. Keep running >>>
My target-finish time-range for Sonoma was 6:40 to 7:00. I’d hit the turn-around in about 3:13, which was about 7min faster than last year. So at that point I was still on a 6:40 trajectory. Before the race I’d set my Garmin’s Virtual Pacer to 8:11/mi pace, thinking that a 6:50 total race time was right smack in the middle of my target range.
By the time Wulfow aid finally came up again at mi33, I was getting tired but still determined to fight to the finish. I’d not looked at my watch up until this point. When I flipped over to the Virtual Pacer, I found that I was 4min up, still averaging less than 8:11/mi. That quickly passed, and so did Jacob Rydman. That put me back in 11th, though I still imagined myself running for that 10th spot. It ain’t over ’til it’s over. I told Jacob after the race he runs like a deer, as he does. He ate up quite a few guys on his trip back from the half-way. If he ends up running Pine to Palm in September, it’ll be interesting to see where we are relative to one another around mile 80.
The support out there was awesome. A lot of local yokals running, volunteering, and spectating. I got some shout-outs at the half and was psyched to see both an ITR team-mate and my Hoka rep at Wulfow going out and coming back. They both pumped me up as I was at that tough mi32 section of a 50-miler, when you are dying (at least I was), but have quite a bit of running left. Last thing I heard from them as I crested the climb and started running down the other side, was “You’re doing great!” and “We can’t see anyone coming up!”
Knowing these trails as well as I do is a mixed blessing. But once passed Wulfow on the return trip, I could start to smell the barn. And in many ways, it was beautiful running around the lake, over streams, splashing water on my head, almost like I was out there by myself, pretending as I sometimes do in training here, that it was race-day and I was fighting hard just to round out the top-10 with guys and gals closing in from behind >>>
And then, alas, there arrived the Warm Springs Creek aid-station and its awesome crew. Mile 38 baby. “Fill ‘er up!” I chugged a full bottle of water, then re-filled my bottle with Coke as I mustered the will to begin the 7mi trek down-trail, to the final aid-station at Island View.
Can’t say I remember much of this stretch from 38 to 45 but I know it’s the first time in the race, where I was more mindful of sights and sounds coming from behind. I had gotten away from Warm Springs aid without hearing any follow-up cheers or cowbells, indicative of the next runner coming in to the aid-station, so I knew I had room. Walking the uphills could not be an option. Everything had to be run, to avoid being caught, to maintain position, and to try and catch the next guy. On this stretch, I kept making the choice to be the predator and not the prey, and I never looked back. At least, until Island View.
Island view aid station takes you off the main trail, down a quarter mile to the aid-station, and then a quarter mile back up to the trail. It’s 4.5mi from Island View to the finish. At this point in the going, you just don’t really want to see anyone when you’re making your way back up to the main trail, ’cause it’s really going to light up the person chasing you. So, as I made my way back up and was just about ready to make the turn home, I see a runner bounding—literally bounding—down toward me. Smiling, he says, “Shebest! Are you ready to suffer?!!” To which I half-heartedly replied, “Uhh… Yeah man.” Sounds like a great idea…
At the end of several 50-milers over the last year, there’s been a curious phenomenon occurring known as the Thomas Sanchez Tractor Beam Effect. Powered by youth, it locks on to my soul and starts reeling me in toward it at the very end of 50s. I’ve only managed narrow escapes with it in the past. At last year’s Lake Sonoma, we came in 20th and 21st. At Dick Collins 50mi in October, Sanchez came roaring to the the line, just a minute back for 4th. And here we were again, both with equally improved fitness, and duking it out in the final 10% of the race. These are the guys I think about when I do hill repeats and tempo intervals.
I’m so at home now on these trails that on some level they comfort me while suffering to beat the band. Every twist and every turn, a familiar reminder I was one step closer to the finish. If he’s going to catch me, he’s going to have to out-work me. Run, cramp, walk, stumble, jog, power-hike, run, cramp, stretch, hobble, skip, jolt, veer, trip, hop, skitter. Push…
With 3.5 to go, I found a friend, Patrick McKenna, out on the trail sending runner updates back to iRunFar via satellite. As I stumbled passed, with a long switchback over to my left, I asked Patrick, “Can you see him?” Patrick said, “Yeah, but I think you have some room.” Those words gave some hope to the sad story that was the current condition of my body. Cramp, run, power-hike, stretch, run, cramp. Push, just a little bit more…
It’s been a while since a finish line felt so awesome. Seeing “7:02-something” was good enough for me even if it was a bit outside my target range. Whatever. I just wanted to know my place. I gave Amanda a big hug and gave and got some high-5’s and found out from Tropical John that I’d placed 10th. Relief. And then Gary Gellin came roaring to the line just a few minutes later.
Funny how the turn of events can pan out in our favor, or not. Had Sanchez not lit a fire under my ass with 4.5 to go, I would not have been inspired to push so hard to the finish and both guys would probably have eaten me up with a mile or two to go, since, in that context, they would have had the “psychological momentum” (a term I’ve borrowed from, author, Matt Fitzgerald).
I’ve always enjoyed throwing my hat in the ring with the big dogs to see where I stack up. That’s what kept pulling me back to Ironman Hawaii for over a decade, to race against the best out there, in really tough conditions. Lake Sonoma 50, with it’s relentless ups-n-downs and stiff competition, represents another opportunity to fine tune my racing process. Last year at Sonoma, Silver State, and North Face, all with comparable cumulative elevation profiles, I was going about 7:20, total race-time. In addition to getting more calories in during the second half, building in more speed and strength work early this year in training have helped shave off 15min (7:07 & 7:03, Marin Ultra Challenge and Lake Sonoma respectively). That’s about 3.5% improvement over 2013.
I tell athletes I coach that it’s only reasonable to expect around 3% performance gain from year to year, assuming the athlete’s been racing for a while. When you’re just starting out, the learning curve’s steep and you can chop off huge chunks of time early in the going. But once we get to that point of diminishing returns, things either have to evolve in training, or risk stagnation. Change is constant.
The 100mi distance remains my favorite and the one I naturally gravitate toward (like the Sanchez Tractor Beam). So it’s nice to see that 3% gain as I inch closer to summer and the century-runs to come in July and September. “Suffer better” is a term that’s being thrown around a lot lately. That’s a big objective right now—manage the suffering more effectively so I can run the backside of these 100’s well, when it’s more about the mind than the body. Anyway, it was just good fun to run off feel at Sonoma and believe I could hang on at the end. That hasn’t always been the case. Chasing—and being chased by—the best in the sport definitely brings out the best in us.
The Inside Trail Racing Team was out in full force with a handful of guys racing and placing, including Luke Garten, Gary Gellin, and Jonathan Gunderson. Chris Wehan, 2013 Rio del Lago 100mi champ, was out rocking the Wulfow Aid-Station with his girlfriend, Melanie. The support from ITR, the awesome aid-stations, all the volunteers and spectators, made it a race to remember. Could I shave another 3% off next year? Hmmm… Are you ready to suffer Sanchez!?! 😉