2014 Lake Sonoma 50

LS50Wow… 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.

After the Annadel Half-Marathon on April 5th. — Photo credit: Carlo Piscitello

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.

Photo Credit:  Joseph Condon
Photo Credit: Joseph Condon

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 >>>

Photo Credit: Ernie Gates

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!”

Love/Hate  —  Photo Credit: Chihping Fu

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.

Shattered at the finish line. — Photo Credit: J. Tanner Johnson

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.

Slowdown Rank Sort provided by Gary Gellin

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.

With ITR Teammate, Chris Wehan, left. ITR Teammates, Luke Garten and Gary Gellin, right. Left Photo Credit: Melanie Michalak / Right Photo Credit: UltraSportsLive.TV

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!?!  😉

Bruised with brews. — Photo Courtesy of Chris Jones

Thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job as “First Responder.” Look at my toe!

Thank you to Hoka One One for the their awesome support and producing the best shoe in ultrarunning—DEMAND MORE!    |    Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for your offering so many fantastic races in great places.  |   Thanks to Clif Bar for fueling my training and racing.  |   Nuya is perfectly natural hydration that combines electrolytes and carbohydrates to properly hydrate and fuel your body. I love it as a recovery drink!

Thank you Heart-n-Sole Sports for your continued support. Thanks to Brian and the awesome instructors at Paradise Yoga, a brand new yoga studio, right here in my hometown of Windsor. Yoga’s definitely helping my running. Namasté!   |  Thanks to the folks at Akoia Day Spa for the painful sports massages I get a few days post-event. Bringing me back to life!


Marin Ultra Challenge – Inspiration, Preparation, Execution

mucstartMarin Ultra Challenge is one of those events that immediately captures the imagination. In 2013 it was held in June and I sadly couldn’t make it work with my schedule. When I heard Inside Trail Racing was moving the event to March, and it was still a full four weeks out from Lake Sonoma, I just had to be a part of the action, especially since I live just 60mi up the road.

photo(3)Marin Ultra Challenge (MUC) epitomizes the essential beauty of our growing sport. Like the iconic Golden Gate Bridge itself, MUC represents a gateway into the increasingy vast realm of ultrarunning bliss, offering four unique race distances, each with all the spectacular scenery one finds running on the trails in the Marin Headlands, Mt. Tam, and Muir Woods. There’s no shortage of climbing and descending, with over 10,000′ of glorious ups-n-downs; definitely a job for the world’s best ultrarunning shoe:

A rising tide lifts all ships. In recent months, I’d experienced my best performances in the Marin Headlands, totally inspired by the efforts of my fellow ultrarunners. Two experiences, in particular, are Rob Krar’s brilliant performance at North Face Endurance Challenge (NFEC) in December, and Dave Mackey’s “Dirty Double”, where, within one week, he set a course-record at Quad Dipsea and immediately turned it around and ran stoic top-10 at NFEC. These masterful performances, having run along side both these guys in the early miles, pushed me to dwell deeply upon what was possible for myself at the 50mi distance, and beyond.

Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change. As a teacher, an endurance sports coach, and an ultrarunner, I know that if I’m not learning I’m not growing—no challenge, no change, as they say. It’s exciting where a little curiousity will take us. And these days, with blogs, podcasts, and the like, information on how to improve is right at our fingertips (or earbuds). Seeing guys like Krar and Mackey do what they do is awe-inspiring and quickly leads to the obvious question? How are they doing it? Well, beyond innate talent, lies a lot of hard fought experience, dedication to smart and balanced training, and a tremendous amount of passion to keep improving.

Marin Ultra Challenge in March served a few key purposes:  it gave me the opportunity to further dial in my 50mi race process before toeing the line at the insanely competitive Lake Sonoma 50 a month later. MUC in March also affords athletes the time to do a proper training build in Jan, culminating with a shorter distance race, say, three weeks out from MUC. I chose Inside Trail’s Chabot 50k, which serendipitously helped boost not only my racing endurance, but because Chabot’s a faster course—as compared to courses in the Marin Headlands—it really helped kick up my leg speed a notch or two. And these days, if you want to “rise with the tide,” you better be running fast often. Sink or swim. Fortunately for me, I don’t actually have to swim anymore. So nice. Soooo nice.

The big “test” for MUC was to add in a short, fast race just a week out from MUC, similar (but on a smaller scale) to what Mackey had done a week out from NFEC with his record-breaking Quad Dipsea. There happened to be a sweet, local 10mi trail run called the Ilsanjo Classic, just six days prior to MUC. I was more nervous for that than toeing the line at a 100-miler! I knew it was going to take me way out of my comfort zone (sink or swim). I ended up averaging a controlled 6:08/mi pace there, which I was hoping would allow me to run really quick on the downs and flats (was there any flat running?) at MUC.

Since January, I’d been sprinking in more intensity than I’ve ever done as an ultrarunner—two hill sessions and a tempo run on the road. That little hour of red-line running at Ilsanjo took the wind out of my sails through the following Thursday. Uh-oh, I thought all week. I was worried but just kept listening to my body, rested, cut runs short, took a complete rest day on Thursday, and on Friday I was pleased to find I’d come out the other side ready for a strong showing in Marin, by kicking it up to 4:20 pace for a tenth of a mile on Friday’s short shake-out run. Honestly though, I could have probably used another day or two of recovery. Or, was it perfectly timed??

with Gary Gellin & Michael Stricklan

It was great to see Gary Gellin out supporting on race-day, and have the opportunity to chat with him since he’s had a big influence on my race execution in ultras. Nobody wants to hear it, but we do inevitably slow in the second half of these long-@$$ events. Now, by how much, that’s where Gary offered me my big “A-HA” moment last year by sorting our Lake Sonoma results and displaying for all by how much we slowed in the second half of that race. I’d raced the second half like sh*t and slowed by some 18%. Sage Canaday won, while slowing by only 12% over the second half. Then and there I’d made it a priority to always “do my math homework” coming into races, providing myself with a few “first-half/second-half pacing scenarios.

Last year, the heart-rate monitor really helped me dial in a reasonable intensity over the first half of ultras so I could run stronger and slow less in the second half. It’s been challenging for me to pace effectively in the early miles of ultras, having so strongly conditioned myself to my higher intensity Ironman marathon RPE (rate perceived exertion). After ten years and some 20 Ironmans, you can imagine the re-programming I’ve had to tackle. This year though, I feel I’m finally dialed in, and my trustly heart-rate monitor’s come off. But, what a great tool to help you optimize your own ultrarunning pacing.


The night after Chabot 50k, I took a long look at the Marin Ultra Challenge elevation profile, and loosely established that 60% of the climbing’s in the first half. If I could summit Willow Camp and be around 7:50/mi average race pace, then I’d only have to hold around 9:30 pace to get under the existing course-record (8:45/mi pace). That would be around 10% slowing over the second half of the race. Ultimately, you can’t guarantee how things are going to pan out, but you can use previous race results to hypothesize what’s likely to occur, assuming the body’s cooperating, you stay on course, etc.

The 50mi and the 50k started together in the dark at 6am. My fully-charged Petzl NAO lit the way beautifully, up the short section of paved road to the first turn onto trail. There were two guys up, which was great, ’cause knowing my tendency to zone out in races and find myself off course, I was happy to have company navigating in the dark. But, they missed the first turn. I only made the turn because I’d done this section in another ITR event. Another runner and I yelled and got their attention, and I found myself leading, feeling great, and strangely confident I could keep myself on course ’til the sun came up.

One of favorite memories yet in ultrarunning came while making my way over to Rodeo Beach, running alone and averaging a comfortable 6min pace (a lot of downhill), then climbing up to Coastal Trail with the mighty Pacific Ocean glistening in the moonlight, and Ray Lamontagne’s Henry Nearly Killed Me, which I’d listened to three times in the car prior to race-start, goin’ good in my head. Smooth flow…

As I was dreamily bounding along, I missed a turn to stay on Coastal Trail, just passed Fort Cronkhite. Sh*t. Fortunately I caught my mistake pretty quickly and ran up to get back on the Coastal Trail heading up to the Tennessee Valley aid station.

You don’t have to be off course very long for runners who aren’t navigationally challenged to put some distance into you by the time you rejoin the caravan. One runner ahead turned into two, then three, four, and five! The most important thing during a little race snafu like this is to work mindfully to accept it as soon as possible, be present, get the heart-rate down, and minimize any further “damage.” Every time your brain starts dwelling on the setback, “change the channel” to something productive, that you actually now have control over. I thought of my Hoka teammate, Michael Wardian’s, comeback and victory at the recent Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica. Note to self:  that worked like a charm.

Within 20min or so I’d reclaimed the lead and started moving over the course as quickly and efficiently as possilble, taking in 300cal/hr from gels, and getting in an increasing amount of water. I’d set a time vibration alarm on my Garmin for 30min, reminding me to fuel, with the intention of changing the alarm around the 50k mark, to 20min, depending on what feedback I was getting from my body.

mucstrava2For the first half, I had two pieces of data available to me on my Garmin—race pace and race distance. I wanted to be hyper-aware of the 50mi/50k split at Heather Cutoff around mi16 and was grateful that it turned out to be so well marked. Then it was up Coast View to the Cardiac aid station and down the Dipsea to Stinson Beach for the most formidable climb of the day up Willow Camp, which I’d not had the pleasure of climbing before. Starting up Willow Camp my average pace was about 7:30/mi. I was pleased with that ’cause I knew I’d lose quite a bit on this bad boy. And by the time I summited, I was down to about a 8:06/mi average. I’d stayed in control, power-hiked here, ran what I could, and enjoyed the views overlooking Stinson.

I’d seen my Inside Trail team-mate, Chris Wehan, in Stinson Beach. He was out volunteering and having a good time. I asked him how far back the next guy was. He’d been following the action on UltraSportsLive.TV’s live feed. They’d given a bunch of the 50mi runners transponders so we could be tracked in real-time. Way cool. And I had a perfect little pocket for it on my vest too. Chris said that I had some good time on the next runner with a transponder. But, I was worried about runners, “flying under the radar,” who hadn’t been “chipped” at the start. Always race like the next guy’s two minutes up and the guy behind’s two minutes back. Keep plugging away…

With Willow Camp in the rear-view, the day was warming up. I’d had a few twinges in my right achilles earlier in the morning. I’d not had any problems with achilles this year so chalked it up to racing Ilsanjo and the fact I was running a 50-miler in the Headlands faster than I ever had before. Overall though, felt good. Chabot and Ilsanjo definitley seemed to be doing more good for me than ill.

Powered by gratitude, I cruised down Matt Davis Trail back to the Cardiac aid-station, I began dwelling on how much time/distance I’d lost being off course for a bit early on in the going. At the half, I switched over to my Garmin’s Virtual Pacer (VP), which I’d set for 8:45/mi (the existing course-record pace). I now was hovering around 10-13min ahead of my VP. That should be good, right? I finally made it to Cardiac and moved through as quickly and efficiently as I could. Two hundred yards passed Cardiac I realized I just forgot my drop-bag with the rest of my calories for the remaining 40% of the race. I had one gel left in my vest and a full bottle. Putting my metabolic efficiency to the test, I ran faster and ignored my Garmin’s vibration, telling me it was time to take calories. I was in ration mode, but relaxed and stepped on the gas, bounding down another fun section of trail.

Once I got back down to Muir Beach I was ready for some calories, for sure. No gels are permitted in the Headlands, so I loaded up on CLIF SHOT BLOKS and Coke. I actually ended up really liking the BLOKS for racing, especially in the second half of a race, since you can just keep popping these little guys in and let ’em dissolve. So, disaster averted!

muc2All the way back up to Tennessee Valley, I was doing my best to prepare myself for the final, big climb up Marincello. I’ve gone up this climb numerous times during races, and it never fails to test one’s mental fortitude. Armed with a quote I recently heard in the trailer for the new movie, Unbroken, [in theaters Dec. 25th] stating, “If you can take it, you can make it,” I arrived to Tennessee Valley and vowed to myself I would not walk any part of this climb. Now I wouldn’t exactly call what I did do up Marincello, “running” per se, but I was able to use the above mountain biker as a nice carrot to keep me motivated. You take what the trail gives you. It wasn’t easy, but I kept the cadence quick, the steps short, and crested that sucker, feeling spent but excited to wrap this race up (but with the curious desire for the experience to never end).

By the time I finally got myself up Marincello, I was only about nine or ten minutes up on my arch nemesis (my Garmin’s Virtual Pacer). In my head, at that moment, it seemed like it wouldn’t be good enough. Unbroken‘s Louis Zamperini’s quote had all-too-quickly deflated into the less inspired, “Fake it until you make it,” as the body really started protesting the now 6+ hours of toil. At this point in the game, the body’s in charge and we’re just leaning against our limits and hoping the ol’ wheels stay on to the finish. Cadence. Cadence. Cadence. Relax…

Alta and SCA trails revealed a not-too-distant yet out-of-reach national monument as I reminded myself to find my yoga breath and keep on keepin’ on. Another fellow Hoka One One athlete, in the form of Ken Michel, running the 50k, gave me some much needed encouragement as I hobbled over the final rollers before the glorious left turn that would take us back to where we started the day some seven hours before—under the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, all downhill… which sounds more delightful as I write this than it did with 49 miles and 10,000′ of cumulative quad-crushing downhill in my legs.

You never know who’s going to come up from behind, ’cause it’s never over ’til its over in these ultrarunning contests. Work to that finish line. Earn every step. And then the body has your permission to completely seize up. I must’ve looked pretty bad, ’cause at the finish line volunteers actually asked if I need to be carried. Fake it ’til you make it.

Two final things I want to highlight about the Marin Ultra Challenge were 1.) how Inside Trail Racing allowed us to deposit our head-lamps at an aid-station once the sun came up and had them waiting for us at the finish, and 2.) the big sponges in buckets full of ice-water that were offered at aid-stations once it got warm—THAT WAS SO AWESOME! There were over 70 volunteers out there making this event happen and for them I’m super grateful.

With super-human race director, Mr. Tim Stahler, riding some post-race euphoria.

It was another existential battle of mind over body out there, on a course that still lingers in my mind and spirit (and probably body too). I was thrilled to see 7:07 (~8:30/mi avg pace) coming across the line, but I was most psyched about having executed my best mountainous 50mi event to date. The effort to do so does concern me because of the immense strain on the body. What doesn’t kill you…

As of today, now eight days post-MUC, I’ve still only jogged across a few fields with the dogs. Lake Sonoma’s in three weeks and I can either benefit from MUC or become injured coming back to training too fast. Running resumes tomorrow and I’m hopeful, after resting this week, cycling, massage, and yoga, that any niggles from MUC will have vanished. It might be akin to pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but I’m targeting 6:40 to 7:00 at Lake Sonoma here in three weeks. Ultrarunning gods willing, I’ll be able to pull it off. I did see a bobcat up close yesterday on a sweet, hilly road-ride. Ann Trason says that bobcat sightings are good luck. I’ll take that, and run with it. >>> 😀