Lake Sonoma 50 Race Report: It Worked!

The Lake Sonoma 50 on April 13 attracted some of the biggest names in the sport. For a recap of how the race played out, check out this article I wrote for Trail Runner’s website. What follows are reflections on my personal experience on the course. 

My race reports from ultras that are longer than a 50K usually detail the physiological, psychological, muscular, gastrointestinal and even dermatological surprises that present challenges on the way to the finish. I’m almost stumped about what to write about when a race goes well. This has never before happened to me in a 50-miler.

In the handful of prior 50M’s I completed, I moaned and groaned and as if I were more than thirty hours into a stalled labor rather than merely running and hiking eight-plus hours on a long trail. Those four 50-milers and one 100K I did from 2010 to 2012 all came down to “woe is me, slow is me” suffer-fests in which I wanted to quit at the halfway mark and concluded I was meant to be a marathoner, not an ultrarunner.

It therefore really mattered to me to have a strong, solid 50-miler this season to build confidence in advance of the Pine to Palm 100 this September. If I had another inordinately difficult 50-mile effort, then I might pull the plug on the 100-mile-debut plan.

Thankfully, my preparation for Lake Sonoma worked. It wasn’t easy—I felt achy and nearly depleted from about miles 28 to 38, as the course returns on the final spike of a series of big hills that rise like jolts on a Richter scale—but it wasn’t too hard or clouded by negativity. The course felt tortuous, not torturous.

LS50M elev profile JPEG

I never seriously considered quitting, I passed a bunch of people toward the end, I finished strong and nailed my goals for the day. The story, therefore, is what went right. I trained well and stayed injury free, building up to a 70-mile week plus strength training, and I had a fast 50K and an eight-hour training run in the month leading up to the event. But I also trained well before those other events, so I think my success at Lake Sonoma has more to do with the week leading up to it and some key choices on race day.

These are the things that worked for me for the Lake Sonoma 50:

Take the taper as seriously as the training.

A year ago, I interviewed Rickey Gates, and before Lake Sonoma, I kept in mind his advice on what he could have done differently before his disappointing 50-mile North Face Endurance Challenge Race. He talked about the importance of resting enough before the race. By then, “you’ve either put in the work or you haven’t,” he said. “I erred on the side of too much training, and, by the time the race rolled around, I was completely spent.”

With those words in mind, I gave myself two solid weeks to rest and told myself, “It’s all about sleep and nutrition at this point” and “less is more.” I cut my mileage by more than half but kept the intensity of those runs high, and finished each run feeling like I wanted to do more. Perhaps most importantly, I slept a solid seven to nine hours every night, drank less alcohol (none in the several days leading up to the race) and ate more mindfully. I felt unusually well rested and healthy by the time I went to the race in Healdsburg.

Study the course, set goals and make a plan.

Given the caliber of runners at this event and the course difficulty (10,000+ feet of elevation gain, numerous creek crossings, constant up-and-down), I realistically knew I couldn’t place high in the field or get a 50-mile PR. I therefore wouldn’t be racing against others as much as pushing myself to run well and not “blow up”; that is, not experience the problems that plagued the prior 50-milers. My goals became to run steady, finish strong and break 10 hours while stretching to get  as close to 9.5 hours as possible.

I settled on that time range by studying race reports, the course profile and the splits of runners from 2012. I focused on one runner in particular, Clare Abram, whom I admire for her steadiness and who runs slightly faster than me now. She ran 9:34 in this race last year, so I figured that if I could run like her, I’d have a good day. I wanted to average at least 12-minute miles (5 miles per hour), which makes for a 10-hour 50-miler.

Studying the course and the aid station splits of Clare and of another runner who finished last year in just under 10 hours, I made target goal times for when I should hit each aid station to finish between 9.5 to 10 hours. As the race progressed, I hit each of those interim time goals, which bolstered confidence and motivation.

I also made a goal to finish in the top 20 of women, which is somewhat arbitrary but helped me push when another woman came on my heels. In the top 100 of the approximately 300 entrants, only 17 were female, so I almost always ran only with men. Catching a glimpse of a woman behind or ahead gave me a jolt of energy, especially in the final five miles when a woman nearly caught up with me on some switchbacks and came into the final aid station just as I was leaving. Determined not to get passed, I ran and power-hiked the final uphills with a focus that had eluded me in prior 50-mile races.

My finish time: 9:36:52, 15th female and 82nd overall. I didn’t get any awards at this race, but I consider it a victory!

Best of all, my husband, son and dog met me at the finish, so I ran the finish chute with my dog Teddy:

Finishing the Lake Sonoma 50 with my dog (thanks Shelley Miller Mitchell for the photo).

Finishing the Lake Sonoma 50 with my dog (thanks Shelley Miller Mitchell for the photo).

Soak up the scenery.

Every bend in the Lake Sonoma course reveals meadows, forests and lake views that capture the essence of springtime in Northern California. The vistas aren’t especially dramatic, but so pretty.  I savored the green grassy meadows full of blooming lupin and wild irises, and the shady oak and madrone forests with calf-high streams. When negativity started to cloud my mood, I looked around and reminded myself that we could be running in rain through gooey mud and flooded creeks, as would have been the conditions earlier in the season, or through triple-digit heat on brown hills, as will be the case in a couple of months. The terrain and weather were nearly ideal—smooth trails and warm, but not hot, temperatures with a cooling wind.

Springtime around Lake Sonoma! (Photo by Shelley Miller Mitchell)

Springtime around Lake Sonoma. (Photo by Shelley Miller Mitchell)

Get the right gear.

I debated whether to wear a hydration vest with a bladder, or two handhelds, and I’m glad I opted for the two handhelds with a simple Nathan lightweight race vest. Using bottles rather than a bladder made for easier refills and let me see how much liquid I had remaining between aid stations. Having the weight of the water in both hands helped me pump my arms on the uphills and feel balanced.

I’m also glad I wore my favorite compression socksbecause they stayed up rather than slipping down when wet from the creek crossings, and the wet fabric felt good on my calf muscles. (In the past, I’ve had chronic problems of wet ankle-high socks slipping down and bunching up in my shoes.) I also felt grateful for my buff, which I prefer to a rolled-up bandana that can bounce up and down. I got the buff wet to cool off my neck and used it to wipe my face.

Running through one of the six creek crossings (thanks Noé Castañón for the photo).

Running through one of the six creek crossings (thanks Noé Castañón for the photo).

I debated whether to bring an iPod. Generally, I want to keep my ears open to other runners and to the environment, and not fuss with wires and song selections. I compromised by getting a tiny iPod shuffle and having it in my drop bag for the second half of the race. I also loaded it with mostly new songs.

I turned on the music around Mile 27 when my spirits flagged, and it definitely elevated my mood and energy level. Only mistake: putting John Denver on the playlist. I know, what was I thinking?! A John Denver tribute album by various artists was released earlier this month, and I thought I might enjoy hearing a few of his nostalgic songs—paeans to my childhood summers in Colorado. But, no, when a sappy cover of a John Denver song broke through the mix of artists like AWOL Nation or The Lumineers, I wanted to chuck my iPod in the lake. Sunshine on my shoulder did not make me happy, and I did not feel a Rocky Mountain high!

See the purple iPod on my front strap and the ear buds? I don't always run with music, but it helped me on uphills like this. (Photo by Maria Sharoglazoa.)

The purple iPod on my front strap helped me on uphills like this. (Photo by Maria Sharoglazoa.)

Eat the right stuff at the right times.

I’ve come to realize that to get the right amount of caloric intake without upsetting my stomach, I need to have 100 to 150 calories every 30 minutes, alternating GU gels with Honey Stinger chews, Honey Stinger waffles and PB&Js from the aid stations—so, basically, I eat twice per hour, alternating a gel with something more solid. I don’t add calories to my drinks, just the flavored electrolyte tabs like Nuuns. Sounds simple, but it’s been complicated to figure that formula out.

Connect with others.

The social aspect of the Lake Sonoma 50 is one of the best things about this event. I had so much fun sharing the trail with friends like Jeffery Rogers and Eric Schranz, and meeting others in person whom I knew or who knew me from online networking.

Hanging out with some of the friends I've made in the past year through Inside Trail. Ken carried the "easy" button and made runners push it as we passed on the trail. (Photo by Karen Gerasimovich)

Hanging out at the start with some of the friends I’ve made in the past year through Inside Trail. Ken carried the “easy” button and made runners push it as we passed on the trail. (Photo by Karen Gerasimovich)

 Race Director John Medinger, a dean in the sport, has the pull to attract many stars of ultrarunning to his race in his neck of the woods. He designed a course that’s out-and-back (with a strategically sneaky keyhole at the turnaround, so you can’t see who’s right behind or ahead of you, as you would in a regular turnaround). That means mid-packers get to see amazing frontrunners running back on the return while we’re still heading out, and we get to encourage friends behind us while we make our way back.

In some races, I clam up and don’t talk much at all, either because I don’t want to lose focus, or because I’m running too hard to talk. This time I talked more with others to keep my pace steady and spirits up, and it seemed to help.

It was inspiring to see the fast guys speed by, and especially to see those who were struggling—guys like 2012 Western States 100 winner Timothy Olson, who shook his head and sort of rolled his eyes as I said something encouraging as we passed. He finished 15th. Or my friend Victor Ballesteros, who was farther back in the field than I hoped he’d be, but he managed a goofy grimace as we passed. It drove home the point that no matter how good, fit and talented you are, this sport never gets easy, and everyone has bad days—which makes the good days, like I was having, feel even better.

One of my favorite finish line photos: Victor Ballesteros pretending to take a nap after finishing 24th in 7:55. (Photo by Christopher Himmel)

One of my favorite finish line photos: Victor Ballesteros pretending to take a nap after finishing 24th in 7:55. (Photo by Christopher Himmel)

And finally, here are my other favorite finish line photos—one with my son, one with my dog.

with kyle at finish

with Teddy at finish

Call for comments: What have been the two or three key things that have worked for you at your last good race?

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13 Responses to Lake Sonoma 50 Race Report: It Worked!

  1. Pete Ferguson April 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    Thanks for the excellent and informative race reports Sarah! Really glad to see you do so well. You worked very hard and deserved a good race. That picture of you and Teddy crossing the line put a lump in my throat. It was like the end of a Disney movie!
    “Go Teddy, your Mommy is lost on the trail and a storms a commin”!
    Great tips on training and eating. I’ve just gone to the Nuun tabs myself and realize also I’m not taking in enough gels.
    You’re inspiring and I hope you do fantastic in your 1st 100 mile. We’ll all be rooting for you!
    Take care!
    Pete Ferguson recently posted..OY VEY! What Has Become Of Me? People Of This Running Planet…Take Me To Your “Leader Board”.My Profile

  2. Jennifer April 22, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Great report, Sarah, and great race. Nailing down things like gear, fueling, etc. will be really helpful for you at Pine to Palm.

    I had a solid race, too, by doing all the “taking care of myself” sorts of things you talked about. Another thing I’ve only recently figured out (despite almost 10 years of ultrarunning!) is salt. I seem to have higher salt needs than many runners, maybe because I eat such a salty diet. I take one saltStick every 2 hours when it’s cold and then switch to taking 1 every hour when it heats up. As long as I stay on top of my salt, I don’t have as many problems with dizziness and low blood pressure (which was an issue for me in every 100-miler until I figured this out).

  3. Shelby April 22, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    What a fun race report! Congrats on having a great race and meeting your goals. I ran my first GC double rim crossing a week ago and realized that I needed to tweak the things that worked well for me in my first 50k. Your tips on gear and nutrition are helpful for newbies like me (also knowing that experienced runners still have trouble with 50 miles!). I’m listening for tips as I prepare for my first 50 miler next month. Thanks for sharing yours!

  4. John Nguyen April 23, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    Congrats on the solid 50-mile finish! The right formula is tricky! I’ve given up on gus a long time ago. They just don’t seem to work for me (maybe I’m not running fast enough!). The Honey Stinger chews and real food work better for me. Good luck with your Pine to Palm training! I think you’ll go great!
    John Nguyen recently posted..DreamsMy Profile

  5. Dax April 23, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    Congratulations on a great race, and thanks for sharing the steps you took for a solid result. I’m kind of freaking out about Miwok in a couple of weeks and it helped to read your tips.
    Dax recently posted..Boston.My Profile

  6. Jeremy April 23, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    I can’t believe you’re ripping on Denver! Really? John Denver embodies the soul of trail running, why you gotta be hatin…

    • Sarah Lavender Smith April 24, 2013 at 4:28 am #

      Jeremy, believe me, I still feel the love and know all of JD’s lyrics by heart–he fills up my senses, like a night in the forest, like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain, and all that. It’s the sappy covers by various artists like Train doing his songs, combined with my desire for edgy music on that day, that made me want to chuck my iPod when those songs came on.

  7. Olga King April 24, 2013 at 6:22 am #

    Sarah, finally got to read the whole thing – congrats on nailing your goals! This is always exciting, to top off just simple fact of running in a beautiful place with awesome people. Great lessons that played role in your race execution, and way to go on building confidence! You are on the right path!

  8. clare April 24, 2013 at 8:58 am #

    Hey Sarah! great post and I’m super glad to hear you had a good 50M. LS50 is a hard race to be steady on because those gentle rollers that just fly by in the first 12 miles become monsters in the last 12 miles! If you want some steady splits for Pine to Palm, just let me know 😉
    see you soon,

  9. Allen Lucas April 27, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    Ha ha ha – that’s too funny about the John Denver song! I don’t usually use music, but when I do I’m often surprised by how bad many of my song choices were.

    Congrats on a great race! It sound like you will nail PtP!

    I avoid caffeine (especially caffeinated GUs) and really rely on salt caps, Honey Stingers, and a variety of aid station food.
    Allen Lucas recently posted..It’s mostly about the trees. And hills. But mostly the trees.My Profile

  10. Travel Spot May 18, 2013 at 6:40 am #

    Great job on a great race! It does take a long time to figure out what works for you, fueling wise. I usually don’t drink sugared drinks, only Nuun or water, and my body is not a fan of Gu’s but will tolerate real food (potatoes, fruit) and Honey Stinger Chews every 30 – 45 mins. My longest race is 50k though, so I don’t know how my body would act for a 50 miler.
    Travel Spot recently posted..Cinderella Trail HalfMy Profile


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