Just as the light dawned on a foggy morning, we took our places at the start line of the Lake Sonoma 50. I tried to look for a few familiar faces in the ladies crowd but couldn’t see anyone I recognized. Over to my left was a sea of neon yellow singlets; the Nike elite men’s team out in full force. I saw Sally McRae and figured she’d be standing by the ladies contenders. She wasn’t, but it was time for the race to begin so I decided to slip in near her and keep her in my sights. The first 2.4 miles of the race are on paved road in order to thin out the pack a bit before hitting the singletrack, making for a speedy start. A couple of minutes after John Medinger, Race Director, shouted “GO” the neon sea had moved on and in their wake were Emily Harrison, Jodee Adams-Moore, Stephanie Howe and Angela Shartel, along with a few women runners I wasn’t familiar with. Before the race I had decided that in order to compete in this super-fast women’s field, I needed to be more aggressive than I was at Sean O’Brien. At the same time, I wasn’t ready to run the first few miles like it was a 5k. The ladies went out at a decent clip but I didn’t think it was crazy-fast by any stretch and it was a blast to run just behind this elite crowd.
As we hit the trails, there was a little angling for position but everyone was lighthearted and gracious. I settled into about eighth or ninth. Just up in front, Jenny Capel and Jenny Pfeifer stuck close together and stayed this way for a while. We took turns leapfrogging in those early miles.
Early on my stomach started cramping – unexpected stomach flu-like cramps, as opposed to the ones I knew in advance would be on tap for the day (yay for me!). I racked my brains to try to problem solve, but I couldn’t figure out why. Overall I felt great and was annoyed by this distraction, especially in the early miles. Gels have been known to make me nauseated, but not crampy, and besides it was a bit early for my stomach to be legitimately upset with me. Despite the discomfort, I tried not to let it phase me. (Side note: In the lead up to the race I had experienced tummy troubles but chalked this up to nerves. Immediately after the race and for several days following, I had diarrhea, whole body shivers and fever — I had caught a virus. I have no idea how much this actually affected my race day, if at all).
As I came in to Warm Springs (mile 11.6), I saw my crew person, Elizabeth, waiting. This is the first race I’ve been lucky enough to have crew help and it was amazing the difference it made. I gained a lot of time by simply switching out my wasitpack for a new, pre-filled one at each stop. Elizabeth would then take the old waistpack and refill it ready for the next turn. In addition, she took meticulous notes and let me know exactly where I was in the race. I truly can’t thank her enough for selflessly volunteering her time. At Warm Springs, Elizabeth informed me I was in 10th. I had used previous year splits (available on the Lake Sonoma website) to figure out approximately when I should arrive at each aid station in order to reach my goal time of 8:30. I was slightly ahead, but not by too much, and took this as a good omen for the day.
At some point a couple of women passed me. I can’t recall if it was after Warms Springs or the next aid station, Madrone, but I tried not to let it bother me. I was more concerned with making sure I maintained a sustainable pace and was taking care of myself. To my relief, my stomach felt a little better in these middle miles and I felt strong overall. On the downside, much of the race was pretty lonely. The runners were spread out but I wanted the company of others. It’s the first ultra that I didn’t make a new friend to run with for any length of time and I missed the distraction and bonding that running with another brings. Then I saw race winner Zach Miller on his way back from the turnaround looking super strong on an uphill. I didn’t recognize him and wondered if he would last the distance – boy was I wrong! It occurred to me that if I wanted that quick potty stop I’d better take it now as the rest of the men’s field would be hot on his heels. Mission accomplished a split second before my coach, Sage, and the rest of the lead racers came zooming past. Phew, that was close!
As I worked my way up the three biggest hills of the course, I was totally in my groove and honestly didn’t even notice them, breezing right up with some trotting and power hiking combos. Not far from the top I saw Emily Harrison coming back down, pursued shortly thereafter by Stephanie Howe. Kaci Lickteig and Jodee Adams Moore (possibly not in that order) were the only other women’s leaders I recall seeing, meaning that the rest were still in the keyhole at the turnaround. I must admit that I didn’t realize the significance of this, since it meant we were all pretty closely bunched. After the race, I saw a tweet from Meghan Hicks of iRunFar that there were five women within five minutes of fifth place Angela Shartel at this point on the course. A runner named Leslie (Howlett) caught up to me during this section. We started chatting and it was good to have company, even if for a short while. Meghan Hicks was waiting near the top of Bummer Peak, telling us we were in 11th and 12th place. Passing through No Name Aid Station (mile 25.2) I waved at Jorge Maravilla, who has always been so welcoming at the San Francisco Running Company in Mill Valley. (I stopped in there last summer for the first time, before I had ever even run my first marathon, and go back whenever I can for their incredible knowledge and ultra-specific merchandise.) Leslie was behind me again out of the AS, and we cruised back down Bummer at a decent clip (6:xx min pace). I was surprised she was still there at the bottom since downhills are my strength. Hers too, I guess! Soon afterwards she passed me for good, looking solid. I was still ahead of my goal pace so didn’t give chase, trying to conserve energy for a consistent race and telling myself it was still early. The next few miles passed quickly and were a big ego boost as runners still making their way up to the turnaround shouted kind words of encouragement as I passed.
As I made my way up the hill into the Madrone AS (mile 30.9), Bryon Powell of iRunFar was there, shouting “come on!” and stating he was “just there for motivation.” I picked up my headphones, and Elizabeth told me that there was a runner right ahead of me looking spent. Talk about motivation! I turned on the music and the speed soon followed. I screamed by Lydia Gaylord, feeling amazing, and spent the next few miles grooving to the tunes and riding a wave of intense euphoria unlike anything I have ever experienced in a race before. I felt simply unbeatable and cruised along at a super speedy clip. Well… you guessed it, what comes up must come down and the fast pace wore me out quickly. Not my smartest move, but it was amazing while it lasted and allowed me to pass both Lydia and, next up, Jenny Capel, quite definitively. Back in tenth place, I wondered how far ahead the other runners were and if anyone was blowing up, just as I was starting to tire myself.
Soon the sun came out and beat down on the course. I had hoped for a hot day since we basically live in the desert now. If anyone could handle the April heat it was me. The morning fog had lasted a long time and when the sun finally did come out it wasn’t exactly scorching (low to mid seventies?), but I imagine it was still enough in this early-season race for many runners to feel it. A few miles later I was out in the open fields running a trail cut in to the hillside when a sharp movement on the bank to my right caught my attention. I turned around, surprised. Turns out, I was not the only one caught off guard — a snake had reared up and tried to strike me! Thankfully I ran past fast enough that it missed me. I saw it slithering swiftly across the trail. I looked around, amazed, to see if anyone else had seen it, but there was no one there. Again, I felt pretty down not to have another runner near me to share that crazy moment with. (In case you’re wondering I have no idea what kind of snake it was, I couldn’t tell the color in the sunlight and wasn’t exactly stopping to check it out but it was about three or more feet long, though thin in circumference, and certainly got the adrenaline flowing!).
At this stage — mile 35 or so — I was still on pace for an 8:15-8:20 finish, but I started to realize that I was going to lose some ground from this point on. My stomach started feeling crampy again and indeed didn’t let up before the race ended, or afterwards for that matter. While I had no big bonk per se I just started to feel super fatigued. I told myself to keep moving until Island View and then if I saw other ladies it would be time to step on the gas and bring it home. Otherwise, I would to simply try to maintain my pace as much as possible. This is right when my Garmin died, but I didn’t need the watch to tell me that in reality I was slowing considerably. I had been really happy with my hill performance in the race up until this time, running as much as possible and feeling fit and powerful. Now, even smaller hills were eating at my confidence and I walked up a lot of them. I started cramping in my left hamstring and quad and in my mental fog forgot that I had salt tabs in my back pocket. I finally got one from Elizabeth at Warm Springs (mile 38), but should have taken two and carried one with me as I wasn’t able to get another until Island View (mile 45.5) by which point the leg cramps had long since returned.
As I ran downhill into Island View I saw Leslie and Tera Dube not far back up the trail from the AS. They were just a few minutes up and close together. I looked at Leslie and she looked bad, very pale — a face of determined suffering. Tera just looked down, all business, but I could tell she was struggling too. I tried to make it look good and knew I needed to get into hunting mode to claim those spots – they were within my grasp and looked like fairly easy pickings. I worked hard to mentally rebound and tried every trick in the book to get myself back in the game, but my body wasn’t having any of it.
I finally rallied somewhat for the last mile but by then it was too late. Even though it wasn’t an exciting finish, it was satisfying in other ways. I crossed the line in 8:40 and tenth place in a super competitive race. (Splits from the Lake Sonoma website show I was still on 8:25 pace until mile 45.5. Ouch, that was a slow last few miles.) I know that with time and experience those last ten miles will improve. For context, just a few years ago, my 8:40 would have been the winning time on this course. Women’s ultra racing is getting seriously FAST! I guess I could take this as a sign that maybe I’m not up to scratch in today’s most competitive fields but I think it just means there’s work to do to truly contend. Most of my competition were professional athletes, or at least seasoned ultrarunners. I’m brand spanking new at ultras and with less than two years of any real running on my legs at that. (Side note alert: anyone else find it interesting that ALL of the top ten men’s finishers are sponsored athletes yet only six of the top ten ladies are sponsored in this amazingly competitive race? It was similar at Sean O’Brien too with only four of the top ten ladies with sponsors. Sponsors, time to step up and invest in the women’s field!) Anyway, it was also fantastic to cross the finish line of my former “hometown” area ultra, with an almost one hour improvement over my Sean O’Brien finishing time, set in February. A huge thank you to Sage Canaday and Sandi Nypaver of V02 Max Coaching for coaching me over the last couple of months, taking me from total novice to feeling much more prepared and confident in my running.
Next up, Ice Age!