Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lake Sonoma 50 mile 2015 race report

You know those nightmares where you show up at the starting line of a race and realize you've forgotten all your running gear?  That was Lake Sonoma for me in real life.  Except it wasn't that I had forgotten anything, it was just that I hadn't managed to start properly training for the race yet.  And somehow race day had arrived.

Every runner always complains that they're not trained, not ready, etc. before a race, but here's what happened in the three months prior to Lake Sonoma;

-I had bronchitis (or something that appeared to be bronchitis; asthma/some type of reactive airway problem has also been suggested) for 8 weeks from mid-January to mid-March.  I still have some lingering lung issues;

-I had a nasty case of tendinitis in my left knee for two weeks before the race;

-I failed to complete my weekly training goals in all but 1 of the 12 weeks of "training" and generally didn't even come near the weekly mileage goal.  Since I'm a low-mileage runner anyway, this is bad!

-My training pace, as dictated by my heart rate monitor, in the month before Lake Sonoma was the slowest it had been in about 6 months; and

-I missed out on all the shorter races I had signed up for as training for Lake Sonoma because of the bronchitis.

What I'm saying is that it's not exaggerating when I say that I was in no way ready for this race.  The only things I had going for me were that I'd had a solid long run in training two weeks before the race, I had been doing a good job on my knee and hip strengthening exercises over the past two months, and I'd done my sauna training to prepare for the heat.  I decided to keep the goal time of 8:45 that I had set for myself in January, but it seemed an unlikely prospect.

With a deserved lack of confidence, I headed out to California on the Thursday before the race.  My friend Jaclyn, also from Atlanta, was running the race too and had gone out a few days earlier with her boyfriend Connell, so the two of them plus Divesh and I all spent a reasonably relaxing day on Friday eating real Italian pizza (sorry Molly!!) and checking out the course.

The showing-up-without-preparing nightmare didn't magically go away at the start of the race.  By about 7 miles in, I was already feeling like it was mile 40.  My knee hurt, my lungs felt constricted, the pace felt uncomfortably fast, and 50 miles seemed like a very, very long way.

Part of the problem at this point was that we were on (gorgeous!) singletrack trail and the pack hadn't yet spread out.  Since I run by heart rate, I go pretty slowly uphill and then speed up a lot on the downhills.  The other 10 to 15 people around me, however, were doing the exact opposite, and so we were constantly passing and re-passing each other.  There are no flat parts at Lake Sonoma--while the hills aren't big, you are always going either uphill or downhill.  I kept having to decide between wasting energy overtaking, or losing time by going too slowly on the downhills, or putting in extra effort to stay ahead of the pack on the uphills.  I alternated between all three options before eventually sticking with the third, which in hindsight was probably the right choice and one I should have made sooner.  I arrived at the aid station at mile 11.5 at my goal time, but I had run at a much higher effort level to get that time than I would have liked.

Fortunately the crowd thinned out dramatically after the aid station.  I started to feel a little more comfortable and in less pain, and my overall pace actually improved while my heart rate dropped.  Somewhere around mile 13 or 14, two guys passed me looking particularly smooth and comfortable, and I resolved to try to stay not too far behind them for a while.  That ended up working out perfectly for the 6 miles or so til the next main aid station, as their pace kept me from dawdling too much on the uphills but they also went just a bit faster than me on the downhills.

Everything kept improving for me, to the point where, during the stretch between mile 23 and mile 30, the unprepared-bad-dream sensation gave way to an equally dreamlike feeling, but this time a good dream.  "Am I really still feeling this strong 30 miles in?  Was that Pam Smith I just passed?!  I am actually awake right now, yes?" (The Pam Smith incident, while technically real, had a lot more to do with the kind of day she must have been having than the kind of day I was having, but let's gloss over that for now...)  It wasn't so much that I felt good, it was that somehow my legs were continuing to carry me forward at the same pace I'd been going the whole day despite my fairly poor efforts at getting them trained to do that.  I steadily worked my way up from 16th place to what I think was 11th place by mile 30.  The whole race was probably my most consistent ever--I think I only got passed by two people in the entire second half, and both of them were people I had just passed myself.

I had been eagerly awaiting getting to the mile 30 aid station since the weather was very hot by this point and when we passed that same aid station at mile 20 (Lake Sonoma is an out-and-back course), there had been a solar shower set up for the runners.  During miles 25 to 30, the thought of returning to the shower had become a beacon of hope in my overheated mind.  Alas, when I arrived at the aid station, I discovered that the shower was gone.  Which led to me loudly exclaiming to Connell as I arrived, "They took away the shower!!" causing more than a few spectators to look at me with concern for my mental state; we were just out in the middle of the woods at this point, not exactly a typical locale to expect a shower.

The main sensation I had over that entire first 30 miles was one of being right on the very edge of blowing up; I constantly felt like I pushing so close to my limit that it could have gone horribly wrong at any time. I was especially dreading miles 30 to 35, which I knew would be largely in the hot sun and had plenty of uphill.  But a big turning point came at mile 32.  I saw a woman in front of me who I was fairly sure was in 10th place, and I suddenly wanted to go for the top 10.  I decided to hang back for a bit, take a gel, and then try to power past once the gel kicked in.  This didn't quite work out for me as taking the gel made me suddenly throw up a few seconds later...and then I immediately felt fine.  No lingering nausea like I've had in so many races, no reduction in pace, nothing.  I kept running, feeling better and better, and after a few miles I knew that I had turned a corner.  If I felt this good at mile 35, there wasn't going to be a goal-ending blowup.  I might yet have a bad patch or two to endure, but I had enough energy in my legs and calories taken in that I knew I wasn't going to lose drastic amounts of time if or when those bad patches came.

Coming into the mile 38 aid station
 And I did have a rough few miles between mile 41 and 45, but it wasn't a huge blowup like, say, the one I suffered around mile 45 of the Highland Fling, where it took me about half an hour to go one mile and I had to beg for food from strangers.  This time there was admittedly some drinking out of a puddle, but I didn't slow too much, and in a complete reversal of the begging from strangers thing, I arrived at the mile 45 aid station and promptly attempted to use their cutting board and knife to cut up a whole cantaloupe.  (A volunteer gently took the knife away and pointed me at  the giant tray of pre-cut fruit.)  After getting some food in me at that aid station, I felt much better and picked the pace back up, though not enough to stay with Denise, who I had leapfrogged with a mile or two earlier and who ended up finishing about five minutes in front of me.  Denise seemed really nice and I wished I could have stayed with her, not to try to pick up another place but to get to talk to her a little more!  In retrospect my big mistake was not taking the time at the mile 38 aid station to get some more food, even though I knew I was getting pretty hungry by that point.

Finish!  Photo:  irunfar.com

I came in at 8:29, under my goal of 8:45 and much faster than I initially thought was possible, but slower than I think I could have run if I had done a better job of fueling in those last 12 miles.  Also, minus the one incident of throwing up, it was another overall win on the stomach front, making me 3 for 3 in my most recent races.  I'm almost tempted to say that I've solved my nausea problem.  Next race I just need a few more calories in the later miles and a lot more training...


  1. Congratulations! I have a friend who's had some success in endurance mountain biking. His training tactics were fierce, but he once admitted to me that many of his best races came unexpectedly after prolonged periods of injury or illness. I thought this was strong evidence for my theory that he had a high level of natural ability (he disagreed with me in this regard.) But maybe it's true that rest is best.

    1. Thanks! I have a feeling it's not natural ability, since I was pretty close to dead last in most races when I first started running (in high school cross country). Unless there is such a thing as late-onset natural ability:) My best guess for what went right is a combination of mostly getting my fueling right plus having done the sauna training--it was HOT out there.

  2. OK, I may have been mistaken you with someone at HURT, but I did see your name at Lake Sonoma, and WOW! What a strong race you turned in, regardless of the stuff prior! May be resting is not suc a bad thing after all:) Ride the wave, know that you can!

    1. I can't switch with the other Alicia and get credit for HURT instead?:)

  3. I think there is natural talent involved - as well as hard work. You just needed to be running much longer in high school!

    Congrats on a great race.

  4. That sounds like a fantastic race! My best races often come when I have lower expectations, since I never go out too fast. Great job on 9th, it was a pretty competitive field.

  5. Congratulations on finishing the race and beating your time goal. Thanks for the report. You pushed through the hard parts very well, and it looks like those strengthening exercises you did really paid off. That's a good plan regarding upping the calories in the later part of the race. I love that part of California. It is so beautiful there!

    Ronni Casillas @ JNH Life Styles