Lake Sonoma 50
Debacles in training are gifts. But only in training, and fortunately, I had one 4 weeks prior to Lake Sonoma. I had partaken in an organized training weekend, compliments of RD Tropical John Medinger, and on day 2 of running 25 miles, I fell apart. Not in a dramatic “Oh My God, I suck, and I’m gonna cry until someone comes to get me” but more of a gradual diminishing energy that slowed my pace, step by step, so that I the last 12 miles were spent sucking every gu wrapper dry and reminding myself “I love running!” Realizing that of late, that is how I feel at the end of races and runs, I asked Stephanie Howe for some nutritional guidance. Not to dis any one nutritional program, but I went to Steph because I KNOW she fuels well in races, and I also know that she is reading all of the current literature on nutrition and would give me unbiased advice. And that she did. Bottom line – I was failing miserably in calorie intake on long runs, somehow talking myself out of keeping up, out of laziness to make a sandwich or being totally disgusted with sports gels and like products.
The weeks following said debacle and subsequent advice, I practiced eating 200-300 calories per hour on my long runs. It worked. Duh. I felt like an old dog who forgot the tricks. But with renewed commitment, I was ready to tackle race day with a plan and a pack full of gels.
Two years ago, I ran here, and underestimated the impact of all those rolling hills. I went out hard, and raced fairly decently until the final 12. They were miserable. I had gone from running all the rollers to barely walking at the end, and coming in at 8:15 – happy to finish in the top 5, but whipped before the end. “Death by a 1000 paper cuts” – Steve Itano.
This year – I had my nutrition back under control, and also had been training with Caren Spore, a 4’10” monster hill runner, who continually shames me into running hills instead of hiking, much to the chagrin of my training partners Mark, Craig and Matt, whom I now also shame into running, or else they swear at Caren as I slowly pull away. With those aspects of my training, plus some big mileage weeks, i was looking to break 8 hours this year.
Tropical John, aka TJ, does an amazing job of creating a race of the top athletes that matches if not exceeds the competitive field of Western States 100. It is a Who’s Who on ultra running, and the excitement amongst the runners, and the attention to detail of the volunteers is inspiring. Healdsburg itself is reason enough to make the trip over, but add in a high end pasta/pizza feed the night before, tamales, pulled pork, and Bear Republic beer at the finish line, plus wine tasting on Sunday – it really seems like a weekend party with a little 50 mile run thrown in.
Mark and I arrived at the race start a good hour ahead of time, giving me plenty of time to warmup and catchup with what friends I could make out in the darkness. And at 6:30, TJ had us assembled on the start line and shooed us on our way. Two and half miles of pavement feels really long when you’re eyes are peering ahead as the runners string out further and further. I had my heart rate monitor to guide my effort, the goal to stay around 150-155 on the flat (of which there was about zero) and below 165 on the climbs. That kept me in a pack of girls before the single track of Denise “Little D” Bourassa, Katie DeSplinter, Pam Smith, Newbie Ashley Erba (all of 19 years old). When we hit single track, I fell behind Pam and Ashley, and watched them pull away. I kept my blinders on, looking at the trail in front of me, and the heart rate. It was going to be a long day.
Downhill, I was letting gravity pull me down, and the many rollers in the first few miles were already making an impact on my quads. Yuck! Was I going to have the same race as 2 years ago? I was not feeling awesome. But, I took a Huma gel at 30 minutes, then 60 minutes, and sipped from my bottle of Tailwind, and around 10 miles realized I was actually starting to feel pretty good! I had been passed by a few men and women, but didn’t give chase. I arrived at the first significant creek crossing, and saw my friend Chris Jones who cheered me on, and I thanked him by giving him my trash.
At the aid station, I had my bottle topped off with water, and began the slow climb out, and thanks to my running with Caren, found myself gently running the long climb. Behind me was a silent gal, who had been following me for some miles. I finally asked if she wanted to go around, and she said no, she liked where she was and felt safe having me set the pace. Turns out it was Lydia Gaylord whom I had met last summer, and she was determined to have this 2nd attempt at Lake Sonoma go better than her first. We ran mile after mile together, eventually picking up another Bay Area runner, Burr, and the three of us worked together to Madrone Point at mile 18.
Meredith Terranova was there waiting for Paul’s return, and saw me struggling opening a pack of Tailwind to add to my water, jumped up and made it all happen, hugged and kissed me and shooed my out of there. Lydia and Burr were ready to hike out the long climb, and we kept the effort under control chatting up to the top, where another group of crew and friends shouted encouragement.
The three of us scooted downhill, Lydia falling off a bit. Burr and I soon caught and passed a very controlled Kaci Lickteig, content on keeping in control and having a decent finish. Before we hit the last long climbing section to the turn around, the lead men were coming at us – Alex Varner followed closely by Ryan Bak, then Rob Krar, youngster Jared Hazon, Jorge Maravilla, Max King – such a cast of fast boys! It was very inspiring.
Burr and I hiked and ran, keeping the effort under control, me keeping my HR under 165. As we crested, we finally were greeted by smooth moving Stephanie Howe. We greeted each other with enthusiasm and encouragement. We have a special history, Steph and I. We trained together while she was in Corvallis, working on her PhD, and she was a sponge for knowledge of ultra running, very humble, hardworking, and respectful. Watching her progress to the successful races she’s having is very exciting.
On and on, up and up. I was so pleased at feeling good and being in control, eating every 30 minutes, keeping that heart rate where it belonged. On the final loop going into the turn around, I could see Little D. She disappeared around the bends, and when I arrived at the aid station, I no longer saw her. “The Queen is in the house!” bellowed TJ. I saw Chris Jones again, and asked him to transfer my gels from my pack to the front pockets, while an aid station volunteered quickly filled my water bottle. I was quickly out, apparently ahead of Liitle D, as I never saw her ahead of me again.
I plugged away on the return trip. Happily, my legs had strength, my spirit had will, and I focused on form, control, and the 30 minutes of calorie intake. I was quite liking the Huma gels, but the Powergel was getting TOO sweet. Wished all I had were Huma. It was fun seeing so many friends in this section and finally seeing Mark moving steadily to the turnaround, his usual, cheerful countenance. His words of encouragement lifted me. A bit later, I caught up to Jady Palko, who’s signature race style is go HARD at the start, hold on for dear life, and try not to suck at the end. He saw me coming and kept me at bay for another mile or so, climbing up to the campground above Madrone. The decent was wicked, and after about half a mile he slowed, saying “175 pounds on this downhill is just too much” and let me go by. I told him “I just want to break 8 hours!” At the aid station, John Catts and Karl Hoagland crewed me well, and sent me on my way.
I was still feeling pretty damn good! I was now in 6th or 7th place, and just happy to feel strong. I was with a couple of guys, and eventually heard a woman’s voice, and saw Kaci moving back up. She finally came up behind and I complimented her on her controlled effort and let her go by. She was moving effortlessly and with grace. I stayed between two men, one I almost kept catching, and one that kept almost catching me, mile after mile. At mile 38 – Warm Springs aid station, I drank some ginger ale, ate a banana, and cruised out, with just one of the men behind me. We stayed connected, mile after mile, and I learned he was Jack, from Berkeley, and so we had some common friends. We chatted some, but mostly worked in gritty silence. I did eventually catch a toe, do a super woman, scrape my hand up good, and dislocate a rib (but not badly, as I wasn’t aware of it until next day). Jack asked if I was okay, and I bounced up, shook it off, and forged on. I could see a female runner ahead, who heard me and kept trying to hold her place, but eventually we caught and passed her. I resisted checking my Garmin for mileage, as it seemed to be taking a long time to get to the final aid station, so I just kept telling myself “We’ll get there when we get there”. And I was right! As I entered the trail, Kaci and Lindsey Tollefson were just leaving, looking bright and cheery, heading out on the last 4 mile stretched. I cruised in quickly, grabbed water, and said “I just want to break 8 hours!” It was 4. 7 miles and I had 45 minutes to do it. Surely, I could manage some sub-10 minute miles, right?
Back on the trail, Jack caught me again, as I was going snail’s pace on the steep climb. “I’m going to go on past you now Meghan, and see what I can do” and off he scooted up the climb. I was still feeling strong, just not as powerful. At the beginning of this race I felt like my VW Jetta – all sporty, agile, smooth, good gas mileage – but at this point I was feeling more like my 1999 Toyota Tacoma 4×4 – my engine was strong, but my gas mileage had plummeted, my struts were shot, and I was in general, pretty beat up.
Ahead of me another runner was struggling, and he gave me incentive to keep moving strong. He encouraged me as I passed and soon I heard a voice from above shouting “Way to go Meghan! You have moved up so far this half! The next gal is only 1 minute ahead!” It was Bryan Pro, and as I wound my way up and past him, he jumped on the trail behind me, giving me the lowdown on the other women ahead. Every time the trail flattened I was still able to open my stride and push. When Bryan said I only had 2 miles to go, my spirit sank a bit, as I was getting close to 8 hours. So I went for a course PR. I was grunting and groaning for the final miles, a sign that I was truly having a good race, and finally reached the only flat spot of the course, the final 50 feet to the finish line, in 8:09.
TJ greeted me again with the Queen announcement, gave me a big bear hug plus a magnum of fine wine, saying “I don’t know how to tell you this Meghan, but a man in your age-group came in about a minute ago. I’m not sure what to call that – you didn’t get chicked. I know, you got dicked!” Never a dull moment with TJ.
Mark soon arrived back at the finish line, courtesy of a wild Subaru ride from the mile 38 aid station. Making it that far on minimal training as he fought his way back from illness and various set backs was a good thing. Everyone seemed to enjoy the post race festivities of good food and good beer and good friends.
Many many thanks to TJ and Lisa, all the wonderful volunteers, to all of the fabulous athletes on the course, and the cheering spectators! A big thanks to Altra Running – love the Superiors! – and to Injinji – again, no blisters! And of course to our lovely hostess for the weekend, Mary Prchal.