“Are you okay?”
I had been running down a hill at around mile 42 when up ahead I saw a runner shuffling slowly and propping himself up with a stick. I wasn’t exactly crushing it but this guy, well, he must have been in serious trouble so I stopped to ask after him.
“Yeah, I’m just really dehydrated,” he replied. His face was ashen and he had the thousand-yard stare of a man no longer sure what he was doing in the woods, or even which woods he was in.
“Here, have my water,” I said. “We’re not too far from the next aid station. Maybe a mile or two?”
“Just give me half, that’s great, thank you.” I debated arguing with him but in the end figured I might need some myself so poured him half of what I had into his bottle. I wished him luck and carried on down the trail wondering how long it would take me to get to the finish, never mind him.
One of the things I was most excited about moving to California last year was the chance to run iconic races in spectacular locations. I’d signed up for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler before leaving the UK and while training had gone well, the race was eventually cancelled due to the smoke from a massive fire 200 miles north of San Francisco in the weeks before. I even created a playlist to reflect my mood.
Fortunately, I was able to get into the Quad Dipsea at the last minute so tested my legs on some of NorCal’s hills. Next on my hitlist was Lake Sonoma 50, famously an opportunity for the elite runners to book a place in perhaps the ultimate US trail 100-miler, Western States. Unsurprisingly, places are limited and it’s a lottery to get in. Very surprisingly, I got a place at my first attempt. All I needed to do was get myself as fit as possible, not least because it has over 10,000ft of elevation gain over its 50 miles, almost twice as much as the races of similar distance I’d done in the UK. The Quad Dipsea had over 9,000ft but in only 28 miles so it was a much shorter day out than Lake Sonoma was likely to be.
Training was going well, mainly in and around the Presidio, a park in the northwest of San Francisco, which has hills, trails and beaches. And then, I got cocky. Two hard sessions in two days and my hip complained to the extent that I didn’t run for almost a month. Part over-exertion, part lack of stretching and foam rolling, it was a timely reminder that while I was getting older I wasn’t necessarily getting any wiser.
Still, after a decent-ish six weeks and a short taper, it was time to head 90 miles north to a place called Cloverdale, deep in wine country and with deer grazing on the side of the road. Just 20 minutes’ drive from the start, it was a lovely bucolic retreat and even the presence of a dozen or so chickens didn’t perturb Hooper.
Unlike in the UK where snow or rain is almost always a possibility, no matter the time of year, the more friendly spring temperatures in California means that this race had no mandatory kit. Pre-race emails did suggest carrying “enough” water though, so I considered carrying two bottles and stuffing my shorts full of gels. But I can’t survive on just gels and one of my bottles was heavy when full so I compromised and went for one handheld and one soft flask stuffed into the bottle pocket of my Salomon race vest. I couldn’t just use the two Salomon soft flasks that came with it because of course the two elastic loops which hold them in place both broke in the week of the race, rendering the whole set up next to useless.
With the race vest approach decided, I could carry everything a lot more easily. This included my ‘medical’ kit: spare plasters, spare contact lenses, paracetamol and ibuprofen in case of emergency, Salt Stick tablets and crystalized ginger. The last one the list I hadn’t tried before but figured it might help with any inevitable nausea. I swear it’s getting worse as I get older, or maybe I’m just running in the heat more. After two races last year in which I used Tailwind, once in combination with gels and once without, and both times my stomach was not happy, I concluded that the powdered fuel was not for me. Yes, I’m quite the scientist like that.
So the plan was to alternate between Gu gels (which I like and were available at aid stations), Gu Chews and my own recipe I call Magic Mash. This is mashed potatoes mixed with cheese (for protein) and mayonnaise (so it wasn’t too dry). It has a grim consistency, especially when it’s been in close proximity to your body for hours on end but I could at least eat it. Crucially, it isn’t sweet, and given that I get fed up with the sweetness of gels in a marathon, there’s no way I could last 50 miles on them alone.
With the race starting at 6:30am, I set my alarm for 4:30 and woke up at 4. Plenty of time to get ready which I duly squandered removing a spider from the bedroom and taking the dog outside for his morning poo. Leaving the house at 5:20, I arrived at race HQ at 5:40, just in time to be the first vehicle to miss out on the car park by the start and finish. I was greeted on the road by race director Skip, who welcomed me and told me to drive up the hill to the overflow area. It was nice to get a personal greeting but I had a feeling that walk up the hill would be a challenge later.
Race number acquired, I dropped off my bags – one for halfway with spare socks, Vaseline, and extra fuel, and one for the finish – and went looking for people I might recognise.
Immediately I saw Bryon Powell of iRunFar and introduced myself by showing him my Centurion t-shirt. He’d run Thames Path 100 a couple of years back so that gave us something to talk about for a good 90 seconds. I spotted Billy Yang, Camille Herron and finally Tom Evans, who I said hello to.
My main goal for the race was get to halfway before the race winner, of which Tom was one of the favourites, finished. The course record at Lake Sonoma is 5:51 and my estimated finish time was around 12 hours. This was considerably longer than my best 50-mile time of 9:29 but I hadn’t attempted a race with quite such a lot of hills before.
I want to say that a gunshot started the race but I honestly can’t remember. Anyway, we were off and onto the road for the first couple of miles. It went up and down and up and down again and I stopped to take photos and generally tried to stay comfortable for as long as possible.
After setting out too quickly at my last 50-miler, I was determined not to do the same again this time and chuckled to see people literally sprinting down hills in the first mile. I mean, each to their own, but no mate, that isn’t going to end well.
Before long we joined the course proper at the trailhead and it was immediately a single track joy, winding through the trees, down the hill and providing tantalising glimpses of the lake itself.
These early miles were a procession of runners like me, mid-packers taking it easy and biding their time. It was single file with almost no chance of overtaking which was fine for everyone except for one couple who seemed annoyed at the traffic jam and shook their heads impatiently, finally sprinting past to gain a few places. I understood their frustration to an extent but these early hours were the time to take it easy and preserve energy. Overtaking is far more enjoyable in the second half of a race.
Before long we were at the first aid station, Island View, where only water was available but it was so early into the race I didn’t even stop for that. If I were an elite, I would have “blazed through”. As it was, I just trotted by, glad to ticked off the first checkpoint without having tripped over, my usual early race trick.
With seven miles to the next aid station I focused on regular eating, drinking and Salt Sticks. There’s a lot of discussion around whether you need salt when running ultras, or how much, but I seem to operate better when I have some so I’ll continue to take it. There’s probably a case for me to get sweat tested but, you know, money.
The trail through the woods around the lake was a delight. Constantly up and down but through the tall trees, across small and sometimes larger creeks where it was impossible to keep your feet dry, it was nothing if not varied. Occasionally it would open out and you’d cross a field…
… but at this stage it was still early and had that deliciously cool spring morning feel to it. Little did I know how much I’d be craving these conditions later on.
Every now and then we’d get another sight of the lake and a hint of where the course would be taking us. Until then, I trotted along in near the back of the pack, enjoying the scenery until the first major aid station arrived.
Warm Springs Creek – 11.6 miles
Time elapsed – 2:23
“Did you get my number?” I asked a lady with a clipboard, as a rush of runners descended upon the checkpoint.
“Why, you gonna call me?” she replied with a grin. It took me a moment but I eventually got there and grabbed some trail mix. Clearly food was the answer. Water topped up, I marched up the hill.
It was at this point I began to wonder when I’d start seeing the race leaders coming back towards us. As it’s an out and back course, you see just about everyone at some point. For now though, it was a case of follow the person in front and enjoy the views.
There were ribbons marking the way seemingly every few hundred yards but aside from a couple of forks in the path, it was virtually impossible to get lost. No navigation, no worries. A pure running course. At least, if you’re fit enough to run all the way. Ahem.
After a couple of wet creek crossings we headed up, up, up until finally the track popped out above the lake.
This was the start of the area I recognised from videos and photos of the race and just as I was thinking about the leaders, someone appeared running towards me. I didn’t know him – it turns out it was Sebastien Spehler – and he seemed to be struggling a bit but was still moving pretty fast given that he was at mile 33. Less than 30 seconds later Jared Hazen followed looking very relaxed and I thought he’d catch the leader at some point. At the risk of providing spoilers, he did, and ended up winning the race.
Hoping I’d see Tom Evans soon, I got my phone out ready to take a video but even so, he was going so fast that I only managed this fleeting clip.
It was great to see a friendly face and just him saying hi and the fact that he was doing so well gave me a real boost as I made my way to the mini aid station at Wulfow Springs. With the next checkpoint just over a mile away, I didn’t stop.
I regretted this almost immediately as the temperature seemed to rise a few degrees as soon as I left the aid station and had the urge to empty my water bottle over my head.
The lake was in full view at this point and I distracted myself from the heat by trying to enjoy myself. So much of why I love trail running is being in the countryside, the landscape, nature. In some ways I’m grateful I’m not a pro, who I can’t imagine have the luxury of taking much notice of their surroundings beyond where to place their feet safely. Of course, in other ways I’m very jealous I’m not a pro…
Madrone Point – 18.8 miles
Time elapsed – 4:02
I saw a lady with a sponge and a bucket full of icy water and panted expectantly at her like a thirsty dog.
“Head? Back of the neck?”
“Neck please,” I managed. As I was bending down I noticed a border collie behind Sponge Lady and asked if I could pet it.
“She’s a bit shy unless you have bacon.”
I thought this was an oddly specific comment until I got to the snacks and noticed crispy bacon among the usual checkpoint fare. I didn’t fancy it though so just grabbed some more trail mix and started walking up the big old hill that looked like it was going on forever.
I pushed some food in my face, strode up the fireroad and overtook a few people with shorter legs than me. The front end speedies were on their way back, now 32 miles in and mostly blowing hard, as you would having done that distance in just over four hours and with the elevation they’d already conquered. I said “well done” to everyone and got a smile from the always happy Magdalena Boulet.
Eventually the climbended and the descent began, with the low-lying sections getting wetter the further we dropped. I spotted Hal Koerner of Unbreakable fame, multiple race wins and course records. I was about to say hi when he went ankle-deep in a mud puddle and exclaimed “Dammit!” which if nothing else enabled me to pick a better line coming the opposite way. Hal was later to drop at mile 38 with a bad knee.
I was just starting to enjoy the long downhill when it truck me that this was going to be considerably more challenging on the way back. It’s not always so good to know what’s coming up. Still, I did my best to make the most of it while I could without completely trashing my quads.
And then the final hill of the first half began. It was steep, rocky and by now, hot. It went up and up and up. I rate myself as a decent hiker but this was real hands on knees stuff. People were stopped on the trail, getting their breath back. We weren’t even halfway through the race yet. I took solace in the fact that I was still moving relatively well.
Eventually the gradient evened out and the views returned. I recognised filmmaker and runner Billy Yang coming back down and estimated that he was at least an hour ahead of me. Not that I had any chance of catching him but it gave me a mini target to aim for beyond the turnaround point.
A relatively flat (i.e. undulating) section followed and the sight of a marshal gave me a lift as this meant the start of the loop near the halfway aid station.
I trotted along the narrow loop and checked how I was feeling. Legs and lungs were fine but my stomach wasn’t great. I couldn’t remember if there was a toilet at the aid station and suddenly that was all I could think about.
No Name Flat – 25.2 miles
Time elapsed – 5:27
As with previous checkpoints, I could hear it before I could see it and felt a degree of relief as I arrived to the sight of a portapotty. Without going into too much detail, nothing was forthcoming but just sitting down for a few minutes seemed to help. I restocked my supplies from my drop bag, overheard someone telling their runner friend that she’d beaten ultrarunning legend Dean Karnazes to halfway, and had a look around for him.
Before moving to San Francisco, I’d got in touch with Dean – who lives in the area – to see if he wanted to go for a run. It never happened for various reasons so this was my chance to get the run in. As I had my water bottles refilled, I saw him leave the aid station. I thought I’d catch him fairly quickly but his insistence on running all the ups left me trailing in his wake.
When I finally did draw level, it was only because he’d stopped to tie up his shoelace and as it was on a downhill section I didn’t really want to break my rhythm. I figured I’d see him sooner or later anyway.
This was the longest and steepest downhill on the course and my quads started to make inquiries into my sanity as I let gravity do its thing. Being back at lake level meant only one thing – a long, long climb back up again.
I made friends with a dog who was out for a walk and wanted to come with me. I made jokes to fellow runners (all of whom were walking at this point) about hills. I made long-distance guesses at whether what I could see on the back of people’s legs were tattoos or mud splatters or tattoos of mud splatters. One I still couldn’t tell even up close. All of this to take my mind off the interminable climbing.
Eventually I reached the peak and fairly floated down the fireroad to Madrone Point, passing a crushingly honest sign on the way.
Madrone Point – 30.9 miles
Time elapsed – 6:45 (estimate*)
Position: 189/344 (estimate*)
* The official timing has me arriving here almost an hour later and then doing the next section of seven miles in an hour which is clearly nonsense so I’m going to stick with this.
Trail mix. Sponge Lady. Onwards.
It was now around 1:15pm and I don’t know how hot but within two minutes of leaving the aid station I was struggling with the heat. The same open trails which had almost floored me on the way out were threatening to actually do so on the way back. I started setting myself little time goals just to keep myself moving towards the next aid station. By the time I dragged myself up the hill to Wulfow Springs I was completely out of water – 1.25 litres drunk or poured over my head in just over a mile and 30 minutes.
I got my bottles filled, had several cups and even considered sitting in the wooden tub until I saw how green with algae it was. I sat in the shade and tried to get my heart rate down. Five minutes rest now would hopefully save me more time later.
It was only about six miles to the next aid station but it would take me almost two hours of tentative trotting, realising I would never be ready for the heat of Western States – very helpful of my brain to consider this challenge right in the middle of my current one – and trying to forcefeed myself. The low point of my race came when I took out the emergency gel from my shorts pocket – by this point seemingly about to boil – and squeezed the hot, sweet goo into my mouth. Quite how I didn’t vomit instantly is one of life’s great mysteries.
After far too long via some familiar trails, the sounds of volunteers and supporters arrived and I dropped into the penultimate oasis.
Warm Springs Creek – 38 miles
Time elapsed – 8:40
Position: 149/344 *
* I can’t believe I made up 40 places in this section but that’s what it says so that’s all I’ve got to go by.
Cooler now but still too hot, I took some comfort from the numerous fried runners slumped in chairs at the aid station. I may have still had a seemingly unfathomably long 12 miles to go but at least I wasn’t in as bad shape as some of these guys. Water topped up, I headed down the slope to the big creek crossing. Cold on the way out, now it felt like a silky cool heaven, a plunge pool after a sauna.
I was on the verge of lying down in the water when I realised I was in danger of dropping my phone so stuck to a quick splash at the end of the paddle. On I plodded.
Back into the woods and with it came a delightful shade. The ups got harder and the downs were barely easier but the old mantra that every step was getting me closer to the finish kept me moving.
After a couple of miles I bumped into Mr Dehydrated and soon afterwards a whole group of people spread out along the trail, in various states of disrepair. We were all gamely still going but the unspoken feeling was clearly one of minor despair. It’s a bit miserable when you’re not fit enough to keep moving at a pace you want but you can’t complain because you signed up for this, buddy; this is your fun day out!
A few more creeks kept me cool when I was getting low on water and finally the last aid station hove into view.
Island View – 45.5 miles
Time elapsed – 10:40
I took my time at this one, eating watermelon, trying some Roctane drink to get some easy calories in and again took solace from the walking (or rather sitting) wounded who seemingly weren’t in any hurry to finish. For me, the hurry was strong. I wanted to have as much of an evening as possible and now, less than five miles separated me from the finish. On a good day, with flat terrain, and feeling fresh, this would have taken me no more than 35 minutes. But at Lake Sonoma 50 with its relentless hills I would be lucky to get it done in an hour, which I really wanted to do to break the arbitrary 12-hour target I’d set myself.
Upwards and onwards. Looking ahead to see if I could catch anyone fading. Peeking backwards occasionally to ensure no one overtook me. One foot after the other. Upwards and onwards.
A new bit of trail we hadn’t used on the way out. This must be near the end. Passing another runner just as a ‘1 mile to go’ sign appeared.
“Is that for real?” he said.
“I don’t trust it but I’m going to go for it now anyway,” I said in an uncharacteristically gung ho way. I wasn’t sure if I had much to give but frankly, I didn’t want to get chatting now that I could smell the finish line.
As it was, the last part was a bit of a mudfest but I ploughed on regardless, listening out for the loudspeakers at the finish and then it came. I had four minutes to get sub-12 so picked up the pace as far as my battered legs would allow.
The finish funnel. Flat grass! A ridiculous log to jump over. What is this. A steeplechase?! Applauding supporters. A half-hearted sprint finish and a hug from race director Skip. Billy Yang was even there so I got a high five from him.
Finish – 50 miles
Time elapsed – 11:58
It was only just sub-12 but it felt like a minor victory. That finishing position feels about right, compared to my halfway position of 229. Barely anyone overtook in the second half and I passed a lot of runners which is what I’m most proud of in this race. I wasn’t anything like as fit as I wanted to be but I only have myself to blame for that. More importantly, I enjoyed myself enormously (for the most part) on an iconic course, run by some of the biggest names in the sport.
If it isn’t obvious from the photos, Lake Sonoma is a stunning course. It is breathtaking beautiful. Okay, maybe it’s the hills that take your breath away but even so, it is amazing to look at, to be on, to experience. If you ever get even the slightest chance at entering, do it. It’s not cheap – $200 – but is is so worth it. The organisation is exceptional, the volunteers couldn’t be better, and the swag isn’t bad either.
While my time wasn’t any great shakes, I finished without any injuries, all my toenails intact and only minor aches the next day. If nothing else, training on hills every day and adding in some more consistent strength work does seems to have made me a stronger, more resilient runner. The next step is to get some speed back. Whether I’ll enter any races between now and the North Face 50-miler in November remains to be seen – a local half marathon is $115 dollars and I’m not sure that’s value for money – but with any luck I’ll be in better shape for my next assault on the hills of northern California that I’ve grown to love.