Lake Sonoma 50

Thursday, April 16, 2015

I don’t think my race at Lake Sonoma has sunk in yet. I look at pictures and watch videos but can’t seem to put myself back in the moment. It’s probably because I was so wiped when I crossed the finish line that my state of consciousness was questionable at best. Either way, I keep telling myself it happened, but for some reason it remains a little hard to comprehend.

Last year Lake Sonoma was my first 50 miler and I learned A LOT. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to Western States, where I learned even more. Then, I didn’t race an ultra until the TNF 50 Mile in December where I was thankfully able to put some of that knowledge to work. I didn’t race Way Too Cool in March as I just wasn’t feeling it. I can’t really put my finger on why I wasn’t feeling it, but my gut told me to leave it be and train hard so that’s what I did. My training leading up to Sonoma went very well (aside from a minor quad issue in early February) and I knew I was fit coming into it. Koop reiterated as much on the phone the week before and that gave me a nice confidence boost as well. Race week passed interminably and I had the usual symptoms of a taper tantrum – sleeping poorly, being a bit more on edge, etc., etc. However, I did notice that I was not feeling quite as squishy early on as I had in past tapers. I wasn’t sure what was up, but for some reason, my body acted a little differently in that regard. I finally got a bit of it the night before the race after eating 3 plates of pasta, pizza, and salad at the race dinner (which was fantastic and I highly recommend it).


Waiting at the start with Burrito Gary (Photo Credit: Chris Jones)

On race morning, I was up early, had some coffee (new pre-race ritual #getthingsmoving), ate 2 Picky Bars (Smooth Caffeinator and Cookie Doughpness) and before I knew it, Tim and Lindsay were picking me up and we were on our way to the starting area. After milling around a bit, it was go time. The first couple miles were pretty uneventful. However, as we approached the transition onto the trails, I purposely positioned myself up near the front of the pack. In my previous 50 and 100 miler races, I had started out rather conservatively and worked my way up the field as best I could. I realized that one constant was that the last 10-15 miles of every race just plain sucked. About a week before Sonoma, I figured I’d try a new tactic and go about a bit more aggressively, try to keep myself near the front, and hang on as long as I could because those last 10-15 miles were going to suck no matter what and I might as well be near the front if I could. Also, at Lake Sonoma, much of the course is singletrack which makes it harder to pass, so while the front and back of a group are moving at the same pace, if there are 4-5 guys in the group, there’s still a big gap and someone can go off the front and you can’t cover because you can’t get there if you’re the caboose. I hit the singletrack in 2nd place, behind a guy I didn’t recognize but was later informed was Jim Walmsley. The only thing I really remarked about him was that he had a really, really high knee kick which looked like it belonged more on the track than on the trails. But I knew the name and that he had won JFK and so deserved some respect. Anyways, he promptly went off the front as soon as we hit dirt and was 30-40 seconds up on us before I knew it. It definitely crossed my mind that perhaps Lake Sonoma was again going to be won by an early move off the front by the JFK winner (Zach Miller did that last year). Behind me, Ryan Bak and Mike Aish settled in, with Rob Krar, Seth Swanson, Jared Hazen, Tim Tollefson, and Jorge Maravilla following them along with a few others.


On the road at the start. Tim’s shades are protecting his eyes from our uniforms. (Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer)

Bak and I exchanged the lead a couple of times, but no one was really pushing and we ran very comfortably into Warm Springs. I had my shorts laden with Picky Bars and Gu’s and in the first couple hours of racing, downed 2 Picky Bars before switching to Gu’s for the remainder. At Warm Springs, we were told Walmsley was up maybe 1-1.5 minutes on us, but before too long, we began to catch glimpses of him around corners and at the tops of climbs. He definitely came back to us more quickly on the climbs but each time we’d gain some ground, we’d crest, and he’d push it back out. We finally got him on the big climb up out of Madrone and he looked like he was cooked (He would end up finishing 5th, proving that thought wrong). Bak, Aish, and I continued to work together to the turnaround, where DBo was waiting with several Gu’s for me. I tried to put them in my pockets, but they fell straight through my shorts to the ground. I tried again. They hit the ground again. So I grabbed them and stuffed them in my waistband. As a result, I was a bit behind Bak and Aish coming out of the aid station, and decided I might as well pee and get all of the time loss at once that way if things heated up later on, I hopefully wouldn’t have to stop to pee. After peeing, I could see them only 20-30 seconds ahead of me and gradually made my way back up to them. We ran together for a bit before Aish started to fall off and on one of the climbs, I found myself pulling away from Bak. It wasn’t a conscious move, but I had kind of been waiting for it to happen as I was still feeling really strong. I put some ground on Bak up the climb to where Schranz and Dom Grossman were waiting. The URP Golden Shower was quite welcome, as we’d been running for several hours now and Dom’s yelps of encouragement made me chuckle. Cresting the climb and heading down the road to Madrone, I didn’t see Bak behind me, but when I made the turn onto the singletrack and headed towards Wulfow, I saw him coming down, less than a minute back. I committed right then to run for the win.


Coming into Warm Creek with Bak and Aish (Credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)


Heading towards the URP/Schranz’s Golden Shower with Dom yelping (Photo Credit: Dom Grossman)

All the way back, through Wulfow, and to Warm Springs, I felt pretty strong. My legs were fatiguing, but they were doing better than they ever had this far into a race and I was confident that I would be able to run well to the finish. I kept having visions of Krar passing Sage in the last kilometer last year, which was a huge motivator to put my head down and push since I did not want that to happen to me. It was great seeing several familiar faces on the way back, and I did my best to exchange pleasantries, but I was starting to grind, so I apologize if I came off as short. I saw DBo again as I dropped down that final descent into Warm Springs (12 to go!) and he said I had at least 3 minutes on the next guy, which was reassuring, but I didn’t know who the next guy was and basically just assumed whoever it was was rolling on me. I got a few more Gu’s from the Picky Bars crew who had made the trip down (thanks Angela and Sarah!) and as I crossed the stream and dug for another Gu in my pocket, it fell out of my shorts. Not just the Gu, but the entire pocket. In the shorts/Nike’s defense, these were shorts that I’d raced in at Western States that had the pockets heat sealed (not sewn) in and I’d also used them in almost every race since. They lived a good life and I was sad to see them go, especially in the middle of a race, but I didn’t really have any other options. So I picked up the pocket (Gu still in it), stuck it in my waist band, and kept trucking. About a mile later, I was brought to a complete stop  as my left hamstring almost cramped. You can see it in the big downward spike on the pace chart right around mile 37.5 on my Strava data (link at bottom). I took a step. It almost cramped again. Tried to stretch. Almost cramped. Panic. Repeated 4-5x. Realized that I might be walking it in. Ate a Gu. Cramps immediately stopped threatening. Started running again. Got scared again.


Alone on the way back (Photo Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer)

I managed to make it into Island View in one piece, although my quads had started threatening to cramp along with my hamstrings. I couldn’t stretch one or the other really well because whichever one wasn’t being stretched would start to cramp. My goal coming into Island View (which is 0.2 miles out and 0.2 miles back) was to get in and out of the aid station and around the next corner before anyone behind me saw me. Mentally, that would help me, as I would have at least 2-3 minutes on the next person. If they saw me, they’d know I was close and it would motivate them to chase. Ideally, it would also motivate me to push, but my legs were close to completely cooked. Just around the bend out of Island View, I had to stop and manage my quads and hamstrings again. I managed to get things in good enough order and pushed on to the finish. I was walking many of the hills, but found that once the terrain flattened out or descended, I could run well. The pain in my legs was pretty bad, but only in the sense that my muscles were threatening to cramp. As long as I could keep the cramps at bay, I could run. The last couple miles dragged on forever, and finally I hit the 1 mile to go sign. I hadn’t seen or heard anyone behind me for quite a while and it slowly started to dawn on me that I was going to win, assuming I didn’t cramp or fall. I came around a corner with about ¾ of a mile to go and there was Billy Yang with his camera and my friend Paul. (Check out Billy’s teaser video: For some reason, I was pissed. Not because they were there, but because that’s arguably the rockiest part of the course and it climbs up a bit to the parking lot and they were running it like it was nothing (in reality, it is nothing. At the end of a 50 miler, it’s Everest). I could hardly pick my feet up at this point and it took all of my concentration and strength to navigate the trail. They urged me on, said something about the course record (I swore at this point), and cheered. Eventually, I made it up that last hill and headed down into the parking lot to the finish line. I managed to actually run through the finish and heard Tropical John say that I’d broken the course record. I ran 6:09:39, a little over a minute faster than the record set last year (and each year the race has been run (8x) has seen a new CR). I hardly remember any of it, but I do remember vaguely crossing the finish line and collapsing almost immediately. I was on the ground for several minutes before I got helped up (thanks again, TJ!) and staggered around. As soon as I was coherent, I did an interview with Nike teammate Ryan Ghelfi who was doing coverage for They’re hoping to bring live tracking to the Canyons 100k in May and maybe even Western States!


Managing to pick my feet up nearing the finish (Photo Credit: Paul Wais)


Spent. (Photo Credit: Jenny Maier)

Finishing in 2nd was Nike teammate Ryan Bak, who ran just about the same time I did last year (6:23) and now gets to decide about Western States (no pressure). Krar, Aish, Sharman, and Victor (among many others) had dropped. As I recovered a bit more, I changed, ate, drank some beer, and milled around the finish watching people cross. Jorge had a tremendous run, finishing 4th and may get a spot at Western depending on Bak’s decision. Nike teammate Tim Tollefson was 7th overall, gutting it out to the finish ( The women’s winner was Stephanie Howe who absolutely demolished the course record by about 15 minutes and looked much better than I did at the finish. Her interview here:

As the afternoon wore on, there were more and more folks to swap war stories with. Bryon and I did a 26-minute interview ( which didn’t feel that long, probably because he made me wait until I was on my 3rd beer, but it was fun as always. The Nike women, Kaci Lickteig and Lindsay Tollefson (in her first 50 miler!), finished 5th and 6th, respectively, so it was a strong showing for the team all around. Some of the Nike folks took off while a few of us waited around for our friend Jess to finish. While she was punishing herself on the course, we ate and drank more and didn’t move very much. Once she got in, we headed back to Healdsburg, showered, and got dinner at Bear Republic where we saw many other runners and had several beers. Angela and Sarah from Picky Bars had even waited around for us, and hanging out with them was a ton of fun.


Hans! The dude is incredible. #Dipsea (Photo Credit: Chris Jones)

2015-04-13 15.33.14

Some of Team Nike: Ryan, Tim, and me. Feeling a bit more recovered (Photo Credit: Jarret Tong? – pulled from IG).

If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. Reflecting on this race, I think it’s easily the best I’ve ever run. Not because of the time, but also because of the execution. I knew I was fit, but there’s only so far that can get you. You have to be confident in your ability to win and you have to be willing to put yourself in a position to do so. Something Bryon said to me in the pre-race interview kind of stuck with me throughout the race. It was something along the lines of, “You haven’t really won anything since your 2nd ultra (Bootlegger in Nov. 2013).” I took no offense to it, because it was true, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t provide a little extra motivation on Saturday. It was something that I was aware of before he said it, but having someone else say it to your face makes you realize you’re not the only one thinking about it and adds a level of accountability to the whole thing. So while I was out there, I was constantly telling myself to go for it. It’s much better to go for it and fail then to never be in a position to go for it at all and I raced that way on Saturday. Even before Bryon said anything, I found myself thinking during some of my training runs, “What if I can never win a big one? What if there’s always someone else who shows up who’s faster than me? Top 5 isn’t so bad. Maybe I’m just a top 5 runner.” I hoped and certainly didn’t want that to be the case, but was definitely wrestling with the thought. Thankfully, I was able to get that self-imposed monkey off my back and it feels great. I may never win another race, but at least I’ve shown I can.

Realization dawns... (Photo Credit: Bob MacGillivray Drymax Technologies Inc )

Realization dawns… (Photo Credit: Bob MacGillivray Drymax Technologies Inc )

Gear: Nike Zoom Kiger 1, Nike team kit, Amphipod Hydraform Handheld 20oz. with surgical rubber, Suunto Ambit 2

Fuel: 2 Smooth Caffeinator bars (ate half at a time – they’re 200 calories, so 100 calories per half), then somewhere around 10 Gu’s (not sure of exact count). I tried to eat something every 3-3.5 miles and was pretty good about it, which was nice because my stomach never revolted.

Strava Data:

About afvarner

Runner. Donuts. Sneakerhead. Not necessarily in that order. Nike Trail Elite. Picky Bars. Gu. Vicory Sportdesign.
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15 Responses to Lake Sonoma 50

  1. Billy Yang says:

    Great read and great job bud – such an awesome weekend all around!

  2. afvarner says:

    Thanks man! Can’t wait to see what you do with the movie. And glad you lasted all night on Saturday. Hope the trip home wasn’t too painful 😛

  3. thedenuch says:

    SPENT. Unreal bro. Soak in the win!

  4. Travis says:

    Congrats and the win and I look forward to rooting for you at States as well as in Europe later this summer! Why the Kiger 1? Superstition? Can we expect to see the Kiger 3 in time for States? Also, in the Irunfar interview you spoke about new trail specific race shorts. Will these shorts be available to the public or only the elites?

    • afvarner says:

      Thanks Denuch and Travis!

      Travis – I was deciding between the Kiger 1’s and 2’s for this race and the 1’s just called to me for some reason. Smythe wore the 3’s for Way Too Cool and a few other teammates wore them on Saturday. I don’t think they’ll release to retail in time for States though. As for the shorts, the Kiger short is the retail trail short right now. The uniforms they give the team members (be it T&F, road, or trail) aren’t available to the general public, so I don’t think they’ll be for sale.

      • Travis says:

        Thanks for the info! I didn’t figure the race/split shorts with multiple pockets would be made available to the masses. But it doesn’t hurt to ask and I will now have to go find some photos online of Smythe and crew to sneak a peak at their kicks! 🙂

  5. Congrats on the race. I enjoyed the report.

  6. Thanks to Kaci for sharing your race report. Enjoyed it. I learned this from a women that had done over 50 road marathons, she said mustard may help with your cramping. I have taken mustard a couple of times and my cramps have disappeared. I pick up a couple of packets at a convenience store and put them in a pocket just in case. Here is some research.

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Jason Koop says:

    Congrats, you earned it!

  8. Jonas says:

    Great write up Alex. Pumped you took home the win! Now just a little jaunt to Boylston St. Beast!

  9. Brett says:

    You crushed it brotha. So much of jumping up into the longer ultra distances has to do with breaking down mental barriers (2014 for you..) and we all know you are so primed for an incredible 2015. Fired up!

  10. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News, Friday, April 17

  11. Great RR, very much enjoyed reading it! Congrats on the win and CR!!

  12. What a race! You really put it all out there and pulled off a well-deserved win and CR. Huge congrats once again!

  13. Pingback: 2015: A year in review | And miles to go before I eat…

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