LAKE SONOMA 50
By Nikki Buurma
They say that if you want to try an ultra you had better know your “why.” Why run 50 miles? Why spend weeks training? Why keep going when it gets hard? Going into my first 50 miler I tried to think through my reasoning. Because my favorite part of training is long runs with friends and big weekends of training, it seemed like going up in distance might suit me well, especially if it was on run-able California-style trails. So with the encouragement of Corrine and my coach, David, I decided to enter the lottery for Lake Sonoma. My friends, Scarlett and Mitch entered too and we were super stoked when we all made it in. Lake Sonoma 50 offers beautiful trails with views of the lake, is a well organized and fun event, and boasts a competitive field. Due to the out and back nature of the course I knew I would get to see all the pros in action mid-race; an added incentive for this super fan.
With the lottery and registration process it felt like the race had been on the calendar for months – the big goal, the big question…can I even do this? Have I trained enough? Can I do 10,500 ft of vert at once? That is more than I normally do in 2-3 weeks combined! I always have doubts. Luckily I have amazing friends and training partners who constantly tell me I’m more capable than I believe I am. I think that’s another one of my why’s – to test myself and remind myself that I’m stronger than I think. Running is such a great practicing ground for life. You can dream big, take risks, test limits, learn, grow, fail – all things needed for a full life – but in running, the consequences of not achieving are minimal, so it’s ok to practice. The lessons and knowledge gained can then be applied to life situations where the impact really does matter. Kind of like a fire drill, a low pressure practice so that when the crisis occurs you know what to do. In the past 2 years of dealing with real life, I’m really glad I had done all those running fire drills. Some of the most important lessons learned: 1. That you can achieve a lot with a good attitude and continual forward progress, 2. You don’t have to know everything you just have to know who to ask, and 3. Being vulnerable shows you just how much love and support you have. So in the interest of continued growth, upping the challenge, risking failure and trying something harder – seemed like a good idea because we all know life isn’t getting any easier and might as well prepare for it.
Cue months of training, countless long runs with so many different friends, all the tips and advice from Tad, Corrine, my coach, and lots of encouragement from my teammates, and going into the race I felt healthy, happy and like the training itself was satisfaction enough. The race was just icing on the cake. Race week workouts and runs were about the best I have had. Ever since Chuckanut I had been feeling really good and just having so much fun with training. Because I have been extra busy with work and coaching track I didn’t have time to over-analyze or psych myself out. Getting to travel with Scarlett and Mitch and knowing that Scarlett was a trip planner-organizer extraordinaire took all the pre-race logistical anxiety away as well. I felt totally relaxed, trusting that I’d be well taken care of. The days before the race we trail ran, explored the coast, wine tasted, and went to the pre-race dinner.
Race morning went smoothly and we arrived in plenty of time to…not warm up (never raced without warming up before!), drink some coffee , and rearrange layers. All the runners lined up, a horn sounded, and we were off! The first few miles are downhill on road to let the pack thin out before you hit the single track. I tried to hold back and run relaxed but found myself right behind Megan Laws and Amy Sproston, experienced fast runners, and I felt out of my league – staying behind them seemed like a good idea. I ended up running behind Megan for the first 8 miles, the nerd in me was taking notes on the way she ran the uphills at a nice easy pace and then opened up on the downs. At one point she asked if I wanted to pass, and I said, “No that sounds like a bad idea, I know how much experience you have!” The first and last 18 miles of the race were rolling single track with short, punchy climbs, lots of turns, and multiple creek crossings. Most just got your feet wet but the bigger ones were stretches of almost knee deep water and if I ran too fast it would splash up and soak my shorts. There were a number of guys around and we would form trains and work together. It felt fun and fairly effortless, just soaking in the beautiful scenery and the atmosphere of the race. I lost Megan at around mile 8, caught back up around 16, then lost her again. At every aid station Scarlett would be ready and waiting with the spare bottles I had borrowed from Corrine. It worked so smoothly to trade out for new, grab more gels, and head on my way. The awesome crewing definitely saved me time and energy throughout the race and I am so thankful to Scarlett for still coming along to crew when she found out she couldn’t race. Good friends are an invaluable resource.
After 18-20 miles the trail opens up to more of a double track or fire road with some big sustained climbs up to the turn around point. I felt great and powered past a bunch of guys going up the climbs and then really got to open up on the descent (even had a 6:58 mile). This section of trail was the most fun for me. I got to pass all the pros as they headed back past the turnaround. Like the dorky super fan that I am, I would enthusiastically cheer, congratulate, and tell them their place. “Go Jim!” “Way to go Mario!” “Doing great David!” “Keely you are killing it!” They may have thought I was nuts but the excitement gave me tons of energy. At the turnaround they told me that I was around top 10 women. I was shocked. Top 10 had been my dream goal going in but I did not expect it to happen. My goal for the day was just to finish my first 50, so hearing my place and having spectators along the course tell me I was looking strong and gaining on the women ahead of me motivated me even more.
At the top of the 3rd big climb I saw Mitch, Megan, and Amy at the aid station. I stopped quick for more roctane and left ahead of Mitch and Megan. I caught up with Amy at around 30 miles. She asked if I wanted to pass but I declined, hoping to work with her for the next 10 miles or so, but she sped up a little and dropped me easily so the last 20 miles were mostly alone. I couldn’t believe how good I felt through 30, I was truly having so much fun. Through 35 I felt good, but had to start walking more climbs. In general I was moving well. I had fueled and hydrated more than ever before (probably 2-3 times as much), totally lost count of how many gels, water, and roctane I had gone through but I am so glad I did because my energy was good, stomach was fine, and everything was going great. At mile 39 Megan Hicks from irunfar asked me my name and told me I was running well and in the top 10, and I was pretty stoked to be talking to someone I am always following on twitter for race coverage. When I got to the aid station at Warm Springs (11 miles to go), I exchanged bottles with Scarlett and somehow mentally started to think I was almost done. I wasn’t. I think the last 10 miles are harder than the whole first 40 combined. There were few spectators, no other racers, and it was really really hot and sunny. Plus I stopped eating and drinking as diligently as I had all race. Each mile got progressively harder. I tripped , hit my head on a rock and almost rolled off the hill and into the ravine with about 5 miles to go. I was fine but it spooked me, knowing my legs were too tired to react and maintain balance anymore.
Unlike Chuckanut, which is full of funny and encouraging signs along the way, Sonoma only has three. The first “You aren’t almost there,” then, “Are we having fun yet?,” and last, “Help is not coming.” A little disheartening, especially that last one because at that point I was totally out of water and felt like I was going to have heat stroke. At the last big creek crossing, the sandy bank on the opposite side was shoulder height, I kept trying to make a foot hold to climb up but the sand would slip away and for a minute I thought I’d be stuck in there! Made it out, but was covered in sand. I fell one more time with about a mile to go – just fatigued legs not clearing the rocks. I had been through in 4 hours at the halfway point so I hoped to be around 8:00 for the finish, but the course is harder (more uphill and all single track, no road) on the way back, so I wasn’t surprised to positive split. 8:36:29, good enough for 9th female and 37th overall. I moved up over 30 spots during the race and never got passed in the second half. Overall it was such a great experience, I couldn’t have asked for things to go any better and am so thankful to have been healthy enough to toe the line and to have a really good day when it counted. Maybe one of my “why’s” is the post race feels, because the love, support, encouragement, and kudos from family and friends is pretty awesome. Thank you all!