By John Medinger
Several years ago when Lisa and I moved from the Bay Area up to Sonoma County’s wine country, several of our running pals started pressing us to organize a local ultra. At this point I had previously been Race Director of the Miwok 100K, was still directing the Quad Dipsea, and had been on the Western States Board of Trustees for nearly 20 years.
Greg Carter and I started measuring the various trails at Lake Sonoma with this in mind. There were a couple of decent staging areas, though they both lacked any facilities. We figured out a route that was almost exactly 25 miles and so laid out nicely for an out-and-back 50 miler. The problem we couldn’t get past was one rugged 12-mile stretch of trail with no vehicular access. I just couldn’t in good conscience ask runners to go that far at the end of 50 miles in potentially hot weather without aid.
We were a bit flummoxed until another long-time ultra veteran, Phil Penna, suggested bringing in aid by boat. Even boat access is limited, but we found a boat-in campsite that was only about 1/4 mile detour off the main trail. There might possibly be another race somewhere that boats in an aid station, but this was certainly a new concept to me! And so, in 2008, a race was born.
We started out modestly, holding the number of entrants to 100 that first year. Our weather fears were realized as a spring heat wave hit and temperatures climbed into the low 90s, about 20 degrees warmer than normal. Even in California, nobody is really prepared for racing in that kind of heat in April.
Despite the tough conditions, runners seemed to enjoy the route, which is almost all single-track and persistently hilly. Word of mouth is the best source of advertising, and the word was out.
In 2012, Lake Sonoma became part of the Montrail Ultra Cup series and we switched the first 2.4 miles to a backcountry road so we could take more runners. (The previous route was single track after about 100 yards of fire road, which created a bit of a bottleneck even with only 150 runners.)
Prior to being part of the Ultra Cup, Lake Sonoma had attracted several elite athletes each year, but now it was becoming the place to be. Top runners like to compete, and once a critical mass was reached, it seemed like everyone wanted to run. The course, with more than 10,000 feet of climbing, is fairly difficult but also pretty runnable with only three significant climbs and very little technical trail. “It’s just about the right amount of hard,” Dave Mackey said after last year’s race.
Combined with a pre-race dinner, a day-after wine tasting and the opportunity for a few days in wine country in the spring, the race has evolved into a bit of a destination event.
The race at the front has astounding depth and will possibly be even more intense this year. On the men’s side, defending champion Sage Canaday will be tested by the likes of 2013 Ultra Runner of the Year Rob Krar, two-time Western States champ Timothy Olson, Chuckanut winner Max King, JFK 50 champ Zach Miller, Way Too Cool winner Chris Vargo, Grand Slam record holder Ian Sharman, Bandera 100K winner Jorge Maravilla, veteran aces like Nick Clark, Jason Schlarb, Galen Burrell, Gary Gellin, Ian Torrence, and Joe Uhan, and relative newcomers like Alex Varner, David Laney, Ryan Ghelfi, Dan Kraft, Jacob Rydman and Mario Mendoza.
The women’s field is equally impressive with defending champion Cassie Scallon, 2013 Ultra Runner of the Year Michele Yates, 2012 winner Joelle Vaught, UTMB winner Rory Bosio, JFK 50 winner Emily Harrison, and Speedgoat winner Stephanie Howe. Relative newcomers like Jodee Adams-Moore, Kaci Lickteig, and Alicia Shay have big speed and might push their way to the front. Tina Lewis, Angela Shartel, Sally McRae, Jen Pfeifer, Sandi Nypaver and Jenny Capel are all used to winning races and could well challenge too.
Runners in the middle and back of the pack get to see the leaders on the out-and-back course and enjoy watching the battle unfold. “It’s really amazing to see just how fast the leaders are going,” said Scott Laberge, “though it’s a bit depressing to have run 20 miles pretty well and find myself 10 miles behind.”