Gary Gellin: Lake Sonoma 50 Mile
Those of us who race almost any distance longer than a sprint have undoubtedly been advised by someone to “run your own race”. Aside from the general acceptance that it is a way to run a personal best time at most distances, it is something not frequently achieved in practice. This has been on my mind since taking a different approach, and perhaps an experimental one, at the recent Lake Sonoma 50 mile race.
In recent years, Lake Sonoma – part of the competitive Montrail Cup Series – has drawn a growing field of elite runners while selling out all of its available entries in a matter of hours. Competition aside, it is a destination event with three days of fun including a Friday pasta feed party, a rugged and beautiful course to run on Saturday with gourmet tamales and microbrew at the finish line, and a Sunday winery tour and social gathering. It is the brainchild of Ultrarunning Magazine publishers (and patron saints of the sport) John Medinger and Lisa Henson. The somewhat intimate size of the event, at least compared to a big city marathon, provides a convivial atmosphere.
With a busy schedule this year consisting of one ultra a month from January through September, it made perfect sense to shift my focus for some of these races from what my finish ranking should be to an opportunity to refine pacing and fueling strategies. Every race is ideally a stepping stone. I felt that Lake Sonoma, with a relatively large number of top runners whom I might finish in front of or behind at other events throughout the year, was a good fit for figuring out how to race the clock while exercising the restraint of not racing other people.
It was expected that testosterone would take control of the pace from early on. 2012 was a course record year – one that saw the record fall by 50 minutes. What was a fast pace for the top 10 or so runners for the first half of the race in 2012 was an even faster pace for the top 20 this year. My approach, experiment really, was to attempt to run what should be my average effort for 50 miles for each and every mile along the way. The “go by feel” method doesn’t work so well in this regard as pretty much no one feels very good at mile 49, and human psychology limits the ability to ignore the influence of the pace of runners around you in the opening miles. The approach I took was to run within a narrow heart rate range every step of the way. For 50 miles this works out to roughly 30 beats below my maximum heart rate and a span of about 7 beats to account for variation in terrain. It works out to about a 6:30 pace on a flat road.
The results along the way were somewhat promising. My splits through the halfway point were slightly ahead or even with those of last year, but that was probably due to having had a bit more fatigue going in to the 2012 edition. Running with steady effort as measured by heart rate produces an interesting effect on very hilly terrain. It’s what Nick Clark (3rd place in 2012, 10th place in 2013) described as an “awkwardly choppy tempo” and I don’t argue with his observation. I’ve seen the same thing with years of cycling while using a power meter. There is a natural tendency to dig deep on every climb and recover (or coast) through flat and downhill sections. I see it at every level of runner or cyclist from beginner to elite. My hope was that in avoiding a 50k effort on every climb, I’d have enough gas in the tank to run 50 mile pace in the closing miles. I knew from experience that hitting the red zone too early and often would set me up for a disastrous finish.
The results were positive but mixed. I bettered my time by 9 minutes – most of that in the second half of the race. I went from 20th at the halfway point to 13th overall at the finish. Close scrutiny of the results puts me right in the middle of that fictitious category of runners I define as “semi-pro” or “expert”. I was ahead, mostly, of those who suffered an “off” day. For much of the last 30 miles I ran, leapfrogged rather, with Karl Meltzer. Karl is arguably one of the best 100 mile racers in the world. 50 miles is not his specialty, but make no mistake, he can run hard and fast for the duration. Karl was on “autopilot” with his headphones on while I was “piloted” by my heart rate monitor, and we each ran our own race in fairly close proximity until I succumbed to my all-too-familiar inner thigh cramps in the last 12 miles. Despite slowing down and even having to take a few brief stops, I passed four runners and somehow bridged back up to Karl with half a mile to go. I accelerated by him carefully and kept speeding up, for no good reason perhaps, all the way to the finish line. Max King, pre-race favorite who led the first half of the race at breakneck speed but slowed by 25% in the second half (while still finishing 3rd overall), teased me that I looked like I was finishing a 5k. In terms of effort, it’s possible that slightly harder efforts on the climbs were warranted. On the other hand, muscular endurance (as manifested by cramping and reduction in speed) might have been compromised even more despite still having energy reserves to spare.
Endurance events of very long distance expose weak links in every individual in a way not seen as often in sub-marathon and even marathon distance – nausea, muscle cramps, biomechanical problems, exhaustion. This is apparent in the numbers of people who are able to run an even pace for an entire race. It is a vanishingly small number of runners in a 50 mile race who slow down less than 10% in the second half of a race. The median slowdown is around 20% and there is no discernible correlation between that number and whether the runner finished at the front, mid-pack, or in the back of the pack. You might expect that as records continue to fall, and as more runners take to the trails and run long distance, you will see front and mid-pack runners showing even splits. I spoke to Salomon International Team member Rickey Gates about this. He feels that a lot of the talent in the sport is not performing now to their full potential (himself included) and that split times in the future will be much more even or even negative. I think the ultimate parallel for this type of ultra distance runner are the top European bicycle racers. The famous bicycle racer and television commentator Bob Roll said that a Tour de France rider – after 3 weeks of incredible distance and intensity – becomes a machine designed to ride a bicycle. Some day soon we will probably see more of that same level of performance in ultramarathon running (and hopefully without performance enhancing drugs!). Sage Canaday is someone on his way to this level of performance. Sage not only won Lake Sonoma in course record time, but was the only runner in the top 50 overall who slowed down less than 10% in the second half of the race. I helped Sage get last year’s winning split times the night before the race which he promptly wrote down in magic marker on his forearm. Despite being 5 minutes behind the leaders at the turnaround he had a 6 minute cushion to break the course record and did just that but with only two minutes to spare. Max King assures me that his own time to the turnaround, albeit a full 5 minutes ahead of Sage, was the right one for him had it been his “on” day, so we are likely to see that lofty course record fall again.
The upside to the discomfort and the complexity of the challenges faced by every entrant in an ultramarathon is that it forms a common bond. Ed Ayres describes this well in his book The Longest Race. Ayres looks back at how it would have been anathema to his high school coach for a runner to think of his competition as companions. Decades later while running the JFK 50 Mile, he reminds himself how companionship strengthens the spirit and that running his best would be helped by his hope that everyone else ran their best as well, including his age group competitors. Two people that I was rooting for at Lake Sonoma this year include Joe Uhan and Myles Smythe. Joe ran the fastest final 12 miles of all but one person in the race. Myles covered the final 12 miles slower than all but one finisher in the race. Joe had a breakthrough day. He profited from hard work on his biomechanics, diet, and training and is poised to improve this year at the Western States 100 over his stellar time from 2012. Myles is a fit runner with tremendous enthusiasm for both participating in and photographing trail races. He is an acquaintance I had misplaced, but we connected online to share a campsite before the race. His demon is debilitating stomach issues. He has been tenacious and unrelenting in his quest for a solution and I’m sure he will find it some day. I am reminded that there is no easy formula for extrapolating outside our normal comfort zone. Experience through trial and error along with trust in yourself chips away at obtaining elusive goals.