Lottery opens for insanely difficult Lake Sonoma 50 race
One of the nation's most iconic endurance races is set to return to the hills west of Healdsburg this spring. This time, however, there'll be a new guy in charge.
The race, the Lake Sonoma 50, is a 50-mile out-and-back tromp over trails and paved roads that ring the Lake Sonoma Wilderness Recreation Area. It is considered one of the most challenging ultrarunning courses in North America.
Though the race doesn't kick off until April 13, 2019, a lottery process for admission starts Dec. 1.
The 2019 running of the race-technically the eleventh anniversary-also marks the event's first year under new race director Skip Brand. The ultrarunner and owner of Healdsburg Running Company replaces “Tropical” John Medinger, who directed every one of the previous Lake Sonoma 50 races, founded Ultrarunning magazine, and is winding down commitments after serving the endurance running community for the last 37 years.
Medinger, 67, has directed races such as the Miwok 100 and the Quad Dipsea, and has run more than 110,000 miles in his life, including 150 ultras. But the Lake Sonoma 50 has a special spot in his heart.
“It's a great run - hard, but not stupid-hard - scenic, rugged, remote, and almost all single-track that with its continual ups, downs, twists, and turns wears you down,” says the part-time resident of Sonoma County. “You give it your all for a really long time and then you celebrate your finish with your friends.”
As Medinger suggests, the finish-line party is a pretty big deal. Runners are greeted by a live band and homemade tamales from local chef Mateo Granados, Racer 5 IPA from Bear Republic Brewing Company, and wood-oven fired pizzas. On Sunday, April 14, there's also a post-race wine-tasting with endurance athlete Diane Wilson, the winemaker for Wilson Winery.
According to Brand, this down-home vibe surrounds the entire race. Most out-of-town participants are hosted and housed by area wineries or local Healdsburg residents. Many returning runners have been staying with the same families for years.
All told, including locals who give up their homes, the race attracts about 300 volunteers each year.
The race itself is challenging. The course is a relentless litany of ups and downs - 25 miles out into the hills surrounding Lake Sonoma, then 25 miles back. Terrain is mostly single-track, with a few dirt and paved roads here and there. Repeat runners love the fire road between the Bummer Peak campsite and Boar Scat Trail because of its fantastic views in both directions. April conditions also bring verdant green hillsides, a deep blue to the lake, and lots of wildflowers.
One eccentricity of the Lake Sonoma 50: Start times. Unlike other endurance races, where elite runners and amateurs begin in different waves, the Lake Sonoma 50 starts all runners together.
Brand says this means rookie runners can find themselves neck-and-neck with legends from the start.
“Nobody can toe the line with one of the San Francisco 49ers in football, but you can run this race with a guy who's running 4-minute miles around Lake Sonoma,” Brand says. “It's not often you get to say something like that.
(Still, it's unlikely amateurs stand a chance of besting the 5:51:16 course record set by Jim Walmsley last year.)
There's a charitable component to the Lake Sonoma 50, as well; proceeds benefit the Children of Vineyard Workers Scholarship Fund, an organization that Ken and Diane Wilson founded to provide scholarships for continuing education to children of Sonoma County vineyard workers. Since the race began back in 2008 - it was canceled in 2011 because of poor weather - Lake Sonoma 50 has donated about $200,000 to the fund. Brand expects this year's donation to be around $20,000.
Annual donations comprise entry fees and matching grants from sponsors. For the 2019 race, sponsors include Wilson Artisan Wines, Gu, Patagonia, Drymax, Valdez Family Winery, H2hotel, and Costeaux French Bakery, to name a few.
Brand says his goals for future races are to grow both the number of sponsors and amateurs who run.
“We have our fair share of endurance athletes here in Sonoma County,” he says. “There's no reason why we can't have a larger number of local people give it a go.”
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Healdsburg. To learn more about him, visit whalehead.com.