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Changes afoot: Lake Sonoma 50 returns with added race, new time

Want to know more about the Lake Sonoma series?

Start times: Lake Sonoma 50 is 6:30 a.m. Saturday; Lake Sonoma 100K is 5 a.m. Sunday.

Where to watch (caution parking is very limited): Start/finish line near South Lake Trailhead parking lot, 100 Marina Road Lot A. Another vantage point: At the halfway mark at No Name Flat aid station off of Rockpile Road.

General race info: lakesonoma50.com

Follow along: On Twitter @Treelinej and ultralive.net

Results: athlinks.com/event/51121/results/Event/984667/Results

Benefits: Net proceeds to go Children of Vineyard Workers Scholarship Fund

‘The season got a little compressed’

There are some changes afoot with the iconic Lake Sonoma 50 ultra trail race that will take place this weekend in the hills around its namesake body of water.

Let’s start with the fact that you are reading this in September, not April.

Also new: The addition of a 62-mile race on Sunday, dubbed the Lake Sonoma 100K, a move into a longer distance that sport watchers say may make the Lake Sonoma series eligible to return to being a Golden Ticket race for the prestigious Western States 100.

For years, Lake Sonoma has pulled in one of the most competitive fields of ultra runners in the country.

But the coronavirus pandemic has put the Lake Sonoma 50, considered by many a jewel in the ultramarathon race calendar, on ice for more than two years. And a number of things have shifted in that time.

A quick recap: The 2020 race, including what was supposed to be the inaugural running of a women-only half marathon, was canceled. And the 2021 race, originally planned to happen in April as usual, was pushed to this month. And the women’s only half-marathon? We won’t see that until 2022.

Celebrated because it allows the race to be run, that move also means a trade-off.

Running the race in April allowed a ton of elite runners to use the rigorous 50 miles around Lake Sonoma as a tuneup for the big-name summer races like Western States 100 and the 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France.

Many of those racers don’t need a 50-miler, or even the inaugural Lake Sonoma 100K race (which is a qualifier race for Western States 100 in 2022), at this point in the competitive calendar, said Justin Mock, a columnist with iRunFar.com.

So that means a smaller field that’s less competitive than usual is expected to go off early Saturday morning, he said.

“Usually it’s one of kind of the first big races of the year but this year it feels like it’s going to be a little bit of a down year on the competitive side,” he said. “When it’s in April, it’s a 50-mile race, it’s a good training race … but Western States has already happened. Hard Rock, Leadville, they have already happened.”

“The season got a little compressed,” he said.

Lake Sonoma’s winners over the years are a who’s who of ultra running greats. Jim Walmsley, one of the biggest names in the game, has won this race twice and owns the course record. Sage Canaday has won it twice. Zach Miller has won here. Jared Hazen won the last installment in 2019, finishing in 6:08:29.

On the women’s side YiOu Wang has won here twice and Anna Mae Flynn won in 2019, crossing the line in 7:25:15.

Another change: Western States, one of the premier trail ultra marathons in the world, is no longer using the relatively shorter Lake Sonoma course as a so-called golden ticket race, meaning that top finishers no longer automatically win a coveted spot in Western States, said Karl Hoagland, publisher of UltraRunning magazine.

“Not being a golden ticket race takes away some of the compelling attraction for elites,” he said. “That was a nice dynamic at the front of the race, but it has always had a tradition. I think you are still going to see elites because it is such a fun race.”

And the Lake Sonoma 50 is part of the UTMB qualifier series, giving racers a chance to grab points for a shot at that event.

But Hoagland, who has raced Lake Sonoma four times, said there are benefits to a September competition. For one, it falls on a three-day Labor Day weekend, meaning runners and their families can spend time in Sonoma County.

“It’s a destination race,” he said. “It should be on everyone’s bucket list.”

And the Lake Sonoma 50 is nothing if not resilient. Last year was not the first time the race has been canceled.

It was also shelved in 2011. The reason? A pandemic? No. Fires? No. In 2011, it was floods that swept away any idea of racing. There are, it should be noted, 12 creek crossings on the route in wet years. Race organizers report just two for this drought-choked edition.

And the return, replete with changes, brings with it a celebratory feeling that there is a running season at all, compressed or not. And Lake Sonoma is known for its celebratory style.

“Some of it is the atmosphere that they have really built there,” Mock said.

The numbers bear him out.

In the first running of the race back in 2008, 96 hearty souls were at the start line and 75 finished. In 2019, the last time the race was run, 346 competitors started and 281 finished.

And as the race has grown in popularity, the competitiveness has spiked. The winning times are considerably faster than the early days.

The winning men’s time in that first year was 8:24:31 posted by Dan Barger. The course record, set by Flagstaff’s Walmsley in 2018, is 5:51:16. Walmsley, a two-time Lake Sonoma winner, has won the vaunted Western States 100 three times.

The women haves posted a similar progression in speed.

Clare Abram won the inaugural race in 9:44:13. The course record was set in 2015 when Stephanie Howe Violett won in 7:08:23.

For all of the changes, some prompted by the pandemic, others not, Hoagland said the heart of the Lake Sonoma race remains the same.

“It’s a classic ultra-marathon in the greatest traditions of the sport,” he said. “There are great trails in a great setting.”

The out-and-back element of the course can’t be overstated, he said. It’s rare in any sport for hobbyists to share the competitive stage with the world’s best.

“Because it’s an out-and-back, you get to see everybody in the race at least once,” he said. “That is what is so cool about the sport, everybody is in it together, doing the big distance, whether you are super fast or the back of the pack.”

And while it’s been about 28 months since the last installment of the Lake Sonoma 50, much will look familiar. The route, the scenery and a pretty famous finish line scene.

“There is a great post-race party,” Hoagland said.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Want to know more about the Lake Sonoma series?

Start times: Lake Sonoma 50 is 6:30 a.m. Saturday; Lake Sonoma 100K is 5 a.m. Sunday.

Where to watch (caution parking is very limited): Start/finish line near South Lake Trailhead parking lot, 100 Marina Road Lot A. Another vantage point: At the halfway mark at No Name Flat aid station off of Rockpile Road.

General race info: lakesonoma50.com

Follow along: On Twitter @Treelinej and ultralive.net

Results: athlinks.com/event/51121/results/Event/984667/Results

Benefits: Net proceeds to go Children of Vineyard Workers Scholarship Fund

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

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