While road closures, loud music and postrace beer and wine festivals typify many of Sonoma County’s best known running and cycling events, one low-key race has done more than most in recent years to build the county’s reputation as an endurance sports destination.
The Lake Sonoma 50, a punishing 50-mile trail run started in 2008, has quickly earned a place as one of the nation’s most competitive ultramarathons.
“Lake Sonoma is definitely getting a big reputation as one of the most challenging 50-milers out there,” said Kenny Brown, store manager at Santa Rosa’s Heart and Sole Sports, who ran the race in the remote hills northwest of Healdsburg this past April.
With 10,000 feet of elevation change, the course draws elite trail runners looking to test themselves in tough terrain.
Top finishers can earn a coveted spot at Western States, the arduous 100-mile Squaw Valley-to-Auburn race that is arguably the best-known ultra in the country.
But most county residents have no idea the Lake Sonoma 50 takes place at all.
It happens in one of the most distant corners of county, where the hills around the North Bay’s largest reservoir present not just a challenge to runners but an obstacle to organizers.
Famed ultrarunner John Medinger, the former publisher of Ultrarunning Magazine, came up with the idea with his wife, Lisa Henson, after they moved to Healdsburg in 2006.
But the event didn’t take off until they used a boat to deliver aid station supplies to the farthest reaches of the course. From 96 entrants the first year, the race quickly tripled in size. Several years ago, Medinger was forced to cap the field at 400 runners and institute a lottery. Organizers didn’t want runners “stacked up like a conga line,” detracting from the trail experience that draws so many to off-road running, Medinger said.
“It’s so beautiful out there,” said Caroline Boller, a former Santa Rosa resident and mother of two who was inspired to run the race in 2014 after watching it as a spectator in 2013.
Boller, 42, the 2015 female winner of the Santa Rosa Marathon and one of the best ultrarunners in the nation, credits the Lake Sonoma 50 and local trails with inspiring a late-blooming career in running. Last year, among other top finishes, she came in first among women in the Annadel Half Marathon in Trione-Annadel State Park.
“I fell in love with trail running in Sonoma County,” said Boller, an attorney who now lives in Solvang.
Nearly every year, race times on the out-and-back course around the Warm Springs Arm of the lake have improved. Jim Walmsley, 27, of Phoenix, crossed the finish line last year in just over six hours — two hours and 24 minutes faster than Dan Barger’s winning time in 2008. While several dozen slots are reserved for invited, elite runners, the nonprofit event, which supports scholarships for children of local vineyard workers, is still plenty accessible for local runners looking to run with the fastest in the field.
“You don’t get to play in the World Series or the Super Bowl, but you can run in the same race as some of the best trail runners in the country,” Medinger said.