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Benefield: A picturesque but brutal day for runners at Lake Sonoma

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Saturday afternoon update: Runners Jared Hazen and Anna Mae Flynn were the top finishers in the 2019 Lake Sonoma 50. Hazen won with a time of 6:08:29. Flynn won with a time of 7:25:15. For additional race results, click here.

It takes a special kind of athlete to describe running 50 miles over hilly trails as a comfortable way to feed the competitive beast.

But when asked about the draw of ultrarunning — anything longer than a marathon — and, in particular, racing in the Lake Sonoma 50, Julia Stamps Mallon of Santa Rosa (perhaps the most celebrated prep and collegiate runner ever to come from these parts) said running for hours and hours at a time over rigorous but beautiful terrain is akin to pulling on a pair of your old, cotton underthings.

“For me, toeing the line and running a really hard marathon is much different than running a 50 miler,” she said. “It’s almost like wearing your granny underwear. It’s a familiar environment, same amount of friends, but you don’t have to go out there and pull your hamstring in the first mile.”

So Stamps Mallon, 40, and 400 other runners, give or take, will take off from the southern shore of Lake Sonoma on Saturday morning to race a total of 50 miles out and back for the honor of having competed in the Lake Sonoma 50. No prizes to speak of, no cash — just an answer to the question: Can I do this? And, for the elite runners: How fast can I do this?

Because they are getting faster every year.

It’s an event that has, in just the 11 years of its existence, evolved into one of the most competitive and sought-after races on the ultrarunning calendar.

“It’s really a special race because it does kind of check a lot of different boxes,” said Karl Hoagland, publisher of UltraRunning magazine.

“It attracts the really premium runners in the sport and I would say every year it’s one of the top three most competitive fields in the sport in North America, if not the top.

“It’s really a big deal to win Lake Sonoma,” he said. “Only the elites — the top of the sport — win Lake Sonoma.”

Here are some the who’s who who’ve crossed the line first at the Lake Sonoma 50 since the inaugural race in 2008: Keely Henninger, YiOu Wang and Stephanie Howe Violett. On the men’s side: Jim Walmsley, Hal Koerner, Sage Canaday and Dakota Jones.

This year’s field includes multiple world record-holder Camille Herron and France’s Sebastien Spehler — as well as Brit Tom Evans, who won the 100-kilometer Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France last summer.

The winning times for men have gotten faster every year barring one and, for the women, every year barring two.

“It’s one of the three most competitive ultra runs with the North Face 50 and Western States 100,” said Bryon Powell, publisher of iRunFar.com.

But along with the checklist of known rock stars of the sport are the seemingly everyday folks who want to see if they can do this.

And if they can (and truth be told, even if they can’t), there will be beer and good food at the finish and a friends and family party on Sunday.

The social piece of the race gets the same kind of reviews as the race itself.

“It’s a fun weekend whether you are a top finisher or not,” Powell said.

“It’s like a party,” Hoagland said. “I think it’s the whole three-day thing. It’s in the wine country, so people like coming there … at the finish line they have gourmet food and beer. I think it’s definitely a celebration of the sport and the community and the party atmosphere. It’s fun out there. The finish line is a really happy place at this race.”

But you have to get there first.

The course offers 10,000 feet of elevation gain, a near-constant stream of ups and downs that can wipe out a pair of legs faster than you can say, “What am I doing here?”

“It’s a beautiful single-track course,” said first-year race director Skip Brand, owner of the Healdsburg Running Company. “But its beauty is terrible.”

And it’s deceiving, according to UltraRunning’s Hoagland, who has run it four times.

“There are no massive climbs, but it’s never flat,” he said. “So to race the whole thing, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of focus and it really grinds you down. That makes it really hard.”

“For other races, you kind of focus on one thing, but for this you kind of have to be able to do it all,” he said. “You have to kind of change gears really fast.”

Did he mention the 12 creek crossings? That, apparently, is the good part.

“You do get wet and muddy,” he said. “That makes it kind of fun.”

The race draws the elite runner for a variety of reasons, including that it’s a shorter ultra that comes early in the race calendar, so athletes can use it to gauge fitness for longer races deeper into the summer months.

It’s also a golden-ticket race, meaning that the top two men and top two women earn automatic berths to the granddaddy of them all: The Western States 100 from June 29-30.

But it also draws runners who know they won’t win, but want to test themselves. Everybody starts at the same gun, everybody runs the same course and it’s out and back, so all participants see the superstars out on the course.

Entry is by lottery, meaning far more people want to spend their Saturday running 50 miles over rolling hills that never quit than race director Brand can allow. There’s a waiting list.

And net proceeds go to the Children of Vineyard Workers Scholarship fund, established in 2001 by Wilson Artisan Wineries and managed by the Farm Bureau Foundation of Sonoma County.

Stamps Mallon, a six-time All-American at Stanford, is drawn by the beauty of the course and the fact that it’s essentially in her backyard, but she’s also trying to see what she can do against perhaps the most stacked women’s field in the history of the event.

She ran it in 2016 and finished sixth. In 2017 she finished fifth. Brand remembers watching her cross the line that year — and just before she finished, her two daughters, then 8 and 10, ran to her, jumped into her arms and were carried across the finish line.

She’s got way more in the tank, Brand thought.

“So much can go right and so much can go wrong in 50 miles,” Stamps Mallon said. “You have to go in with a real carefree attitude. What you generally plan for is not going to happen.”

She’s all about the scenery and finding joy in the race, but expects it to be on at the 10-miles-to-go mark.

“Once a competitive athlete, always a competitive athlete. I think it’s really hard to change that,” she said. “If I could qualify for Western States, that would be one of my goals. But realistically? Top 5.”

That’s where Rio Lindo Academy grad Drew Macomber finished last year — one spot from grabbing a golden ticket. Because the top two men –— Jim Walmsley and Jared Hazen — already had their spots secured for Western States 100, the golden tickets went to runners three and four. Macomber, who has an impressive ultrarunning racing resume, finished fifth.

“Definitely, the motivation for this one is to be a level to go for a golden ticket,” he said.

And for the 27-year-old Walla Walla, Washington resident to compete with some of the biggest names out there and keep climbing the ranks is special.

“It’s totally a draw,” he said of the stacked field. “It’s one of the exciting elements of it. I have done a lot of races where there are like 30 people and that’s it. There is an awesome energy out there.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com

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