Getting Tropical

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We had the pleasure to catch up with “Tropical” John Medinger, a well-known, if not beloved, fixture in the Northern California ultrarunning community and race director of this weekend’s Lake Sonoma 50. Having founded the Quad Dipsea, served on the Western States 100 Board of Trustees, been the publisher of UltraRunning magazine and competed in the sport since 1980, Medinger has been a prominent figure in the ultra scene for more than three decades.

A retired investment banker, Medinger is tall, handsome, sports a tan and … always a tropical shirt so that he eases up to the eyes the way Jimmy Buffett’s music sidles up to the ears. He hit his ultra stride back when some of the history makers in the sport were getting their start and so he got a front-row seat to watch the sport develop.

In the late 1970s, Medinger lived in Mill Valley, and the trail network on nearby Mount Tamalpais was one of the best in the world. He got a map and started exploring, met some older runners who were already ultra veterans, such as Dick Collins, Ruth Anderson, Carol LaPlant, Orin Dahl and Tom Zavortink.

“I was invited to an epochal luncheon at Bill Casteel’s house in San Jose, which was put together for the purpose of organizing some runs. There were very few trail races in those days, even in Northern California. Just the American River 50, Nugget 50, Western States, Skyline 50K.” Back then, local groups hosted runs on their favorite trails so that the small trail-running community could get together, and also for the adventure of exploring new trails. At that luncheon, the now-classic Quad Dipsea (the tough Mill Valley 28-miler that entails two out-and-back trips along the famed Dipsea Trail) was conceived.

In 1985, Medinger paced his friend Tony Rossmann at Western States. Rossmann was recruited to be part of the Western States Board and he prevailed on Medinger to join the Board in 1991. Medinger has never left and was president from 1999 through 2004 and, after yielding to Tim Twietmeyer and John Trent, came back as president in 2015. “I’m sort of the Grover Cleveland of Western States.”

Medinger characterizes himself as “an inveterate record keeper, and I have now run nearly 109,000 miles in my lifetime, including 150 ultras. I pretty much stopped competing seriously after a knee surgery gone bad in 2003. At age 67, I am happy to still be able to run-hike-jog about 40 miles a week, albeit at a pace that would hardly put fear in your average gastropod.”

Medinger and his wife, Lisa, moved to Healdsburg in Sonoma County 2006. Shortly after, some local running friends approached him, saying, “It’s so great that you’re here. Now maybe we can have a race up here.”

Medinger laughed, “knowing race directing is not exactly rocket science, but mostly grunt work and taking care of details.” He and Greg Carter measured all the trails at Lake Sonoma, which is about 10 minutes from Medinger’s house, and came up with a course that was 25 miles one way, circumnavigating the southern arm of the lake. An out-and-back made a perfect 50-miler and, in 2008, the Lake Sonoma 50 became a reality.

This April 14 will mark the 10th running of the Lake Sonoma 50. How do you explain the race’s success?

Well, it has a lot of good things inherent in its structure. It’s reasonably convenient to the Bay Area and Sacramento, both of which have large ultra populations, yet not so close that folks might be overly familiar or a bit bored with the trails. It’s a fairly hard course, a fair bit harder than the other major local 50-milers, like American River and Firetrails. But it’s not crazy hard, nothing like, say, San Juan Solstice or Jemez Mountain or Zane Grey.

It’s in the middle of April when many are ramping up for a 100-miler, or are at least enthusiastic with the onset of spring. The weather is usually pleasant. It’s almost all singletrack, not terribly technical, verdant and full of wildflowers at that time of year.

How did you come by the nickname “Tropical John?”

In the mid-1980s I started training with a friend also named John, John Demorest. At that time I already had a penchant for wearing Hawaiian shirts and a well-established practice of escaping the brutal California winters for someplace tropical—Hawaii or Mexico or the Caribbean. So Demorest tagged me with the “Tropical John” nickname as a way of differentiating us two Johns. Most of my friends call me just “Tropical” or “TJ.” I don’t think anybody calls me just “John”—except for my wife when she’s mad at me.

When Lisa and I got married, our wedding invitation suggested “aloha attire optional”—and I’m proud to say that every man at the wedding wore a Hawaiian shirt. Yes, including the groom.

Would you please share the story of how you and your wife met your dog?

In April 2014, while marking the Lake Sonoma course, Lisa and her friends found a puppy in the woods— miles from anywhere, no collar, starving, filthy and covered in ticks. Lisa brought her home. We figured we’d take her to the animal shelter, but two days before the race there was just so much to do. We already had a dog, a 13-year-old standard poodle, so it wasn’t a big deal to have another one for a couple of days. But of course, in the matter of less than a day, she had already wormed her way into our hearts.

She’s a great little dog, very sweet, calm and a terrific runner. I’m not a big believer in destiny or kismet, but it sure seems she was put there for us to find her.

What makes Healdsburg such a compelling running destination?

Healdsburg is more a compelling tourist destination than a compelling running destination. It’s a small town where three wine-growing valleys converge, so there’s a lot of wine tourism and with that comes fine dining and fancy shopping. This, of course, works brilliantly for the runner whose spouse isn’t a runner, and maybe doesn’t want to spend all day crewing.

As a running destination, there are the really good trails at Lake Sonoma, Anandel State Park in Santa Rosa and Armstrong Woods in Guerneville. There are a bunch of popular road races, including a half-marathon in the fall that attracts several thousand. And the Ironman Vineman Triathlon starts with a swim in Lake Sonoma, bikes through the three valleys and finishes with a marathon in Santa Rosa. For a small town, we have a fantastic running store, Healdsburg Running Company. So there’s a lot of athletic culture and the weather is generally very benign.

What advice to you have for someone who is thinking of running or registered for their first Lake Sonoma 50?

It’s sneaky hard, so save something for the second half. The hills aren’t major but they are relentless, and take a toll. For most runners, there are three more major climbs in the middle of the race that are walkers. If you’re wiped out, the last 12 miles can go on forever. If you save some juice for the end you will pick up a lot of places in the last two or three hours.

For the top runners, it’s pretty easy to get sucked into to going out too hard. Somebody will go out crazy hard, and it’s really difficult to let them go. Try to find a balance between being reckless and not being so conservative that you’re never in the hunt. The second half should be a bit faster than the first half, but it won’t be. At best you’ll be maybe 10 minutes slower coming back. Factor that in.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I had a pretty successful career as a business executive, but for me that was always a means to an end. For nearly four decades, my passion has been this sport. Should someone ask me to describe myself, I will always say, “I’m an ultrarunner.” Almost all my best friends are (or were) ultrarunners. I met Lisa for the first time at Western States. Even when I get to the point where I’m unable to run, I will still be an ultrarunner in my heart. It’s who I am.

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada