Lake Sonoma 50: The Race for the Golden Ticket

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Toeing the line on April 14th, many of the elite runners competing in the Lake Sonoma 50 had a common goal on their mind: Western States. The Lake Sonoma 50 is the last of the Altra Golden Ticket Series, where first and second place finishers from both men’s and women’s divisions are granted entry into Western States 100 this June.

“[The race] had the depth and big names to let everyone know it would be a battle to see who could grab the last Golden Tickets,” says fourth place women’s finisher and previous 100-mile record holder Gina Slaby, 36, based in Washington State. (She was awarded a Golden Ticket, but declined to coordinate racing efforts with her husband.)

Both the women’s and men’s champions, Keely Henninger, 25, of Portland Oregon, and Jim Walmsley, 28, of Flagstaff, Arizona, respectively, took their places from the start and didn’t look back.

Cranking Up the Heat in the Women’s Race

Henninger, busting out of sight from any other woman, was hanging with a men’s pack for the first 25 miles. The guys shared her enthusiasm, whooping and hollering their way through the stunning vistas before Henninger left them in the dust to take on the back end of the course independently.

“It really emphasized the camaraderie in the sport,​” says Henninger.

Racing comfortably and having a blast while doing it, she was on track to setting the women’s course record by two minutes (a goal of hers going into the race) until the mid-day heat kicked in during the last 10 miles, having a brutal effect on most participants.

“The heat was quite bothersome,” says Gina Slaby of those last few miles. “Despite the tree cover, the second half of the course was sweltering hot in some places.”

Ultimately, running out of water during that last toasty stretch slowed Henninger down enough to miss the record—but not enough to avoid dominating the women’s race with a time of 7:13.

“I just wanted to have fun, not fall and finish 50 miles through the beautiful trails of wine country,” she said. Mission accomplished.

Though she was awarded a golden ticket into Western, she is opting to race the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in Italy on June 22nd.

Following Henninger came Taylor Nowlin, 27, from Crested Butte Colorado, at 7:44, and Camelia Mayfield, 25, of Bend, Oregon, one minute later.

Keely Henninger in the lead. Photo by Howie Stern.

Cowboys Charge the Course

Walmsley flew solo from the get-go at his own super-human pace—and slayed the course record (which was set in 2016 by—you guessed it—himself) by over nine minutes, breaking the six hour mark (his goal for the day) with a time of 5:51.

His finish was followed by fellow “Coconino Cowboy” Jared Hazen, 22, of Flagstaff, Arizona and Mario Mendoza, 32, of Bend Oregon. The Coconino Cowboys—a group including Walmsley, Hazen, fourth place finisher Eric Senseman, 28 and several other notable athletes from Flagstaff—are a tribe of strong and talented “reckless runners and best friends” who train and suffer together.

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After nearly sweeping the race, five of the Cowboys are now headed to Western States as a sort of de facto ultrarunning team, lead by phenom Walmsley.

“I know Jim Walmsley is in a category of his own,” says Mendoza. “Going into it, I was expecting to have a shot of being the first runner in the ‘human’ category.”

Though Mendoza was also set back by heat and dehydration at mile 42, he finished with a time of 6:25, just seven minutes behind Hazen. With a Golden Ticket already in hand from his finish at the Bandera 100K, Mendoza was satisfied with the effort he put into the race and intends to go in to Western States with the same goal: “Give it the best I have, and race wisely.”

Because Mendoza and Walmsley already had their tickets to Western, the final ticket was granted to the fourth place finisher: Eric Senseman. Though he did not earn a podium spot, his finish was one of the most exciting for the Coconino Cowboys. After an injury and non-ideal training leading up to the race, his ticket-winning finish was “the biggest surprise,” according to Walmsley.

In fact, Senseman seemed to have an exceptionally rewarding experience. Breaking from the mold, the final 12 miles of blazing sunshine actually went well for him.

“I was hurting, but mentally I was in a really good place,” he says. “It just showed me that I can suffer through miles at a good clip as long as I stay in the right headspace…a good lesson to learn before Western.”

At the finish line, Senseman was beaming. “I really don’t have words for the amount of support and love we have in our group,” he says, referring to the Cowboys and the additional 20 supporters that came to cheer them on. “It was more than enough motivation to keep me moving during the race.”

Everyone who ran Lake Sonoma 50 and landed a ticket to Western can agree on one training tactic for the coming weeks: heat training.   

—Jacky Thompson is an avid trail runner and outdoor adventurer. Born and raised in the Arizona desert, she is slightly jealous of the Lake Sonoma heat as she writes this article in the midst of a Colorado springtime blizzard. 

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