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Lake Sonoma 50-miler most competitive field ever?

Saturday’s dramatic Lake Sonoma 50-mile race near Healdsburg, California, drew a stellar field of ultrarunners, with a notable exception of Dakota Jones, who last year set a course record of 6:17:27.

Sage Canaday en route to a Lake Sonoma 50 course record. Photo by Brad Clayton

Saturday’s dramatic Lake Sonoma 50-mile race near Healdsburg, California, drew a stellar field of ultrarunners, with a notable exception of Dakota Jones, who last year set a course record of 6:17:27.

“Even though we have this hugely fast, deep field, it wouldn’t shock me if Dakota’s time stood up,” race director John Medinger said before the start. “6:17 is pretty otherworldly on that terrain.”

But both Jones’s record and the women’s course record fell, as intense competition, ideal trail conditions and favorable weather aided the tenacious winners.

Sage Canaday, 27, of Boulder, Colorado, shaved more than two minutes off the record, finishing in 6:14:55. In the women’s race, Cassie Scallon, 31, also of Boulder, regained the lead after bonking and being passed, ultimately winning in 7:47:42 and lowering Joelle Vaught’s 2012 record by about five minutes.

Before the start, Canaday wrote Jones’ record-setting split times in ink on his forearm and used them to carefully pace himself between aid stations. “I knew we were way ahead of pace 11 miles in,” he said, so he held back a bit.

Photo by Sarah Lavender Smith

At the halfway point, Canaday—who raced his first ultra a mere 13 months ago, and won the Bandera 100K and Tarawera 100K earlier this year—found himself in third, five minutes behind Max King, 33, of Bend, Oregon, and Cameron Clayton, 24, of Boulder, Colorado. But he sustained motivation to hit Jones’ splits, and gambled that the two frontrunners couldn’t sustain their pace.

“I was able to close that gap, and once I saw  [King and Clayton], I got more confidence, and then when I passed them I tried to surge pretty hard. Cameron said he was getting dehydrated, and Max was like, ‘I went out too fast and don’t feel so good.’”

Canaday reached the final aid station, mile 45, right at Jones’ time from last year. Feeling the course record within reach, he went for it.

“I did the math in my head and knew if I finished strong I’d probably be able to get it by a couple of minutes—but you never know what’s going to happen; you can cramp up or twist your ankle on a rock, and I didn’t know how much climbing was left out there, either. The last four miles I really had to put my head down and increase my effort.”

Runner-up Clayton finished about 11 minutes later, in 6:26:24, after leapfrogging with King.  Like Canaday, he’s a relative newcomer to the sport, with Lake Sonoma 50 being only his third 50-miler; he won and set a course record at his debut ultra last September, the Run Rabbit Run 50 Miler.

“I passed [King] for the first time and got a little ahead of him from miles 20 to 25, then he passed me back and put a two-minute gap on me, and then I passed him at mile 42 or so,” Clayton said afterwards. “We each had our own little blowups. I was a little dehydrated, and Max has been really busy, having a lot of racing and a lot on his plate. I think he was a little fatigued.” (King won and significantly lowered the course record at the Way Too Cool 50K in early March, and placed 2nd in the Chuckanut 50K one week later.)

King finished third in 6:33:57, followed by
 Jorge Maravilla, 35, of Vallejo, California, in 6:39:05; and Dave Mackey, 43, of Boulder, Colorado, in 6:40:46. (Full results here.)

Women’s winner Scallon, who finished 23rd overall, savored a hard-fought victory after experiencing “total exhaustion and cramps; my stomach was too full and wasn’t digesting,” she said after the finish.

“I went out too fast; I ran the first 20 miles like it was going to be the only 20 miles, just hoping for a miracle day, and that didn’t happen,” Scallon explained. “I bonked pretty hard, and [Vaught] passed me sometime in the early 30s and stayed ahead of me for about 10 miles. I wasn’t expecting to catch her at all—I was expecting to be passed by about 50 other people—and all of a sudden I went around a corner and saw her across the way, which gave me a some energy.”

Cassie Scallon floats one of Lake Sonoma’s numerous creek crossings. Photo by Noé Castañón

Vaught, 38, of Boise, Idaho, ran about 10 minutes slower than her record-setting time last year, finishing in 8:02:39.  “It was a rough day,” she said afterward. “I was hanging on for second, that was my goal once Cassie passed me. … I’ve never had leg cramps, but I did today.”

Not far back, Amy Sproston, 39, of Portland, Oregon, and Rory Bosio, 28, of Soda Springs, California, challenged each other for third place. Sproston said afterward that she passed Bosio around mile 38 or 39. “It’s a tough course, with relentless hills … but I was moving pretty well the last 20 miles or so,” Sproston said at the finish.

Completing the women’s top five were Bosio, in 8:08:37, and Meghan Arbogast, 51, of Corvallis, Oregon, in 8:15:58.

An exceptionally scenic as well as rugged race, the Lake Sonoma 50 takes place in the wine country about an hour and a half north of San Francisco.

The out-and-back course climbs a total of about 10,500 feet and follows mostly singletrack along the southern arm of the lake, until a couple of major hills in the middle miles, which are on fire roads.

Runners cross six creeks each way, guaranteeing wet feet. A forest of oak, bay and madrone shades the trail, and bunches of blooming lupine and wild irises mix purple into the green hillsides.

“The creeks are amazing, and the vistas are beautiful,” said Clayton. “There’s no flat—it’s all up and down, up and down. It’s a great course.”

Medinger, the publisher of UltraRunning magazine, began the race in his hometown in 2008 and limits the field to about 300. It’s now so popular that the spots filled within about eight hours after online registration opened in December.  Of the 311 starters this year, 266 finished.

“The number of hot shots makes it pretty intense,” Medinger said before the event, “but I try to keep the mood light.” To that end, he asks runners to follow just three rules: Be nice, don’t litter and have fun.

Sarah Lavender Smith of Piedmont, California, frequently contributes to Trail Runner and blogs about trail running and travel at TheRunnersTrip.com. She ran and finished Saturday’s Lake Sonoma 50 in 9:36:52.

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