Lake Sonoma 50: What to Watch

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Some of the world’s fastest ultrarunners meet every April in northern California. Here are six reasons this weekend’s race could be the most exciting edition yet

The Lake Sonoma 50 is a fast, competitive race through California’s rolling hills. Photo by Tanner Johnson

Every April, it seems, the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile gets more and more fun to watch.

On the competitive side of trail ultrarunning, this race is as fast as it gets. Butter-smooth singletrack and a field loaded with top-flight talent begets a fast race up front, while the undulating hills lead to inevitable implosions.

Both a track meet and a race of attrition – long enough to be interesting, but short enough to be fast – this race pretty much has it all.

“The race is hard, but it’s fair,” says race director “Tropical” John Medinger of Healdsburg, California, where the race is run. “There’s climbing, but it’s not a huge advantage if you live in the mountains. You have runners from California, from Boulder, from Flagstaff and from all these other places converging to race on pretty much even terms.”

Here are a few things we’ll be watching when the race gets underway Saturday.

Photo by Tanner Johnson

1. Last chance for a Golden Ticket

Part of the reason for the mad rush at the front of the race is that Lake Sonoma holds the last “Golden Ticket” entries to the vaunted Western States 100 in June, meaning the top two men and women each get an automatic entry.

This adds extra stakes to the bragging rights of being top-two at a race this loaded with talent, and means we might see some wild tactics from runners who are running for first or second, rather than fifth or sixth.

2. The women’s field is wide open

With last year’s winner, Stephanie Howe, not entered, the women’s title will be up for grabs. That means 2014 winner Emily Harrison of Flagstaff, Arizona, could swoop back in. Omaha’s Kaci Lickteig, who was fifth here last year and placed second at the Western States 100, could also contend. So could 2015 Tamalpa Headlands 50K champ Caitlin Smith, or Way Too Cool 50K runner-up YiOu Wang; the list goes on …

3. Camille Herron’s debut

… but the most interesting story on the women’s side might be the trail-ultra debut of Camille Herron. A native of Warr Acres, Oklahoma, Herron has proven her mettle in road ultras, winning the Mad City 100K and Door County Fall 50, both in Wisconsin, in 2015, but this will be her first time taking on the same distance on dirt, or with this much climbing.

“She’s totally smoked it on fast, flat courses, but now she’ll have a race with 10,000 feet of vertical gain,” Medinger says. “Obviously, fast is fast, but it will be interesting to see how she does.”

4. Varner’s injury leaves the men’s field even more wide open

At first glance, you might assume last year’s winner, Alex Varner of San Rafael, California, is a favorite to defend his title. But Varner, though entered in the race, says a hip injury stymied his training early in the year, and his fitness likely isn’t up to fending off the horde of fast folks behind him.

“I’m going to start and see what happens, but if I’m not feeling it, I’m not going to push it,” says Varner, 30. “I’ve also had a hard time finding motivation for Sonoma. I feel like I’ve taken a lot from this race so there’s no unfinished business on my end, which makes it easier to accept that I’m not going to be racing near my potential.”

There are about a dozen other contenders who could step up and win. They include last year’s Moab Trail Marathon champion, Mario Mendoza; 2015 JFK 50 Mile and 2016 Bandera 100K winner Jim Walmsley; 2015 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc third-place finisher David Laney; 2016 Marin Ultra Challenge 50 Mile winner Ryan Neely; The North Face 50 Mile runner-up Dylan Bowman; U.S. 100-mile record holder Zach Bitter; and … well, you get the point. This men’s field is stacked.

Medinger says Ryan Bak, who won last month’s Chuckanut 50K and was third at TNF 50, has withdrawn with a minor injury.

Photo by Tanner Johnson


5. An unknown runner could mix things up

Medinger says one of the most exciting parts of watching a race this loaded with talent is that, from time to time, someone most people have never heard of delivers a big-time performance on the sport’s top stage.

“Every year someone who’s run fast locally but has never run this distance is in the mix,” Medinger says, citing 24-year-old Brett Hornig of Ashland, Oregon. “People are saying he’s going to tear it up, but he’s only ever raced this distance once,” at TNF 50, where he was 22nd. “Another one is Callie Cooper, from Eugene – this will be her first 50-miler.”

6. Gunhild Swanson is racing

It might not be as exciting as her just-under-the-cutoff finish at Western States last year, but we certainly draw a lot of inspiration from watching this 71-year-old from Spokane, Washington, run some of the toughest endurance races on the planet.

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