A Look Inside The Popular Race Weekend, Plus How To Train For It
The Lake Sonoma 50 Mile has been held annually since 2008 in the U.S. state of California, in the heart of wine country. Over the race’s 15 year existence, the event’s 50 mile race distance, which circumnavigates a large portion of Lake Sonoma twice, has become one of the premier events in the United States trail and ultrarunning circuit. For the last several years, entry into the 50 mile race has been awarded via lottery, with the demand greatly exceeding the number or race entries that are available.
Whether due to the high demand for the event in general or due to the growing interest in sub-ultra trail racing, the Lake Sonoma race organization launched two new race distances as part of the race weekend with its 2023 edition: The LS26.2 trail marathon and the women-only Trail Sisters Half Marathon.
The new race distances are available for open registration rather than selected for by lottery like the 50 Mile, though these other races do still book out fast. In this post, we cover what athletes considering the Lake Sonoma races– which are just 9 weeks away– can expect from the experience of running out and around the big lake. We’ll also take a more in-depth look at what it takes to run the event’s new Marathon distance, whether you’re looking to compete or just to complete. Let’s jump in.
In the mid-morning hours of April 7th, I traveled east out of San Francisco bound for Santa Rosa, CA, about a 30 minute drive from the race start, with a group of 6 other friends. In the months leading up to LS26.2, they had each caught wind of the race and decided to "give it a whirl".
The running background and experience of our group varied widely, with some of the group having run trail ultramarathons and others having never run more than a half marathon road race. The variety of experience in the group I arrived with was in part thanks to the operation of the Lake Sonoma event; it’s a race that’s welcoming to all experience levels and that offers a generous time cutoff of 10+ hours for the marathon distance. Generous cutoff or not, it'd be unwise to think that running 26 miles with more than 6,000 feet of elevation gain is easy.
By late afternoon on April 8th, every one of the seven of us managed to make it to the finish line in race places spanning from 32nd overall (5 hours, 18 minutes elapsed time) to 180th (9 hours, 28 minutes), out of the total 185 finishers.
Healdsburg, CA– which is the town nearest to the LS race start and finish– is about a 90 minute drive from the San Francisco airport (the only airport within a reasonable distance of the race site). While Sonoma County makes for a beautiful vacation spot, lodging costs reflect this demand. Booking early and budgeting your trip as a vacation will help assure that you’re not surprised by the heightened costs of the area.
If wine is your thing, then booking enough time to take advantage of the region, once race time has come and gone, may also be worthwhile.
Bib Pickup and Info Session
The start line bib pickup, like the rest of the event, is well run. Parking was not a big issue, and there was enough space to move around without feeling overcrowded. The info session was brief but informative, helping to set expectations for race day. In the words of Race Host Skip Brand, “There are five water crossings and yes, you will get wet”.
Start Line Flow
A common issue with the race start at trail running events is how quickly a field of hundreds of runners are forced to funnel down to singletrack trail. It often results in runners being slowed to all but a standstill for the first few miles until the race field spreads a bit.
No such issue at Lake Sonoma. The course runs up a steep paved road for the first 2 miles, long enough for runners to find their footing and get initial passing out of the way. I tend to think it makes for a much better experience for racers, whether you’re the one passing (free to move up the field easily) or being passed (less stress as a result of holding back faster runners). In the end, most of us experience both to some degree, but the race start flow at Lake Sonoma completely alleviates this usual hurdle.
“There are five water crossings and yes, you will get wet.” -RH Skip Brand
Weather is a mixed bag at this time of year (mid-April), but the moderate West Coast climate somewhat reduces the risk of seeing the extremes of heavy snow or dangerous heat. In 2023 race day was partly overcast and around 50F at the start, and trended sunnier and warmer as the day went on. Humidity plays a role and makes runners work a little harder to stay cool, but stream crossings offered some welcome relief over the first half of the race.
Volunteers and Spectators
While this race doesn't have the space for the largest of spectating crowds (few trail events do), the people at this event are full of good vibes. Whether we’re talking about the volunteers filling your bottles at the aid station or the participant family members that came out to watch the finish, the people that show up for Sonoma bring great energy with them.
The Lake Sonoma Marathon does a counterclockwise loop of the lake, starting and ending in the same place. The primary difference in the course for the 50 Mile racers is that they essentially do this loop twice in something like an out-and-back format. The first half of the race is deep in the trees with soft and sometimes muddy trails. The rolling hills that define this race start immediately and never really subside. Occasionally the trees open up, offering sweeping views of Lake Sonoma and the far shore you’ll run along for the second half of the race. The plant life is lush green, and almost all of the water crossings occur on this side of the lake.
There is a robust aid station (Warm Springs) at the far end of the lake. Energy is high here with great volunteers prepared to help with anything you need before you begin the trek back along the northern lake side. Warm Springs is a great place to take stock of how you’re feeling, and either problem-solve or begin to push towards a stronger second half.
The second half of the race is much more exposed that the first, and you’ll spend more time out of the trees than in them. The heat of the day had started to set in by the time runners arrived at this part of the course, but what I would consider the crux of this course, remained farther up ahead.
The biggest climb of the day arrives on an exposed dirt trail at Mile 21.5. All day long, runners cover hills no taller than about 300 vertical feet before finding relief in flatter or descending terrain. Here at Mile 21.5, runners settle in for a steep 700+ ft climb on tired legs. Given how late in the race the climb comes, a number of runners find themselves fighting calorie depletion here as well. The race is not over at the top of this climb. The remaining ~3.5 miles beyond the top of the climb are generally runnable, with mild downhill grades. If you can run this stretch, you’re liable to pick off a few other racers. If you can’t run, it’s far enough to make for an arduous trek to the finish.
Reliable course markings aren’t always a given in trail running. Nevertheless, this event is well marked with additional volunteers on course to help direct racers.
On the whole, the Lake Sonoma races are a 5-star operation. The event has all the makings of a fun adventure: scenic course, good quality trail, great organization, and tons of good energy.
Training To Compete, Training To Finish At Lake Sonoma Trail
“There were no sexy 100+ mile weeks or back-to-back threshold workouts. No 4am wake-ups or intricate race plans. Just a bit of consistency, a healthy body, and a lot of support”. - Drew Holmen, LS50 Mile Champion
Training for the Lake Sonoma races is harder than meets the eye. While the race itself occurs in mid-April with traditionally moderate West Coast conditions, the timing of the race within the year requires a lot of runners to train through cold and unpleasant winter weather. To make things even more challenging, we’re talking about a trail race, but training on trails can be next to impossible for much of the Northern Hemisphere through these months of the year, with most trails being impassable either due to excessive mud or layers of snow and ice.
For the athlete looking to be competitive at these races, there’s an opportunity hidden in there. With all the additional challenges of training through winter, many athletes will struggle to keep up the quality and consistency of training that they normally do through the summer months. Drew Holmen, a professional athlete for Nike Trail, and the winner of the 2023 LS50 Mile, later said of his training “There were no sexy 100+ mile weeks or back-to-back threshold workouts. No 4am wake-ups or intricate race plans. Just a bit of consistency, a healthy body, and a lot of support.”
Holmen’s words resonated with me. A lot of my training for LS26.2 was on a Concept 2 rowing ergometer rather than on foot, and I didn’t have as many big-mile running weeks as I’d have liked either. Despite concerns about my preparedness, I came away with 19th in the men’s marathon field.
The same goes for athletes that are just looking to cross the finish line, no matter how long it takes. Maria and Paige, two of the runners from our group, both entered the Lake Sonoma marathon having never run anything longer than a road half marathon. The jump to a trail marathon intimidated them, and yet with a bit of consistent training, they crossed the finish line hand-in-hand with smiles from ear-to-ear.
Training through the winter is hard, but if we can show up with just a bit of consistency, that finish line is absolutely in reach.
Here are the pillars that allowed all seven of us to reach our goals at the LS 26.2.
The staple of marathon training is longer runs. They offer the opportunity to harden the body and mind to the challenge of hours on our feet, not to mention the chance to dial in fueling and hydration that’ll allow us to keep moving after 5, 8, even 10 hours.
At the finish line, Altra elite athlete Travis Lavin described the Lake Sonoma races to me as “death by a thousand hills”. There’s no massive, unending climbs on this course, but hills of a couple hundred vertical feet that just keep on coming until you arrive at the finish line with over 6,000ft of vertical gain and loss.
Getting comfortable on hills is key. For those training in flatter areas, this can be done with harder, short hill intervals where a long hill isn't needed. For those of us with mountain trail access or who are looking to be competitve, seeking out climbs longer than you’ll see on race day will be an asset.
During the cold months, cross training lowers the barrier to getting in training time. It’s easier for many of us to get on a rower or go for a swim in a climate-controlled gym than it is to will ourselves out for a run on the worst weather days. Cross training, whether aerobic- or resistance-focused, helps us to stay well-rounded, stronger, and more injury-free. Those factors in combination can ultimately translate to race day performance.
Want the full training plan? Get your Lake Sonoma Trail Marathon plan here, whether your goal is to compete or simply to cross the finish line:
Intermediate/Advanced Lake Sonoma Training Plans:
Beginner Lake Sonoma Training Plans:
The LS26.2 makes for a fun and inviting event for intermediate to advanced runners, whether they have experience at trail running events or not. While the course is long and the vertical gain and loss is substantial, a combination of forgiving course cutoffs, beautiful scenery, and great event organization make this an appealing event. Get your friends together and head out to California wine country this Spring for a race weekend to remember.