top of page
  • coachnickhilton

Lake Sonoma 50 Miler Recap

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

I don't write too often anymore, and it bums me out a bit. I like to write, I like to spill my thoughts onto a page and see what happens. Usually it's a jumbled mess, where I try to be more of a poet than I am. There are usually no profound messages in my words, and they're not flowery or artistic. They're just thoughts that are often confusing and make very little sense. As a writer, I tend to not be concise or to the point, and like to meander my way through a few paragraphs before getting down to what I'm actually thinking. If you're wondering what this has to do with a recap about the Lake Sonoma 50 miler, I don't blame you. This recap is more about organizing and getting my thoughts out about this experience, and less about providing a blow-for-blow recap of this race. So if that doesn't interest you, I'd exit this write up now.

My training for this race felt like my writing. It was all over the place, and didn't have any consistency - See photo of my Strava progress from my last 12 weeks. It looks more like a roller coaster than the smooth progression and taper that I would prefer. There are several reasons for this. Crises of summer weather, motivation, vacation, etc. all played a part in the inconsistency. Excuses on excuses on excuses. Regardless of my excuses, and lack of race specific fitness, I was determined to line up for and finish this 50 mile race.

My Ultra-marathon resume is a little spotty. It's certainly thin, and these endeavors haven't always been particularly successful. Blow-ups and DNF's are the theme so far, with stomach issues and my tendency to be a little enthusiastic in the early miles being the primary culprits. For Lake Sonoma, I was determined to change that trend, regardless of my fitness and preparedness.

I should say at this point that I have been intimidated by any distance over 50k for a long time. 50k seems doable because it's not really all that farther than a marathon, and I've done a bunch of those. 50 miles, 100k, 100 miles all just seem SO LONG. It's an insane distance to think about covering in one day, not to mention try to race. Coming to terms with and crashing and burning at these distances has forced me to change my mindset and approach for these events. I can't just approach a long ultra like I would a marathon or half. Hard lessons have to be learned in order to promote necessary change.

I was determined NOT to race the Lake Sonoma 50 miler, but to run it. This race was not going to be a race against the competition, it was going to be a battle with myself. From the gun, it was about controlling all of my controllables: effort, nutrition, thought processes, pace, etc. If I could execute and control those things, then I could have a successful day at Lake Sonoma. And a successful day meant crossing that finish line. A high place would be a nice bonus, but the only way I would achieve that would be by milking everything out of myself, which meant that my primary focus had to be me, and not on racing my competition.

So race day arrives. Temperatures start at an incredibly comfortable 55 degrees, and are expected to climb to a decidedly uncomfortable 90+ degrees. Now, I train in Phoenix, Arizona, so on the surface, this should be fine. Every day in the summer when I run, it is at least 90 degrees; and since I haven't been following the customary Phoenix protocol of running before 6 AM, I'm confident that I'm heat adapted. But, running 8 easy miles in 95 degrees is very different from hitting mile 38 at the same time that the temperatures are peaking. I digress.

I arrive to the start line with my posse, pick up my bib, and go through the typical pre-race ablutions (i.e. a lengthy trip to the port-o-potties). I finish off my morning 20 oz. electrolyte drink, eat a final Skratch bar to top off my glycogen stores, lace up my Hoka One One EVO Speedgoats, and more or less just hang out until race time. I'm not a big believer in a huge warm up before an ultra. Just some light stretching, a little Theragunning of my major muscle groups, and some walking around. I'll have plenty of time to get warmed up during the race, and I want to make sure I keep my powder (AKA my glycogen stores) dry. With a few minutes to go until the start, I saunter on over there and stand with the other runners getting ready to embark.

When the race starts, I take particular care to not go with the leaders, as to avoid any

temptation to go out faster than I wanted to. So I let them go, and settled in to what felt like a very reasonable and maintainable clip. The first 10 miles of the race went by without much of an issue. It was beautifully cool (50 degrees), with stunning scenery and smooth trails. The terrain itself was as the race described it, relentless, and my quads were starting to notice that pretty early on. They stabilized though, and I felt like I was in a good rhythm. I was definitely in no mans land for the early portions of this race, but that was OK, as I was just able to focus on myself.

The biggest goal of this race, outside of finishing, was to eat enough and nail the nutritional aspect. I'm not usually one for solid foods during a training run or race, but I made a point of eating some solid foods at almost every aid to supplement the gels and fluids that I was drinking. This sometimes allows for some comical situations, such as trying to eat a Skratch Crispy Rice Bar while trying to run up a steep uphill section of the course. It took almost choking myself to realize that I might as well walk this rather than die by rice crispy asphyxiation. Seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes your brain isn't operating as it should three hours into a race. Regardless of near asphyxiation, the nutrition aspect of this race went way better than any other ultra I've ever run.

That's not to say that there wasn't anything that went wrong or could've gone better. Ultras sometimes require you to change the way you think about time and distance. In general, when I think about running seven miles, I think the time required would be between 45 and 60 minutes. In an ultra, that's not necessarily the case. So when approaching the second half of the race, I did not necessarily change my mindset appropriately.

I finished the last big climb of the race and jogged into the Madrone Aid Station at about mile 31 and met my crew, I was feeling GREAT. I had been really controlled over the first 30, and felt like I had a lot of run left in my legs. I was then told that there were a few runners not more than 3-5 minutes ahead of me. I fueled up, drank a ton, filled my bottle, restocked food, and went on the chase of the aforementioned runners. Now, up to this point, I had been carrying one handheld bottle and a bunch of gels and food in my pocket. And, up to this point, this has been enough. Up to this point, it also hasn't been 95 degrees. I charge down the trail from Madrone, catch four people and am feeling fantastic. I'm averaging about 9' pace and drinking like a fish.

The realization that I'm about to run out of fluid hits with about 3 miles to go until the aid. So I stop drinking, and begin to suffer. I go from running 9's, to running 13's and start to get VERY thirsty. What should be 27' to the aid station takes closer to 50'. The heat feels more intense, and my vision starts to go a little blurry on the edges. Maximum focus is required to keep moving forward. This is when the race starts to get REALLY hard. Those last few miles felt like a microcosm of the entire race, and maybe of my ultra experience in general. I went from feeling aggressive, strong, and positive, to the complete opposite in a very short period of time. The whole race just flipped on it's head.

During that period of time, I was not thinking good thoughts. I won't expound here on the things that were going through my mind, but there were enough F-bombs to fill a full Scorsese film, maybe two. This is where I pulled out the Nick Arciniaga special, and started counting my steps. Count to 100, then start over. Just focus on getting the next 100 steps in. Jog a bit when I can, walk the ups, and count to 100. The thought that my crew was going to be at the next aid with a big bucket of ice water and a camp chair was what pulled my sorry ass through that section. For what it's worth, I used to think the Arciniaga step-counting strategy was near sociopathic behavior, but have since adopted the tactic in several races to much success. What this says about me, I'm not quite sure, but again, I digress.

I got to the aid in one piece and decided to sit for a few minutes. In previous ultra endeavors, this would've been when I pulled the plug. Credit to my crew for cooling me down, fueling me up, and being so ebullient that I could flip my mindset. No drop outs for me, NOT this time. After a few minutes, and after losing a few places, I hauled my ass up, drank some more coke, loaded up my bottle and started moving. And that's what I did all the way to the finish. Just kept moving.

I stopped briefly at the last aid and sat for a bit and chugged a can of ginger ale, but I didn't stay long and I just kept moving. It was really hot at this point, and any exposed section just felt like an oven, but roasted chicken or not, I kept moving. One foot in front of the other, count to 100, start over, hike the up, jog the down, one foot in front of the other, count to 100, etc. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I regained a few places, kept my head down, kept counting, and kept moving. Two miles to go, keep counting, 1 mile to go, keep counting, wow that section was really hot, 98,99,100, keep counting. Soon enough I rounded a corner and could see the finish line. I started actually running (not jogging) again for the first time in about 15 miles. I saw my crew jumping up and down, hurdled a log, and ambled across that finish line. 50 miles in the bag.

Lots of emotions whirled through my head at this point. Thrilled that I finished the damn thing, grateful to be one piece, grateful for my crew, emotional at the fact that I didn't drop out and just-done-finished the damn thing. A happy moment.

If you're still hanging in there and reading this recap, good for you, because I'm barely hanging in there at this point. I feel really satisfied with my 50 mile experience, it was everything that I wanted it to be. Hard, emotional, fun, beautiful, gutting, brutal, and so so many other things. That's what I think an ultra should be. It's different from other races, and the experience stands as entirely unique, but that's what makes it worth it and nearly addicting. I'm so grateful for being able to complete the event, grateful for the incredible volunteers on the course, and so grateful to my wife Sarah and friend Jason (who ran the 100k the next day) for being my support team, crew, hype team, and so many other things during that race. The experience was that much more fulfilling for having them along for the ride.

The next day Sarah and I crewed for Jason and it was just as exciting and emotional as the race itself. Watching athletes push and suffer in insane heat during the 100k, and seeing them put their heads down and get it done, just gets you pumped up and wanting to feel the whole experience again. There really aren't enough words for what it's like to be at an event like that. People have a tremendous ability to suffer, persevere, and push themselves, and it's on display at events like Lake Sonoma. The entire range of emotions is experienced by athletes and crew, and you're reminded how cool our sport and community is.

During my race, I had convinced myself that I would never do a long ultra again, the next day I convinced myself that I couldn't wait to do my next one.

291 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page