by Larry Carroll
As David Bowie once famously sang: “Changes are taking the pace I’m going through.” This year, participants in the Lake Sonoma 50 can be forgiven if that song is stuck in their heads as they set their own pace.
An iconic endurance race for more than a decade, the highly competitive Sonoma 50 has made a name for itself circumnavigating the gorgeous hiking trails on the Warm Springs arm of Lake Sonoma. This year, however, the race begins its second decade with a new race director — and a headlining cast of female athletes certain to put on a great show.
“It’s a great run — hard, but not stupid-hard — scenic, rugged, remote, and almost all single-track that with its continual ups, downs, twists, and turns wears you down,” outgoing director John Medinger recently told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat ( Lottery opens for insanely difficult Lake Sonoma 50 race ) upon stepping down to make way for Skip Brand to take over the position. “You give it your all for a really long time, and then you celebrate your finish with your friends.”
Brand, an ultrarunner and the owner of Healdsburg Running Company, is taking over the Sonoma 50 because the 67-year-old Medinger — the founder of Ultrarunning magazine who estimates he has run more than 110,000 miles in his life — is dialing back his commitments following 37 years devoted to the endurance running community.
Those who closely follow the Sonoma 50 are accustomed to a registration of only 400 runners, in a competitive race that rewards the top two men and women racers with guaranteed entry into the Western States Endurance run. They are also used to a race that embraces the spirit of giving — indeed, more than $200,000 have been given to charity by the race since it began. What they may not be prepared for, however, is the amount of drama heading into this year’s installment on April 13.
In 2018, the 10th installment of the race saw Jim Walmsley not only breaking his own course record, but doing it by so much that he was the first participant to ever finish in less than 6 hours. Walmsley took off and ran solo for much of the race, gaining incremental time on his previous course record from miles 12 through 38. Over on the women’s side, Keely Henninger similarly dominated from the beginning, nearly also setting the record but instead settling for the 2nd fastest women’s finish ever.
With that backstory in place, the 2019 Sonoma 50 takes center stage with a women’s field that is particularly stacked. In addition to Henninger’s returning attempt to break that record, registrants include such top names as Taylor Nowlin (winner of the Under Armour Copper Mountain 50k), Camelia Mayfield (winner of the Peterson Ridge Rumble 20 mile, Under Armour Mt. Bachelor 50k and Waldo 100k) and Abby Mitchell (winner of the Silverton Alpine 50k and the Austin Rattler 66k). As if those names aren’t enough, the Sonoma 50 will also feature such formidable athletes as Nicole Buurma, Kami Semick, Kelly Wolf and Julia Stamps.
Much like past installments, the 2019 Sonoma 50 will consist of 25 miles running into the hillside surrounding Lake Sonoma, then 25 back over the mostly single-track terrain. Views should be stunning, the wildflowers are already in abundance, and the race will once again pride itself on the unusual tradition of starting all the runners together.
If there are any changes to be made by Brand in his first year at the helm, he’s keeping them close to the vest. One goal he has already revealed, however, is to open future installments of the Sonoma 50 to include more local runners.
“We have our fair share of endurance athletes here in Sonoma County,” he recently told the Press Democrat. “There’s no reason why we can’t have a larger number of local people give it a go.”