Lake Sonoma 50: Old School Meets New School

AJWs TaproomFor the better part of the last 35 years, “Tropical John” Medinger has been an integral part of the national ultrarunning scene. First and foremost as a runner, John traveled the country running races in the ’80s and ’90s embracing the beauty of the sport and pontificating about it whenever he had the chance.

John pretty much invented the New Year’s “Fat Ass” run when he established the Epiphany Ultra in the late-’80s to commemorate his January birthday and from that point on he became a fixture of the northern California ultra scene directing the Quad Dipsea and the Miwok 100k and joining the Board of Trustees of the Western States 100, eventually serving a term as President. John also became notorious for his 101’st Mile Party, held every October at his house in the Oakland Hills, to honor all those in the regional ultra community who had run a 100-mile race during that year. My fondest memory from that party was walking up the driveway and following yellow ribbons from Western States, pie plates from Vermont, reflective metal discs from Hardrock, and countless other course markers John had poached from other 100s across the country and tied to trees and bushes on his property.

Fast forward to seven years ago when John and his wife, Lisa Henson, purchased UltraRunning magazine, moved to Healdsburg, California, in Sonoma County, and established a new, fledgling ultra, the Lake Sonoma 50. Even in retirement, they were not letting up!

My wife Shelly and I had the opportunity to travel to Sonoma this past weekend to run the race. We, of course, made a weekend of it, touring local wineries and breweries and catching up with old friends from far and wide. The race itself, to be honest, was dwarfed by the wonder of the entire experience. From the pre-race dinner at the local pizza place, to the low-key, old-school starting area, to the relentlessly undulating, 98% singletrack course, to the extraordinarily competitive field, to the post-race finish line party that nobody wanted to leave, John and his team have created a world-class event that is a true blend of Old School and New School:

  • Old School – You get your race number, with no timing chip, at the pre-race dinner and that’s all. You wait for your swag until you finish.
  • New School – The course is impeccably marked. Every junction, every potential wrong turn, every aid station. The markings here are, quite simply, perfect.
  • Old School – A post-race party with beer and food for everybody. No need for meal tickets or for showing your race number. Just a bunch of happy people hanging out in a random parking lot in the middle of nowhere.
  • New School – A day-after-the-race wine-tasting party complete with a tour of the wine-making facility and a tasting right out of the barrel. I never thought wine out of a pitcher could taste so good.
  • Old School – A starting line which pretty much consisted of a bunch of people standing around in a parking lot waiting for John to say, “Ready, Go!” No blaring music, no video cameras, and certainly no inflatable things.
  • New School – No cups! A truly “green” race where you fill your bottles, drink out of your recyclable cup if you need to, and put your trash in the trash can and not on the trail.
  • Old School – Luanne Park, Topher Gaylord, Hal Koerner, Kathy D’Onofrio, and Dave Mackey.
  • New School – Sage Canaday, Amy Sproston, Cameron Clayton, Cassie Scallon, and Max King.

And, in the midst of it all, along with Tropical John the Jedi Master you have Errol “The Rocket” Jones who is quite possibly the most enthusiastic ambassador this sport has ever seen.

To John and his entire team….

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Russian River - Pliny the ElderThis week’s Beer of the Week inevitably comes from Sonoma County, California. While in California, Shelly and I made the trip from Healdsburg down to Santa Rosa for some beer at Russian River Brewing Company. I, of course, had to taste the award-winning Pliny the Elder and I must admit it did not disappoint. There are few IPA’s that can balance hops and flavor while providing a creamy, heady experience that lingers long after the beer is gone. Pliny the Elder is, indeed, one such beer. Anyone who can give me one at the finish line of Western States this year gets a special prize. :)

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What other races have you seen successfully blend “new school” aspects into an “old school” ultra?
  • What new accoutrements have you enjoyed seeing some ultras add in recent years?

There are 18 comments

  1. Jason

    "No inflatable things" – Yes! Can we just get rid of these things?

    I also like when races become more "green." The amount of cups (especially when they're styrofoam) we use during a race is staggering. We can do better.

  2. Charlie M.

    I think the North Face adding buxom, friendly hostesses to their corporatized North Face series was a great idea when they initiated it a few years ago. Smile for a photo with Dean Karnazes, get your bib from a former Playboy model, go home with one thousand North Face stickers and other memorabilia, and watch the regional superstars sprinting for a chance at San Francisco in December.

    In all seriousness, all ultras should be old school in spirit. The commercialization kills camaraderie. Problem is, anything "old school" smacks of old boys' (or girls') network, and in an era of political correctness we have to go overboard the other way to have the race be considered "new school".

    More Multi-day races is where the future is heading for sure.

  3. brandon

    AJW, glad you made it to one of our finest brew pubs! Russian River is a local favorite and, if you liked Pliny the Elder, hopefully you'll be lucky enough to be around when they bring out Pliny the Younger. The Younger is an award winning triple IPA and typically has patrons willingly standing in line down the block for a half-pint. Thanks for another great article!

    1. Pete

      Pliny the younger is only available in Feb. Very hard to get and not sold outside of the brewery. With that said Pliney the elder might be the best beer ever.

  4. Jeff

    I heard a lot about Pliny the Elder but must admit I was skeptical…had one three weeks ago and it is honestly the best beer I have ever had.

    Great article BTW.

  5. Melanie Michalak

    Best race ever!! And way to capture the feeling of it in an article. Now everyone knows! Uh oh- will it sell out in minutes next year?!

  6. Tonya

    I enjoy reading your articles every Friday – so it was a highlight to see you come through No Name Aid station where I was volunteering. Good job AJW!

  7. Tom Davies

    The race atmosphere was low key, the competition top-notch. Excellent way to spend a Saturday. Can't wait until next year.

  8. John

    New Planet "Off Grid Pale Ale" out of Fort Collins, CO is gluten free. I found it for my wife, who has a gluten allergy, at BevMo. Being a picky stout drinker, I was skeptical. But it's pretty darn good.

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