Ryan Bak was yet another speedster making a 50-mile debut at the 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. He would have the best 50-mile debut of the day in placing second. In the following interview, Ryan talks about what his running background is, what brought him to race trail ultras, what his debut 50 mile looked like, and why it took him a year to join Nike Trail Elite after previously racing on the track for Nike.
For more on the race, read our 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile results article.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Ryan Bak Post-2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Ryan Bak after his second-place finish at the 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. How are you doing?
Ryan Bak: Doing great.
iRunFar: That was your first 50 miler.
Bak: It was, yeah.
iRunFar: Did it go how you expected?
Bak: So so, yeah. I feel like it went as well as it could have picking something like Lake Sonoma as the first one. Challenging course. The gain is not something I’m used to quite that much in a race. It’s more runnable trail which is right up my alley with my background.
iRunFar: Both the actual tread itself and, there are some short little dingers, but it’s a lot of runnable hill.
Bak: Yeah, yeah.
iRunFar: Unlike, say, when you go to Matterhorn [Ultraks] or something.
Bak: Yeah, oh yeah, very different.
iRunFar: So it was a running race.
iRunFar: Jim Walmsley went off the front early on, and you were in there with [Alex] Varner and Mike Aish. So it’s a runner’s race right there and you’re running together. Are you working together at that point or just settling in together?
Bak: We kind of were. We just kind of settled in. I had picked Alex as a guy to key off of because I knew coming in he was fit. I’d heard some rumors that he was the guy to beat.
iRunFar: Were you talking to Dylan [Bowman]?
Bak: And so, I figured he knows what he’s doing. He’s run a few of these things before. He’s still new to the ultra world, but he’s done more long races than I have.
iRunFar: You guys come from a similar background.
Bak: Similar background and he’s run Lake Sonoma last year with a good result, so I figured why not kind of key off him, see what he’s doing, try to learn something while I’m out here? Mike just kind of tagged along with us and we had a nice group of three for… I don’t know… we linked up right when we got off the road. That was when Jim took off and did his own thing. He was never that far up, but he was just out of sight.
iRunFar: He was being really aggressive on the descents, right?
Bak: Yeah, he was. He was really getting after the descents, and we were being more even keel on both the ups and downs. Yeah, our group of three was together until the turnaround basically. I think Alex spent a little more time at that aid station. Mike and I took off and maybe it was a mile later when Alex caught back up with us. Then that’s where things started to break up. Alex and I split from Mike for a little bit, and I hit a rough patch maybe around 28 miles which I wasn’t really expecting to hit at that point in the race. I think I’m learning things with nutrition. Hopping in a race, you can only learn from experience. You can do stuff in training runs, but I didn’t do any 50-mile training runs or at that effort, so it changes things. I figured it’s going to be warmer than I’m used to. I wanted to take in more fluid, so my plan was really not do a whole lot the first hour. At an hour I was going to start taking a sip off my gel flask every 20 minutes with a little bit of water as needed in between. I followed that plan and I just hit a point where my stomach felt terrible. I think I had too much in there. That’s my guess at this point. I need to go back and figure things out. I hit a point where my legs felt great and still had good spring in them. I felt like I could keep going at the pace we were going for awhile, but I felt like… Do I need to pull off the trail and puke? Do I need to go to the bathroom? I don’t know. You just hit that point where all the blood is going to my stomach instead of where it should be going. I slowed down quite a bit and stopped taking anything for about 45 minutes until it turned around. At that point, I got back onto somewhat of the plan of what I was doing with fluids and gel but a little bit less. Instead of 20 minutes, it was more like 30-plus minutes.
iRunFar: You sort of figured it out, but at this point Varner was…?
Bak: Yeah, Varner was gone. It was a pretty short period where he pulled away quite a bit. Honestly, within a couple miles he had three or four minutes, and then during this stretch where I was struggling he probably opened up close to 10 minutes. By the time I was in Warm Springs at 38 miles, at that point I was just starting to feel good again. I said, Okay, well just try to hold on to second. You never know because 12 miles is still a long way, but…
iRunFar: It’s 12 miles you’ve never done before.
Bak: Yeah, but it was really one of those unless Varner had an epic bonk, I wasn’t going to catch him. He looked great out there.
iRunFar: What about the people behind you? Were you thinking about that?
Bak: I was thinking about that. That was kind of the thing. I was thinking that there’s got to be some guys close. The last 12 miles, I kept thinking and looking behind me going, Where’s Krar? He’s gotta’ be coming somewhere. I didn’t realize he had dropped.
iRunFar: But that happened last year. He closes strong historically.
Bak: Exactly. He always finishes races strong. Those climbs in the last 12 miles which really aren’t big—they’re the small climbs in the race—but at that point you’ve gone up and down and up and down and up and down so many times that things are just tired.
iRunFar: There were a lot of guys on the verge of cramping. Were you ever having a twinge here and a twinge there?
Bak: I had a couple twinges, but they were the “legs are tired, didn’t lift high enough, kick a big rock” and then you get that two-step stumble and you’re trying to catch yourself. “Whoa, there’s the hamstring. That’s a little tight.”
iRunFar: But you weren’t just climbing a hill seizing up?
Bak: No, I felt good during those points. I had two stumbles like that where both times I had to take a two-minute easy period just to make sure something didn’t cramp up. Oh, maybe I should take one more salt tab just to be safe.
iRunFar: Were there any points either that you thought you weren’t going to finish or that the wheels were totally going to come off?
Bak: I never felt like the wheels were going to come off, but during that bad stretch from 28 to 36 miles, I had a lot of negative thoughts in my mind. It was like, Oh, my wife’s out here with our 15-month-old son and she’s pregnant and she’s running around to these aid stations crewing… I’ve got to finish this thing. Luckily, things turned around.
iRunFar: Have you sworn this distance off yet?
Bak: No, no. I’ll see how I feel in the next couple of days. No, I enjoyed myself out there. There were definitely points during the race today where I was like, I like 50 miles. There were points where I was like, I don’t know about this. What did I get myself into? I think it’s just the nature of this course. It’s difficult because it is so runnable and you can go fairly quick on it. That’s a long way to be pushing kind of hard with that kind of vert.
iRunFar: So you got a ticket to Western States. Are you thinking about it? Is it a definite no or a definite maybe?
Bak: It’s not a definite anything. It’s a 95% no mostly because this was a big jump for me to run 50 miles. Then to think or to turnaround in not too long and do a 100… who knows what could happen?
iRunFar: You did follow Varner today on the trail…
Bak: I know and he did it last year, exactly. This was his first 50 mile and he hopped in and did it. I mean, that’s why it’s still… I’m thinking about it. Tonight Max [King] was trying to convince me to do it.
iRunFar: Really? Max was trying to convince you to do a 100? He just doesn’t want to race you at 50 miles I think. You did break his 10-mile course record at Horse Butte.
Bak: I will give Max credit that when he ran his fast time on the course, he was in jean shorts, cowboy hat, big buckle. I was in real running clothes.
iRunFar: Oh, in the 10 mile. Wow. I can actually see Max doing that.
Bak: I think we’re going to throw down there next year. He missed it this year, and I beat him there last year, but he was trying to take it easy because he was racing Lake Sonoma.
iRunFar: So aside from Western States, do you have anything on your schedule knowing you might have to modify it if you change your mind?
Bak: Honestly right now my schedule is kind of open. There are a lot of things on paper that I’m thinking about. Actually after how that 10 miler went last weekend, I went into it with the goal of doing a nice tempo workout—last real workout before this race. I didn’t want to put a full race effort out there. No sense in racing hard seven days before my first 50 mile. It went so much better than I thought it was going to go. The effort felt really good. I think I might find a half marathon in the next month or so.
iRunFar: On the roads?
Bak: Yeah, on the roads, and try to get an [Olympic] Trials qualifier.
iRunFar: Which is how fast?
iRunFar: Well, you did just run a 53-minute 10 mile on the trails.
Bak: It’s totally different. It’s hard to compare. That’s more my background—shorter, faster stuff.
iRunFar: It’s the perfect transition. When did you get into running and what led you to here?
Bak: I started running late in high school—junior year indoor-track season. I started out running the 55-meter dash for two meets. I was okay, but somehow I got thrown into the anchor leg of a sprint medley relay which ends with an 800. I apparently ran a lot faster than the coaches expected. “Okay, you’re an 800-meter runner.” So things changed, and it was what it was. I had a decent high-school career in a year-and-a-half in a small state (Connecticut). Then I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, which is a Division III school. I wasn’t quite sure I was going to pursue running in college, so it wasn’t so much of a factor in my school choice. I ran there for four years (cross country and track) and slowly moved up in distance. I was mostly a 1500-meter runner in college—I ran some 5k’s, I ran cross country—with some success. I think I won three national titles in D-III.
iRunFar: In the 1,500?
Bak: One in the 1,500, one in cross country my senior year, and one at 5k my senior year. Then I got out of school and was kind of pursuing the track at 5k mostly and kind of bouncing around different places. I was in Monterey for three years with a group out there. I ended up Gunnison, Colorado, for a little bit. It was comforting running with Mike Aish today because Mike and I go way back and know each other really well. We’ve run so much together. It felt like we were out on an old training run.
Bak: Then I raced on the track for about six years post-collegiately and kind of trying to do it for a living scraping by. There’s not a whole lot of money in that obviously. It was fun. It was really four years ago, moving to Bend, that I got back into running after a couple years of not running. Max and I used to train together with Oregon Track Club in Eugene when we both ran for Nike. I started linking up with Max for a few runs and the next thing you know he’s got me running on the trails. I love it. I’ve always trained on the trails, and I didn’t even realize there were trail races. I didn’t know anything about ultrarunning. It was just… I was focused on the track. That was all I knew about. This is a whole new world to me. I love the community around it. I love the adventure of these races. I like the idea of competing and time doesn’t mean a whole lot. That’s refreshing to me.
iRunFar: You previously ran for Nike during your track days, and it’s funny because I didn’t know that, but when we sort of heard rumors and rumblings about a Nike trail team forming I’m like, Ryan Bak should be on that team. You were sort of messing around with the shorter trail stuff then.
Bak: Yeah, I was doing a little bit. I got a phone call from Pat and Ben who handles the track athletes and who has helped Pat get the Nike Trail Team set up, and at the time I was working with Scott through Scott McCoubrey and there just wasn’t an opportunity there. They treated me really well. So I didn’t join the Nike Trail Elite right way, but there was definitely a reward in coming back to a company who treated me really well in the past.
iRunFar: Congratulations on a great race here in Lake Sonoma and we look forward to seeing you out on the trails later.
Bak: Thank you very much, Bryon.