Harrison conquers field, terrain at California 50-mile run

By Jeff Nations

Emily Harrison’s moment of doubt came somewhere just past the midpoint of the Lake Sonoma 50.

Harrison, a 28-year-old resident of Flagstaff, Ariz., and former Warren County High School and University of Virginia standout runner, had crossed the halfway mark of the 50-mile ultra-distance trail race clipping off a fantastic pace — faster than expected, by a lot. Too fast, maybe?

The thought crept into Harrison’s mind as she faced a particularly difficult stretch of climbing during the annual trail race through the heart of northern California’s wine country.

“I came through halfway feeling good, but I still had a long way to go,” Harrison said during a phone interview on Wednesday. “Somewhere between the 26- and 30-mile mark, I had a rough patch during the climbing. For whatever reason, my energy was just really low. I just had to focus on leaning forward and getting through it.”

Harrison dealt with that inevitable tough spell soon enough, and maintained her considerable lead in the women’s race to cross the finish line to win with a blazingly-fast time of 7 hours, 26 minutes, 15 seconds to break the former course record by more than 21 minutes.

“It was a little bit of a surprise,” Harrison said of breaking the course record. “It was definitely in the goal mix, but mainly I was trying to come away with a win and being competitive was the first goal.”

It was Harrison’s first attempt at the Lake Sonoma 50, held on April 12 in Healdsburg, Calif. Her knowledge of the course was minimal, other than what she found online and through watching videos on YouTube — an 86 percent single-track trail, 9 percent dirt fire roads with the first 2.4 miles run on pavement. Harrison expected climbs, and got them — the Lake Sonoma course featured elevation gains of about 10,500 feet over the course of the race, with an equal amount of loss.

The competition promised to be first-rate as well, with some of the best ultra-distance runners in the country signed up to race in the Montrail Ultra Cup series event, with the top three men and women earning automatic spots in June’s Western States 100.

The women’s race did feature a few late dropouts, but Harrison still had serious rivals to contend with at Lake Sonoma. Second-place finisher Stephanie Howe of Bend, Ore., and third-place finisher Kaci Lickteig of Omaha, Neb., also broke the course record during the race. Harrison still beat her closest rival, Howe, by more than seven minutes.

Racing conditions can always vary, and Harrison said the Lake Sonoma field caught a break on race day. Expecting the customary morning fog to give way to sunshine early, Harrison said the cloud cover stayed around a bit longer than usual and allowed her to nearly reach the wooded section of the race before departing. That probably helped Harrison’s pace, which she was surprised to see was about 30 minutes faster than anticipated at about the 25-mile mark.

“I had a rough idea of what would be a strong race,” said Harrison, who kept track of her distance on a GPS mileage tracker all day. “I was a little bit surprised. It was a different style course than I’d run on before. In this race, you’re always climbing or descending.”

It was a marked contrast to Harrison’s last race, when she won the USATF 50k Road Championship on March 2 at Caumsett State Park in Huntington, N.Y. The distance was shorter, for one thing, while the 5-kilometer course was mostly flat and fully paved — a good thing, considering the snow on the ground. Harrison won that race as well, with a dazzling time of 3:15.00 that ranks as the second-fastest 50k ever run by a North American woman and just 69 seconds off the all-time record.

Harrison had just about six weeks to get ready for the distance challenge presented by the Lake Sonoma race, but she’d proven to be easily adaptable to the longer races. Harrison had an amazing debut as an ultra-runner during the 2012 JFK 50 Mile race in Maryland, finishing second. She followed up with a course-record finish in the Moab’s Red Hot 55k and then took on the challenge of the Western States 100 during the heat of summer. She finished seventh there, and is looking forward to another shot at it in June.

“The first goal, obviously, is to improve on my finish from last year,” Harrison said. “I’d like to improve on that, but a lot of it will depend on my training cycle so that I’m ready to race on race day.”

Beyond the Western States, Harrison is targeting August’s TransRockies Run, a six-day stage trail race where she’d run as part of a team. She has an invitation to run in the 50k World Trophy Final in Doha, Qatar, on Oct. 31, and would like to return to run in November’s JFK 50 Mile in Boonsboro, Md., after winning that race last November.

Even further out, Harrison is targeting a qualifying time to run once again in the U.S. Marathon Trials to compete for a spot on the national team for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The U.S. Marathon Trials in Los Angeles are scheduled for Feb. 13, 2016 — Harrison’s birthday.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>