Ryan Bak Crashing the Lake Sonoma 50 Party on Saturday
The 33-year-old from Bend will be making his 50-mile debut.
Saturday’s Lake Sonoma 50 is one of the most competitive early season 50-milers in the U.S., annually attracting a deep field of top athletes to the rugged off-road course 10 miles northwest of Healdsburg, Calif.
This year’s men’s race will be no different. While two of the top three finishers from 2014—reigning champion Zach Miller and third-place finisher Sage Canaday—won’t be running, last year’s runner-up, Rob Krar, will be. The 37-year-old trail ace from Flagstaff leads a talented field that also includes Alex Varner, who finished fourth at Lake Sonoma in 2014, as well as jack-of-all-trades Max King, the 2014 IAU 100K world champion who ran an Olympic Trials qualifying time of 2:17:30 at the L.A. Marathon last month. Tim Tollefson, the 2014 U.S. 50K champion who finished eighth in his 50-mile debut last December at The North Face Endurance Challenge, will also be on the starting line, as will Michael Aish, who finished right behind Tollefson at North Face and took second to Krar at the Leadville 100.
A late addition to this year’s men’s field is Ryan Bak of Bend, Ore. Bak, who along with Varner and Tollefson is a member of the Nike Trail Elite team, finished second to Patrick Smyth at last month’s Way Too Cool 50K, clocking a fast 3:10:20 finish against a talented field. The 33-year-old, who works full-time as a real estate broker, is one of the best pure runners in the field. After a brief retirement from competition in 2009 and 2010, Bak returned to racing in 2011, clocking an impressive 2:14:17 marathon debut at Cal International. His robust racing resume includes shorter distance PBs of 13:35 for 5,000m (2008) and 48:44 for 10 miles (2012). He also represented the U.S. at the world cross-country championships in 2008.
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Bak, who says he would still like to try and qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, has shifted his focus to mountain, trail and ultra running in recent years, posting some solid results at the 50K distance and below. He finished second to Tollefson at last fall’s national 50K championships in Bend, and is “excited and confident…but also scared out of my mind” heading into his first 50-mile race on Saturday.
Competitor.com caught up with Bak in Bend earlier this week to discuss Lake Sonoma, his transition to trail and ultrarunning and where he sees the competitive side of the sport heading in the coming years.
Lake Sonoma is on Saturday and you’ve managed to fly under the radar as far as top entrants go. Where does this race fit into your 2015 season?
It’s really my early-season focus race. I’m still shaping up the whole schedule with a desire to get a marathon Trials time and I’m still trying to figure out when I’m going to do that and at what distance, whether I’ll just go for the half or do a full marathon. Lake Sonoma is just one of those races where a lot of the good guys in the U.S. show up there every year and it’s a great early season race. And I don’t like to hide from competition. I race because I love to compete. Lake Sonoma is a race that I flew under the radar for because I got into it late. Part of that had to do with a sponsorship switch and there were some different focus races a previous sponsor wanted me to do. When I made the switch I got to pick my own schedule and that was great.
You kicked off your season last month at Way Too Cool, finishing a solid second to your Nike trail teammate Patrick Smyth. Way Too Cool is known as a fast course and is very runnable, which certainly suits your strengths as someone who’s run fast on the track and the roads. How did you feel about that effort and what did it tell you with Lake Sonoma on the horizon?
I feel good about how Way Too Cool went. To be completely honest it was early for me. I missed a lot of time this winter with a nagging cartilage thing in my ankle and I was only five weeks into running on a consistent basis, 5 to 8 runs a week, and had done a couple workouts. So I went into it knowing it was a longer early season race. And yes, it’s a fast, runnable course that suits my strengths, but I wasn’t expecting to run really fast. I was just hoping to go there and compete and kind of test my fitness and see where it was—and it went a lot better than I thought it would. Obviously in every race you want to win, but I’ll take a beating from Pat Smyth on a course like that when he’s fit because it suits someone like him as well. He’s a great marathoner and obviously Patrick was fit because he did darn well at the U.S. cross country championships and put a solid run in at world cross too. Conditions were good at Way Too Cool, and it’s a trail race so it’s hard to compare times, but I definitely ran faster than I thought I would going in, so I came out of it with a nice confidence boost. My fitness was better than I thought it was and I got right back to training and put in a really good week afterward. I put in a nice 4-hour run the next weekend and I’ve been trying to alternate doing a slower long run one weekend with longer runs that will have a workout mixed into them. Knock on wood, those have been going well and week after week my fitness has been boosted a little bit. I feel excited and confident heading into Lake Sonoma but also scared out of my mind at the same time.
You’re not too far removed from your 2:14 marathon PR, you’ve had some success at longer distances on the trails and you just mentioned trying to get a Trials qualifier for 2016. What kind of runner is Ryan Bak in 2015?
I’m a fast hobby jogger [he laughs]. From a running standpoint, I see myself as a trail athlete that is intrigued by shorter ultras. I mean, I won’t rule out doing something longer than a 50 miler in the future but I haven’t wrapped my mind around it yet. There’s something that’s very intriguing to me about trail races and different terrain. I’ve had enough mind-numbing days running around the track and I love just getting out and being on a trail and seeing something new. And you know, there’s such a community behind it that once you get involved in trail running it’s hard to not love it. And yes, I still have aspirations to do a few road races and try to run faster in the marathon because I think I’m capable of it, but I see myself as a trail runner first and foremost.
You’ve been in Bend going on five years now, during which time a lot of athletes have also chosen to make it their home. What’s so special about the athletic community here?
It’s an amazing athletic community and it’s the kind of place where your next door neighbor who you don’t even know is probably an Olympian of some sort. And there’s a lot of high-level athletes here but it’s very welcoming and not pretentious at all. People here are humble and they just kind of go about their business and enjoy their sports and enjoy the outdoors and it creates a really cool vibe in the community.
Looking back at your career, how has your training evolved as your racing focus and various things in your life have changed?
A lot of things have changed. Even just the role running and racing has played at different periods of my life has changed quite a bit. [Running and racing] is very much something I’m passionate about but it’s fallen down the ladder of importance in my life. But, you know, it’s still something I love to do and something I want to be competitive at and obviously the different places I’ve been and different things I’ve been doing in my life have changed quite a bit. What I do now for training feels like I’m not running or not even training compared to when I was doing really hard stuff on the track or even just a few years ago trying to do some marathons. My volume is a lot lower but I still put in some key workouts and key long runs and I think there is something to a lifetime volume of training that you’ve done. I know my body better now. I know what I need to do to get fit, to be at a certain level. And it’s always easier to get back to a point than it was to get there in the first place. Knowing that and actually realizing that it’s important to listen to your body is key, too. I think most of us who have trained in competitive environments know it’s easy to do a little bit too much. It’s easy to get a little bit over the top, get run down or push through a nagging injury that maybe just needed two days off and might have salvaged your season. But those are the things you learn when you get old and you’ve been through it many times. I mean, I’m still not the healthiest person in the world as far as how my body holds up but I do listen to it now, which is good, and that enables me to still get out there and be competitive. If I hadn’t learned that I’d be broken and not running.
Trail and ultrarunning has gotten significantly more competitive in recent years and you’re someone who is representative of that shift. As a guy who has come into the sport and had an immediate impact, where do you see trail and ultrarunning going in the next few years as more fast track and road guys get into the sport?
As the years go by I only see it getting more and more competitive—and that’s exciting. I think it’s one of those sports that once someone realizes that these races are out there, they go compete in an event, experience the atmosphere, see that it’s a really welcoming community and it’s really exciting. There are more challenges out there than just how fast you can run around the track or on the roads. Trail running isn’t necessarily about times, it’s about competing. It’s about enjoying the environment and the people around you. It’s exciting to see the sport growing and the top end of the sport getting faster. I know there’s some mixed feelings about that amongst the purists and I’ve gotten the sense from some folks in the trail community that if you ran fast on the track or ran fast on the roads that you won’t be good at longer distances on the trails. And maybe that’s the case with some people, but I think if you’re an athlete that has a propensity to train hard but can also learn things from your training and adapt your training to what your goal is, then I don’t see why fast shorter distance runners can’t be successful on the trails and in ultras.
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