This winter I have logged many more miles than any since moving to the snowy Sierra. Training for a spring race up here is a challenge in my opinion, but I had chosen the American River 50 as my first 50 mile race. The race starts in Sacramento and, as the name indicates, follows the American River 50 miles to Auburn. This year’s race was Saturday April 1st, an auspicious date to say the least.
The adventure officially began when my husband Andrew and I set off from Truckee at 3:00 on Friday afternoon. Our intended destinations: race check-in and the pre-race pasta dinner. As we headed down the hill, light snow quickly turned to pouring rain, and “weather worry” began in earnest. My single previous race in Sacramento had been CIM several years ago, where Charlie and I spent a depressingly slow day running through the pouring rain. It was not an experience I looked forward to reliving, especially because this would be a much longer day. Since Charlie was flying in from Seattle to be my pacer, I was pretty sure it would be the end of our friendship if this race turned out to be remotely similar to that experience.
The pasta dinner was your typical affair, with some pre-race advice and raffle prizes. The speaker for the evening was Dean Karnazes. Having read his book, I figured I already knew all the stories, but he turned out to be an entertaining speaker and all in all it was a fun evening. Next on the list was hotel check-in and picking Charlie up from the airport.
I had spent hours that week getting gear ready for my crew (Andrew and Charlie) and myself. It was my first 50 miler and I was nervous. After twisting my ankle 3 ½ weeks earlier, my training hadn’t gone exactly as planned (I was working with the “extra long taper” theory.) I figured I had to do everything possible to make sure things within my power went right. Thus I had spent most evenings in the last two weeks at yoga class doing some deep stretching. I had loaded my favorite tunes (Hot Buttered Rum String Band) into my new ipod shuffle. My toenails had been clipped, my calluses filed (but not too much.) I made a stack of PB&J sandwiches, mixed up the GU2O, and instructed my husband what to have at which aid stations. I was ready!
After a restless night dreaming about missing the start of the race, (does anyone ever dream about anything else the night before a race??) the alarm went off at 4:45. I made coffee and ate my usual bagel and cream cheese, with the addition of a banana and an espresso love GU. It felt almost leisurely for race morning since our hotel was only 3 minutes from the starting line, and I really didn’t see the need to get there more than 10 minutes before the start. It’s not like I had to warm up, stretch and do strides before the gun went off. (Sometimes I love the ultra mindset!)
Feeling good early in the race.
The start was beautiful, and the rain had given way to partly cloudy skies at sunrise. I didn’t even really hear the gun, (was there a gun?) but I moved along with the rest of the crowd as people began walking, and slowly running. I was all smiles as I moved down the bike path, “Jessica” (covered by New Monsoon) slipping bright and rhythmic through my earbuds. The adventure I had been preparing for was beginning!
With a few holes in my training regimen, I was nervous enough to start very conservatively. I ran slow and tried to just relax and enjoy the race and the scenery. I took my first planned walking break at 30 minutes. (I planned to do a 30/3 run/walk schedule for the bike path portion of the course.) It was like torture to stop and walk because I felt so good, and I have a hard time watching people pass me by while I walk. Everything I’d read and been told about ultras rang loud in my ears though, and I tried to remind myself that walking was smart. I kept up the schedule, and still the first two aid stations came quickly. The race already seemed to be speeding by.
I did my best to stay on the dirt shoulder of the bike path, knowing that my body much preferred the softer surfaces. People had warned me that the first part of the course could be fairly mind numbing, with long miles on the flat pavement and a lack of scenery. I thought they were all wrong! There were beautiful trees with purple flowers bursting out all over them, and everything was so green. It was a refreshing change from the snowy scenery at home. There were a lot of other runners out on the path as well, and most of them offered cheers and encouragement as they ran the other way.
One thing that I think really helped my race was breaking up the distance in my mind. I know from past experience that big goals can be so overwhelming that the sheer enormity of the task can cause you to give up unnecessarily. I had several ways that I broke up the race. My walking breaks were one obvious way of looking at things. If I thought to myself, “8 more hours of running” I probably would have cried. But thinking, “only 15 minutes until my next walking break” was a much less intimidating thought. Another set of smaller goals was the aid stations. Not only was there the reward of treats and goodies, but also the promise of seeing Andrew and Charlie cheering madly and shoving food at me. Sometimes the aid stations seemed far apart, but sometimes they seemed so close together I was surprised to be there. Finally, a friend asked me before the race how I could run 50 miles. My instinctive response was, “Well, I know I can run 20 without much trouble, so I’m just going to do that, do it again, and then go for a 10 mile run, and that doesn’t really sound so bad.” He laughed of course, but it makes sense to me.
Somewhere between the Nimbus Dam Overlook (mile 19) and Beals Point (mile 27.5) I started to hit some of the muddy trails. I had asked Andrew to bring my gaiters to Granite Bay (mile 31.5) because I had been told that’s where the trails start, and I was beginning to wonder if I had been misinformed. I made an effort to keep my feet dry and avoid slipping in the mud, as did most of the other runners. It was a fun challenge, and it kept my mind on something besides the increasing tightness in my hips and hamstrings.
At Granite Bay Charlie joined me to run the last 20 miles. I abandoned my trusty ipod for the lure of actual conversation and we headed off down the trail directly into a gigantic mud puddle, a small omen of what was to come. Of all the parts of my racing plan, having Charlie as my pacer was the smartest move and provided me with the biggest benefits. When choosing a pacer for a race, I highly recommend someone you are comfortable running with, and who is a good friend you have not seen in a long time. It felt just like old times to me, as we made our way down the trail, dodging rocks, mud and poison oak, all the while keeping up a stream of conversation that brought us each up to date on the other’s life. I had a few concerns that Charlie would have a terrible time and go home covered in poison oak rashes, never speaking to me again. I have the fortune to be immune to poison oak so I tend to run through it with a reckless fervor if it means avoiding puddles. My fears were mostly assuaged when at one point, while doing the moonwalk through the mud up a small hill, Charlie declared “There is nowhere else I’d rather be right now!” Perhaps this statement was merely an attempt to stem the tide of giggles pouring from my lips as I waded through what I termed “diarrhea mud” and tried not to fall onto the runner behind me. Nonetheless, I was in total agreement with Charlie. It was a blast!
My sprained ankle flared up between miles 35 and 40, and it had me a little worried. Some well timed Advil from Andrew came at Rattlesnake Bar (mile 40) and it seemed to do the trick. The sun began to peek out from the clouds, and the scenery along the river was spectacular. The last 10 miles was the one section of the course that I had run before, and I was starting to feel the lure of the finish line. Somehow I felt amazing, and Charlie and I picked up the pace. We abandoned the whole “walking on the uphills” thing, and started passing other runners like crazy. Every time I saw a familiar landmark I whooped with joy, declaring “we’re getting close!” Charlie actually started to whimper slightly that she was sad that it was almost over. I just laughed. I wasn’t really worried about that.
The hill up to Last Gasp was pretty intimidating, and we managed to run some of it, interspersed with some sections of walking. It was yet another time to break a big goal into smaller goals. At the Last Gasp aid station we both sucked down some of the best Coca Cola I have ever tasted, and headed up the hill. We ran the entire hill while vehemently cursing the pavement, and soon the finish line at the Overlook came into view. There was a short, but brutally steep hill just before coming into the finish area. After almost 50 miles I would have really expected to just drag myself across the line, but instead Charlie and I thought it would be a good idea to sprint up the hill. I was just so excited to be there I couldn’t help myself, and after all, the hard part was really over. I’d been hoping for a 10 hour finish, and I crossed the line in 9:28.
After the race Charlie and I went straight to the hose to wash off the mud and poison oak. I inspected a startling large blister on my big toe, and laughed with other finishers about the course conditions. Looking around, everyone was in good spirits, and no one seemed collapsed in pain. I inhaled a beer and hotdog, and basked in the post race glow of finishing my first 50 miler.
Washing off the mud and poison oak.
My highlights of the race were running with Charlie, the beautiful scenery, having music, seeing my crew at every checkpoint, and of course the aid stations and friendly volunteers. I felt that there was an excess of sugary items at the aid stations, but I guess it’s nice to have a variety, as you never know what someone’s stomach is going to find inviting. Personally I was a fan of the chicken soup, (no noodles) potatoes with salt, pb&j sandwiches, and fruit. I definitely enjoy eating while running!
That night at home I was unpacking the extra food. Andrew told me how impressed he was that I was still functioning and not just passed out on the couch. I gave him a knowing look and laughed. “Now that I had a good experience at this race, you’re in big trouble, crew captain!” He joined my laughter and just shook his head. Now my thoughts are occupied with choosing the next race.
Charlie and I enjoy a post race hotdog. Yum!
For another perspective on the race and some great photos, check out Scott Dunlap's blog!