Wednesday, April 13, 2011

American River 50 2011

The American River 50 starts near downtown Sacramento and follows the American River Parkway on a combination of bike path and singletrack trail. This year, approximately 800 runners gathered in the dark, 30 degree morning to make their way up to Auburn. The day was filled with friendly faces, delicious food, beautiful trails, perfect weather, awesome volunteers, and even some fast times. In short: It was everything you could want out of a 50 mile day.

Runners gather at the start.

With so many runners in the race, both the bus ride and standing around at the start had been a chance to say hello and chat with friends. As we headed off down the trail, I felt relaxed but excited to see how my day would play out. I was familiar with the course, having raced here twice before, but this would be my first time here as an experienced ultrarunner with solid training.

With Catherine, staying warm before the start.

The sun rose over the misty meadows, and even with so many runners out there, the morning felt peaceful and quiet. Wild turkeys gossiped in the grass, and the water rushed along in the river below. I chatted pleasantly with a few runners, and simply focused on being relaxed.

I wanted to run well at this race, but I am aware that I have a tendency to start too fast when I have big expectations. The challenging part about this course though, is that all the fast miles are in the first half, where the trail is flat. Thus, the runner walks a fine line between banking a little time on the easy miles, and going out too fast, trashing her legs on the pavement and having nothing left for the trails. I planned to do my best to walk that line.

At mile five I saw that I was running 9 minute pace. Perfect. At mile 10, the same. Knowing the bike path portion was nearly half over, I decided this was where I was allowed to run a bit faster. I had started with a reasonable pace, and now it was time to use these fast miles to my advantage.

Smart runners stay on the dirt shoulder!

I ran along with my friend John from Reno, and another runner, Mike. John, who would normally be ahead of me, was struggling with an injury, so I was a little concerned for him. Mike turned out to be one of those runners who has been running all the local NorCal ultras for years. I love running with these guys because they always have great stories! I could tell I was still relaxed in spite of the increased pace because I was jabbering away so constantly that I missed a turn. Mike and John had to yell at me numerous times before I realized I was going the wrong way. Whoops! Clearly, I should not be in the lead of our little group.

John and Mike keep me company down the trail.

This picture is blurry because I am talking so fast!

By the time we approached Negro Bar at mile 22 I wanted to shed my long sleeved shirt and gloves. Spotting Jamie’s family at the aid station, I gratefully handed my extra clothing off to her husband and found out that she hadn’t come through yet. I hadn’t been able to find her at the start, which isn’t too surprising given the darkness and sheer number of people. Still, it looked like I might not get to run with her at all, which was disappointing. I knew she couldn’t be far behind.

On-the-go bottle hand-off at Negro Bar, mile 22. (Photo courtesy of Nico Vera)

 My marathon split of 3:45 confirmed for me that I was still in the zone of banking time without going too fast. I tried to calculate what that might mean for my overall finishing time, but I just couldn’t estimate what kind of pace I might make once we hit the dirt for good. When I’d sent in my entry fee for this race, I had thought 8 hours would be a great accomplishment. After taking a close look at my result at Cool and my training schedule, I realized that 8 hours probably wasn’t realistic. The plan for the day was to run under 8:30, but I was still secretly hoping to get close to that 8 hour mark.

Coming into Beal's Pt. at mile 26ish.

I came into the aid station at Beals, just past the marathon point, feeling a little tight in the hips. I was definitely ready to move from pavement to dirt, and excited with the knowledge that I was about to do just that. While a gracious volunteer filled my bottle, I grabbed some food and rocked out to the blaring tones of Great White’s Once Bitten, Twice Shy coming through the loudspeakers. I am not afraid to admit that for probably an entire year in high school, this was my very favorite song. I amused onlookers by enthusiastically singing along, got my bottle back, and I was outta there!

One of the many things I greatly appreciated about this race was that the drink and gels of the day were GU. This is what I train with, so it really makes a big difference to have it available during a race. It's especially true when it comes to drinking. GU Brew is one of the only electrolyte drinks that my stomach handles very well. If a race doesn’t offer that, then I usually just drink water. On this day though, I filled up with GU at nearly every aid station. It was an easy way to get more calories, and it comprised my nutrition for the day along with the gels, numerous PBJ squares, and some salty potatoes.

Rounding Folsom Lake, I reveled in the brilliant sunshine. Leaving my house the previous evening, it had been snowing. Again. And on this very section of trail two weeks earlier, Jamie and I had nearly been blown into the lake by the crazy rain and wind. I smiled deliciously at the day's contrast of warmth and blue skies.

Folsom Lake

Now on the dirt singletrack, my muscles loosened up a bit. It was magic; I felt amazing! The technical aspects provided a fun challenge, and the scenery was gorgeous. Green grasses, purple flowers, shady oaks, rushing river. Springtime perfection!

I did a good amount of passing and fell in behind a guy and girl who were moving really well. We leaped the creeks and ran all the uphills and the day was glorious. I was hoping they might pull me along to a fast time, when they abruptly stopped and let me pass. Dangit!

These middle miles of technical trails were my favorite part of the day, and I felt strong. With less than 20 miles to go, I felt confident about letting loose and allowed myself to run as fast as I wanted to. Now I was breathing hard and running aggressively, but still grinning ear to ear.

Just outside of Rattlesnake Bar at mile 41, the trail becomes less technical. There are much fewer ups and downs, and not as many rocks to contend with. There was some mud, but everything is relatively flat. The following 6 miles or so was the only section where I had a bit of trouble staying focused. I still did some passing, but I think the mellow terrain had me zoning out, and I felt my pace fluctuate somewhat.

A little mud, here and there.

Beautiful, mellow singletrack. It just keeps going on!

When John came up behind me at mile 45, I was excited to see him.

“You’re still here!” I declared, smiling. I had worried that his injury might force him to drop.

“Yup,” he agreed. “Still here!”

I let him pass, and then did my best to keep up with him.

It's hard to see, but this meadow was covered with purple flowers, and all those black dots are butterflies.
Standard AR50 singletrack.

The namesake river.

Soon we reached the big hill at mile 47, and I immediately gained all my concentration and focus back. The previous weekend Jamie and I had run the last ten miles of the course as an out-and-back, and she had shown me just how runnable this last hill is. I gathered my last reserves and set out with determination to run the whole thing.

Three miles to go! (Behind that, "Flat!" and "Run!")

This hill is marked off with signs counting down the final miles, and I also noticed some chalked words on the pavement. When the hill leveled out briefly, the words “Flat!” and “Run!” could be seen. I laughed at this, since people probably really do need to be told that it’s flat when they’re tired and it’s mile 47.  The good views were also pointed out with chalked words, which I loved. Everything might hurt, but don’t forget to enjoy the beauty of your surroundings!

I’d passed one woman at the bottom of the hill, a few men, and now I was coming up on another woman. I was feeling pretty good about this until I saw that this woman kept pausing to throw up. That’s not such a great reason to be passing someone, and I felt bad for her. I was even more distressed when I got close enough to see that it was my friend Jenny keeping company with the puke monster. Oh no!

As I passed, I gave her sympathy and she gave me encouragement, and that is the way it goes with ultrarunners. We traded hugs shortly after finishing.

The Last Gasp aid station appeared to be staffed by a boy’s high school xc team. A few yards before the station, a shirtless boy politely took my bottle and sprinted, gazelle-like, up the hill. He had it filled and ready to go when I arrived. Wow! They would clearly be getting a workout if they were going to keep up that kind of service for the rest of the day. I was stoked!

Rounding the last corner, the chalked words read, “Cold beer ahead!” Really? I thought. I didn’t know they were going to have beer! Then a few yards later, tiny letters spelled out “not.”

Oh yeah, ha ha, really funny guys. Way to get a girl’s hopes up.

Coming into the finish area, Norm Klein was on the microphone showering me with accolades. I can’t remember what he said, but it put a big smile on my face as I crossed the line. It had been a good day, but I was definitely happy to be done. My legs hurt!

I felt good about my finish time of 8:16 but not blown away by it. It was around what I’d expected, but even though I felt good all day, I can’t say it came easily. I was more surprised to find out that I came in 9th woman, and to be handed an age group award along with my finisher’s jacket. I had certainly not expected to crack the top ten at a race this big!

At the front end of the race, Ellie Greenwood and Kami Semick had run together, with Ellie pulling ahead somewhere around the 30 mile mark. Ellie won in 6:25 with Kami second in 6:34. In the men’s race, Dave Mackey pulled out the win with a 5:55 in a tight men’s field. (Complete results.)

After finishing, I enjoyed the best part of a race with 800 people – there were a lot of friends there! I scrubbed poison oak off my legs (without complete success, unfortunately) along with John and some of the other men who had finished near us. I congratulated Rick, and met his friends with whom I had shared some trail time. I saw Jenny D. and Nico, said hi to Tim and Dave. I met Ellie, and we shared excitement about our races at Western States. I had hugs with Clare, Amy and Jamie. And I sat in the sunshine chowing greasy burgers with John, Jenny, Mariam, and Collin.

Collin, Miraim and Jenny, chillaxin!

John styles his hair, post race. Pretty boy! ;)

With Clare Abrams at the finish.

Amy and Jamie at the finish.

With Rick at the finish.

Everything at this race was top notch, and for me, it was another solid stepping-stone towards a good season. I love the excitement of racing!

Big thanks to Julie and her crew. The time and effort put into this event clearly shows in its quality. And those finisher’s jackets – wow! Very nice.

Next up: Miwok. And I’m getting pretty excited about it!


  1. Gretchen, beautifully awesome run! Congrats on a well deserved place, and breaking 8 should be piece of cake next time. Now, tell me please, where in the wolrd did you carry your camera? I tossed a pack last weekend, and thus didn't take any pictures, which would have distructed me from bad day and left me with lots of majestic memories!
    Great rolling into the season!

  2. Nice work, and fun report as always. The one thing I don't miss about California: Poison Oak. Cheers.

  3. Olga - Not sure sub-8 will ever be easy for me, but maybe possible. Who knows. I had a pocket in the lower back of my tank top for the camera, but once I took off the shirt that was on over the top of it, the bouncing was too much and I ended up carrying it in my hand most of the time. Not at all ideal, but I did take a lot more photos because it was convenient!

    Hank - Thanks. I've always been immune to Poison Oak in the past, but I guess so much repeated exposure is catching up to me. Last year was my first case ever, and this marks the second. Not too bad though!

  4. What an interesting course. Thanks for all the great pictures -

  5. Way to go Red!! Loved the pictures and the report. Congrats on the top 1. I'm so glad you're running happy and healthy. For what it's worth, I ran a couple people up that last hill in 2008 and it's intimidating - you guys are ANIMALS!!!

  6. Sweet write up Gretchen; nice photos too..

  7. Turi - Yes, I actually really like this course. A lot of people complain about all the pavement, but I find that a limited number of road miles mixed in with the trails keeps things interesting. And fast. :)

    Chris - Thanks! That hill wouldn't be so bad if it didn't come at mile 47, but then, the sicko ultrarunner in me kind of likes that aspect, too.

    Dave - Thanks, and awesome job on your race!

  8. As Stacy would say...completely AWESOME!!! Wow, and to think a sub-10 hour 50M is something I daydream of daily. Holy smokies, 8:15 makes my head spin; you are amazing, girl!!

  9. Wow!! Smokin, Gretchen! Sounds like you ran a brave race. I tend to hold back more than I should. You've inspired to me to let myself go a little bit. (First race in a long time for me this weekend....)

  10. Great race, Chica! I love how you purposely try to push right up against the red line for as long as possible; I used to do that in marathons, but it's a much taller order to try it for a full 50 miles!

    But you really have to stop this "Hey, wow, I made the top ten!" thing like you're completely surprised. You're a player, girl - everyone else knows it, and it's time for you to embrace it!

  11. Paige -Aww, you just got your BQ! You could easily go sub-10 for 50. You just need the right course. ;)

    Pam -I'm excited you're racing, yay! Don't let yourself go too early though! There has to be some restraining in order for there to be letting go at some point. Have fun; I hope it goes well!

    Donald - Naw, this wasn't really redline. HK50 in '09 - that was redlining it. Ick! This was a blast! Anyway, don't be getting big expectations for me or anything. I'm allowed to get excited about top ten! And yes, I really am surprised. But I'll take "player" as a compliment in this case. :) Thanks!

  12. Great race, as always. And everyone's commenting on the pictures, so I just have to say in typical guy style that I saw the picture of Amy and checked to see if she's married (yep.) - so many attractive runners in these races; must be the reason I keep doing them. Unfortunately, I have to get in better shape to hang with you speedy people. Time to start training again...

  13. We were very close to each other on the first part of the race, my marathon split was 3:41. I was singing Great White's song as I was leaving Beals. This is the second report I've read today that mentioned tightness on the bike path portion. I had the same issues, tightness and soreness by Beals Point. All that road? Me no like road!

    I've been telling folks how technical the course was and thus my reason for not breaking 8 hours. Your awesome pictures is making a liar out of me!:) Seriously though, great pictures.

    Traded spots with Jenny since leaving Beals. We have never formally met but I know of her. She was at our first TRT which seems a lifetime ago. She was very supportive. I feel about the same for my race. I could have done better but still glad for the day.

    Congratulations on cracking the top 10 and see you at Miwok. I will be crewing and pacing.

  14. Steve - Thanks. And hey, whatever motivates you to train, take it! ;)

    Rick - Dang, I should have been pacing off you. I would have run a faster time! :) And those trails were technical! I didn't get any pictures of the technical parts because, you know, I was too busy trying to stay upright. Easier to take pictures on the easy trails.

    Anyway, awesome seeing you out there and nice job on your race. I'll look for you at Miwok! Who are you pacing?

  15. Wow Gretchen! Congrats! What a perfect beautiful day for a race~ great photos, and as always, fantastic race descriptions! I wish I could head out for some miles on those single paths through the green green grass and sweet purple flowers... :) You rock girlie!