Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Race Report: 2013 American Canyon 50K

Yummy single track!
The American Canyon Trail Race, organized by Sierra Pacific Endurance Sports, holds a special place in my running history. The 2012 event coincided with my 40th birthday, and I entered the 15K to mark the occasion and tune-up for a half marathon in San Francisco that Spring. I had not raced further than 10K at that point, and the course contained more hilly and technical terrain than I had encountered in the 5K's and 10K's in the Gold Country Grand Prix. In spite of my lack of experience, I placed second overall (out of a dozen or so) and the support and camaraderie of the trail running community made a huge impression on me. This race will easily become a birthday tradition. The course is beautiful from start to finish, following the Western States Trail. Sierra Pacific Endurance is cultivating a top notch event on an infamous stretch of trail. The chili at the finish is a nice touch, too.

This year, I entered the 50K as a tune-up for Way Too Cool 50K and the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run in April.  Coming into the race, I had tapered more than usual, having spent the previous weekend skiing in Tahoe. I had run only 31 miles since the Steep Ravine Trail Marathon two weeks prior. My legs were ready to run, and I was rested. Coach Tim told me to hold on to the chase group in the initial descent from the start to the river, and see where I was after the climb to Highway 49. He had set the course record at 4:23 in 2012, so I took his Garmin data and created splits for each aid station at equivalent 5, 5.5 and 6 hour efforts. He encouraged me to go strong, and said that I was capable of a top ten if I could finish in the low 5 hour range (10:00/mile pace). It was time to race!

My friends David and Torrey were entered, and brought along another Nevada County runner, Andy. The morning was brisk, with temperatures in the mid thirties at the start of the race. Many people were bundled up, with gloves, tights and arm sleeves or long sleeves, and some runners warmed up in the parking lot as final registrations and check-ins occurred. I wore arm sleeves with a merino wool t-shirt and gloves along with calf sleeves and gaitors. I spotted a few other runners I knew from work and other races, and by 8 am sharp, Race Director Harlan Reymont had given instructions, and counted us down. The Third Annual American Canyon Trail Run was underway.

Dropping into the river canyon
The field of over 100 runners funneled into the single track leading to Robie Point, assuming single file as we descended. Passing opportunities were limited, and the possibility of the occasional pile of horse manure made it necessary to give the runner in front of me enough space so that I could maneuver. The trail opens up within a couple miles of the start, and the traverse around Robie Point on rolling fire road allowed everyone to find their pace and place in line before a short technical descent to the floor of the canyon and more fire road to river level. 

Climbing towards the quarry

I kept a decent pace down to the river, arriving at No Hands Bridge over six minutes faster than I had at the 15K the year before, on pace for 5 hours. I ran through the aid station and began the power hike up to the 49 crossing aid station. A quick body check yielded no niggles, although I had experienced mild cramping on some of the short climbs in the first section, so I took an extra S!Cap and decided to consume some Gu Brew at each aid station to supplement my electrolyte intake. My nutrition strategy was to consume a Vespa before the start, and every two and a half hours, supplemented with energy gels halfway between Vespa doses and whatever aid station food looked good. Sportlegs every two hours also helped keep the muscles loose. I took the gloves off as I climbed the trail, employing a steady power hike. I was passed by a few runners on the ascent, and Torrey and Andy jogged slowly by, following a runner wearing Tarahumara style sandals. I crested the hill about a half hour after the No Hands aid station. Rolling into the 49 aid station at 5.5 hour split time, I realized a top ten was not in the books, and committed to a steady effort, shooting for a 5.5 hour finish.

I drank a Gu Brew at the aid station before crossing the highway and setting out for the river. David and I had run this stretch the weekend before Christmas in a pouring rain, and I bombed the technical downhill, passing a few runners who had passed me on the climb, including the sandals-wearer. He picked his way down the rocky trail cautiously, while I flew in my Hokas. I picked up Torrey and Andy on the descent and we ran together up the Quarry Road along the Middle Fork of the American River. I got to know Andy a little more as we ran, and asked about his training base.

"Oh, I walk the dog a lot, I have a Malamute, and they're a handful, believe me"

I laughed at his response and wished him well, warning him about trying to keep up with Torrey. We were running under 8:00/mile, and I let them go ahead, as that was faster than I had intended for the Quarry Road leg, hoping to save some leg speed for the return trip after climbing up American Canyon itself. Andy said he'd probably see me again, and they slowly ran out of sight along the old miner's road.

The trail was in great shape, and the creek crossings were all navigable, unlike December when David and I scouted the back 25K. Look at the difference in Hoboken Creek:

Hoboken Creek in December

The same crossing during the 2013 race

Climbing up American Canyon
The rest of the leg along the river went by smoothly. I ate a Gu Roctane, and recalled landmarks from my training run with David as I neared American Canyon. A few more runners passed me along the way, and I steadily hiked my way out of the canyon after rock hopping the creeks. At the top of the climb, the trail became runnable for the majority of the return to the Highway 49 aid station, and I had intended to put in a good effort on this stretch of trail. I managed to click off a couple of sub-9 minute miles to the Maine Bar aid station.

Coming into Maine Bar aid station
Twirly was helping out at Maine Bar, and her cheers always brighten my mood. I got a refill of my hydration pack, and drank another Gu Brew while munching on boiled potato with salt and pb&j. I dropped off my gloves, popped an extra couple of S!Caps and got a kiss from Twirly before continuing down the trail. I managed a low nine minute pace over the next couple rolling miles, as the trail wound in and out of the tributaries to the river. In the eighteenth mile, I tripped and fell for the second race in a row. It seems 'the wall' manifests as a tendency to trip over small obstacles on flat trail for me, and I can only be thankful that I have not fallen on the rocky stuff yet. I may have to increase my calorie rate in an attempt to ward off the lazy feet syndrome that seems to strike as I approach the twentieth mile. I brushed off the mud, and soldiered on. If I had a low point I would have to say it was in this stretch. I felt like I could not put in the effort I had planned. I was supposed to cruise this section, but I struggled to keep pace. I did hold back a little, trying to save some energy for the final 4 mile climb to the finish, but when I envisioned the race in preparation for the day, I was always running faster in this stretch.

Vistas from the Western States Trail
Awesome, runnable single track around mile 18

Single track, and more single track
That said, the trail is gorgeous. Views of the river canyon alternated with trips into the tributary ravines, and sunlight swapped with cold, mossy smelling breezes as the frosty slopes began to thaw. I found myself looking forward to climbing Goat Hill, a climb of 500 feet in a half mile stretch in the 21st mile. The climb provided a welcome break from running, and as I climbed the steepest section, David caught up to me. We crested the hill together, and I gave him a ViFuel gel. He had inadvertently run through the Maine Bar aid station without grabbing any gels, and the sections between Highway 49 and Maine Bar are long enough to warrant extra fuel and water. Shortly after, I pulled over to let David and another couple pass, and David was off like a shot into the rolling grasslands between Goat Hill and the Quarry. I repeated my mantra, "easy, light, smooth, fast" as I cruised along more beautiful single track. As I ran through "Grandfather's Stand" I slipped on an off-canter, muddy stretch of trail, but caught myself, straining my right hip abductor in the process. Again, my mantra helped me calm things down as I continued hiking the ups and running everything else.

A beautiful day, a beautiful course

Soon enough, I rejoined the trail leading around the quarry, and began calculating my split. My estimation that I was behind 5.5 hour pace did not provide very much motivation to run the climb to the aid station at Highway 49, and I felt like I still needed to save something for the last 4 miles. I rolled into the Highway 49 aid station about 5 minutes off 5.5 hour pace, and had my fill of Gu Brew, potato/chips and pb&j. As I set off up the gentle incline out of the aid station, I spied David ahead, walking with a pronounced limp. I soon caught up, and gave him an Ibuprofen to help straighten out his hitch. As we crested the hill and began running, I felt a resurgence of speed, and cruised the downhill towards the No Hands Bridge aid station. David slipped in some mud, and fell. "Hang in there David!" I shouted as I hauled ass down the trail, clocking sub 8 minute pace and feeling great.

Climbing out of the river canyon
I crossed paths with Andy at the No Hands aid station, and he took off across the bridge to stay ahead of me as I drank more Gu Brew and noshed on more potato and salt. I set off to pursue him to the finish, a long 4 mile climb back to Overlook Park. I trotted steadily up the trail, smiling for the Ultrarunner Magazine photographer who had camped out on this section all morning. I kept Andy in my sights, but never made much ground on him. I power hiked the steep switchbacks up to Robie Point, and resumed my trot, counting down the distance as I passed the mile markers. Recalling the 15K finish from the previous year, I kept my momentum up each rise, anticipating the crest of each climb. As I entered the final ravine, and could hear the spectators cheering at the finish, David called out behind me.

"This is where I thought I was gonna die last year", he said, which lit a fire in my stride, and despite his efforts, I managed to beat him out by 3 seconds at the finish, only 40 seconds behind Andy. Torrey had finished about 15 minutes before us, and cheered us in with Twirly.

Race bling!

Happy to be finished, the Nevada County crew
At the finish I got my allotment of chili, and threw a handful of potato chips in for good measure. They had Chocolate Smoothie flavored Gu Recovery Brew, which was freaking awesome! I picked up my dog-tag finishers medal, and changed into some dry clothes as we decompressed and traded stories with other runners. I thanked Harlan for a great event, and soon after we were feasting at Auburn Alehouse in celebration of another epic adventure on the trails of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Sierra Pacific Endurance put on a great event. The aid station volunteers were enthusiastic and supportive, the stations were well stocked, the course well marked and provided stellar views of the river canyon. I look forward to celebrating my birthday with a run on this course for years to come.

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