Sunday, April 14, 2013

Race Report: 2013 American River 50 Mile Endurance Run

The 2013 American River 50 Mile Endurance Run was my first 50 mile race. I cannot recall a moment when I actually decided to pursue the distance, but a series of small events brought me around to signing up at the end of last summer. I was attending Footfeathers running clinics on hill running, race nutrition, etc., and in back-to-back clinics I won AR50 swag: a tech t-shirt the first time, and a hat the second. It felt like the running gods were goading me into running this race, and I am glad I heard the call, especially as 2013 would be the last year the course followed the established course.

The race has a rich history going back almost 35 years. In the beginning, the race was run downhill from Auburn to Sacramento. In those initial years the race became a litmus test for Western States: in 1980, '81, '86 & '87, those who won AR50 also won WS100. In 1982, the course reversed direction and ran from Sacramento to Auburn for over 30 years. A fast course popular for those seeking a qualifier for WS100, AR50 has attracted some of the world's elite ultrarunners, such as Ellie Greenwood, Dave Mackey, Nick Clark and Max King. Despite the participation of the sport's best athletes, only two male runners have cracked the top ten performances since 2000: Anton Krupicka and Geoff Roes. On the women's side, the last ten years have a better showing with Ellie, Nikki Kimball and three others breaking a top ten list dominated by Ann Trason.

Obviously, a top ten performance was far from my mind in the weeks leading up to the race. Coming to terms with the idea of running the second largest 50 miler in the country occupied most of my thoughts. Unexpected anxiety began creeping in about two weeks out, and I found myself wondering if I could persevere in the unknown territory beyond 50 kilometers. I leaned on my coach, emailing questions almost daily. How fast should I go out? Should I change shoes? What can I do to mitigate blisters? What time should I shoot for?

Having run the American Canyon 50K, Way Too Cool 50K and the Steep Ravine Trail Marathon in the previous two and a half months, I knew I had the fitness and endurance to finish but I had no idea how to approach the race or what strategy would produce my best effort. Tim counseled me to bank some time in the easy, early sections, and then to go for it once we hit the single track around the 50K mark. Jimmy Dean Freeman, while speaking at the pre-race pasta dinner the night before, recounted the year he went through the 50K mark with a 30 minute PR and promptly blew up on the trail. So I had a few metrics to work with when race morning came, and it came early.

AR50 Course Map

Race morning I slept fitfully, waking often in a panic that I had missed the race start. By the time my alarm went off at 4:15 AM, I was eager to get out of bed and get ready. My muesli smoothie went down fast after a shower. I taped my hip and ankle and got my kit together before waking Twirly and checking the drop bags one last time. Twirly was crewing for me, and her support would play an integral role in my race.

AR50 Vertical Profile - note the "Dam Wall"

On the elevator ride down to the lobby, a fellow runner asked for a ride to the start; Cesar, from Foster City, was running his first 50 miler as well. We quipped about our nerves on the way, and got dropped off right at Guy West Bridge with 25 minutes until race start. I quickly found David amongst the throngs, spotted Gordie Ainsleigh again (that guy is everywhere lately), and we hit the starting area with 5 minutes to spare. Jimmy Dean was on the PA with RD Julie Fingar, getting the crowd energized for the race start. With three minutes to go, the realization that more than nine hours of running was about to begin hit me like a ton of bricks.

And then we began.

Start: 0:00:00

The ten mile mark, photo by Facchino Photography
The pace was easy as the herd shuffled off into the darkness. A few runners had headlamps, but I did not find myself wanting one. Daylight was already creeping into the horizon by the time we hit the turn-around for the short out-and-back beginning the race. David and I found ourselves running next to Tony Nguyen, aka Endorphin Dude, in these early miles. I congratulated him on his ambitious race scheduling. In the three weeks leading up to the race, Tony had finished a 100 miler, eight half-marathons and five marathons! He's a Titanium Level Marathon Maniac , but he admitted he was probably going out too fast. He kept his pace up for the first 5 miles, and then began to fall back as David and I picked up our pace to sub 10:00/mile. Our goal was a 9 hour finish, which meant we needed to average 10:45/mile, and banking time in the easy miles was going pretty well.

About a mile from the first aid station, William Pond, I felt a familiar rumbling in my gut. I began looking for a bathroom, and let David know that I would catch up if I found one. The only restroom I found had a line of runners waiting, so I ran on, and the urge passed before we got to the aid station. This early in the race, I did not need any gear or fuel, so Twirly got a kiss, Coach Ken wanted one too, but got a hug, and on we ran.

William Pond: 8.16 miles; Goal split 1:21; Actual split 1:21

Shortly after William Pond, the trail crossed over the American River. Despite overcast skies, the morning had brightened and birds were plentiful, as were butterflies! David and I spotted a couple swans swimming in this stretch; I even forgot I was on a bike path. Our pace was steady, and we would cut each corner of the winding path, weaving amongst our fellow runners and chatting about training, future races and life in general. The views of the river were much more scenic than I had anticipated, and time was flying - we were two hours in already and I felt like I was just getting started!

Having a great time in the early miles, photo by Facchino Photography

Enjoying the scenery
Sunrise aid station was crowded. I looked for Twirly but couldn't see her, so I hit the food table and had my water bladder refilled. I called Twirly, but got her voice mail. I was a little perturbed that I was going to miss her, but ultras are all about managing expectations and adapting when plans go awry. I was in the midst of this internal dialogue as I ran out of the aid station and into the woods. Around the next corner I came into another crowd of spectators, and there was Twirly. I grabbed a few more VFuel gels and my second Vespa, got another kiss and David and I set off on the final 35 miles.

Sunrise: 14.61 miles, Goal split 2:22; Actual split  2:21

Sunrise aid station

I am amazed at how quickly the first three hours went by; the difference between a 90 minute run and a multiple hour run are stark during training, but the beginning of this race felt like a shakeout jog for the first 20 miles. Being able to turn around the negative attitude once I found Twirly at Sunrise really helped the first half seem easy.

Hazel Avenue bridge

The bike path continued along the river towards Lake Natomas, and we kept our pace as we made new friends along the trail. A rafter of turkeys greeted us at one point, perturbed at the commotion of the morning. Eventually, we crossed back to the north side of the river on the Hazel Avenue bridge. Views of the Natomas Dam made me realize how far we had come already. David began to falter a little, but I was feeling good and charged up the Hazel Bluffs, taking some energy from a spectator with a bullhorn at the top of the hill. He had mojo to spare and was handing it out. Once over the hill, I stopped to let David catch up while I removed some pebbles from my shoes. The Main Bar aid station had children offering Kleenex (a nice touch) and high fives from the volunteers. There was no crew access, so we did not linger and continued on after grabbing some Gu Brew, enjoying the absence of pavement. Our moving pace was around 9:30/mile.

Hazel bluff ascent

Main Bar: 19.2 miles;  Goal split 3:00; Actual split 3:06

Happy to be on dirt!
David and I kept a steady pace along Lake Natomas, and temperatures crept up as the overcast began to break. I recalled a scuba diving course I took at Negro Bar to get certified as a Rescue Diver in 2008; the water was murky and cold.

Tasty single track
The lush and winding single track trail descended to the Negro Bar aid station, and we reunited with Twirly after a quick stop at the buffet table for a water refill and some Gu Brew. I dropped off my cap, replacing it with a headband to mitigate the sweat dripping from my visor. The pavement returned for the next few miles, and the variety of trail surfaces in this section kept it fresh. I was still amazed at how quickly the miles were coming and going.

Getting loaded at Negro Bar aid station, photo by Ken Michal

"What am I looking for?", photo by Ken Michal

A wet bandana felt as good as a shower, photo by Ken Michal

Time to get out of here, photo by Ken Michal

Running and eating as we hit the trail, photo by Ken Michal

Negro Bar: 22.4 miles; Goal split 3:38; Actual split 3:47

Skirting Lake Natomas

The next 4 miles to the marathon mark were the death of that fresh feeling. We ran through 26.2 in about 4:20, which was my fastest marathon since CIM. I felt like I had plenty of gas in the tank, and no niggles yet, which was a welcome realization. Our pace was comfortable and consistent, averaging under ten minute miles.

The marathon mark

After the marathon point, we arrived at Beal's Point aid station and the end of the pavement. I was looking forward to a change of shoes and finding a bathroom to relieve the GI distress Satan Spawn in my bowels which had slowly returned over the past hour. 

Adapting to circumstances as they unfold is an important part of any successful ultramarathon. I know this, and it is the unknown factors that I would be confronting which make ultra distances such a curiosity to me. Twirly left my shoes in the car with one of my drop bags, and this was the first real curve ball I faced. At first, I got frustrated and ran off in pursuit of David, who had been pulling slowly away from me over the previous half an hour and had gone straight to the food table. But I stopped, took a deep breath, and went back to Twirly to ensure we were on the same page. I realized then that I also needed to grab more gels and Vespa. I said hi to aid station captain Peggy Davidson from the Sierra Trailblazers, and set off to find David. Fortunately for me, he stopped at the restrooms in the park, and we were able to reconnect after my own blissful pit-stop, during which I pulled my shorts down so fast I ripped the KT Tape off of my hip.

Beals Point: 26.53 miles; Goal split 4:25; Actual split 4:38

A body check as we resumed running yielded the first signs of real discomfort. I had some chafing of the armpit variety, to which I applied more Body Glide. My stomach was beginning to feel bloated, like it was not emptying. The temperatures were still rising, and I knew that I had to keep fluids, salt and calories going in, even if they weren't getting far enough to do any good. David took the point and I did my best to keep up with him, occasionally asking him if he could hear my stomach sloshing...

We ran with a guy wearing an Ironman - St. George shirt for a while, comparing the triathlon and ultramarathons. I was impressed by the variety of athletes we came across over the course of the day. David and I eventually wished him luck and found ourselves running alone for the first time in the race.

Folsom Lake panoramic

We reached Granite Bay and the 50K mark, only two minutes off my 50K PR. Jimmy Dean's words rang in my head, but aside from the sloshing stomach, I felt pretty good. My energy levels were good, I had no cramping, and Twirly had my trail shoes (Hoka One Ones) and a fresh shirt. Cate, a friend from Nevada City with a ton of ultras under her belt, came in on our heels not feeling very good. I offered to run with her for a spell but she wouldn't have it, saying she needed to "do this alone".

Granite Bay: 31.67 miles; Goal split 5:03; Actual split 5:27

I drank a few slugs of Nuun and Ultra Fuel and tried to get out of the aid station before David with the hopes that I could gap him for the next leg to Buzzard's Cove; he caught me within a mile and kept going. I told him he was killing it, and let him go. I wouldn't see him again until the finish. He really looked strong, and his results have been steadily improving as he pushes his limitations. I'm proud of the guy.

Near Granite Bay

Nearing Buzzard's Cove

Token tourist shot, a welcome break in a beautiful spot

As for my own performance, my pace fell off to 11:xx + after the marathon mark, and I would not see a sub 11 minute pace again until the final mile.

My GI woes water balloon belly continued through the Buzzards Cove aid station, so I passed on the ice cream. I began drinking a couple cups of GU Brew and continued eating potato dipped in salt at each aid station. Despite my discomfort, my energy remained stable, so I must have been getting "some" calories out of my stomach. Yet it felt like I had a bucket of jello in my gut. One of the volunteers was sporting a WS100 24 hour finisher belt buckle, and I recognized him from Auburn Running Company; he helped sell Twirly her last pair of running shoes. I thought about asking his advice on my malady, but I also wanted to keep moving. Relentless forward motion, you know.

Buzzards Cove: 34.67 miles; Goal split 5:50; Actual split 6:07

Mile 35, photo by Facchino Photography
The Meatgrinder section was a welcome distraction, as the technical single track twisted and turned along the lake shore. I passed quite a few people in this stretch, and felt like I improved my technique for tight trail running; I focused on steering with my hips. Some descents really did feel like I was skiing! I am encouraged by my continued comfort on technical single track. It brings me back to my youth when I could bound with abandon.

By Horseshoe Bar aid station, my condition, and spirits, had improved somewhat. I had made up a little time through the Meatgrinder. Ironically, this aid station was a little more subdued than those with crew access. The fact that you had to climb a short but steep road to enter contributed to the anti-climactic welcome. That is not to say to the spectators lacked energy; there were simply fewer of them. Like six.


I could not hear my stomach sloshing any longer, but I still felt dehydrated, and bloated. I made an effort to continue taking small sips of water and to eat a gel whenever I felt low energy. I had fallen off schedule with my caloric intake after the marathon, so I also began to eat more solid food at the aid stations.

Horseshoe Bar: 38.14 miles; Goal split 6:52; Actual split 7:04

After leaving Horseshoe Bar, my spirits lifted even more. I was ten miles into unknown territory, and I became aware that the pain and discomfort of running had leveled off. Sure, 50K  hurts, but miles 31-47 hurt the same; it never got any worse! The trail smoothed out again, and I looked forward to swapping my pack out for handheld bottles for the final stretch to Auburn.

Torrey agreed to come out and pace David and me for the last 9 miles of the race. I had hoped we would all run together, but knew that David or I would probably fall off the pace. There was no doubt that it was me at this point. David scooted through Rattlesnake ten minutes before me, and Torrey arrived just minutes later after getting a little lost, but was ready to run. My mood soured a little when I learned that Twirly had left my bottles in the car, so I was not going to be rid of my pack as planned. Just another surprise to adapt to, in the end. I tried to contain Captain Cranky, and Twirly did offer to run to the car, but I wanted to keep my momentum. I grabbed a new cap and fueled up for the home stretch.

Rattlesnake Bar: 40.04 miles; Goal split 7:20; Actual split 7:45

I spent the next few miles catching Torrey up on the race to that point, and warned him I would be walking most of the hills to try and mitigate my stomach. He asked all the good pacer questions about fueling and water, and he set a good pace when we ran. I was still eating gels, although only one per hour. We arrived laughing at Dowdin's Post aid station, because I had just made Torrey stop so I could eat a gel 100 yards around the corner. The volunteers at this aid station claimed that this would be the last food available on the course; Last Gasp aid station was just water. Torrey had the foresight to stuff a banana into my pack pocket as I loaded up on a few extra bites of salted potato and pb &j. As we left the station I felt pretty good.

Dowdins Post: 43.92 miles; Goal split 7:39; Actual split (not quite sure)

The American River at the bottom of the "Dam Wall"
Knowing that the "Dam Wall" was waiting, I picked up my pace for the last three runnable miles. 11:00 pace felt awfully fast... I dropped Torrey when he pulled over to pee, but he caught me at the foot of the hill. We power walked the steeper parts and jogged the runnable stretches. We hit Last Gasp aid station, and its token juvenile track team volunteers in stretchy pants, with about 40 minutes left to go sub ten hours. I couldn't help but notice they had food at the aid station. I grumbled a little about the misinformation as we left, but I knew I was just being cranky, and ate another gel.

Last Gasp: 47.56 miles; Goal split 8:27; Actual split 9:18

The last three miles are counted down with with big signs and motivational phrases which I cannot recall, and as we passed the "one mile to go", Coach Ken came galloping down the hill. I got a big high five, and a kick in the ass as he told me to pick it up, the end was near. I managed to tap into the adrenaline and pulled an 8:30 pace out of my ass for the last mile. As I ran the finishing chute, I clapped for the spectators, gave high fives to the crowd, and flew in arms outstretched. The culmination of almost ten hours on the trail left me feeling a rush of exuberance. I felt like I could have kept going!

Finish: 50 miles; Goal 9:00; Actual 9:49:10

Finish line struttin', photo by Facchino Photography

I was given my medal and finisher's jacket (a nice tech windbreaker from Patagonia), and I immediately signed up for a massage as my legs and body were already reeling from the lack of movement. I slammed a coconut water and a couple bottles of water. Twirly gave me my dry clothes, which I quickly changed into, and lickety split I was on the massage table, trying to relax and avoid cramping as the massage therapist kick-started the flushing process. After ten minutes, I was ready to rock, if not a little delirious. I found Cesar hobbling through the parking lot and recommended signing up for a massage up as soon as possible.

Our crew and we hit the Auburn Alehouse for well deserved pints and pub food, and then Twirly and I stopped back at the race finish to exchange my tech shirt for a larger size (more on that in my next post). As I arrived, the clock was approaching the 13 hour cut-off. Watching those last few runners complete their journey was icing on the cake. I even got to see Tony (Endorphin Dude) finish with a scant three minutes to spare. Tony is in beast mode, and is accomplishing unreal racing volume.

Well deserved recovery beverage, with bling
David finished in a stellar 9:16:27, and ran strong in the second half. He is progressing quickly as an ultrarunner, and I am looking forward to crewing and pacing him this summer at the Tahoe Rim Trail 50 Miler, and possibly at his debut 100 miler in September, the Pine to Palm 100.

Julie Fingar and NorCal Ultras have trail racing dialed. I was impressed once again by the sheer volume of volunteers (350+) and how smoothly the race progressed. The course unfolded like a good book; the flat bike path sections developed character and a good base of running, the middle sections had varying terrain and the final miles had technical single track and the bulk of the elevation. The race reminded me of rafting the Grand Canyon, where the rapids build in difficulty and scale over the course of the trip.

In the days following the race I felt great. My energy levels were sky high for the next 48 hours and I had trouble sleeping. Once that wore off, I slipped into a post-race depression caused in part by my desire to step back from running for a few weeks. With nothing on the immediate horizon to train for, I find myself with too much time and an apathetic attitude. I promised myself I would take a long enough break for my joint niggles to heal, and I have renegotiated with myself to resume training after a two week hiatus. Maybe.

Endorphin Dude, after squeaking in under the wire
In retrospect, 50 miles was much easier than I anticipated. The hurt just never got any worse after 50K. Once I figure out how the keep my stomach working for more than 4 hours, I think I'll have even more fun at this distance. I look forward to The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler in December as my next "A" race, and plan to sprinkle in some interesting training races between now and then.

Thanks for reading, it's been quite a journey so far, and I feel like I'm just getting started!

Here are the Garmin details:

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