Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Race Report: 2015 American River 50 Mile Endurance Run

I squatted near a tree at mile 45 of the 2015 American River 50 Mile Endurance Run, trying to expedite an emergency pit stop. I turned to my right and realized there was a Poison Oak bush hunkered next to the tree. Now, I have never had any symptoms of Poison Oak exposure, and as a result do not look for it before I, well, leap, so-to-speak. I didn't think I had touched it, but my arrival next to this tree had been somewhat rushed, given the circumstances, and I couldn't be sure. I did not have too much time to reflect, as I was chasing my 50 mile PR. I finished my business and got back on course, focusing on the final five miles ahead.

After last year's successful execution at Lake Sonoma, I wanted to go back to Healdsburg. Alas, the lottery gods only had enough energy to gift me Western States and Miwok this year. I had not run the new American River 50 Mile course yet. While it lacks the vertical I need as States training, it does offer an opportunity to practice leg turnover and sustained running. It feels like a really, really long marathon.

AR50 Course Map
AR50 Elevation Profile

My training in the previous weeks had been lukewarm. Twirly's birthday party the weekend prior ate into my volume, enhancing the taper. I had hoped to have more speed work under my belt, but it was all I could do to eek out two long runs of 20 and 26 miles after the Marin Ultra Challenge 50k. I hung my hopes on the fact that I was healthy and without serious niggles standing on the start line.

Taking a lesson from my experience in Marin, my strategy was to go out at nine-hour pace (10:49/mile) and try to negative split the race. Usually this is a great strategy, but the AR50 course has the technical trail and the bulk of the elevation gain coming in the latter half of the race. My "A" goal was to break nine hours, followed by my "B" goal of breaking my personal record of 9:49. As always, my "C" goal was to finish. As in 2013, I would go without lights. The crowd is thick enough in the early miles, a pool of light was never far away.

We stayed at the Larkspur Landing Folsom. Super easy. I had a suite for a hundred bucks and they gave us warm chocolate chip cookies at check-in. I caught the shuttle in the parking lot at 4:15 am. I sat in the back, hoping to see some of the lunar eclipse that was coinciding with the race start. I forgot how bouncy the back of the school bus can be. I balanced my tea while protecting my pack and bottles from the blast heater at my feet. Twenty five minutes later we arrived at the race start.

I much prefer the new course to the old, especially at the start. Gone are the days of crowding onto a levee bike path and running a two mile out and back to start the event. The parking lot at the Browns Ravine Marina was stellar in comparison. I braved the chilly breeze to watch the eclipse, which happened to be the shortest eclipse of this century. Five minutes! The parking lot was invisible. The phone lit faces of those huddled in their cars gave some depth, but I found it difficult to navigate between the warming tent and the porta potties. It turns out the light of a Garmin 910xt works in a pinch.

The warming tent buzzed with the nervous noise of hundreds and the parking lot began to swell with people. David found me standing in the lee of the tent just as the full eclipse was happening. He planned to go out quick to get some running room and settle in after he warmed up. He would go on to have a great day. I saw many other familiar faces in the crowd but focused internally as the clock wound down.
The race starts near the lake and climbs for about a mile before turning onto single track trail. I kept my effort easy and settled into the conga line, sticking near those with head lamps lighting the way. The waning eclipse hung over the steel grey lake surface, and the birds began signaling the impending dawn. At mile 5 a clover-leaf series of loops at Folsom Point provided a good look at those in front and behind me, and offered a few little hills to get the blood pumping.

Historic Walker Bridge (source)

Rucky, my 28 hour Cougar
By mile 6 I knew I had gone out about a minute per mile too fast. I felt great. The single track gave way to surface streets and sidewalk running for a few miles. I reigned in my effort and reminded myself to stay loose and relaxed. My nutrition was going well, and no niggles were speaking up. After crossing the American River near Folsom Dam the course joined the American River Parkway. A fellow runner began chatting me up about States, a common occurrence since the addition of "Rucky" to my left calf. Amidst the banter my pace crept below 9-minutes per mile. I kept trying to figure a way out of the conversation, as this guy was running faster than my plan. On the other hand, talking about States is a worthy distraction and reminds me of my goals for the season. We encountered a group containing some people he knew, and while he chatted them up, I drifted off the back, resuming my planned pace.

The circumnavigation of Lake Natomas on rolling bike path was meditative. The path is surrounded by piles of river rock, likely the remnants of gold prospectors dredging the river for a pay day. After crossing back to the North side of the river, the Hazel Bluffs provided another blood-pumping climb, albeit a short one. The trail felt more familiar now that we had rejoined the old course, and Mr. Mojo was in residence at the summit of the Bluff.

Nearing the 20 mile mark and the first time I would see Twirly, I took stock of my condition. My right hamstring was tight, but my gait was still symmetrical. My energy was good. I rolled into the Negro Bar Aid Station about 12 minutes ahead of my planned split and found Twirly. I dropped my pack and picked up two bottles of Tailwind, swapped my hat for a visor and popped a Vitamin I for good measure. I have been trying to avoid using it for runs less than 100k, but it felt like an appropriate action to mitigate my hamstring.

A few miles later, the Ibuprofen had kicked in and I fell into a nice rhythm. The trail wound up and down along the shore of Lake Natomas. I passed a few runners here and there and kept my pace fast enough not to get passed. The weather was heating up; I began craving ice water. These middle miles clicked by comfortably, but my hamstring was speaking up by the time I saw Twirly again at mile 29.

The Granite Bay Aid Station had buckets of ice water. I drank cup after cup while Twirly got ice in my replacement Tailwind bottles, and fellow hasher "Zucchini Bareback" provided some Motrin ointment to my hamstring. She was crewing for "Pussy Whisperer", who was running his first 50 miler.

I left the aid station feeling pretty good. A mile later I was back in the groove. The new course has a 2.5 mile loop on some pretty single track. I began picking up some carnage on the approach to the Meatgrinder section. These were my best miles of the race. I tackled the technical Meatgrinder section with determination. I would catch a conga line picking their way through the relentless rollers and do my best Kilian impersonation to pass them, using rocks and berms along the edges of the trail to leap around them. It took more energy than I should have spent, but it allowed me to continue at my own pace.

Rattlesnake Bar, photo by Jenny Lindberg
I got to Rattlesnake Bar in okay shape, but now about 15 minutes behind 9 hour pace. My feet felt confined in my Hoka Conquests, so I swapped shoes and socks. Hashers Bubble Boy and Edamame had joined Twirly and ZB. In the commotion one of my bottle tops fell into a patch of poison oak. While the crew was sorting that out, I took the MAP replacement baggie Twirly had handed me and put it into the bottle I was holding. Unfortunately, that bottle was empty and would exchanged for a fresh one. I got another application of pain relieving gel, and fueled up with some orange slices and potato. One of the volunteers told me that this was the last aid station to offer food. I had heard a similar falsehood in 2013 at Dowdins Post and told the volunteer I thought he was wrong. He argued that was the information he had, and we left it at that. I find it strange that this rumor about no food in the final miles persists, even though it has no truth.

The final 15k was a push. I missed having the MAP. I ran most of the rises in the rolling trail, and continued picking up some carnage. A few miles out of Rattlesnake Bar I felt a familiar rumbling in my gut, accompanied by gas pains. I began scouting the foliage for suitable leafy greens to facilitate a pit stop, but found none. Upon reaching Dowdins Post (they had plenty of food there) I asked if anyone had handi-wipes. I was in luck, as a volunteer provided me a couple from her personal stash. About a mile later, I found myself getting close and personal with the Poison Oak bush.

Folsom Lake is still pretty low from the epic drought we are mired in, and I figured that the riffles of the American River would begin to show sooner as a result. I knew from 2013 that the final three miles to the finish climbed out of the river canyon just above the lake, and the whitewater is a good landmark. Every time the trail rounded a bend I would expect to see the riffles; time slowed. Finally, the Auburn Dam excavation came into view and I could smell the barn.

I had about 45 minutes to climb three miles and beat my PR of 9:49. I put on my best power hike for the steep ascent from river level, and ran whenever my heart rate dipped into zone 2. By the time I hit Last Gasp Aid Station I knew I had a PR in the bag. I had the station runner fill my bottle with ice water and ran through without stopping (they had food at this station too). I jockeyed with a "bro-team" for a while, both runner and pacer wearing identical kits, haircuts and beards. The runner was negotiating run/walk breaks with his pacer, which I found hilarious.

I shuffled up the final mile and into the finish line festival, ten minutes ahead of my PR (9:38). I felt pretty good as I collected my finishers jacket and swag bag. Twirly and David greeted me at the end of the chute. He finished in 8:2x! I signed up for a Monster Massage, got my grub and started re-hydrating.

The take home lesson from this race? I still go out too fast. I may not have been able to execute the negative split, given the trail and elevation in the later miles, but  my hamstring may have been in better shape. After my massage (I finally got one from the master, Ve Loyce), I felt a little stiff, but no significant niggles screamed at me. I had experienced some pain at the base of my neck, which has happened in the past. I think it is residual stress. I just need to relax my shoulders more.

Jesse Jay, Twirly and yours truly at the finish festival
As always, Julie Fingar and the rest of the NorCal Ultra team put on a stellar event. The hundreds of volunteers do a great job catering to the runners. Despite the red herrings that seem to have taken up permanent residence at the final few aid stations, the run is supported well. The new course is an improvement, in that it has more trail and less exposure in the early miles. I could do without the long, pavement pounding descent to Folsom Dam, but it is still much better than the half marathon of bike path they removed. I'll probably do it again. I have my sights set on that 9 hour mark. Besides, the jackets are cool ;)

I did end up with an itchy ass, by the way. It could have been worse! I set my sights on Miwok 100k as my next training race. The stakes are getting higher as the 2015 Western States 100 approaches. I am beginning to realize that a silver buckle will be... uncomfortable to attain.

Here are the deets from my race:


  1. Great report, got a good chuckle. I was the runner half of the "bro-team." Good luck at WS, I'll be volunteering at Ford's Bar over night.

    1. Thanks for volunteering at States Jeremy. Hopefully I'll be seeing you shortly after dark.