Just one month removed from my poor showing at the Salmon Falls 50k, I found myself back in the Sierra Nevada foothills for my first attempt at 50 miles. A lot changed in the previous month. I made the switch to liquid nutrition with occasional solid food to supplement. My long run pacing was now all about consistency and not spiking my heart rate. And I ran my longest run to date, 36 miles. Because this race would feature so much asphalt, I trained more on road than usual. My wife, Julie, and I drove down from Portland once again. This time, we took an extra day at the beginning and end of the trip so we could relax a bit. It turns out that all of these steps combined for a much more successful race.
The night before the race, we stayed at the Hampton Inn in Folsom. I’m pretty sure this is a new hotel. It was quiet, wonderfully appointed, and very clean. Compared with the screaming kids in the hotel room next door at the Best Western before the Salmon Falls 50k, this felt like the Ritz Carlton.
I set out all my gear and went over my nutrition and pacing plan with my wife, who would be my crew for the race. I set alarms for 3am, 3:30am, and 4am, just in case. I jumped into bed around 9pm, but my heart was racing and it was hard not to think about the race the next day. I managed to get about 5 solid hours of sleep, which isn’t bad for me on race day. Breakfast consisted of a banana, a bite of a Pro Bar and a handful of dark chocolate-covered espresso beans. There was a shuttle bus from the Hampton, but Julie insisted on coming along to see me off. She was a trooper, considering how long of a day we were expecting. I was grateful to have a cozy car and seat warmers to relax with before the race.
Brown’s Ravine Marina provided the race start. There were fairly long lines for the restrooms, but things moved pretty quickly. As was the case with my previous race in this area, I was shocked to find that so many people knew each other. The running community around here is something else. I swallowed a Gu packet and we watched the first wave take off right at 6am. These were the runners expecting to finish the race in under 10 hours. Naturally, I was in wave 2 as I tend to drift toward the middle and back of the pack. I liked being able to start in a smaller wave where it would be easier for me to find my pace without being in anybody else’s way. My goal for the day was to finish under 12 hours. I would need to average 14:24/mile, including all aid station stops.
After a brief countdown, wave 2 slowly left the starting corral at 6:15am. Right off the bat, I recognized that I was getting caught up in the moment. Several times over the first mile, I reminded myself not to follow people who passed me and to reduce my speed. As we slipped off the asphalt onto trail for the first time, I eased into a comfortable pace. Recognizing that the first half of the race is mostly asphalt and generally flat, I targeted a pace around 12:30/mile for the first 25 miles. I got a sense of deja vu in this section. The first trail portion was the final trail portion of the Salmon Falls 50k. Dropping off the trail and onto the nearly mile-long dam section, I started chatting with a man named Eric from Livermore, CA. We would wind up chatting and running together for the next 20 miles.
My nutrition plan for the day revolved almost entirely around Tailwind. I had 2 bottles of Tailwind with caffeine for the start of the race, and I would use regular Tailwind for the remainder of the race. Ever since I started using liquid nutrition, I’ve found that I drink more frequently, even late in races. I have a bad habit of not eating anything at all until it’s much too late, so Tailwind has me covered. I planned to drink every 10 minutes and supplement my nutrition with boiled potatoes dipped in salt, occasional glasses of Coke, and a potato chip or two at aid stations. Julie surprised me with seedless red grapes at the aid stations she had access to.
There were aid stations at miles 5, 12.75, 17, and 20. Mile 20 was the first time I was able to see Julie. Up to this point, there was very little elevation gain. Eric and I had similar plans for the day and helped each other keep our pace in check. We both have a tendency to rush a little bit early on in races. Between miles 20 and 24, I started to feel a nasty pinch on the inside of my left knee. I never get pain there, so I attributed it to so much road running up to this point. From here on in, I shortened my stride and ran on gravel and rocks alongside the road, wherever I could. There were some nice trail sections between miles 24 and 29 and my knee seemed to appreciate the change in terrain. By the time I hit the Granite Bay aid station at mile 29.45, my knee pain had subsided.
Eric picked up a pacer at mile 24 and I was feeling strong, so I left that aid station on my own. At this point, the course was mostly hard-packed single track with small hills and some rocky technical spots. I was happy to run in the shade of the trees, as the heat of the sun was starting to make things uncomfortable. At one point, I started chatting to a local guy named Martin, who also wasn’t enjoying the sun. The more we chatted, the faster we seemed to go and we clicked off some pretty quick miles together. We eased into the Granite Bay aid station, where Martin warned me to fill up on calories and top off all my fluids. We were about to hit some of the gnarliest terrain of the day, during one of the hottest periods of the day, and our next aid station was nearly 9 miles away. I was appreciative of his advice and took it to heart. Julie topped off all the bottles in my hydration vest and filled up the bladder with Tailwind. She shoved some grapes and potato chips in my mouth, followed by a couple espresso beans. Out of solidarity, she had a couple too. Neither of us was too excited about the taste and both spit out about half the beans. They were tastier first thing in the morning.
Martin and I headed off together past a small sign identifying this next trail section: “The Meat Grinder.” I was surprised I hadn’t heard that monicker thrown around previous to the race. I braced myself for the worst, and headed in at a comfortable pace, averaging 13 to 14 minutes per mile throughout. Perhaps this is where my hilly, muddy Oregon trail training kicked in. I didn’t find this section overly difficult. I moved through methodically, shortening my stride on long uphills and dropping softly on long downhills. Other than a few technical, rocky sections, I was moving well. I turned around when I hit mile 30.1, to let Martin know we had just crossed the 50k threshold, and he was nowhere to be found. I looked around for him as I went around bends in the trail, but didn’t see him. I passed quite a few people in this section and a few who were really struggling with the heat.
I spiked my heart rate for the first time while climbing a hill a little too briskly at mile 34. I spiked it a second time during the same mile. And a third time as I entered mile 36. I reminded myself that it was a very long race and slowed down a bit to take some deep breaths. I also took a moment to acknowledge that every step beyond this point was a new distance record for me. I quickly popped in and out of the Horseshoe Bar aid station at mile 38, knowing Julie would be waiting for me with cold water and fresh Tailwind at mile 41.
The next couple miles were brutal. The heat and terrain made it difficult to maintain my pace. I wavered from 15 to 17-minute miles during this 3-mile stretch. The entrance to the Rattlesnake Bar aid station is an out and back trail where you drop off the trail and then have to climb back up to it. It was a bit of a pain avoiding other runners in each direction, but even more annoying that there were spectators sitting, standing, and walking on the parts of the trail where it was steepest and most narrow. I did my best to avoid them, but I know I bumped a few who I couldn’t get out of the way of. After 41 miles, I didn’t have the patience or ability to stop and turn on a dime. Hopefully, this gets roped off or something in the future.
At this point, I was a wreck. Emotionally, I was swinging wildly from elation to overwhelming gloom. My mind was still functioning, but my body was starting to feel weaker and weaker. I ate a couple potatoes with salt, and Julie topped up my fluids. I ate a few grapes and stopped for a second for some encouragement from Julie. I needed the reassurance at that point that I was going to make it and I headed back up the trail, knowing I wouldn’t see her again until the finish line.
The next couple of miles were a blur. There were some wide expanses of tall grasses separated by a deep horse trail, completely bathed in sunlight. It was somewhere around mile 42 when I heard something that shook me wide awake and fired me back up. A rattlesnake rattled a warning at me and rustled past me in the tall grass, just a few steps to my right. I immediately broke into a run and didn’t stop until the aid station at mile 44, where a nice volunteer filled up one of my bottles with ice water and another dunked my hat in the coldest water I’ve ever known. They must have recognized that I was beginning to overheat and needed the refreshment. A couple minutes after I left this aid station, I heard another runner coming fast. This would be the first and only time I was passed during the second half of the race. “Who in the heck could possibly be gaining on me?” I stepped off the trail and turned around to see a grinning Martin howling as he blasted past me. He yelled, “Back from the dead!” and disappeared into the forest, laughing maniacally. “He must have accidentally dunked a potato in cocaine at that last aid station,” I muttered to myself.
When I finally regained my composure in the last forested trail section, I was back to passing other runners regularly. I suppose the combination of the rattlesnake, the ice cold water, and what seemed at the time to be a figment of my imagination, but was simply a renewed Martin, pulled me back from the brink. Several runners were being nearly dragged along by their pacers. Others had simply decided to walk to the finish line. At mile 40, I had given up my hope of a sub-12 hour race, but with 3 miles to go, I felt renewed.
The last 5k of this race features nearly 1,000 feet of elevation gain. I have long legs. I hike regularly. I train on hills. And this was going to be my moment. Steadily, I worked my way up the hill. Varied terrain awaited. Some asphalt, some dirt, some loose rock. Each time the elevation became less steep, I started running. I passed a couple dozen runners on this home stretch. At one point, a woman walking past encouraged me to listen closely to hear the voices of people cheering at the finish line. I told her that I’d been hearing voices for miles.
With one mile to go, I saw a discarded Maple Bacon Gu packet on the ground. I wondered, “What sort of maniac would reach for that flavor of Gu so close to the end of this race?”
With 3/4 of a mile to go, I reeled in a man who looked like he was struggling. I tried to encourage him.
Me: If we finish out this last mile at an 11:30 pace, we can still finish in under 12 hours!
Man: I was wave one.
Me: 12 hours and 15 minutes!
My embarrassment complete, I started running uphill. I crested the final climb, turned two corners and found myself on the home stretch with a raucous, cheering crowd. I pushed hard across the line, feeling strong. 11:54:45. 14:18/mile. I had reached my goal, finished strong, and still felt great. A medic asked if I needed anything. I asked, “Is this where we donate toenails?” He laughed and I enjoyed the thought that I still had a functioning brain at this point.
I received a medal, a fleece, and then a terrific greeting from Julie. We spent a few minutes admiring some of the professional athletes who stuck around after the race, including 3rd place female Nikki Kimball. Gordy Ansleigh had been telling stories and announcing finishers. I told my wife that I had a good feeling about Chris Denucci that morning and he did indeed win the race. It turns out that Martin finished 5 minutes ahead of me (he wasn’t a figment of my imagination after all), and Eric reached his 13-hour goal as well.
This race goes down as my most successful run to date. I could have gone faster. I could have pushed myself more in the middle and late stages of the race, but I finished 5 minutes ahead of my goal time. I have a new nutrition strategy that works for me. I kept a balanced heart rate nearly the entire time. Julie was a rock all day. She texted me to remind me when to prepare to remove my vest to refill it at upcoming aid stations and kept me informed of upcoming restrooms, should I need one, and any tips she thought might be helpful as I headed out for each section. The race featured some beautiful views. I would have liked to spend more time on trail than on asphalt, but that’s part of what makes this race so unique. My only real complaint is that I would have liked to see a few more blazes. There were definitely times when I was running by myself for long stretches and didn’t see any flags for what seemed like forever. I never made any wrong turns. It would have been difficult to make wrong turns for the most part. I’m just a guy who likes occasional reinforcement after he lets his mind wander a bit while running. Ultimately, race director Julie Fingar and NorCalUltras do a great job with this event. I’m not surprised that this is the biggest 50-mile race in the country. Every aid station was well-stocked with great food and the volunteers were enthusiastic, helpful, and encouraging. I look forward to running in this area with these great people again soon.
Check out the video and Strava map below to see some photos and videos from the race along with the GPS data for the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run.