This weekend, my wife and I took a whirlwind road trip from Portland to Coloma, California. I had registered to race the Salmon Falls 50k as part of my 100k race training. I didn’t look into the area before we left and it didn’t dawn on me until we got there exactly where we were. Our hotel was located in Auburn, near the finish line of the legendary Western States 100 mile race. We drove through Cool on the way to the race (home of the Way Too Cool 50k). As we passed along the American River, it dawned on me. This was the second time in six months that I had booked a trip to a trailrunning hotbed that hosted a major event. I realized that I was preparing to race against some legitimate hardcore runners and I felt a bit out of place.
At the starting line, big groups of runners started to gather. I felt like everybody already knew everybody else. I wasn’t surprised that there was such an incredible community of runners in this area. Then I started seeing familiar faces. Nike-sponsored Sally McRae bounced up to the packet pickup area. Five-time Western States winner Tim Twietmeyer wandered past with his trademark permanent grin. I was starstruck and intimidated. As the race prepared to kick off though, my nerves subsided.
This is trail racing. If you’re an endurance runner, you’re already a part of the scene. If you’re willing to pour your heart and soul into training and if you leave it all on the course, you already belong. Race director Tim Casagrande offered a few last minute remarks. Everybody huddled in for a group photo and away we went.
Right off the bat, it was clear that this was a different race than anything I had been a part of before. This was only my second 50k race. My other race was the Silver Falls 50k that started on a road and allowed everybody to spread out right away. The Salmon Falls 50k start was on a rutty, narrow, hard, dirt road. In fact, that’s the thing that struck me the most about all the trails on this course. The ground was super hard. I guess I’ve grown accustomed to the soft dirt and mud of the Pacific Northwest.
Inside of the first mile, we came to a creek crossing. There was a series of stepping stones off to the left and a precarious fallen tree crossing off to the right. Noticing immediately that the water was only knee deep, I bounded through the creek. I left a whole lot of people behind who were lining up to try and stay dry. My combination of Wrightsocks and Altra Lone Peak 2.0s dry out so fast, I had no worries about the water. In fact, I was pretty excited for an early cool down.
I entered an area of long, sweeping uphill and downhill trails. The scenery was breathtaking. I was able to drop downhill with speed. I power hiked uphill in a rhythm that allowed me to recover and keep my heart rate low. The American River swept through the canyon to my left. The trail alternated between technical rocky patches and hard-packed tan and orange dirt. I was having so much fun running and enjoying the scenery that I forgot to eat anything. And so my struggles began. I knew what nutrition I had in each pocket of my hydration vest. But I still started doing a mental inventory because nothing sounded good to me. I wound up passing on food for the time being and sipped water, knowing an aid station was up ahead. It was mile 4.65 before I ate anything. I swallowed a small glass of Coke at the aid station. I dumped some jelly beans into my mouth while I started hiking the next long climb.
Somewhere around mile 8, I realized my breathing was becoming labored. I checked my GPS watch and realized I was moving at a 6:55/mile pace. My goal pace for this day was 12:30/mile. Idiot. I backed off and tried to just maintain a 12:30 pace as I dropped into the aid station at mile 13. The scene at this aid station was ridiculous. There was a DJ scratching records, some guy in a horse costume (might have been a cow? I didn’t pay much attention), and all sorts of people cheering and volunteering. I was beyond hungry, but I knew I couldn’t eat much of anything. I downed some Coke, a couple glasses of water, and two bites of a Pro Bar protein bar. I walked up to the bridge crossing and started jogging down the road toward the second half of the race. This was the run around Lake Folsom.
A Tale of Two Races
I expected things to get tough at this point, but I didn’t realize what I was in for. Running around lakes is not something that appeals to me. Viewpoints are sparse, hills are steep and frequent, pesky bugs are more frequent. This situation was no different, save for an overabundance of poison oak. Thanks to the race director’s pre-race warning about this miserable plant, I escaped unscathed.
The stretch from mile 16 to mile 24 was the longest unsupported section of the day. I planned for this and refilled my hydration bladder at mile 16. When I got to mile 24, I had to fill it again. The heat was brutal. I can’t remember the last time I ran in shorts and a t-shirt without gloves or arm sleeves. The weather was beautiful, but it was one more thing I wasn’t prepared for. I wound up with a sunburned neck for my efforts.
I played leapfrog with several runners between miles 15 and 31. It seemed like those of us this far back in the pack were all suffering from one ailment or another. Every person I passed or who passed me throughout the day had a word of encouragement to share. People were checking on each other and anybody who was struggling received heartfelt encouragement. Every aid station volunteer asked how we were and encouraged us to eat and drink up. The people you meet on the trail are the best part of trailrunning and this race reinforced that idea. The aid station fare was also well-planned and delicious. I fell in love with seedless red grapes and I’ll try to carry them with me whenever I run long from now on.
As I approached the last mile of the race, I was a little confused by where to go. I guessed correct and wound up running along the top of a huge dam. This lasted more than half a mile before reaching the trail into the finish line. This is a brutal way to end a long race. Seeing the finish and hearing the crowd for ten minutes proved encouraging and devastating. The cheering crowd at the finish line was amazing though. Turning that final corner and hearing my name called by the announcer, I couldn’t help but smile. I didn’t meet any of my pace goals for the day. I was still elated to run across the line and claim my medal.
The Salmon Falls 50k is a great race. The scenery, volunteers, planning, and execution were all terrific. With paid registration, we received quality jackets and race photos. I can’t think of a single thing to complain about. From the hard-packed terrain to the brutal elevation changes in the second half of the course. This is trail racing. You can’t always predict what you’ve gotten yourself into. You can prepare for every eventuality and still find yourself in pain on race day. It’s like Haruki Marukami said, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
Download and review more race details with the Garmin GPX file below.