The American River 50 Mile Endurance Run was my 50th race over 5k. Yes, I had to eliminate virtual races too to make this statistic factual, but that is how statistics work.
In my running resume, I have been lucky enough to be a pacer for Endorphin Dude the last two years at the American River 50 miler (AR50). Two years ago was my first ultra-marathon experience. I paced Endorphin Dude the last nine miles of AR50, and helped push him to a finish about three minutes before final cutoff. The next year, I volunteered at an aid station, and then paced Endorphin Dude the entire second half. He finished well ahead of cutoffs and nailed a 90+ minute PR, even with a tougher course.
E-dude talked me into running ultras last year with Jed Smith 50k and Ruth Anderson 50 miler. I liked Jed Smith, but I didn’t really enjoy Ruth Anderson. But it was 12 laps around a lake in San Francisco on a paved bike trail. I figured that trail running would be different. A continuous change in scenery, and some more mental challenges to keep me from getting bored.
I was glad that I had ran Way too Cool 50k back in early March 2015, because I learned a lot about trail running during a race. At WTC, I did intervals up some of the hills, and I burned up too much energy. I also didn’t do well on my nutrition. I had bonked pretty bad around mile 20. So for AR50, I knew that I had to eat earlier, and more often. I also had to save my energy for the last miles. AR50 only had 2000 feet of climbing, compared to 4850 feet at WTC, but AR50 has 19 more miles to go.
I also knew that AR50 has the biggest climb in the last 3.3 miles. 950 feet up in 3.3 miles, with 450 feet in the first 0.75 miles. But after you hit the Last Gasp Aid Station with 2.5 miles to go, the hill is runnable. E-Dude flew up that hill the two previous years.
I parked my car at the finish line the night before the race. I stashed a cooler of recovery fluids (beer, chocolate milk, and Gatorade) in the back, plus a pump sprayer and a change of clothes. The course is loaded with poison oak, so I had some technu as well. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t going to be itchy.
On race morning, I got up at 3:15, made myself a peanut butter and honey sandwich, made my tea, and got my pack all together. I was running with a hydration pack because I knew that I couldn’t go 8 miles on my 24 oz water bottle. Plus, this way I could carry more stuff to eat. I had two pineapple/apple sauce pouches that I stole from my daughter (okay, I bought them for myself), a pineapple fruit cup, and a Ziploc bag of salty nuts.
The Dashing Sister came over the night before so she could crew me (I didn’t want to ask the Dashing Wife to do it – crewing me with two kids would be a bit rough on her), so the Dashing Wife took me to the race start; at 4 in the morning.
My wife is awesome.
It was chilly at race start and I decided to go with the garbage bag instead of a throw away. I just figured it would be easier. There was also a lunar eclipse! That was pretty damn awesome.
As I walked over to the warming tent (shove 300 people into a tent and it gets toasty), I heard a voice carry over the parking lot. Whose voice, you ask? Endorphin Dude’s, of course. That started the string of pictures. The next 80 minutes or so was chatting with folks, getting rid of extra weight (peeing and stuff), and just working out some nervous energy.
My original goal when I signed up was to run around 9 hours. I figured I had improved over the previous year and I could come close to my road 50 mile time from last year, even though this was on trail. However, WTC 50k taught me a lesson. I adjusted my goals, and was going to try for under 10 hours. I really wanted 9:45, so I could legitimately start in wave 1 with the fast folks.
At the race start, I lined up toward the back of the pack. I didn’t want to go out too fast like I usually do. It was still dark at 6am, and I had on my small clip on head lamp. It just clips onto my hat visor (as you will see in all the rest of the pictures because I forgot to hand it off to the Dashing Sister). It isn’t all that bright, but it is lightweight and would do the job well enough to get me through the first few miles, especially with everybody else’s lights.
The first mile was on pavement, and then we turned onto some trails. This was my first real experience running trails at night. Good thing it wasn’t highly technical, and I had somebody to follow. I had set a timer on my Garmin to beep every 20 minutes. This was my reminder to eat something. I took a small handful of salty nuts, and ate those. I also took a short walk break (mainly so I didn’t choke – I can see the headlines – Runner dies with nuts in mouth).
By the time I hit mile 4 or so, the sun was coming up. The trail had ended onto a gravel road about the same time. I ran/walked across the Mormon Island Auxiliary Dam, and then around the parking lot at Folsom Point to the first aid station. I was averaging about a 9:30 ish pace at this point.
My goal was to run about a 9 minute pace to the bottom of the hill (mile 16 or so), and start slowing down from there. While I wasn’t quite hitting my goal, I also wasn’t going to dwell on it. My first goal, always, is to finish (dead last is better than did not finish). I also know that it is better to be consistent than to burn yourself out early.
I had told myself to not run up hills. I basically said that if I couldn’t get up the hill in four steps, do not run up it. Use the time to eat something, use walking muscles, and save my energy for flats and downhills. Never waste a downhill.
After Folsom Point, we turned onto sidewalks along a main road, and nearly 8 miles to the next aid station. We also ran under the new Johnny Cash Pedestrian Bridge, which pretty darn cool.
We went past the start line for Folsom Blues Half Marathon (and 2014) and then we got to run downhill to the river. A nice 200 foot drop over the next two miles (which I would have to climb back up in a couple hours) followed. That was a nice relaxing run.
The course crossed the American River at the historic Walker Bridge (the bridge was originally built in 1893, removed in the 1930s to go over the Klamath River, and then returned back to its original abutments in the 1990s ), the it went around the historic Folsom Powerhouse (the first long distance power provider), and then off to the next aid station. We then rolled into the third aid station at Willow Point, which oddly enough, was right around the corner from where I work.
The Willow Point aid station was at mile 12.77, and was run by new running club, the Buffalo Chips. So I got some good words of encouragement from those folks. It was also here that I realized how badly my arm was chafing on my hydration pack. I grabbed some Vaseline, slathered on my arm, and kept going. The only issue was that I was so focused on my arm that I didn’t stop to pee.
I was hoping that I could get a bit ahead of the folks so I could duck behind a bush or tree and relieve myself. But every time I did, there was somebody standing on the side of the paved trail. I finally found a nice tree to hide behind. My first half marathon was a respectful 2:06. Not my best time, but pretty good considering what lay ahead of me.
I kept going at a decent pace until we crossed the American River again. This time at Hazel Avenue. I know this bridge well, it is a great run down the bridge during Folsom Blues Half Marathon. But we were running the opposite direction. So I took my time to eat my pineapple cup as I walked up the bridge. After the bridge was more uphill, but on trail. We wound through some hills on single track until we got to the Main Bar aid station.
This was the best aid station, because I volunteered there last year. I saw a couple folks who recognized me, said hi, got fueled up, and got moving. I was pretty excited because as I left the aid station, I saw that my Garmin was a half mile less than what the aid station was at. As the guy next to me said, “we just banked 5 minutes.” Awesome, I’ll take five minutes.
The next few miles to Negro Bar aid station were probably my favorite part of the race. I had never run in this area before. Heck, I didn’t even know it existed. It was a nice single track trail, that wasn’t overly technical, but not flat either. A near perfect trail. I descended out the trails to see my friend Heather (who came in just behind Endorphin Dude at AR50 two years ago) cheering folks. She graciously accepted my offer of a sweaty runner hug and sent me on my way.
Negro Bar was just right around mile 20, and at the bottom of the hill to climb back up to Beals point. Four-ish miles and 300+ feet of climbing. Nothing much really, but I needed to be smart. I also noticed that my Garmin and mile marker were matched up again. There went that 5 minutes. I fueled up, ran a bit more and found an open bathroom, so I peed again.
The next four miles were not fast, but I still kept an okay pace. I was feeling the blisters form on the toes on my left foot. I wasn’t going to pop them if I didn’t have to. I have run on blisters before, and they were just on my toes and they weren’t bothering me that much.
I arrived at Beal’s Point aid station (mile 24.3) within 6 minutes of my 4 hour goal time. I saw the Dashing Sister right at the arch and she had my food. She was a little upset because I didn’t get there in less than 4 hours, because if I did, she had my permission to yell at me for running too fast.
First, we tried to apply a large bandaid to my arm to prevent more chafing. Unfortunately, with the sweat and Vaseline, the bandaid did not stick. Then I dumped my garbage, and grabbed three pineapple/apple pouches, two pineapple cups (one went in my pocket), and asked my sister to grab my nut bag.
I mean, my Ziploc bag of salty legumes. We did hear some gasps of shock, but we explained that we grew up in the country, so it was okay.
The Dashing Sister and I walked to the aid station, where I filled my hydration pack. The Dashing Sister also handed me a Dr. Pepper. The coke on the course was good, but Dr. Pepper is sooooo much better. I also ate that pineapple cup that I stashed in my pocket. The Dashing Sister walked with me around Beals Point until I finished my pineapple, and then I started running again.
The weird part about Beal’s Point was that I used to use the swimming area to get my mile+ open water swims when I was training for Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon fours years ago. This year, I could probably walk most of that distance.
So I ran across the dike on my way to the Granite Bay aid station, around mile 29.5. I hit marathon distance at 4:35, took a selfie, and trudged on. I don’t remember too much of this bit. There wasn’t anything spectacular to look at, I just wanted to keep moving.
Granite Bay aid station brought me to the Dashing Sister again. She was there for moral support. I grabbed some food at the aid station, which had chicken soup. Just like Way Too Cool, that stuff was amazing. The Dashing Sister dumped some ice water over my head, and I grabbed a couple cubes and put them in my hat. Without having any hair on my head, that ice was too cold, so I dumped them out a few minutes later, but it did help to cool me off a bit.
I also loaded up on fluids. I had nearly 9 miles, hard miles, to go to the next aid station, and I did not want to run out of water. I also peed again. (sorry about the urination documentation. I didn’t do it enough at Way Too Cool, so I was taking note of pee breaks to make sure I was hydrating enough.)
The next 9 miles were rough. Not only was it the longest stretch without support, it was going to run through the notorious “Meat Grinder.” The Meat Grinder started around mile 31 (which I managed to that 50k 15 minutes faster then Way Too Cool), and is about 5 miles of steep climbs, steep drops, with lots of rocks, roots, and loose sand. Last year, this section wasn’t so bad, but this year I had ran 24 more miles on my legs before I reached this point. One of the nice things was that I didn’t roll my ankle. I rolled my ankle five times on this stretch last year. But this year I had 800 miles of experience between my two pair of Hoka Stinson Trail shoes (plus three pair in the closet) rather than only 70 miles.
I couldn’t manage faster than a 13 minute mile for the next 6 miles. It just sucked the life out of me. I nearly got ran over by one of the many mountain bikers who weren’t supposed to be out there, I had to step aside so people on horses, who also weren’t supposed to be out there, could pass by. I don’t think either of these things hurt my overall time, but they were annoying.
About the time when my water pack was getting close to empty, I was doing mental calculations about how much farther to Horseshoe Bar aid station. My Garmin was saying I was getting close to mile 37, so about a mile or so to go to the aid station, and only a half marathon left to run.
About that time, the hill before the aid station appeared. I could hear folks cheering, and a volunteer came running down the hill.
This guy said, “Hey Runner!!!!! What do you need! Give me your pack!” I took off my pack, and asked for a half and half water/electrolyte mix in my pack. I took a couple shots of chicken soup and coke at the aid station, and got moving. I saw the sign that said “Mile 38.1,” I had banked another mile! No wonder my last 6 miles were so slow.
The next aid station was Rattlesnake Bar, less than three miles away. Rattlesnake Bar is special. This is where I picked up Endorphin Dude two years ago, and where we flew through last year. Also, I did a run with some Buffalo Chips the weekend before from Rattlesnake Bar to the finish. I knew I had about 9.3 miles to finish. I KNEW this. I had run this stretch three times, and each time it was between 9.1 and 9.3 miles. I hit Mile 40 on the Garmin in the aid station. I had banked a mile, that was 13 minutes off my finish time. I was very happy. Less than 15k to go.
The Dashing Sister was there, my friend Heather was there, and the Dashing Friend’s Husband’s Co-woker was there too (she was on the CIM relay team in 2013). Everybody was giving me words of encouragement. I left the aid station (Garmin Mile 40, Course Mile 40.9) with a time of 7:55. 125 minutes to go a little over 9 miles, and I could finish in under 10 hours. The week before we did the run in 1:43. I wasn’t sure I had it in me, I told everybody as much, but I was going to try.
The hardest part was climbing out of Rattlesnake. We had to climb a 20 degree slope for about 200 yards to get back to the main trail. That really sucked. My strategy at the top of the hill had changed from the rest of the race. I had nine miles to go, I decided to push a little harder than I had the last 41 miles. I knew there was quite a bit of flat sections for the next 6 miles.
There were also two more aid stations before the finish. On the course, I was leap frogging with a couple of other runners. One was a group of three guys (two runners and a pacer). They were going much better on the uphills, and we were even on the flats, but I was pushing past them on the downhills. One guy passed me with about 4 miles to go and stayed ahead the rest of the race. I never saw the other two after mile 44.
I went through the first aid station with little issues. I grabbed a couple things and kept on moving. Not much later, I passed Mormon’s Ravine.
Funny story about Mormon’s Ravine. Two years ago when I paced E-Dude, I saw the sign and I told him about the history of Mormon’s Ravine. I told him that the ravine was not named for the group of Mormon miners who settled the area during the Gold Rush, but it was actually named much later for a Jamaican Man. E-Dude question this, and I explained. A group of Jamaicans were visiting the area and sliding down the steep walls into the ravine. At the end of the day they were going to go, but one gentlemen decided to try one more time but he hit a rock on the way down and died. Right before he left on his last and fatal attempt, he said (in my best Jamaican accent), “One mor’ mon!”
Yes it is an absolutely horrible not funny joke, but after running for 11+ hours it was so horrible it made him laugh. So, every time either of us run past that point, it makes us smile. E-dude sent me this picture after the race.
About a mile after the Mormon’s Ravine, my music died. No mor’ mon. Oh well, keep moving.
I kept moving at a decent pace until I hit the base of “That Dam Hill.” I mentioned this hell before. The hardest part of the whole race is the last 3.3 miles. 3.3 miles and 950 feet of climbing. As I have ran this hill three times, I know how hard it is. The majority of the climb is up to the next aid station. It is 450 feet up in 0.75 miles on gravel road. There is one flat part right after the “3 miles to go” marker, but it is pretty much up, up, up.
I took my last GU, and I did some backwards walking on the steep part to use some different muscles, I also threw in some 15 second running stretches to push up the hill. I got to the Last Gasp Aid Station, and one of the shirtless men in tights (yes, you read that right. Shirtless men in tights) came down the hill to grab my pack. He had it half filled with electrolyte (which I asked for) and closed by the time I got to the aid station. I grabbed a shot of coke and the last orange wedge (they were in the process of cutting more), and kept pushing up the hill.
I know from the previous years that this hill is very runnable. Endorphin Dude has put in some of his fastest miles on this hill. It is the last bit before the finish. Leave nothing left.
I had about 2.5 miles to go, and about 36 minutes to do it if I wanted to finish in under 10 hours. I still wasn’t sure I could do it, but I sure was going to try. 14 minute miles up a hill, that’s it. Last year, Endorphin Dude was going to resign himself to a sub 12 hour finish. I told him that was not acceptable and that we were going to get a sub 11:30. We pushed up that hill with sub 14 minute miles. Why shouldn’t I push myself like that?
I started with a fast walk around the first corner. I decided to try some run walk. 30 seconds of running and 30 seconds of walking. I passed one guy who called me crazy. I said I was doing intervals, he said he was too, a 3 mile walking interval. I did intervals for about to the 2 miles to go sign. It was too much. I had to walk. I kept the fast walk going as best as I could for the next half mile. That is about when I hit the flat stretch.
I started running again. I kept going to the 1 mile to go marker. I took my walk break and texted the Dashing Wife (who was waiting with the kids and Dashing Sister) to let her know where I was. I looked at my Garmin and I had 15 minutes to get to finish and less than a mile to go. I knew I could do it. I changed my Garmin screen to show my lap pace, as long as that lap pace was under 15 minutes, I would finish sub 10. I was power walking up the bit, and keeping my pace under 14 minute miles. Whenever I saw my lap pace creep close to 14 minutes, I would run for 30 seconds, which dropped the pace to under 13. I could hear the finish line across the way. I was soooooo close.
With less than a half mile to go, and during a run interval I saw two of my ex-teammates from Pamakids who gave me high fives and cheered me on. I was glad they saw me running. I look more awesome when I am running.
About 100 yards later, I made my third to last right turn. Down a little hill, then up another steep hill. I ran it the week before; this time, it wasn’t going to happen. My quads were on FIRE. At the top of the hill, and about 300 yards to go, I made the second to last right turn, onto Pacific Road. This was a slight up hill, but I can push myself for 300 yards, and I kept running.
I made my last right turn onto the grassy knoll with 200 yards to go. There was some more Pamakids, who cheered me on. I kicked into high gear.
About 100 yards to the finish and I see the Dashing Sister with the Dashing Son and Dashing Daughter. My son is jumping up and down like the ground is electrified, he yells, “Daddy, can I run in with you?!”
“You betcha buddy! Let’s go!”
Then my daughter saw me, and reached out for me. Not thinking (or caring) that I had been running through poison oak the last 6 hours, I took her in my arms. I looked at my Garmin and I had 2:30 minutes to go the last bit and started to walk because I was carrying a 25 lb toddler in my arms.
After three steps, I said, “Screw this! I’m running!” (I don’t think I said this out loud, but I didn’t say “Screw”) and started running full tilt again. I crossed the first timing mat, and they said my name and that I was carrying a small child. I saw the clock change to 9:58 just before I crossed the finish line. I did it! Sub 10 hour finish!
I got my medal, they took my picture, and then I put the baby down. She is heavy.
One of the perks of doing AR50 is that they give you a jacket at the end. I have seen, and coveted, Endorphin Dude’s jackets he received the last two years. They are awesome. Patagonia lightweight shell jackets. Perfect for running or hiking. I was so excited to get one.
But this year, they gave out quarter zip fleece jackets.
I was so upset. I think I actually said, “ahh man” before I thanked the lady for the jacket. It wasn’t just that I wanted the shell, it’s just that I don’t wear fleece jackets, and I probably won’t wear a quarter zip. After I cleaned up, I actually went and bought last year’s shell jacket. I ran half of last year’s race, plus I worked an aid station, and it was yellow. And if somebody asks, I will tell them I paced in 2014. Later, my wife also suggested that we take it to a tailor/seamstress person to convert it to a full zip. That, I will wear.
I walked with the kids out of the finisher’s chute found the Dashing Wife and Sister and hobbled over to the car.
It is amazing how I my ability to walk normal-ish ended right after crossing the finish line. I opened up my car and started to get cleaned up. My wife and sister asked what they could do, and I told them not to touch me because I was covered in poison oak (the wife is pretty susceptible). I got my shoes, socks, gaiters, and compression sleeves off. Then I sprayed myself down and washed my legs with technu. Then I got my shirt off and washed my arms and shoulders. Then I had my sister spray my head and face down. I had a changing towel, but could really bend over to get clean underwear and shorts on. Luckily my wife was there to get those on my feet and up a bit to where I could reach them to pull them all the way on.
Then I drank my chocolate milk, and my recovery drink. I went and got a message, which help immensely. I assessed the damage to my body. Other than sore muscles, I had those blisters on my left foot, chafing on my left arm pit, and chafing on my back (the chafing was from my hydration pack), but that was it. I was actually walking fairly normal by Tuesday after the race.
After the massage, it was a waiting game. I was waiting for Endorphin Dude. He had fallen behind his goal, and finished just under 13 hours. He was doing well until he hit the meat grinder. The poor guy was just tired. He had run a 100 miler, a 50k, another 50k, another 50k, a 50 miler, a 50k, another 50k, another 50k, I think another 50k, and a half marathon in the previous weeks. Basically in the last three months, his shortest weekend run was a half marathon, and it was on trail.
While the course was beautiful, I did well, and I don’t hurt all that much (now), I was done at mile 20. After four hours, I didn’t want to be running anymore. I was doing calculations at how slow I could walk to finish the race after about mile 18. Luckily for me, I am stubborn and I don’t like to give up, I had a goal, so I kept pushing myself to the finish. I don’t I could have run the race much better. I am sure if I had a pacer the second half of the race, it would have helped with the mental game, and made the experience better.
In the end, I don’t think I am an ultra runner. I will probably run some road or flat 50ks in the future, maybe some trail marathons, definitely trail half marathons. And I will pace during ultras. I really enjoy pacing. I am running somebody else’s race, not mine. I get to entertain, which is what I like to do.
The one thing that I will definitely take away from this race is what this one guy said as he hobbled past my car. “This was way harder than an Ironman.” That is great news! I really want to do an Ironman, if it is easier than running this race, I am set. Besides, after AR50, I got to add a cool sticker to my car.