Looking back on the 2016 American River 50 Mile Endurance Race, it’s a swell of emotion that overcomes me. For the second consecutive year Brian N. and I have toed the starting line, in what many consider “crazy?!?” running 50 miles. The question that follows, “Why?” My answer, because I can. There was a point in life where running was something I disliked, from youth sports to high school and into college, I did not like conditioning days. It wasn’t until I started eating right in October, 2011, thanks to Forks Over Knives, a Protective Diet and exercise, taking up running near the end of 2012, with my training culminating in finishing my first race, a half marathon in 1:58, of March the following year.
From couch to half marathon, I had conquered something new and felt great crossing the finish line under 2 hours to the cheering of my friend and his wife, earning my first finisher’s medal. The next year it would be my first ultra marathon, jumping into a the Diablo Trails Challenge, a 50k on Mount Diablo. Finishing this race in 8:53 I experienced my first “runner’s high” yearning to run longer distances. The feeling was unbelievable, unlike anything I had every experienced in life. For a few weeks I felt as if I was on cloud nine.
Last year, my first running of the AR50, an experience I will forever cherish, crossing the finish in 13:52:55, less than 8 minutes from the time limit. It was an accomplishment I never expected, but mentally, was prepared for the highs and lows through out the day. Memories of last year came pouring in as I ran various sections of the course with relentless forward progress towards my ultimate goal, the finish line.
Prior to Saturday, April 2 I had organized my running clothes, shoes and Nathan VaporAir Hydration Pack containing snacks and other necessities in preparation for race day. The alarm rang at 1:30AM, but it was a very restless night’s sleep with anticipation as my bed mate. As my day began memories of last year started coming back; the early morning, the cold and wind, starting arch, the journey ahead and not really knowing what to expect. After an uneventful drive to the finish line at American River Overlook Park, I collected my gear and headed for the shuttle back to the starting line.
Exiting the shuttle I quickly made contact with Brian and Michael L., our pacer for the day, as we waited out the last hour in his vehicle before we made our way to the starting line. Michael was instrumental in our run, as he took our split chart from last year, made a few adjustments and asked for our input. The result was a rock solid plan Brian and I felt comfortable with. Sticking to the plan would see us cross the finish in 13:27, more than 26 minutes ahead of where I finished last year. Realistically, the only times that mattered were the cutoff times at selected checkpoints and the overall total time of 14 hours.
Our plan for the first half of the race was to set a 16 min/mile pace, that’s a walking pace. We could have literally walked 24.31 miles to Beal’s Point and started our race from that aid staion. Needless to say it didn’t quite work out that way. While we didn’t go out fast, we did stick to our 4:1 ratio (run/walk), which worked well for approximately 22 miles, up to the final climb up to Beal’s Point. Yet our split times, based on Garmin show only 3 miles in excess of 16 minutes with many miles between 13-15 minutes. This allowed “extra” time on the back end of the course, which was more challenging being trail based, as opposed to most of the first 24 miles being hard surfaces. No matter how you split the course up or broke it down, we were in for a very long day but with a good plan in place we felt ready.
Avoiding injury was key in both our minds, as I picked up a sharp, shooting pain in my right knee last year about mile 12, while Brian twisted an ankle around mile 20. Carrying those monkeys on our backs, we hoped to remain strong through the first half of the race, with the “Meat Grinder” weighing heavily on our minds. What’s the Meat Grinder? Brian at Dashing Dad explains, “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…and is about 5 miles of steep climbs, steep drops, with lots of rocks, roots, and loose sand.” It’s not all that technical, but you must throw caution to the wind when you run this section or it could be your downfall, as it was for us last year.
Through the first 4.97 miles to Folsom Point we were 14 minutes ahead of our planned split, which was to be expected as it was the start of the race with adrenaline racing through the veins. Feeling good, it was a very quick stop; a salt tablet and PB&J and were on the go to Willow Creek, 7.80 miles away, the second longest leg of the day. This was a long stretch running on sidewalks, pavement and bike trails for much of this leg. Bicyclists became more prevalent as made the turn off Folsom Lake Crossing onto the American River Bike Trail. Much like last year, it was a challenge to remain focused, while avoiding bicyclists of varying skills. Some were downright rude, bombing down the bike trail at high speed, while others were courtesy, calling out, “Back!” or “Left!” as they approached.
As we pulled into Willow Creek at 8:52AM, we were 31 minutes ahead of our planned split. With Michael tracking our progress, we received a text message just out of the aid station, “Might want to throttle back a little.” We were on a 13:30 min/mile pace, nearly 2:30 minutes faster than our plan. Our target pace remained a relaxed 16 min/mile pace, which meant more walking, in order to save our legs for the second half of the race. We were fine with that pulling 14:30 to 15:30 minute miles as we made our way towards Sacramento State Aquatic Center and the climb up to the next aid station, Main Bar.
The course transitioned from road to trail just prior to 10AM for us, as the day began to warm. Brian had made note of the forecast temperatures being in the mid 70s for the race, which was a bit of a concern. If there is one challenge that is difficult to overcome, it’s the heat. Keeping your core cool and staying hydrated are key to combating the heat. I felt more prepared for the heat, based solely on running in 80-90 degree temperatures at home for training, a bit different than Brian putting in quality miles in the cooler climate of Daly City. This would be the biggest challenge of the day, as the temperatures continued to climb the deeper we progressed into the race.
The aid station at Main Bar saw us 32 minutes ahead of our plan as we refueled and hydrated, attempting to get some relief from the rising temperatures. Last year I concentrated on my fuel, bringing my own chia energy bars and dates to keep the energy level high, with water as my main source of hydration. At aid stations, I keyed on boiled red potatoes and bananas and more water. After 25 miles of eating the same foods and drinking the same fluid, I yearned for something more, more substance, more flavor and appetizing. So it really was no surprise when we hit the aid station at mile 38.14 I grabbed a handful of red licorice and continued on.
A key component to finishing this race is the ability to stay hydrated and fueled so you don’t bonk, “a condition caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, which manifests itself by sudden fatigue and loss of energy.” No runner wants to bonk, but if you mismanage your intake, bonking could be detrimental to finishing. Last year I put lots of thought into what I wanted to carry in my pack and eat at aid stations and drink. While I didn’t bonk, I quickly tired of the snacks and more importantly I yearned for something more than water.
This year I changed my approach to some degree, bringing chia energy bars and dates with me. For my water I decided to supplement with Nuun Hydration tablets (watermelon and lemon-lime) to keep the electrolytes up. At checkpoints I gave myself a bit of leeway this year going with quartered PB&J sandwiches and an assorted array of liquids to keep things fresh. Discussing hydration and fuel with Michael out of Beal’s Point, he suggested going with bottles as opposed to a bladder. He carried two bottles of water on him and a 22 oz. handheld filled with electrolytes, which could be refilled at all the aid station. This way he know exactly how many calories he was receiving from the handheld and could supplement with snacks at the aid stations. Fueling and hydration were better this year, but I can foresee changes I want to implement next year.
While I wasn’t particularly happy with my food and drink choices, the variety I experienced over 50 miles was a nice change of pace compared to last year. Water, while necessary was also my downfall, as I didn’t use ice and didn’t drink enough after leaving Horseshoe Bar. Water tasted terrible and by mistake I picked up a small cup of Sprite, which was a real shot in the arm after drinking warmish, non-flavored water.
Between Main Bar and Negro Bar, 3.20 miles, we paralleled the American River Bike Trail on a single track. Temperatures were creeping into the low 70s and the heat was starting to take effect. Our min/mile times were still very good, averaging 15 minutes, still ahead of our split plan. Approaching Negro Bar, at a walking pace I hit Michael with a text, “Probably in the neighborhood bar in about five minutes.” With a good laugh I corrected the text to read, “Pulling into Negro in about five minutes” not the neighborhood bar. Although a beer right about now would have hit the spot! We passed mile 20.18 as we arrived into the aid station, but had lost some time climbing out, now just 24 minutes ahead of plan. Into Beal’s Point we were told, “the climb up to BP will slow you down a bit as well.” By this time, Michael was at Beal’s Point waiting for us to arrive with our drop bag in hand.
Out of Negro Bar in a flash, cooled off and refueled, we felt good as it was just 5.14 miles to Beal’s Point. It would also be one of two climbs during the race before being rewarded seeing Michael. We had transitioned back to pavement on the American River Bike Trail, with many riders, some slow rolling hills. By this time our 4:1 ratio was out the door and we had slowed our pace to a walk. Knowing we we going to be ahead of schedule into Beal’s Point we attempted to conserve energy for the race that began a few miles out of Granite Bay, with the Meat Grinder. The climb ended back where it began at Folsom Lake Crossing, passing Folsom Prison, each step zapping more and more energy as the sun was nearly overhead.
Brian was beginning to really struggle with the heat, I recall asking about 3/10ths of a mile from Beal’s Point if he wanted to run it…ended up being the last 1/10th we ran, as it was downhill. Good call! No reason to expend more energy when we arrived at the entrance to Beal’s Point. It was a welcomed sight to see smiling faces and people cheering every runner coming down the hill through the arch. We were pleased with our progress and time through 24.31 miles arriving at the aid station in 6:03 at 12:03PM, this put us 30 minutes ahead of what Michael had planned.
Last year I was all about Luna Sandals, but after a year long battle with pain in my feet, I made a change in footwear. Talking to Tracy of WCTR and Shrina Z. at Razorback Endurance Race in March, both who experienced feet issues, swore HOKA was the answer. Brian had been on me for a while to “drink the Kool-Aid!” and go HOKA. About 4 weeks before the race I went shoe shopping, purchased not one, but two pairs of HOKA, for street and trail. Overall, I was very pleased with the performance and comfort they provided over 50 miles. I did however pick up 4 blisters on my feet before reaching Beal’s Point, but the discomfort was not enough to stop me.
For me, I changed shoes discarding my HOKA Constant 2 (street) for the HOKA Stinson 3 ATR, the trail shoe, as all but 3 miles were to be run on trails. The change did my feet well, as I had developed 4 blisters on my feet. The blisters on the inside of my left heel and on my right little toe were the most bothersome. The change in shoes took some of the pressure off these hot spots and my feet felt fresh. My planning had me changing socks, but I didn’t even want to bother or doctor the blisters, I would deal with it.
My motivation for getting to Beal’s Point this year, a Chipotle veggie burrito with brown rice, black beans, lettuce and tomato salsa. I know, I know (directed to the PD crowd) not the best food to refuel with, but DAMN! It hit the spot! It was a great motivator and while not oil free, high in sodium, I needed the calories. Did I mention it tasted AMAZING?! Come to find out I expended more energy chewing and digesting this burrito, which could have been conserved for the rest of the course but for this race it worked for me. While walking out the aid station, we discussed fueling and hydration to some length, a point I have already touched on. Next year, I will readdress what I fuel with and how I plan to hydrate. Soft, more palatable foods that you can squeeze out of a small bottle would allow me the necessary calories while expending less energy to eat.
With Beal’s Point and the burrito behind us, we looked forward to what was to come. Our Achilles heal least year, the Meat Grinder but the next 5.14 miles were quite uneventful, as we followed Michael, who set the pace. After all, this is why we asked him to pace us. The noon day sun was beat down hard, thankfully living in Oakley, running in warm weather I was accustomed to heat that does nothing but drains your energy. I was feeling good a few miles outside of Granite Bay, still had a smile on my face and in some warped way was still having fun.
The run from Granite Bay to Horseshoe Bar was the longest segment of the race at 8.69 miles. For us it occurred at the warmest time of the day as well, which didn’t bode well for Brian, who struggled into the aid station, but still desiring to finish the race after falling just 9 miles short the year before. I remember Granite Bay because a volunteer too my hat off and dunked it in the cold water. I didn’t get their name, but this really went a long way. Just another reason why those individuals who take time out of their day to make ours happen, goes a long way.
Refueled, cooled off we were back on our way after 29 miles. Michael led us out of the aid station and the trail turned single track. I was continually looking behind me, sensing Brian was falling further and further off the pace. About a mile from the start of the Meat Grinder, Michael slowed, I caught him but the heat had consumed Brian. Michael doubled back to check on Brian’s condition. That was the last I saw of them, as Michael told me to continue. I recall sending a text at 1:37PM, “Just started the meat grinder” but never got a response. It would about about two and a half hours later at 3:51PM we had an exchange:
Me: How’s it going
Michael: 2M from HB (2 miles from Horseshoe Bar)
Michael: B is very light headed from the heat.
Michael: Slow walking pace. You?
Me: Leaving HB (Horseshoe Bar)
Just 2 miles out of the aid station I saw the welcome sign of the Meat Grinder. This section of the course isn’t difficult per se, but can be technical in areas. The loose rocks, exposed roots, soft sand and narrow trail made for a challenging section of this 50 mile race. Last year, after sustaining injuries, we walked nearly all of the Meat Grinder. This year was going to be different, after saving our legs for the second half of the race, this is where the race really started for me. By this time I could feel all sorts of hot spots on my feet, blisters had formed.
By this time I was running by myself, not knowing the fate of Brian and Michael I could only hope I would receive a positive text from them. I maintained a good 15 minute pace for the first half of the Meat Grinder, but things slowed considerably when I hit mile 35 and I slowed. The next 3 miles were the longest of the day. Through the soft sand, up and down hills, climbing up rocks and being cautious on the descents on narrow trails with exposed roots. During this section of he course I saw people exhausted from the heat, many walking and others dry heaving. Even though I was tired I felt good and as Michael predicted, I was passing quite a few runners, most unintentionally. I was running my race, walking the hills and most of the flat trails, while putting in a good downhill pace on the descents.
Pleased with my progress through the Meat Grinder I continue to forge forward, while the pace had slowed, I would arrive at Horseshoe Bar at 3:47PM, 29 minutes ahead of plan! It was a welcome sight to hear the activity at the aid station and see the volunteers so welcoming.
This was the BEST aid station of the entire race! It was also the second time during the race I would see Fleet Feet employee and friend, Ellisa C. She passed Brian and I about mile 12, we had a quick exchange and she continued on. At the aid station she had picked up her husband, Nick who would pace her through to the finish. I was surprised I had caught her, as she looked strong when she passed us hours back, but some issues and her pace slowed. We exchanged words and a some high fives and I was then taken care of by a volunteer.
If there is one volunteer who went above and beyond, it John B. (thanks to Ellisa for his name) who met me upon arrival at Horseshoe Bar. Ellisa was saying good bye to him, telling him to take good care of me, which he did. I unsnapped my hydration pack, which he took, refilled with new water and added some Nuun tablets too. Not to waste too much time in the aid station I grabbed some PB&J sandwiches, another salt tablet and had some soda. Again, not the drink of choice (especially for PD’ers) but damn it tasted good! Walking back over to John, he helped me into my hydration pack, then took my handkerchief, untied it from my neck and dunked it in cool water for me, retying it around me neck. Small actions, such as these after some 10 hours really made me feel good. Words can’t express the gratitude I had for him and all the other volunteers.
It was only 2.80 miles to Rattlesnake Bar and the final checkpoint with a cutoff time of 5:15PM. Unlike last year there was no doubt I would make the checkpoint comfortably. Like most of the Meat Grinder, I continued to pass other runners at my pace, which had slow considerably. The trails were nice, “slow rollers” as we were told last year out of Horseshoe Bar.
The descent into and climb out of Rattlesnake was an emotional one for me, nearly tearing up as all runners were welcomed into and back out of the aid station. It was quite an emotional lift seeing the smiles and hearing the cheering from people lining the trail to Rattlesnake Bar. Last year, it was Amer B. who greeted me with open arms, warm smile and encouraging words that set the tone for the final 9 miles. This year it was the crowd that gathered. Wasting no time, I topped off my pack for the remainder of the race, grabbed a handful of snacks and I got back onto the trail. Leaving the aid station I was still 9 minutes ahead of our plan with the possibility of finishing by 7:29PM.
The sun was slowly setting in the west and the rest of the run would be in the cool afternoon along the American River, which was much more wild this year as opposed to last. As I established myself on the trail I caught up with two women and an Asian man, running his first 50 mile race. The ladies “chatting it up” set a good pace for the next 5 miles, which saw the predicted 20-22 min/mile up and down this tight single track.
Some 11 hours in and the day was taking it’s toll on my body, I could feel the intensity of the blisters with each step, developed a chaffed butt (not comfortable) and I had been dealing with a sharp, shooting pain on the top of my right foot (possibly from my shoe being tied too tight). None of this was going to prevent me from finishing. I knew leaving Rattlesnake Bar I would complete the race, it was just a matter of what time I would cross the finish. If I pushed by the pack of runners I was with I might have been able to make up a few minutes per mile, but decided I had the finish in the bag and was content to ride out the single track until we hit the bottom of Cardiac Trail, which would require me to reach deep in order to conquer.
This was the part of the race I dreaded all day long, as you know it’s coming and you know you will be exhausted. Mentally I was prepared for the climb out of the river valley to the finish line, but I mustered every bit of energy I had remaining to keep that relentless forward progress going. Step by step I out more trail behind me, bringing me closer to Last Gap, the final aid station of the race. It was my hope I would see Michael’s smiling face as I broke out from the single track to the fire trail to start the climb. Unfortunately I was a bit dejected when I started the climb by myself.
As I crested the fire trail I could see volunteers coming out to greet runners and see how they could help. I was asked if I needed any water in my pack, to which I responded “no” and continued into the aid station. I grabbed a few cups of liquid, a PB&J and a roll out of the spaghetti and meatball cups they had and started walking out of the aid station and who should I see coming down the road…Michael!
I was speechless, I was so thrilled and relieved to see him, as he would push me the final 3 miles to the finish line. My eyes welled up a bit as we exchanged some small talk, asking how I felt and we started making our way towards the final stretch of the American River 50 Mile Endurance Race. It had been a long day, but I felt better now than I had the last 20+ miles, running solo, thoughts kept to myself with no one to really talk to, in order to take my mind off the trail and put in a “happy place.” The experience was still worth it, I would not exchange the pain and agony for anything, this close to the finish line.
Each step was seemingly a struggle, as we discussed fueling and how the run in general had gone the past 5 hours. I already knew Brian had dropped at mile 38 because of heat exhaustion, this was disappointing and frustrating, as I know how determined he was to finish after pulling himself last year at Rattlesnake Bar, mile 40.94 due to a twisted ankle. Out of Last Gasp, I was now 10 minutes late, but the math still told me I could PR if I kept my current pace, which wasn’t fast, but steady.
It wasn’t long until I saw the big, black ‘3’ and I knew we were close. Walking back and forth across the road, pumping the arms I was determined to finish this race. Prior to getting to mile 2, Ellisa and her husband pushed past me, looking strong making their way up the hill. We did a bit of running on some of the level portions of the road when it flattened out. My legs were fatigued, my feet hurt but I was imagining crossing the finish line strong. Michael told me to conserve what energy I had left to make the run down the chute, through the arch.
People ask me why I want to run 50 miles. This year, it took 48 miles to come up with a reasonable answer, “to make sure my first 50 mile race wasn’t a fluke.” Finishing with less than 8 minutes last year, I considered myself very lucky to cross the finish line standing. It was a struggle all day long, with emotional highs and lows. Today was no different, but being mentally prepared and having a solid plan in hand made the day easier to manage. Running from aid station to aid station, allowed us to break the race down into easy to run chunks. I really had hoped Brian would have been by my side walking up the fire road. Still 50 miles is a huge achievement and I was pleased to be on the home stretch.
We passed the last big black number, “1” and I was less than 16 minutes away from the finish. By now I could start to hear the activity at the finish line, which seemingly gave me that extra push to “get it done.” About half a mile from the finish people were scattered along the side of the road, cheering, providing shouts of encouragement, which had been a big motivator all day long. We crested the final hill, we started to run down toward the gate, turning right on Pacific Avenue and into the chute for the final stretch.
This experience is what makes the entire day worth it. Off Pacific Avenue, I run across the park grass and onto the sidewalk that leads into the chute and the final hundred yards to the finish line. People were lining both sides cheering as I made my way towards the arch. People high fiving, shouting congratulations as I finally picked up the clock, 13:30:20 and counting. Michael recorded the final 40 seconds as he was pushing me down the home stretch. Where that extra boost of energy came from I won’t know, but I ran the fastest I had all day as I heard my name called as I crossed the finish line at 13:40:39 (watch the video).
I was done, physically and mentally. The day, which started at 6AM was over, my race was won and I had been handed my finisher’s jacket and medal. Michael was there by my side to congratulate me, as was Ellisa, who had finished about 15 minutes ahead of me. It was another epic race, I had set a personal record (PR) by knocking off 12 minutes off my time from the previous year. What I suddenly noticed was how difficult it was to walk, my legs were fatigued and every step I took hurt. It really made me wonder, “how did I accomplish this achievement?” It was a few minutes before I found Brian, who shook my hand and gave me a hug, telling me how proud he was, overcoming the challenges of the day and finish. It meant a lot to have a good friend and good runner say that.
Finish the American River 50 Mile Endurance Race meant more to me this year, than last year. With the exception of not training enough prior to the race, I proved to myself I was mentally and physically capable to go the distance. Even with more training, this would still be a very demanding and challenging race. Now I am the proud owner of two AR50 Patagonia jackets and look forward to 2017 and another attempt at running this course!