American River 50 Mile Race Report

1st Place - 6:08:18

This race came too soon for me.  I wasn't ready, but I threw everything I had at it, and welcomed the victory, even if the depth of the field did not compare to some recent years.  I was delirious and utterly spent as I made the final climb to Auburn, alternately walking and "running" (if it could be called running) on the steep, early section of the "dam wall."  But even after the incline mellowed past the Last Gasp aid (47.56 miles), my walk-run dichotomy continued.  My legs were so far gone that I just couldn't run more than a minute or so at a time, even on a mild incline.  These final miles were some of the longest of my life, and as I mercifully crossed the line, I pointed skyward—"For you, mom."  

Not to get too heavy, but my mom passed away last year due to gastric cancer.  I also spent most of the year unable to run due to an Achilles injury sustained in a freak cycling accident; this coming just after I had quit my job as an attorney to pursue my running more seriously.  The struggle with the latter obviously pales in comparison to the former, but when running is such an important part of one's life for so many reasons, the daily toll you feel from not being able to run can really compound.  My mom and my family were at peace with her situation, and through the pain and grief there were also blessings; but one of her wishes before she passed was to see me healthy again, pursuing my goals and nurturing my gift.  She was my biggest supporter (along with my dad and sister), and the reason I'm a runner.  She recognized my ability as a grade school student and encouraged me to go out for cross country.  Without that initial impetus, and her ardent support through the years, I may not be a runner at all and almost certainly not the runner I am today.  I couldn't help but think about all this on the trails, as I spent the last 35 miles running alone.  I've run several other races over the last few months as I've begun my comeback, but none required such an inner struggle, such an element of faith in getting through something I was not yet well-prepared to do.  

I've been struggling a bit in getting back to form in training, and I've only been able to do a few workouts and a few runs over 20 miles (I think four in total, two of them races—a marathon and a 50k).  My Achilles is at about 99%, and I'm thankful for that, but there have been a handful of trying setbacks.  Among these was a bout with a stomach virus last month that forced me to withdraw from the Way Too Cool 50k, which, like American River, is put on by Julie Fingar and the NorCalUltra folks.  (I also had to pull out of last year's AR50 due to my Achilles injury.)  Julie has been very supportive through all this, and I felt I owed her a good performance.  I felt I owed the same to Salomon, my shoe and apparel sponsor.  Salomon has been wonderful, supporting and encouraging me through my extended injury trials (not to mention providing great gear!), and keeping me on the team even after a nearly non-existent 2012 racing season.  I didn't know if I could produce on Saturday, but I knew I would do everything I could to fight well.

Race morning started early, with a 3:15 wakeup call in order to get up to Auburn, drop off my car, and shuttle bus down to Sacramento for the start.  Before the start, I met and chatted with Eric Senseman before getting in a quick warmup: a light set of dynamic warmup exercises, a few minutes of easy jogging, and a few form drills and strides.  Once the race started, Eric and I continued chatting and ran together, clicking off miles in the 6:15-6:20 range on the mostly-flat bike path.  We were leading the race in short order, and nobody really went out with us.  The early miles passed by quickly enough, but my legs were feeling the effort more than one would hope this early.  I don't know if going any slower would have made much of a difference.  I wasn't aerobically challenged or anything, I just seem to be lacking endurance muscularly after such a long layoff last year.  

Shortly before the Sunrise aid (14.61—reached in ~1:32), Eric let me know that the pace was a touch hot for him and that he was going to back off.  I thought about doing the same, but I ended up just maintaining pace, slowly pulling away over the coming miles.  After our brief foray into the bluffs around mile 17, I was out of sight, and unsure of how closely Eric might be following.  I was starting to get worried about how poor my legs were feeling just 20 miles into the race, but there was nothing much to do about it.  I was in the lead, and I figured I might as well try to maintain.  A gradual climb brought me to the marathon mark in 2:45:18 by my watch.  A few minutes later I was at the Beals Point aid in 2:49/2:50.  After a quick attempt at emptying rocks from my shoes—a bust, turns out the rocks were in my socks, and would stay there 'til the end—I grabbed my refilled water bottle, a bit of food, and got back on my way.  As I looped around and exited the park near Beals Point, I saw Eric coming in.  I had about three minutes on him.

Shortly after Beals, the course turns to mostly singletrack until the final climb.  I had heard from a few people that this section gets a bit technical, particularly in the several miles before and after Buzzard's Cove (34.67).  I was feeling pretty rough by 30 miles, but drew confidence from my experience in previous ultras.  In particular, my mind drifted to the Lakefront 50 mile in 2011, where I salvaged a solid time despite being in a pretty bad way by 25 miles; as well as the 2011 UROC race, where I felt like dropping out 30 miles into the race, yet somehow managed to run another 32 miles and pull out a third place showing.  I guess my point is that I'm learning what my limits are, and that those are different from what my body is telling me.  I'm learning to focus simply on efficiency of movement, one foot in front of the other, having faith that you can continue, that you can make it through.  I've read of people visualizing animals (e.g. antelopes) to help reinforce this thinking.  For some reason, I kept thinking of Geoff Roes, and how smooth he was running when he flew by my on the Dragon's Back section of trail at UROC.  That trail, like the singletrack of American River, is not overly technical, but there are enough rocks, roots, and steps to throw you off.  Yet Geoff just glided over that terrain effortlessly.  I tried to do the same.

I made it to Horseshoe Bar (38.14) at 4:20 into the race, and I began to gain some confidence.  I hadn't heard any cheering at aid stations after I left them, meaning that no one was pursuing me within earshot anyway.  I kept working methodically and efficiently, though I was slowly beginning to fade.  I had already been walking some of the short, steep uphills, and I found myself struggling more with each passing mile.  Any time I encountered steps (or more accurately, step-like rocks or roots), I had to hike them because if I pushed off and lifted the opposite leg enough to clear the "step" I felt like my hamstrings would cramp.  Fortunately, my core stability seemed to be holding up—it was just the leg muscles giving me problems (not electrolyte-based, I don't believe, as I was popping plenty of S-Caps).

I tried to mentally prepare for the final climb, knowing it would be a grind, but it hardly mattered, I was so spent.  I walked a fair bit of the steep first mile of the climb.  I was losing a lot of time to the ghosts of the trail.  When I went through the marathon in 2:45, I knew this was quick enough to project a sub-6 based on others' splits in previous years, and I think I actually maintained a solid enough pace through most of the singletrack.  But come dam wall, the wheels were coming off fast.  As I went through Last Gasp, someone said I could still dip under 6 if I booked it.  My watch was at about 5:45, and with 2.5 miles to go, I was well aware that wasn't happening.  For quite some time, I'd been experiencing that sort of delirium and slowing brain function where it's hard to do basic math or form coherent thoughts.  All I could think was: move as quickly as you can manage, just get to the line.

It wasn't pretty, but I made it around the final bend, and came through the tape—an overwhelming sense of relief, a weight being lifted.  It felt good to be there, to be alive, to have covered 50 miles on foot while pushing the contours of my physical capability.  That may all sound a bit cheesy, but this one felt special.  I think it was a number of factors: emotions wrapped up in my mom's passing, the redemptive nature on several fronts, and my relative unpreparedness and how deeply I had to dig.  I thought I might cry, but instead I just stood there for about 20 seconds, unable to move, while Julie asked if I wanted a chair.  Instead, I lied down on the pavement, realizing I no longer needed to be upright.

After a brief (supine) post-race interview from the announcer, I made my way to a medical cot.  Eric came in shortly thereafter, clocking a very solid 6:20:58.  Eric is young (24) and coming on strong; definitely one to watch.  He's also a very nice guy (a shocker in the trail community, I know).  I'm sure he'll be in the mix next month at Ice Age.  I quickly downed a couple Gatorades on my cot and answered a few questions with the Auburn newspaper.  I don't really remember any details of this interview.  The delirium-factor was still there, and I was probably babbling some sort of nonsense.  Finally, as I devoured a double veggie burger and finished my third Gatorade, I began to feel like a human being again.  Eric, his very nice crew (sisters, mom, and girlfriend), and I chatted about the race, and eventually broke into some celebratory wine.  

Paulo Medina, a local runner (though originally from Peru), came through in third a short time later.  I got to spend some time drinking beer and hanging out with Paulo and some others from the Folsom Trail Runners and the Auburn Running Company that afternoon; a very cool and welcoming group of folks.  A trip with them to the Auburn Ale House for dinner capped a great day in California.  Congratulations to all of the finishers!  And a big thank you to my sponsors, and also to Julie Fingar, Anne Brown, the NorCalUltra team, and all the race volunteers.  They really have this race dialed in and put on a great event in a beautiful location.  I'd love to come back again in the future, especially when I'm a little more on top of my game.  Until then... see you out on the trails!

- Running Times
- Auburn Journal