As a result, Jo and I found ourselves flying to California so I could run this race and develop my own opinions, based on first hand knowledge.
I was using this race as a training run and I didn't have any high hopes for a PR or a top finish. I had just run the Antelope Island 100 miler 2 weeks prior and could feel some lingering effects. I'm also 2 weeks out from running the Zion 100, so I didn't want to do anything that would jeopardize my ability to perform well at that event.
The field for American River was capped at 850 runners, which makes this the 2nd largest 50 miler in the country, right behind JFK. The AR50 and JFK can get away with these huge crowds because neither race spends much time on actual trails, so there is ample room for a massive field of participants.
In the days leading up to the race, I had been traveling extensively for work, hitting 7 states between Wednesday and Friday. I was a bit worn out by the time I made my way to California and I had not been getting much rest and I certainly hadn't been eating well.
For my pre-race meal, we hit a local brew pub and gorged on beer and pizza. This is a standard routine for me before most ultras. Nothing new, or out of the ordinary. However, while eating, I commented that my pizza tasted a bit odd. In retrospect, I should have stopped eating right then. I didn't and paid the price later.
The race kicks off at 6:00 AM, so I was out of bed by 3:00. I felt unusually crappy when I woke up, but a few cups of coffee seemed to help and we headed to the start.
Before the race, I felt little waves of nausea sweeping over me. They came and went quickly and it had me a bit worried.
The start line in Sacramento
The race began for before sunrise, but because it started (and persisted) on a paved surface, there was no need for a headlamp.
Right before the start
There was a huge crowd lined up for the start, so I found a spot about 1/3 of the way into the field and figured I could go out easy and move up toward the front after I got warmed up. I continue to try this little trick at each race in hopes of using my position in the pack to slow my pace in the early miles. It almost never works because my patience and Type A personality almost always force me to get up front early.
Despite my rough morning, I was feeling REALLY good right from the start. My legs felt loose, my breathing was great and I was moving up through the field at a pretty impressive pace. For the first few miles, I was running at a 7 minute pace. When I realized my folly, I slowed down a bit and focused on the big picture.
The first aid station is William Pond, at 8.16 miles into the race. It took me about 1 hour exactly to get there, which seems a little too quick for what I had in mind for the day.
As I got to the aid station, Jo was standing about 200 feet from the aid table and handed me a full bottle of Perpetuem. I grabbed it from her without slowing down, passed right by the aid station table without stopping. Jo and I have this aid station stuff figured out!!
If possible, I never plan to stop at the aid stations because I can carry all my nutrition with me. For this race, I schedule only one stop at the midpoint and this stop is meant to give Jo time to refill my hydration pack. This strategy shaves off a shocking amount of time during my races. I think as a general rule, ultra runners aren't aware of the total amount of time lost during aid station stops.
William Pond Aid Station
The picture below gives you a great idea of what the AR50 running surface is all about. A lot of trail runners tend to run on the shoulder where they can find a softer surface, but I spend most of time on the asphalt.
Coming into mile 8
After noticing the large crowd of spectators and crew members, I decided to give them all a rare treat. I took them to the GUN SHOW!!!
Who am I kidding?! I'm 132 pounds! If I have "guns" they're of the BB variety!
Goin' to the GUN SHOW!
Headed out, feeling AWESOME!
I wasn't going to see Jo again until mile 22. I was running well ahead of my planned pace and feeling really good...until mile 16. This is when my stomach full of questionable pizza began to revolt. It started with killer heartburn then transitioned into stomach cramps. I slowed my pace in an attempt to settle the turmoil in my belly and kept my eyes peeled for a portable toilet. No luck!
I was happy to see this sign.
Painfully coming into mile 22
I handed my hydration pack to Jo and asked where I could find a toilet. I was totally deflated to learn that this aid station didn't have one to offer. I pondered my situation and decided to press on until I found one.
Before heading out, I told Jo to take her time getting to the next aid station because this leg of the race was going to be painfully slow until I remedied the issues with my stomach. I wasn't scheduled to see her again for 9 miles.
As I rolled out of the mile 22 aid station, I was struggling with a powerful urge to puke. This urge would fade, then be replaced with a strong need to find a toilet. My pizza was looking for a way out and it wasn't picky about the route.
Fortunately, I found a public restroom about a mile down the trail and took full advantage of it! When I reached the aid station at mile 27, I had another very eventful pitstop. I was still 4 miles away from Jo and I began to spring back to life and regained my speedy pace.
I began passing the runners that had been streaming by me during my little bout with stomach problems. I was running with a vengeance toward the front again.
Granite Bay marked the 50k distance
When I pulled into Granite Bay, I scanned the crowd for Jo but couldn't see her anywhere. I milled around for a minute before deciding she wasn't there. I checked my hydration pack and my bottle of Perpetuem and decided I had enough to make it another 9 miles, where I would see Jo again for fresh supplies. My consumption had been minimal during that leg of the race because of my sour stomach. I pushed on.
I learned later that we had missed each other by about 1 minute. Jo had heeded my advice and took her time getting to Granite Bay because she knew my pace had slowed. She had no reason to think I would bounce back so well. The whole mistake rests on my shoulders and I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere.
While waiting for me at Granite Bay, Jo was able to see some of our friends roll through the aid station.
Gordy Ansleigh Pushing along and looking solid!
Betsy Rogers working on a 50 mile PR!
Jo eventually realized we had missed each other and she hustled down to Rattlesnake Bar at the 41 mile mark. She made it to the aid station just as I started to roll out. I spun back around when I heard her call my name and we quickly topped off my hydration pack and she handed me a fresh bottle of Perpetuem. After a quick kiss I was off!
Up to this point, it had been mostly overcast and comfortable, but now the sun was finding its way through the clouds and I began to warm up rapidly. Additionally, this section of the course contains all of the serious climbing. I began to sweat heavily and feel a bit overheated. It's funny to think I was literally freezing my ass off in my 100 miler 2 weeks ago. By mile 45, I decided it was time to go shirtless for the rest of the race. Sorry Hammer Nutrition. You got 45 miles of exposure, I owe you 5 more.
I had heard rumors about this section of trail and expected it to be far more challenging. It's times like this that I really appreciate living and training in the Wasatch mountains. I made the ascent without too much trouble.
As I began making the final climb, I could hear the finish line party in the distance. This spurred me on and made my feet feel a bit lighter.
The final climb was lined with spectators, so I made every effort to run the hill and earn their cheers. It mostly worked.
The ground finally leveled off, I turned a corner and could finally see the finish line up ahead.
Bearing down for a strong finish
Crossing the line!
I finished in 8:32:28, in 90th place overall. Nowhere near a PR, but that wasn't the goal for the day and I was happy enough with my time.
I gathered my medal, my finishers jacket and my meal ticket and went on a hunt for a cold beer and a veggie burger.
Jo and I found a nice spot in the shade and enjoyed the finish line festivities while we waited on friends to wrap their day up.
I really wanted to see our friend Laura finish the race. Over the years, Laura has developed a long history of strong races at the AR50 as well as Western States. She grew up on these trails and it shows in her results.
Laura Kulsik looking strong!
Gordy Ansleigh qualifying for the WSER once again!
I specifically waited on Gordy so I could yell "HEY! Aren't you the guy that used to be Gordy Ansleigh!?" He got a good laugh out of that.
Jo feeling Froggy near the finish.
A few weeks before the race, Gregory Packs had sent me a hydration pack to try out. I had used it in a few shorter runs so I could get a feel for it. It has a very comfortable fit and I like having it on my back. The pockets in the front are very functional and allow for easy access while running. I was very happy with the pack for 50 miles and will definitely be using this pack in more races. If you're in the market for a new pack, I would encourage you to check it out. And if you ever carry trekking poles for hiking or running, this pack has a pocket specifically designed to carry them. It's perfect for my summer assault on the Colorado 14'rs.
My Gregory Pack
If I had to compare the JFK and the AR50, I would say American River is the better race. They're very similar, but the AR50 is more scenic and I think the volunteers and aid stations are a bit better. Having said that, I'm not a big fan of either race. It's like comparing a smashed toe with a smashed finger. I don't want either one, but it's fair to make a comparison.
Jo and I will be heading to Moab next weekend for a short, but challenging trail race, and this time, we'll both be running! Then the following weekend will take us to Zion for my 2nd 100 miler of the year.
I hope to see many of you out on the trails in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading!