Tuesday, April 7, 2009

American River 50 - Race Report - Part 3 (Full Recap)

It’s taken me a couple days to write this recap. Without having expectations set going into this race, I didn’t really know what I was up against. And it’s a good thing, because I’d have probably been more nervous. But the American River 50 was a wonderful race! We had a good experience, a good race time, and I’m really thrilled to have completed an official ultra event. To me its just more proof that limits are subjective, and with the proper preparation, you can endure any distance.

Here’s the recap of the experience. I’m sure I’ve left stuff out, but you won’t notice it’s there. I haven’t seen race photos posted yet, so I apologize for these generics. They are of the American River area, but not of this race specifically. I’ll post race photos when I get them.

Onto the recap!

There were no mile markers along the course (thankfully, because really, I didn’t want to know exactly how far we still needed to go), so a mile-by-mile account of the race isn’t going to happen. I’ll try to describe the different sections of the race, my perception of where we were, and what my feelings were at that point in time. Saturday went by in a blur, and it hasn’t gotten much clearer, but here is what I remember:

Starting Line
Sentiment: I turn to my race partner and say, “It’s been a pleasure running with you these past four months.” And here we go.

Unlike massive marathons, the AR50 did not have a fanfare start. No per-race psych up music, no gathering, not cheering. Just 700 crazy people standing in the middle of the cold (50 degrees) and darkness (5:45am) somewhere northwest of downtown Sacramento. It’s a quiet neighborhood around Cal Poly University. We park the car on the side of the road, hop out, drop off our drop bags and stand by the heater. 10 minutes before the race starts (gun time 6am), they make an announcement – Get over to the start line, it’s a five minute walk.

We walk down the bike path along the river. There it is, the starting archway. Inflatable. Blue. Small. The race starts in 4 minutes. I retie my shoes. No time to stress out or worry, just time to go. Then all of a sudden it’s go time.

Miles 1-8
Sentiment: We’re at the back of the pack. And, how do all of these people know each other?

We start slow, purposefully. It pays off (more on this later). It’s hard to run in the dark, but easier to maneuver on the bike path than on our usual route in Santa Monica. KP and I trade work stories for the first 50 minutes. They go by quick. Then we stop for a bathroom break at mile 5.5. (Right under the bridge!) There is a guy in line who seems to know EVERYONE in this race. He calls out to them by name as they run by. They all enthusiastically answer, “Hello!” or “Hey there!” Makes me feel happy that this is such a communal sport, but also a little weird and out of place that I only know one other person.

Guy West Bridge near the start line

Miles 8-15 (or something like that)
Sentiment: Discovering the Aid Stations, and running over the Bridge

Most marathon aid stations will provide gels and some oranges. At TNT practice we are treated to pretzels, skittles and chips. The AR50 aid stations set a new bar for sustenance. The spread was amazing – cooked potatoes and salt, chips, pretzels, Oreos, marshmallows, pop tarts, brownies (my favorite), fruit, gels, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pancakes, Advil, salt tablets and probably more stuff that I didn’t notice was there. The aid station at mile 8 (where we first really saw all the goods) put me in good spirits. I guess packing all those bars and candies was unnecessary.

Just after the aid station we cross over the river. The sun is coming up and there are shadows of the bridge rails on us. It was an “I wish I had a camera” moment. I spent the next three hours uttering “This is beautiful” and “Wow, look at that view” over and over again. I’m surprised KP didn’t hit me for saying it some much. Maybe she was trying to conserve energy.

Bike Path along the river (First 24 miles)

Miles 15ish-26ish
Sentiment: That’s a big hill.

Somewhere before the 26 mile mark (I think it was around mile 18) we had to climb a pretty big hill. The aid station was sitting on top of it. All those volunteers staring down at us. (Note: Most of the stations were positioned at the tops or bottoms of hills, making it hard to run into them. You had to earn your way to them instead). Little did we know that this huge climb would be puny in comparison to what lay ahead. What a gorgeous view though. We were overlooking a dam along the river. It was so peaceful and pleasant to be out there. The sun was up but the weather remained cool. In fact, I ran the entire race in a long-sleeved shirt.

Between here and the next drop bag, I alternated between loving the single track trails through the woods, and hating the open pavement that brought us pretty close with civilization. We’d spend 30-60 minutes going through the woods only to emerge neat some suburban downtown area that only served to remind me that the rest of the world continued on with their lives, operating as though 10am was the beginning of their day and not the middle of some crazy race. Thankfully we skirted this busy section of roadway for a mile or so before heading back into the wilderness.

I started getting a little hot and thirsty as we approached our drop bags. I was distracted a bit by the inflatable archway and set of balloons in the middle of nowhere on our path … until I read the balloons and realized we’d hit the marathon point. Technically, from here out, we’re in ultra territory. I appreciated the small gesture of balloons for the celebratory mile marker, but knowing we were just over halfway done started to become a little daunting. Just over half a mile later, we cruised up a rolling hill and then down into another set of inflatable arches – Beal’s Point.

Mile 26.8
Sentiment: The half way finish line – party time!

The first drop bags were at Beal’s Point. Running down into this park area was great. It was a party atmosphere as though this was the actual end of the race. People sitting around eating and drinking. Bag attendants running and getting you things (your bag, some water or soda). Everyone was upbeat and friendly. We had crossed the marathon point at 4hrs and 40mins, so it was just around 11am when we came into the park. We knew that the trails were coming up, so we hung out for a bit. Grabbed some water and soda, along with other snacks, and spent 5-10 minutes resting. I called my parents to tell them we were 27 miles in. After that, we took off.

Folsom Lake - Site of the first bag drop

Miles 27-34
Sentiment: Into the woods. Watch out for rocks. Where are we? New territory.

The uphills and downhills of the trails start to present themselves. The first set of mini switchbacks came around mile 28. I had to do a bit of unscheduled walking. They evened out quickly as we made our way along the side of some monstrous dam-like piece of metal. Couldn’t tell what it was. Didn’t care. Cared more about the upcoming hills. Things get really hard really fast. The rolling hills and switchbacks of the course turn into all out hiking-only ascents and descents.

New lesson, hiking/running uphill is much easier than hiking/running downhill. You can really blow out your quads if you aren’t careful on the downhills. Getting your footing along the rocks is really tough, especially in sneakers. I opted not to change into my trail shoes at the halfway point, and I stick by that choice (no blisters!) but I did get some dirty feet out of it.

Half of the hills we climbed had makeshift steps built in. At one point, KP pointed out how ridiculous this seemed for a running race I agreed. . It’s more like extreme hiking, and for road racers like us, we aren’t used to adjusting our strides lengths so frequently. But at that point, we can’t change the course, so we just kept on going.

Getting beyond the 30 mile mark was a big deal. It was new territory. New feelings – not all of them wonderful, but they round out the experience and make the finish that much more worthwhile. Someone once said nothing that is easy is worthwhile. This race was very worthwhile.

We hit up a couple more aid stations along the way. The demographic for the race skewed toward older men between the ages of 30-50, but the field of participants was just as varied as a marathon. KP and I were definitely on the younger end of things, and as women, we were in an even smaller minority. So any time we entered an aid station people cheered us on even louder. They kept saying, “You look great!” and “Good work.” The confidence boost at that point worked, but you have to wonder how much they are lying. Can we really “look good” 6 hours into a race, covered in dirt, sweating and shuffling along? I have to thank these people for their support…and their tact.

Miles 34-47
Sentiment: Is it Sunday yet?

Feels like we’ve been running for a long time. It’s hard to look at my watch, which reads 6 or 7 hours, and think, man I’ve got 3-4 hours left to go. At the same time, I also think: Everything has an end. Bad days at work come to an end. Runs end. These moments are fleeting. Remembering that helped me focus on the fun I was having and not the fatigue that was inevitably starting to wear me down.

My legs are tired and although I think I’m picking up my feet, I get caught on a couple of rocks here and there. At one point I stumble and I am able to break my fall by catching myself on a bush … a pricker bush. Oh well, only a couple scratches. KP has her headphones on, and while I opt keep mine in my bag, I fill the time by singing songs in my head. From my playlist, a couple lyrics keep going over and over in my head. (These songs as a whole don’t describe how I feel, but the lyrics seem to spark something in me)

“Defiant to the end we hear the call. To carry on, we’ll carry on…”
– My Chemical Romance

“I've had a little bit too much. All of the people start to rush, start to rush by. How does he twist the dance, can't find my drink, oh man, where are my keys? I lost my phone. What’s goin' on, on the floor? I love this record baby but I can't see straight anymore…? – Lady Gaga

“When all you got to keep is strong, move along, move along like I know you do. And even when your hope is gone, move along, move along just to make it through.” – All American Rejects

“Hope it gives you hell, hope it gives you hell” –All American Rejects

I sing these same lyrics over and over in my head for about an hour or so. That last song by AAR made me laugh because it was the exact pace that we were running, so every step sort of fell in line with the song.

The second drop bag was at mile 40.1 Rattlesnake Bar aid station, but the stations were so stocked that we bypassed grabbing our bags.

As I mentally sang the songs, I kept an eye on the trail. We’re running along the river, about 50-100 feet up at any given time. It’s a steep edge. Watched my step. Finally made our way down to the base of the river, and out of the woods. Three more miles to go. That feeling, “Wow, we’re really going to do this” hits me. I love that feeling. Happens every race. It’s reality settling in.

Miles 47-50
Sentiment: The longest, steepest 3 miles that ever existed.

Please refer to the elevation chart in my previous post. Yeah.

Dear AR50 planners,
Love, Emily.

I say this without exaggeration: I cannot remember a steeper climb that I have had to scale by foot. I almost bent down and used my hands to get up that hill. KP had a good idea. She started calling out points up ahead and saying, “Okay let’s run to that sign, then walk.” We’d walk to another point, then pick something else, and run to that. We were probably completing 30 second run / 1 minute walk intervals by this point. And every time you got to a turn and thought you had reached the top, there was another hill ahead of you. More or less, this was a 2.5 mile climb with a .5 mile mixture of flats that leveled off. We past a group of (mostly guy) runners who cheered us on while berating themselves – they claimed we were better prepared because we’re women and can stand childbirth. Well, I’ve yet to withstand childbirth, but it’s looking a heck of a lot easier than this hill.

Finally the hill crested into a slight downhill. The pink ribbons that marked the trail disappears, and we ran toward the end of the road. There was no real distinct mark to tell us where the finish line was, so I asked a couple people walking by. “It’s around the corner!” they told us! KP found some untapped energy and took off. I stayed steady and enjoyed the final minute of the race. The final .2 miles were flanked by course support. I jogged/shuffled through and saw the finish line. Smiled for the camera, crossed the line, high-fived KP and finally stopped moving. 9:55:23, just a shade under 10 hours and under a 12 minute mile pace. Sweet.

Overlook Park - The Finish Line Area - yes, we climbed from the base of that river

The End
Sentiment: Burgers, Bags and Buses

We had to wait for our bags to come back from their drop points. We also had to wait for the bus. I got my pricker bush hand cleaned by first aid, did some stretching, called home, ate a veggie burger and bought a shirt. All that I really remember, though, is doing a lot of sitting and not moving. That was probably the most exhausted I’ve ever been. Just generally worn down. But a feeling of accomplishment accompanied it and tempered the soreness.

On the bus ride back I got to sit with a guy named Jim Magill. Little did I know this man is the two-time 100 mile champion of Tahoe Rim (another ultra). He was the friendliest and warmest guy! We talked all the way back on the 45 minute trip, so much so that I lost my voice for the rest of the night. He encouraged me to do some more trail races and gave me some great pointers. He also pointed out that KP and I qualified for the Western States 100 (a very prestigious race, lotteried), but I don’t see that in my immediate future.

From the bus stop at the finish line, we drove back to the hotel. We were back at 7pm. Long day!! KP picked me up some dinner while I iced. Ate and slept kind of uncomfortably. Your body doesn’t really know how to lie down after so much movement. Also, I didn’t realize how much you use your abs when you run! Mine were pretty sore for the night.

The creakiness of lactic acid in my muscles stayed with me through the morning, but I was able to bike and swim Monday and Tuesday mornings, and that has helped tremendously.

So What’s Next?
That is a question I haven’t answered yet, even to myself. I’ve got my eye on a 50K (31 miles) later in the summer, maybe. Maybe a marathon later on. Nothing I’ve committed to. Right now I am focused on recovering (legs especially) from the race, and getting the TNTers to their own finish lines in San Diego, Seattle and Alaska this summer. We’ll see what the calendar brings.

No comments: