Lesson learned: there's no such thing as an "easy" 50 miler.
My foolish attempts to convince myself otherwise heading into the American River 50-mile race was in retrospect, quite laughable. With the 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa looming a mere 7 weeks away, some friends and I were going to treat this as our longest "training run" to date. Not quite as hilly as my goal race but with enough asphalt to at least simulate how taxing the 100% man-made roads will be in South Africa.
I flew in Friday, the day before the race but not without some problems with my airline. After a couple of hours delay, I finally made it into Sacramento just in time to meet my roommates for the weekend Colin and Kristin at a nearby Italian place from our hotel for dinner. After carb-ing up a bit, we walked back to our room to get our stuff and dropbags ready before the early wakeup call.
After a fitful night of sleep, we finally rolled out of bed before 4am to meet a larger group downstairs in half an hour. We then piled into a few cars and drove to the start line. The morning was chilly - probably in the low 40s to begin - and so I started off with gloves and my cheapy Asics arm sleeves. I lost Kristin and Colin somewhere as we were walking to the start line in the still dark dawn of the morning but figured it would be better to run my race at my pace. At 6am the gun went off and we were off.
The overall race goal was the same as my pace goal - at least to start off with. I figured a 8 1/2 to 9 hour finish time was a safe conservative goal. And to start, my goal was to keep my paces at a 8:30-9:00 minute/mile pace. For the first 19 miles, the course follows the American River Parkway which consists of windy but mostly flat pavement roads. With no iPod or running companion to keep me company, I did my best to keep my mind occupied by focusing on running the tangents as efficiently as I could while trying to stay on the softer shoulder of the bike path when possible.
Trying to muster a smile on the pavement.
I hit the half marathon mark around 1:57. Even with the slower pace, the back of my legs started feeling sore and stiff and I constantly found myself trying to get myself refocused on the here and now instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer distance still left untraveled. Occasionally my thoughts drifted to my friend Colin's mother who is in the hospital dealing with complications from her bout with cancer and thought about how blessed I was to be physically fit enough to be out here. My fight continued.
After almost 19 miles of pavement, we then hit some mix of fire roads and single track trails for a few miles before rejoining the pavement at around the 22 mile mark. My legs were feeling a good amount of fatigue now in addition to pain from the chronic runner's knee and the inner arch of my foot...and I wasn't even halfway done yet. Eff.
I hit the marathon point in a little over 4 hours and came through our first major aid station where I'd have access to my drop bag at 26.8 miles. I couldn't believe how wrecked I was feeling this early on. My left knee was now screaming in pain and the mere thought of running another marathon with some rolling hills thrown in to boot almost made me nauseous. I chugged some Coke while biding my time before heading back out albeit somewhat reluctantly. I finally made my way out of there although it was more of a death march than anything resembling running.
Somehow shortly after hitting the dirt and single tracks, my legs began to feel better almost as if they were back in their element. Slowly but surely I began to run and run at a normal clip. Instead of feeling daunted by the miles left to cover, I focused on running from aid station to aid station and it definitely helped my psyche cope with it all.
Catching my 2nd wind.
I hit the 50K mark in a little over 5 hours. Around this point, I also hit a surge in positive energy and began passing people. I knew it'd be foolish to think I could ride this wave until the finish line but I rode it for as long as I could. This 2nd half section almost entirely consisted of single tracks: all beautiful scenery, largely narrow, many times muddy and technical here and there. I got by almost entirely on gels with some light grazing at the aid station and a Nuun mix or just straight water towards the end.
By mile 38ish, I started to fatigue again and was leapfrogging or getting leapfrogged by familiar faces. The day also started to warm up a bit so I removed my shirt and chugged lots of fluid. Hearing footsteps (or imagining them) helped keep my paces honest and constantly moving forward.
Relentless forward motion.
Finally at mile 47, we hit the dreaded 3-mile climb up a road to the finish I'd been hearing so much about. Thanks to the largely conservative paces I've been running, I apparently had some legs left. But according to my watch, I had 33 minutes to run it to get under 9 hours.
A cruel way to finish after 47 miles.
I'd intended on running up until I was gassed but the switch that said "let's get this f#%@er over with!" got flipped on and I kept pumping my arms intent on running all the way to the finish. I can't lie, it felt pretty good to be passing anyone that had previously passed me on this climb. While many and their pacers were hiking, I was passing one after another. Of course, in the spirit of ultrarunning, many were cheering me on and encouraging me to finish strong.
Inside of course, I was dying. I couldn't acknowledge a single runner because I was too single-minded and breathing like a dog stuck in a car in the middle of July.
It seemingly took forever but one mile after another, I got closer to the finish and after getting some fluid that I so desperately needed at one last aid station with a couple of miles to go, I knew I'd finish strong. But could I get under 9 hours?
Finally I heard the crowd and MC. One more steep uphill section to tackle but aided with the cheers of spectators I ran up that one too before coming across the finish line. It was over. No sub-9 time for me but I took immense pride in finishing strong. 9:01:13. I'll take it.
The next couple of hours were spent hanging with friends, exchanging war stories and cheering others in.
At the finish w/ Rick, Colin and Kristin.
This race was extremely well run and I would highly recommend it for anyone looking to run a first/fast/fun 50-mile race. Or like me and a few others, as a stepping stone to Comrades. Less than 7 weeks to go. Can't wait. Bring it on.
Thanks as always for reading.