6:30 am, sunrise over the American River, a big, wide, and real river, unlike, say, the San Gabriel River down here in Angeles Forrest, which as much as I like soaking my feet in it during a good hot run would barely qualify as a mountain stream anywhere else. This is the river of Sutter’s Mill, of the California gold rush.
All dusty singletrack, some of it technical, lots of short ups and downs, but no real climbs, basically flat until the 18.5 mile mark at the base of Cardiac Hill.
Singletrack races involve a bit of strategy at the beginning, especially for us middle of the pack runners. It’s difficult to pass on these trails, and runners need to get towards the front so as not to get blocked by slower runners or hill walkers. At the same time, you don’t want to go out too fast and burn out in the beginning.
I found a good pack to run with. We hit a good pace. A couple of the guys had run the course before and knew how to pace it.
I felt strong coming into Cardiac Hill. The folks I’d been running with had horror stories about it. 2,000 feet elevation gain in 3/4 of a mile a couple said, but I’d reviewed the course info and the hills I remember didn’t seem like they’d been any steeper than those I run regularly in the mountains here. It was early in the race still, and I decided to hold back, saving it up for the gnarly parts of the hill. It was a good hill but not really that steep, runnable even by me, and I started to wonder where the hard part was. I decided to run. I asked a woman on the trail how much further I had to the top. She said about 10 feet.
I think I forget that we are surrounded by mountains here, and I often run in them – averaging about 10,000 feet of climbing a week. It’s not Boulder, Co. down here, but it’s a lot closer to Boulder than most places are.
A few miles along a canal at the top, the big aid station with the drop bags, and then a long climb down to the turn around.
It was 102 degrees when we’d arrived in Roseville the day before, and at 5:00 am heading to the starting line it was humid and in the 70s. It promised to be a hot race, and that heat was kicking in.
I was climbing up to Robie Point, about 2 miles from the 25 mile turn around, when Maggie and I crossed. We talked for a moment. She said she was hurting, and I could tell from the puffiness in her cheeks that she’d been puking. She was leading the women, and in the top 10 overall.
I made it to the turn around at No Hands Bridge in 5 hours – good news – I could lose an hour on the return and still make the Western States 11 hour qualifying cut-off.
The climb back was tougher than I expected. The heat was getting to me. My feet were feeling funny, the soles burning. I changed into dry socks at my drop bag. As I left the aid station I felt the skin on my ankles was burning. The climb down Cardiac Hill was tough, the trail too technical for me to feel comfortable running hard, and my feet still burning. I passed a few folks. We’d lost a little more than half the runners at the turn around as they were running the 25 mile race and not the 50.
I checked the time at the bottom of the hill. It looked like I’d lost most of my one hour padding. I could still make the 11 hour cut off but I was going to need to run strong those last 19 miles. The problem was that I’d run out of strength. There was none of the cramping I’d suffered from so severely at Mt. Disappointment, even though it was hotter here and I could hear folks around me complaining of cramps. My quads were not killing me. I was just simply out of strength.
The Saturday before I’d gotten a voicemail with some bad news. The week had been difficult. I was emotionally wound up, and I hadn’t slept more than 5 hours a night. From a day-to-day life standpoint, I felt I’d handled it relatively well, but apparently not well enough to tack a 50 mile race on the end of it. I was tired, spent, the heat had done me in, and my mental state wasn’t good.
I can run a strong race out of joy. I can run a hard race driven by anger. Anxiety can fuel a fast pace. Sadness, however, is a slow emotion. It sucks the life out of everything. It had been a sad week, and spending hours on the trail more or less alone with my thoughts (and a weird case of burning feet) was not helping things.
Somewhere around mile 35 I gave up.
At mile 39, the aid station chief debated pulling me. He said I looked pasty, white. I’d been getting head rushes. I am a magnet for paramedics. It seems I always look near death during a race. I told the aid station chief I looked like I needed medical attention when I got out of bed in the morning. He chuckled unconvincingly, and I hustled out of there before he made up his mind.
Half a mile later I began regretting that decision.
7 miles to the last aid station, and it didn’t seem like I would ever get there. My run slowed to a brisk walk slowed to a plodding trudge. I tried to summon up some running, not because I wanted to finish sooner – I was finished already – but because I wanted it to end. I had no gps or watch, so I had no idea how much further I had to go. I’d hear cheers, and think the station was around the corner but it would always turn out to be people partying on boats down below in the river. I really would have so much rather been swimming in the river than running this race.
Finally I got to the 47.5 mile mark. It was next to a road. There were cars there. There seemed absolutely no point in even attempting to finish the race. I had no idea what time it was but based on where the sun was I felt confident that I’d been out there forever and wasn’t sure why I hadn’t been pulled for missing the cutoffs. I had a guy volunteer to drive me back to the finish, and had them fill up one of my bottles. I asked what time it was and how the little blond woman with the tattoos was doing. They told me the little short haired blond woman – Maggie – was winning, and that we were just a little over 11 hours into the race. The first bit of news delighted me and the second surprised me – I guessed it was closer to 13 hours. I decided to go on running. The station captain jogged along with me for about a quarter of a mile, and said she would send someone out to run/walk the rest of the way, if I wanted. I said yes, and thanked her.
I took off at the best pace I could manage, which wasn’t that bad, actually. My pacer caught up about a mile later.
My feet were on fire. I had a mile and a half left and saw no point in trying to run. I could barely walk.
She told me her story. She’d been running her first 50 miler. She’s a back-of-the-pack runner. About halfway between Robie and the turn around at No Hands Bridge, she was stopped by a bear and her cubs – the infamous Western States bear that dropped out of the trees and blocked second place runner Kami Semick only moments after winner Ellie Greenwood had taken the lead. My new friend was blocked on the path for about 10 minutes, which is the exact amount of time by which she missed the cutoff.
She urged me to run but I wasn’t having it. Oddly enough, from the time I’d given up about 11 miles back to the last half mile of the race, I had been passed by just a single runner – Kuni Yamagata, I later learned. Given that I was barely moving, this seemed completely unreasonable.
Two runners made their move in the last quarter mile. Race Director Juli Fingar came out to run one of them in. She told me Maggie had come in second. Folks were applauding and giving me that “Good Job!” cheer. Sh*t. I assured them it was not a good job but an epic fail. (After the race, I apologized for my bratty attitude to anyone I remembered had been encouraging me).
I crossed the line in a time that’s downright embarrassing, and remain startled to learn that this time was good enough for 2nd place in my age division. First place was Kuni Yamagata. Looking at the signups, my age division starting the race was a pretty tough one. I guess a lot of those guys ended up dropping. My second half was 2.5 hours slower than the first. Clearly I was not the only person struggling.
Maggie told me she’d started feeling ill at the 10 mile mark. She relinquished the lead at the bottom of Cardiac Hill on the return, with about 18 miles to go, but women’s winner Stephanie Finelli apparently did not make as much of a visual impression since the folks at every aid station told me the little short haired blond woman with the tattoos was winning.
I took off my shoes and calf guards. My legs were covered in red splotches where I’d felt the burning. Whatever it was, it was real – a bad reaction to something chemical. I can’t imagine what caused it. My feet seemed to have swollen two sizes and were bright red. Writing this race report a day later, it’s still there, and my feet are still burning.
There was pizza at the end of the race. I love pizza at the end of a race. I got the shakes like I had Parkinsons. Maggie’d had a bit of time to recover, so she wasn’t in as bad of shape. We chatted for a while with various characters and with my pacer for those last few miles, whose name I have sadly forgotten but for whom I am so grateful. We headed back to the hotel for more pizza, stopping at a 7-11 on the way to score some gatorade. We looked like a couple of bad alcoholic wrecks with the shakes. I’m kind of surprised that anyone would take my credit card.
An accomplished ultra runner, Julie Fingar runs Norcal Ultras which includes a number of really popular and well known races, including American River, one of the better known 50 milers, and Way Too Cool, which is one of the most popular 50K races in the country. Her events are well organized, look after the runners, and fairly low key. Most if not all are Western States qualifiers. Plus (and this is a big plus) you get a Patagonia tech shirt. I’m not really sure what the deal is with Patagonia – they use organic polyester or something, and have this crazy policy of making quality stuff and looking after their employees. Here’s what I know: most race tech shirts seem to be made by Brooks, which uses a special type of fabric guaranteed to chafe your nipples into bloody little stumps. This Patagonia shirt is pretty much the most comfortable shirt I’ve ever worn.
Maggie and I have already vowed to regroup and return next year, hopefully well rested, with no emotional baggage, no weird chemicals in our socks (well, actually, my socks, or whatever it was), vomiting issues dealt with, and we will kick ass a little better than we did this year. That will be easier for me since there’s so much more room for improvement. Maggie’s bad day is still good enough to win second place.
It was a good race, even though we each had our unique miserable experiences.