April 12, 2016 — By Ed

American River 50

Three months of training yields the most chill racing experience yet.

Pre-race

My last race post noted my quest for running a 50 mile race (the length of about two marathons) in 2016, and I aggressively aimed for something earlier in the year, as opposed to something in the fall. That 50k was more or less smooth sailing, outside of the miserable mental game that is running loops over long distances.

The training plan my coach implemented since that race was straightforward: lots of back to back long runs on weekends, aka saying goodbye to my weekend social life. I’m not going to lie, though, I cheated on a few of those (five hours became three hours, etc.). Still, by April I was feeling great leading up to the race.

American River 50 Mile Course Map and Aid Stations

American River 50 Mile Course Map and Aid Stations

The night before the race, milady and mipup check-in to the Lake Natoma Inn, close to downtown Folsom. My pre-race regimen begins at 7:00pm, which is pretty close to a routine at this point:

  • 7:00pm: Eat a light, no meat dinner. Drink a glass of water.
  • 8:00pm: Eat a light snack. Drink 2nd glass of water.
  • 8:15pm: Prep gear and nutrition for early morning grab-and-go.
  • 8:30pm: Drink 3rd glass of water. Tuck into bed and veg on cable (the Warriors are playing on ESPN).
  • 8:45pm: Set 1st alarm for 3:30am. Set 2nd alarm for 3:50am (which has a more alarming sound).
  • 9:00pm: Down a melatonin and crank up my white noise app.
  • 3:25am: Wake up to pee. Disable my 1st alarm (but forget the 2nd).
  • 3:30am: Prep and eat my Oatmeal of Kings breakfast (rolled oatmeal, chia seeds, coconut flakes, blueberries, and chocolate chips) in the microwave of paupers.
  • 3:40am: Gear up and get ready to go. Browse the internet furiously.
  • 3:50am: The 2nd alarm I forgot about goes off, waking up my floor.
  • 4:00am: Walk down to the complimentary shuttle to wait outside the lobby 15 minutes too early.

I’m the first person on the shuttle (aka a yellow school bus) and I pick the most cramped spot in the front, situated over a wheel well, ensuring that my long legs fold in like an accordion. Other fellow running psychopaths filter into the bus and without hesitation, pile on the “why are we doing this?” jokes, which generate half-hearted chuckles. Most are running their first 50 mile race, but all seem jovial given the circumstances.

Bright and early like bees?

Bright and early like bees?

The bus drops us off at the starting line at Brown’s Ravine sometime around 5:00am. As runners start to arrive, the scene resembles something like a sea of brightly colored bumper cars. Amongst the chaos, I run into an old colleague of mine, who we’ll call Mtn Dew; he’s run this race several times before and is aiming for a PR under six hours and forty-seven minutes, which blows my mind as it’s not too far from the time it took me to finish that 50k from six weeks before. Mtn Dew gives me a few tips for the course and gives me a notable nutrition tip: take one ibuprofen every hour. I later find this to be game-chaging information.

Managing My Internals (+13 miles)

…and we’re off at 6:15am! While my bib says I’m technically in Wave 1 which started 15 minutes earlier, I opt to hang back with the Wave 2 group, in an effort to avoid as much competition as possible, which turns out to be a wonderful game plan. Bonus to starting in Wave 2: wearing a headlamp is moot, as the sun starts to peek out from the east.

The first 5-6 miles are easy, as I run  a 10 minute per mile pace. The sun’s just beginning to make an appearance on what looks to be a very warm and beautiful day. I’ve started instinctively downing nutrition chews, which I know I’ll be quite sick of in about two hours. I miss the first aid station at Folsom Point (4.97), as I’m mostly distracted by the view of Folsom Lake, but feeling pretty comfortable to wait until the next aid station stop.

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Still fresh

Somewhere about six miles in I notice a friendly couple with a boom box and lawn chairs blasting Johnny Cash at the runners-by, but I don’t think much of it.

Gratuitous personal detail alert: One of the main reasons I like to eat two hours before start is a practical one: it means an extended visit to the WC is all but guaranteed before I cross the start line, which did happen as planned this day. However, it turns out it wasn’t as complete a visit as it should have been, and somewhere around mile nine, my internals were asking for a reprieve. Over the next four miles I contemplate the horror of pulling off the side of popular trail and rectifying the situation, but somehow manage to make it to Willow Point (12.77), only to endure a 15 minute wait in a queue before experiencing sweet release.

Folsom Prison Blues (+24 miles)

After my extended, but unintended, early rest stop, I’m back to feeling great and maintaining my snail pace of about 10 minutes per mile. Most of the next few miles are a bit of a suburban blur. There’s still not much trail at this point, but there are plenty of shared, high traffic, bike lanes complete with livid bicyclists, along this stretch of the course. Making matters confusing/worse are the markings on the lanes that say “joggers stay to the far left, cyclists on the right”, which goes against everything you might logically think as a commuter living in place that isn’t the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, etc. The end result is a combination of runners on both the right and the left, and the bicyclists (literally) screaming profanities at the runners for not picking a side. I choose to stay on the left, off the road in the gravel, and yet still manage to run afoul of the “mountain bikers” avoiding the tarmac.

But I digress.

it was quite the quaint jogging tune the first couple listen-throughs, but was now beginning to sound more like a funeral march in the warm sun.

For the third time, I note the aforementioned couple on said lawn chairs playing Folsom Prison Blues for the umpteenth time; it was quite the quaint jogging tune the first couple listen-throughs, but was now beginning to sound more like a funeral march in the warm sun, even though I was still feeling physically great. With the sun starting to beat down a bit more aggressively as I approach mile 20 aid station at Negro Bar, I’m fresh, but cautiously so, as this is well within my experiential boundaries. After passing Folsom State Prison, the course morphs towards consistent single track trail, which I’m excited for before turning into the big half way mark at Beal’s Point (24.31).

Single Track 4 Life (+38 miles)

There were a surprising amount of people gathered at the race midpoint of Beal’s Point, just to cheer the racers on, even though most of the runners here at this point are way behind the middle of the pack. Note that I’m pacing slow, even though the first half of the race was fast, which will pay off for yours truly very soon.

The nice thing about races in the range of 50 miles and beyond are the usage of drop bags (and pacers, but I didn’t recruit any for this race), which basically allows you to dump a bunch of stuff you anticipate forgetting or don’t care to bring along at the beginning of the race and retrieve it at some later point. I had contemplated not bothering with with a gear switch, but opt to switch out my shirt and my reliable Hoka’s with my super comfortable Altra’s, which felt like pillows for my wide feet.

From here on out, everything is primarily narrow, single track trails, and it’s also the moment where my pace, which is still hovering around 10 to 11 minutes per mile, starts eating up the runners in front of me. Still, I play it conservative, as paranoia convinces me that something will go horribly wrong between here and the finish, wanting to delay that horrible something as long as possible. I closely monitor my watch as I move closer to the 31 mile mark, which signifies the longest distance I’ve continually ran in my running career.

The Granite Bay Aid station (29.45) presented me with the biggest revelation of my running career: you can drink chicken soup in lieu of water. While I’m sure whatever broth they bought came in some form of tin can or box, it was the most delicious thing I consumed all day (including my dinner). After nearly 30 miles of nothing but super sweet chew snacks and gooey packets, this was a welcome respite.

Somewhere along this section I pass by the the official Johnny Cash executors of this race at least two or three more times.

Confidence (+41 miles)

I pass my milestone at 31 miles, and outside of a little bit of nausea from downing a snack too fast, I still feel good, but still reluctant to jam on the gas pedal. The trails have become increasingly technical, covered with rocks and branches, and the hills are rolling, but not very steep. The track is dug out, which means that if a runner wants to pass, they must navigate up to the left and around slippery grass to do so. This starts becoming an issue for me as I’m now passing runners often, some of which I draft for a little bit before I bite the bullet and make the slippery traverse around them. With each runner I pass, I feel my confidence increase as my slow, first half pace has begun to pay off.

After reading that last paragraph, I realize it totally reads like a humblebrag, but hey, I earned it.

It’s a Sprint (+50 miles)

Rattlesnake Bar (40.94) is the last big aid station before the final push to the finish. It’s a lively station, with the energy of a finish line, which feels like a kind of tease – there’s still nine miles to go! As I chug down some water and chicken broth, I overhear what sounds like someone’s dad coaching his daughter on the last bit of couse, telling her “be sure you’re sweating the entire way!” He looks like he’s been sweating way more than she has.

After I leave the aid station, a volunteer asks me if I got someone in tow (I’m not wearing my bib in front, so it’s not obvious I’m in the race), as I looked “too fresh” to be running the whole thing (more humblebrag). I add that comment to the positive energy bank that’s been building in this half of the race. I catch up to a woman who I’ve been trailing the last few miles, and decide to pace with her most of the way to the finish. We chat for a bit and it turns out that she’s an incredibly accomplished ultrarunner, having run this race several times, as well as the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, another incredibly difficult race. She’ll be running the Western States 100 this year, if luck finds her!

The American River winds below.

The American River winds below.

The last five miles are completely uphill, but the views of the American River are the most spectacular of the course. I’m still running a little conservatively, but at this point everyone else around myself and my temporary pace partner are just walking. As we pass the last aid station (47.56), the last three miles are ahead of me and I finally bury my paranoia – at this point it’s much too late to worry about something going wrong so I start increasing my pace. It’s all paved uphill with a gentle grade, so hitting a pace under 10 minutes/mile is well within my capabilities at this point.

As I jam up the last bit of hill, guess who’s waiting near the finish? The Johnny Cash Fan Club, Folsom Chapter, naturally! After absorbing my last verse of Folsom Prison Blues, I sprint the last quarter mile to the finish line and joyously spy my family cheering me on as I jump across the finish line at 10 hours, 24 minutes. Not bad considering how much left in the tank I had and my unscheduled stops!

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Not the prettiest finish line face, but trust me I feel great.

Post-race

Honestly, this might be the first time I’ve felt more or less wonderful throughout the entirety of a race; I was able to appreciate the simple act of being active outside on a beautiful day. I attest most of those positive feelings from the guidance of my coach, Planks (aka Caitlin), and the hours of work I put in to fit in crazy amounts of training miles. It’s a good omen, and I’m feeling pretty good about taking a leap to something bigger, and increasingly unreasonable.

Ed’s Review: 5 stars. Outside of my fairly comfortable and pleasant physical experience, the course, notably the second half of it is quite beautiful, with lots of technical, rolling hills and views of the American River. I can’t thank the aid staff enough for introducing me to the concept of chicken broth in a cup – a seriously amazing revelation.

View my performance stats on Strava

Gear List

Hydration

  • Salomon S-Lab ADV Skin3 5 Pack Set
  • Salomon Soft 16oz Flasks (x2)

Shoes

  • Miles 01-25: Hoka One One Challenger ATR Trail Shoe, Men’s 9.5
  • Miles 26-50: Altra Olympus 2.0 Trail Shoe, Men’s 10.0

Clothing

  • Miles 01-25: Mizuno Running Breath Thermo Seamless Long Sleeve Top, Men’s Medium
  • Miles 26-50: North Face Flight Series Short-Sleeve Top, Men’s Small
  • Skins DNAmic Half Tight, Men’s Small
  • injinji Run Lightweight Coolmax No-Show Toe Sock, Medium

Tech

  • Suunto Ambit3 Peak
  • Apple iPhone 6

Race Nutrition

  • Clif Bloks Energy Chews (x8)
  • Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews (x2)
  • GU Energy Gel (x2)
  • Saltstick caps (x10)
  • Chicken Broth