American River 50: A Memorable Journey

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I set out to do my fourth AR50 on April 9th.  The 32nd running of the 2nd largest 50 miler in the nation brought cool weather and crisp, clear skies.  I knew my first time running under race director, Julie Fingar, would not disappoint.

My alarm went off at 4:30AM.  Knowing we needed to leave the house no later than 4:50 made me realize I’d underestimated how long I really needed to get ready.  Hurrying anxiously, I put on my pre-planned racing garb.  As the saying goes, don’t wear anything you haven’t trained in…well that went out the window with my new Asics Everysport shorts.  I felt pretty confident they wouldn’t cause me trouble.  But I never mess with shoes and socks.  This time I went for my tried and true Drymax socks and Montrail Rogue Racers.  After a little bite of banana, I couldn’t palate much more, I headed out the door for a chilly 30-minute drive to the start.

There was nervous energy in the air between my brother-in-law, Marc, my pacer, Lee, and myself.  The thought of “why am I doing this” always enters my head around this time.  For some reason I can never fully convince myself that it would be easier to sleep in and be a “normal” person.  As we miss a turn, Marc says something about not being disappointed if we miss the start.  Both knowing full well that much time and sacrifice goes into training for ultras; it’s not easy with 2 kids and a full-time job.  AR has been the biggest key motivator for me since giving birth to my second daughter last year.  I can’t afford to miss this race.

We make it to the start with 30 minutes to spare.  Really only enough time to  wait in the long port–a-potty line.  Freezing while doing so, I decide to keep my long sleeve North Face shirt on for the 1st half, as well as an old pair of Hind gloves.  Knowing I’ll be running well past noon, I keep my Tifosi sunglasses on top of my cap just in case.  Even though it’s still dark at 6AM and some runners have headlamps, I’m confident my sunglasses will be worth it…questionably confident.  Soon after my long wait in line, Julie announces the 10 second countdown and 750 of us are off and running along the narrow American River bike path on our journey to Auburn.

The first 28 miles or so are completely flat and non-eventful, other than the beautiful mist rising off the river, this is my least enjoyable part of the race.  AR has a notorious reputation for racers to PR at the marathon only fall apart for the remaining last 20 mile trail section.  I should mention the last 3 miles has a brutal 1500 feet elevation gain to the finish.  This year, the marathon marker is filled with a balloon banner and signs that say 26.2.  So at this point there is no doubt what mile you are at.  I’m the type that lets the miles come to me and focus more on time passing versus mileage.  Oh great…now I am forced to look at my watch, think about my pace, and no doubt determine my fate. I look at my watch, it reads…3:21! Am I going too fast or am I really in this kind of shape? I question everything.  Too late to make any adjustments now as I’m comfortably accustomed to the pace.  I change my thoughts to seeing my family for the first time since the wee hours of the morning at the next aid station, Beals Point, mile 26.5.

My husband Erik, also an avid ultra runner, is and will always be my best crew.  He may not share the same sentiments about me, since he could tell stories of all my horrible crewing mishaps for him.  He is dependably there and my 5-year old daughter cheers me on as I arrive at Beals Point.  I bee-lined it straight for our car to take a quick baby break with my youngest.  My 8-month old daughter still demands some mommy-daughter bonding time.  Erik gives me a play by play of the race and an exact count of how many minutes I’ve been idle while I discretely kick it in the front seat.  I feel like a racecar driver at the Indy 500.  After exactly 12 minutes I am off and running again.  My legs feel like lead as I hobble back into the game.  Amazingly feeling fresh after about 5 minutes, I approach what I consider the beginning of the race, the dirt trails on the far side of the lake.

I pick up my pacer, Lee, at mile 31.7.  He spent much of the morning marking sections of the course and doesn’t show any sign of fatigue.  He lifts my spirits as we make good conversation and trek on.  Nearing mile 41 I begin to falter.  A feeling of light-headedness takes over. Where did I go wrong?  Lee encourages me to eat.  I try munching pretzels, but it takes about a minute to swallow each bite.  I grab salted potatoes at the next aid station hoping they will do the trick.  This is the last time I see my crew before the finish.  I try not to show signs of emotional fatigue, but my husband is onto me and tells me to “get moving and take more gel”.  A son of a Marine Colonel, I don’t get much sympathy.

Miraculously, I pull it together by mile 44, Lee and I keep a consistent, steady pace.  We talk about the amazing river and how fortunate we are to be experiencing a perfect day on an awesome trail.  Surprisingly, we come upon mile 47…the infamous last climb!  And just as suddenly, the cool river breeze turns to stagnant, warm sun as we make our way up.  Feeling like a horse heading back to the barn, it doesn’t take much effort to keep up a slow run pace.  I haven’t run the entire last 3 mile section since my best performance in 2005.  An experience I definitely want to repeat! Lee doesn’t allow me walk the last insult hill about 100 meters from the finish, gotta love a pacer for that!

My last haul to the finish is utterly satisfying as I run, or rather walk, across the line with my 8 month old in tow.  I may just have to purchase that finishing pic!  Elated and with no real physical issues, other than my chronic toenail problems, I head for the chair.  I’m greeted by 3 local relatives that I haven’t seen in months.  I’m all smiles.

As I sit in my chair watching other runners finish, I reflect on my race.  From start to finish there wasn’t a whole lot I would have changed.  Eating and drinking more always make it to the top of my list.  My clothing choices worked better than I could have expected, no chaffing… zip, zitch, nada!  Shoes were amazing and feet only ached slightly.  This would be my first 50 without one blister thanks to my love affair with Drymax socks (thanks Bob for providing these pictures).  And yes…I did use my sunglasses.  I think about how lucky I am to have such incredible friends and family that understand and share my passion.  This was one excellent day that won’t easily be forgotten.  I can’t wait to relive it with my girls someday!

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