Wednesday, April 14, 2010

American River 50 Mile Endurance Run

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Fashion Report: White “American River 50-Mile” Tech Hat
Blue Short Sleeve Tech Shirt
Black Non-Chaffing Shorts under Baggy Long Black Outer Shorts
White Sock Guy Arm Warmers
Black Gloves
White/Purple Mizuno Road Shoes, followed by . . .
Grey/Pink Mizuno Trail Shoes with Hot Pink Gators

I signed up for this race a little less than a year ago after asking my coach, Bill Spaeth, if he thought I would be able to do a 50-mile run, and with his support, I began looking for a race I thought would be doable. We had both looked at the AR50 course, and Coach thought it was my best bet. I still remember the night I actually signed up. It was a Saturday night, late, around 11:00 p.m., Shorty, my husband, was gone for the weekend, and I had had the form filled out for probably 20 minutes or more. With my finger hovering over the “enter” button on my laptop and my heart in my throat, I took in a big breath, pressed the button, and just like that, at a cost of $125, I was signed up for my first 50-mile race.

It took me a few weeks before I told Shorty about it. I’m not sure what I thought he was going to think, but for some reason I was nervous. The weekend I told him, we had watched a show on the Discovery Channel that was a combo nature show and a show about Badwater. We were playing backgammon late Saturday night and I finally said, “I signed up for a 50-mile race.” He looked at me and said, “Hon, I completely support you in all this, but when you get that ‘look’ in your eye like you did when we were watching the thing about Badwater, I get worried.” Me: “Those people are nuts!” Him: “And what would you have said if I had told you a year ago that you’d be doing what you’re doing now?” . . . . . Okay. I’ll give you that one.

My training began in earnest after Desert High 50k in December. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t always fun. It was tiring and eventually felt like it was taking over my life. My last few back-to-back long runs were 20/16, 22/18, 24/18, 26/18, 28/16, which meant long hours away from home and not much time to do anything else. (For the uninitiated, the long runs were Saturday/Sunday, and the numbers are miles, i.e. 20 miles Saturday/16 miles Sunday.) I became a blob that worked out in the predawn hours of the morning, went to work, came home and worked at my side job (I do transcription), then woke up to do it all over again. Weekends - leave me alone. I’m tired, I’m hungry . . . I’m tired. How you folks who run 100-milers train for them is beyond me. I just got plain ole tired of running. I spent hours reading race reports of previous AR50 participants and reviewing the course and elevation profile. One RunningAhead compadre even went out on her own time and did a complete recon of the course, sending my very detailed photos of the parts of the trail she could reach. This information was invaluable, and I am grateful to Kitrin for doing this for me.

I had asked Shorty to crew for me, and my buddy, Karen, to pace for me. It was important to me for Shorty to be a part of at least one of my runs, and since crew persons could get to more than half the aid stations at AR50, this was the perfect race for him to attend. Karen - she’s the one who got me into running in the first place. We spend every Saturday running together. She knows my weaknesses and my strengths. She can be bossy and pushy, funny and serious. She has a heart of gold and can climb hills like a damn goat. She was the perfect person to pace me, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment to say yes when I asked.

Time to Go!

On Thurday, Karen, Shorty, and I took off for the trek to Sacramento. We spent Friday doing a recon of the aid stations, grocery shopping for the next day, and, most importantly, picking up my race packet . . . and of course making a few extra purchases. By the time we got back to the hotel Friday evening, there were a lot of other runners checking in, moving about, and you could feel the excitement in the air. We walked to a local pizzeria and devoured a meal of pizza and salad, then headed back to the hotel for hopefully a good night’s sleep. Surprisingly, I slept really good, and for the first time ever before a race, the alarm had to wake me up. Ends up Shorty was the one who spent most of the night worrying, mostly about his role as a crew person. I wouldn’t be picking up Karen for pacing duties ‘til later in the race, so she and Shorty would be hanging out for a few hours and she’d be able to show him the ropes.
(My crew vehicle)

The start of the race was on the Guy West Bridge at Sacramento State. It was too dark to really see anything, so Shorty and Karen dropped me off and headed to the first aid station. It was just as well since I spent about 20 minutes standing in the port-a-pot line. Thirteen portables for 750 runners. Yeah, it was kinda slow . After attending to my needs, I walked up the bridge and positioned myself at the back of the pack and waited. At 6:00 a.m. sharp, we were off.

AR50 runs from Sacramento to Auburn along the American River. Almost all of the first 26+ miles is on the basically flat American River Bike Path, then it starts to climb. A little less than a mile into the race, the course takes a sharp left down onto the bike path, so for a very brief period of time, those of us at the back got to watch the front runners. It was the last time I would see them.

I had read enough race reports to know it would be easy to go out too hard on the flat section and leave nothing for the end. To prevent that, I set my Garmin for 11:00 minute miles. During the first 5 miles, I spent some time running with an older lady named Judy who was turning 69 the next day. This was her 9th or 10th AR50, and she was unsure of her ability to finish since the year before she’d been pulled for not making a cut off. I really enjoyed talking to her, and what an inspiration she was! I mean, come one! An almost 70-year old woman participating in a 50-mile run?? Go, Judy!

I arrived at the first aid station in about an hour as anticipated, and was greeted by my crew wearing goofy hats and ringing a cowbell.

Nobody else was greeted with such a spectacle throughout the entire race, so I felt pretty dang special. Judy left ahead of me, and I would see her off and on throughout the rest of the race. As I was leaving the aid station, Karen felt compelled to yell out at the top of her lungs, “Your ass looks huge in those shorts!” Can you feel the outpouring of love between us? Can ya?

I also leap frogged with two other guys throughout most of the race. One named Chris (Red Shirt) who I talked to quite a bit, and another who I never spoke to. The Isecond guy moaned and groaned so much, I was always surprised to see him further down the course, and I don’t know if he finished.

Life was pretty much as I expected it to be between aid stations on the flat, but rarely having a chance to change terrain like you do in trail running began to wear on my legs. The asphalt didn’t help either, and even though I ran on the side of the path in the crushed granite as much as possible, by the time I got to Negro Bar (Mile 22.4), my legs were feeling a bit tired. The first location runners were allowed to pick up a pacer was at Beals Point (Mile 26.53). I had planned on picking Karen up further into the race at Granite Bay (Mile 31.67), but at Negro Bar I told her I wanted her to begin at the earlier point. She had been wanting me to pick her up early anyway (“Let’s get the party started!” I believe were her words), so I got the yeah-I-knew-it-shit-eating-grin.

Picking Karen up early was the best decisions I could have made. She had already figured out that I was behind the eight ball and wanted to get some cushion going for the second cutoff. So once we left the Beals Point aid station, I was informed that she was going “push the pace for awhile, Les. We have to make up some time.” Let me tell you, running at this point with someone who has fresh legs is, um, interesting. That person is way too full of energy - which I realize is the whole point. But when this fresh pacer is saying, “Let’s run!” and your legs are saying, “I’ve been running for the past 26.53 miles,” the two are on completely different planes.

I managed to keep up via her using, shall say, words of encouragement, and we cruised into Granite Bay with enough of a cushion for her to go use the port-o-pots and for me to have a moment to sit on the tailgate of the truck and dump some water on my head. It wasn’t hot out there, but it was a bit humid and I was feeling it. On the way in, we passed Judy and her pacer, and she and I threw some encouraging words at one another. Shorty had been keeping an eye out for us, and by him ringing the cowbell, we found were able to make a beeline for the truck. More soup, more turkey/avo sandwich halves, “Love ya, babe,” and we were out there.

Back-to-back training long runs are intended to mimic, as best as possible, the exhaustion the legs will feel during a 50-mile run. It is not however, the same as actually running those 50 miles. Leaving Granite Bay would put me into unknown mileage territory for a one-day period, and I couldn’t help but think of Karen’s sister, Kate, and her first 100 miler. Once she hit a whole new level of mileage, every now and then she would tell her pacer, Russ, “Guess what? This is the farthest I’ve ever run!” I felt that, in honor of Kate, my Trail Goddess, I had to use that phrase at least once or twice.

The miles between Granite Bay (31.67) and Rattlesnake Bar (40.94) were, mentally, the hardest miles of the run. It was at Granite Bay that the real climbing and trail running began in earnest, and included lots of rocks and steps and mostly tight single track. No crew was allowed at Buzzard’s Cove (Mile 34.67) or Horseshoe Bar (Mile 38.14), and even though there was only suppose to be water at Buzzard’s Cove, those folks had brought along ice cream, as well. Unfortunately, the only thing I could think of was climbing out of that station and moving toward the next. I had handed over my bottle to Karen, and she and an aid station worker were getting mine and hers refilled. My legs were hurting and there really wasn’t a whole to of room to move around, so I was pretty much standing in one place working them as much as possible. There’s a rule that pacers and runners are suppose to stay within a certain distance of one another, but one of the workers looked at me and said, “Are you waiting for her?” Since I couldn’t speak, I just nodded yes, and he told me to go ahead and get going. I think I moaned a thank you and started climbing again. It didn’t take Karen long to catch up with me, and I think this is where I began Phase One of a classic meltdown that continued off and on for the next 9 or so miles.

Somewhere between Buzzard’s Cove and Rattlesnake Bar I began to think, “Screw this. This sucks. My legs are $%^&ing killing me.” Karen kept on me, “Come on, Les, we have to move if we’re going to make the next cutoff. Let’s go. Failure is not an option.” (She’d throw that last line at me a few more times before the race was over.) At that point, I was trying really hard to not cry and as I was gasping for breath, I said, “You know? I really don’t give a shit anymore.” Karen: “Yes, you do. You’re going to make it. It’s just your brain talking, telling you to not move your legs anymore. Get out of your head.” Me: “No, I really don’t, Karen.” Karen: “Okay. Let’s walk for awhile then.” And we did. And it helped - - some.

At Horshoe Bar, we were greeted by a load of kids holding signs and wearing T-shirts that said “Be Change.” Ends up it has something to do with helping inner city kids obtain medical care, education, and I’m not sure what else. There was a guy running for those kids, and we would find out later down the trail that due to severe cramping in his quads, he’d missed the first cutoff and had had his timing chip removed. He refused to quit, however, since he was out there for the kids and not for any jacket or award and ended up finishing two places ahead of me. Now that’s the kind of guy you want on your side when the chips are down. It wasn’t about him, it was about not letting the kids down.

Horseshoe Bar is also where I went into Phase Two of my meltdown. They had some great chicken noodle that I sucked down as fast as I could considering how freaking hot the broth was. As Karen was refilling our bottles, I saw a guy who’d we’d leap-frogged to that point, sitting on the ground, telling someone that, well, he’d never run that far before, so it was something. My eyes were telling me he was pulling out of the race, but for some reason my brain wasn’t totally comprehending it. All I knew was I was torn between wanting to stop and to keep going so as not to disappoint myself or the many friends and family who were eagerly waiting to hear of my success. Karen came up to me as I chugged the last of my soup and said, “Let’s go.” I think I went about 4 or 5 steps when I just stopped and took some shaky breaths. She looked me in the eye and said, “If you need to cry, then cry. Go ahead. Get it out. It’ll make you stronger.” I’m not embarrassed to say I succumbed to the tears for a moment, but then I shook it off, blew a couple of snot rockets, and we were off again.

Rattlesnake Bar was the next aid station and the 2nd cutoff of the race. All runners had to be leaving the station by 4:05 p.m. or they would be pulled. Karen pushed and cajoled me as much as she could during these next 2.8 miles, but boy howdy, I was not a very willing participant. Then we came up on Judy and her pacer again. She had fallen down, her elbow was bleeding, she had thrown up, but she wasn’t giving up. Her pacer was calling out how much time we had before we missed the cutoff, and somehow I got a little more oompf in me. Then a short distance from the station, a worker was waiting at the side of the trail, and suddenly we hear, “4 minutes, runners! You have 4 minutes to cut off! Move! You can do this!” Then not much further I hear Shorty yelling, “2 minutes, hon! You got 2 minutes! Run! Run!” Up to that point, I was pretty sure I was going to quit, but somehow, hitting that station ahead of the cutoff, hearing my husband encouraging me on, having Judy pushing her way through it, I just peeled through the station without giving it so much as a glance. It’s not like I had some kind if blistering pace going, but I knew as long I got out of the aid station, out of that parking lot, I had a fighting chance to finish this race.

Karen had taken my bottle and after refilling hers and mine, very quickly caught up with me, and (miraculously) for only the second time that day I had to go to the bathroom. Really bad. Actually, I had been needing to go for quite a while, but the problem? Lots of poison oak on this trail. And I mean lots. Trying to find a place to squat in privacy and out of the poison oak was quite the challenge, let me tell you. My needing to stop gave Judy and her pacer a lead on me that, although she would be in my sights a lot, stayed for the rest of the race. I’d catch a glimpse of her every now and then, and the knowledge that she was still pushing herself helped me push myself.

When we reached Manhattan Bar (Mile 43.92), those folks were ready with anything we needed. Soup? Yes! Please! More soup? Yes! And the best part of all, “You’re gonna make it. You only have 1 more aid station (Last Gasp), and you’re going to make it.” Cripes, I got all teary-eyed again and actually almost lost my balance, twice. A couple of the guys hung on to my arms to help steady me, and pretty much all I could do at that point was smile and nod a thanks. Words just weren’t coming out. Karen was doing all the talking for me, bless her, and she was grinning from ear to ear: “You’re gonna make it! You’re going to run 50 miles!”

From Manhatten Bar to the Finish Line, it’s 6.08 miles with one more aid station, Last Gasp. Do you know why they call it Last Gasp? It’s because 5 or more of those 6.08 miles are up . . . and up . . . and up . . . and up some more. The gravel road before Last Gasp very steep, and I tried really hard to do a 5/5 combo - run 5 steps, walk 5 steps. It didn’t take long before I realized that I could power walk the hill much more effectively than I could run it. But it was still at such a steepness than I even attempted to serpentine back and forth in an effort to take some pressure off my legs. Judy and her pacers (one being her son who’d mountain biked in to help his mom through this last bit) and the guy we talked to about the Be Change program and his pacer were all ahead of me. And unless there some great act of God or magic, there was no way I was going to catch them.

We were almost to Last Gasp (Mile 47.56), which was on probably the only flat spot for 5 miles, when a couple of guys working the station ran down, grabbed our water bottles and packets of powdered sports drinks and ran back up to fill them while we continued to climb. I just kept on going, right through the aid station and let Karen catch up with me.

From Last Grasp to the end, it’s a 2.44 mile climb on a paved road. I finally told Karen, “I can power walk this as hard as possible, but I cannot run it. I just can’t.” Up to that point, she had been telling me stories, singing to me, telling me jokes - anything she could think of to take my mind off my legs. She knew that now all she could do is push the pace of the power walking as hard as she could, thereby pulling me along. I was hoping against hope we had enough of a cushion that walking wouldn’t put me over the 13-hour time limit. We both kept looking at our watches and would try and cut time and steps by crossing over and walking the tangents. Soon we could hear the announcements and music from the finish line. A truck carrying tables and items from the last aid station drove by us. That’s when you know, without a doubt, that you’re it. You are the very last person who, by the grace of God and pushing from a best friend, will be getting over that finish line.

The road finally flattened out somewhat, I was able to run some more. We came down a stretch, and the guy in the truck had stopped and was picking up the orange cones that had been marking the way all day. He looked at me and said, “You only have a little hill (thumb and middle finger together, not quite touching) to go. A little one.” Well, yeah, it was little, but that sucker was straight up! I actually had to stop halfway and catch my breath.

Once we crested the top, Karen said to me, “Run, Les! You’re going to make it! You’re going to get our finisher’s jacket!” She was behind me and more orange cones were lining the way, wanting me to get up on the grass. Karen’s yelling, “You gotta get up and run on the grass, Les!” It actually very, very briefly went through my mind, “I have to step UP onto the grass?!? This is stupid!” I did it anyway, and was led down the sidewalk, which led to the beginning of the chute to the finish line. I reached back for Karen, but she had already slowed down and was yelling from the back, “Run, Leslie! You’re gonna make it! Go!” And from the front I heard from my husband, “Run, Mom! You’re gonna make it! Run!”

I crossed the finish line in 12 hrs 52 min 55 secs - the longest amount of time and miles I have ever run in my life. As soon as I saw my husband, I started crying, and he was crying.

The lady who gave me my finisher’s jacket had just the kindest look on her face as she said, “Here’s your Finisher’s Jacket.” And then sitting there at the end was a RunningAhead cyber friend, Landy, who had dug in and stayed to the bitter end to watch me finish.

I gave her a big hug and told her how much I appreciated her being there. I wish I had been more coherent and with it mentally, because I would’ve liked to have talk to her more. But I was in a bit of a daze and began loosely wandering around while Shorty and Karen tried to corral me, get a blanket on me, and feed me. And surprisingly, the same lady who had presented me with my finisher’s jacket came up and gave me a big blue gift bag and told me that because I had come in last, I got a prize. Imagine that! A prize for being DFL! It was a full case of Mountain Mojo Bars (YUM!) and a really nice Patagonia pack. I’ve never minded being last. I mean, somebody has to be. And to get a prize for the position - SWEET!

After the race, we headed to the Comfort Inn in Auburn. Ends up a number of race participants were staying there, as well. We could’ve picked one another out of a walking line up. As I told a couple of folks, “We’re all walking like we’ve got cobs stuck up our butts!” One guy retorted, “I told my partner it was her sexy walk.” And one poor dude obviously had forgotten, and did not know the golden rule of lubing up with diaper rash lotion before a long run. He was walking as straddle-legged as he possible could and still be able to walk.

After I showered, I spent probably about 1 ½ to 2 hours slowly walking up and down the hallway in my pajamas with Karen. I knew that if I kept walking, I (hopefully) wouldn’t be completely stiff and sore the next day. I even managed to talk her out of a foot rub in the hotel lobby when I decided I needed to sit down for a short time. Yep, she was still doing her double duty as pacer and, most importantly, friend.

This race took me mentally to places I’d never been before. If you had told me, “Hey, you ran for almost 13 hours,” I would’ve said, “What? 13 hours?” It didn’t feel like I had been out there that long. But telling me I had run 50 miles? Yes, it did feel that long.

But this was a really great race. It’s set up so that with only 2 exceptions, you are never running more than 4+ miles between aid stations, and most of them are less than 4 miles. Because of this, the run is broken up into mentally manageable pieces. And another great thing was the aid stations and the workers. A number of races I’ve run, when you’re coming in at the back of the pack, it can be slim pickin’s at the stations with regard to food, and often barely anything left at the finish line either, with the workers having packed up what they could without leaving you behind. Every single aid station we hit out there was set up just as if we were the first ones through, and the workers were all so kind and caring, wanting to do anything they could to help and make your race better. I cannot thank those folks enough for being there for us, because it’s their smiling faces and offers of assistance that help keep us runners going.

So I’m sure the big question on everybody’s mind is would I do it again? Well . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . that’s a story for another day.