Last Saturday, I joined 200 runners in Granite Bay, CA, for the Helen Klein 50-miler (HK50). This was my first 50-miler, and I was hoping to finish in less than 9 hours to get a qualifying time for the Western States 100. Given the perfect weather and relatively flat out-and-back course, the odds were as good as they were going to get.
How I arrived at deciding a 50-miler was a good idea is still beyond me. These are the races where “kidney failure” and “brown outs” are badges of courage (if you don’t know what a brown out is, just try running a marathon without water and check your shorts). Just a year ago, I had thought a marathon was more than enough. But somehow after hanging out with all these ultra people, a 50-miler not only seemed rational, but a must. Why? Well, to qualify for a 100-miler, of course! Yes, I know, I know, we all need help. As one runner told me, "any idiot can run a marathon, but it takes a special kind of idiot to run an ultramarathon".
The HK50 race was small, but I saw a lot of familiar faces as I pulled into the parking lot. The HK50 is the last race in the Fuel Belt Ultrarunner.net Series, as well as a championship event in the Pacific Association Ultra Grand Prix Series, and one of the last qualifying races for the Western States 100 for 2006. Race Director Norm Klein introduced a few champions as the 7am start drew near – Sebastiao Da Guia Neto (broke 150 miles in a 24-hour run), Helen Klein (at 82 years old, just finished the Tahoe Triple Marathon), former WS100 winner Gard Leighton, Barbara Elia who running her 300th ultra, age group world record holder John Keston (here to attempt to break the 80 yr old + 30k world record), course record holders Michael Buchanan and Bev Abbs, and more. I also knew that Mark Lantz and Marty Hoffman were duking it out for the Fuel Belt Series Overall Championship, so it was going to be a star-studded event.
It didn’t take long for me to pull my first rookie move. After getting a “double latte” for the “double marathon”, I had to make a quick stop at the bathroom. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one, and a few of us were doing that “gotta go now” dance as we waited for the only men’s stall. When my turn finally arrived, I heard runners chanting in the background. What are they chanting? It sounds like “4, 3, 2, 1”…uh, oh. I think I just missed the start. Doh!
No worries. I went down the path to the race start and started the race about 5 minutes late. What’s five minutes when I plan on being out here all day? Plus this gave me the chance to meet a few more people along the way. As we all cheered each other on, the runners quickly spread out along the American River trail, miles ahead. Very cool.
I haven’t been training differently for the 50-miler, so I was wondering if my legs were going to hold up. After hearing Andy Jones-Wilkins talk about his back-to-back 25 mile weekend runs to get used to “running on tired legs”, I knew there was a chance I was going to fall to pieces. So I didn’t set a time goal other than “less than 9 hours”, and just let my body run the pace it wanted to. After five miles, I settled into a comfortable 8:15 min/mile pace. It felt easy, although it was much faster than I needed for a 9 hour finish.
I put my iPod on (Linkin’ Park, Gorillaz, Santana, Ben Harper, and Zero 7…a very long playlist!) and kept humming along, trying to run on the dirt shoulder of the trail as much as possible. The aid stations were well stocked (as Norm Klein said, “if we don’t have it, that means Safeway doesn’t sell it”) and volunteers were very friendly. At around 16 miles, I caught up with Chase Duarte from Texas, who was doing his first 50-miler in a few years, also hoping to qualify for WS100. He was pacing with Rena Schumann, an ultra/volunteer regular, who was effortlessly cruising along. One volunteer told Rena she was the 3rd female, but she just smiled knowing there was a long way to go.
At mile 20, I caught up with Vance Roger, who was “banking some time” in the first half before settling into a more comfortable pace. Vance was also hoping to get a WS100 qualifying time. We hit the mile 21 aid station together, and started to see the leaders on their way back (already?!?). Michael Buchanan had a 90 second lead on Glen Redpath, with the 23-year-old phenom Chikara Omine just a few seconds behind in third (Chikara had finished his first 50-miler ever just two weeks before, getting 2nd at the Dick Collin’s Fire Trail 50 with an amazing 7:02). All three were well under a 6 hour pace. Not too far behind them were Beverly Abbs and Kami Semick, dueling it out for first female.
At the turn around, my watch read 3:22, which given my 5-minute bathroom delay, was clearly too fast. But my heart rate was still good, and my stride had shifted into an impact-minimized shuffle, so I just kept going. I ran into Alan Abbs, who told me that he and Bev had just finished the Whiskeytown 50 the weekend before, and that he was also going to fly out east to pace his sister in her first marathon…this guy is amazing! We talked playlists for a bit (he correctly pointed out that Linkin’ Park is a bit aggressive for the first part of a 50-miler, compared to his Warren Xevon).
By mile 38, my pace had naturally slowed to just under a 9 minute/mile. It was interesting to feel how my body “downshifted” after 35 miles – no pain or anything, but I suddenly felt like slowing by about 30-40 seconds per mile. I was starting to get really hungry, and the Hammer Gel just wasn’t cutting it. I looked at my watch and realized it was lunch time – no wonder! I asked the aid station volunteers what they would recommend, and they said the favorites were peanut butter sandwiches, potatoes, and m&m’s. I tried some of everything, practically pulling up a chair to stuff it all down.
After “lunch”, I felt really good. The bland potatoes and flat Coke were particularly tasty (I guess that’s what 40 miles does to you). Rena Schumann, Joseph Swenson, and Erik Skaden all passed me in the last eight miles, most of them sticking to the same pace they started with. We all hit the “hills” in the last five miles, and shuffled our way to the finish line. I crossed the finish line in 7:06 (10th place), well under what I needed for WS100.
Michael Buchanan had held on for the win in 5:45, with Chikara Omine just two minutes behind him. It just boggles my mind to think of keeping a 2:45'ish marathon pace for 50 miles, but that's exactly what these guys were doing. Kami Semick had passed Bev Abbs, who was feeling Whiskeytown and decided to slow down considerably, but still winning the master's division. Rena Schuman stuck to her guns for a 3rd place finish, her third sub-7 hour finish here at the HK50. Mark Lantz edged out Marty Hoffman (although Marty had gotten 4th in the 50k, it wasn’t enough for Mark’s 6th place 50-mile finish) to win the Fuel Belt Ultrarunner.net Series, and everyone got to celebrate with a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. All in all, a great experience.
For those of you considering a 50-miler, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how achievable it is if you just listen to your body, keep taking in fluids, and eat solid food throughout the whole race (Chikara had shared with me that he learned this early on – solids from the start). I hadn’t changed my marathon training at all, and it was comfortably within reach. The runners high is amazing too – it’s hard not to smile!
I filled out my lottery application for Western States, so keep your fingers crossed for me!
A special thanks to Norm Klein and his eternally happy volunteer crew for making my foray in to the 50-miler world so easy. I am just now realizing that Norm has been helping me all season - he was a volunteer at Rucky Chucky, Run on The Sly, RD for the HK50, and more. It's clear this sport wouldn't be here without the passion of folks like he and Helen. For that, I am very grateful.
(I will post more pics as soon as I get them…)