Sunday, April 02, 2006

Racing the American River 50

This Saturday I joined 477 ultramarathoners for the 27th running of the American River 50-miler (AR50) from Sacramento to Auburn, CA. Known as a popular race with a healthy mix of dirt and pavement, the AR50 has had over 200 runners since it's inception (just ask Gloria Takagishi, who has run all 27!). Despite record-breaking rain in the the area, we got a reprieve from the rain just long enough to enjoy a beautiful day on the American River Canyon.

(Don Foster and friends await the start, bright and early)

My day started early - 3am - since I wanted to hit the local Denny's for a Grand Slam breakfast before taking the 4:15am bus ride to the start (that's about as close to an ultra grand slam as I get). I ran into Elizabeth Carrion and Paul Morris there, who had come out from New York for their second running of the AR50. Paul was building up to his first Western States, after his lottery number came through. Lucky for him, Elizabeth was a veteran 100-miler, so he had a pacing crew ready to roll. Once we scarfed our food, we made it down to the Auburn Dam Overlook to catch the early bus to the start.

In the bus, I taped my feet and packed my drop bag. The AR50 is about half road and half trail (mostly in that order), which gave me my first chance to try using a drop bag. I put in some trail shoes, a change of socks, a foot care kit, and a few snacks for the road, ready for the Beals Point (27.1 mile) drop. For the first half it would be road shoes with gaiters.

(At the weigh in)

The bus arrived at Guy West Bridge about 40 minutes before the start, and everyone mixed and mingled. It was comfortably cold (low 40's), cloudy, with a light mist of rain - ideal conditions for a long run. There were racers everywhere for this sold out running, including many eager first-timers. A few runners were joking at the weigh-in station that their weight varied by 4 lbs depending on which scale they got on (yikes!).

(First-time ultra runner Julie Manning, Jeff Wood, and Judy Turney at the race start)

I recognized a lot of people from Way Too Cool. I ran into Luis Escobar (ultra guru and RD for the Santa Barbara 9 Trails), Jeff Zahn, and a few other SoCal faces as we made our way to the start. Before we knew it, we were off!

(Jeff Zahn and Luis Escobar, our SoCal representatives, at the race start)

The race began with a quick two mile loop on a wide road, before circling back east to head up the American River. At the turn, we saw the front-runners setting a blinding pace, including Uli Steidl, Chris Zaiman, Eric Skaden, Simon Mtuy (who recently set the up-and-down speed record for Mt. Killimanjaro), 2005 50k champion Julie Udchachon, Julie Fingar, and more. I had started a bit too far back in the pack, so I began working my way up. I ran by Michael Fink and "Baby Lamb", the stuffed mascot that has ridden in his fanny pack on year of runs and hikes. Gordy Ainsleigh was right by him, finding a good pace and chatting up some first-timers. About 30 minutes in, I caught up to Rena Schulmann (a sure sign that I was going too fast) who let me know she was training for Western States #9. Rena had a great pace going, and knowing her, she was just warming up.

The 22 miles of pavement at the start allowed us all to settle into a quick pace. I noticed I wasn't the only astonished at my time at the mile markers and wondering if I should slow down. But the pace felt comfortable, and it didn't take long before some familiar scenery from the Helen Klein 50 appeared, including the nice flat dirt trails on either side of the bike path. Many of us ran on this section to save our legs for the latter section. I hit Watt Ave (5.9 miles) in 38:40, and William Pond (9.4 miles) in 1:12:03, so I was hovering around an 8 minute mile.

As the runner's high kicked in, my mind and heart began to weave in and out with the bike path. I welcomed a chance to ponder many of the new emotions that have entered my life in the last few months, and long, flat ultras are good for that. Christi and I got a surprise x-mas card from the stork this season, saying a baby girl would be on the way in August (our first). We're incredibly excited, but clearly have no idea what we're doing. ;-) On top of that, an idea I had for using your cell phone to help find sales/deals near you quickly became NearbyNow, a new technology company with me at the helm. In case that wasn't enough stress, Christi and I got involved in a car accident on I-80 coming back from Way Too Cool, putting her car in the shop (and me in a rental car) for weeks. Yet in the rhythm of the run, all this emotion just fueled my fire and pushed me forward.

As I hit the Nimbus Dam Overlook (19 miles) at 2:46, I wondered if perhaps I had a bit too much fuel in the fire. Should I slow down and save some energy for the hills at the end, or should I just push through? I asked my body, and it said "push". We climbed up off the bike path to the Nimbus aid station, and began running along dirt paths and an access road for the next 2 miles. My "street shoes" weren't sure what to make of the single track, but the trail was smooth enough that it didn't matter much.

(Greg Nacco from Sausalito, CA works through the wildflowers around mile 23)

I had misread the AR50 description as "27 miles of pavement, followed by 23 miles of dirt". In truth, after Nimbus there is more trail than road. After a quick single track hike up to Nimbus, there is a mile of pavement, and then mostly dirt road and single track all the way to Beals Point. The trails were a welcome change, and a chance to see some of the wildflowers soaking up the rain and stomp through some gargantuan mud puddles. But it was very doable with street shoes.

(Working our way up to the high road, about mile 25)

As we came down towards Beals Point (27.4), my stomach started to have second thoughts about that grand slam breakfast (next time, no bacon!). The discomfort slowed me down about 30 seconds per mile, but it wasn't unbearable. I kept urging myself to move forward, oscillating through mantras such as "never give up, never surrender" (yes, that's from Galaxy Quest!) and "there is no way back but forward". A new mantra showed up too - "make your daughter proud". She's not even born yet, and I'm already feeling her support!

I had a seat at Beals Point to change my shoes and eat potatoes to try and calm my stomach. Luis Escobar powered through the aid station, and I picked up the pace to catch up with him. We made quick work of 1.5 miles of flat gravel road, and began 3 miles of rolling hills. Luis is a superb downhill runner, frolicking with gravity like an old childhood friend. I did my best to keep up with him by going a little faster on the flats. Together we chugged through to Granite Bay (31.5), passing 5-6 other runners on the way.

At Granite Bay, I figured out two things. First, I was definitely going too fast. My 50k split was 4:15 - a new PR. That's not a good sign in a 50-miler! Second, my stomach issues were not going away (perhaps they were connected?). I had been cautious to eat small PB&J squares, potatoes, and other "real food" so as not to get too hungry, but here I was with a hollow stomach again. I tried to take an extra few minutes at the aid station to let my stomach rest and take in some fluids. As I did, Rena Schulmann came charging through the aid station, definitely going faster than when she started. Go, Rena!

As I passed Buzzards Cove (34 miles), the single track began to look like a "real" trail run, with rocks, creeks, zigs and zags. Some of the muddy areas were too big to get around (including one right before Rattlesnake Bar that was HUGE). I passed Jady Palko, whom I had recognized from the warming tent after Way Too Cool. He and his pacer were making great time, despite "feeling beat". We all refueled at Manhattan Bar (43.2 miles, the last food in the race), which gave Jady enough boost to kick into overdrive. At this point, I figured out that if I walked the uphills my stomach didn't act up too much. I knew the last climb was going to be a doozy.

(Ack! The final three mile hike begins - one mile on dirt, two on gravel)

At mile 46.5, the big climb began. It started out on dirt, averaging about a 14 degree incline (I think), but had some flatter sections where running was possible. It didn't take long to reach Last Gasp (47.6 miles), and as I did, Dean Karnazes came cruising by, all smiles. We headed up the last road, which averaged about a 10 degree incline. You could see and hear the finish up on top of the Overlook. David Ruvalcaba, a 51-year-old from Madera, CA, set a great pace about 100 yards in front of me, and I chased his red jersey all the way to the finish line in 7:57, good for 36th place.

The volunteers quickly dressed me in the AR50 jacket, put soup in my hand, and pointed me to the box of anti-poison oak wipes provided by (thanks guys!). I caught up with the finishers to find out that Uli Stedl had won in just under 6 hours, with Chris Zeiman just a few minutes behind him (Auburn Journal has a great article about their race). Eric Skaden, Graham Cooper, and John Ticer finished out the top five. Julie Udchachon won the women's division, with Rena Schumann closing in within 2 minutes for second place. Despite the mud, they had all put in great performances.

Jean Pommier ran some numbers to compare the AR50 and Way Too Cool, and found out the following:

* 25% of Way Too Cool runners also ran the AR50. 22% of AR50 runners ran Way Too Cool.

* 51 ran AR at a slower pace than Way Too Cool (as one might expect), 8 ran the same pace, and 41 people actually ran AR50 faster!

I had one last surprise waiting for me - I went to my car to find the back window smashed in and all my belongings stolen, including what was in the trunk. Doh! Luckily my rental car was the only one hit and I still had the keys. I guess I'm not having very good "car-ma" this year (ha, ha). Like a true runner, I was less worried about the laptop and money, and more concerned that I didn't have dry clothes. Kind of ironic that I just did a blog entry on the Hitch only if they made one big enough for a change of clothes!

In not-so-rare form, Greg Soderlund and the AR50 volunteers quickly took care of me. Before I could even snap out of my running daze, Greg had gathered up enough extra clothes to keep me warm, John Rhodes had patched up my window with cardboard, the police wrote up their report, and Jady, Luis, and other runners offered to take up a collection to get me enough cash to get home. It really meant a lot to me that this community of people I only know through running would rally to my support.

My thanks to Greg and the wondeful volunteers of the AR50 for doing such a great job. I would highly recommend this race for next year. Be sure to sign up early, try the drop bag, eat plenty (skip the bacon), and just in case you're the next rare victim of car theft, don't assume that "in the trunk" means your stuff is safe. ;-)

- SD


  1. sorry about the laptop. But from someone fighting IT-band issues, thanks for sharing and letting me "experience" the race through someone's eyes and legs until I can with my own.

  2. Scott,

    I routinely look forward to your updates on your blog. Your blog was one of the first ones I came across when I first started running (last August) and was looking for information. Your personal recounts and the runners you interview have given me inspiration with every update!

    I’m sorry to hear about your stolen items at the AR50. I hope the runners high you were on took you through the rage you must’ve felt when you saw your car.

    At any rate, I thought I’d leave a note to let you know that your words are inspiring and you’ve made a difference in my young, but eager running life.

    Good luck with your daughter. My wife and I celebrated my daughters first birthday last month. It’s such an amazing feeling. Take the best runners high and times it by 1000 and you’ll get a small glimpse of what being a “daddy” is like!

    Thank you for everything!

    A "newb"

  3. Wow, what a good news-bad news report! Luckily the good news things (a new baby, a good race, a positive outlook and a helpful community of runners) are far more important than the bad things (stolen property).

    Excellent report - thanks.

  4. Bummer about the broken in car! But a fantastic race report! Too bad I didn't get a chance to meet you though I meant to - you're too fast for me to still be around at the finish:) Next time...

  5. Thanks for the great post Scott, especially the recap while your mind wandered. It's one of the things that has me hooked on running in the last few years, the chance to let the mind drift like that. Shame about the car. As I build up my miles and tweak my body away from that of a cyclist to one of a long distance runner (hopefully ultras one day) I'll keep visiting your blog for more great posts. Hopefully here in New Zealand there will be more events like the AR. It's slowly happening, thankfully.


  6. Your blog continues to be quite meaty with interesting interviews, race recaps, and product updates. Also, the photos (from AR and elsewhere) really add a ton to the stories. Thanks for taking the time to share and motivate.

  7. Scott:

    So let me get this straight. You clocked a 50k PR on the way, and somehow TOOK PHOTOS ALONG THE WAY?!? I think you're holding back. ;-)


  8. Thanks everybody for your good words. I agree with Donald - my good news and good race so far outweighs the theft, it's really not even bothering me that much. Insurance covered everything, so I got a nice little shopping spree out of it too!

    And to all you daddys out there, I welcome any and all tips, daddy blogs, pearls of wisdom, etc. I am definitely the n00b on this front!

    Thanks again you guys,


  9. Grand Slam Breakfast?! you are a stronger man than i. Also, i am amazed that you can remember so many details of a race. really. amazed.

  10. Congratulations on your daughter!

    Great recap :)

  11. Thanks for the great race review Scott, and especially the photos. I just posted my own write up if you want the rookie perspective. Congrats on your new "dad" status, that's great!

  12. Great race report Scott and sorry about the car but congrats on the new baby.

    Best advise on new babies is just like getting advise on running your first ultra. It's nice to be prepared but ultimately you have to go through it yourself. I will say this, try and get some sleep now while you can.

  13. Nice job on the PR for the 50k and the new one on the way. I have my first ultra coming up on April 15th. It's good to read about others races to try to work out a stategy for myself. Keep up the great work!

  14. Scott -
    Glad to see you had such a positive attitude considering the theft!! Sorry to hear that. It's so wonderful that you were taken care of quickly with the clothes. Thanks for the great race report!

  15. Scott-Thanks for posting the picture on the bridge with my dad and his friends, (Don Foster) I love crewing that race every year and really enjoyed your blog!

  16. Gah, bummer about the theft! But, it sounds like a great race... Hey any time you get passed by Dean is a great race :) Of course, I guess it would be better not to get passed by him, but I digress ;)

    Way to keep the positive attitude.

  17. Hey, Scott... Great write up... really enjoyed the commentary, though you made it sound "way too easy!"

    If you're interested in another little diversion, check out the Deepwater 50 Mile race that's part of Adventure Sports Week. It's going to be in Coeur d' Alene, Idaho, June 13... great course, amazing scenery, great swag... we'd love to see you there! (We think Dean is coming as well)

    We're expecting our own daughter June 9, so congrats again!


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