I headed up early on Saturday morning, with no goals other than to have a good time and try and beat my time from 2006 (4:36 on a course that was 1.5 miles shorter). It’s easy to sandbag at WTC because (1) it’s so early in the season, and (2) the field is so INSANELY stacked with folks like speed demon Dan Olmstead, 2007 winner Lewis Taylor, Eric Grossman, Karl Meltzer, Eric Skaden, Paul Dewitt, Rod Bien, 2006 winner Phil Kochik, Meghan Arbogast, Bev Anderson-Abbs, Joell Vaught, and Devon Crosby-Helms. Throw in some top notch locals like Victor Ballesteros, Michael Buchanan, Jean Pommier, Mark Lantz, Leor Pantilat, Caitlin Smith, and Caren Spore, and there’s gonna be a show-down for sure. Three other elements would also contribute to a fast pace – the added 1.5 miles to make it an honest 50k for the first time ever, the absence of defending champions Todd Braje and Suzannah Beck, and the fact that this is one of the few races remaining in the Montrail Ultra Cup which is now paying out cash-ola for their grand prizes.
The winter fog rolled in and smeared out the morning sun just as we collected ourselves at the start, cooling the air to a run-perfect 40 degrees. Anyone worried about the chilly air need only reach into their goody bag for frog-designed Moeben sleeves and one of two shirts. I opted for a tank top, sleeves, my Sugoi gloves and handband, and two water bottles; perhaps a little overkill, but always better to be safe. The starter chute was packed with eager runners, with two rows of logo-filled shirts up front. At 8am, Race Director Julie Fingar gave the signal and we were off!
The added 1.5 miles were all up front, giving us a 2+ mile stretch of downhill paved road to get the blood going before hitting the single track. Craig Thornley and Andy Jones-Wilkins kept a hilarious comic banter going, particularly as we hit the first mile marker in under 7 minutes (AJ said it was “the fastest mile he has run in the last six months”) and second mile marker in 13 minutes and change (“the second fastest mile in the last six months”). We took a short section of single track to a fire road and headed towards the Hwy 49 crossing.
The trails were wide and fast with a few sections of mud and creeks to keep us honest. By the time we hit the first aid station (mile 6), my legs were splattered and soaked from running so close to others. The mudcake soon dried, shedding away my day-to-day stressors like a molten shell. How simple life can be that all it takes is a morning of romping through the wild to set your soul at ease.
I stayed in the tailwind of Brian Wyatt, who expertly pulled me through the technical single track to the bank of the American River. We passed Michael Fink, whom like the Ferrari that he is, was inching down the single track only to explode in speed once he found the flats.
Sean Lang caught up to us as we weaved along the river bank, and Brian and I did our best to stay on his tail. Sean was moving quickly on the flats and smiling ear to ear (per usual), but not so much that he couldn’t chat us up. He was glowing when he talked about how his wife had recently caught the distance running bug and had already graduated from the Big Sur Marathon to the upcoming Skyline to the Sea 50k. The more he talked about her, the faster he went! The indisputable power of love.
We climbed to the Western States trail, and started picking our way through the runners. I could see specs of white and bright colors snaking up the canyon ahead of us, and hear the ongoing slapstick of Craig and AJ behind us (something about a “who can eat the most S! Caps” competition). The sun broke out as we crossed the footbridge, giving us a view of the valley below. I couldn’t help but think this trail was going to feel very different in June at the Western States 100, where I likely would be alone in the dark and whimpering like a baby. ;-)
The creeks were full, but there were usually ways to get across fairly dry if you didn’t mind slowing to strategize. I slipped on a rock and soaked my left foot, providing a step-squish-step-squish rhythm. I wasn’t sure what the right strategy was for the next creek crossing – lead with the left foot because it’s already wet, or lead with the right to even out the soakage and get a more symmetric squish-squish beat? Fate would soon decide!
We caught Jady Palko, who kicked it up a notch to pace with us all the way to Auburn Lakes (mile 15.7). My watch said 1:58, so we seemed to be right on target Sean’s goal pace for a 4:10-4:15 finish (and I would be slowing, natch). I refilled my bottles while bottle-less Jady went for his “one cup of water for every mile between aid stations” hydration strategy. Sean spent little time at the aid station and sprinted up the hills. I climbed up to the next flat section and caught up to Oregon-speedster Meghan Arbogast and British Columbia’s Nicola Gildersleeve, who were running 4th and 5th in the Women’s race. Both were “quiet” runners in that they wasted almost no energy and seemed to glide along the trail. Meghan was setting the pace for all of us.
We crossed the creek, passing Rob Evans (nursing his IT band) and Thomas Reiss (still hacking from the flu). Meghan continued to lead, turning up the pace anytime she found a downhill stretch. I stopped to tie my wet shoelace (again), and that’s the last I saw of Meghan and Nicola. I thought I might catch them at the hill known as Ball Bearing, but I only caught a glimpse of them at the top as I took my first few steps. Soon I was being caught by Brian Wyatt and a few other runners who were vaulting up the hill much faster than my speed-hike. I drained the last of my water bottles and ate another pack of Jelly Belly’s (one pack or gel every 30 minutes). We all approached the aid station (mile 21), where Brian cramped just as he reached out to get some salt and water. I guess if you’re going to cramp, that’s the place to do it!
The next few miles had some shared single track where we got to see the smiling faces of runners coming the other way. I wanted to tell them how much fun lay ahead, but they would experience it soon enough! I fired off about 50 pictures, then tucked it away to squish-squish my way down the open trail (yes, I had inadvertently plunked my right foot into a creek).
Jon Kroll and Jed Tukman came up behind me right near the footbridge, and we all refueled before tackling the wicked-steep Goat Hill. Jon and Jed were moving faster, so I stepped aside. I arrived at the aid station (mile 26), took an extra few seconds to say Happy Birthday to Norm Klein, emptied my pockets of all but one gel, and set my sites on catching Jon.
I ate the gel about a mile later, but puked it up within five seconds. It seemed weird to vomit since I wasn’t feeling ill at all. In fact, the race was going quite smoothly. I guess my body was just letting me know that the gel-limit had been reached at mile 28, so get rid of it. ;-) I kept seeing Jon a few steps ahead, but he was charging the uphills. When I crossed Hwy 49 (mile 29.5), Jon had a minute on me and showed no signs of slowing.
As I got one last refill of water, Brian Wyatt came in behind me doing a cramp-avoiding modified stride, and together with Andrew Anglemeyer we headed up the last climb. There was a line of runners behind us, but short of a speedy Graham Cooper, we kept moving fast enough to keep them at bay. I finished in 4:28, good enough for 47th place. Certainly faster than 2006, but barely cracking the top 50. I felt great though – could have easily done another 20 miles. I bitch a lot about that treadmill, but the base miles are certainly doing me some good.
The finish area was a party in progress, and I was happy to join in for some food, massage, and frog-faced cupcakes. I had a chance to catch up with both winners and hear how their races went. Leor Pantilat had stuck with a front group of four, taking the lead from Eric Grossman at Brown’s Bar and holding the lead to the finish in 3:39:51. He had spotted Dan Olmstead at Ball Bearing, but knew he was up by a few minutes. Leor jokingly said that his recent layoff from a law firm was the reason he did so well, but I’ve seen him clock a few sub-3:40’s on hilly courses now (Skyline to the Sea 50k, Skyline Ridge 50k, Woodside 50k, etc.) so it’s no fluke. Dan Olmstead finished second (3:42:59), just ahead of newcomer Benjamin Berkowitz (3:45:29), Eric Grossman (3:51:02, 1st Masters), and Victor Ballesteros (3:51:11). Eleven runners made it under 4 hours (results). Caitlin Smith, in only her second ultra, stuck close to Bev Abbs before making a break just after Goat Hill and hammering to the finish in 4:12:20. Bev finished 2nd (1st Women’s Master) in 4:17:15, with Joelle Vaught (4:19:41), Nicola Gildersleeve (4:21:50). Meghan Arbogast (4:23:05), and Devon Crosby-Helms (4:25:08) all coming in under four and a half hours. More details at the Sacramento Bee and Auburn Journal. A great day for La Sportiva (who sponsor both winners), and for our local runners Leor and Caitlin!
Eric Skaden says it makes a perfect beer stein!)
The sun finally cut through the clouds as the finishers came rolling in and found friends, family, food and the occasional beer. Most of us were talking about Western States, and I found it interesting that both of the winners today weren’t getting caught up in it at all (despite winning a slot). Leor would gladly trade it in for a slot at AR50. It was also clear that layoffs were another frequent topic, but that most had used it as an excuse to get in more trail time. I have a lot of respect for folks who can keep their priorities straight like that, but then again, ultrarunners are known for being able to tackle adversity and keep moving forward.
Julie Fingar and her volunteers did an amazing job and are to be commended for making this big race go off without a hitch. I had a great time, and it appears everything is on track for training this season. It was good to see everyone!