Sunday, April 05, 2009

Winding Through the American River 50-Miler

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of joining 650 ultrarunners for the 30th annual American River 50-mile Endurance Run in Auburn, CA. This popular point-to-point race along the American River grew a record crowd (including 250 first-time 50-milers), and the perfect weather and wonderful volunteers showed us yet again why this is an ideal race for road and trail runners alike. It was a fantastic day!

(Sun and spring flowers await us)

The 4:15am bus ride was a bit too early to drive to from the Bay Area, so I opted to spend the night at the Auburn Holiday Inn and treat myself to a solo dinner at Bootleggers (highly recommended). It was nice to have a calm evening before the race; quite the contrast to my first AR50 in 2006, when I had just found out I was going to be a Dad and could barely tie my own shoes. I had just enough time in the morning to hit Denny’s for a 3:30am Grand Slam breakfast (no bacon this time) before dragging my groggy self onto the bus and sitting with Kevin Swisher, Gretchen Brugman, and Catherine Sullivan. It seemed like just yesterday we were all newbies, but it took 50-minutes just to get caught up on everyone’s latest 50- and 100-milers! Before we knew it, we were being escorted out into the cold.

(The start...hey, where is everyone?)

At the start of the race, the speedsters gathered up front. Short-course star (and world class steeplechase runner) Max King was fresh of the XC championships and gunning for a slot at Western States. This wouldn’t be easy, however, since Eric Skaden (2nd at last year’s AR50 and USATF 100-mile champion), Dave Mackey (Miwok 100k winner and course record holder), Hal Koerner (2007 Western States champion), Dan Olmstead (2nd at 2009 Way Too Cool), Chikara Omine (3:08 at 2009 Jed Smith 50k), Keith Bechtol (NCAA 10k champ trying out his first 50-mile race), Jasper Halekas, Victor Ballesteros, and Graham Cooper were all here to race hard. In the Women’s race, favorite Kami Semick would have to keep pace with Annette Bednosky (former Western States champ), Jenny Capel (who knows these trails cold), Jen Pfeifer (fastest of the young guns), and Monica Ochs.

(Gloria Takagishi sports the #1 race bib, and goes on to finish her 30th consecutive AR50)

I was personally out to have some fun and log a good long run, and focus on holding a pace that felt like I could hold for 75-80 miles. If I managed to beat my previous AR50 time of 7:57, that would be gravy. The forecast was for sunny skies and near-70 degree afternoons, so it would be a good day to run easy and enjoy the surroundings. I showed up a few minutes late to the start after hustling back to my bag to get gloves, which gave me a chance to catch up with a lot of people. At the turnaround, it was no surprise to see the fast road runners up front, with Chikara Omine, Max King, Keith Bechtol, and Dave Mackey well into a 6 min/mile pace.

(Just a pleasant morning a city 50 miles away)

(Chris Rowe and Tom Moore stick to the dirt)

The sun’s golden beams rose through the oak trees as we made our way down the bike path. The experienced runners immediately took to the crushed dirt on either side, keeping an eye out for the rabbits that were darting everywhere (or the rumored rattlesnakes, which I can gladly say I didn’t see). By the time we hit the first aid station (mile 4), runners were spread as far as the eye could see. I cruised along with Tony Overbay for a few miles and we caught up on family and life adventures. Tony is getting pretty fast these days!

(Here comes the sun...and I say, "it's all right")

Thanks to many friends along the way (both new and old), the miles clicked off with ease. I took a short bio break at mile 13, and was surprised to soon be crossing the American River and heading into the trails. Greg Nacco (running his 12th AR50) led me up the path and we came back down the other side to run the fire roads with John Catts. My pace was a bit faster than Greg and John so they let me go ahead, but I had a feeling I would see him again – Nacco NEVER slows down.

(Ahhh...some single track at last!)

(John Catts and Greg Nacco enjoy the morning sun)

It sure was fun to see everyone. I caught up to Gary Wang, Grant Carboni, then Adam Blum, then Tim Tweitmeyer (going for his 29th AR50), and finally got on the heels of Jady Palko who was charging through the single track. Jady was cranking away to his tunes, but flashed me a hang loose when I got within a few steps of him. But as soon as I did, I caught a toe and fell head first down a narrow trail. I braced for rocks and sticks, but the landing was soft sand (thank God). I did manage to eat about a cup of dirt and cough it out my nose, which was a treat. A few runners offered their help, but I waived them on and pulled aside to rinse off/out. One runner pointed out a bigger problem…I was missing a shoe! How can you fall so hard you lose a shoe? Well, run trails in road shoes and you’ll find out. It took a few minutes, but we found it off the trail a few feet and I put it back on. Definitely a blog-worthy moment. ;-)

(Gary Wang is looking good)

(Ted Nunes and Randy Vander Tuig ham it up)

I found my stride again as we got back on the bike trail and climbed. I gave my best to Joe Swenson (shooting for 9 hours), then met Hugo Ahumada, who probably had the biggest smile of all the runners on the course. Hugo pulled me to the top of the climb, and I learned that this was only his third 50-miler after tackling the North Face 50m in 8:15 in December. Given that he has three kids between age 4 and 11, I was impressed he could get any training in at all, but he was handling it like a seasoned veteran. We spoke about the bliss of having a few hours to yourself, and pointed out the rabbits and hawks at every turn. We crossed the 26.2 mile mark in about 3:32, then coasted down to Beal’s Point (mile 27) for some snacks.

(Hugo Ahumada smiles his way up a steep climb)

(One of the many great aid stations along the way, photo courtesy of Jean Pommier)

I went for some PB&J and solid snacks this time. The Vespa was working its usual wonders, keeping me from needing to take in too much fuel along the way (I take about one gel an hour with Vespa). But I always find some solid food keeps my hunger pangs away. I saw a couple of folks had dropped already, with Eric Skaden cheering on runners and Jean Pommier trying to calm down an asthma attack. Rumor had it that Chikara Omine had come flying through on a 2:40’ish marathon pace, with Keith Bechtol, Dave Mackey, and Max King hot on his tail, and Kami Semick was building a solid lead in the Women’s race.

(What a gorgeous day - you almost can't smile!)

Mike Miller and I had a chance to catch up as we toured through the roller coaster fire roads. I was starting to feel hot in the face, and one of the hikers told me it was already 60+ degrees. I splashed some water on my head, and like a crack habit, found myself reaching for it every 4-5 minutes from that point on. I had brought two water bottles for just this reason. Although you can easily get through this race with one, a second one can be used for cooling.

(Plenty of flowers to see on every climb)

I got through the next aid station quickly (mile 31), and applied some sunscreen while Jady Palko caught up to me again (I thought he was ahead, but I’m sure nature called). He said something about “Tweet is right on our tail”, and before I could even step out of the way, Tim Tweitmeyer went cruising by even faster than before. I suspect he knows something about how to run this race, given his 29 years of experience (he would end up being one of the few to negative split the race). Hugo came soon after him, flashing that big smile as he vaulted up the single track.

(Chris Mercaldi is having waaay too much fun, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Weil)

The hawks were in full form, and I was eager to get some pictures as they came near the ridge. Unfortunately, when I turned on the camera, all that came out was sand from where the lense was supposed to be. Doh! Guess I’ll have to focus on the run for once. ;-) I weaved through the single track to the next aid station (mile 44), and caught Keith Bechtol who had bonked soon after clocking a 2:46 marathon split and was walking it in. Pretty impressive that he was going to stick it out (he would finish in 8:16).

I got to Last Gasp, and that was a fairly accurate description of my energy level. Although the short hills were fine, this long climb at the end was making me dizzy. Note to self – practice long hot climbs on tired legs! Greg Nacco and Tony Brantley were doing better than I was as they passed me by, so I just tried to keep them in sight. If I slowed to a walk, I promised myself to start again at the next “shadow” on the road. Tony took a few walk breaks too, but as expected, Greg just didn’t stop and soon gapped us both.

In the final 200 yards, Jady Palko came charging behind me like a freight train. How did he get behind me again? I picked up the pace a bit, but he kicked hard and got me by a few seconds. That’s cool by me…I thought he was ahead of me already! The clock read 7:44:16, good enough for 45th place and about 13 minutes faster than my last AR50. I felt great at the finish, knowing I could have gone another 20 miles at that pace. It looks like the training for States is still on track, although I have some areas to address. The volunteers put on the kick-ass AR50 finishers jacket, and I made my way to the medical tent to have the remaining sand washed out of my wounds.

(Max King charges to a win, photo courtesy of Jean Pommier)

(Kami Semick leads start to finish, photo courtesy of Jean Pommier)

I took a quick shower and enjoyed a beer in the sun with Rob Evans, Jasper Halekas, Mark Lantz (Master’s winner), Mark Gilligan, and friends. I got the low down on the top finishers. Max King had won the race in 6:04:44 after crushing the second half with the best split of the day. Dave Mackey (6:12:13) got 2nd, and Chikara Omine (6:12:46) blazed to third place. 21 runners managed to squeeze under 7 hours, but none had cracked the 6 hour barrier this year. Kami Semick ran start to finish in the lead slot, finishing 15th overall in 6:45:51. She held off Jen Pfeifer (7:03:25), Annette Bednosky (7:11:21), and Jenny Capel (7:14:33). (all results)

(Kevin Weil, who finished in 7:02, gives me a congratulatory shake while donning the finishers jacket, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Weil)

I was all smiles heading back home, thinking that this was one of the most magical days I had ever seen along the American River. Then again, I seem to say that a lot after one of these great races along this slice of heaven. Thanks to Julie Fingar and the fabulous crew for a perfect race. I look forward to the next one!

- SD


  1. I didn't see you the whole time - before, during or after!

  2. Wow! What an incredible feat- congratulations!

  3. Well done. Great effort. Very interesting race description.

  4. Scott

    Great race report as always. It was nice to run with you, I look forward to seeing you again in June at the Big Dance.

    Anthony Brantley

  5. Great race report and nice job on the faster finish. I loved all of the photos.

  6. It sounds like your training is going very well, Scott. I'm excited to see how you'll do at WS!

  7. It was great to see you again Scott! Nice report, as usual, and great job on the run. Good luck with the rest of your training!

  8. So for the first time I can say I actually got to run with you, I just needed a head start! Nice report and great finish. We couldn't have asked for a better day on the trails.

    I still can't figure out how you lost your shoe! Only you, Scott. I'm still laughing. Glad you found it. You probably would have been at least 30 seconds slower if you'd have had to finish the run with one shoe.

  9. Hey Scott! You must have been too far ahead of me scaring away all the bunnies :) (I didn't see any!) Anyhow, nice to run with you- I had a great first 50-miler. What a special day, eh? I took my camera along as well, and got some decent shots at

  10. Just a quick correction:
    Last year Anton Krupicka won the race, not Eric Skaden.

  11. Are these people really having some fun or happy to see you? I suspect both. Lots of smiles on the AR

  12. great report and well done grabbing a PR and not pushing all the way. That is a good sign of your training for sure! I have to get better about taking pictures during my races. I've got McNaughton 100 this weekend, I think I'll have some time to snap a few pics :)

  13. Thanks, all!

    Jason - you had a great run! Sorry I missed you. It's so bizarre that we can be out there for 7+ hours and never see each other.

    JB - Congrats on your first 50! Hope to see you out there again.

    Tyler - You are right, Krupicka won last year (Skaden won two years ago and got second last year). Thanks for the correction.

    Travis - Good luck at McNaughton!

    Rick - There really were that many smiles out there. It was a perfect day.


  14. great report with the photos-- sorry i missed you all at the party!

  15. I just wanted to share another view of the race...from the back of the pack. I turned in a mediocre finish by my own standards. My left knee said "no mas" around mile 30 so I switched from running to walking and by doing this I had the distinct pleasure of having my good friend Diane Mcevoy walk me into the ground, and getting the opportunity to speak with 66 year old Dorsh Sanders. No matter how much pain I was in Dorsh was a great inspiration and I can say I was honored to have him cross the finish line in front of me. If I can walk when I am 66 I will be stoked, but to run the AR50 with a 12 hour finish! WOW! Thanks Diane and Dorsh for pulling me up when I was way down!

  16. Scott, I gave you a shout out at the start of the race but I don't think you saw me...
    I also saw you come into the finish, and you looked about as fresh as you did at the start:)


  17. Scott -

    Although I don't think I saw you (you might have seen my crazy family and girlfriend with Tie-dye shirts at the aid stations)...I guess that's what I deserve for asking them to wear something bright so I can recognize them quickly. But, awesome description of the race man! I don't think I could have run your time while taking pictures.

    I've been scoping out your blog for the past couple of weeks in anticipation of my first ultra at AR50. I found it really helpful and am looking forward to going after TRT100 this summer. I'm just starting my blog out, but I'll be sure to link to here - See ya on the trails

  18. Great post, Scott. I saw you on the bus, but didn't say hi. Your posts are always a great way to hear what happened near the front of the race as we mid-packers trudge along. (I beat my last year's time by 25 minutes, coming in at 10:14). I can't imagine taking a fall like you did and getting up to finish so well. Nice achievement! Good luck with the training as WS100 draws nearer.

  19. Scott i looked to see what race you had next and you have THREE marathon+ races on pavement in one week, right before Miwok. What's the strategy there?


  20. Jim, Zach, Joanna, et al - thanks for leaving a comment! It's always great to hear from everyone, especially if they have an ultra adventure to talk about.

    Larry - I wish I could say there was a master plan here, but it's really just me trying to fit in too many life events. Here's how it happened:

    1) I signed up for the Ruth Anderson 50k, since it's a fun race and also part of the PA/USATF series. I was on the list for Miwok.

    2) My Dad decided to run Boston this year, and I thought it would be awesome to join him. I figured I would be okay two days after Ruth since we will likely keep a leisurely pace.

    3) My wife, Christi, booked a birthday vacation for me the following weekend in Big Sur, including the Big Sur Marathon. It's also a favorite. But the next thing you know, I saw three races in one week. Again, I'm thinking a leisurely pace is the key. But if I'm tired, there is always a 13 or 10 mile version.

    4) Oh, yeah, I got into Miwok. Boy, that's a lot of miles in two weeks! I'm hoping to taper down to Miwok and give it a good effort, but if I'm too beat up I'll just go long again.

    So my hope is that it works out to be a lot of long miles over two weeks, but none of it at a crushing pace unless I feel good for Miwok. I'll then throw in a few hard May races and taper to States. The master plan. ;-)



  21. Scott! Great running with you, you are too kind with the "fast" comments. Fast is your time, mine, not so much. I just posted my report as well and thanks to our chat I'm definitely buying me a small portable camera...more pictures!

  22. Another great report - congrats.

    I'll be running Boston, Big Sur and (cycling) Death Ride too. I've completed some trail runs but no ultras yet. Any suggestions for a good first time ultra in the Bay Area?


  23. Boston, Big Sur, and Death Ride! You've picked some good ones.

    For Bay Area ultras, you can't go wrong with any of the Pacific Coast Trail Runs races. The atmosphere is perfect for first time ultras, and they will be challenging enough to feel the step up from a marathon. Just don't forget to eat/drink!

    Other good ones include the Skyline 50k, Headlands 50k, and Ohlone 50k. All challenging, but worth it for the views alone.

    Hope to see you out there!


  24. Hi Scott,
    Your calendar for this year looks huge! What is your favorite race?

    I am an Australian doing Boston for the first time...
    Have I heard you on the runners round table podcasts???

    You should travel to Australia we have some great trail races!

  25. I left this race out of my schedule the past few years but now I know what I have been missing out. I enjoyed the mix of road and trail. The race was well-organized, had great competition, was well-organized, and provided a tasty post-race meal.

  26. I love those pictures. Do you know any great races in Colorado. I'm thinking about visiting my cousin outside of Denver later this summer

    Congratulations and Stay Running!

  27. Hi Scott, fantastic blog... I am a road runner myself. Would you be interested in reviewing this novel about an ultramarathoner on your blog? I loved it, myself! Pls email me if so (I couldn't find a contact form on your blog).


    Thank you!


I LIVE for comments! Please add your thoughts, let me know you stopped by, etc., and be thoughtful of others. Always best if you sign your name, of course.

Latest Excursions