Tuesday, April 10, 2012

American River 50Mile Race Report April 7, 2012

The American River 50 Mile race is one of the oldest ultras around.  The race is the reverse of the Rock ‘N River 50 Mile race that I finished last October.   

AR50M starts at Sacramento State University and ends at the Auburn Overlook Dam.  The first 27 miles are on the paved American River bike trail where you can run on dirt next to the bike path.  The last 24 miles are on beautiful single track that runs along the banks of Folsom Lake and then parallels the American River and its dramatic cliffs.  The run is a gradual climb from start to finish with rolling trails through oak forests typical of the Sierra foothills.  The trails are rocky, are sometimes deep trenches through meadow areas, and rise and fall suddenly making it necessary to use all the hill running technique you know to lessen impact and improve efficiency. The poison oak is green and lush stretching its healthy green vines right into the trail at hip level! 

It was my second race at this distance and a memorable one for sure.  Each ultra has a theme with many sub plots that create a story making the day unforgettable.  Today's theme was about being surprised and delighted with unexpected outcomes that brought tremendous satisfaction above and beyond the accomplisment of finishing a long run. 

The start was 6 am.  It was pleasantly cool and I wore my lycra/cotton blend shorts, a white sport tech ChiRunning t-shirt, arm warmers, light gloves and a Patagonia long sleeved shirt over all that.  My waist pack carried a nutrigrain bar, 22 oz of half strength NUNN solution, my ipod for use later, my phone and a baggie with ibuprofen and S caps. 

Ron, my training partner and good friend, and I began the run towards the back middle third of the pack, passed a lot of people and ran through the start line nearly a minute and a half after the official start time.  It was dark and some people wore headlamps.  The moon was full and low in the sky over the American River.  It was a beautiful morning.  Soon the light of the early morning revealed white steam rising off the river and a big orange sun sat in front of us as we ran down the bike trail.

Our first ten miles didn’t go by well.  Both of us felt achy.  We couldn’t get in a good rhythm.  We were running too slowly and walking too much.  Ron talked about not even being able to finish – he had been worried that he was seriously undertrained compared to the several previous times he had run this race, and now he was feeling badly way too early in the run.  Around 12 miles, I picked up the pace hoping that he would follow and that it would make us feel better.  He didn’t follow and I slowly pulled away.  I didn't even say good-bye.  I paid for that later!

The first few miles on the AR bike trail
I began to feel better and by the 14 mile mark at Sunrise aid station I was in better rhythm through improved focus on my form.  My dad was watching for me on the bridge just past Sunrise, but missed me going through.  Dave and Carol also missed me.  I had hoped to give them my armwarmers and long sleeved shirt and gloves, but instead had to stuff them in my waist pack and tie the shirt around my waist.  No big deal, but I was disappointed not to see my crew.

A few miles later, I saw Dave and Carol in their cars on the road.  They waved and my spirits rose.  I called Carol and asked her to tell Ron I was sorry for leaving him and not saying good bye.  I knew she would understand because earlier she had reminded me to “run my own race.”

Around mile 19, I recognized Kathy Griest, a Master ChiRunning Instructor.  We had never met in person, I knew her from Facebook and being on the ChiRunning DVD and videos, but we hugged each other like we were old friends.  I invited her to meet me at the finish to celebrate.  An accomplished ultrarunner herself, she made the trip up to the Overlook and greeted me at the finish line.  Wow.
Kathy Griest, Master ChiRunning Instructor, at the finish
I moved through the aid station at Negro Bar, mile 22.4, in good shape barely making the cut off time.  I was feeling pretty good except for the nagging ache in the dorsum of my right foot between my ankle bones.  I had noticed it around mile 14 and knew it would probably be an issue for the whole run.  I took some ibuprofen and focused on a relaxed ankle lift.  

Beals Point is 26.53 miles and I arrived there an hour before the cut off point in about 5 hours, 23 minutes.  Walking through the aid station, I grabbed more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, orange slices and bananas.  It was definitely going to be a PB&J day!  I felt low despite seeing my dad, Dave and hearing Carol’s “WAHOO!” when she spotted me trotting in.  I knew I might be alone for the next 24 miles and wasn’t looking forward to that.  Dave walked a half mile with me as we left Beals and then slowly trotted up the trail a bit.  He told me Ron was only a few minutes behind.  I was hopeful that he would catch me.

Leaving Beals Point at 26.5 miles

On the trail at last out of Beals around 27 miles
Granite Bay was the next aid at 31.7 miles and like Beals Point, is another spot along the edge of Folsom Lake.  Nearly there, I spotted Dave on the side of the trail.  He told me that Ron was right behind me.  Suddenly, there he was bounding ahead of me on the trail!  Where did he get that energy?  We were glad to see each other.  He obviously had begun to feel better and had picked up the pace to catch me.  We arrived in Granite Bay in 6 hours, 38 minutes, which was only a few minutes slower than my 50K time 4 weeks ago.  Less than 20 miles to go, Ron and I felt the best we’d felt all day.  We ate heartily – chicken soup, lots of 7-up for me, PB& J sandwhiches and orange slices.  More S caps.  Carol brought us Mango/watermelon popsicles and we relished in their sweet, cold moisture as we walked down the trail out of the Granite Bay aid station!  There were some envious runners around us.

Ron and I running in to Granite Bay around 31 miles
Once finished with our popsicles, we began to run.  Ron was feeling good and our pace felt normal and strong.  We were on dirt and it finally felt like the run we’d been waiting for all day.  In fact, Ron took off at a blistering 10 minute pace powering up hills and cruising easily down hill and on the flats.  The trail was rocky and technical and amazingly neither of us tripped.  We slowed at one point.  He looked back and saw I had hung on despite passing many people and running hills that I probably would have walked had I been alone.  “I’m proud of you”, he said, “you’re doing well.”  I told him he was killing me and promised I’d never ditch him again!  He laughed, but I think he was glad that he’d proven to himself and to me that he was strong.  I was happy to be following him because I trust his pace and know his rhythm.

Buzzard’s Cove is the aid station at 34.6 miles.  The volunteers bring food and fluids in by boat on Folsom.  This time they had ice cream cones.  Wow.  I didn’t feel like ice cream, but orange slices, 7-up, coke and of course, PB&J sandwiches were gobbled   We thanked them and left around 7 hours and 35 minutes.

The next miles were fast.  Ron pushed the pace several times and I hung on, inspired by my body’s ability to focus and respond despite my fatigue, the pain in my ankle and the long hours on my feet.  I was running in the present moment;  the trail and moving over it was my universe.  We joked that he was still making me pay for ditching him!  He couldn't believe how good he felt despite his usual achey knees and back, and I was grateful to manage my ankle pain and keep going.

At Horseshoe Bar I called Mary and gave her an update.  She thanked me for calling surprised that I would use the energy.  But her voice energized me and after grazing heavily on, you guessed it, PB&J sandwhiches, orange slices and more 7-up, filling our bottles and downing more S caps, Ron and I took off.
Running down the trail into Rattlesnake around mile 40
We met Dave at Rattlesnake Bar aid station, 40.94 miles.  Dave would run with us to the finish.  We had to drag Ron out of there.  He loves to eat at the aid stations.  I started walking up the trail and Dave continued to coax Ron out of the buffet.  As he left, he turned back to Carol, who was taking video.  He said, “I love you”, then paused and turned again and said, “Will you marry me?”  She said yes and then about three other women’s voices said, “I will!”

With less than 10 miles to go, our spirits were good and Ron again picked up the pace when a couple wanted to pass us.  The five of us stuck together at a pace that I was pretty sure I couldn’t hold and sure enough after about 20 minutes I asked Ron to slow.  The couple passed us and we continued on at an easier pace.  I swear I'll never ditch him again! 

Last Gasp aid station is a mile or so up the start of THE HILL and only about 2.5 miles from the finish.  Its volunteers are shirtless young male runners with gorgeous bodies.  They would run down the hill towards us, take our bottles and run up the hill and have them filled and ready for us when we arrived.  An enormous source of chi, oh and did I mention they were gorgeous?  Ok, it was a great distraction from this 15% plus hill we just climbed!

We had more climbing ahead of us, not as steep and we started at a fast walk as we left Last Gasp.  For me to keep up with Ron’s long strides I had to ChiWalk at a high cadence or even run.  Ron wanted to go faster and asked me to dig deep and pick it up.  He wanted to pass people in front of us.  I told him ok, but I needed to focus just on my running.  No conversation except to talk about focus.  We picked up the pace.  I ran fast enough that he had to keep focused to keep up with me.  He began to sound like a ChiRunner as he coached me, the Certified Instructor: swing your arms more, chin up, y’chi.  And I chanted, “relax” as I focused on running from my center, rotating my "cotton around the needle".  We zoomed up the hill and passed many people.  Both of us surprised at our speed and power and delighted that we would finish under 12 hours and even break our last 50 mile time of 11:42.

After a steep 50 yard uphill, we turned the corner and there was the finishing chute, loud speakers announcing our arrival.  Our pace picked up to a normal run.  We crossed in 11:40:43.

My dad, Carol, sister and her family were at the finish.  Steve Mackel, another ChiRunning Instructor met me there, too, with Kathy Griest.  I had never met Steve before either, but the three of us hugged and chatted like we were family.  It was so great to see other ChiRunners out there besides me and Ron. 
Cool jackets! And Alaskan Amber!
Ron, me and Dave minutes after finishing

What a memory this day made!  Better yet, the whole weekend ended in a way I least expected.  We all went skiing the next day at Heavenly, proudly wearing our new AR50 finishers' jackets and skiing moguls on the famous Little Dipper.  The Comet Kats were out in force, the sun was bright and the snow perfect!

Skiing Litter Dipper the day after AR50
Ron works the soft moguls on Little Dipper

Dave shows some knee action on the bumps


  1. Great write up! Brings back fond memories. I can recommend that race to anyone doing their first 50 miler for all the reasons you mentioned - fairly easy first half, nice running trails, beautiful scenery, incredible support at aid stations and great organization. Well done! Now, on to your next!

  2. Great write up Cheryl! And I still have yet to meet Kathy in person, so I am a little envious! Ha ha!

  3. How did you go skiing he next day? My legs were a little stiff to think about skiing. You rocked it! Great report.

  4. Great job & congrats on the course PR! I totally agree that every race (even every run!) has a theme that is unique to each runner - thanks for sharing yours. -Helen

  5. Congratulations to you AND Ron. I loved your enthusiastic description and pics of the race. And skiing the next day. Amazing. My legs feel it after a 5k. I look forward to your next adventures and to see what new stories develop. Your journey is inspiring to follow. PS I joined gmail just so I could comment.