I wasn't exactly supposed to run this race. I've been guilty as a perennial under trained runner since last year. It also doesn't help that the most I have run before starting was a 30K, although a tough and muddy one at that, around Lake Chabot. However, I have already failed to cross the start line at two other races I have signed up for earlier this year: Jed Smith 50K and Way Too Cool 50K. Part of me wanted to play it safe and just drop down to the "American River 25", which I have the utmost confidence of finishing. But another part of me wanted to go for it, and risk a "Do Not Finish", but notch another 50 mile accomplishment, having not done at all the previous year, but having done three 50 milers to date (American River 50, Dick Collins Firetrails 50, and Headlands 50).
American River (AR) 50 was the first 50 mile ultra marathon I have completed, back in 2014. I had the benefit of experience going in to this race. I knew the course to an extent. I have also technically done the course "twice" (or even "thrice" if you count training runs), as I have attempted the Rio Del Lago 100 back in 2015, which uses the AR50 course (or most parts of it). However, my experience on the course came into question as we immediately dove tailed into a trail after just a quarter to half a mile from the start line. AR50 was all road for the first 25 miles when I ran it back in 2014. I began to doubt how much of the course we're about to run is still part of the course I ran several years ago.
AR50 is a good first 50 mile ultra marathon for those attempting it. The first half is mostly road but it makes up for that fact by having half the elevation of other 50 milers in the Bay Area, such as Dick Collins, The North Face Endurance Challenge and Headlands 50. It also is a well supported race, given that it is run by Norcal Ultras. It also doesn't hurt that you get a nice Patagonia jacket (wind breaker back in 2014, fleece sweater in 2017 and other previous years).
Like most ultras, I started at the back of the starting line. I think this is more poignant the longer the ultra you choose, especially when you do an ultra of the 50 mile variety or more. It's easy to get caught up in the euphoria of a race start line and run fast the first few miles and the first half of the race, only to fade away and only walk most of the second half, or worse, not be able to complete the race due to an injury.
I did run with the intention of doing a one minute run and one minute walk. But I quickly adjusted it to a four minute run and a one minute walk interval, as it looked silly to start walking so early in the race (but I do know that I shouldn't care whether something looks silly or not). And so, I maintained the 4/1 ratio for the first aid station or so. I also took the strategy of going from aid station to aid station, and not worrying about the daunting fact that I am attempting to cover 50 miles, roughly the equivalent of doing two marathons, in one day.
A lot of the runners I had brief chats with at the start were first timers. They were in awe that I had done the race before. I told them that they chose a good first 50 mile ultra marathon to attempt. Unfortunately, I think a lot of them didn't make it to the finish line. I saw one of them take their bib off at Beal's Point, at the half way point (25 miles in). I saw another take a seat at about mile 28, so close to making the cutoff for mile 30. I saw another runner at mile 38 who looked strong but didn't seem to make the third cutoff at Rattlesnake Bar (which I barely made as well). According to ultrasignup.com, there were 411 finishers and 123 "did not finish (DNF)". Assuming those 123 crossed the start line, that would be a whopping 23% DNF rate (I have a feeling it's less than that, and that at the moment, it included those who did not start the race as well).
I made the first half of the race near the ball park estimate of when I wanted to arrive at Beal's Point, at 6 hours in to the race. When I arrived, I quickly asked for ice and water for two of my water bottles. The first of which was actually filled by no other than Ann Trason herself! I wasn't sure whether it was her when I saw her and asked her for ice on my second bottle, but confirmed my suspicion only a day after when I saw pictures from other friends saying they saw her at Beal's Point as well. I think it's awesome that someone like her would volunteer at these races! I wish I could have taken a selfie with her at hindsight, but I'm not sure if she's the type that likes the spotlight.
It got warm quickly from Beal's Point onwards. So I stuck to my plan on having ice on my cap, ice on two of my water bottles, ice on a bandana from my drop bag. I also wore arm coolers (like arm warmers, but you can douse them with cold water and even put some ice in). I forgot to douse my arm coolers at Beal's Point but did so when I reached Granite Bay.
The run from Beal's Point to Granite Bay seemed way longer to me than in the previous time I ran it. The course seemed to stay exactly the same, but I guess having no pacer made the miles seemed longer. I chose to have no pacer or crew for the entirety of the race. I did ask a friend to potentially pace me a few days prior, but since he was already scheduled for something else, I decided to fall back into having no crew or no pacer.
The rails started to fall off when I made the same mistake I have done in Granite Bay when I did Rio del Lago. I was in a hurry to get in and out of the aid station. I had my two bottles with ice and water, downed two cokes, but that was all I did. I didn't take any additional fuel with me for the next 9 miles to Horseshoe Bar. I didn't get my spare water bottle at Beal's Point. I just prayed silently as I went those nine miles that my two bottles would last me the whole time, but just like last time I used it all up with about 2-3 miles left to go. At the very least, I had one tailwind packet with me to give me some extra calories. But even that I failed to remember, as I failed to reload my tailwind packets at Beal's Point. In hindsight, I should have just carried the entirety of my tailwind packets with me the whole way. It might have weighed more, but at least there was no chance of me forgetting them. At least that strategy helped for my headlamp, which I didn't have to remember picking up in Rattlesnake, as I just had it with me the whole time.
The infamous "meat grinder", miles 30-41 of the course, is called such because of the relentless ups and downs throughout. It makes momentum for running harder, especially if you've only done a 50K leading up to this race. Surprisingly, I found I can still "run" parts of this, compared to when I ran it with a pacer. But the "run" I did seemed more like a shuffle as my pace would only show 15 minute miles or slower when I complete the miles and see my pace on my garmin watch.
I almost got lost early on at the meat grinder as I ran surprisingly strong. Only to hear someone shout "red shirt, you're going the wrong way!". I looked back, double back, and did indeed miss a crucial right turn, which would have added several miles into my race if I didn't hear those runners. After that, my confidence got shaken as I would always doubt whether I was going the right way several times, only to breathe a sigh of relief when I do see the orange ribbon, a "confidence ribbon" to indicate that I was going the right way. But then I got my confidence shaken again at several times of the course when I saw another runner and her pacer going towards me, only to hear them say they're back tracking because they got lost (but still made me think whether I was lost as well).
At around mile 35-36, a safety sweep caught up with us, which also didn't really make my day. It was odd enough that I saw the safety sweep several times at the first half (which was very odd, as the safety sweeps were ahead of several of us runners, and they were running back and forth, probably bored of how slow we were going about, haha). I did ask the sweep whether we were truly the last runners and he asked if I saw the two other women sweeps for this part of the course. I said I didn't and reiterated that I'm pretty sure there were a lot more runners behind me. He stayed behind and I thankfully didn't see any sweeps again at that point.
Another setback I had at one point was having two horse riders behind me for several miles. They didn't seem to be in a hurry or want to overtake me until I slowed way down. But then I overtook them again when they stopped and chatted with another runner, who seemed to be delirious with the heat (but she moved fast again shortly after). I was getting a little dizzy and nauseous myself. It could have been heat exhaustion for all I know, but I kept on moving forward. I was also slightly low of fuel and I felt my body sorely lacking the calories (and getting hangry, in effect).
Horseshoe bar, mile 38, didn't come soon enough. When I got there, I quickly asked for my two bottles to be filled with ice and coke (yes, coke). I needed the calories and the sugar boost at that point. I took a quick pee and then started running again, holding two peanut butter and jelly sandwich quarters with me. My watch had died at that point but I was told I had 3 miles to cover 45 minutes. It doesn't seem like a lot, but if you're at 38 miles, that seems like a daunting task and it did to me.
It was at this point of the race whether I doubted that I could finish it. I made the first two cutoffs (1:00 at Beal's Point, I arrived around 12:05-12:10, and 2:00 at Granite Bay, I arrived around 1:30), but I really wasn't sure if my run/walk pace was enough to get to Rattlesnake Bar in time. It also didn't help that it felt like the longest three miles of my life! I ran when I can, but the aid station seemed so far away. I started slowing down, even as I came nearer. My watch had died shortly before Horseshoe Bar, so I had no idea of the time and pace. I could have checked my phone but I didn't want to see how near (or far behind) I was. I wanted the mystery to somehow push me further.
Just when I thought that was the end of the line for me, I heard someone shout "5:06". I wasn't sure of the context of it, but am thankful for hearing that as it probably saved my race. I knew I had 9 minutes to go and having run these trails I knew that was doable. I ran/walk as fast as I could given the state of my body and legs. I made it with 2 minutes to spare! The aid station volunteers asked me for what I wanted but all I wanted was to cross the timing mat and get out of there. I still had my one and a half bottle of coke, so I think I was good until the next aid station.
At that point of the race, I felt as if I had completed it. I knew, at least based on previous years, that the finish line wasn't a hard cutoff. Even if I finished past 14:00, which I did by 13 minutes, it was still an official finish for the race. They only have hard cutoffs for the first 3 cutoffs so that aid stations can wind down properly and for safety reasons as it gets dark and there is a mountain lion sign around the mile 45 point (although I have yet to hear anyone personally see a mountain lion, but I have seen a rattlesnake for sure!).
It was a slugfest to get to the finish line. I surprisingly was able to run on the flats and downhills but somehow I still felt super slow doing it. The last 3 miles seemed longer than when I first ran the race, and when I paced a friend for her last 9 miles of AR50. It also got dark with about a mile to go, and another runner, who forgot her headlamp, asked me to stay with her. I asked her if she could at least match my pace, which she thankfully did. I didn't want to leave her, but I also didn't want to hike up too slow that they could have taken down the timing mat (or decided to not consider us official finishers).
The last hike up was changed from when I ran it. Originally, there was one more big hill and you run the side of the road. They changed it where we went right instead. I wondered then if we were close, or if we had to do a roundabout turn just to add more miles to make it a 50 miler. Thankfully, the turn turned into one last hike up, which we took slowly as we were sharing my headlamp.
I finished and saw a friend at the finish, Beth Horn, whom I am eternally grateful for. Her friendly smile was a beacon in the desert. She walked with me to get my drop bags, get my food, and even drive me back to my hotel when I told her I was planning to get an uber. In hindsight, I should have booked the shuttle with AR50 which allows me to have my car near the finish. Now whether I could have driven myself safely back to the hotel, I'm not sure. Maybe I'll at least have a crew, if not pacers, next time.
It would be a good practice if I ever do AR50 again. Or maybe even Rio del Lago...