Monday, April 12, 2010

American River 50 Mile Race Report

When you enter into one of the biggest tests of your life, a lot of things go through your mind. Not just, "What the heck am I doing and why?" or "This could get really ugly, really fast...".

Coming into this race, my right IT Band (knee) was a big question mark, since it forced me into a 5 mile hobble/limp/ "death march" at my previous race one month earlier (Way Too Cool 50K). And since then, my longest run was 9 miles, on April 3rd, and only after my first ART treatment. And that run was cut short due to pain in my left hip. Back I went to my ART Chiropractor, who unstuck my problematic hip. On April 6th, I planned to run 6 miles, and ended with 4 miles, due to a calf niggle/twinge/pain. Back I go to my ART Chiropractor on April 8th for final treatment on my calf and kinesio taping of my IT Band and Calf for support. I felt like a straw man. If the wind blew the wrong way, I was going to unravel. To top it all off my wife and daughter have been sick all week and have been coughing up storms around me. My immune system amazingly held up. Until Friday morning that is, when I awoke with a slightly sore throat and headache. It took me a while to get out of bed. I was afraid it would get worse before the race, but thankfully, it didn't.

Its a little tradition between me and my brother, that we go to the San Francisco Giants home opening day baseball game every year (we're season ticket holders). I was once a very avid baseball fan (lived and died with my team). I've grown more detached to the game after getting married. Every year, this baseball game lands on a Tuesday. But for the first time, the game lands on Friday, April 9th. Noooooooooo! My initial thought was, "Forget it, my race is more important". The day before a big, long race, you want to vegetate, carboload, and rest, not drive a whole hour to sit out in the sun for three (on average). I was tormented by this decision all week. I told my brother, "I can't take you to the game on Friday. Doing so will affect my race, and this is a big race for me." Anyone would have been able to read the disappointment etched on his face. That look haunted me. I could go to the game, drive the one hour home, and then drive up to Sacramento (another 2 hours), to check into the hotel late with my wife and daughter. I might be more tired, and the cold that was threatening me in the morning could grow into something more sinister, but heck, I can do it, right? There will be other races, but I have only one brother (to make a long story short, he has Cerebral Palsy).

I went to the game. And we were losing 2-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning when their closer came in the game (Billy Wagner). Edgar Renteria hit a 2-run home run into the left-field bleachers to tie the game. The place went nuts. My brother loved it. The game ended up going 13 innings (over 4 hours), but at least the Giants won 5-4.

With young kids, sometimes it takes forever to get out the door. We ended leaving home at 9pm, and arrived at our hotel in Sacramento at 11pm. Before I fell asleep I thought about the race, and how hard it has been to simply get to the starting line. I felt like it was a test from God, himself. It was supposed to be hard. Would I choose my brother's happiness, or my own selfish "want" of a perfect race. And if I chose to vegetate on Friday, would I be punished by some unnatural/karmic winds on race day (remember, I felt like a straw man). And by choosing my brother's happiness, would I be rewarded by some heavenly assistance (a nice tailwind for 50 miles would be nice). Comforted by the thought that I had made the right decisions, and that all these hardships were meant to be, I fell asleep; no longer afraid, no longer nervous, and at peace.

At 5:00AM, I take a taxi out to the starting area of the second largest 50-mile foot race in the United States of America with about 700 runners. Apparently, around 50 runners never even made it to the starting line. I was almost one of them.

On Thursday, I read "How to run your first 50-miler", by Eric Robinson. In it, he describes the "magic"of the 5:1 run/walk ratio. I've read about the 5:1 ratio, but I've never tried it. I've tried run-walking before, but usually after a handful of miles. During a 24 mile training run, I did experiment with walking for 1.5 minutes for every mile, but this was done way back in January. But, reading that the 5:1 ratio was "magic, hit a chord with me, and that became part of my last-minute strategy. The first 20 miles of the American River 50-mile is fairly flat. So the plan was to run for 5 minutes, and walk for 1 minute, right from the start. And once I hit the trails, I would let the hills dictate when my walking breaks would be.

I bought a new hydration belt on Thursday, one made by Camelbak. It comes with 2 gel flasks, loosely held in elastic pockets in the front. I filled one with Hammer Gel, and the other with chia seeds (I drank a bottle of diluted cranberry juice with chia seeds before the race, and had one bottle in a drop bag at mile 26.7). I decided to use 2 pairs of shoes instead of the 3 I had planned for, in the previous week. I would start out with my New Balance MT100s, for the first 26.7 miles and then change into my La Sportiva Crosslites later. Just remember to move the timing chip over to my new shoes (I almost forgot).

I got in line for the port-a-potties at 5:30AM, and chatted with some fellow Ultrarunners, one of whom I had met the month before at the Way Too Cool 50K. This might be TMI, but as I sat down to do my business, I heard a clunk. Oh no, what did I drop? I bent over to look, and I hear another clunk. Both gel flasks that I had on my hydration belt had fallen in to the point of no return (in the toilet). And I was not reaching in to get them!

The race starts at 6am, about an hour before the sun rises, in the dark. But there is enough light to kinda see where you are going, and some runners have mini-flashlights.

Miles 0-17

The 5:1 run/walk ratio was working. The miles flew by and I felt great. I was also running fast. And walking fast. I clocked 9 sub 9 minute miles, even with the 1 minute walks. I was on pace for a 4-hour marathon. I knew I had to slow down, but I just felt too good. The weather was perfect, with a high of 59 and a low of 48! The day before, it was sunny with a high of 73, and the day after, it rained a ton! The stars were in alignment, and fate was smiling upon me. The first 15 miles were pure bliss. Then things started to slow down, but I knew that this day belonged to me.

Splits for mile 0-17: 10:13 (crowd takes a while to thin out on the narrow bike path) 9:03 8:48 9:26 (first aid station) 8:42 8:41 8:34 8:44 9:27 (second aid station) 8:36 9:11 8:39 8:38 8:44 10:29 (third aid station) 9:10 9:21

At the 17 mile mark, I ran into some of the first major hills. Walk-run ratios have to be modified when it comes to hills, or else you might end up running uphill and walking downhill, which is counter-productive. At mile 22, I experienced my first "low of the day". At this point, I've developed a blister on one of my toes, and my left achilles starts to bother me. I take 2 Advil to reduce the pain (I brought 6) and stopped to stretch out several times. I told my wife to expect me at the 26.7 mile mark between 10:30 and 11:00AM, so slowing down a bit might be a good thing.

Splits for mile 18-26: 9:46 11:02 10:02 10:11 13:32 14:53 12:35 11:48 11:16

At the 26.7 mile aid station (Beals Point), I change shoes from my New Balance MT 100s to my La Sportiva Crosslites, which give me better traction on trails. I almost forgot to transfer my timing chip which would have been disastrous. I chug down my bottle of diluted cranberry juice and chia seeds. Chia seeds really work. The whole day, I kept my water bottle only half filled, and usually did not need to refill it at the aid stations. My wife calls me on my cell phone (yes, I brought my cell phone, and I only partially regret it), as I am leaving the aid station. She's late, because I didn't give her clear directions to the aid station. Sorry! That's okay. I'll just see her at the next aid station, at mile 31.5. Rushing out of the aid station was a mistake. I forgot to stuff myself with food.

Miles 27-31

Not long after leaving the aid station, I experience the worst hunger of my life. The energy low leaves me walking more and running a lot less. My wife had prepared a sealed envelope for me with motivating words from family and friends, and I brought it with me. I scan through three pages for some magical words of wisdom that will get me through this awful low. Words from my big sister and some of my close friends pleasantly surprised me. They couldn't make in person, but they were there for me in my darkest hour. But I was still freakin' starving. It was a hollow emptiness that sapped my body of strength. I reminded myself that this is just another low I needed to get through, and that things would get better after I get some food.

Through the dark tunnel, I finally see the light of the nearest aid station. And there to greet me is my wife and daughter. My daughter (who turns 3 in May) runs dramatically to me, and jumps into my arms. This was a great uplifting moment, and it was captured on camera! I hugged my wife, slumping into her arms, and told her how starved I was. I then proceeded to stuff my face with potatoes dipped in salt, orange slices, banana slices, and three cups of Campbell's soup. The soup was heavenly.

Mile splits for 27-31: 15:50 10:26 12:23 12:39 12:57

Miles 32-40

The food recharged me, and allowed me to charge ahead into the gnarly ups and downs of the trails ahead. The single track trail in this section are gorgeous. The trail was narrow and that made passing anyone difficult. I ran with a train of runners through a good portion of these miles, and it felt great. Mile splits can be quite deceiving on the trails, because in long trail races, the hills need to be walked and some downhills are too treacherous to be running down.

Mile splits for 32-40: 23:25 (aid station)14:56 12:37 13:34 16:01 15:03 13:27 15:49 14:36

Miles 41-50

It was during this section that I get a mini-epiphany. When I was in survival shuffle mode, I was only running at a 13 minute/mile pace. When I was speed walking, I was able to walk at a 14 minute/mile pace, and it allowed me to run (not survival shuffle) after a while. So I began to walk even on the flat sections, to save my achilles, and to allow me to run the downhills more efficiently.

The last three miles are all uphill. And they look runnable. But when I tried to run, my hamstrings vehemently objected. I walk as fast as I can though. And I still passed a few runners. And with about 300 meters to go, I sprint it in, to pass one last unsuspecting soul.

I had finished my first 50-mile race. And not only did I finish it, I did it well despite my "straw-man" status. It was awesome. Words fail to describe how great I felt. I did not finish in a "death march". I walked a lot near the end, but with purpose, and with high spirits. I finished in 313th place out of 578 finishers, with a time of 10 hours and 21 minutes. The finish was awesome, but it was the whole 50 mile journey that was breathtaking. A sincere Thank You to all the wonderful volunteers that made this day extra special. ! was cheered on like a celebrity, which always helped boost my spirits. And a huge Thank you to my wife, daughter, personal support crew, and all my family and friends that were there with me in spirit.

Mile splits for 41-50 :12:53 15:57 13:13 15:37 15:03 15:08 13:54 16:10 16:58 14:41

Here is my daughter goofing off with her cousins in the parking lot, waiting for Daddy to finish his race.

Side notes:

I ended up not using the restroom the whole way. And according to my urine color, I was only slightly dehydrated. I credit the chia seeds, the cool temperatures, and a big bladder. I took a total of 4 servings of Vespa, which I highly recommend for ultrarunners and for marathoners. There was never any hint of my right IT Band or calf problems. I credit hip and glutes exercises, my ART Chiropractor, and the kinesio tape that she applied on Thursday evening. I had brought an IT Band strap, but thankfully, did not need it. I also wore compression tights, underneath running shorts, which may have helped overall muscle fatigue. I got a great free massage after the race. I iced my swollen left achilles on Sunday night, and taped it up. I think I'll take a few weeks off running before deciding where my next adventure race will be. And since I qualified for Western States 100 mile, in 2011, I might drop my name in the lottery to see if fate might smile on me again next year... There is still a chance I might attempt my first 100-mile race in September at the Rio Del Lago 100...we'll see...
A lot happened on this great day, and words don't always capture the essence of moments such as this. If you are considering a 50-mile race, I would highly recommend it. I believe we were "born to run", and I think we all are capable of some amazing things, if we give ourselves the chance. The secret key is simply to believe in yourself.