Today’s conditions were pretty close to ideal. Temps at the start were in the mid to upper 40’s with clear, blue skies. Tyler, Nicole and I left Santa Rosa at 4:30 AM after a decent night’s sleep. Parking was crowded at the start with 500+ runners but we were at the check-in by 7:15 AM and still had enough time to stretch and get ready for the 8 AM start. Last year, my time was 4 hours and 7 minutes so I wanted to improve this year. My goal was to finish around 3:50 to 3:55, with a distant chance of being close to the top runners near the finish. Training had gone well the past couple weeks and I felt relatively fresh as race day approached.
I started close to the front left and gave high-fives to Tyler and Nicole as the race started and I ran passed them cheering their hearts out. My memory appears to be fading because I forgot just how difficult the course is. 50K is just over 31 miles, but what makes this race tough are some very steep climbs and technical descents. As a tease, the race starts on a paved/gravel road that gives no warning of the trails ahead. I tried to stay close to a small pack of runners that were pushing ahead. About 8 or 9 of us stayed close in a tight pack and in less than 2 miles exited the road for the trails. The pace felt a little fast, but I wasn’t gasping for air so I tried to stay with the lead runners. My goal for this race was to finish completely spent, with nothing left in the tank and my legs dead. So at this stage (a couple miles into it), if I was pacing, I would have backed off and slowed down knowing that this was not a pace I could sustain for 4 hours. But given that this was a race and I wanted to stay close to the lead runners, I wasn’t sticking to a pacing plan unless I could feel my legs starting to burn too early. To be sure, I was working hard but not maxed out.
The first aid station was the Highway 49 crossing, a little over 6 miles into the race. I could see the leaders as we approached but they were pulling away in the distance. Nicole and Tyler greeted me at the aid station and I quickly grabbed a cup of fluids. One of my only big mistakes of this race was NOT carrying a water bottle. I figured the aid stations would be enough for me, but with 8+ miles between stations and the temperature rising, I should have carried one with me. Not sure how much time I lost due to loss of performance, but this was a mistake. After crossing Highway 49 and climbing the other side, I looked down at my watch and my split was 36 minutes. 6 minute miles for the first 6 miles was a little too fast for me!
After crossing Highway 49, the course has a brief climb then continues to descend towards the American River canyon. The trial turns from a wide open trail into a narrow single track, rocky at times but not too muddy like last year. Reaching the bottom, it parallels the American River for a couple miles until climbing with some incredible vistas overlooking the canyon. Then it is a series of crossing small streams while running under the foliage. From leaving Highway 49 to the next aid station, Auburn Lake Trails at mile 14, I ran alone and did not see a single runner along this stretch.
The Auburn Lake Trails aid station came just in time (about 1:36 into the race). I had no fluids since mile 6 so I grabbed two cups of GU fluids and a GU packet then made the climb out of canyon. During the climb, I caught a glimpse of a runner behind me and a couple miles later he passed me during Auburn Lake Trails loop. The course continues the series of ups and downs, until the near vertical ascent of Ball Bearing. This climb lasts .7 miles and is a mix of power walking and pulling yourself up when gravity pulls you down. It’s incredibly steep and I cannot imagine anyone “running” up this part of the course. The Auburn Lake Trails aid station rewards those who make the climb. My legs felt very heavy at this stage and I grabbed another cup of fluids and another GU packet.
My legs had enjoyed the brief respite of pounding during the climb and didn’t respond with excitement as I left the aid station with about 10 miles to go. 20 miles were in the bag with another 11 to go. The next few miles, the course is shared with runners still on their way out, along the first part of the course. So for a brief period, a little extra adrenaline ran through the system as I encountered countless runners coming the other way. I had one runner about 30 yards ahead of me, and one behind me. We held our positions for the next 9 miles as I guessed my position was probably 7th or 8th.
The steep climbs are what really took the energy out of me and there are a couple over the last 10 miles of the course. Again, some of the climbs are so steep and footing so loose, that walking and scrambling are the only options. Running the last few miles before Highway 49, we were treated with stunning views. But the views were usually followed by a steep descent which pounded the legs and jammed the toes. I’ve seen runners take these downhills with absolutely no regard for human life and throw all caution to the wind. They run completely out of control, jumping over boulders, sliding on the loose rocks, their entire body propelling forward. That is not me. I’ve had too many close calls and tackle the more technical descents with a little care. Again, I ran mostly alone and could only see the runner ahead of me and the one behind me when the trail opened up every now and then. But mainly I ran with my thoughts and music. Looking at my watch during one of the climbs, sub 3:50 was not going to happen so sub 3:55 was the goal.
Arriving at Highway 49 with less than 2 miles to go, I was approaching the bottom of my tank. With only a short ways to go, it is hard not to lose concentration and motivation. You know you are close to finishing and you know you are going to finish soon, but there are still almost 2 miles of racing left. Staying focused on the immediate task of finishing strong can be harder than excepted. I lost sight of the runner ahead of me, but the one behind was approaching. Nicole and Tyler greeted me again at Highway 49 but I had no time to spare and could not stop. From Highway 49 to the finish, there is a good climb and I was able to keep my distance from the guy behind working hard to catch me. At the top of the climb, there is about a mile of rolling trails through the open meadows until you can see the finish. I tried to push as hard as I could but with only a couple hundred yards from the finish, I was passed! I had nothing of a kick left and painfully watched him pull ahead. We finished a couple minutes later and I ran the race like I wanted to run it. Nicole and Tyler faithfully met me at the finish and I was done. I had wanted to run hard and finish with nothing left and I think that I did that today. I disappointed that my time of 3:54 didn’t grant me a higher finish than 9th but I improved on last year’s time and it was a good start for the year.