American River 50-mile Endurance Run


A disclaimer: rarely do I write “race reports” – usually I scribble a few short notes on what NOT to do next time, on the back of an envelope, which ultimately gets sucked up into the void of a pile of stuff I promise that I’ll get to next weekend, but then ends up in a box shoved in a closet because suddenly friends are coming to visit, only to be forgotten about until the next household move comes around, but now that I don’t have time to deal with it I’ll just seal it up and throw it in the back of the truck; besides, once I get settled into my new place I can really sort through it all. After I finish training for that race. And once I stop working so much. ETC.

I’m also new to the entire notion of “blogging.” Something about it seems to border a little on the self-indulgency of “O!” magazine (is that really Oprah on the cover every single issue?!). But, I recently realized that posting a race report on a blog is the best way to save myself from the headaches and hassles of post-it notes and excess baggage. And maybe someone somewhere will get something out of it, especially if I keep it to my perceptions about the race itself, rather than about moi. So here goes:

I decided to do the American River 50 on a lark back in January, at the suggestion of Karen (Sage to Summit) Schwartz (“HEY! I’m doing American River, you should come!”). Then I mentioned it to another friend Nancy Bristow, a former professional adventure racer and running partner who is always up for an athletic challenge. She was in too. And so, I thought, ‘great! I’ll get my fitness ramped up early (I was already registered for the Bishop High Sierra 50 mile ultra on May 17th), and it will be a lot of fun with Karen and Nancy!’ I finally got around to registering in early February, and started some long run training. Mostly though, I was spending my free time Nordic and backcountry skiing 3 days a week, and teaching a couple spin classes. I was running about 3 days a week. I buckled down for my first long run on Sunday Feb 10th, for a little over 4 hours, along the nice flats of the Bishop Canal.

I wasn’t too concerned about covering the distance, really. Not sure why, but, I figured it couldn’t be too bad; I just mentally compared it to the Bishop 50 (my first 50, last year) and felt confident that I could do it. Hold it. This is entirely about me. Shifting gears ….

The AR50 website refers to running on the bike path and horse trail, and based on this comment, I just assumed it was a packed dirt trail the whole way. First important note to anyone doing this race for the first time: the bike path = asphalt. I learned of this in about mid-March. At about the same time, Karen told me that when she tried to register, the race had already closed. Ditto for Nancy. So, I came to a bit of a crossroads about whether to bother going at all. I’d have nobody to laugh with, and good God, what a bummer it would be to do so much running on asphalt. I never run on asphalt. Why would I, when there is so much glorious dirt trail running here in the Eastern Sierra?

I decided to go ahead with the race, as an experiment of one. After many years of sick gut issues during races, and after thinking that I had finally made some big leaps in figuring myself out, I needed the extended duration of a “race” to test out a few things. WARNING: MORE ABOUT ME COMING UP. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph …. My problems with ultra-distance anything (since about 1996) had always been with my inability to manage my gut, and the assumptions had always been this was due to either dehydration or not eating enough, or both. But last year, I had two events that really set some wheels moving in my head (Ironman New Zealand in March and the Bishop Ultra in May), and I began to believe that I was actually hydrating fine, but overeating. After years of DNF-ing out of Ironmans, or nearly DNF-ing, or slowing to the notorious death march (or sitting wrapped in blankets) because of nausea, dry heaving, cold sweats, and vomiting, I came to the conclusion that I’m an excellent fat-burning machine and simply have been over-consuming calories all these years; I now believe I mostly need just enough carbohydrate to keep some glucose going to my brain throughout the day, and, a bit toward keeping my legs going, but since I’m relatively slow, my body accesses what it needs to manage everything else very neatly. But I wanted to know more exact numbers. So I decided to take my thoughts a step further, and did some metabolic testing on myself at work (inserting shameless plug for the Human Performance Lab, Mammoth Hospital SPORT Center) which confirmed my thoughts: at a low running intensity (62% VO2max) I burn basically equal percentages of fat and carbohydrate. I continued to read a lot more primary research on endurance nutrition, and I was just feeling like I had finally figured myself out. So I decided to go forward and let AR50 simply be a “pilot test” of these conclusions. My plan mainly involved keeping the intensity as low as possible, eating real food and just drinking when I felt like it. Whatever pace this resulted in, so be it.

I drove out to packet pickup via Hwy 50 through South Lake Tahoe. It took me 5 hours to get to the offramp in Fair Oaks, and since it was a Friday afternoon, it took me another 30 minutes to go the eight or so miles to the Fleet Feet Store. I picked up my race packet – which consisted of a shirt and timing chip – and I also got Larry Emerson’s shirt to bring home to him. Here is the second important note to anyone considering this race for the first time: skip packet pickup, and instead get your chip and number in the morning, at race start. You will save some time and avoid the stress of traffic. After using the bathroom, and waiting about 3 minutes to get my packet, I then bumper-to-bumpered it back to the freeway and up to Auburn to my hotel. READ MORE ABOUT ME OR SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH! Once I unloaded into my room and got all my sh*t together, I popped some pre-made pasta that I brought with me into the microwave, and finally went to bed at about 9pm. I got up at 2:30am, ate the rest of the pasta that I couldn’t finish the night before, had a piece of bread with peanut butter, and a banana. Drank my coffee, and filled a 32 oz Nalgene with GU20 to sip until race start. Did some stretching, got dressed, grabbed my bags …

… and drove to the finish line, to catch the 4:15am bus that would transport us to the race start. Just as I parked the buses were rolling in, so I made sure I had everything I needed and found a place on the first bus I came to. Important note #3: if you travel to this race solo, definitely consider taking the a.m. bus to the start. It allows you to have your car at the finish, which for an average runner like me, gave me peace of mind that I would swiftly get back to a comfortable hotel room shortly after finishing the race. I made small talk with the runner who sat next to me; he said he had done this race 6 times and called it “an ultra through the city.” I told him that it was my understanding that the first 30 miles were mostly on asphalt, and he, like several other people over the past 2 weeks, told me that “well, you can run quite a bit to the side of the bike path in the dirt shoulder.” I got my hopes up. HERE COMES MORE PERSONAL STUFF: My bus buddy said he is a personal trainer, and “life” coach, oh, and running coach, but when he asked what I do and I told him I’m an exercise physiologist, he replied, after a pause: “oh. So what does an exercise physiologist do?” I think about a minute of stunned silence went by before I began to speak, but just then the bus rolled to a stop and the door opened; we had arrived at the start.

The race start was at 6am, so the air was a bit chilly. The organizers had a nice heat-lamp set up for runners to huddle over. I maneuvered my way into the group (similar to how my dog manages to squirm her way under the covers at night), and found myself standing next to Dan Meyers from Mammoth Lakes. That was good, to see a familiar face. Not long after, the crowd started to move toward the bridge, and the start of the race. The announcer started the race and a long sustained chirp could be heard as runners started off over the timing mat. The run takes you through some really pretty green waterways and meadows, and there are some very pretty vistas of the American River. I noticed a flock (gaggle? herd? pod?) of wild turkeys at one point. There are many shady sections with big trees, and overall it’s a really pleasant, mostly flat run along the bike path. The bike path is open to normal bike and foot traffic, so, important point #4: keep your head up and stay to the right!

Within a few miles after the Beals Point aid station (mile 27) the asphalt turns to hard packed dirt. Then, as promised and at about mile 30, the trails section of the race begins. A good portion of it is single track, but people were generally good about hopping off to the side when able, if I wanted to pass. I did, however, encounter one gal who, when I asked if I could pass replied, “sure, but I’m just going to shut you down later!” I laughed out loud, mostly out of astonishment; I never did see her again. There are a number of uphill sections that I could not run because they were too steep for me, but I was able to hike them fast. Since what goes up must come down, there are also a number of somewhat technical downhills, but it’s all really thoroughly enjoyable trail and your legs will welcome the chance to work out all that flat hard asphalt.

The spring wildflowers were starting to appear as the race continued; and the course meandered through some really outstanding patches of California Golden Poppy. After mile 42 or so, the course pitches over a lake (maybe Folsom Lake? I’m not sure) and there are some sections that almost felt tropical. Really nice! Important note #5: this is a good time to watch the footing, since there are more tree roots for tired legs to trip over! Which leads right into important point #6: there is also an abundance of poison oak throughout the single-track trails section (~miles 40-47).

The final 3 miles of this event is on a closed road, some of it ‘soft’ gravel. One of my fellow runners had told me earlier that it was runnable, and it basically is; it’s “rolling steep” in that some fairly steep sections flatten out for a while, then the road becomes steep again. I was too worked by this part of the run to try to do anything but hard hike the steep sections, and shuffle the flatter parts. I had done my share of tripping over rocks and tree roots over the last 5 miles, and by these last three miles I felt like my hamstring insertions were ready to pop. I reminded myself that my goal was just to get through the day with a happy stomach.

The road finally flattened some more, and took a little turn, so I shuffled through until it again turned steep. My hiking became a slow march. But at the top of this stretch (1/4 mile to go!) there was a great looking guy yelling and cheering. Just for me. He smiled and yelled ‘woooohooooo!’ - I smiled back and he gave me a big high-five and pointed me to the street and said “You’re just about there! Great job!” A short little downhill turned onto grass, and I shuffled to the finish. The announcer called out my name and time, “Rita Klabacha from Bishop, with a sub-11 hour finish and a qualifier for the Western States Lottery.” I felt a big grin come across my face. Not only was this a perfect race day for me all around, but, the announcer said my name perfectly too.

This event is organized to perfection, but I found it hard not to compare the course to the Bishop ultra course; I’m glad that I went, but I don’t feel the need to do it again. I guess I’m just spoiled for the EAST SIDE!