Monday, April 11, 2011

American River 50

The American River 50 is one of the big spring classics on the North American ultra running circuit, and one that I've had penciled in as a race to do for a year or two now. Having already put in some marathon training through the winter, and knowing that leg speed is important at AR, I figured this year would be as good as any to give it a shot. It would mark my second foray into the Northern California running world and my second race ending in Auburn, the self-proclaimed ‘endurance capital of the world.’

I flew out with
Ryan Burch and Scott Jaime - three-fourths of the Colorado contingent in the men’s race. We had plans to meet up with Dave Mackey, the fourth piece of the Colorado puzzle, on Friday afternoon in Auburn but due to traffic out of Oakland those plans never came to fruition.

After touching down in Sacramento we drove straight to Auburn, checked into our hotel and then geared up for a quick out and back jog from the finish line to the river for a reckie of the closing three miles of the course. Coming back up on the big climb out from the river, I was pleasantly surprised at the generosity of the grade, which seemed a fair bit gentler than I had imagined.

A quick shower and we were off to the pasta dinner and panel discussion that was being MC’d by Andy three-names Wilkins. Andy did a great job hosting the panel and fielding questions from the crowd. His concluding remarks about the simplicity of the task at hand, "all you have to do is run from Sacramento to Auburn," in a world that becomes ever more complicated by the day were well received. This sums up for many of us why we do this sport. Thanks for the reminder Andy!

Race day began with a 3:00 am alarm call, coffee, two glazed donuts, and a bus ride from Auburn to the start on the American River bike trail. Race Director, Julie Fingar, was kind enough to secure an office suite for us to wait out the hour before the race and we enjoyed some good banter with AJW, Lord Balls and his handler, Megan Arbogast (The Queen), and others over coffee. It was a brisk 40 something for the 6:00am start, so I donned a pair of gloves but decided against the arm panties, which was a good call as things would warm up quickly.

AR50 course profile

From the off, two guys went out like they were in a hurry. I quickly caught up to fellow Brit Ian Sharman and we spent some time catching up and discussing the two sprinters. He explained that one, Jady Palko, was up to his usual trick of sprinting off the front and that he would soon taper off. The other guy off the front, B.C.-based Jason Loutitt, however was definitely a contender but moving at a pace that seemed a little suicidal – somewhere in the 5:40-5:50 range, we concluded. Within three miles he was out of sight and by mile eight we were told that he’d already built a three-minute lead.

'Run your own race,' I reminded myself.

While it was nice to catch up with Ian, I had to let him go after a couple of miles as I felt the pace was just a touch too hot and I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get caught up in any of the early madness. According to his GPS watch before I let him go, we were pushing out 6:10s, but I wanted to be closer to 6:30s, which was a pace I found by mile four or five when Joe Uhan got on my shoulder and ran with me for a while.

A key element of running a successful ultra-distance race is understanding your body, assessing the signals and reacting to them before they shut you down. Through the early going, the signals I was getting were that the pace was good, but my right leg was unusually unhappy with me, especially in the groin/hip/gluteus maximus area. Annoyingly, my glute was telling me that it was ready to cramp. Even though I was on a steady diet of EFS Liquid Shot – which has a high concentration of electrolytes – I decided that I would need to supplement on this day with E Caps, so I gobbled three at about mile eight and hoped for the best.

At the mile 8.5 aid station (50:00), Joe stopped to fuel while I went straight through, so I was again running by myself. The sun rising directly to the east was blinding at times, but it was also quite spectacular with the rays cutting peacefully through a nice early morning layer of mist rising from river. As painful as running a marathon on a bike path as a warm up for a 20-mile trail race sounds, the beauty of the river sets a stunning scene which really helped pass the time.

By mile ten I heard footsteps coming up behind. I assumed it was Joe catching back up, but it turned out to be Dave. He eased by quickly and then settled in ten meters or so ahead of me. I took a quick peek back and was happy to see that Scott was equidistant behind me in fifth. We ran like this for a while, before Dave jumped into the bushes for a pit stop. Then at mile 18 (1:51) the course crossed over the river on a big road bridge before ascending sharply on a short stretch of trail onto the bluff above the Nimubs Dam. Dave and Scott both caught up to me as we crossed the bridge and Dave took the initiative on the climb up to the bluff by leading us up the loose, rocky singletrack. The course soon dropped back down and we were again on the bike path. Crossing the bridge, I had a good line of sight on Ian, who was probably 90 seconds ahead in second. Looking back, Jacob Rydman was hanging in sixth a similar distance back.

On the second, longer stretch of rolling singletrack a mile or two later Dave took off on us and looked like he was ready to pull Ian back into the fold. Scott stayed close a few meters back in fifth. After probably two miles on this second stretch of trail we once again found our way back onto a crushed gravel section of the bike path, passing through Negro Barr aid station at 22.6 miles (2:26) and headed for the marathon marker. There was a big balloon deal marking the marathon distance, which popped at just over 2:49 – a little slower than planned but about where I wanted to be.

Soon thereafter we were at Beals Point, the southern end of Lake Folsom, which is where I got my first refill on water (yup, one bottle through the marathon), and then ducked into the bushes for a long-awaited moment of bladder relief. Coming back out of the bushes, I saw that Scott was right there, and then heading out to the dam, I could see that Dave had closed the gap on Ian considerably. So with the marathon in the bag, it was Jason way off the front (he went through the marathon in 2:39), with Ian, Dave, myself and Scott all within a few minutes of each other in second through fifth.

The next section to the 31.5 mile aid station was a mix of crushed gravel, dirt two track and, I think, singletrack. We got our first taste of what was to come through here in terms of underfoot conditions, with some good boggy patches of dirt in the lower-lying sections of trail. At approximately mile 30, the trail gave way to a recreation area and a four-way intersection with no flagging. Bugger. Knowing that Scott wasn’t far behind and that he had run the course before, I decided to wait for him rather than take my chances scouting the four options. Unfortunately, Scott was none the wiser and we ended up picking the wrong option before fortunately being escorted back on course by a lady who thought we should be headed in the other direction and then a guy on a bike who was certain of it. That was a frustrating four- to five-minute waste, but all part of the game. Quite clearly the markings had been pulled down, as they had been exemplary up until this point.

Coming into Granite Bay Aid (31.5). Photo: Bob MacGillivray.

Once back on the scent, Scott and I were soon through the 31.5 mile Granite Bay aid station (3:32) and then tucking into some surprisingly technical (and sloppy) singletrack as we made our way north along the west side of Folsom Lake. I filled up again at the small Buzzard's Cove aid station (34.7, 3:58) and saw that Scott was now out of sight behind. The trail through here continued its rolling theme with jabbing, wet and technical bumps to bop up and down.

By the time I hit Horseshoe Barr aid at mile 38.1 (4:26), I had been solo for a long time. My energy had been good all morning, and while my legs had been feeling 'off' through the first 50k, they were finally feeling a little looser and ready to charge. I got another water refill at Rattlesnake Barr (4:48, 41 mile) where I was told that third was three minutes ahead. This had been my first time check since mile 27, and honestly I was a little disappointed as I felt like I had been moving well for the last few miles. Nonetheless I wasn't ready to throw in the towel, especially with my energy levels still perky, so I got my head down and attacked the
singletrack which had now become significantly less technical, but continued on the rolling theme.

The penultimate two-man aid at Manhattan Bar came quickly (43.9, 5:07), and I started doing the math for the sub-6:00: 6.1 miles & 1,000 feet of climbing in 53 minutes. The guys here told me that third was just one minute off. Game on!

Given that I had closed a couple of minutes in the last three miles, I was expecting to come up on third quickly, however, it wasn't until a final ribbon of
singletrack before the turn up from the river to the finish that I caught sight of Ian, who was now no more than 45 seconds up on me. The opening half-mile section of the last 3 miles of the race is easily the steepest sustained climb on the course, and as I rounded the corner to make the turn, I had a good visual on Ian who had now dropped to a powerhike. As soon as he realized that I was on the hunt, however, he was back running but he again dropped to a hike a minute later as the terrain continued to steepen. I passed the 3 to go sign in 5:38:21 still feeling like I had great energy, so a running cadence was a must.

Up this initial
grunter I halved the gap on Ian, and by the two-to-go sign (5:46:20) and the asphalt I had picked him off and eased into third. I made sure to stay strong as I made the pass and refused to take a look back for at least a half mile, at which point Ian was far enough back that I thought I had a lock on third. I stole another glance two minutes later and to my surprise Ian was motoring, clearly not buried yet. I found another gear to fend off his challenge, and then rounding a bend near the one-to-go sign (5:53:20), I was surprised to see Jason slogging away 100 meters up the road. After running solo for hours, I was all of a sudden in a mad sprint for podium places.

Hurtin' at mile 49 with Ian in hot pursuit behind the fence.

I ratcheted the pain levels into overdrive (why does it always hurt so much coming into Auburn?) and threw down with whatever I had left. With a half mile to go, I had more than halved the gap on Jason and he still hadn't seen me. Then he did the shoulder check and quite clearly sped up. I was still gaining however and on the very last grunt before the short, flat road section into the finish he was within spitting distance. One more shoulder check from Jason and he started sprinting. I was tapped from trying to catch up, so I had to let him go.
I crossed the finish line with a wry smile on my face in 6:00:09 for a closing three miles and 900 feet of gain of 21:48.

Results with splits. You'll no doubt note that Colorado put four in the top six (two from Fort Collins), and the Brits came home with gold in the women's and third and fourth in the men's.

Julie Fingar (RD), Ian, Dave, me & Jason.

Overall I was pretty satisfied with my race, especially the way I closed it out. The bike path miles were a little frustrating as I felt like I was working harder than I should have been at that pace and my legs just felt tight. But on the positive side, this was perhaps my best-fueled race ever. Normally in 50s, I fuel well through 30-35 miles then get lazy. Today, I was sucking down the last of my three EFS Liquid Shot flasks (400 calories each, 200 per hour) at mile 47, which had me feeling great all day.

The post-race shandies went down well and it was a ton of fun catching up with friends for a few hours. After four or five bottles of recovery nectar, it was back to the hotel for a quick shower and then to the Auburn Ale House (with a Double-Double pit stop at In & Out) for hand-pulled IPAs, continued banter and more food with a most enjoyable cast of characters.

A half marathon the next day on the Western States course to Hwy 49 and back rounded out a thoroughly enjoyable weekend.

Scott visualizes his June finish.

Eric, Scott, Andy, Jill and Ryan at the WS finish line.

The spot three miles from the finish where I passed Kilian last year. A painful memory.

Cruising out to No Hands Bridge.

No Hands.

Hwy 49 Aid Area

American River.


  1. Stellar run, Nick. Keep the momentum rolling, and I'll see you at Collegiate Peaks. Be sure and stick around long enough for a beer afterwards, k?

  2. Congrats on a really solid race, Nick. I saw the closeness of the times and was eager to hear tale. I imagine that finish felt sweet after the chasing and the regular glances over the shoulder at the charging Sharmin. Good stuff.

  3. Running strong into Auburn again! A few more miles of course and you might of had this one. WS minus 11 weeks!

  4. Great race Nick! Damn, if it were not for that wrong turn, you would have been sprinting it out with Dave for the win. Congrats!

  5. And the streak of phenomenal races continues... Good work man, way to lay it out there over the closing miles!

  6. Good stuff, glad you're taking the missed turn in stride and still had a fun time and great race!

  7. Way to race and great post. You got my blood pumping, but without all the pain. Congrats!

  8. "I crossed the finish line with a wry smile on my face in 6:00:09 for a closing three miles and 900 feet of gain of 21:48."

    That is just downright crazy to run that pace:
    * After 47 miles
    * In those temps
    * With that incline

  9. Congrats on a hell of a race!

  10. Remarkable race ! even with the downtime from the four minute wrong turn at mile 30 , you almost had second place !

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  12. Will there be a showdown with the white tighted knight from Catalina in the same spot?

    Well done.

  13. Rock solid run Nick. Huge congrats.

  14. Really nice meeting you on Sunday & great write up on a fantanstic race.

  15. The new PI jersey's are way cooler than last years, and I'm digging the name branding. Awesome performance out there, very impressive as usual. You've set yourself a pretty high standard for know we're all expecting pretty amazing things now! I guess that can be a good thing. I liked hearing how well you fueled. And also, I'm loving the new PI shorts with the bigger pockets, specifically designed for the EFS bottle. Way to go on the input on that. They are perfect for a hand held free 2 hour run.

  16. Thanks guys.

    Brooks - don't think I'm going to do CP, but have fun out there! And congrats on the big Brew to Brew win.

  17. Well-written report and some terrific battles at the end!

    Does that "recovery nectar" include the post-race Sierra Nevadas??

    Nice meeting you and we'll see you in Squaw Valley...and Auburn again!

  18. Nick - you are a beast man. was fun watching you fly into the dark after the start and seeing you guys up above me approaching the hazel bluffs. 'States is looking pretty good for you right now, keep it up and stay healthy.

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