Tuesday, April 7, 2009

American River 50- No pain, No gain

The 30th American River 50 miler began with clear skies and cool temperatures. We arrived at the start at 5:15am, and were greeted by 45 degree weather, dry air, and a chilly breeze. Race director Julie Fingar promptly started the countdown to the 6am start, and then all 705 runners began their trip down the American River bike path.

I knew the first 27 miles of the race would be run on very flat paved bike path, and the last 23 miles would be on single track trail. I did not set a time goal for the race, but developed smaller split goals during the race. The race started off fast as the runners would make a four mile loop before returning back to the start. On the two mile stretch out I was running a 7:15 pace, and saw the leaders at the turn around only a few minutes ahead. I ran the first couple of miles behind fellow east coaster Annette Bednosky, but she took off and ran a great race finishing 3rd in 7:11. I was content to settle into a comfortable speed and fought off the temptation to pace with faster runners. I came into the Watt Ave 5.33 mile aid station in 37:30. A 7:05 min/mile was a bit faster than planned, so I modified my pace back towards a 7:30min/mile. The bike path was rather long and uneventful, but I did enjoy a beautiful sunrise over the Sacramento hills at 6:49am. Over the next stretch I ran with Jen Pfeifer. We traded places several times as she made “pit stops”, but eventually she laid the hammer down and began to pull away. She would go on to finish 2nd in the women's race in a breezy 7:03. At around mile eight I started to feel a slight discomfort in my right hip flexor. I had run a hard 50k the week before, and I was positive that lack of proper recovery was coming back to haunt me.

I passed through mile 16 in exactly two hours, and decided to back off the pace even more. My makeshift goal was to hit my marathon split in 3:20, and get to the 50k mark in 4:00. If I could stay consistent I had a strong chance at breaking 7 hours and 30 minutes. I was currently sitting in 29th position out of 705 runners leaving the Nimbus Dam overlook at 18.7 miles. As we descended back down to the path my right quad muscle completely gave out. It had been starting to tighten up during the previous several miles on pavement, but now it felt so crummy that I had to completely stop. I spent a few minutes trying to stretch out the muscles, but no amount of stretching could loosen it up. For the next couple of miles I made a futile attempt at a run/walk method, but after a few steps I would have to stop. It was to no avail as my quad had completely blown out. I limped along, and walked into the Negro Bar 22.6 mile aid station. It felt like my right leg had already run a 100 mile race, while my left leg was still completely fresh. At the aid station I informed the volunteers that I was unable to resume running, and asked if it would be possible to walk the remaining 32 miles and still finish within the 13 hour cut off. At the current pace, I had 10 hours to finish, and dreaded the thought of having such a long day ahead. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Mentally I was determined not to DNF. I did not care if it took me 13 hours, as long as I made it to the finish in Auburn. It was a humbling feeling getting passed by countless runners, as I walked along holding my right leg in hopes that somehow I could put some life back into it. I literally got passed by 100 runners as I wound up in 129th place just over halfway through the race. As an ultra runner you know that things like this are eventually going to happen, but I had hoped it wouldn’t happen only 18 miles into one of my biggest races of 2009. Although I could not run, I knew that I could walk and make forward progress. I tried to soak in the surroundings and take in the beauty of the river and valleys. I have never run in such lush green open pastures and rambling foot hills. I walked the entire stretch from mile 20 to the 26.2 marathon marker. I had walked the last six miles and was amazed to see that had I still hit my marathon split in 3:57. This pleasant surprise gave me a huge motivational lift as I entered the Beals Pointe aid station at mile 26.7. I was able to grab 6 ibuprofen from a volunteer and quickly downed four of them. The weather was perfectly sunny, the temps were now in the high 60’s, and I could feel my competitive juices flowing through my blood. I did not travel 3,000 miles to limp across the finish line in 13 hours. I did not come to California to be pitied. I said to myself "To heck with the pain. I'm not here to limp around. I am here to run!" This wasn't about being a tough guy, or foolishly trying to run through an injury. This was about commitment and heart. The ibuprofen was kicking in, and my legs were moving again. I may not run a 50 mile PR, but it wasn’t too late to give 110% from here to the finish. At first my legs would only allow me to run a few hundred feet, then a quarter mile, and soon entire stretches between aid stations. The last 24 miles of American River are the slowest, and contain almost all of the surprisingly challenging 3800 ft of elevation gain. I knew if I pushed hard I may be able to break 10 hours, but would my right leg hold up?

From Beals to Granite Bay(mile 31.7) I passed what I counted to be around 15 runners, and did not get passed once. My right quad muscle continued to scream pain, especially on the down hills, but I still managed a 4:51 split for 50k. I did not try to block it out, but instead used it to continue my aggressive, albeit slow push forward. To a degree I figured my leg could not hurt more than it already did, therefore why not keep the momentum going. Passing through Buzzard's Cove and Horshoe Bar at miles 34 and 38, I passed another dozen or so runners. By mile 40's Rattlesnake Bar I knew could clearly break 10 hours, and now breaking 9 hours seemed like a plausible goal. The temperature was now in the mid 70’s, and feeling quite warm on the exposed open trail. The trail for the last third of the race is largely on open fields, and followed along a very narrow and dusty horse trail. This was the only section where we encountered riders on horseback.I even had a horse's tail hit the mouth piece of my waterbottle. My leg was still feeling jacked up, and every now and then I was forced to walk because the muscle would lock up on me. On occasion I would take advantage of when the trail would zig zag back into the cool shade of the trees, and then I would speed things up again.

At 2:00pm I arrived at the three mile long gravel road that climbs 1,000 feet to the finish. The initial climb was very steep, but would mellow out as we got closer to the top. Again this road had almost no shade and really slowed folks down. Finally I saw the first mile marker that indicated 3 miles to the finish. I hiked into the Last Gasp aid station and did one last refill of the water bottle with now only 2.5 miles left. As I ran past the half mile marker I could hear the announcers at the finish. It was just one more turn around the bend and one more steep climb to the Auburn overlook. My friend Nathan greeted me with about a quarter mile to go and jogged me into the finish area. Nathan then broke off to take photos of the finish as I crossed in a respectable time of 8:40. Race director Julie Fingar congratulated me on the finish as I was handed my custom American River 50 finisher’s jacket.

After the race I was greeted by several runners and volunteers who had witnessed my struggles early on. They had seen me grabbing my leg in pain at mile 19, and saw me again when I hobbled into mile 26. There were other runners who had passed me when I was walking, but then I had passed when I made my push. Folks said they were inspired by my grit and determination to finish, and finish strong. Like I said, I did not travel 3,000 miles to limp across the finish. Instead I ran strong and crossed the tape feeling empowered, yet humbled. After the finish I made my best attempt to walk around and take in the carnival like atmosphere. I had an Inn and Out burger with Western States champ Hal Koerner, and sat in the warm California sun soaking in the day’s achievement. Hal had a rough day as well and DNF'ed when he also had some issues with his quads. Meanwhile my right leg felt like it had been run over by a bus. I will surely pay for today’s masochistic effort during the next week, but right now I feel nothing but satisfaction.

In closing this was the toughest race I have ever run. I don’t mean that this was a tough race, it’s actually one of the easiest 50 mile courses I have ever run. Fast, flat, and scenic. It was tough in the fact that I had lost my ability to run at 100% so early in the race. Common sense says that I should have dropped rather than endure a long 32 mile walk to the finish. Common sense does not apply to ultras. What I learned is that even though your body is not 100%, that doesn’t mean your effort can’t be. I feel like the American River really tested my character as an ultra marathon runner and tested my commitment to a race when things go wrong. I could have easily bagged the run when I knew I wasn’t going to be able to set a new PR, but I’m glad I fought off the urge and stuck with the plan. I may have “only” run an 8:40, but I’m pretty darn proud of how I got to that 8:40. Someday, I hope to revisit this course, and give it a second try. But, if that day should never happen, then I am satisfied with my one finish, regardless of what time the clock read.

**NEW**Note to readers: I don't encourage ever trying to run through an injury. My "injury" was muscle related, but did not involve a muscle tear, or pull. It was an overworked quad, that had not fully recovered from a prior race. I acknowledge the crucial difference between being tough and stupid. Again, had this been a sprained ankle, pulled hamstring, or torn ligament, I would have dropped. Pushing through major discomfort/pain, and pushing through a severe injury are two different animals. Be tough, be aggressive, but be smart enough to run another day.


runsforbeer said...

Great, inspiring report! Congrats on finding the silver lining in that race. We all underestimate what we are capable of. See you at BRR!

Mongold said...

great post.

this is the essence of our sport.

annette bednosky said...

Way to go. Excellent,honest report. You are a tough person in a good way. Stay tough in a good way (not in a stupid way that will lead to crippling injury for too many months-I speak from experience!)

From another comment I see you are running Bull Run this coming weekend-another potentially fast 50M!

My greatest wish to you is to be smart and respect your body...if it is uncomfortable-whatever-life is UNCOMFORTABLE-yet if you limp in pain and are hurt-please reconsider what you are doing and think about your 3 month plan!

Yet I hope you have no body dilemmas and you celebrate the day and experiences of mud and trail and crazy VHTRCers and life all day!

Mike Bailey said...


Thanks for the great advice. I knew I was probably overdoing things trying to run American River a week after a tough 50k trail race. I thought I was 100% when I toed the start, but my body was probably around 75%. Needless to say, I ended up sacrificing a potentially solid American River 50, in order to run both. A lesson learned, and I will not try this again.

On the bright side, I am only volunteering at Bull Run Run, not running it. In the mean time I have been resting, recovering, and eating plenty of Easter candy. As a younger runner it is hard to hold myself back, but it is all a process of learning. Newer runners like myself are fortunate to have experienced folks like you to look up to. Thanks for being a great representative to the sport....and I'm sure you'll do wonders at Western States,since your top 3 at AR50 got you in.

Take and happy running

Michael Huff said...


Great report, way to dig deep and finish. Respect what your body is telling you and enjoy a good recovery period. I look forward to seeing you on Saturday at Bull Run.

God Bless,
Mike Huff