After many months of preparation and training, I finally ran the American River 50 mile run last Saturday. I've spent the past week dealing with the aftermath - seeing a doc to deal with a sprained ankle, seeing another doc to have some toenails removed, chiropractor visit, etc. As I sit here soaking my feet, it seems like the appropriate time to write about the experience.
The longest run I'd done prior to the race was 32 miles, so I knew I'd be going into unknown territory beyond that point. And I was looking forward to it. People often asked me why I would want to do a 50 mile race and the answer is simple - I'm a big believer that we learn a lot about ourselves in challenging situations, so I was looking at this as a bit of a spiritual journey into the unknown.
When people asked me what I expected the race to be like, I was very open about the fact that I had no idea. I thought I knew what it meant to expect the unexpected - calves cramping up, stomach revolting from race nutrition, dehydration from forgetting to drink (all things that have happened to me at shorter distance training runs.) But, looking back on it as I sit here with a splint on my ankle and my aching toes soaking in water, I am left with the real learning or take away from the race - the best laid plans often go awry, or, more simply - shit happens. You can have a great plan, you can do all the right preparation and still have to deal with the fact that in spite of solid planning and preparation, shit happens, and you deal with it as best as you possibly can. And you're grateful for the fact that you are able deal with it as well as you are. And so once again, distance running is much like life in general.
After taking the advice of experienced ultra-runners, I had decided to follow a 9:1 run:walk pattern from the beginning of the race. While it was a bit challenging to do that from the beginning, I respected the fact that I was taking a step into the unknown and a bit of discipline would be required. My overall goal was to run sub-11 hours for the race. I read that a rule of thumb for predicting a 50-mile time was to double a recent marathon time and add two hours. That formula would have landed me at 10:38 so I figured sub-11 was reasonable. My plan was to run around 4:50 for the first 26.5, leaving me with up to 6:10 to run the final 23.5 and still finish in under 11 hours.
The start of the race was much more low key than a typical marathon and starting in the dark added to the mellow vibe. In spite of all the nerves I'd felt in the week leading up to the race, when the race finally began I finally felt relaxed. There was nothing left to do but run and take the day as it came. I started the race with my friend Brad, but we soon separated - I wasn't sure if I would see him again until we both finished, but it was nice throughout the race to know that I had a friend out there on the course who was in the same boat as me. I felt really solid at the start and had to remind myself not to go out too fast and to maintain a comfortable pace as I was just so happy to finally be running again after so much tapering the previous two weeks. The early miles flew by and I tried to create some space between myself and the groups of chatty runners. While I like the camaraderie and friendly vibe on the course, what I like most in a trail race is the tranquilty and peace when I'm running a stretch of quiet trail in a beautiful place. And it really was a beautiful course. Watching the sun rise over the American River was amazing.
Things were going well until somewhere around mile 20 (I wasn't really paying attention to mileage at this point in the race) when I fell on some rocks. I knew I twisted my ankle and my knee started to bother me pretty much immediately, but I figured I'd be able to shake it off. Perhaps some Advil in my future, but I didn't anticipate any major problems. Alas, that wasn't quite right. I ran for a few more miles before I had to stop to pull out my IT wrap. I hadn't run with it in a couple of months as my knees had felt solid, but I brought it along in case something came up. Well, something had come up. Still I figured, not a big deal, the wrap is usually pretty effective. In this case, it didn't seem to do much to relieve the pain, so I took about four more advil. This didn't seem like the time to be worried about recommended dosage. Continuing on, I just figured I had stumbled into one of the low points that everyone assured me you go into and come out of over the course of an ultra run.
I came into Beals Point (the 26.5 mile aid station) and was thrilled to see Ryan and Quinn cheering me in. I was able to use the stick roller from my drop bag on the muscles in my legs with the hope that that would resolve my knee issues. No such luck. I ate a peanut butter and honey sandwich while Quinn refilled my water bottle and then I took off (ok, stumbled off) and just hoped for the best. I made it a few more miles before I had a stabbing pain in a toe on my left foot. I pulled off to the side of the single track trail, sat down and pulled off my shoe to figure out what was going on. I discovered that one of my toenails was pointing straight up. I tried to pull it off, but when that didn't work I figured I'd try to tape it down with the bandaids I was carrying in my pack. Luckily, that solution actually resolved the issue for the rest of the race.
While I was fairly miserable as I sat on the side of the trail dealing with this and having a steady stream of people pass me by, I was struck by the fact that nearly every person who passed checked in to see if I was ok and if I needed something. This is one of the things I've enjoyed most at all of the trail runs I've done compared to marathons or other road races. There just seems to be a deeper sense of "we're all in this together." While I'm not particularly chatty on any race course, I really do value and appreciate this element of runners looking out for other runners.
I got back on the trail again and at this point my left knee was actually giving me more problems than my right. This was truly unknown territory as I never have trouble with this knee. In retrospect I guess that twisting my ankle probably caused my running form to fall apart, which I'm guessing led to the knee issues. As slow as I was on the uphill sections, it was nothing compared to how slow I was on the downhills. In general, I suffer from what Ryan kindly refers to as a disbelief in dynamic stability - essentially I don't feel comfortable going fast downhill on unstable terrain so I try hopelessly to control it by going really slowly. In this case though, the extra force on my knee on the downhills was incredibly painful which made for even slower going as I tried to minimize the impact on my knees. I had some serious tortoise (me), hare (everyone else) moments as runners I had passed on the uphills flew by me on the downhills.
I had given up on the 9:1 run:walk blend as I was going so slowly with my run that I wasn't having any issues with muscle fatigue and starting up from a walk caused the pain in my knee to be almost unbearable. While running/shuffling was totally painful and slow going I felt like I could get into a somewhat zen steady-state level of pain and I tried to just focus on getting from aid station to aid station. I had a couple of other extra-low points like the 2 miles I had to run without any liquids after my water bottle ran out because I hadn't anticipated it taking me so long to get between aid stations. Again, a further reminder to prepare for the unexpected.
I had clearly given up my time goal and focused on just finishing. I came to peace with the fact that on this day, finishing would be a victory. I suspect that if I had already finished a 50 mile race, I might have bailed and dropped out at one of the aid stations, but I needed to finish this race. I had put too much into training for this and while I was in a ton of pain, I didn't think I was causing any permanent damage. I tried to go to a place of gratitude and remind myself that as much as it sucked in the moment, there were people in far worse predicaments than this; that even having the opportunity to do an event like this was a privilege. I needed to finish the race.
The rest of the race was just a steady state shuffle - strange reminder of how benchmarks get reset during a race like this as I saw pace/mile numbers on my Garmin that seemed just improbably slow. The support at the aid stations was fantastic and the aid stations were close enough together that I could continue to convince myself that I could run for 3/4/5 more miles or whatever the distance was between stations. When I finally got to the Last Gasp station at Mile 37.5, there was the eye-candy crew of 20-something men asking what people needed from the aid station. Rather nice service having one of them take my bottle and run it up to the station to fill it. I grabbed a few cups of coke (something I never normally consume but which I had been drinking since about mile 30) and headed out as quickly as I could. Again, transitioning back to my shuffle from walking was sufficiently painful that in spite of the fact that the last 2.5 miles was the steepest section of the race, I knew I needed to keep the shuffle going and not revert to walking if at all possible.
My sad little shuffle actually allowed me to pass several people during the uphill climb which was a good psychic boost after the pain I'd been dealing with for 5+ hours. Again, the encouragement and camaraderie among the racers at this point was great. Having gotten this far, we all knew that we were going to finish. After the slow slog uphill, I could finally hear the crowds at the finish and soon arrived to the final stretch. Coming across the finish line and hearing my name announced was an amazing experience. I can't remember the last time I was so happy to stop doing something. A volunteer handed me a fantastic Patagonia finisher's jacket - perhaps the first schwag I've ever gotten at a race that I'll actually use.
I'm thrilled that I did this race and that I finished. I'm disappointed with my finish time (11:33:21) as I feel like I didn't really get to find out what kind of time my fitness and training had set me up for, but at the same time I have no doubt that I went exactly as fast as my body was capable of going under the circumstances. Most importantly, the race provided what I ultimately cherish and why I seek out these types of challenges - in diving into the unknown and meeting and surviving the unforeseen and unwelcome aspects that took me to some pretty dark places, I find out what I'm capable of doing, and I can store that away and draw strength from that knowledge when life inevitably presents its own challenges.
Much as I spent several hours of the race promising myself that if I willed myself to the finish line I would never have to run another step, I'm already starting to consider what my next race will be.
Post Race with Brad (in our fabulous finisher's jackets):