Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop,” said the King to the White Rabbit. -Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The American River 50 Mile was my gateway ultra. It was the big goal race two years ago, the first 50 miler, the training for which took me to the edge and due to my inexperience, I eventually plunged right over it. Everything about it was huge and unknown and scary. I didn’t know anyone who ran ultras and it wasn’t even my idea to do one to begin with. I was tagging along on someone else’s bucket list ride.
Since then I’ve fully embraced ultra running as my own and the trail running community became dear to my heart. I’d had some successes, spectacular failures and transcendent experiences along the way. I swore I’d never do this race again but after I paced Jen last year I was keen to give it another shot. This time I didn’t want to just finish. I wanted to post a sub-11 hour time and qualify to enter the Western States lottery. I came in at 12:16 before. Was I over reaching? I didn’t know.
My training had gone really well this spring. I had even PR’d at Way Too Cool 50k along the way. I had suffered no injuries or significant aches and pains to speak of. There wasn’t anything more I could do at this point but run it.
The week before found me scrambling to get assignments for grad school done before I left for the weekend. I didn’t have the time to turn into the usual bouncing off the walls, neurotic head case that is so typical of me before a big goal race. I didn’t even know what was going to go into my drop bags. I’m actually relaxed, excited but not nervous. I’m either deeply in denial or confident with where my training has taken me.
The first 27 miles on the bike path to the Beals Point aid station clicked off methodically. This section is basically a road marathon and there are lots of volunteers, crew, supporters and spectators clustered around the various aid stations. It’s fun to see friends, give high fives and interact with total strangers. I distracted myself in between aid stations playing the “follow-the-tangents” game which helped keep my mind engaged.
I kept the pace comfortable and easy. I knew comfortable and easy weren’t going to be part of my vocabulary later. There was plenty of time to think. That first AR50 had been such a struggle in many ways and as I passed various landmarks it would trigger memories that weren’t entirely pleasant. It was in stark contrast to how light and relaxed I was now.
After Beals Point, AR50 turns into a trail race with plenty of single track. I was blissed out, bounding along the trail with a grin from ear to ear. I had so much energy that I had to dial it back a little because there was still a long way to go and I didn’t want to blow up. Stay loose and relaxed, I kept telling myself.
Chasing Western States Bib Zero
Around mile 35, right after I left the Buzzard’s Cove aid station, was when the race started to catch up with me. I knew I wasn’t going to feel like a superhero forever. What started as a cool, overcast day in Sacramento became sunny and entirely too warm nearing Auburn. It started to feel like a really, really long 6 miles before I hit Rattlesnake Bar and picked up my pacer, Andrea. The jagged ups and downs of the Meat Grinder were taking a toll on me. I’d find out if my earlier patience was going to pay off. Can I keep this up and meet my time goal? That’s when the running gods sent me an unlikely trail angel in the form of Gordy Ansleigh.
I heard the foot steps behind me and asked if the person wanted to pass. “No, you’re okay for now.” Good lord, I’d know that voice anywhere. I saw “Unbreakable”. I knew perfectly well who that was but I glanced back anyway. Yes, it was Gordy. There are over 800 people running this race and I’ve got Gordy Ansleigh on my heels? We run together like this for a bit but I can tell it’s pushing my limits trying to stay ahead of him. He eventually passes me and disappears around a corner. I figure that’s the last I’ll see of him. He was moving so much better than I was but something in me said, “Go!” I picked up the pace and went after him. I caught up enough to keep him in sight so when Gordy walked a section, I walked that section. When he ran it, I ran it. He seemed to be passing people right and left and in turn so was I. I could barely hold on and stay in contact with him but hold on I did. He got me to Rattlesnake Bar faster than I probably could have on my own. When I talked to him after the race we both had a good laugh when he told me he was thinking, “Why can’t I drop this girl?”
Chasing An Iguana
At the beginning of the year I had joined a women’s running club called the Iguanas. I knew a few members and it was a great way to get track sessions and early morning mid-week runs in. I lost my original pacer in February and I didn’t feel like dealing with finding another one. But two weeks before the race, with a time goal in the picture, I changed my mind. My Iguana teammate, Andrea, stepped in at the proverbial last minute to bring me home. She saved my training partner, Alina, from making an offer I would have adamantly refused, which was to give her pacer Anthony to me.
I was ecstatic to see Andrea at Rattlesnake Bar (mile 41) but that energy didn’t last long. I was on the rivet as they say in the cycling world. I focused on her feet and just followed. Around mile 45 we turned into a train of five people with a woman named Marianne leading the way. “Is the pace okay?” she asked at one point. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” said Patrick. She was great.
I was in what I call my no man’s land – that part of the race where I am so close to the finish but not really and I feel like I’m in a bottomless pit. But I was sandwiched right in the middle between two strong pacers, Andrea and Lavy, and two strong runners, Marianne and Patrick. I had no choice but to keep moving. And for a time, life was simple, and I had no responsibility to anything in the world other than to follow Andrea’s feet.
Andrea and I were now on the final 2.5 mile climb that ends the race, purposefully making our way to the top. I was determined to run as much as I could and keep the walk breaks to a minimum. She had me at 30 seconds run / 30 seconds walk and that felt doable but shortly after we passed the 2 miles to go sign the unthinkable happened. My right quad seized and cramped followed by the left. I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t move. When I tried the cramping got more intense and painful. Andrea was immediately at my side holding me up. What do I do? I’d never had this happen before.
I was fumbling for some salt tabs when a runner named Shawn came up to me and handed me a couple. I took one and tried walking it out and hoped it would kick in sooner rather than later. My slow hobble turned into a walk then turned into a run. I thought the worst was over but when I had caught up with Shawn I felt the cramping kick in again. I took the second salt tab. He was so encouraging. “Don’t worry, you’ll make it.” We were all on the sub-11 fun train. I kept running and walking, up, up, up. Nothing was going to stop me.
We finally made it to the top and we saw another runner, Gene, just ahead who also looked like he’d been dealing with some cramping issues. By the time we got to him he’d started running, no sprinting, for the finish.
“Come on,” he said, “Follow me. You can do it!” Are you freaking kidding me?
But my body seemed to have a mind of it’s own because it went chasing after him before I could give this ludicrous idea a second thought. Andrea, who’d turned into my biggest, most vocal cheerleader up that final climb, shouted words of encouragement the whole way in. “I can’t keep up with you guys! Go!” It was patently ridiculous because she’s a lot faster than I am, but I was willing to suspend my belief in that moment.
It Takes a Finisher’s Village
I crossed the finish line in 10:33 and bested my previous time by an hour and 45 minutes. I got my PR and my Western States qualifying time. I was on Cloud 9 and excitedly cheered my friends in and thanked and chatted with other friends who were there in support. And then I felt weird. Really, really weird. It gets a little fuzzy for me here. One minute I’m walking then the next I’m sitting on a hay bale with my head in my hands. People are talking to me. I think I’m responding. I see Jen’s worried face. She keeps leaving and coming back with things, a bag of ice, a medic, a plate with a hot dog. Tom the medic says I need to eat some solid food so I do even though I’m not hungry. IT WAS THE BEST HOT DOG EVER. Thank you to Sabine, Josh, Jen, Vivian, Ken, Andrea, Tom and Pen who stayed with me at various points while I recovered on that hay bale.
Trail angels are real and arrive in unexpected ways. I felt like I was passed from one to another throughout the day. I don’t know what I did to deserve such a bounty of good trail kharma at AR50 but I’m grateful for it. Whether I spent miles or minutes with you, you helped me be good today.
Epilogue or It’s a Good Thing this Runner has a Pacer
“Did you run with the Iguanas this morning?”
“Yes, I was going to do just six miles but ended up doing 8.”
“Oh my god! You did 8 this morning and now you are doing this? (pacing me)”
“Laura, you are doing 50. I’m only doing 8 and 9 separated by 5 hours.”