American River 50 Mile Endurance Run Race Recap 

American River 50

Fair warning: this race was huge for me and I have thoughts. This recap is slightly epic… settle in…

American River 50

I’ve retold this story several times, but I’ll recap it here (again). Running a 50-mile race was never something I’d considered doing. Then, in late January (just a few short months ago), I went to a warehouse sale put on by NorCal Ultras (the race directors of AR50) and RYPWear skirts (my favorite trail skirts). I only planned on picking up a new skirt for cheap.

I was in the changing pop-up tent when I heard them call out my raffle ticket number. I’d won a prize! But I hadn’t been paying attention, I didn’t hear what the prize was.

Turns out I won a free entry into the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run (AR50).

Which was in two months.

When I asked for advice from my running friends on what to do (the entry was non-transferable and non-deferrable, so it was either I use it in two months or not at all), I phrased the question: should I ignore the prize or should I enter knowing I’d DNF (did not finish).

It wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t do it. It just never occurred to me I could.

Their universal response: Why are you so sure you can’t do it?

A few said versions of: It’s the universe telling you you’re ready.

Are they serious? Could I really do it?

Read MoreAmerican River 50 mile kick off

Training

I am a type-A planner. When I do a race, I lay out a months-long training plan and I follow it. But here, I had two months. Training properly wasn’t really a possibility.

I was then training for the Oakland Marathon and had been wait listed for 50k in the spring. My training was unfocused, but I was training. I wouldn’t be starting from zero.

As I began researching training methodologies for 50-mile races, I found advice that was all over the map. I couldn’t find any consensus on the ‘right way’ or the ‘best way’ to train. I can’t imagine what my training plan would have looked like even if I did have months and months and months to train.

So I Frankensteined together a two-month training plan, but I wasn’t terribly confident in it.

I had to rely largely on instinct.

Read training recaps.

Training Focus

During my training, I was entirely focused on trying. On starting the race and doing what I could.

Read MoreCelebrate the start line

This was something on a scale I’d never tried before. Hell, it was more than I’d ever considered before.

I didn’t know if I could do it (not in an ‘I suck and I can’t do it’ pessimistic way, but in a matter of fact, ‘this is more than I’ve ever done before and it may be too much’ kind of way).

I could have registered for the 25-mile race, which would have been a challenge, but a completely doable challenge, well within the scope of what I’d done before.

But I just kept thinking, If I’m going to do this, I want to really go for it.

My Crew? I Have A Crew?

AR50 lets you have pacers. You can have one person run with you at a time, picking up pacers at three designated aid stations on the last half of the course.

I initially wasn’t sure about having pacers. I’ve never had pacers before. I’m usually the go-it-alone type runner. But I figured I’d need help on race day, especially in the last few (very) uphill miles.

And as I thought back on prior ultras, I know I could have pushed myself harder.

I’d find myself walking because I could. I was tired, so I walked. I could have physically kept running, I just didn’t.

Hopefully, having a pacer will give me a rabbit to chase.

Originally, I was going to have one friend come out and run with me from mile 41 to the finish. A few weeks ago, he mentioned his girlfriend would like to be involved.

So just like that, I have a crew.

I feel more confident going into race day knowing they’ll be there and I feel better having two pacers. It makes the logistics/transportation easier since they can switch off driving, and I wasn’t sure I could even make it to mile 41. I know I can get to 29.5 (where I’ll pick up the first pacer).

But I’m also a little nervous about it (the logistics of meeting up, the idea of disappointing them if I can’t finish, the guilt of asking them to take a day out of their lives to help me and support my insanity). I also don’t know that they fully understand how slow I may be running.

I’ve run with both of them at the weekly night trail runs and they both regularly finish well ahead of me (and that’s when I’m running a fast – for me – 10 min/mile). I’ve told them to expect more of a fast hike than a run, but are they really ready for my maybe 13-minute mile averages?

Pre-Race Thoughts And Goals

(written Friday, April 5)

I’m just out from race day and I have absolutely no idea what to expect.

I don’t know if I am prepared, I’m not sure what my race plan should be or will be.

This is a very unfamiliar place for me, a type-A planner, to be in.

Race Goals

I have no idea what my finish time will be. I have no frame of reference for what’s realistic for me.

I’m never a finish time focused runner. On race day I run by feel. But I’d been curious about what time I could expect, and now that I had a crew (!?), I had to at least do a basic estimate of when they could expect me.

A few times, I pulled up the race map or tried to figure out possible paces or finish times, but I’d start to freak myself out or start to have a bit of panic attack. I’d then have to put it all away to stop a complete negative mental spiral.

It took a few tries over a few days before I could actually get the math done.

My basic math to figure my estimated finish time: Start with my last ultra (Oregon Coast 50k) average time (13:30 min/mile) – slightly slower because of the longer distance + slightly faster because I’m better trained + faster because I’ll have a pacer – slower because the last 2 miles is WAY uphill and it just might kill me.

Put all that in a blender and I’m still totally guessing.

I’m kinda thinking around 12 hours (over a 14 min/mile) feels about right as a guess, but that has more than a little bit of eeny-meeny-miny-moe to it.

So Seriously, What Are Your Goals?

I’ve talked to many runners who have run 50-mile races and many have said miles 30-40 are the hardest mentally and physically. And it will also be longer than I’ve ever run before – every step beyond 32 miles will be a step into uncharted territory. With that in mind:

Goal 1: Get through mile 40 without having a physical breakdown and without having a mental break down. It will be the longest I’ve run and my first time running with a personal pacer. My biggest goal is to not have a complete meltdown in front of my pacer.

Goal 2: Finish before the cutoff time (14 hours)

But ultimately:

I am proud of myself for trying. To be willing to stand at the starting line of something so far out of my comfort zone.

Can I finish? I don’t know. I’m going to do my best, but I don’t know.

Pre-Race Crappies

I’ve long since learned that if I feel like crap the day before a marathon, I’m prepared.

Too many carbs, too much water, not enough exercise all leads to an overall crappy feeling. If that holds true, I am in great shape for tomorrow. I was wandering around Folsom this afternoon just before I went to pick up my bib number, and I had zero energy, zero oomph.

I’m gonna try to run 50 miles tomorrow?

I have to remember this happens every single time I do an endurance run, but still, it’s seriously disconcerting.

Nerves

In this day before for the race, I’m actually not that nervous.

Then it hits me that I should be nervous.

Then I’d get nervous that I’m not more nervous (gotta love being an overthinker).

Or – I won’t be nervous, then I’ll get thinking about some detail and start to freak out. For example, last night (Thursday) I got thinking about my shoes. The longest I’ve ever run in my shoes is 29 miles. They felt great so I think they’ll be great shoes to run in. Then I realize that is barely half of the total distance I’ll be running. Cue freak-out.

Or that I’ll be meeting the second pacer at mile 41. That’s great, I think. Then I realize I’ll have run over 40 miles at that point (longer than I have ever run at one stretch), and I’ll still have almost 10 miles to go. Cue freak-out.

All that said, I do feel prepared. Overall, I’m more relaxed than I would have expected (excepting the occasional freak-outs mentioned above). I for sure started to feel better once I started packing and doing all the pre-race stuff – I was taking action and was on familar ground.

But I also realize I’m not getting my head around the whole 50 miles thing.

As I write this, I’m in Auburn. I’ve been out here before for several marathons and half marathons. As I sit in this little coffee shop, my brain is thinking: Oh Auburn again? That must mean a half marathon.

And honestly, I’m not working very hard to correct my brain on that point.

Pre-Race Greetings

I’ve gotten a few notes today from friends wishing me luck. It’s warmed my heart a little bit.

I don’t tend to make a big deal about my races. It’s new for me to have this many people even be aware of my crazy little adventures.

But more people heard about this one. The people I’ve been running with as part of my running club’s Oakland marathon training group have been with this story from the beginning.

I remember mentioning to them on one of our runs that I was thinking about ‘heading over to this warehouse sale’ that afternoon to get a new running skirt. Boy did I have a story to tell them on the run the next week.

Several of them gave me pep talks to even register.

American River 50 Race Day (EEK!)

Weather

The weather forecast is not great, but could be worse. I’ve heard the first part of the AR50 course can get super hot when it’s sunny, so hopefully the clouds will prevent that.

Given some of the super rainy training runs I’ve had this spring, and some of the crazy rainy ultras I’ve seen photos of this winter, it could be so, so much worse.

The weather turned out great weather for running – mid60s, mostly cloudy and dry. It would clear out for little bits of time (when it would start to get super hot), but would quickly cloud back over.

It had been raining the few days before the run, so the trails were sloppy in places, but it wasn’t too bad anywhere.

I’m All For Being Early, But…

The course is point-to-point. I decided to park at the finish and get bused to the start.

The race starts at 6 – urgh. Buses leave the finish area at 4:10 – double urgh. My wake-up call? 2:45 – triple urgh.

But OK, 4:10, fine. I figured the drive to the start would take forever on little side roads. Nope.

Busses left on time at 4:10 and we were at the start area by 4:30. We then have to kill 1 1/2 hours.

I’m all for being early, but that was a bit much.

American River 50
The start, at zero dark hundred

The Course

The first 5 miles is a lollipop loop out and back through the start area.

Then a 20ish-mile loop on a paved bike trail around Folsom.

American River 50
Of course Folsom has a Jonny Cash Trail – its the first thing most people think of when they hear Folsom

Finally, a 25-mile trail run from Folsom to Auburn.

The starting lollipop loop was largely a single track trail. It was a cute little section, but it was before we’d spread out and found our paces, so we kept bottlenecking behind really slow people.

I’m all for pacing yourself, starting slow, and walking, but I kept getting behind people who were basically out for Sunday stroll. It was a frustrating way to start.

The paved bike trail bits were pretty meh. Parts of it were pretty, but nothing spectacular.

They used to run this course in the opposite direction, but runners didn’t like doing this paved bit at the end. I agree with that- this would have been tough to do in the heat of the day.

American River 50

As the race started, people were chatting with each other about their goals. Some talked using goal paces, some used finish time. It was a bit disorienting to me that I often couldn’t tell which was which.

“What’s your goal?” I’d ask.

“12” They’d respond.

Does that mean 12 hours or an average 12 min/mile pace?

People will be doing both today and it can be hard to tell the super-duper ultra runners by sight. I could never tell.

American River 50
Thanks Mr. Sign, but I didn’t need the reminder of my pace

Biggest Concern

When I asked experienced ultra runners what I should know about running a 50, almost all said one of two things: miles 30-40 are the hardest, and eat real food.

Nutrition is my biggest concern for this run. I usually do a lot of GU and blocks, but that’s not enough to keep me going for 50 miles. I’ve told my pacers to make sure I eat real food at the aid stations, even if I wasn’t hungry.

I ate lots of potatoes (dipped in salt), and a PB & J at each aid station, even when I really didn’t want it (and I really didn’t want another PB&J after 10 miles, but I kept eating them anyway).

It all worked really well and I didn’t have any issues with nutrition.

Breaking Up The Race

When I run long races, I break up the race mentally. For example, I don’t think of the marathon as a single 26-mile run, but as a first 5k, then a 10 mile run to get to the halfway point (and so on).

Going into this race, I wasn’t entirely sure how to break it down mentally.

I run with both of my pacers on weekly night trail runs with a local club. So my plan was to think of the race as a solo 50k (been there, done that), followed by 2 Thursday night trail runs, one with each pacer.

This ended up working really well.

Sara Kurth at the American River 50

The First Half

The first 50k (roughly) is the mostly paved, mostly flat section. I’d been warned that since it’s flat and paved it’s easy to go out way too fast. I heeded this warning and held myself back, staying pretty consistent at an 11:30 pace.

It was uneventful scenery, but I felt good and the miles kept clicking by.

It was a pretty uneventful run. Which, in this case, I consider to be a very good thing.

American River 50

I knew this race started in Folsom and ran to Auburn. Because of this big paved loop, at mile 25, we were still in Folsom.

Seriously? At some point, we need to get out of this town.

The Second Half

I considered the aid station at mile 29.5 to be the halfway point of the run. Not geographically (obviously, my math isn’t that bad) but it was (basically) the break between paved/trail and for me it was the break between solo/paced run.

I expected the second half to exponentially tougher and slower. It was hillier and more technical. I thought I’d drastically slow down and my pace would go from what was a slow run to a fast hike.

Sara Kurth at the American River 50

But that wasn’t the case, and I can tie that 100% to the fact I had pacers.

Pacers

Running with pacers was a revelation.

We didn’t have any issues with logistics (at least that they told me about), and I ran at a really consistent pace in the first half since I knew they were waiting for me (I didn’t want to make them wait too long).

Sara Kurth at the American River 50
Me and my pacer Chavon coming into mile 41

Both of my pacers were AH-MAZ-ING. They pushed me at just the right pace. Which was especially impressive because I didn’t know what I wanted my pace to be. I wasn’t terribly helpful during prep letting them know what I wanted – I just didn’t know.

The pace doable, but was way harder than I ever would have /could have pushed myself. I just don’t have the oomph and discipline to push that hard when left to my own devices.

Undefeated!

With my pacers we were undefeated.

We passed lots of runners (20+), and none passed us (Full disclosure: there was one guy who passed us right at the end, but I don’t count him. He was a super-duper ultra runner who was using this race as a training race for a 100k. He was out for what (for him) was a nice 50-mile jaunt. No one who was in my general fitness level or pace-group passed me).

My splits tell the story. Never in my life have I kept getting faster and placing better the more I ran. I’m always the one slowing down in the last miles during an ultra.

American River 50 Splits

Facing My Pet Peeve

Near mile 42, we passed a few guys (one of the many clusters of runners we passed).

One guy started running RIGHT behind me. I kept offering to let him pass. He didn’t want to.

He was clearly using my pacer as his rabbit too.

Runners running right on your tail on the trail is a huge pet peeve of mine. This didn’t help my state of mind and I’m sure contributed to my starting to lose my shit at mile 44 (more on this in a second).

After a few miles he had to slow down and he never caught up to us again. “Ha! good riddance to you” may have crossed my mind.

Apparently, I can get a little petty after running 40+ miles.

The Real Power Of Mantras

I did start to lose it around mile 44.

I was tired, I was over it, and I also knew the hardest was yet to come since the last 2+ miles of the course was toughest and is totally uphill (and it is a killer uphill).

At some point around then, my pacer looked back at me. He later told me I was making not great faces. I was making faces, but I avoided a total melt-down by muttering ‘I can do this’ and ‘one step at a time’ over and over to myself under my breath.

The mantras continued all through the last long uphill as it just went on and on.

I’m usually not a huge user of mantras. I know their value, but other than the occasional self-pep talk, they aren’t something I often use. But today? I was mumbling mantras in an endless loop for the last two miles.

Because here’s what I realized: if I was repeating mantras to myself, even if they didn’t have any actual mental or psychological benefit (I do believe mantras have a positive mental benefit, but for the sake of argument), it used up all my brainpower, there was no room left for doubt or negativity.

I couldn’t think something negative and say something positive at the same time (at least I wasn’t capable of it at mile 48). So repeating the positive mantras to myself was using up all my mental capacity.

There wasn’t enough brain space for doubts, ideas of quitting, or (too much) complaining to take hold.

I could have been saying ‘pink flamingos’ or ‘rubber baby buggy bumpers’ and it likely would have had the same drown-out the negative impact, but I went for positive mantras.

The Finish

The last few uphill miles are killer, and they seemed to go on forever.

When I thought I had about a mile to go, we passed a mile marker saying ‘only 2 miles to go.’ I almost lost it – that is double what I thought! (the race only had 2 mile markers – one saying 2 miles to go, one saying 1 mile to go).

But the uphill ended and the finish line was in sight – I finished in 10:15!

American River 50

10:15!

Whaaaaaaaa!? I realistically didn’t expect anything under 12 hours.

While I often get teary at the finish line of marathons, its been a long time (if ever) since I’ve openly wept. But here, I openly wept as I met up with (and gave hugs) to both of my pacers.

A few days out and I’m still super emotional, getting teary-eyed whenever I think about the race.

About the feeling I had of being at my limit at mile 44, but continuing on.

Or feeling like there is no way I could continue to go up the endless 2-mile hill at the very end, but continuing on.

Doing more than I ever thought I was capable of.

Hell, I’m getting a little weepy right now.

American River 50 Finishers Jacket
The finishers jacket

Did I Meet My Goal?

The first goal was to not self-destruct in miles 30-40. Not even a hint of a problem.

I did notice myself slowing down a bit in the 35-mile range, but not because of a physical need. There were some rocky places that required careful footfalls to not trip or twist an ankle.

By that time, I could feel my brain slowing down a bit and I didn’t always trust my judgment on where I was putting my feet when running at full-speed.

I beat my 12-hour estimate. In fact, I smashed that into itty-bitty pieces.

Even if I’d planned a best-case, everything goes according to plan, wildly optimistic goal, I never would have put 10 hours in my brain as possible.

American River 50

I do not run 12 min/miles during an ultra.

To do that, and to feel great (relatively speaking) doing it?

I did it and I still can’t comprehend doing it.

American River 50

Bodily Harm

In the little template I have for writing these recaps, I have a prompt – what parts were chafed?

The answer here?

All.

All parts were chafed.

But thankfully, I largely didn’t notice it until I was done running. Nothing disrupted my running.

I do have pretty gnarly blisters on my feet. Those I did notice on the run.

I had a second pair of shoes in a drop bag I could have changed into, but the blisters were in spots where I often have issues when doing long distances (the inner arch and inside of the ball of the foot).

I know I would have had the same issue with the other pair so I kept the pair I was wearing.

Better the devil I know.

Big Unanswered Question

Poison oak.

The poison oak was THICK on the course in places. I look at the stuff and I start to itch.

I wiped down with Tecnu when I got back to the car, but by then I’d been marinating in it for 10+ hours, long enough to do damage.

It usually takes a few days to start itching, so only time will tell.

I have a hunch I’ll be super itchy in a few days.

Would I Do This Race Again?

I don’t know that I’ll do another 50-mile race (famous last words, I said that after my first 50K too). Even if I did another 50, I don’t think I’d do this one again. That said, I would recommend this race to others as a first 50.

The paved and flat(ish) bits may not make it super exciting, but it does make it more manageable and accessible than some 50s I’ve seen.

However, I would do the 25-mile version of this race in the future. It starts and ends in the same place and does the same 2nd half as the 50-mile course.

It is basically the same race, with the long paved loop cut out.

The 25-mile race is the highlight reel of the 50-mile race.

Overall

I’m now a few days out from my finish, and I still can’t entirely comprehend that it happened.

It went so much better than anything I could have possibly imagined.

I had no idea I could be pushed that hard (I was going to write ‘I didn’t know I could push myself that hard’ but I didn’t push myself. I wouldn’t have pushed that hard if I didn’t have pacers who knew what I was capable of more than I did).

I’ve (kinda) joked about it, but it turns out to be true: I went to a warehouse sale on a random Saturday in January, and it ended up changing my life.

I didn’t know if I could do it, but I did.

I was pretty sure it was impossible, but it wasn’t.

View this post on Instagram

#medalmonday I'm still on cloud nine and in awe of what I accomplished this weekend at the American River 50 Mile Run. I tend to be pretty nonchalant about my race finishes. I know finishing a marathon or a 50k is a big deal (and I'm proud of all of my finishes), but I'm a planner. When I register for a race, I get a training plan and I follow the training plan. When I follow the plan, I finish the race. The finish is never in doubt. But for me, this was something entirely different. I trained hard, but I didn't know if I'd trained enough. I didn't know if I was ready. I didn't know if I could do it because – news flash – 50 miles is a really long way to run. But I did train enough, I was ready, and I could do it. Thanks to my friends and pacers @eduardoneal1 and @chavon.r , who pushed me harder than I knew I could be pushed (there is zero chance I could have finished in just over 10 hours without their help). To @norcalultras (and their amazing volunteers) who put on a great race, and to @rypwear skirts – if it weren't for going out to their warehouse sale (where I won this race entry as a raffle prize), I likely never would have attempted a 50 mile race. I joke about it, but it's true- a random outing to a trail running skirt company's sale to buy a new skirt totally changed my life. I have accomplished something that a few months ago, I would have guessed was impossible. Sometimes the universe steps in and tells you you're ready for something even if you don't (yet) believe it. #americanriver50

A post shared by Sara Kurth (@puffincoaching) on

What’s Next?

Not a single idea.

I have a few race volunteer shift on the schedule, but no running.

I’d probably do a marathon or ultra in the fall, but I don’t have any ideas or inspiration as to which one.

What I Wore

I am the first to admit my race day outfit wasn’t the hight of fashion, but you wear the things you know will work on race day, fashion be damned.

  • Skirt: RYPwear (of course). I wanted to wear the skirt I bought at the warehouse sale that won me this entry, but I wasn’t able to wear it on enough training runs for me to be comfortable with it for this distance
  • Top: Mountain Hardwear tank and a Columbia long-sleeve
  • Bra: Title 9 Frog Bra
  • Calf Sleeves: Zensah Pineapples. I didn’t wear them for the compression benefits, but 1) because we’d been warned about the poison oak, and 2) the pineapples make me happy. I’ll take whatever ‘makes me happy’ I can
  • Necklace: ‘I am a badass’ necklace from Dogeared
  • Socks: Injinji Mid-Weight Mini-Crew (with a 2nd pair of Heavy-Weight socks in a drop bag in case I need to switch)
  • Shoes: Topo Ultraventure (with Asics Trail Sensor 5 in drop bag in case I need to switch)
  • Hydration Pack: Ultraspire Alpha. I thought Oregon was the last big adventure for my beloved Alpha, but it lasted one more (abbreviated) training cycle. Largely because I didn’t have enough time to feel comfortable with a new one.

Sara is a runner, running coach, writer, blogger, and a lover of all things written.

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