Sunday, April 5, 2015

American River 50-mile 2015: a painful recovery run

American River, a long history for me of ups and downs. I toed the start every year since 2008 so this year was my 8th. In 2008, I had one of these major exercise-induced asthma crisis and I had to walk more than 30 miles, making it a painful crawl, yet finishing just under 9 hours. The following year, same thing, unable to breath by mile 16, I stopped (DNF) at Beal's Point just after the marathon mark. Then I finally broke 7 hours in 2010, 6:47:53 in 2011, 7:55 in 2012 with some asthma again, 6:47:39 in 2013 and 6:51:33 last year on the new course.

For those not following my weekly posts, I haven't been running for the past 3 weeks, suffering from a painful inflammation on the outside of my left heel after a run in the cold in Columbus a couple of days after Way Too Cool. With that, I was quite nervous about this race, wondering how the heel would behave on such a long and delicate trail. Now, the entertaining emcee on the start line recounted a mental advice shared by Matt Fitzgerald at the pre-race pasta party, to replace nervous with the word excited: so, here I was, I was really excited to see if I could indeed race this Saturday...!

Speaking of excitement, the race was so professionally organized by Julie Fingar and her NorCal Ultras crew that we had the privilege to witness a full lunar eclipse right before the start.

The timing was perfect, as it was the shortest eclipse of the 21st century, some moonlight even came back right after the start to make up for the 20 minutes of darkness following the 6 am start. Knowing that I wouldn't see Agnès before Beal's Point, I decided to take the risk of running in the dark without a headlamp, albeit with some hesitation.
It was so dark at the start that Agnès had a hard time capturing much of the action with her camera. Chikara (Omine), Karl Schnaitter and a few other youngsters took off and, still focusing on warming my heel up, I was happy not to engage in a brutal pace and hunt right off the start.
I tied along with a runner carrying a handheld light, I think it was Cody Logan (bib 409, 20, from Bakersfield). The first mile is on the park road so isn't a problem but the next 2 miles are the ones for which a light can help indeed so I thanked him once we got on the first levee. The moon was magnificent, now back to a full orange color and the sun was close to making its appearance.

After these 2 miles of trails in the dark, my GPS was indicating 7:30 min/mile. Apart for some roller coaster-type of road before Folsom Point, the first 12 miles basically have us going down the river, leading to quite a few fast miles on the smooth bike path. By then, my average pace was down to 6:55 min/mile. I was convinced that this was similar to my pace of last year but, re-reading my 2014 post, it was actually 7:12 last year, oops! At least my left heel wasn't complaining, so I was really excited to be running fast again!

By mile 12, something really strange happened, I started feeling cramps in both my calves, yikes! 38 miles to go, that wasn't looking good. I doubled my S!Caps intake at the end of the second hour (2 caps at the top of the hour instead of one in such vernal conditions) and grabbed a few pieces of banana at the next aid station. I kept the same rhythm and stride and was excited (again...! ;-) to see that I just had a 1:50 gap behind Karl and 2 other runners by mile 15 (Hazel Bluffs).

I stopped for a minute to refill my Gu2O bottle at Main Bar (mile 17) and, the cramps worsened as I left the station. At this point, I decided that it was more than time to slow down a little before all this turn to a carnage and prevent me from finishing. And I must say that I'm very please with the way I handled that this time as I'm usually pretty bad at slowing down slowly, that it just enough to keep a reasonable pace without bonking and walking.

I got to Beal's Point after 2:42 of running (mile 24) and took some Coke and banana to keep addressing the cramp issue. Agnès had made it to the aid station just in time to take a picture as I was leaving.
No runner to be seen in front of me on the levee, nor behind either. After the levee, it was cool to run and race with a group of kids training on the trails near the Cavitt Junior High School of Granite Bay. Despite my slower pace, I was stunned that I was catching up with some of them after 25 miles of running, and 25 more to go! How... exciting! After this episode, the solitary run resumed and I was glad to see Agnès again at Granite Bay (mile 29). By then, I had the cramps almost under control thanks to a shorter stride and was glad that I didn't have to walk at all.

I did a very short stop at this aid station, still having some fluid in both my Gu2O and water bottles. Shortly after, nature called right at the beginning of "poison oak territory", not the best place to stop in the bushes, but that had to do. My average pace was now down to 7:27 but at least I was moving and there was still no one to be seen behind. It was time to get into the section I most hate among all the trails I've run and raced on, and there are actually very few of them: the infamous "feet grinder..." The views are certainly wonderful and there isn't much elevation gain overall as we follow the ridge of Folsom Lake, but, except for the new 2-mile loop at Twin Rocks, it's hard to keep a steady pace. After a few miles of painfully hoping over slippery dusty boulders, I was completely out of fluids and, at every turn, was hoping to get to the next aid station, which I believed to be Buzzard's Cove like all the other editions I've ran. But this remote aid station wasn't to be found and I finally reached Horseshoe Bar at mile 38, so glad to finally find some water, having ran on empty for a few exposed miles. My fault for having missed this big logistical change, but I don't think this was advertised enough, both on the web, numerous emails and even at Granite Bay. Knowing there was 8+ miles without an aid station, in particular in this tough section, I would most certainly have filled up my bottles before leaving Granite Bay. And I still wonder how the slower runners fare with such a stretch...

Of course, this is an opportunity to remind us how the original ultra runners raced 40 years ago without all the support we now get and I'm so thankful for getting ice at aid stations in particular. The stop at Horseshoe Bar was more than needed and, with cramps still nagging, I tried to drink as much as possible while running to make up for the earlier dehydration. The rest was fine: using Vespa, I just took one GU every hour, it's amazing how this works!

It was great to see Agnès again at Rattlesnake Bar. Since it was only 3 miles after Horseshoe, my stop was much shorter. At this station, Agnès enjoyed catching up with Greg Soderlund, Garry Towle and Rich Hanna and seeing the 4 runners ahead of me (I had no idea and didn't even dare to ask in which place I was, more concerned about just finishing today).

Respectively, Chikara, Bradford Avilla, Karl, Brian Miller and Greg:

At the top of the wall to exit Rattlesnake, my legs stiffened so badly that I couldn't even walk. I had just taken my 2 S!Caps but decided to even double that. I wasn't feeling so good about that, knowing about the potential risks of electrolyte imbalance and renal failure, but I wasn't going to just drop at mile 41 this way either... I resumed running with most of my legs muscles cramping, even my feet were cramping now, it was pathetic. Thanks to the drinking and the S!Caps, I was able to keep moving again and decided to run, or jog or shuffle until I get passed by someone. Actually, thinking of Matt Fitzgerald's advice, I thought this was too negative of a thought so I changed my motivation to let's keep running so nobody passes me, hoping that others were struggling as I was behind (sorry folks... ;-).

I took more ice at the helpful and very well stocked Dowdin's Post aid station, as well as a cup of Coke, and thanked the volunteer who was manning the whole station all by herself! Keeping moving got me to the bottom of the Dam Hill without being passed and right on 6 hours and 30 minutes of racing. At this point, although my legs were hurting so much, I thought I might well try to hold my spot and even attempt to break 7 hours. With 3 miles to go, that meant 10 minutes per mile, for three uphill miles... Unfortunately, I reached the mile 48 sign after 12 minutes, it wasn't going to be a sub-7 AR this year... But I kept going, and running and eventually ran the next mile in 10 minutes with a very cool "no stop iced water refill" at the Last Gasp aid station (thank you guys!). I climbed the last mile with determination but not trying to kill myself and eventually crossed the finish line in 7:03:53 and, indeed, 5th place.

Not a great time but good enough for first Masters (Ray Sanchez won the M40-49 age group finishing in 6th, less than 5 minutes behind me) and winning my age group of course.
Like often at this race, I enjoyed taking some rest at the finish line...

The second in our M50-59 age group was actually the local legend, Tim Twietmeyer, 56, who was celebrating his 35 consecutive AR finish, wearing the very appropriate bib #35 and being paced by one of his sons, and an ultra runner himself, Austin.
35 consecutive finishes out of 36 participations (Tim was till in college that first year), this is an amazing example of sustainable running, what a strike!! (Gary Wang had run his 20th consecutive AR last year and, per his Facebook message, was glad to sleep in this first Saturday of April, for a change... ;-).

Chikara had won the race in 6:13:39, setting a new course record for this new course. Chikara has won many races but I don't think he got too many nice flower bouquets like this one though! ;-)

Karl ran 4 minutes slower than last year and took 3rd place again.

Second place was Bradford Avilla, 19, who was running his first ultra. A super promising performance and debut with 6:31:41.
And the woman race was won this year by Jennifer Benna:

So, how did I feel about all this. While I felt great about this honorable place, more importantly, I was really happy that my heel seemed ok, at least that it had not bothered me during the run. Now, I didn't want to declare victory too fast because, after running 38 miles with cramps, I had so many pain points to process, it could be that the heel issue was only hiding. I wanted to see how my legs and joints were going to feel when getting cold.

First, I had to work on my muscles to get as many toxins as possible and as quickly as possible: stretching the calves, then getting Ve Loyce's super massage (Monsters of Massage).

After that, I was already feeling better when walking and even better after trying Karyn Hoffman's RecoveryPump compression boots:

Very nice treatment before our 2.5-hour ride home (versus 4.5 hours in Friday's traffic...) and an evening at Greg's high school to see an amazing representation of Cabaret. Another long and rich day...

This Sunday, stairs are still painful, but not as bad as it could have been after so much cramping so I'm thankful to Ve Loyce and Karin for the extra recovery care which gives me a chance to line up and perform at the 100K Road Nationals in... a week!

Now, I have to admit that I put so much on my right leg to try to protect my left ankle that the outside of my right knee was quite sore and painful after the finish, and still this Sunday. That leg took its toll in the feet grinder section especially, when I was hoping over rocks or trying to avoid poison oak branches, all that while keeping the cramps under control, and I think I might have twisted my knee before Rattlesnake. At least I didn't fall, and I was very pleased with the mental strength I had which allowed me to keep moving all the way. I hope the knee recovers on time to bear 100 kilometers of asphalt this Saturday, and isn't the start of a new nagging injury... But, again, I'm at least grateful that the heel issue seems to have been taken care of with the last three weeks of non running and that the under training was worth it.

Big and many thanks to Race Director Julie, her NorCal Ultras crew and army of 300 volunteers for allowing to run this legendary race year after year, and introducing ultra trail running to so many new comers. Amazing logistic to ensure that we do what we love in a safe way. 629 finishers out of 760 or so registered runners, that's an amazing finisher rate!

And special thanks to Agnès for driving, crewing, socializing, taking picture and waiting for me at this very special race!

PS: no, Agnès, nice catch, but Chikara didn't run 50 miles with a funny balloon striped to his back pack! ;-)


Lorenski said...

Great shot. Great race. Outstanding perseverance. And a nice write-up. Thanks and congrats Jean!

Theo said...


I was actually running with the kids at Beals Point. The kids are part of the Buffalo Chips Youth team. I told them afterwards that you already run a marathon and still passed some of them. They couldn't believe that. Congrats on a great race