Location : Folsom to Auburn, CA
Race : American River 50 mile Endurance Run
Finish Time : 11:34
Feet, slipping and sliding in ankle-deep muck,
Battling steep, narrow slopes streaming mud;
The cruel weather Gods, having truly run amok,
Stripping my resolve, making my spirit feel naked.
The early flats having yielded to the narrow trail;
The early comfort having yielded to aching legs.
Will I fail or will I, on this tough race, prevail?
My cup of determination down to its dregs.
Then comes the burning desire to live, to conquer
This beast of a course! Then my legs start to move
As the finish line miraculously starts getting near,
As I realize that I have nothing else left to prove:
I have battled valiantly and triumphed in many a battle past;
I will ever endure, I will ever continue trying to the very last.
Friday, March 31
I took half a day off from work but did not leave the Bay area until 4:15 pm owing to a few personal errands I had to run in San Jose. I knew I was in for a long drive to Auburn where I had reserved a room for one night in the Comfort Inn Suites. I had originally reserved a room near the Start but changed it to near the Finish once I learned that there was only one bus back to the Start from the Finish and that too at 5:30 pm (11:30 finish time). I decided to be a bit more prudent and have my car waiting at the Finish and not at the Start.
The incessant rain dogged me all the way up to Auburn. Compounding the problem was a slightly tight piriformis muscle in my left leg that was causing discomfort in my butt region while driving. I kept stretching it as best as I could while driving.
I reached Auburn (about 33 miles north of Sacramento) around 8:30 p.m. On an impulse, I took the Green Valley exit (two exits before the exit to my hotel) and navigated, from memory, to the finish line. I was overjoyed to see a large parking lot with the American River 50 mile Run finish banner flying above the finish line.
I reached the hotel at 8:50 p.m. to find a long line in the lobby. CHP had closed I-80 east of Applegate and were forcing cars to turn around. This caused all the people to frantically hunt for hotels/motels all over Auburn. I waited 20 minutes before getting the key to my room. The room was enormous! A King bed was made to look small!! I had wisely packed some pasta I had made the night before in a small container that I promptly warmed up in the microwave and consumed. I watched a bit of TV afterwards and hit the sack at 10:00 p.m. I had set the alarm for 2:30 a.m. Sleep that night was sporadic. I kept waking up every hour!
Saturday, April 1
Anyway, I finally got out of bed around 2:30 a.m. and quickly had my bagel with peanut butter & jelly with some really strong coffee. I had ad decided to go with a long sleeved shirt that started to feel hot a few minutes after I wore it. I quickly changed it to a short-sleeve running shirt. I was planning to wear my bright orange jacket all through the race so had no worries about the long sleeves/short sleeves issue.
Drove to the finish line parking lot (a place called the Folsom Dam Overlook) and parked around 3:40 a.m. The picture below shows the view, from the finish line, of the canyon we ran up. You can make out the American river as a pale blue streak just left of center.
There were very few cars at that time. They started arriving 10 minutes later until the lot got quite full. We all lined up to get on the 2 buses waiting to leave at 4:15 a.m. The ride to the start was uneventful except for a phone call from Anil who was waiting to start his marathon up in Dearborn, Michigan and the fact that my bladder was feeling quite full from all the morning hydration. My first act was to rush to the port-a-potties to get in line. I was so relieved 10 minutes later.
Given that I had been unable to pick up my race packet the evening before from Fleet Feet in Sacramento, my next action was to go pick up my bib number and race chip. In all the drizzle and cold and milling crowd, someone made off with my bib number. I had to have the organizers assign me a new number and a matching chip. I picked up my race T-shirt along with Anil’s. A volunteer named Mary offered to take it to the finish line for me. Such wonderfully helpful people.
The race started promptly at 6:00 a.m. The first mile was a loop around the campus of Sacramento State University and then onto the bike trail. I saw both Yuki and Chihping ahead of me and shouted their names and waved to them. Some pictures of the Start area below.
Very soon we got our first glimpse of the American River. The bike path paralleled the river for some distance. The path for the first 19 miles was the same as the course for the Helen Klein 50-miler I had run in November, 2005. This was a distinct mental advantage. The shoulder was wide on both sides albeit with mud here and there, a mild foretaste of what was to come later. Picture below.
This is where I met Pavan Ramarapu, a runner from the Bay area I’ve met before at races. He had flirted briefly with the idea of coming on board as an Asha coach in 2004. I stopped to answer Nature’s call and he continued on. I eventually caught up with him around mile 31.
This part was relatively uneventful except for some drizzling for about 30 minutes or so.
I stayed with a 10 minute run and a 2 minute walk through this portion. Right around mile 19 or so, just after crossing a bridge to get to the Nimbus Overlook aid station, I hooked up with this woman I had been alternately passing and been passed by along the course. Her name was Leanne and she had chosen AR50 as her first ultra. A 50-miler no less! What an athlete she was. She went on to finish in 10:38. The next 5-6 miles, through muddy trails, were spent conversing with her. This is when I got a call from Sarah, the first of two from her. Anu had called me earlier as had Pallavi and Sam. We ran/walked our way to the next aid station, where Madhuri Yechuri (from Oracle) came out of the crowd, shouted "Rajeev" and took a picture of me.
Soon after the aid station, Leanne took off. I did not meet her until the Beal’s Point aid station (mile 27.4). Right after the aid station, we ran briefly on a trail that took us close to Granite Bay. The view was lovely, with snow on the distant Sierra Nevada mountains. The picture on the left does scant justice to the actual view on Saturday. I met Carol Cuminale, race director of the Forest of Nisene Marks Marathon down in Aptos. I had first met her, through Anil, in the Quicksilver 50K last year. I recognized her up ahead of me and I shouted her name. She waited for me to catch up and we chatted for the next mile. She was doing her 14th consecutive AR50. It was a training run for her Western States 100 miler later in June.
We soon wound past the start and finish of the Helen Klein 50 mile race. Now I was in uncharted territory as far as my knowledge of the course went. That explains why Pavan (I had caught up with him now) and I got lost with yours truly leading the way. There was another race (XTerra) taking place on the same course that day and someone had moved our trail sign. We wound up running an extra 0.8 miles.
We soon realized our error and promptly retraced our steps. We were back on course to be soon mired in ankle deep mud and water for the next 18 miles. What conditions! It sucked the energy out of our legs, step after painfully squishy step. Thick mud interspersed with cold water from the run offs. The course was hilly in parts and my quads were starting to complain. I switched to various strategies to pick my way through what I call my “wall” miles i.e. where my mind starts experiencing negative thoughts and my body gets tired. I knew from my first 50-miler that I would be OK after 40 miles. I also knew from my 3 prior ultras that I tended to get stronger in the last miles.
My strategy, at first, was to follow closely the runner up front, whoever that might be. I soon switched to my segment strategy – focus on the current segment i.e. the leg between the previous aid station and the next. I even decided to abandon the idea of trying to avoid excessive mud. I started enthusiastically landing forcefully in every mud pool on my path.
I soon passed the Horseshoe Bar aid station. The next one was Rattlesnake Bar at mile 40.7. By now I was drinking Coke and Sprite at the aid stations. Nothing like America’s favorite non-alcoholic drink to pick up one’s spirits and legs! Out of the aid station, I encountered a 70 foot long mid-calf deep pool of cold, brown water that we had to wade through. I sucked it up and forded the pool only to step into deep mud again on the other side. The sugar from the Coke was now coursing through my blood and I picked it up. I was soon churning out 10:30-11:00 minute miles, passing people who had passed me before. I was not passed by a single person in those last 9.3 miles. Instead. I must have passed at least 14-15 people. That’s how powerful Coke is!!!
The scariest sections was between 42 and 46 miles, where I was running 200 feet above the river, with a vertical drop off, down to the rocks and the water below, 8 inches away from where my right foot was landing. Was that ever scary! I negotiated that section with my heart in my mouth. The last stream that I crossed was the deepest and I stubbed my left toe on a rock. The other side of the stream was a steep climb that only got worse. We were climbing UP a stream bed, rocky and uneven and very, very steep. 12-15% grade possibly. The saving grace at the top was a gentler gradient to the 47.6 mile aid station and a beautiful waterfall across the canyon on the right.
My goal had been, for the past 6 miles, to make it to this last aid station by 11:00 hours into the race (5 p.m.). I figured that the last 2.4 miles, supposedly very steep (from reports on the Internet) could be covered in 48 minutes. That would put me within 12 hours for my finish time. I reached there at 4:50 pm. Did not loiter for long. Had them fill up my bottle with Gu2O (they had no Coke at that station). Joked with the volunteers there (had done that at every aid station on the course) and was on my way. I caught up with another runner named Terry and we started walking up this wide, really wide gravel fire road.
We were soon joined by another runner who had been sitting by the side of the trail, emptying his shoes of the gravel. The three of us were pleasantly surprised to find the slope leveling off to a more runnable gradient after the first mile. We started running right away. They only managed to run for 200 yards but I continued past them for another 0.4 miles until the road started uphill again. This is where I saw Carol again, with another woman and two men. She was about 300 yards further up the hill. I shouted her name and she turned around and asked me to join them. I started running up the hill and caught up with them 5 minutes later. One of the men was her boyfriend of 10+ years. The other woman was a friend of Carol's and was also running the race. We soon came to the last 400 yards of the race.
The picture on the left below, taken a few years ago, shows the path, with about 400 yards to go, that has not changed. This was the last hill for us to climb.
The Finish (in the picture immediately above) was 300 yards to the right. Carol, the other lady and I ran step for step towards the finish.
My bib number, pinned to my shorts and crumpled, was hard to read. The race announcer was Norm Klein, race director of the Helen Klein 50-miler. I jumped up and down on my way to the finish mat, pointing out my number to him. He remarked “Number 561 jumping like an idiot towards the finish”. He then called out my number, asking me for my name. That’s when he finally announced “Rajeev Patel from San Jose…”. He then called me over, picked up the mike and said “I’m going to make up for not announcing your name when you finished…”. He proceeded to sing one line from a Hindi song. I was so overjoyed. He had sung “Ina Mina Dika” (I think) when all of us (Anu, Padma, Kiran, Anil, Pradeep, Ganesh) had finished the Helen Klein 50.
I got my awesome AR50 race jacket, washed off the mud from my feet and soon started out to get back to the Bay area and Anu’s promised rice, rasam, carrot kosambri and beet root sabzi. Yum!
All the pictures above are from Linda Hurd’s account of her 2002 AR50 race (http://www.geocities.com/llh_06/AR50_photos.html).