What were those goals? I was basically running this race with the express purpose of gaining automatic entry into the Western States 100 this June. Way Too Cool was Way Too Early and Way Too Short for me, while I feel that Miwok is too long and too close to Western to run hard. Plus, it filled very quickly this year.
In addition to “place” goals, I had some time goals for the race. Initially, sub-6 hours seemed like a nice, round benchmark for which to shoot, but that didn’t seem ambitious enough. At the least, I liked the fact that sub-7 minute pace (5:50) at AR was also the qualifying criteria
necessary for me to be thrown into the USATF 100K World Championships selection pool. Next, running faster than Carl Andersen (5:44:something) always seems like a good thing, and finally, there was Tom Johnson’s highly-esteemed 5:33:21 course record from way back in 1994 to keep in the back of my mind.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do any sort of course reconnaissance other than what meager photos and descriptions that the Internets had to offer—there was only one set of splits to be found (2005–when Phil Kochik won in a respectable 6:06). As a result, I went into the race only really knowing that A) The first 20-30ish miles or so were essentially on a perfectly flat, paved asphalt bike path and the next 17 miles were on rolling singletrack along the American River, B) the final 3 miles contained the only real climbing of the race (ascending 1000′ feet to the canyon rim) and C) almost everyone cautioned against going out too fast in the first half of the race so as to not let the trails eat oneself alive.
Not much to go on. But, what can you do?
Of course, several other folks had the same idea as me, i.e. that AR is a great race for one to go and take a shot at qualifying for Western States! With lottery spots becoming more and more scarce each year at Western, AR was bound to be hyper-competitive this year (for the men, at least), and it certainly lived up to this expectation. This was by far the deepest ultra I’ve had the pleasure of participating in.
The main contenders (as I saw it going into the race) on the men’s side were going to be (in no particular order): Lon Freeman (Miwok CR), Oz Pearlman (5:31 at Chicago Lakefront), Erik Skaden (I could go on and on, but he’s won AR twice), Jorge Pacheco (ditto), and Todd Braje (2:2something marathoner and Way Too Cool champ a month ago). As it turned out, the only one I really mistakenly didn’t take into account was Jeremy Redding (beat Dave Mackey at the Headlands 50K a few years ago). Also, Billy Barnett was a key (and welcome) player for more than half of the race.
I roomed the night before the race with Jenn Shelton and Billy and had a characteristically restless few hours of sleep before the alarm went off at 4am Saturday morning. Alas, a little sleeplessness was nothing compared to all the congestion and hacking that Jenn was dealing with the day before (and, day of) the race.
The race start was dark and cool so I opted for a black Colorado Running Company singlet, black shorts, Moeben
bamboo fiber sleeves, and some sweet carved-up black and yellow New Balance 790 trail flats (sub-7 oz.). I also started the race with 4 gels and a full water bottle. Even though I wasn’t anticipating draining the water bottle for at least an hour or so, I wanted to try and hold off having to stop and get water for as long as possible—I knew the bike path pace was going to be fast and furious and it’s never fun trying to make up even a few seconds’ gap at those speeds.
With 600 runners and chip timing, the start felt like a road race. Immediately, some jokester shot off the front followed closely by Lon Freeman and a fellow in compression shorts and t-shirt who I later learned was Oz. I hung back a short distance in a quickly-forming chase pack that consisted of myself, Billy, and eventually a bunch of other dudes. By time we’d looped back to the start (~3 miles) we’d caught Lon and Oz and a very enjoyable group of dudes coalesced as we hit the first aid at Watt Ave (5.9 miles) in 35ish minutes. The low-6min pace felt quick but doable so I was content to just go with the flow and trade turns at the front with the likes of Jeremy, Todd, Lon, Michael Buchanan and Billy. By this time, Jorge and James Bonnet had caught up with us and largely just hung on to the back of the group.
It was also about this point that we gradually let Oz go off the front and put a small gap on the main group. I was comfortable and all the right people seemed to be present, so I just tucked in and focused on running the tangents on the incessantly winding bike path.
We cruised through the 9.4 mile William Pond aid station in 56ish minutes. The weather was pretty humid but still nice and cool. I was having some slight stomach issues, which is typical for me, but other than that was completely content with the way things were going. Shortly after the aid station Erik Skaden suddenly came zooming up from behind with his incredibly powerful stride and bellowed, “Is this a race, fellas? We racing today?” With that, the pace immediately kicked down a few notches to the 6:20ish range (we’d been doing maybe 6:30s) as it seemed Erik was intent upon eating into Oz’s lead.
Eventually, however, this slight disturbance mellowed out and for the most part everything settled into a comfortablish rhythm. I hit the 15.6 mile aid station in ~1:39 (I think) where there were a lot of people cheering, and then the next 3 miles were where the race finally started thinning out to some extent—thinning out the pretenders from the contenders. I timed some more miles through this section in the mid 6:20s range and when I noticed the pack begin to thin out stretched my legs to drop Jorge and James and close the small gap that had opened between myself and Erik and Jeremy. I was pleased to find that my legs felt just as good at the quicker pace (they were getting tired of the flat pavement), but also noted that Oz’s lead was probably the largest it had been so far, about a full minute or so.
Suddenly, finally, the trail inclined up for a decent-ish hill as it climbed up and over the Nimbus Dam at 19 miles. On this short incline, with zero increase in effort, I caught right up to Erik and Jeremy (who had gapped me again), took off my singlet and sleeves as we curly-qued under the highway (and Todd caught up to us), and then was delighted to feel tons of pep and spring in my legs as I filed onto the short, single-track, switch-backed climb up to the Nimbus aid station.
Jeremy and Erik stopped at the station (19 miles, ~1:59-2:00) to fuel up while I scampered after Todd through a chain-link fence and then whooped and hollered down the rocky descent on the other side, passing Todd and reveling in the trail instead of the freakin’ bike path. I was feeling so good that I very nearly made up the entire gap on Oz in that (very) short section of trail, but once it flattened out Billy and Todd caught up to me, Oz took off again, and we enjoyed cruising the next little gravel road section over to another section of single-track.
I had taken my first gel at 1hr, another at 1:45, and then another one on this section at ~2:15. I also took my first S-cap just after the 2hr mark because I wanted to be sure to stay on top of my electrolytes as I was sweating so much in the humid air. I kept up this nutrition strategy for the rest of the race: a gel every 30 minutes and an S-cap every hour.
The next section of single-track up and over to Negro Bar (23.5) was a huge confidence boost for me. I could feel a slight lag in pace and since no one seemed to want to take the initiative (Billy and Todd were running with me at that point) and took the lead on the single-track and led us at a comfortable clip up onto the bluffs above the American River where I actually caught Oz on a short downhill section and assumed the lead in the race for the first time.
The short Nimbus climb combined with this short section of trail was the absolute turning point in the race for me. Whereas immediately before Nimbus the bike path pace had felt comfortably strained, when I hopped on the trails I felt completely in my element and was shocked at how quickly I caught Oz and how timid he was being on dirt. The whole time on the bike path I had been looking around, trying to assess how everyone was feeling, how smooth they looked, who was running easiest, etc. (incidentally, Billy looked the most relaxed and smoothest on that section while Erik ran with the most confidence, I thought), but on the trails I just knew I had it and that–barring any major catastrophe–I was going to win the race.
At face value, that might seem somewhat presumptuous and cocky, but that’s just the kind of stuff that goes through my head in a race. Back on the bike path on the way up to Beal’s (27.4) Oz had opened up his usual gap again but I found myself taking the initiative more and more in the chase group that now only consisted of myself, Jeremy, Todd, and Billy. We cruised through Folsom prison and then up to Beal’s in 2:55-56. At this point, I thought that Todd was the strongest threat but on the big curve around the point I could still see Erik lurking a few dozen seconds back and I had no idea what had happened to Lon. Jorge and James were way off the back at this point.
After Beal’s the route heads out towards the shores of Folsom lake and contours around on a wide gravel path that I ran with Billy, Jeremy, and Todd. On this varied terrain I was by far feeling the most comfortable I had all day. I was mostly just trying to feel Jeremy and Todd out and see when a good time would be to make a break. I never really try to force a break or surge in a race, rather, if the pace lags and I’m feeling good I just let it happen naturally—there’s really no way to tell when it’s going to come; I just instinctually felt that I would be more comfortable and on the trails than the other guys.
Somewhere in this section before the Granite Bay aid station (31.5) the route turned into true single track again. By default, I took the point here again, started to feel the groove of the trail, and that ended up being the decisive break in the race for me. I wouldn’t see Todd and Jeremy again until the finish line. I hit 31.5 in 3:26 and then just concentrated on cruising to catch Oz. Someone at the station had said he had a 60 second lead, but I was confident that with the winding, sometimes technical nature of the trail he’d come into sight soon.
The Buzzard’s Cove aid (34.5) caught me off guard, but I hit it in 3:48 and kept on trying to run the trail as efficiently as possible while still running as quickly as I could. Shortly after Buzzard’s Cove I caught sight of Oz around a bend and within a few seconds I’d passed him and almost immediately lost sight of him behind me. It was shortly thereafter that I had to make a quick pit-stop (luckily, it seems I avoided the poison oak).
From then on it was a focused crank to just try and run the best time I could. I hit the Horseshoe Bar aid (38 miles) in 4:14 and was psyched on the volunteer there who filled my bottle with ice water. My god, that hit the spot. I was sure to listen for any cheers/cowbells as I ran away from the station and didn’t hear any until I was another 3 1/2-4 minutes down the trail—a fairly comfortable gap.
The trail over to Rattlesnake Bar (39.9) seemed longer than it should have, but I arrived in 4:33 and then a short while later was surprised when I came upon another aid station that I assumed was the 43.2 mile Manhattan Bar (but I guarantee I didn’t run 3.3 miles in 17 minutes…but the 36 minutes that it took me to go the alleged 5.2 miles from Horseshoe to Manhattan seems plausible). The rest of the way on the trail I just focused on drinking water, maintaining a high cadence (my tired hamstrings have a tendency to make me feel like I’m plodding) and making sure not to make any stupid mistakes.
Soon enough (5:16) I was at the end of the single track and was instead grunting up the steep road leading to the top of the canyon. It leveled off after a short bit and I hit 3 miles to go in 5:20. I grunted up the steep stretch right before Last Gasp (47.6, 5:24), refilled the water bottle and then just did my best to crank out the last couple of miles pretending I was on High Drive cranking up Mt. Buckhorn back in Colorado Springs. For the most part, that worked and I hit the 2 and 1 mile to go signs in 5:28 and 5:35.
It was at this point that I realized I could get under Carl Andersen’s time of 5:44 and the rest of the climb to the finish was pretty uneventful; I crossed the line in 5:42:37.
I don’t know if it was finishing on an uphill or what, but immediately afterwards I felt the best I have at the end of an ultra. I took my shoes off and did a quick barefoot 1 mile cooldown and then enjoyed the rest of the afternoon chatting, drinking sodas, and lolling around in the California sun. American River was a perfect introduction to the rich Northern Californian ultra running community that I’ve heard so much about.