American River 50 Mile: Learning Lessons (again)

I guess we are always learning.  And with ultra running in particular, lessons are learned each and every race.

I struggled a bit with thinking of how I wanted to approach this race report.  It’s because I am still struggling with my thoughts on the race.  It didn’t go well (in my opinion), but my time wasn’t particularly bad and my placement wasn’t either.  It must boil down to expectations.

(My old sociology professor said everything was about expectations: too high and you’ll always be disappointed.  Low expectations, and you’ll always be happy.  Of course this isn’t always true, and having low expectations doesn’t automatically produce happiness, given that there is nothing to expect, no standards… but this is an entirely different topic!)

The short story:

The first ~20 miles of the course were pavement, which was unexpected.  I accidentally went out to fast, (a bit unavoidable) and also continued to take nutrition products every 30 minutes from the start.  This resulted in my typical nausea.  When it passed, my legs died a terrible death, and I more than made up for my quick start by run/walking several miles then got passed by approx 20 women and finished in 9:12.  My goal was sub 8:00.


The longer detailed story:

The American River 50 Mile has always been on my bucket list.  It is known as the largest 50 mile race in the country (there were over 1,100 people entered!  I think 900 finishers this year).  This race is also known as an excellent first-time 50 mile race and also produces fast times.  I disagree with both of these statements, but more on that later.  The course was changed from last year and this would be the first running of this course.  I couldn’t find much information on the course and my questions regarding the amount of pavement remained unanswered on Facebook… maybe no one knew?  I chose this race initially to run a WS qualifier, and when they changed the standards for this year, I wanted to run a fast race and PR.  And possibly run 7:30.  I think I am capable of running a 7:30, but after running this race, on this course, I believe my goals were a bit too high this time.

The hubs and I traveled down to Folsom the day before.  The new course went from Brown’s Ravine in Folsom, looped around lake Natoma, then continued along the Folsom Reservoir until it hooks on the American River trail into an Auburn finish.  It’s my understanding that the last 30ish miles were the same… (?).  We had burgers at a Folsom restaurant and meandered around town for a bit before returning to pack our drop bags and prepare for the next day.


We got a ride to Brown’s Ravine with a local running friend who was also in the race.  His friend was crewing him and could drive us back to Folsom afterwards.  We listened to hilarious hip hop while trying to locate the start in the dark.  We got there in time to drop off our drop bags and use the port-a-johns.  It was cool, but not cold, but I wore a long sleeve and had gloves (which I didn’t need at all).  The race started and there was a massive crowd.  Luckily there was plenty of pavement to sort it all out!  We looped around and around on pavement then we went on a mini bit of single track before popping out on pavement again.  While on the single track, I got anxious to remain at 9:00 min miles, which I executed fine until someone ripped a fart in front of me.  I passed this person and settled in on my own with no one in front of me.  Eventually it got light enough and I could take off the headlamp.  This was also when the pavement started and we got gorgeous views of…. the prison…. and a dam.



“I hear the train a com in’ / It’s rollin round the bend. / And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. / I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on…”  Johnny Cash


Somewhere in there I skipped the first aid station because I had more than enough water.  The next several miles seemed to be downhill while we looped around Natoma.  There were all sorts of runners near me.  I believe everyone was a first-timer to ultras.  There was a pack of triathlete men that were talking paces and gear, nerding out while wearing tri-spandex.  There was someone with a watch that announced every. single. mile. in wordsaloud, and WITH the pace (seriously!!!!???).  Joe and I trotted along and overheard many people discussing how this was their first ultra etc etc. and I was thinking…. oooooof.  We are running 8:00 min pace and everyone is going to regret this – including me.  Funny how that little voice in my head told me we were going too fast, and yet I didn’t slow down.

The miles passed quite quickly (obviously, that fast…) with Joe and I acting like we were just out on a good run in the park.  The paved path was wide and rolling, and it was still cool.  Eventually the Beal’s Point (mile 24.7) aid station and drop bag area came up.  There was a huge blow-up arch that everyone ran through and an announcer that called everyone’s names as they went through.  Joe and I were announced as “Joe and JOHNNA” (don’t ask me why people can’t read Johanna properly).  I joked to Joe that if we finished right then, I would think that was a pleasant run 🙂


At the aid station, I had Joe take out my stuff from my vest and then he ran off to use the bathroom.  I grabbed the rest of my nutritional products then went on my way, then realized that I still had my long sleeve and got irritated that I’d have to carry it until the next drop bag.  I then decided I had to go to the bathroom but all the bathrooms were taken and people were standing in line.  I’d rather go in the woods (MUCH quicker than the actual bathroom) and was willing to wait.  I left without Joe and ran along, aware of a good place to hide and pee.  This was scrub-oak and very open, alternating oak trees and poison oak (a good look-alike).  I had to wait for quite a while, maybe even 3 more miles.

P1110269(photo from urp)

By that time, Joe caught up to me and was feeling great.  I started feeling verrrrrry nauseated (~30 mi in).  I believe this has to do with forcing nutrition products every 30 minutes from the start.  (I do this because I’ve had the opposite nausea, where I didn’t eat enough.  better to yak when you have too much in your stomach vs nothing).  I started burping and heaving a little, so I slowed down a little, then didn’t eat anything for the next hour.  I did take an S!cap and a tums.  Don’t know if this helped, but eventually my stomach calmed down.  After an hour, I ate real food at the next aid station- potatoes, salt, and banana.  My stomach felt immensely better.  Joe picked up the pace (actually, I slowed down and he continued on his pace) and I was alone for a while.


My legs started feeling like poo and by mile 35 they were full of lactate.  This also happened at a time when I think we joined up on the American River trail with gorgeous views of the Folsom Reservoir.  Too bad I couldn’t enjoy it!  The trail was single track (finally) but extremely rocky with rolling steep little hills.  Apparently this section was nicknamed The Meat Grinder.  I walked most of this.  8 min miles to 17 min miles!

The aid stations started feeling sooooo far apart (they weren’t at all, they were just 3-4 miles apart, each one).  Feels like a long time when walking!  Some of the faster women from the second wave started passing me somewhere in there.  I eventually made it to Rattlesnake Bar (mile 40.5 ish).  This was a short, steep out and back section.  I got down there and spent some time, confused, at the aid station.  I ate some more potatoes and salt, then decided not to get into my drop bag, especially since I hadn’t touched my other nutritional things I was carrying around.  After I hiked back up to the trail, I realized I forgot to drop off my long sleeve again, and I was just toting it around like extra weight.

With less than 10 miles to go, nausea passed, legs full of lactic acid, I zoned out and listened to music.  Ace of Base to be exact.  Yup.  I sort of started to pick up the pace here and there, but still generally being passed by many people.  I think I was passed by about 20 women overall in the second half (which actually puts me in the running at around 7th place in the first half…).  This was a bit of a downer, and I had some negative self talk.  I just put one foot in front of another and knew I’d eventually get there.  I got to a point where I could SEE up to the area we would eventually finish in, up this enormous hill with a dam behind it.

The hill eventually came and somehow I had a burst of energy and ran it in 10 minute miles, and it lasted for 3.5 miles.  Funny, because just before that section, I was running 14 minute miles on gentle/flat trails.  Strange how that happens.  I realize now that there was a lot of negative thoughts and I should have pulled my head out of my rear and run how I felt despite my dead legs.

I ran up that hill and somehow put 10 minutes on the guy that was next to me when we started.  He must have walked the whole thing.  I got to the finish line and was so relieved.  Our friend Gerad was there, pacing our friend Nick to an awesome finish, and I gave him a hug out of relief for finishing.  I found Joe and he had an awesome race.  He PRed and he hasn’t had a ton of training!  Excellent!  Our friend Dean also did well, and absolutely wins the award for nastiest toenail.


I was happy with my strong finish on the 1500 ft climb at the end.  I was not happy with miles 35-45.  I need to figure out the nutrition mistakes too, to avoid nausea.  The onset of that much sugar wrecks havoc on my stomach and the thought of a gel or gummy makes me dry heave.  I believe this was a combination of a few factors: 1. Taking nutrition too soon after the start.  If I wait a good hour it wouldn’t hurt me.  I usually have a calorie-packed breakfast, so I can hold out and wait to start eating in the race.  2. Running too fast in the beginning of the race.  Running faster causes less blood flow to the digestive system and causes digestive upset.  3.  Taking nutrition every 30 minutes instead of every 45 or going by feel.  I took it, no matter what, despite feeling full, which ended in me nearly ralphing.  4.  Taking only sugary gels and gummies, instead of alternating with some plain solids like potatoes and bananas.

2965c4c8a75c11e3a93d1297884b2c1a_6 the Pearl Izumi N2s were fantastic this race.  I got them at Asana in KFalls, a 1/2 size larger than usual.

In addition, I think my legs felt dead quicker because of running faster than I wanted, and on pavement.  Running too fast causes lactic acid build up (instead of a good fat-burning pace) and causes the legs to feel dead quicker than they should in the race, and thus, running on dead legs way too soon in a race.  I don’t think mile 35 was too soon, in fact, it’s when I normally feel lactic build up in a 50 mile.  BUT I have never actually paced myself well in a 50 mile, so I have nothing to compare it to 🙂  I also neglected to run much on pavement, so nearly 20 miles of it may have caused discomfort similar to a marathon, when I wasn’t running a marathon.

Hopefully I will learn these lessons again and apply them at the next race.  I may be forced to, with the longer distance and 12,000 ft elevation gain.

Also, I am disappointed with how things turned out, but it was a good effort.  If I hadn’t already run a 8:38, I wouldn’t believe I could break that time (or run faster), so a 9:12 isn’t actually that bad.  I stayed on 7:30 pace through the 50K…. which was a PR during this race (4:45).  I took 27th out of over 300 women in the race, so that isn’t bad either.  I got passed by so many people, which was hard, but more evidence of what could have been if I ran a more even race.  Strava tells me I “PRed” in the HALF-Marathon (seriously), the 30K, the Marathon, and the 50K.  Crazy!  None of this is true, except the 50K, as my 1/2 and marathon PRs will never be broken in an ultra (at least I hope not), but the fact that I recorded PR-pace from Strava means I was hauling.

photo my UD Jenny Vesta, amazing.  I used Salomon 17 oz soft flasks in the front pockets, which seemed to work.

So, I’ve taken a week off to recover mentally and physically.  I am feeling a bit down about the race and not feeling supported, but that’s what happens when expectations are too high!  I also think this was NOT a beginners race – in fact, I felt bad for all of those beginners that ran too fast in the first 20, like a marathon, only to crash worse than I did on the single track.  Most of those people could be scared away from ultras…?  Maybe not!  I had a WAY worse experience for the first 50, so maybe everyone will do what they do.  I also was discouraged with the lack of information I had going into this.  I realize it was a new course in the first half, but I would have liked to know how much pavement I could expect.  The elevation gain was WAY off too – they posted that it was around 2,500 and my very accurate Garmin says I ran closer 6,500 ft.  I realized no race is perfect with info and some provide NO info, but that was a major difference in elevation gain and I felt unprepared in that aspect as well.

That said, I’m done negotiating the aspects of my thoughts regarding this race.  Putting it behind me.  The actual American River trail was gorgeous, and I think the residents of Folsom and Auburn are very lucky to live in such a beautiful and active area, despite the pavement 🙂 Pavement gets more people active and out the door, enjoying the beauty and exercising, so it’s not that bad.  The volunteers were wonderful at this race and I thought the course was well marked and very well organized.  It’s a huge race and to be well organized for over 1000 people is an incredible thing.  My only recommendation is for people to be well-informed to train appropriately and try to hold back at first.

Now – time for recovery and more training.  Bigger races lay ahead, very soon!


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