Sunday, April 6, 2008

American River 50 mile

The months leading up to AR were a bit tumultuous. I hadn't had a serious race since Leadville last August, and my training since August hasn't exactly been consistent. However, after lots of help from the great people over at Champion Health and the magic healing powers of the Gila Wilderness sunshine and streamwater my shin started cooperating five weeks ago, which left me with a perfect amount of time for a solid block of training leading up to AR. A four-week sequence of 131, 201, 182, 184 (which included some of the best speed sessions of my life) followed by a mellow half-week taper and I was ready to go realize some goals in Sacramento.

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.

42 comments:

Gretchen said...

Congratulations on a well executed race, and on earning a spot at States! Your presence there will certainly make it an even more interesting event.
Thanks for taking the time to share a detailed race report. It's interesting to me to hear the thoughts and insights of runners who are so competative. I hope the rest of your training goes well, and that you show them what a rookie at States can really do! ;)

andyb said...

Congrats on the great race - I was thinking about your 6:51/mile pace today and it just seems incredible to me that you can run that distance at that pace. Good luck at WS100! Hope your training goes well and you stay injury free. And thanks for the great race report.

tim said...

hey Anton, I am just a mid pack guy from Australia and I really enjoy reading about your running. Well done on your win and I am looking forward to seeing you run the Western States.

Rajeev said...

Anton,

Thank you for a fantastic race report. I looked at your AS splits and felt nothing but disbelief. You reached 31.5 in 3:26 (I reached in 6:31). I was 3 hours behind you there and 5:40 behind overall.

Whew! You are incredibly, incredibly fast.

Congratulations on a superb win and for getting into WS.

Rajeev

Pete said...

Tony,

Congrats on a great win at AR and an entry to WS. Really enjoy reading the training stuff during your buildups. How did you find the 790's on the paved path?

GZ said...

Incredible report and race. Congrats on the win and getting into WS!

Live it.

GZ

Footfeathers said...

Anton,
Great race and report. I've picked you to win WS, and am catching heat for it ("rookie", etc). Your training is taking off, your race ability and intuitive tactics in a competitive race are veteran-like...Take it to them in June.

I regularly read your log on athleticore (I use it too) and often have trouble comprehending your strength and speed in the mountains.
Tim Long

AJW said...

Anton,

Great race at AR. Congrats! Now, stay healthy until June and we can have a great time on that annual pilgrimage from Squaw to Auburn.

AJW

Chris said...

Your group was running very easily up the trail to mile 19 (got some good pics there too)...Great job, and description of the race, hope you do well at WS.

Dave - Atlanta Trails said...

Dang, AR. You were rockin' out there!

crowther said...

Wow -- very impressive performance! And an interesting report about the constant reshuffling of the leaders. I don't know if the World Cup 100K (with its 62 miles of "freakin' bike path"-like surfaces) is your kind of event, but you clearly have enough speed to do well there.

Bedrock said...

Congrats on the win and good luck at States. Nice report. Enjoy the blog.

Rocky Randall said...

I don't understand this competitive side of ultra running, but I enjoyed reading about it. Congratulations on a job well done.

kurt decker said...

Way to go ! I loved the race report. As I read it I felt like I was watching the race in my head. Good luck at WS100. I am very excited about the super field for this years race. As a fan of the sport having a elite field like this for Western is great. It is like watching the London Marathon on the web each year. I know I will be seeing many of the sports best going head to head !!! Keep running hard.

Julian said...

Thanks for the report -- it's always exciting to hear about what's going on up front! Congrats on a great race, and good luck at WS...

Jean Pommier said...

Anton,

Was so inspiring to keep an eye on you and the leading group for the first 10 miles while you were gauging the other contenders; I'm glad to read your detailed and very informative report to know what happened after I lost my breath.

Thanks for hanging up at the finish line for so long that I could catch up with you there. Looking forward to seeing you again in Auburn in June, you really rock!

Safe training,

Jean.
Farther Faster

PS: will email the article about you which just got published in ultrafondus in France, as soon as I get it.

Derek said...

Great report Anton, and a really well run race. You surprised us a bit too at Buzzard's Cove AS. I knew you had a shot at the course record, and we had to get set up quickly. We had some difficulty finding the place as we have to come in on a boat, and the lake level is very low right now. Sorry we didn't have a cup of water ready for you to grab yet. You really looked amazing blasting by us and up the hill. So effortless it seemed. Great job out there and good luck at WS100.

Cindy said...

Anton,
Good to have met you at the finish at AR and once again congratulations on the fine finish and also to have beaten Carl's time. WS should be fun with the big guns vying for the cougar trophy. See you there.
Cindy

Run 50 Miles said...

Great report - and great win!

Agree with many of the others - It's cool to read the reports from the elites.

Many of us could only dream of performing so well, so the stories are very interesting and exciting.

Good luck at Western States, and please consider releasing a report after that one.

Cheers!

---
Christian
http://run50miles.org

firepotter said...

Anton,

Great run and excellent report! The Rattlesnake Bar aid station was relocated a few years ago, but I think the milage has not adjusted excatly. Good luck at States

Gary
RealEndurance.Com

Catra said...

Awesome race report. Congrats. on you're win Anton.
Catra

Jillian said...

Hey Tony!
John mentioned that you had a blog here so I decided to check it out-awesome! Great job this weekend again...i just saw you in the store not too long ago! Funny thing...i just started my own blog on here this past weekend...not much yet, but i'm excited to work on it! :) Do you mind if i put a link on my page to yours so that my friends can read about you? Can't wait to hear how training for the WS100 down in AZ is going! Great getting to know you...hope to keep in touch! Tell Jocelyn i said hello!

Frank said...

Great Race!. I wonder how hacked up the shoes are.. love the details.. your blog gives me answers, info and insite.. plus energy on those long run days.. Keep updating your runs.. times and information. I check in often to get tips and information on improving my runs.. Stay injury free.. and hope the soul keeps working well.

Smarty said...

Anton,

Congrats on a great race! As a long time road racer and aspiring ultramarathoner, you amaze me.

Best of luck at Western States, your spot was earned the hard way and well deserved!!

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Congratulations again, was glad to be able to talk to you briefly and check out your toenails. I think I was as interested in your finish as I was in mine, so thanks for taking the time to write up a detailed report (including Skaden-from-behind quotes I never get to hear). From all the comments being posted, it's clear that your race this weekend and your prospects for States are going to be big buzz this spring. Please be careful not to get injured with your weekly mileage resembling my monthly mileage.

(BTW enjoy the completely unfettered running lifestyle while it lasts!)

tc said...

Nice write up and great race. Take care.

Spud said...

What a way to return from your injury! Your blog and training detail is very inspiring. Another Ozzie fan, one of a growing fan base happening here in Australia Anton.
Look forward to reading about your progress to WS, I ran it as part of the "Aussie Assault" last year and had a blast!
All the best.

Shane said...

Thanks for writing about your inspiring training and racing. I hope you stay healthy and race big at WS and LT.

CoyoteGirl said...

Congrats Anton! I can't wait to follow your race at WS100.

Paul Charteris said...

Great stuff Anton

I have a more complete report of how I saw the race unfolding from my many vantage points on the sidelines. Also a great photo of you and Erik.

http://trailrunz.blogspot.com/

No doubt I will see you a few more times in Northern California over the coming months.

Cheers, Paul

Scott Dunlap said...

Anton -

Congratulations on a great race! I'm looking forward to seeing you at States this year.

Thanks for sharing the blow-by-blow, as well as what you used/didn't. It's great to learn vicariously!

Scott
A Trail Runner's Blog.

Scott Dunlap said...

Be sure to take off the ? next to Western States in your race calendar! ;-)

brian said...

Congratulations and great report. It's nice to read lead pack race reports. It's really different than us mid packers. I mean, you'd never hear me say; it's time to separate the contenders from the pretenders. I got a laugh out of that one. Thanks for that. Good luck at states; you'll do awesome there.

Steve Bremner said...

Fantastic report, Tony. I enjoyed reliving the race course through your report. I'm with you -- the second half of the course was worth the wait... love the trails...

Shane"CRASH"Jones said...

Awesome race ! Way to kick it on the trails! Good luck at WS.

Donald said...

Congrats on your win, and thanks for the great report! I'll be a back of the pack runner at WS this year, but I'll be cheering for you to have a great race there.

Mark "The Naked Runner" said...

You are definitely a "Billy Bad-Ass!" Way to go!! Very impressive!

Uli said...

Hi Anton,

interesting read! Hope you remember me from Incline Club workouts in August of '06. You should have e-mailed me if you wanted my splits from '06 before the race. I doubt they would have been of much use though, as this was probably my worst ultra ever. I threw up between Negro Bar and Beal's point and couldn't keep any food (not even gels) and little liquids down for the rest of the race. The last 20 miles felt more like a death march than anything else.
I think the first leg is way shorter than 5.9 miles, at least it was in '06. Also, Rattlesnake Bar was listed as milepoint 40.6 2 years ago, which matches a lot better with your splits. Here are both of our splits (hope the formating doesn't get messed up in the post):

AS mile Uli '06 Anton

Watt 5.9 0:30:00 0:35:00
W Pond 9.4 0:49:02 0:56:00
Sunrise 15.6 1:27:50 1:39:00
Nimb O 19 1:49:00 2:00:00
Negro B 23.5 2:17:10 ????
Beals P 27.4 2:41:31 2:56:00
Gran B 31.5 3:11:26 3:26:00
Buz C 34.5 3:35:53 3:48:00
Hshoe B 38 4:07:25 4:14:00
Ratt. B 40.6 4:32:25 4:33:00
Man Bar 43.2 4:53:33 4:50:00
L Gasp 47.6 5:37:00 5:24:00
Finish 50 5:58:44 5:42:37

Thomas W said...

Thank you, Anton. Of how many sports can it be said that the elite share an event with the rest? At the same time, what do the rest of us really know about what's happening with the runners in the front? Now, thanks to your wonderful recap, a lot more. Please keep on writing about your running; you have a real knack for conveying essential detail.

A little more information about the Rattlesnake mileage than what's already in this blog: Rattlesnake used to be at 39.9. The aid station moved down the trail to 40.6 in 2006, I think, maybe 2005. The AR50 Web site still has 39.9 on the course map and in the participant guide. The race director knows about the problem.

It is exciting to know that you'll be in Western States this year. Best of luck to you!

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Greg said...

dude you're my hero straight up

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