My First 50: American River 2014
I ran my first two-hour run on little to no training. A tennis player since I could walk, I had little experience in running other than suicides for punishment on the court or sprinting to the net after serving in doubles. I was at home in Vicenza, Italy, where I grew up, and I was bored. I just wanted to see how far I could run.
Looking back, that first long run was a harbinger of what was to come. After college, I ran my first marathon to see if I could. I found out that not only could I, but that I could compete, walking away with a hip-height bottle of wine, a second place finish and a check for that paid for my flight home, and a sub three hour performance.
Fast forward to November 2013. As Ryan and I were awaiting our wedding date which was to come in little more than a month, we decided together that I should sign up for the American River 50 Miler, which I ran in this past weekend.
Ryan had come off of a successful performance at the inaugural Ironman Tahoe, which is, in my view, the world’s toughest Ironman. We both agree to balance our racing schedules so that we can help each other when the training volume gets high. We also both agree that one long course endurance event per person per year works well for us as it allows us to make sure there is balance in our lives. In our view, there is a lot more to life than long course endurance events, even though we enjoy the journey of training for and completing them. Because of that, it was my turn to see what could happen at my first 50 Miler.
Not having ever run more than a 50k, I spent time thinking about how to train for the race and came up with a unique schedule. At EFAST, our coaches often use ourselves as “guinea pigs” to try out new training tactics. The training schedule I created gave me more than enough rest and free days and free time from running – more than I’ve ever had even in training for a 5k! I stressed the specificity of running long distances – with two efforts over 35 miles in a single stretch and two separate occasions when I completed 50 miles in two days. Other than that, I mostly was busy with life, family, work, and play! Most of our ultra athletes will follow a schedule similar to this; one that is based off of specificity and longer rest periods.
Now, onto the race report.
We arrived in Folsom in four: me, Ryan, Ryan’s brother, David, and our new puppy Nile. (Side note: Although I don’t regret it, I would not advise getting a new puppy the week before your A race! We found out that puppies don’t sleep much!)
The plan was for Ryan to pace me for the last 9 miles of the race, in addition to crewing me, supporting me, and being my right hand man throughout the race. In addition, it was amazing to have David’s help. He helped with the driving, navigating, crewing, and puppy caring, in addition to providing support. The puppy – well, he didn’t help with much other than looking cute!
The night before the race, I packed a Camel Back full of food, salts, and water. One of my major concerns was what to eat during race day. I have minor food allergies that turn into major food allergies when I run hard. Thus, I have to be careful with what I eat when running. Almost everything from the aid stations, other than bananas (which always look a little suspect and fly-ridden anyway), S Caps (yum!), and Coke were basically off limits. I knew I’d have to pack most of my food, but this is also where I made my first mistake. I definitely over-packed, carrying a pack of 6 – 10 lbs for 30 miles of the race. I also learned that a lot of the foods that I could eat while doing my practice runs did not work on race day, when I was running 2 – 4 minutes / mile faster than on my practice volume runs. This was a good lesson, and more to come on that.
Regardless, after spending an two hours packing, repacking, and probably thoroughly annoying David, Ryan, and the puppy with all my nervous energy, I sat down to overeat rice and overdrink electrolytes and water at dinner time – one of the least pleasurable sides of ultra running – the pre race overindulgence on foods I’d rather not indulge on!
Going to bed, I remember thinking that I was ready – I had waited for this for 3 months, and tomorrow was the big day.
We woke up at 4 AM and gingerly stepped over David, who had to sleep on the floor of the hotel with a dog chewing on his feet most of the night. He was a sport to say the least! After breakfast, we loaded into the car for the 15 minute drive to the start of the race.
Lining up at the start was a cool experience. It is very different from a marathon. I was nervous, but not as nervous as in most races. I knew it would be aerobic (fat burning, easy breathing) during most of the race, so I was going to go out steady but not fast. More than anything, I started sizing up my competition, and I didn’t see what many other fast looking females around me.
I said bye to Ryan and gave David a high five. That is when Ryan pulled me aside and gave me my mantra for the race, “FTL. You are Fit, Tough, and Loved.” I remembered that throughout the entire race.
Just before the gun went off, she appeared – a female who I knew was going be competition for me. I saw her and decided that I’d stay near her in the beginning.
Race Start – Mile 16: Green as Can Be
Once the gun went off, we ran on pavement for less than a mile in the dark before hopping on a trail that took us around Folsom Bay. This part of the trail was beautiful with the sun coming up…but unfortunately, I didn’t get as much time to look as I wanted to. I do remember hearing wild turkeys in the background. When you don’t talk on a trail, it is awesome to listen closely to the sounds you can hear in nature.
As we pulled around the bay, another girl passed me. She was quick and strong, and she took off. She was running at about 7:20 pace, which seemed fast to me at these initial stages. I hung about 200m behind her for the next 16 miles as I stayed in second place.
Over those 16 miles, I had three thoughts going through my head.
My first thought was centered on the focus of how lucky I was to be doing this race. This was one race when I truly understood how blessed I was to be there. My Dad passed away in September of 2012. He was always supportive of my running races, having been a runner for 30 years of his life, up until the year he died. I knew he was with me in a way that gave me confidence and trust that pushing in this race was the right thing to do. He couldn’t be there, so I was going to run this race for him. I was going to make him proud. Secondly, there is always something that can derail your plans in life. For a two week period I though that I wasn’t going to be able to do the race. When I found out that I could, I realized how precious the ability and the opportunity to do this actually was. This included the understanding that in a lifetime, there aren’t many opportunities to do something really special, so I might as well get it right when I do get the chance. I then thought about all the people that can’t do this – whether they are physically disabled, or just plain don’t have the opportunity to do something as selfish (yes, running can be selfish!) as a race for yourself when they are either busy with work, family commitments, or other hardships. With this theme, I also thought about all the people who supported me – from Ryan’s family to my family, to our friends and others who didn’t even know I was running today.
My second thought was coming back to the mantra from Ryan – Fit. Tough. Loved. I wanted to run to make him proud and to honor his commitment to me!
My third thought was more worldly…that I wanted to win this thing. If I couldn’t win, I wanted to finish in the top three. I had to make that happen.
From mile 5, I sprinted through one aid station after another, only taking a split second to wave to the volunteers to thank them for their efforts. I didn’t want to waste any precious time. I was in second place at this point, and held this position through mile 16.
Mile 16 is when it happened – Ashley Laird, who finished 1st, passed me on a downhill. She looked so light and fluid with her one hand held water bottle. I kicked myself for carrying my 10 lb backpack! I may as well have had wheelies on that thing and dragged it along side me while running! I made a note to self- I would try to lighten it up as much as possible, which meant not filling it up with water for a while.
I couldn’t wait to get to mile 20, which was the first spot where I’d see Ryan and David. As my legs became heavy and painful from the pounding on pavement (the first 20 miles are largely on pavement, which I wasn’t prepared for), I started to worry. If my legs were hurting this much at mile 20, how could I go 30 more miles? Would they just give out at some point? One thing was for sure, I couldn’t wait to get on trail, no matter how treacherous or difficult the trail was. I just wanted off the asphalt!
Miles 20 – 33: Hell or The Toughest Part
At mile 20, I told Ryan and David that I couldn’t eat any solid foods. At 7:15 – 7:40 min / mile pace, choking on bars and other solid foods becomes a real concern! I had probably ingested 250 kcal by that point, which was way below my 100 kcal every 3 miles plan. I was starting to bonk, and Ryan could see it in my eyes.
You may be surprised to hear this, but miles 20 – 30 were just plain awful. I got more and more discouraged at each step. My legs were in a lot of pain from the pounding on the pavement. No matter what, though, I just wanted to stay in third place. I couldn’t let any of my competitors pass me…
At mile 25 I heard encouragement from Annie and John Trent – local ultrarunners form Reno. They were cheering on Katie and Jill, their sister / daughter and mother / wife who were also running the race. It was great to hear a familiar voice, and this gave me encouragement for a quarter mile. Then I was back into my depressive mood. Would I have to drop out? I couldn’t handle this pain for much longer. “Just get to mile 30 to see Ryan and David,” I kept telling myself.
When I arrived at mile 30, I told Ryan that I didn’t want any food or drink, I just wanted to splash water on my face. Well, Ryan let me do that but he also realized that something was really wrong. He made me stop and eat as well as drink. “You have to eat. Keep moving forward, but you have to take your time at the aid stations. You have to eat,” he said. It sounds so ridiculous to not be on top of my nutrition, as my job is to do this with my athletes, but when you are in the heat of competition, you need a team to be there to remind you to do the simple things. I started to get more and more nervous that someone was going to pass me at this station. This is when it happened – I went from 3rd to 4th female when the girl who ended up getting 2nd passed me at this aid station.
I left mile 30 feeling pretty awful, but I remembered what Ryan said. “You are fit, tough, loved. Keep moving forward.” And so I did.
The trail started to get more treacherous here. I was moving much slower, and I was worried. After two miles, however, some of the calories I took in started to take effect. I could think clearly. I got into my ultra stride and started to run my own race. I ran another mile like this – still mentally discouraged but improving. I could finish this race. Suddenly, up ahead, I saw the girl who I was trailing for the initial 16 miles, who looked so strong and fast…walking! Was that real? I could pass her, so I did.
Miles 33 – 40: Gaining Confidence
The confidence boost that gave me was huge. I reevaluated my first 30 miles and tried to come up with a game plan. I think I understood ultras for the first time at that moment. I realized first-hand that you can make huge mistakes in an ultra and still come out on top. You have time to correct them. I also realized how stupid it was for me to be so concerned with the competition. I needed to run my own race and settle into my ultra, and more efficient stride. I also realized that I needed to stop and take more time at the aid stations in addition focusing on fluids, salts, and gels for energy.
I felt better and better as the trail got tougher. I couldn’t wait to get to mile 40 when I would see Ryan again. I knew he was worried about me, and I couldn’t wait to show him that not only was I okay, but, thanks to his perfectly timed words of guidance, I was doing much better! The trail got more difficult, muddier, and hillier under the shadow of the trees, but I was moving more efficiently. I stopped at the aid stations and took time to take in a few calories and drink some water and Coke. I kept moving forward.
As we got close to mile 40, I picked up the pace. I knew I could do it, and I would have Ryan by my side to pull me in. Initially hoping for an 8 minute pace, or a 6:45 50 miler, I knew that that was out of the realm of possibility for the day as my watch ticked past 6 hours. That said, I was still passing people and no one was passing me. My Garmin had died, so I had only a general idea of which mile I had completed. One step at a time, I stopped worrying about the clock and just worried about making it to mile 40 in one piece.
Miles 40 – 50: Clarity
The mile 40 aid station was an out and back down a steep cliff to the aid station, after which you had to turn around and run back up the cliff to get back on the American River trail. I sprinted down to the aid station, and was overwhelmed to see our friends and fellow EFAST athletes, Jack, Caity, and Joey, who also recently returned from a deployment in Kuwait, cheering for me along with David and Ryan. I didn’t say anything but the boost was huge to me! So amazing that they had made the trip out there to support me!
I took some time at the aid station and downsized to a handheld water bottle (thank God!). I switched to only gels, sugar tablets, salt, and water for the last 10 miles…wait…9 miles! I got the mileage wrong and we only had 9 miles left! YES!!!
I led the way out of the aid station and passed about five guys running up the cliff and back to the trail. The last thing I wanted was for the 4th place girl to see me. I didn’t want to give her that mental boost. I slapped my thigh and yelled “C’MON!” (you tennis players will know what I’m talking about) to get myself moving. Luckily, I was able to push hard enough to get out of there before seeing the 4th place woman – so I knew we had a significant lead. Now, just don’t blow it! Stay steady…
The first two miles with Ryan were awesome. I just tried to calm down and run steady. Then, my head slowly got blurrier and blurrier. The trail was harder to see and it was harder to focus. I started to feel a slight twinge in my calf. I knew that one of three things could stop me from finishing strong and getting third: passing out, getting a cramp, or falling and getting injured. I was determined to do whatever I could to keep that from happening.
This meant slowing down at certain points, and speeding up at others. This meant taking in more S caps than I thought I would need, as well as eating more frequently over the last 6 miles. I just had to stay coherent.
The last 3 miles of the race is similar to the infamous Reno Tahoe Odyssey leg called Dog Valley here in Reno. The incline is over 1,000 ft – basically, straight up. Yet, arriving at this point gave me so much confidence. I had run Dog Valley as my last long run before American River. Due to that practice run, no one was going to pass me here.
Even though it was slow going, we kept running. Ryan encouraged me at every step. Don’t get me wrong, this part of the race was physically one of the most challenging parts, but I have positive memories of this part. When you are so close to your goal, nothing can derail you.
As we got towards the top of the hill, a dude dressed in painted muscle leggings ran towards me to fill up my water bottle. That was awesome, ha! Once I got my water, I ran with Ryan towards the finish. As we got closer and closer, he began counting down the distance by laps on a track – just 5 laps of the Reno High School track left to go…4…3…2… He didn’t have to tell me when there was 400 meters left – I saw Caity, Joey, Monika, Rachel, Eric, Tim, Jack, and David at that point. More of our friends had come to cheer us on! I thought, “I’m so glad and blessed to have moved to Reno and had the chance to get to know these amazing people.” That is when I started to smile and gave Ryan a big hug. We did it, and…it was over.