This weekend I was ecstatic to be one of only 81 runners to finish the inaugural Gold Rush 100k trail race, as less than half the starting field (177 runners) got to cross the finish line. The scorching heat turned the potentially fast, net downhill course into an oven that was difficult to escape.
Nonetheless, it was a banner day for me as I finished my longest race to date, thanks in large part to my phenomenal pacer/crew, Betsy Nye, and the never-ending support of my family, especially Alex, my six-year-old son and fan #1. This report will be a general recap of my day, and I will write later in detail about the course and also some ultrarunning lessons learned.
One could scarcely tell that it was the first running of the race. The nicely spaced aid stations were ample, well-stocked, and well-staffed. Course markings were also ample and easy to follow. Pre-race communication was solid, though the race website could benefit from some organizational help.
The course offered 14 aid stations – 12 of them fully stocked with liquids, ice, gels, and full ultrarunning buffets. The exceptional volunteers at each station were likely experienced runners themselves. In fact, one of the euphoric moments of my day was when we approached the last full aid station at Guy West Bridge. Someone on the course had told us that it was 2 miles to the next aid and then 7 miles to the finish. Betsy and I both heard this as 9 miles total to the finish.
As we approached the aid station 2 miles later, I heard someone cheering for me by name. I was surprised and delighted to see friend and super-ultra-runner Jack Meyer volunteering at the station. Next I saw the sign in clear print: “5.3 miles to finish.” This combination of personal support and being closer than expected to the finish brought happy tears to my eyes and sent me shooting off over the bridge.
When I slowed down again, Betsy – part coach, part therapist – told me, “Now, I want you to just pretend you are going on a short run but you’re just a bit sore and tired.” Yes, I did have some aches, pains, blisters, etc, but the day was cooling and I was finally recovering from the heat of the day.
About that heat…
The heat really started to affect everyone by late morning. I had passed through the Folsom Point (half-way) aid station at about 11:15am, and was buoyed by seeing Javier and the kids and also by Betsy’s excellent crew handling of me. However, I forgot to refill on ice and the next section of the course was a couple of miles on pavement in full sun. This pavement section was necessary to connect the South Side Folsom trails to the American River equestrian trails.
I was reduced to walking for much of the next 10 miles, despite the flat or slightly downhill terrain. I refilled on ice at the next aid station, but that was completely melted within a mile. I formulated a fantasy in my head whereby I would walk to the finish, but I somehow knew that Betsy wouldn’t allow this. At least my little fantasy kept me in a pretty good mood, and I was actually able to enjoy this part of the day despite the circumstances.
I was surprised that there was very little access to river or lake water up to that point in the course, especially since the course follows waterways start to finish. We had crossed a couple of streams along the south side of Folsom Lake, where I was able to use my hat to thoroughly douse myself. After that, it had been at least a dozen miles before the course got close to water again.
Finally, the trail was within 10 feet of Lake Natoma. I slid down the bank and submerged everything except my face in the murky water. I was starting to recover from the heat, but was still not in great shape. I picked up Betsy for pacing about 2 miles later at the Fish Hatchery (Hazel Bridge) aid station.
Back to work
As I suspected, Betsy wasn’t going for the implausible “Let’s walk to the finish” plan. I was still pretty overheated when she joined me, but she was able to coax me into a slow jog by calling it “shuffling.” Each time we refilled on ice I felt better. But as soon as it melted and dried, I could barely move faster than a swift walk.
And when I did get too hot each time again, I spent my time desperately scanning the trailside for access to the river that wouldn’t take me too far off-course. I submerged in the river at least another 3 times. Each time I bolted away from Betsy like a naughty 5-year-old… threw my pack on the ground, and told her, “I’ll be real quick, I promise!”
Eventually the day cooled a bit and I was able to move again. I plugged some tunes into one ear, which I rarely do. The music moved me along – almost too fast to be sustainable – but I finally got into a nice slow run and let myself sing out loud. Really, because running 100k is crazy to begin with… how much crazier does it make me that I’m singing to the music in my head?
I passed a handful of runners as we headed along the river toward the final water station at Sutter’s Landing, 1.1 miles from the finish. I picked the tip of a tall building in downtown Sacramento to focus on and it pulled me along (read about Y’chi in ChiRunning here). We passed under a railroad bridge. I smelled the train grease and thought of trains going to Downtown Truckee. Then, just like that, the course popped out in the center of Sacramento.
I loaded up on ice at the last water stop and felt super-charged to run the final mile on easy asphalt city streets to the finish line at Historic Sutter’s Fort. It was my fastest mile of the day. Betsy and I came around the corner to see my kids playing in the sprinkler on the park lawn. I called Alex to run with us – I crossed the finish line 13 hours, 19 minutes, and 32 seconds after I crossed the start line that morning. And I had a huge smile on my face.
Saturday was a good day for me. It takes a combination of experience, hard work, and luck for a good race day to come together. While I don’t have a ton of experience, I value the advice of those runners kind enough to share their experience with me. I trained well for this race and did a sincere taper, which included spending the better part of Thursday and Friday sitting on the patio at Coffeebar. There was some good luck in the timing of my menstrual cycle (sorry if this is TMI, but it is reality for us gals). And I just felt good going into the day.
Even though we endurance runners frequently say that “just finishing” is an accomplishment, this is one case where I truly believe it. Earlier this year I was volunteering at the finish line of the USSA women’s nordic ski national distance championship race. The woman who finished last was having a crappy day. She said that she spent the past two hours wondering which would be worse, coming in last or DNF-ing (DNF = Did Not Finish).
I assured her that finishing is better than not finishing. I also asserted that a DNF is better than a DNS (DNS = Did Not Start). And finally, all of that is better than “Not qualified or motivated to show up in the first place.” So to those 96 runners who crossed the start line but not the finish: it may not have been your day, but at least you trained, showed up, and put yourself out there.