Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Running 50 miles

On Saturday, April 5, 2008, my wife and I ran in a 50-mile race called the American River 50-mile Endurance Run.

At 6 a.m, about 500 runners shuffled off into the darkness along the paved American River Parkway. Given the course and its logistics, we had to actually run the first mile in the opposite direction from the finish line, then loop back to pass the start area.
Ah, just 48 more miles to go.

Pam and I ran together for 27 miles to a key checkpoint, called Beal's Point. (Although there was no marker at the 26.2 marathon distance, a nearby runner with a GPS Garmin announced our marathon time at approximately 5 hours, 10 minutes. Not bad even for a marathon-only distance.)

Beal's Point is the approximate point at which the relatively flat (and paved) pathway ends and the hilly trails begin. We had a drop bag at Beal's Point, and changed from our regular running shoes into trail running shoes. Because I was feeling very strong at that point, Pam and decided I would go on ahead, allowing Pam to run the same pace we'd been running. I told her "I love you," and set off as she filled her water bottle at the Beal's Point aid station.

Since we'd never run a 50-mile race before, we had only a general idea what our finishing times might be. Because runners must cross the finish line no later than 7 p.m. (or 13 hours), our first goal was simply to finish under 13 hours. In other words, we didn't want to run for, say, 45 miles, only to miss one of the cut-off times required along the route and be pulled from the race, which does happen each year to a small percentage of the runners.
So just finishing was our goal, though our 'dream' goal (there's always a dream goal) was to finish under 12 hours.

Leaving Beal's Point, runners soon encounter hills and single track trails. I found this to be a good time to turn back on my iPod Shuffle to create that fuzzy glow that music can create. Soon I was running with old favorites, including a few John Denver songs that fit amazingly with the scenery.

And speaking of scenery, the views of the river and Folsom Lake were awe-inspiring. The weather, too, was perfect, and we counted ourselves fortunate since we'd heard that it had rained on and off at the race the two prior years, creating mud and streams along some of the trail.
As I ran the trails, I wondered how Pam was doing behind me. Having run several 30-mile training runs over hilly trails on the Pleasanton Ridge near our home, I knew that Pam had the endurance and determination to finish the race--barring any injury or mishap. Still, I hoped she was doing well and I even said a prayer to keep her safe.

So the miles ticked by and my legs and hips actually felt less pain than they had in the earlier part of the race. At 51 years old, I've become friends with pain, especially on longer runs. But apparently we had an understanding at this point (a little Advil didn't hurt either) and I was feeling, well, quite good. (I was going to say I was feeling "in the groove," but as a writer I try to avoid cliches like the plague. But that's how I felt. )
Running so well and passing about 20 runners in the last half of the race, I resisted the urge to look too closely at my watch and calculate my finish time, but I knew I was going to finish easily under 13 hours.

One wonderful part of running these long races is greeting people along the way. Everyone was so friendly, and we all shared "good job!" remarks with one another. In some cases, you can end up running several miles with people and hearing a bit about their running experiences and even their lives, and these encounters are just great.

Other highlights are the aid stations along the route, including the volunteers who are wonderful people of all ages. This race had 12 aid stations, most with names associated with their location along the lake or river, such as Buzzard's Cove and Granite Bay. The last aid station, which you must reach by 6:20 p.m. or you are pulled out of the race, is aptly titled Last Gasp.

The stations are little islands of food and drink that feature water, sports drink (GU20), Oreo cookies, boiled potatoes (which you dip in salt to keep your legs from cramping), bananas, M & Ms (which I never eat but ate by the handful to replenish my energy), potato chips, Goldfish, brownies, carbonated soda (not diet, but full of sugar), and similar items. At one station they even had ice cream cones. Aid stations are guilt-free zones where ultra runners can eat like 6 year olds. After all, 50 miles burns up about 5,000 calories and unless you eat as you run, you WILL run out of energy and have to stop. (The body can only store enough energy for about 20 miles. That's why marathon runners often hit "the wall" at that point.)
At the second-to-last aid station, called Manhattan Bar (again, named for that spot along the river and not because they were serving margaritas), with 6.8 miles to the finish, I finally allowed myself to speculate on what my finishing time might be. I looked at my watch and knew I would finish around 10 hours and 45 minutes, more than an hour under our dream goal of less than 12 hours.

Soon I was at Last Gasp, with the finish only 2.4 miles away, but it's almost all uphill, and fairly steep in parts on a wide gravel road. I turned on my ipod again (sometimes I ran with no music just to enjoy the quiet), and there was Josh Groban singing You Lift Me Up, an inspiring song that never fails to, well, inspire me. Here I was moving up this steep road and looking ahead to several runners in the late afternoon sunlight who were walking, running a few steps, then walking again. Some had friends with them for encouragement in the final miles.
I was moved by what I was seeing. Here were men and women reaching deep into themselves to achieve something many would call crazy: running 50 miles in one day. In these final two miles, I could see in their labored footsteps why they had come, why they trudged on in spite of the pain they knew even before the race that they would feel at this point. And I knew as well that I had come for the same reason: to encounter ourselves and our limits in ways we don't get to feel every day. By being here, we got to become the indescribable joy of pushing through a physical challenge that many would never attempt; to touch the DNA of our early human / pre-technology ancestry; and to rediscover what it feels like to be fully and completely alive.
As I crossed the finish line, the time read 10 hours, 39 minutes. And as the loud speaker announced my name and welcomed me to Auburn, I felt I was being delivered back into the world after 50 miles of labor.

After a short rest, I took off my race number (443) and headed back down the hill to find an attractive woman I'd been running with earlier. I was intrigued by her, and wondered how she was doing. I knew her race number by heart: 444.

We saw each other at the same time about two miles from the finish. I pointed at her and she lifted her arms in triumph. As I accompanied her the final two miles, we swapped stories of the last 22 miles that we'd run separately. It was so good to see her.
Pam crossed the finish line in 11 hours and 47 minutes--under her dream goal of 12 hours. As the announcer read her name, I was so proud of her and of us, two reborn and fully alive human beings.

Here we are before the start of the race wearing plastic garbage bag liners for warmth provided by Steve Tuggle, Pam's brother. We stayed in Auburn with Steve and Michele. Thanks guys!

Race director Greg Soderlund welcomed us and reviewed the course at the banquet the night before the race. Greg is also the director for Way Too Cool, a 50 kilometer (31.5 mile) race, and the famous Western States 100-mile Endurance Run.

Here we are with Tim Twietmeyer, who attended the banquet. Tim lives in Auburn and has run the American River 50 21 times. He has also run the 100-mile Western States race numerous times, and won Western States five times. He was very friendly and gave us a few last minute tips for the next day. Yes, he's a famous runner.



Anonymous said...

I also ran the AR50 and couldn't agree more with what Jim says. The weather was perfect and the aid personel wonderfully supportive. But what strikes me most is that Jim went BACK DOWN the very steep hill that makes up the last 2 miles of the race to accompany Pam BACK UP that very steep hill to the finish. I can't possibly express how truly amazing that feat is, as one is completely and utterly exhausted after this race (or at least I was!). I also can't express how motivational that act is, and didn't know it until this race, which was the first time a member of my family (my eldest daughter) has ever attended a race. My eldest daughter Megan walked down that hill and waited, and when I saw her as I crawled up the hill, it brought tears to my eyes! She encouraged me to run up the hill, albeit slowly, to the end, where we passed together holding hands under the finish banner! (See photo for bib 256 when it becomes available.) Although it wasn't my best 50 mile time, it was, by far, my best ultramarthon experience ever! Harris Goodman

Melissa said...

Yay for you and Pam!

she said...

WOW! WOW! WOW! -AWESOME accomplishment! great shots! great story!

-from person who thinks your both crazy-

love, ~s.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Congrats to you Jim and to your wife Pam for finishing your first 50 milers, and under our goal! (My first attempt at the distance ended up overnight in an Emergency Department observation unit, but I guess Diablo isn't the easiest choice and it got into the 90's and I had no idea what I was doing). Will hope I recognize you when I'm running out your ways (not as often as I'd like--Pleasanton Ridge rocks).

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Sorry, forgot to congratulate the right distance--your first 54 mile run.

Okay, you're making 99.9% of us guys look really bad...
(although I guess if my wife ever tried this, I'd probably do the same, but I think she's too smart not to)