Never Say Never – The American River 50 Miler, by Shirley Fee

Never Say Never

One year or so ago after I had completed a few 50K races I was asked, are you going to do a 50 miler now? No! I replied with emphasis on the no.

Jump forward to a cold and dark April 4, 2015. What am I doing sitting on the ground,in a tent at Folsom Lake with my friend Anette Niewald and fellow ultra runner, Ted Watrous, plus a few hundred other runners? I must have mixed up my no’s with my yea’s. So here I am waiting for the start of my first 50 mile run. The American River 50 miler . I think I was tricked.

The American River 50 miler has become the second largest 50 mile race in the United States and is supposed to be a good course for first timers which is what Anette and I were hoping.

At five o’clock it was dark, the sky was full of stars and and the full moon shining on the lake created a shimmering diamond effect. There is something to be said about being up and about before sunrise.

As we were making a last trip to the porta pottie we were treated with a view of the eclipse of the moon. For once in my life I was able to see the whole eclipse from start to finish. It was an amazing and beautiful sight.

Start time is 6:00 am for the faster people and 6:15 am for the slightly slower runners. I’m feeling scared, excited, and filled with doubts as to whether I would be able to make the cut off times. Anette had similar thoughts especially since her husband was convinced that we both were going to die. He does not run and cannot understand why we do what we do.

Anette and I started together, we thought we had trained well, and felt good, but it was dawning on us, 50 Miles is a long way, a lot longer distance than we had ever run before. I say run but only the elite truly run almost all of it. We run as much as we can with walk breaks along the way. Our longest run was 31miles a few weeks before the race. My goal was to get to the finish before the cutoff time of 14 hrs. The first wave of really fast runners took off at 6 AM, it was still fairly dark so I watched the headlamps of the lead runners fly by and disappear into the darkness.

6:15 rolls around and off we go. I had a plan in my head and figured I would go out easy, warm up, settle down and be sure to drink and eat early on. The course started out on the road for a short distance then turned into a single track alongside the lake. I and Anette start out together with another woman I had met at a race last year, both reminding each other that we trained well and we could do this. We started slow, we couldn’t go faster because there were so many runners on the single track and dawn was just breaking. Lots of laughing, conversations and noise in general was going on. In the first mile a young man from Arkansas made a comment about not having rocky trails like this where he lived. I lifted my eyes from the trail to look back and make the comment that this was nothing, when Kersplat!! one of those little rocks caught me and down I went. I didn’t do my usual graceful three point landing, this time it more like a tree falling, down and bounce one side to the other. My left knee must have landed on a rock because it hurt, a lot, but I got up and walked a little bit thinking to myself this is not a good omen, I hope the day gets better. Note to self, keep eyes on trail.

We settled in with an easy pace, Anette got her groove on and went ahead. I continued to hold my pace hoping my knee would feel better soon. Talking with my other friend took my mind off my knee and it began to feel ok. The trail ran parallel to the lake giving us some beautiful views of the lake as the sun came up. After 4.97 miles we changed to the bike path to mile 12 then it was mainly bike path intermixed with a little fire road and short single track until we reached mile 24. I left my other friend a little before 12 miles, she was going to quit. She was not feeling very good so we said goodbye and I went on. By the time I reached Beals Point at mile 24 my legs were beginning to complain since I trained on trails and had done only one training run on bike path. My attitude was going down hill in a big fat minute. I kept thinking to myself “I didn’t sign up to do a road marathon, what the heck?” There is one great thing about ultra running though, that is the people you meet along the way. We know we have a long way to go so it gives us time to meet, greet, offer encouragement and support. Running an ultra gives you the opportunity to meet runners from all over the world and make new friends. The time flies by as you run along and chat with your new found best friend, no complaining allowed.

Finally we started up on a single track and the real views began, as we ran weaving in and out of trees with views of the lake and an abundance of wild flowers in blue, purple, yellow, white and one outstanding bush covered with brilliant red orange flowers, also, an abundance of poison oak. I’m sure many people who stepped off the trail for a break went home with a good case of the itchies. Itchies, is that a word? All the while all I could do is think how lucky I was to be able to see all the beauty surrounding me and enjoy the company of the other runners that shared one common goal, finish this race before 14 hrs.

I caught up to and was passing another runner so we had a short conversation, he had done this race before so told me to be sure and take it easy, as up ahead was about 5 miles of what they called the Meat Grinder. What? I tried to figure out what in the world he meant by meat grinder. In all my research about the course nothing was mentioned about the meat grinder. Ah, I thought, how bad could it be? We had trained on some pretty gnarly trails, it can’t be that bad. I continued on my way enjoying the views nature was providing until we got to Granite Bay. Wow! there are some very impressive homes on the hillsides of Granite Bay overlooking Folsom Lake. About that time my knee was beginning to ache after going up and down a few hills and going down hill was becoming painful. I had to slow down and be very careful how I planted my foot.

Also at that time I left the flowers, trees, and beautiful homes, to face great big boulders, little boulders, slippery boulders, granite boulders for crying out loud, with some areas that could qualify as mountain climbing because the trail was almost nonexistent. No shade, just bushes, not even poison oak, which had been plentiful earlier. In some places you had to step down two to three feet on more rock then step up two or three feet. I wondered, what do short legged people do? What do the Elite runners do? Do they run on this stuff? By then my left knee was not going to bend much so the going got tricky. I was alone, no other runners in sight. I sure didn’t want to fall, it was a long way to the bottom. That was the longest 5 miles of my life. All I wanted was to get off the boulders and on the trail to the next aid station which would put me at 40 miles. I caught up to another runner so we kept each other company and commiserated over the meat grinder.

Finally, back on a nice single track, soft easy trail in the shade I could start running again, except downhill, my new running friend noticed that I would slow down on the downhill, I told him about my knee and he gave me an Excedrin, yay for the traveling druggist. We continued on and after a short steep descent into the Rattlesnake Bar aid station, we were 9 miles from the finish. The Excedrin kicked in so I was feeling good. I grabbed some food and headed back up the steep incline back to the trail. It was a nice shady trail, winding around the hillside following the American River, up, down, over creeks, with an occasional small waterfall surrounded by big green frothy ferns thrown in for good measure.

I had been told about one last killer hill at about mile 37 or 38 called Last Gasp, so I held back and walked, jogged behind one group of men when I really wanted to pass them and keep running. I guess I didn’t trust my instinct that I could pass them and run and still have plenty of energy for Last Gasp and the 2 mile up hill finish. So I took my time and enjoyed the conversations. Earlier in the race another runner told me that all I had to do when I came to Last Gasp was put my head down and just count my right foot steps, when I got to 150 then I would be at the top. I could hardly wait to test that theory.

Finally, we came off the trail onto the fire road right down on the American River. Once we got off the single track and hit the road I decided it was time to take off, so I did. Eventually the road led to a power plant where it left the river and headed up. I’m alternating walking and slow running up the fire road waiting to come to Last Gasp because I know then, I’m just a couple miles from the finish. Anette and I had run part of the finish a few weeks before after we had done the Way To Cool 50K so I knew if I got past Last Gasp I had it made. It was 2 miles of uphill but it was not steep.

What is this?? I see an aid station ahead, I’m confused, the next aid station is supposed to be Last Gasp. As I get to the top I see the sign Last Gasp Aid Station. Darn! I didn’t get to count my steps. I had to laugh, in the description of the course you hear all about Last Gasp, nothing about the Meat Grinder. Sneaky.

As I start my last 2 miles I want to sing but figured I would not put that misery on the other runners, I just smiled really big and passed them. It was hard to wrap my brain around the fact that I just traveled 50 miles and felt so good, much better than I thought I would feel.

Anette had finished ahead of me in 12:20:30, she and her husband Tom were at the finish line to greet me. I finished 12:39:07. We both said, well that is done, now we don’t have to do another. Ummm, well, a few days later, we were talking about our next one. We didn’t die and we beat the cutoff time. I won my age group, and what made it better, I was not the only one in my age group. There were two others.

I don’t have the words to describe what it is or how it feels to run a marathon or ultra distance on a challenging trail other than you get to know who you are and what you can do. Yes it is competition, mostly against yourself and the trail. It is a time to listen to your breath, your feet hitting the ground and pushing yourself beyond what you think you can do and succeeding. Never say never, it will come back and bite you.

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