It took a while, but my friend Kara finally convinced me to sign up to run what would be our first Ultramarathon. We’re both distance runners and have run long races before, but this felt different. We decided to buy Krissy Moehl’s book, Running Your First Ultra and use it as our training guide for the next six months as we prepared to run the American River 50-Mile Endurance Run.
The book proved to be a huge help because when race day finally came, I felt ready. The night before the race, I barely slept, so when the alarm finally went off at 4:15 a.m., I was eager to get up and get moving.
I wasn’t as nervous for the race as I thought I’d be. I expected to have butterflies and feel worried about the weather (which was extremely rainy), but I was feeling calm and ready. In the car, Kara was playing some of her race music (all hilarious rain songs) and everything just felt surreal. I couldn’t believe we were finally on our way to the race we’d been training for the past six months.
I remember distinctly that there was 38 minutes left until start time on the clock when we got there. Typically, we were used to seeing thousands of people at the starting line for a race (anything from a 5k to a marathon), but in this case, it felt fairly empty, maybe a couple hundred people. The energy was intense, and we were chatting with people around us and commiserating about the conditions. Looking around I could tell there were some people around me that were much more qualified for this. Some of the hard cores were wearing merely a tank top and shorts, which was impressive!
When the announcer gave us a final warning before the race start, I started to feel a little nervous. Once the gun went off and we started running, I realized what we were in for. It was pouring rain and the terrain was muddy and very slick. I’m not sure exactly how long it rained, but it was probably for at least a couple of hours.
The first part of the race was NUTS! Within the first quarter mile we had to cross a small river, so our feet and legs got completely soaked. For the first few miles we were also all bottlenecked into a single file line because it was single track. I remember seeing a bunch of people in front of me slipping and falling and I was terrified of falling myself, so we kept moving quickly while being cautious. We had been told by the pros to start out slow and taper from there, especially with this race because at the beginning it can trick you into thinking it’s going to be all fun and easy. We were told that if you go out too strong then you won’t have energy for the big hill at the finish. We listened to the advice and we paced ourselves. We were also told that when it is raining out, you tend to drink less water, so we were good about reminding each other to stay hydrated along the way.
We hit our first aid station and they had water, potato chips, and other snacks. Before I started training for this race, I didn’t realize how much we’d have to fuel up throughout the day for this kind of mileage. Sometimes we were running for an hour or more between aid stations, so we really had to make sure we were staying on top of our nutrition to avoid running out of energy. While we waited in line for the restroom, I remember having the brilliant idea to change out of our muddy, soaking wet socks and into clean, dry Balega Blister Resist socks (our favorite!), which we’d packed for this exact reason. Another piece of advice - don’t skimp on your running socks! Having a high-quality pair of running socks, like Balega, is as important as your shoes choice and can make all the difference for your comfort and happiness on race day. It was the most amazing feeling to be running again with dry feet. While it felt like the best ideas at the time, this lasted about two minutes, until we inevitably went through the next mud puddle. This was fairly constant along the racecourse, so we just learned to live with our wet shoes and socks.
Around mile 20 the sun started to come out and we hit a stretch that felt, hot, boring and monotonous. Luckily, within about 5 miles, we rolled into our first official Crew Stop (this is where we got to see our friends and family for the first time). We got a new wave of inspiration, some food, and even some new fresh faces to run with for the next 5 miles. Our husbands, Shane and Mark, were now pacing us for the next small stretch of the course and they brought some comic relief to the situation. Many Ultramarathons allow for some portion of the race to be accompanied by a pacer. In the AR50, we were allowed one pacer each for the second half of the race. We ran, we walked, we laughed, we complained and eventually made it to our next Crew Stop where we’d meet our next pacer, Alexis.
We ran with Alexis for 11 miles and she was amazing. Alexis was perfect for this middle leg of the race. She did a lot of training with me and recently ran her first marathon, so we knew she’d be confident and strong for the longest pacer leg of the race. It was with Alexis that we started thinking about our time and whether we were on track to meet the cut off times. Fortunately, we ran into another runner, Bernadette and her pacer, Kelly, who were our saviors! I really believe in many ways that if it wasn’t for Alexis, Bernadette and her pacer, we might not have finished by the cut off. While we were running with them, we were able to keep a good pace for a good stretch of time.
Once we finished our 11 miles with Alexis, we made it to the final Crew Stop and got prepared to run the last 9 miles with our friend Ann. Ann was a perfect pacer for this last leg of the race. She is an experienced hiker and has a great understanding of how long it takes to walk and/or run when gaining elevation. Plus, she had to deal with Kara and me during the toughest part of the race, and she has some serious patience. It was during this final stage that we realized we had a few obstacles in our way between us and the finish line. I was having some difficulty with my knee. Kara started struggling with her breathing. Her legs were still feeling fine, but she was experiencing shortness of breath and we discovered later that she was really having some sort of asthma attack. Ann was a great cheerleader and really kept our eye on the prize of finishing under the cut off time.
The final hill, known as the Last Gasp, was so steep that it was challenging to run for very long. I remember Mark kept encouraging us to just run to the next flag and then walk a little and then run again. That was helpful to keep us moving. One thing that is really different in an Ultramarathon is that there are no mile markers as you go. In most races you’ll see a sign every mile and have an idea of how far you’ve gone, however, aside from the aid stations, we didn’t have a great idea about how far we’d gone until hitting the “1 mile left” sign. We cheered and ran up and took a picture next to the sign, knowing that we could endure the last mile. We finally made it to the point where we could hear the cheering of the crowd. The rest of our family and kids joined in and ran with us across the finish line.
We definitely got what we came for. We received our medals and our finishers jackets, and we had done the thing we set out to do. All I wanted to do in that moment was sit down and take off my soaking wet shoes. The race was hard, and it certainly had its challenges, but every time I look back on that day, I smile. That was one of the best experiences of my life and I can’t wait to do it all again.
One of the most exciting things that came out of this race is that our friend, Brandy Johnston, filmed our training, our lives and our race and created a documentary called “Road to 50 Miles” about our experience. We want to inspire others to get out of their comfort zone, do hard things, and “find their own crazy”. Check out our trailer here:https://youtu.be/L45msx08lRQ- You can find more information and updates about our upcoming movie @roadto50miles on Instagram and Facebook.