Some races I sign up way ahead of time for, taking months to mentally prepare, go over the course description, and psych myself up for the day. The 2018 Overlook 50 mile endurance run was not one of these races. I felt pretty good with my fitness, having finished the Castle Peak 100k 6 weeks prior, but was waiting for a myriad of life, work, and family variables to align. When they finally did it was literally 3:00 PM the Friday before the race. The Ultrasignup.com registration was still up, so I paid my entry fee and threw my name in the hat as the 90th runner of the 50 miler race.
There were many factors that were pointing me to this race. It would be a nice stepping stone for my end of season ramp-up to pacing at Rio Del Lago in early November. It’s a full day on one of my favorite trails in the world. It allowed for a Friday night pit-stop at the in-laws and grandparents, which scores me some easy family points. It would be my first 50 mile distance (!) and even better, they were allowing pacers to hop in around mile 35 at Cool. My wife could join me and we could test out the power couple pacing scheme that was so effective (and fun) at Castle Peak.
We decided to wait out traffic on the 80 and headed to Sacramento after dinner, allowing us to have some grandparent time for a few minutes before shuttling everyone (me included) off to bed. I was so excited for the early start in Foresthill that I woke up at 3:00 AM before my alarm went off and was soon sitting on the school bus shuttle that would take us to the Foresthill Elementary school. The bus driver was exceedingly cordial to the pre-dawn crowd as she quizzed us on all sorts of popular misconceptions about ultra-runners: did we all gorge on pasta the night before? Were our knees so shot that we couldn’t walk around? Were we all sick in the head?
The weather was warming up a bit in Foresthill and it was forecast to be a literally perfect day for running with a high around 65 degrees and some generous cloud cover. The “gun” went off at 6:00AM for the ninety runners anxiously gathered on the top of Main Street. Sheebest and Denucci took of like bats out of hell as they prepared to duke it out for M1 while the rest of us began a bit more reserved. I had vowed to take my time going down Cal Street this year so as to save my quads for the long day ahead of us and to not twist an ankle in the dark. That was the plan at least…
The problem is, it’s so much damn fun running down Cal Street on fresh legs. It seemed like many runners in the “front” of the pack didn’t quite know the local twists and turns of getting to the singletrack, so I found myself up front with a group of 7-8 other runners. We took it easy on the way down but were still leaving the main pack well behind us. I decided I didn’t need to be M3 and eased up a bit, letting a couple folks pass me as I took my time on the buttery singletrack past Dardenelles. I looked up and around – the sun was just beginning to rise over the ridges and the birds and other forest animals were beginning to wake up. At times I could hear the distant rushing of the river below, but at other times the forest was eerily quiet with only my breathing and footsteps accompanying my descent. I soaked in the glory of a sunrise trip down to the river knowing that this was going to be an epic day ahead of me.
I made good time down to Rucky Chuck without the heat of the day to slow me down and found a conveniently placed bathroom at just the right time! I had done the river crossing at Poverty Bar the year before so I knew the slight jog left you have to take off the fire road there and just kept enjoying the silence and my trip along the river. The race was surprisingly spread out and I had been running essentially alone since just after the start. I would later learn that a group of seven missed the left turn along the river to Poverty and actually climbed all the way up to Driver’s Flat before catching their error and turning around. Oops!
The river crossing went smoothly although the water was down-right cold at 9:00AM! I remembered to pause for a moment in the middle of the American for a brief mediation on the beauty that surrounded me. One year I will hopefully be able to do that as part of my longer trip to Auburn, but for now I enjoyed it for what it was.
The 50 mile distance turned left just after the river and headed up to Auburn Lake Trails. This race was both my first 50 mile distance as well as my first time up to the ALT area. I have completed three stout 100k’s but not yet a 50 – I was both trying to treat it as a similar distance and also looking for the subtle difference in that 12 miles less. I was running without a heart-rate monitor for my second race in a row, trying to go by feel and focus on being out there for the long day ahead of me.
The climb up to ALT and the subsequent rollers into and out of the aid station were pleasant and meditative. It was here that I was really struck by the silence of the mountains and the forest that day. Because the race was so strung out I literally hadn’t seen another runner in a couple of hours. At one point two front-runners from the group that got lost blew by me like I was standing still, yelling about the wrong turn and the extra mileage they had added. They were definitely blowing off some steam resulting from their mistake, and I was riding one of the most intense runner’s highs of my life. I was enjoying a mind-blowing head high as well as full body tingling – a meditative space that was a symptom of my epic dose of silence and activity. Time melted away and I just kept making forward progress, passing a few runners on the way down to Brown’s Bar and Quarry Road.
I had been so lost in my own world that Quarry Road came as a bit of a shock as we merged with the multitude of 50k runners that had started two hours after us and looked much more fresh. I was confused for a moment as to how all these runners were flying by me with legs that looked new. In a low moment on an otherwise smooth-sailing day in the mountains, I started chatting with a few of the 50k runners, who assured me that I had missed a turn. They apparently didn’t realize that we had started at different times and kept telling me that I needed to turn around and head back to Poverty where I missed the left hand turn. In my mind I was hearing Brown’s Bar, and I certainly didn’t remember seeing a left turn there, but who was I to know? My mind was feeling a bit fatigued.
In a rare instance of not being able to keep my head fully in the game I actually turned around and started running backwards on Quarry Road. When people gave me shocked looks I simply explained that “I had missed a turn back there somewhere”. Thank goodness I shortly spotted another 50 mile runner and told him “Hey man, we missed a turn back there” to which he replied “Dude, what are you talking about? Turn around and run with me for a bit”. I had been saved by a comrade on the course and we enjoyed the rest of Quarry Road and the climb up to Cool together, both happy to have some company after the long lonely stretch of ALT.
|What you don’t want your Strava to look like on a point-to-point course|
I was stoked to get into Cool because I would pick up my wife as a pacer for the last 15 miles or so. We have been experimenting with “power couple” pacing as a way to get out into the mountains together – we have free child-care at her parents house, and it turns out the first chunk of an ultra is a great equalizer for running pace and stamina. I was over the moon to pick her up in Cool, just as I was at Mile 50 of Castle Peak, and we took off to do the Salt Point loop together, catching up on the day’s events and swapping stories of our mornings. Unfortunately she joined me for the still-pretty but much less picturesque portion of the course as we descended down the river and back up again doing a bland loop seemingly just for the mileage. We passed 5-6 people on this loop however and again I got a lesson on the value of a pacer – I was mentally fresh as a daisy and distracted from the boredom and pain of that part of the course, while many solo runners were hurting and in dark parts of their mind, slogging slowly along. We stayed light in both body and mind, hit the Red Antler aid station one more time, and descended carefully down K2.
I had been hyping up No Hands to my wife as it would be her first time across it, and as she grabbed a giant slice of watermelon a volunteer told me I was in 10th place. 10th place?!?! No way I thought… but then I realized I hadn’t been keeping track of people at all throughout the day, and I had not accounted for the group of 7 people that went off course and except for the two that passed me were now behind me. I had never finished Top Ten before in a big race so I lost my cool for a minute and excitedly informed my wife that we were going to charge up Robie Point and keep everyone off our tail.
Had I been racing for a podium or a cut-off I would have dropped my pacer at this point, which is not indicative of her fitness at all but rather a commentary on how good I was feeling that day. She urged me to go on as the climb up Robie was starting to get to her legs, and I decided that no, we were going to finish this thing together (while keeping half an eye looking down the trail for number 11). We hiked some, we ran some, and we pushed as hard as we could up that brutal climb to the finish line, where we crossed together at 10 hours and 11 minutes in tenth place!
While it wasn’t a particularly fast field that day I was incredible happy with my finish. It was my first top ten finish in a large race like that, and I was proud of my race day execution especially considering I signed up 14 hours before the race start. It was another successful day in the mountains that I was able to run by feel, it was another victory for our power couple model of pacing, and it was one of the most magical sunrise experiences I have ever had anywhere in the world. The magic of the Western States trail revealed itself again, and I am grateful for every hour of every day that I get to spend along its ups and downs.