I think I’m currently moving towards ultra-distance racing in a transition away from triathlon and more towards running again, and more specifically mountain running.
Having now completed the toughest iron distance races on the planet and some unfinished Deca business but still finishing five iron distance triathlons in five days, I am keen to be able to compare an iron distance race with that of 100 mile ultra-run. Which is tougher?
Knowing that I was moving to California and with one eye on filling the 2012 race calendar, I found the Rock ‘n’ River 50. A qualifying race for the legendary Western States 100 (or at least finishing it under 11 hours would give me a 10:1 chance of getting a slot through the ballot). If I did get in to the Western States 100, it would fit well, coming six weeks after Ironman St George (an A race for 2012), but will probably compromise Vineman 70.3, which is two weeks after, but a B category race.
Providing I paid particular close attention to my recovery, the timing of the Rock ‘n’ River would coincide with the ITU World Triathlon Championships three weeks later (I’ll let you know whether this was a good idea) and act as my last long run.
The race also happened to be on part of the Western States route so doubled up as a partial recce as well.
The race is an end-to-end course and like many similar ultras had a coach laid on early in the morning to transport runners to the start. As Rachael was supporting by driving to aid stations along the route, we decided the extra sleep would be more important so we booked a hotel in Auburn near the start.
We called in at packet pick up (timing chip, race number and goody bag) and pasta party on our way to the hotel. We had a couple of questions about the legalities of pacing and on course assistance, none of which we could get an answer to.
Those getting the bus were up at 3am, we got up at 5am.
A 10-minute drive to Auburn Dam Overlook Park and I was donning my race kit in the dark and walking to join the others at the start line. It was dark and cold at the start, so I had a long sleeve top and head torch.
There was a short race briefing, which said to follow pink ribbons that marked the course and we were off, 06:30.
My strategy for this, my second 50 miler, was to run the whole distance or as far as I could before adopting a run/walk strategy. The course is downhill and I was concerned how my quads would hold up. I had contemplated quad guards but was unable to sort this before the race.
I started out at a 6-7min/km pace and had the usual smile as most of the field charged past me with their over enthusiasm.
After about 2kms we began a steep road descent down to the river. It wasn’t long after that I could hear shouting ahead followed by more and more people slowing to a group halt. We had gone the wrong way…already..!
Amused, I stood watching the carnage as runners went too and fro, up and down the hill searching for a pink ribbon. The majority of the field was lost. At times like these it is better to conserve energy (do not go charging up and down a very steep hill) and not to act on bizarre comments from those panicking around you, such as: “It cannot be this way”, “It must be this way” or other non-constructive, non-factual, irrational utterances.
In the end, myself and a couple of others amused by the headless chickens, decided to retrace our steps by walking back up the hill. It worked, we found a ribbon (we whistled and shouted to say we had picked up the route) and after 17 minutes we were back on course and I was back to 6min/km pacing.
Soon after, the road wound down to the river and I decided to save my quads and held back as I witnessed a lot of runners opening their gait and hammering down the hill. Perhaps due to the earlier mis-direction and people getting fired up but again I was astounded as to how many runners were thrashing down the hill. So much so that an older runner commented to me, as we were both getting passed, that he expected some people to be suffering later on. I agreed.
We eventually joined the American River and ran alongside it and around Folsom Lake, which was the best part of the course for me.
At the first aid station, the sun was rising so I got rid of my head torch and long sleeve top (in hindsight I shouldn’t have bothered wearing it).
I held back for the first two aid stations and then began to pick up the pace as I was enjoying the trail and fantastic scenery to my left. Unfortunately, picking up the pace meant I had to now go passed all those that had charged from the start line, those that charged after getting lost and those that charged down the descent. This was a lot of people and a lot of calling out, waiting, then passing. I wasn’t consciously racing but testing whether I could run the whole thing, so to keep things positive my thoughts were that if I got held up by slower runners it was probably for the best and I would benefit from it later.
I always test kit as much as possible before using it in a race and for this race I was introducing The North Face Enduro 13 pack (two bottle carriers instead of a bladder, quicker to fill), Injinji Performance Mid-weight Toesocks (my toes beat each other up and my thoughts were if they were individually wrapped it might delay the damage),Saucony Peregrines (grippy and light, even with my orthotics). I wanted to trial this kit but if I were doing this race again because the aid stations are so close together I’d carry a single bottle (either handheld or around my waist).
There were a few inclines along the river route but nothing that caused me to walk (long training runs up Mt Diablo on the Summit Trail served me well). I was going well at around 6min/km or under so continued at this pace.
I walked aid stations eating half a PowerBar (20g of carbs), swapping a full for empty bottle of electrolyte (Heed) and then having two Gu Roctane gels (25g of carbs) per hour aiming to ingest about 70g of carbs per hour. I started this after sipping only water for the first hour. The aid stations were well stocked and managed. Towards the end of the race I was drinking cola and stuffing ice down my front and back to keep my core temperature down (the good thing about wearing the TNF Enduro 13 is that the chest straps held ice on my front and back whilst it melted).
I started to feel some cramping in my quads in the late teen miles so downed aSalstick Cap, which did the trick. The route now joined the American River Parkway for the last 19 miles, which meandered along the Jebediah Smith Memorial Trail, which was a tarmac bike trail all the way to the finish. You could run on the crushed granite to the side if you didn’t want to run on the tarmac. Knowing the surface was going to change, I switched to a pair of Brooks Ravenna 2s, to enjoy a bit more cushioning.
Being on a bike trail, I had to constantly look around so that I could take the shortest route possible, which only incurred the wrath of one path-user and I had to apologise to a couple of other cyclists for causing them to slow down and use greater caution.
At this stage, there were very few runners around, little shade and the heat was relentless. The great thing about this part of the course is that you receive a lot of encouragement from other park users, which really helps.
The good news was that I was holding pace very well and apart from the odd sloshing feeling, in which I backed off the liquid a little, my stomach was holding up great.
When another runner did come in to view, I stuck to my pace and would eventually reel them in. each one a great boost in the latter stages. It’s better to be overtaking than overtaken towards the end of a race.
When I stopped at aid stations, I didn’t check the mileage and didn’t ask for positions, times, etc. I had a rough idea from studying the maps but daren’t look at my Garmin in case it said I had longer to go than I thought. It was only at the 42-mile aid station when someone said: “only eight miles to go”, did I start to calculate possible finish times.
Knowing the wheels can come off at any time during endurance races, I was happy with what I’d achieved up to this point. If I could hold on to the end, then…bonus! I’m sure there had been a significant amount of sub-6min kms and I was continuing to run strong, so I continued with the nutrition strategy and plodded on in the baking heat.
During the last five miles I was yo-yoing with a couple of runners, gradually getting closer and overtaking them. I felt really strong. The volunteers at the last aid station pointed out the finish line but explained I had two miles still to go, an out and back of one mile and I was done.
On the way out along the final stretch, I saw the next runner in front of me. She was returning to the finish line and I concluded I didn’t have time to catch her. We waved to each other as we passed. I rounded the final turn, one mile to go. During that last mile, I too saw a few of the runners behind me and we all saluted one another as we passed.
The finish was the usual low-key affair as a handful of volunteers and supporters clapped me in. I hugged Rachael, who’d been fantastic all day and headed for the river, where I stood up to the top of my thighs for the next 30 minutes. Total time of 8h 19mins, 6th overall and 1st in my age group.
There was a great spread at the end. I tucked in and chatted with other finishers as we waited for the drop bags to return. Great event.