American River 50 Mile Endurance Run | California | April 5, 2003
Sinuous, Curvy and Gently Sloped
By Gary Dudney
Conditions for the 24th running of the American River 50-mile were ideal. The air was crisp at the California State University at Sacramento start, the sky clear and blue. Frost dusted the horsetail grass along the bike path. But in a race where temperatures have soared to a 100 during the afternoon and usually hit in the eighties, a fluffy cloud cover later in the day blocked much of the sun and kept all but a few miles cool and breezy. The shoulders of decomposed rock along the bike path were in great shape, offering a perfect alternative to runners who wanted to avoid pounding the first 24 miles of asphalt.
Even the dirt roads and tough horse trails from Folsom Lake to the finish in Auburn had been worked over to smooth out erosion trenches and build up solid footing where the trail had gotten choppy. A heavy rain the day before kept the dust down without producing too much in the way of mud. The wildflowers were in full bloom. Even the ubiquitous poison oak seemed tamer than usual. Could it be the new race director, Lisa Demoney, was born under a lucky star?
Actually, any year at American River is a great year as this race continues to be one of the “must do” events of ultrarunning. Third largest field for a fifty miler, after JFK and Sunmart, the return of nearly 500 runners each year to the AR50 is no fluke. One runner remarked he makes a point of traveling to the race every other year…from Vermont. Veteran runners tend to dismiss the first half of the race as mostly flat and boring, but in fact, the bike path along the American River is poetry in motion. Sinuous, curvy, gently sloped, perfectly maintained, the path beguiles runners through the miles. One well groomed, charming riverside park glides by after another. Trees and shrubs open up to reveal majestic panoramas of the river. A fisherman sits motionless in a rowboat surrounded by mist hanging silently over the water. A snowy egret sails by. Ducks and geese cut v-shaped wakes through the water. A long-eared rabbit watches from the same field where last year a coyote was lurking in the tall grass.
Gaggles of bird watchers are out to sample just a bit of the nature that we experience for miles and miles. The snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada appear on the distant horizon. Eventually, we leap across the river on a bridge just beyond a huge fish hatchery and cross over to Nimbus Dam overlook. The American River is majestic here. As we continue, a group of Team in Training runners meet us running the opposite way and everyone is congratulating each other on the fine day and the great run. What an adventure! The trail is named after Jedidiah Smith, a man so plagued with wanderlust that it drove him ceaselessly all over the untamed West until his luck ran out at the hands of some Comanche. Surely he would have understood the restless joy ultrarunners feel in their strange odysseys.
I thought of the question we were instructed to ask each runner at registration, “Are you running tomorrow?” This understandably produced blank, astonished stares. “Well, duh, I’m picking up a number, aren’t I?” they were no doubt thinking, but too polite to say out loud. Of course, the idea was to hold back the race numbers of non-runners so we knew who was on the course and who wasn’t. But just the question, directed at an ultrarunner, seemed a little surreal. “Are you running?”
“Well, hell yes, I’m running. I’m an ultrarunner. I run all the time. I live to run!”
Beyond Folsom Lake, the course passes through forests of oak trees and granite rock gardens. It climbs along the canyon walls of the North Fork of the American River until runners are looking down a hundred feet into the bluegreen waters of the river. Immense slabs of bare granite define the river’s channel. A waterfall spills out of the opposite wall of the canyon. The footing here is tricky but from time to time the singletrack flattens out across a wide grassy stretch.
The final climb to the Auburn Dam Overlook finish area, a 1,500 foot rise over three miles of road broken up by the Last Gasp aid station, almost comes too soon this year. The volunteer at Last Gasp knows his runners. He spots me attacking the hill, so he runs over with a cup of Coke. “Throw the cup in the trash up there,” he says and points me on up the hill. I press on without stopping. Somehow this stranger urging me to give it my all, to make my race as good as it can be, sparks me on. At the top I break nine hours by just a couple of minutes. If I had stopped at Last Gasp, I would have been just over nine hours. In the grand scheme of things, this is not important. Except to me.