I’ll never forget my first 50-miler, its amazing views, helpful aid station workers or the final 3-mile uphill slog.
By Henry Howard
The American River 50 proved itself to be an epic race, an ultra where mid-packers and back-of-the-packers can literally line up and run next to well-known ultra runners.
The AR50 was my first 50-miler and one I would recommend to others looking for their firsts finish at that distance. (The event also offers a 25-mile distance.)
Race Review: American River 50 Miler
The course offers beautiful scenery, enthusiastic volunteers and a 3-mile uphill climb at the end of the race.
A cold start, cool brush with fame
I arrived in Folsom the day before the race and easily picked up my bib, checked into my hotel and prepped for race morning. On race day, there were several options runners had for getting to and from the start and finish lines of the point-to-point course.
I chose to park at the finish and take the shuttle to the start. There I met John and his friend, also John, and we chatted and shivered as we waited for the race to start. (One of the few recommendations I would make to race organizers would be to have some sort of heat available at the start for the runners as we waited for an or so.)
The race start area has plenty of port-a-pots for the gathering runners. The race also offered drop bags for the finish line and a handful of aid stations. We loaded up clearly labeled trucks with our drop bags. Even though I parked at the finish, I needed a drop bag to stash my sweatshirt.
The race began in Brown’s Ravine Marina at Folsom Lake State Recreation Area in the Sierra-Nevada Foothills. We started with a slight uphill out of the parking lot, then entered the trail just under a mile from the start.
As we jockeyed for position on the single track trail, I immediately recognized Catra Corbett, a colorful and inspiring ultra runner. She was talking with another runner and I passed them after a mile or so when the trail widened.
I can think of no other sport in which amateurs can participate with elites and sponsored athletes. I was far from Zach Bitter, who finished second overall, by that point but was emboldened by my brush with fame, even if I missed Truman. (He did escort Corbett to the finish line.)
Running with Bad Ass Leader
A few miles later, we left the trails and hit the roads for most of the rest of the first half of the race.
As we headed downhill under a bridge, I met a runner who was running her 14th AR50 for Jack, her best friend’s husband who is battling cancer. We bonded and as we ran together nicknamed runners, like the Pink Twins. She called me Bad Ass, and I dubbed her the Bad Ass Leader.
About 15 miles into the race, she confirmed we were on a pace to finish between 9:30 and 10 hours. We leapfrogged as roads turned to trails and downhills turned to uphills and vice versa. At the 25-mile aid station, she picked up her pacer and a few miles later I separated from Bad Ass Leader for the last time until we met at the post-race party.
Between the Johns, Bad Ass Leader and other ultra runners, the atmosphere was the friendliest I have ever experienced at a race. It’s another reason why I am embracing the ultra and trail running community. There seems to be more openness, a stronger community among trail runners.
After all, when you are running, walking and slogging through 50 miles, it’s reassuring to bond with others enduring the same thing.
What a long, strange trip it’s been
Around Mile 19, as we were passing a lake, the runner about 100 feet ahead of me pointed toward the lake. As I reached that same spot and looked over to see a bald eagle perched on a tree branch. What could be more American than seeing him there? I also pointed to the eagle so the runners trailing me could see the majestic bird.
The second half of the race was nearly exclusively on trails. We passed by interesting names —Buzzards Cove, Horseshoe Bar and Rattlesnake Bar — but those last two were not pubs. Instead, they were named for sand bars where miners would pan gold. On this day, the only riches to be found there were friendly aid station volunteers, cold drinks and food.
I made quick work of aid stations. Getting in, having a volunteer refill my water bottles, downing some calories and taking off with a “thank you volunteers.”
For such a long race, I felt pretty good throughout. There were definitely periods of walking, especially on the uphills. And there were times when I wished that the aid stations were closer but there were plenty of them and all were well organized.
Toward the end of the race, we were greeted by a sign: Cardiac Hill Trail. No kidding.
The race is known for its final three miles, which represent a long climb — my Strava shows a roughly 900-foot steady climb over the last section. There are parts that are runnable, but runnable after more than 46 miles is a relative term.
Race organizers placed mile markers and inspirational signs along the final three miles to help us make the final push. And a crowd gathered to cheer on every runner as they made the final push to the finish line in Auburn. “This is a long way to come for a party,” I called out as I acknowledged the onlookers.
As I passed them, it was about a quarter-mile to the finish line where more crowd support and emcee and ultra runner Don Freeman welcomed every finisher.
Overall, there was about 4,600 feet of total elevation change. I finished in 10:13:12, a solid 122nd overall out of 536, and 33rd out of 102 in my age group.
When I had first signed up for the race, I was motivated by the Patagonia fleece that each finished received. At the finish line, we were presented with the fleece and a medal, which helped me realize what I had just accomplished: finishing a 50-mile race.
I had time to chew on that as I made quick work of some of the post-race food, including a burger, chips and beer. And for the first time, I took advantage of a post-race massage offered by a local group.
The massage, combined with other treatment — foam rolling, elevating legs, wearing compression gear — helped my recovery immensely. Sure, I was sore for the next day or so. But overall my recovery seemed a lot quicker than I had envisioned.
And wearing that Patagonia fleece brought a smile to my face and thoughts about my next ultra, yet to be determined. But I know I want it to be just as epic as the American River 50.
Run this race if you:
- Are looking for a fun yet challenging 50-miler, especially a first one.
- Want to experience beautiful views.
- Are motivated by a sweet Patagonia fleece
Don’t run this race if you:
- Are opposed to a race with significant climbs.
- Want only a pure road race or pure trail race.
- Seek race medals as big as saucers.