Monday, October 1, 2018

Overlook Endurance Runs: 50 Miler


I pulled into the Overlook parking lot at just past 4 am. The finish line hub was aglow with lights, friendly runners made their way to the drop bag tarp, and the stars above shone bright in the navy blue sky. It was chillier than expected so I made a last minute decision to carry my shell after all. A low of 53 and high of 72 were predicted, but the dawn had a crispness to it that gave me pause about departing with only a tank top, shorts, and the obligatory never intended for use emergency blanket in my pack.

My breakfast of Greek yogurt and oatmeal had taken place at 3:30 am. I’d intended to bring a banana on the shuttle to bridge the hunger gap, but lost it somewhere between the car and boarding the school bus. We took off promptly at 4:45 am. Our driver was having fun querying our run habits and our fear level over bears and cougars. As we pulled out of the lot she asked if any of us tended to get carsick. She then told us to tell her before showing her if queasy and to grab the hat off the runner in front of us if necessary. She was a character and before daylight on a Saturday no less.

Once arrived at the start at Foresthill Elementary School we picked up our bib numbers and scurried off to the bathrooms. The race started promptly at 6 am and we ran down the road for a bit before connecting with the Western States Trail. Sunrise was close to 40 minutes away so the trail and train of feet in front of me were lit by a procession of headlamps. The trail was super dusty for the first 3 miles and so many runners close together created a haze of dust in the air lit by our beams. It was beautiful though. We were descending single track switchbacks so coming down each a glowing row of moving lights, shining like over-sized stars in the dusty haze, could be seen just above. We slowed down to cross the slippery rocks of two tiny creek crossings and then the smell started to hit me. Bay leaves. Continuing on the bay leaves brushed against my arm off and on while their pungent scent flashed me back to childhood and how my mom always wanted me to bring bay leaves back to her for cooking from my summers in California at my dad’s house.

By about 6:30 am there was enough light that I put my headlamp away. A peaceful sunrise appeared through the trees on our left as the runner train continued along the single track. The group had spread out and I was the caboose in a pack of six runners. Our pace was governed by the front runner who was averaging 11 minutes miles. I’m no speedster, but this was the main downhill section of the course and I wanted the freedom to run my own race and do 9’s. I didn’t want to be 'that person' trying to pass a big group on the most slender of single track either though. Finally, around mile 5 I heard a man passing another runner back behind and catching up to me. Once he did I said to him that if he was going to pass I wanted to follow him. Sure enough we managed to clear the group and a woman came with us. It felt so good to run free. She and I chatted for a bit. After finding out I was from out of town she expressed that had she known I’d have been welcome to stay in her guest room. She kindly offered that I was welcome to in the future should I ever come to Auburn again. She had run Western States before and we were on a section that had been tough in that race for her. I enjoyed hearing about it and her upcoming Rio De Lago 100 miler. Later I’d come to find that many more of the runners I’d talk to were also racing Rio and using this as a long training run for it. 

The downhill in this section was really fun and the first aid station came up fast. It was marked as 8.25 miles and I was pleased to see 8.43 on my watch, reasonably close. I refilled my water, had bananas, watermelon, and ruffles and checked out thanking the volunteers. The fun downhill continued and intensified for another two miles or so and I was having a great time and a good pace. Our descent was leading us to the American River where the course would then continue along next to the river in the depths of the canyon before eventually crossing at Poverty Bar. The second aid station, Rucky Chucky, appeared after a stint along the river. By now my watch was measuring almost a mile long versus the course at 15.5 versus 14.5. Runners around me were saying the same and the volunteers rolled their eyes with a half smile having heard it all morning. Rucky Chucky had a great spread and the first pickles of the day which I happily grabbed with my fruit and Ruffles. Between there and Poverty Bar the trail turned to thick fine sand with frequent bear scat. The crowd had thinned out so I was alone for the majority of this section and found myself daydreaming and contemplating how it’d go if I found myself in front of one of the frequently spotted black bears responsible for the fresh scat dotting the trail.

Shortly before Poverty Bar the landscape opened up in a wide field and the sandy single track snaked through it like artwork. I saw four other runners up ahead. The wind kicked up and the sky became overcast. I chuckled to myself in the humor that it was suddenly cooler right when we were about to wade through the cold water. The aid station was on our side of the river so I refilled water, had some carrots with ranch, and a handful of salted nuts. Upon asking for a glass of coke I noticed the Jameson. They smiling volunteer offered me up a shot. At first I said I was tempted, but had better not since it usually results in me slowing down. Then she asked about a “small shot.” I decided sure why not it’s not often (or ever) that I get to have a shot of Irish Whiskey and then immediately wade through a cold beautiful river up to my waist at 10 am. They had a big inflatable flamingo which must have been the emergency raft noted in the race email. Every volunteer at the aid station was wearing neon rainbow gear of some variety and it couldn’t have been more festive. I downed my shot of whiskey and coke chaser and stepped into the river. Two volunteers were stationed in the river directing runners down the two rope holds. Both wearing neon rainbows of course. The first rope only took me to mid thigh depth so approaching the turn to the second rope I asked the volunteer if he’d mind snapping my picture. He kindly did. Moving along past him it was advised to hold any electronics above our heads. That’s when it dropped off and I was now submerged to belly button / bib number depth. It actually felt pretty great on my legs that were only 19 miles in, but had had enough downhill quad banging to appreciate the ice bath.

Climbing out on the other side a third volunteer was all smiles and I was sorry to have to leave such a cheery aid station. I was also soaked. Pulled your clothes out of the washer before the spin cycle soaked. I had spare shorts and socks in my pack, but was feeling surprisingly energetic so I just wanted to keep moving. Running in soaking shorts felt awkward and it was uphill anyways so I started at a brisk walk while trying to wring out small sections of my shorts. I was with a group and it was good to have company again. Many in the group were registered for Rio De Lago, a 100 miler coming up in November. They were using Overlook as a long training run. I ended up feeling like I was getting to join a bunch of cool 100 mile runners on a group run. It created such a good vibe for the race.

Between there and the Auburn Lake (23.5 mile) aid station I felt lucky to be traveling with some local fellows who were giving me the historical tour and moving at a chill pace I much welcomed at that mileage. One monument was Barb’s Bench. The story of the bench is one of my big fears as a runner and it made me so sad for her and her family. The bench is a memorial to her untimely death in 1994. She was a runner and was out along on the trail on a quiet weekday when a cougar mauled her to death. Cougar attacks are so rare, but they create a special kind of fear that doesn’t care about statistical probability. I found myself grateful to be sandwiched between my two tour guides and much motivated to stick with them while I thought about Barb's story.

By the time we hit the aid station everyone’s watch was still measuring a mile long so the secret extra mile early in the race was the hot topic of discussion. I refilled my water and took a glass of Coke and handful of Ruffles for the road cognizant of my insecurity around wildlife and wanting to leave with other runners. The section between there and Brown's Bar at mile 29 aid was uneventful, a mix of up, down, and flat and a good time to be on autopilot. Just a quarter mile before aid I came upon a guy in his 20’s limping awkwardly along as we descended a hill. I asked if he was alright and he said no, that his knee was gone. He had blown it out on a rock. I told him I was so sorry and he smiled and shrugged. His attitude was as good as is possible for an injured runner heading in to drop. I told the aid station about him only to find that everyone in the last few minutes had already. We runners are good at looking out for one another.

This aid station was the first to have pickle juice so I had a shot of that along with my usual choices. My watch was at 38 % battery life so I took out my Anker to recharge it while moving. I knew there was some climbing upcoming and that would be a good time for it. I was excited to get to the Cool aid station at mile 35.5 because my drop bag was there, it was the first of three cutoffs and to me only 15 miles left would signal easy street to the finish. We ran along the river and then hit the highway 49 crossing. This was the best road crossing setup I have experienced in a race. They had a flagger on each side of the road and a state patrol car. The flagger waved me ahead without any wait and the patrolman drove forward blocking the road. His window was down so I cheerily yelled, “thank you officer!” He then reversed back to the side of the road. I watched from the hill I was now climbing to see him drive forward and reverse for every runner who passed. It was a sweet safety setup.

I was climbing the hill to Cool by way of Olmstead. This section was tough for me. The initial climb offered some tree cover and I enjoyed it. I was alone here as the runners near me were in the 50k and the courses had split off in opposite directions just past the Highway 49 crossing. Coming into the open golden fields of Olmstead was gorgeous in the dazzling sun, but the sun exposure coupled with flat or gently ascending grade trail was a struggle for me. I was tired and I was feeling it. I arrived at the mile 35.5 aid station and grabbed more Skratch Labs Chews from my drop bag. I had extra shoes too, but didn’t feel I needed them. I loaded up on water, Coke, pickles, watermelon, bananas, and Ruffles. I also cleaned my dusty sticky hands with a wet wipe which felt awesome.

I left at 3:02 pm, 2.5 hours ahead of the cutoff. Except I left walking on a section I could physically run, but mentally had no get up and go for. I was so tired of my pack. It was a good deal heavier than usual with my shell, shorts, socks, headlamp, charger and cables, way more gels and chews than I should have been carrying, and 24-45 oz. of water at any given time. My legs were fine, but my upper back and neck were aching a lot and I was allowing that to be an excuse to feel weak and whiny. The next aid station was only supposed to be two miles away so I gave myself permission to walk with short run intervals to not get too comfortable with walking. A friendly man caught up to me and asked how I was. I told him about my back and neck and asked how his legs felt. He asked me if I ever do yoga stretches. Thinking he meant in general I said a little. He told me he had one to help my back and then there we were paused in the middle of the trail, feet wide apart, bent at the waists arms hanging long to the ground in a deep stretch to relax the discs. We held that for a bit and then I tried to better motivate and keep up with him for a bit. It was such a nice zen moment when I was having a hard time. It also warmed my heart because ultra runners are the very best when it comes to that adage about the kindness of strangers. Shortly after, I ran into Scott Rokis capturing video and stills of runners and the landscape. He does some of the most stunning race photography I've seen

As it turned out the next aid station was farther than two miles away. When off from a course I am not usually inclined to trust my watch, but seemingly everyone’s watch was getting the same results that day. It was the best aid station though. I had been baking in the sun for too long at that point and they had a big huge sponge and bucket of ice water they were offering to squeeze over anyone interested. They also had a big cooler of ice and were filling people’s hats. I took them up on the sponge soak and then dumped my hat full of ice down my sports bra. It was grand. They had all my favorite snacks from earlier plus a tub of Red Vines. I had some of everything and departed with a fistful of the licorice feeling somewhat re-energized. I’d complimented their aid station enough that one woman had joked that I still had to do the loop despite the compliments. This aid station would be used twice, Olmstead #1 and Olmstead #2, with a 4.5 mile loop between. The loop turned out to be hands down the hardest part of the entire race for me. Thankfully I spent most of it with one of the kind tour guide minded runners from earlier. Had I been alone I would have probably cried before I made it back to aid.

My new friend pointed out bits of trail history to me. He was using Overlook to train for the Rio 100 Miler. The downhills on the loop were steep, rutted, and hard on tired legs. We ran some and walked some. Then we got to the uphill. The grade was gentler, but it was endless and the sun beat down the hottest it had all day long, or so it felt. He told me about how the area had been slated to become a reservoir until it was discovered that it sits on a fault line. He also told me about how grateful he was we had missed the 100 degree temps from just days prior and how hard training in that, and especially on that trail is in those temps. The rock walls that would have been used for the reservoir reflect back the sun and it just bakes you he said. As the hill got steeper and continued to refuse to end I knew I needed to slow further and told him I’d see him at the finish. Awhile later I could see him and another runner around the corner up in the distance ahead. As they turned out of sight I started to worry about the never ending hill, at what mileage on my watch the aid station would actually reappear, and I started for the first time all day to worry about getting cut off. It would have been about 4:45 pm and No Hands Bridge, roughly 5.5 miles from me had a 7:30 pm cutoff and the finish line, 4.5 miles beyond that, had an 8:00 pm cutoff. I should have taken solace in basic math, but exhaustion has a way of defeating the mind. So I texted my best friend, thankful to have signal there unlike the majority of the course, and told her I was crashing. I’d gone from feeling ahead of the game and strong at mile 35.5 and 2.5 hours ahead of cut off to wondering if I could finish fast enough to officially finish. My earlier ‘only 15 miles left’ logic was flawed because they were the most brutal miles of the course in terms of terrain, grade, and sun exposure. She called me and built me up. I told her my breathing wasn’t normal because I had breathed in too much dust earlier and was hacking it up, I was tired, and the sun exposure was too much. She asked how many miles I had and I said 43, but was expecting my watch to finish the race at 52 and didn’t know if there would be more or less. She reacted with, “43?! That’s amazing! You are so strong and you can do this.” She knew what to say to uninvite me to my pity party. About a mile later I at last arrived back at Olmstead aid. I was so happy to see the volunteers and have another cold sponge squeezed over me and dump more ice in my sports bra. I took some Red Vines and Ruffles for the heck of it, but was so over food. Drinking water made me a little queasy and I never wanted to see, much less eat another Skratch Labs chew again even though I normally love them. The volunteers were encouraging and pointed me up the trail. It was a rocky section with an upward grade and it was hard. Little downhills would keep me guessing, but it felt more up than down. I was surprised to pass a few runners here whose day long energy was also fading. After a bit I arrived at a very steep descent, the final downhill of note on the course. Known as the K2 training hill to locals it was a special kind of steep. The grade qualifies it as a quad banger, but the technical rocky terrain took it up an extra notch on the difficulty scale and most were walking down it. I saw my new friend up ahead and chatted again. He told me the background of the hill and how locals use it as part of a loop. He said it was the first time he’d descended it. While up it would be brutal, down was much harder on the body.

I was relieved to turn left on a gentler downhill and pop around the corner on the right to spy the No Hands Bridge aid station. The volunteers were robustly cheering us and the runners who were just leaving and it felt really good right then. There were only 4.5 miles left to finish, but my watch already read 47 miles and more felt like forever. I passed through without taking any more water or food as I felt I had too much of both and wanted neither. I told my new friend he’d probably catch me soon. I was right. After catching up he told me the history of No Hands Bridge. How it used to have no guardrails and equestrians would bravely ride their horses across with no reigns.

The route to the finish was a mix of short climbs and stretching flats. He was run / walking the the flats in intervals and hiking the climbs because his quads were shot. I was not feeling well and hoping to keep up with him. Dusk was falling and it had occurred to me that I was on an unfamiliar trail in an unfamiliar place among strangers not associated with the race, among wildlife, and that soon it would be dark and I’d really rather not be alone. While keeping up with him I learned about Robie Point and how the last miles of Western States go. It was pretty cool to learn so much from a local during the race. With about 2.5 miles left I began to feel incapable of keeping up with him because my stomach had started to feel queasy. I told him so and that I didn’t want to slow him down. He offered me a ginger chew which I thanked him for. A short time later another man caught up to me and asked how I was. I told him not feeling great, but excited to finish. He told me there were others back behind me moving slowly forward and to just keep up the same. Shortly after I got out my headlamp and held it as a flashlight rather than wear it. A woman who I had leap frogged with earlier caught up again and I was glad to have her company in the darkness. As we came around a switchback I saw a bobcat running up the trail ahead and it startled me. Of all the catlike creatures in the forest a bobcat is my choice to see, but it created a feeling of being in the animal’s world. We both wondered if it would be curious and wait for us around the corner, but we never saw it again. My companion was a bit ahead of me until she took a wrong turn. The course was marked in blue ribbons for wrong way and pink for right way, she missed that in the dark and followed the blue. I saw her about 100 feet ahead in the wrong direction and called out until she realized.

I came around a final turn on single track to two volunteers in lawn chairs in the dark writing down numbers and radioing in to the finish line. They pointed me up a final steep short climb and told me it was right there. I was so grateful to be done. I had no sprint in me like at other races. Just a relieved half stumble across the line. The smiling faces of those welcoming me warmed me and I was handed a finisher’s cup, escorted to the carne asada burrito bar, and checked in on. Even though I was at a race far from home where I knew no one the ultra-running community did what it does best. It served up friendly faces, kind words, and genuine care. It was a treat to adventure off to this race by myself. I loved it all. Even the brutal last 15 miles. I highly recommend it. Point to point 50 milers are too few and far between and this one is awesome. Plus you might get to meet Ann Trason. Either at packet pickup, like I did, or dressed in a unicorn costume at the finish line like many others did. This race is gold and the locals getting ready for Rio Del Lago 100 Miler that you’ll simply be going on a long training run with are the gems that make it sparkle.



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