Folsom Lake Ultra Trail
Folsom Lake Ultra Trail, AKA FLUT, was the brain child of good friend and race director Paulo Medina. His events have a great vibe, and while the registration for this particular event is yet to explode, I knew it would not disappoint.
It is a late summer race, when the star thistle is the nastiest, the ground is dry, hard, cloddy, rocky, and a dip in Folsom Lake is like a dirty tepid bath. And while it wasn’t the most appealing time of year for such a race, I put in some long training runs on the course and in those conditions, to mentally and physically prepare myself to accept and not agonize over them on race day.
To make matters even spicier, the start time was at 10:00 am, due to a conflict with another event. At the start, Paulo provided ice water, with which I doused myself before the start and made sure my bottles were amply chilled. I wore a buff under my hat to keep my head wet, wore long sleeves to keep the sun off and arms wet as well.
Paulo gave us pre-race briefing, and with a countdown, set us on our way from the Beals Point State Park on Folsom Lake in a counter clockwise direction, to circumnavigate all 68 miles back to our starting point.
The first 3+ miles were smooth pavement, not too exciting for trail runners, and I took note of the runners not carrying more than one bottle. That was a bit concerning, given it was already in the 90s, there were roughly 7-8 miles between each of the first 3 aid stations, and once we hit the single track it would be decidedly slower and hotter.
As I ran along, I waited to feel my rhythm kick in, my groove, my zone. But for whatever reason, I felt off, empty, awkward. So I took a gel fairly early, started dousing, and kept moving along. Once off the pavement we hit a long levy, the last smooth ground before we hit the single track. Once on that I enjoyed the more interesting and technical dirt. This close to the popular lake beaches meant there were a few other trail users, all wishing us good luck.
I got to the first aid station, and seeing Mark, Joy, and Heidi just beyond it, I bypassed it went straight for them. Mark gave me fresh bottles, ice in my pack, Heidi handed me gels, and Joy gave me calm. I got my head wet and marveled at the runners who blew through without cooling off.
In awhile I started feeling better, normal, and was getting into a nice groove. My electrolyte drink was going down but getting warm quick. My dousing water was cool for a short minute, then it felt like tepid tea water. This part of the course winds in and out of drainages, up and down little short climbs and downhills, and the terrain is all but smooth with roots and rocks. The shade offered some protection from the beating sun, and where there were no trees there was ample supply of star thistle to torture your legs.
With a fairly small number of runners, it wasn’t long before I was running alone. I had passed one woman from a relay team, and there were 4 or 5 men ahead of me, some relay, some solo. When I reached the 2nd aid station, around mile 15, we did a small dog leg up a steep slope, where there was ICE and SPONGES! I spent a bit of time getting completely wet and cold, and the volunteers obliged me with ice in my pack and bottles again. I grabbed a couple gels, and went back out. On my way back to the trail, another female came into the aid station. i didn’t recognize her, but she had certainly come up quick. It wasn’t long before I heard her catch me, so I stepped off the trail, and let her by. She was part of a relay and had come from the bay area. We made the obligatory comment about the weather and she gradually pulled away. This next 7 miles weren’t much different than the last 7 in terrain, but it was still getting hotter.
With about 1.5 miles to the next aid station, I could see down at the beach the boat that would take us across a short section of the lake to The Peninsula – a relatively long body of land that poked out into the lake. Before Folsom was a lake, this is where the South Fork of the American River flowed, and there was a road and bridge one would drive on to get out on the Peninsula to go camping and hiking. When California was deep in drought a few short years ago, the lake became so low that the bridge reemerged, and I had the opportunity to actually run across it. Now it is underwater again, but Paulo has the course go in the same direction. HOWEVER, all runners must go past this point to the aid station, resupply, and come back then down to the beach for the ride. Failure to do the out and back would result in a DQ.
Getting near the aid station, I caught my good friend and training buddy Foresthill Dave. He was the first leg on his relay team, and had gone out fast. The heat finally wore him down with a few short minutes to go. I teased him a little as I passed. I saw one runner heading back out to the boat before I made it in. Mark, Joy and Heidi were ready for me, and Mark said I was right in the time frame I had predicted, and they all helped me get myself cooled off. The runners that were there were pretty cooked and at least one was dropping.
Dave’s next relay partner Derrick left before I did, but when I got to the boat landing we both had to wait as they had left with a runner before we got there. I didn’t really care. I had time to get into the not so fresh water, but it did feel pretty good. When the boat returned – a raft pulled by a jet ski, Derrick and I hopped in and my calves cramped a bit. As the jet ski started to pull, our captain yelled up to the driver to come back, there was another runner coming. Hmmmm. I didn’t really care, the day was hot and long, and the real challenge was not blowing up, more than racing any humans. So, the runner jumped in, and then the captain said wait, here comes another runner, and yes we waited again. About halfway across (it wasn’t too long, maybe 100 yards) the last runner asked if any of us knew how far the next aid station was. No one was too sure but I thought a good 4 miles at least. He seemed very concerned and that it seems such a long way. Another runner then commented to him that he didn’t remember seeing him on the out and back section. “There’s an out and back?” Oh boy. We explained it to him and that he would be DQ’d if he didn’t go to the aid station. He was actually relieved because his bottles were dry. So, once we crossed, 3 of us disembarked, and the other boated back to do do it right.
My body was a little stiff from the interruption, and I watched Derrick speed away on fresh legs. I was slightly ahead of the 3rd runner, as we wound our way up the dry, hot, rocky, single track of the peninsula. Eventually the trail became an old double track, rocky uphill. In practice I had been able to jog this, but the heat was beating me, so I hiked most of it. My shadow finally caught and passed me near the summit, and we ran the next half mile to the aid station.
I was welcomed by fellow Cool-ites, Marla and Jay Marsh.They quickly filled my bottles with icy cold goodness while I sponged off. When Marla asked if there was anything else I needed I asked if she would chase me down the road with the bucket and sponge. Sadly, that was a “no”.
My shadow had left before me but on the smooth downhill pavement I caught back up, exchanged a few words, and then I pulled away. For the next 6+ miles the course mostly climbed up the paved road, with one 2 mile long grade where again I was reduced to walking in the sunny exposed sections, forcing myself to run in the shady bits. When at last I reached the next aid station, I was greeted with “we were expecting you!” Again, the volunteers were quick and attentive with cold beverages and ice. I snacked on melon and soda, and trotted out, towards the busy Highway 49 section, where Heidi was waiting to cheer me on before she drove to Cool where she would begin her pacing duties.
Running on 49 was a little adrenaline inducing with the traffic, but the 2 miles went by rather quickly. When I approached the turn into the state park, I was greeted by Jesse Ellis, taking race photographs. He sprinted down the trail in front me, shutter clicking madly. I was now starting to actually feel really good in the cooling temps, but still took the time to lay down in one of the abandoned canals that flows thru the park. I ran with purpose all the way to the Cool aid station, where Mark, my dad and brother, and Heidi greeted me. Mark resupplied me, and Heidi and I were soon on our way. It felt so good to be running, not fighting the heat, and having legs not hammered by the early miles. We cruised the 3 miles to No Hands, took a little aid, crossed the bridge, and finally were heading back to Beals.
The course went all the way down to the rocky beaches at Pardner’s and Tamaroo, then some steep climbing up to the aid station near the Overlook. Mark was here again, with my headlamps and knuckle lights. Although it was dusk, it was still hot enough to need icing off, so I took my time to get completely chilled off. A relay team handoff took place and we followed the new runner out. We ran along the canal that flows through Auburn for a mile, then crossed a road to take the “Pioneer Express” trail. Unfortunately it wasn’t well marked, and we had to call out to the relay runner that he had missed the turn. He came back but never caught us. Heidi phoned Paulo to alert him of the problem so someone could mark the crossing better.
The trail ended at the top of Cardiac trail – one of the steepest sections in the local trail system, about a mile long. It is one of the few trails i would rather run up than down, due to how steep and technical it is, and falling down could cause bodily harm of disastrous proportions. I had Heidi lead the way so I could focus on her feet and movements, and happily we got to the bottom unscathed.
Back at the river’s edge, I found myself running strong and blissfully. We had less than 20 miles to go, dusk was turning to dark, and the trail was quite runnable. We flipped on our lights, but were completely aware and in awe of the full moon shining on Folsom Lake. It was such a gift.
Rattlesnake Bar was the next aid station, and we were treated royally. It was a pleasant surprise to see Joy there as well, her quiet presence feeling like a warm blanket, asking if I needed anything else that wasn’t offered. She held a few sticky items of mine while I browsed the aid station, and shortly thereafter, Heidi and I were off.
I am pretty familiar with the trail, so in the headlamp lit darkness, there were no surprises. We ambled along, chatting away the next 3 miles to Horseshoe bar aid station. We didn’t need long here, given the close proximity from the last, but how we had 6.5 miles to the next. The beloved “meat grinder” section lay ahead – a granite filled section than no simple trail can be built thru. Up, over, through, around, short, long. A good friend, Kim Kortz, likes to refer to this section as “the rock garden” and I practiced gratitude and appreciation for the natural beauty, when I really really wanted to curse the difficulty. When we finally came out the other side, I was relieved and happy to find my legs still present and willing to run. Heidi led me into the final aid station at Granite Bay, where Mark and Joy were waiting, cheerfully getting me my final aid.
Just a few miles to go, a few more climbs, a few tenuous down hills, and three gloriously flat levies. I was somewhat amazed that I could actually run with purpose and effort, and was even greeted by another great training partner, Gina, out on the last levy, to run with us, at nearly midnight. I have good friends. Mark and Joy and Bill were still burning the midnight oil to see me finish as well.
Full disclosure – I set my bar high for my time on this race. The elevation gain is not massive (8000-ish depending on your device) and so I thought on a good day I could break 11 hours. Breaking 12 would be cool. And at some point I remember saying to Heidi “Well it looks like I will break 14!” Somethings can not be measured by an elevation profile. The technicality of much if not most of this course make it difficult to get a good rhythm going, but I would wager to say that the heat of the day was the biggest factor. At any rate, my finishing time of 13:43 was good for the win, and good for me to give this race the respect it deserves. I would love another chance, on a cooler day, for fun.
Hats off to Paulo for putting this race on. It involves several entities, permits, volunteers over several hours, and the idea is just plain cool to have a race around Folsom Lake. Helen Martin, his aid station coordinator does a superb job getting the best volunteers who put out amazing spreads and warm hearts, many sacrificing their entire night for the few runners who managed to make to back to Beals.
Many thanks to my sponsors, The North Face, Squirrel’s Nut Butter, Injinji Socks, Nathan Sports, Now Foods, and Stephanie Howe Violett Nutrition Their support is tantamount to enablement…and I appreciate them all. Thanks to Heidi McKeen for her companionship those last 30 some miles, so upbeat, positive, encouraging, and apparently never sleepy. And finally, thanks to my family – hubby Mark and his parents Joy and Bill, and my Dad and brother Stephen, for crewing and spectating on an incredibly long and hot day to something akin to watching paint dry. It means the world to me that they all care about supporting my passion in such an engaged manner.