Pioneer Spirit 50
With the World 100k Championships coming up in early September, I cobbled together some recovery time from Western States and a training plan for July and August. It occurred to me that friend and local RD Paulo Medino has a 50 mile trail race, which fit pretty neatly into the build up. Pioneer Spirit also had the added benefit of starting 3 miles from my house, all on trails I have a lot of familiarity with. It is also very low key, no pressure race, which added to my desire to do it.
So, on July 28th, I joined 70 other runners in Cool, for a 5 am start to Pioneer Spirit. Temperatures in the area have been fairly blistery and dry all month, so the sub 80 degree start was delightful. I warmed up a good two miles, including some strides, to mimic what I would do at Worlds. At 4:50, Paulo gave us all a good pep talk and went over some important rules, and finally we were set free to roam around the Auburn State Recreation Area with the spirit of a pioneer. Ahead in the lamplight I could see friend Joclyn Schmidt, whom I knew was running a relay, but I knew no one else. We picked our way through the star thistle, kicking up dust in the dry weather. When the trail divided to a double track, another women scooted ahead, and I wasn’t initially sure but later learned it was new friend Maria Steinhauser. After another half mile or so, I pulled ahead of everyone, and with Maria on my heels, we lead the race into the first aid station. Not needing resupply so early, we breezed through, and began the next several miles of meandering through the Olmstead area, twisting and turning on trails I have run many times, but with the darkness, it was completely new and confusing to me, so that I was completely turned around at times. By the time we came back to the aid station, I did know where I was, and 5 men had just passed me. It was daylight now, so I pulled off my lamp, I filled up with water, and headed on to the next section. A long switch back descent to the North Fork of the American River found me nipping the heels of Ian, a friendly, chatty, young runner from the Bay Area. I asked if he minded if I went around, explaining that my strength is running the downhills, and he kindly let me by. Bottoming out at last, he quickly caught back up, as did Maria. The climb back out is long, grinding, but jog-able. I just shuffled up comfortably, gradually gapping Ian and Maria again, and back to the aid station, filled my one flask with water, and ambled on to the last few miles of the pioneer exploring for the perfect homestead to the race start area. My calculations based on my running in the area put me getting there in 2:30 – 2:45, and I was pretty close at 2:40 something.
Mark was at the aid station, full of positivity, took my head lamp, pointed out how to get through the aid station where I got my bottles refilled, then pointed out my athlete Heidi McKeen and I quickly gave her hug and then hustled on out to one of my favorite sections of trail – Western States from Cool to No Hands Bridge. I let loose and let gravity have its way with me. I fairly flew, until WHAM! I hit the ground hard – possibly my highest velocity encounter with the ground ever. Ouch. I gingerly got up, noticed that no one was coming behind me. My container of Squirrel’s Nut Butter, carefully placed in a front pocket, had jabbed into my abs nice and hard. My knees were smacked but good. I slowly started jogging, acknowledging that I might have to pull the plug if things were too bad. Gradually I unwound, picked up the pace, and felt like I was going to be okay.
At No Hands Bridge aid station, I grabbed a sponge and tried to clean up a bit. With my bottles refilled I ambled across the bridge, being cheered on by Dave and Julie Hope of Foresthill. On the rail bed now, I slowly made my way down river. The trail took a sharp turn to stay low, and eventually turned to go all the way down to the river. It was warming up, but not enough to take the time for a dip. I occasionally looked over my shoulder but saw no other runners. The climb out of the canyon was familiar, arduous, and slow, but knowing the trails made it easier on my mind. I topped out just below the Auburn Dam Overlook to the aid station, and was quickly replenished by the enthusiastic volunteers. I asked if the man just leaving was in 1st place as I had completely lost track of the runners. They said he was actually 5th, but I was first female. I left with my legs feeling good, the first half of the race over in about 4:03, and thought – well, the second half of this race has very little vertical, so I “should” be able to go under 8:00.
The course took a rather gnarly direction – above was a wide canal path, below was a paved road, but we were on an overgrown, uneven single track. Thank you Paulo. There was no getting a rhythm, no stretching out, just dodging and weaving until finally we merged onto the canal, but only for a short bit before heading down one of the steepest trails in the area, Cardiac. Oh good grief. I was still tentative, sore, spastic and on edge about falling. Even picking my toes up the less than one mile descent, I caught a root or a rock more than once, sending my adrenaline through the roof. When at last I reached the bottom I was beyond relief to be upright. At the aid station, I caught the fella I had seen at the previous aid station, and after refueling, we headed out together, down the gravel road to the river. I said to him “now we get to RUN!”
I have run this section of trail multiple times as a tempo run with friend and training partner Craig Thornley. We’ve busted ourselves on this runnable section, and I was quite happy to have a nice zip in my step. My friend led the way, and gapped me a bit, but gradually he began to fade on the climbs, until he finally succumbed, stepped aside to let me pass. “Are you sure?” I asked, to which he just motioned me on.
Continuing to keep up a good effort, I still kept myself in check. This was all practice for Worlds, I kept telling myself. Keep that perceived effort sustainable. Don’t go into 50k or marathon effort. As I neared Rattlesnake Bar aid station, a huge field of overgrown star thistle scratched and poked my legs relentlessly. If nothing else it kept me moving quickly to get out of it. As I got to the turn to the aid station, a male runner was coming out of the dog leg and we encouraged each other. Once there, I looked around for Mark, didn’t see him so asked for my bottles to be filled and a Pepsi. Just as someone opened it, Mark flew in and offered me an Orange Crush – oh be still my beating heart – “Yes, I would love an Orange Crush!” He said I was right where I predicted I would be, time wise, 5:30 for 34 mlles – surely I could get the last 16 in 2.5 hours. I left in good spirits, hiked back up to the trail, and saw no one coming in.
Up and down, in and out, left and right, it was hard to get a rhythm going. More star thistle. The next aid station wasn’t too far, less than 3 miles, and with less than a quarter mile to go, I found myself face down in the dirt again. I wasn’t going as fast this time, but managed to bang both knees again as well as the right side of my head. Neat. I gingerly got up, gradually started jogging again, and hiked up the steep bit to get to the aid station. I joked with the volunteers about the mess I was, and they tried to get me sit in a chair to clean up. I knew better than that, and just grabbed a sponge, rinsed off as well as I could, and with ice in my sports bra, and fresh bottles I limped my way out.
With 6+ miles to the next aid station, more exposure, more heat, it occurred to me that the reason the times on this course aren’t super fast, is there is no finding a rhythm. Short this, bumpy that, grind up, run down, trip, hike. My banged up knees weren’t loving any downhills. In what seemed a very long time, I finally cruised into the last aid station – Granite Bay. My plan – eat watermelon, get my bottles filled, and drink some Pepsi for the last little kick for the final 6+ miles. The volunteers were so wonderful and supportive, cheering me on, quickly attending to me, that as I left I realized I forgot the Pepsi.
The course went along the shore of the lake for a bit, then meandered though the picnic and camp ground, to families enjoying a day at the lake. Most of them stared curiously at this dusty, bloody, somewhat haggard looking runner, At last I reached a stretch of gravel road I was familiar with. It didn’t get easier, but mentally knowing the end was close was encouraging. When I got close to the levee that some races run over, the course went onto single track below. Winding and meandering around, I found myself pushing the pace, knowing I had not that far to go. Popping out onto the bike path, I groaned to myself, knowing it was a grind uphill. Less than half a mile, but it felt brutal.
Cresting then descending, I cruised into the finish area to cheers from Mark, Nick, and Paulo. 8:22,a win and a course record. Within short order I was sitting with ice packs on my knees, and great food from Paulo’s finish line.
Many thanks to the wonderful volunteers, to Paulo for putting together a great race with generosity of spirit, to Mark for coming out to support me, and to my sponsors The North Face, Nathan Hydration, Squirrel’s Nut Butter, Now Foods, and Injinji. This was a tough race, made much easier by all of the support.