Rio del Lago 100: A Tale of Two Races
Rio del Lago 100 mile has been held since 2000. Prior to this year, it was directed by Norm and Helen Klein. Norm is known for directing other races as well, namely Western States 100. Helen carries her own weight in the ultra world, having run the Ultra Grand Slam at 65+ years of age. The race takes place in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 30 miles east of Sacramento, and shares some trail with the last section of Western States 100. Terrain is mostly rolling hills with a handful of significant climbs before the midway point in the race, with a total elevation change of around 11,000 feet. The surface is largely smooth dirt and a little jeep road. I’d say around 70% of the course is runnable, albeit some runnable sections require careful footing.
I started training the week I got back from Ellen and my honeymoon, with this being my only goal race this year. Peak mileage was around 60 miles a week, and that seems to have worked well for me. Training wasn’t perfect, but I did get in most of my runs and worked hard on my long runs to simulate race day. However, none of those things were going to happen at Rio del Lago. And that’s where I tell you about the first half of the race.
Miles 1 – 47: Rookie Mistakes and Weight Shakes
I began the race well-rested and, therefore, focused on the task at hand. As the final minutes ticked off the count-down clock, I played through the aid station splits in my head, and what I’d take from each out, and how I’d feel. Somewhere around my mental image of the mile 30 aid station, the buzz of the race start sounded. Many “good lucks” and “have funs” later, the runners were a couple hundred feet away from Beal’s Point (race start) and on to a man-made dam. Three of these comprised the first mile of the race, before hitting some jeep road rollers and getting in to some single track. These miles passed as quickly as any do early in a run.
The scene of the first aid station really set the tone for all the remaining ones, and shed light on the spectacular coordination Julie Fingar has with these races. Runners arrived to a bustling aid station, playing music we could hear half a mile away (at 6am!), decked out with a tropical theme and volunteers sporting hula gear. It was amazing. This vibe was to continue, for the most part, the rest of the 27 hours I would be out there.
The next 12 miles were pretty relaxed, on a nice single track. I made one brief wrong turn for no more than 100 yards. After getting back on track, I came upon the scene of about 6 lead runners who had all also gone off track some where, but for much longer than I had. One of the guys in that pack decided not to pass, and he would end up running behind me for the next six miles more or less. Every minute or so, he had something really positive to say about the race. “Beautiful!” “Amazing!” and even one “I’m gonna get a buckle today!” It was like having my own personal motivator. The time came when we eventually got stuck in a conga line and he moved ahead, out of earshot. That was the last I saw of him for a while.
Just after you take in some of the beautiful canyon overlooks, Cardiac Hill rears its head. This is a very nasty climb, the likes of which we just don’t have down here in Texas. It’s a good three times longer than anything I have trained on. It was going up this climb, I started making my first big mistakes. Not taking in calories the entire climb would hurt me greatly in a bit.
Mile 24 was Auburn Dam Overlook. This is a notable aid station, as it’s the last large one before crossing the American River (Western States territory) and heading to Cool. I was surprised to see Ellen at another aid station! She had been successfully tracking me the whole morning, and it was great to have her support again. I had observed my energy depleting more and more after Cardiac, so I took in some calories here. Not nearly enough. I also made the other rookie mistake of switching from some form of liquid nutrition to purely water. At the time I was worried about my stomach, but I’ve now realized my stomach will briefly sour at some point anyways, and just to keep taking in calories whatever the cost. I waved at Ellen, she snapped some pics, and I was off.
The trail here started a long downhill section. I was pretty pumped for this, until I started feeling some knee issues creeping in. This surprised me, as my IT band hadn’t bothered me all year. However, I really neglected foam rolling on race week, and as the next few miles crept on, the knee started flaring up incredibly. The pain became so relentless around 3 miles later that I could not put much pressure on my right leg. I was defeated. I sat on a rock to yell at myself for not foam rolling, when I found some pain relief ointment that had been in my drop back and snuck its way to my pack. Immediately after applying it, I was like:
The stuff was pure voodoo. Fixed me right up. So I picked up some slack and made my way across No Hands Bridge and toward the long, long climb out of Auburn, toward Cool.
The pain reliever started wearing off just a bit before the aid station in Cool. I was in for two 8 mile loops (washing machine), before getting to start my return route back to the finish, so a sense of concern starting weighing on me quite a bit. I was hoping that my challenges would be mental rather than physical. The thought of 70 more miles on a bum knee was horrific.
Arriving at Cool to an epic aid station, more fit for a king’s banquet than a trail race, I tried to eat what I could and got a couple Tylenol from Ellen. I still was far behind on calories, and for no good reason I rushed back on to the trail after only eating a handful. The ensuing loop and counter loop would be my own personal pity party. Energy was draining with each step, the sun was out in force on our exposed trail, and I was running out of water. Chris Russell has mentioned in the past that most people find themselves at one time or another wondering why the hell they’re out there, and that it just feels dumb. That was this 16 mile stretch for me.
I eventually finished the washing machine loop, barely having enough energy to run the incredibly easy road portion before the aid station. I’d already come to terms with the idea of quitting. I felt like I was destroying my knees, and my pee had been getting very dark. Thoughts of Rhabdo were taunting me to drop, and I was getting suckered right in. My only problem is I didn’t know how to tell Ellen, who was waiting for me at the aid station. One of the reasons I wanted to run this race was to prove I could be strong for us, for our family. How could I go against that and drop? I sat and sat and used the restroom twice. I even embellished my pain a bit to the medical staff, but I think they saw through it (thankfully). Ultimately, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Ellen how badly I wanted to stop, so I decided to try and collect myself and make it to the next aid station. Before heading out, I made sure to stuff my face with everything I could from the aid station, and I switched back to liquid nutrition (Gu Brew) in one of my handhelds. I also noticed a bottle of Ensure – the weight loss shake. I knew I could use the protein and electrolytes, so I guzzled it and got moving. Slowly.
Miles 48 – 100: The Tough Get Going
Leaving Cool, which I designated as the half way point, I set out for the 5 mile trek to my first pacer, Scott Warr. I had started feeling more energetic now, thanks to the delicious Ensure and feast I’d just eaten. The Gu Brew was also tasting decent. Just as I was coming to terms with 52 more miles out there, I stopped to pee, and…black urine.
I had no idea what to do. All I could think of was Liza’s story about peeing coffee and having to go to the hospital right after her race. I thought I was finished here. I did NOT want to wind up in a hospital or having an IV hooked up to me all night. I pouted for the next couple miles and came to terms, for the second time, with dropping. On a positive note, once I was sure I’d drop, I was able to truly enjoy my uphill hike back in to Auburn, and the stars were spectacular. I stopped twice to stare at them and take in the bliss of the night air and open sky as I walked along the American River cliffs.
Soon enough, I arrived to Ellen and my pacer, Scott. They were PUMPED, which made it hard to break them the news. I explained my urine predicament, and Scott went to work calling trail friends with medical backgrounds. Again, I was secretly hoping my race was over. I felt mentally drained and still worried about a hospital visit. Word came back that dark pee wasn’t apparently too huge a deal if I kept taking in liquids efficiently and peeing steadily, and if I had no other bodily discomforts. Scott looked eager to get moving and I felt bad at keeping them waiting during my leisurely hike the past few miles, so I pushed away dark thoughts of IV fluid, and we moved on toward the next aid station.
When Scott told me that I was only about 20 minutes off my predicted time, I was incredibly surprised. I thought for sure the hiking and pity parties I’ve had put me WAY behind on time. Apparently, I’d been about an hour and a half ahead through mile 30. Wonderful news. So wonderful that I felt a spark ignite, and we were jogging most of the way back to the Cardiac Hill descent. I was waiting for my knees to lock up again on this downhill, but it never happened. Scott got me to agree to start jogging all the flats and we seemed to stick to that plan pretty well.
Soon, we arrived at our next aid station, where I noticed my urine was not black anymore, but more of a pomegranate color. I was a bit shocked, and wondered if I was peeing blood, but the consistency of it wasn’t quite thick like blood. So again, I questioned my health to Scott and the safety of continuing. He made another quick call as we hiked on out of the aid station, this time to a local trail guru – Mark Lantz (17 hr Western States finisher). My next pacer, Don Freeman, sent a text to Scott saying he’d had the same urine issue in a race and it did not impede him or send him to the hospital, so that was some peace of mind. At the same time, Scott had got off the phone with Mark, who advised me to try a combination of water and sprite to clean my system out. Water and Sprite. Remember this combination, friends.
I started consuming the liquids, and all the sudden started feeling an immediate pick-me-up. Not only that, but it was damn tasty. The drink was PERFECT. I was getting in calories easily now and still no knee pains, or any bodily pain whatsoever. I was a new man. Either my body finally stopped trying to tell me to quit or this drink was like cheat codes for ultra running.
Scott, being from the area, was able to tell me about all the trails. I learned the names of all the local landmarks and which routes are his favorites. He even took me on a slight detour (it wasn’t less distance than the normal trail) so I could see a part of the AR50 mile course. Every few miles I would puke randomly, and then trudge on. It didn’t bother me much, and I liked that my stomach was clearing things out. We chatted about mountain lion attacks, future plans for Trail Runner Nation, our jobs and world travel.
In such an odd twist of events from the first half of the race, I just felt stronger as the miles ticked off. The closer we got to mile 78, where I’d get my second pacer, the more focused I was feeling, and the more dialed in I was with my nutrition and consumption. We were walking very minimally, and even jogging many of the small rollers. In what seemed like no time, we hit Beal’s Point.
The race is a little odd, in that you get back to the start, but you’re only at mile 78, so you have to go BACK out for 11 miles, and then return to the start/finish again. I thought it would be tough seeing the finish and have to head back out for 22 more miles, but it wasn’t. I was feeling great at this time, and only stayed minimally to say hi to Ellen and thank Scott, before Don Freeman and I shuffled back out. I was determined and ready to chase some rabbits down.
The last 22 miles were just about execution in my eyes. It was a little after midnight, and I wanted to try my hardest to still finish close to my 26.5 hour finish estimate. I told Don about my race plan: half sprite/water in each handheld, a couple potatoes, handful of chips and small pbj at each aid station. Jog all the flats, power hike the climbs and recover on the downs. The 22 mile stretch was perfect for this strategy, as there are no significant climbs to thwart the plan.
Somewhere around mile 88 my left ankle started talking to me. I may have been favoring it too much earlier in the day with my knee issues. I knew that I was doing well on liquids and peeing frequently, so I took a couple Ibuprofen to ease the growing pain. Again, saved by modern medicine! The stuff worked wonders, especially after about 15 minutes. Time passed incredibly fast as we started hunting down runners. I think we caught around 15-18 people over the last 30 miles. I was imagining the fight scenes from Highlander, where the victor takes his opponent’s powers, as I passed each runner.
In addition, Scott had told me earlier that he and Don have a rule that each time you pass someone, you have to continue jogging hard until you’re out of sight. I stuck to that plan the entire last 22 miles. At times, I was kicking myself for wasting so much time earlier in the race, pouting. However, Don, the sage, reminded me that I might owe my current energy to that time I spent recovering and walking earlier in the race. Another wonderful pacing moment was around mile 93 when I was really feeling strong and I told Don that we should just top off my bottles and go right through the aid station to the finish. He kindly stated that I was probably moving so well at the time due to how well I’d been handling my prior aid station stops, and I should treat this one no different. I humbled myself and admitted he was right, and we did just that. I was impressed at the energy of the final aid station workers, 26.5 hours in to the race, still so polite and enthusiastic. Play this video while you read the remainder of the report, so you can feel the way I was feeling:
I was really smelling the finish line at this point. Five miles to go. We had passed about 4 people in the last handful of miles. Don is fairly popular in the area and was stopped once in a while by Trail Runner Nation fans. I took these opportunities to try and push really hard to make him catch up to me :) I recalled how much I had to work at times to keep up with The Legend when I paced him at Rocky Raccoon a couple years ago, so I was channeling the mojo he must have instilled in me. Just a brief section of about 10 rollers left, followed by some quarter-mile dams and then the finish. We hiked the rollers hard and I pushed really hard on the downhills, not doing any favors to my ankle, but it was still fairly masked by the Ibuprofen. The sun was up by now, and I remember hearing how so many veterans speak of a second wind at this time. In this race, it would be more like my tenth wind, but I did feel it nonetheless. I was sad to no longer have the stars about, but the sun represented a near-close to my journey, and I was thankful for it.
Counting down the final rollers, Don told me there was one left. We pushed hard to knock it out. My energy was fading. My body recognizing that it was about time to call it quits. The rollers were gone, and all that remained were some crushed rock dam sections leading to the finish. The Folsom Lake was on our left, and I could see clear across to the finish. I wanted to dig deep and run the entire last mile and a half stretch, but it was rough ground and my legs were giving way. I set quarter-mile milestones out loud to Don, and we walked briefly in between each one. We were greeted by many non-participant runners out, and they all seemed so encouraging, which aided my push to the finish.
As one man in particular passed and offered a congratulations, Don told me something along the lines of “that’s a guy who is really impressed right now. Maybe he will be out here next year because of you!” It had not dawned on me during the race, until this point, that some of these challenges we set for ourselves can be impacting others. After all, I owe much of my passion for running to efforts I’ve seen others achieve, and stories of triumph they’ve shared. This really resonated with me, and I felt a sudden sense of gratification for the effort I just put out the past 27 hours. It was no longer about me or my personal convictions, but about the chance that I could use this as an opportunity to instill some hope in others wanting to achieve something they didn’t think they could do. I really liked this perspective better than me simply wanting to do something for my own gain. And with that thought still in mind, I came upon Ellen, who was still up and ready to jog in the last 100 feet with me through the finish line, where we’d see a crowd of people cheering and clapping. Many of them having finished hours earlier, but out here still supporting nonetheless, because time doesn’t matter that much in our world of trail running. I was so happy to cross the finish line, because it made it all that much sweeter cheering for the remaining finishers, now that I knew what they’ve been through.
Let me give you an idea how awesome of a person Don Freeman is. When the clock reached the 29:50 mark, they heard that there was a runner only about 2 miles away. She wasn’t moving well and wouldn’t make the cutoff. Don got the crowd to take a vote. “Should we extend the cutoff for Tina?!” Don shouted over the mic. A resounding yes came from the crowd. Don even got a couple of the finishers to “donate” some of their time to Tina. The overall winner donated 4 minutes of his time (so he would still stay under 17 hours), and other runners donated 5, 10, 15 minutes. In the last ten minutes or so waiting for Tina to come in, Don interviewed some of her family. “Where’d you come from, How long has Tina been running, How has crewing her been today” and so on. It was truly awesome. When Tina made her 100 foot trek through the finish area, the crowd was absolutely insane. Tears were pouring down her face. Can you imagine the feeling of an entire race voting to let you finish, sticking around to hear stories about you, and then cheer on your finish? Just surreal. That’s trail running.