This past Saturday was my first ultramarathon of 2017. Lacking in endurance, relying on strength and experience, I took on the challenge that is FOURmidable 50K in Auburn, CA.

The FOURmidable Trail Running event consisted of four challenging races…50K, 35.5K, 13.1-mile, and 13K.  The 50K runners, had to deal with four major climbs named Cardiac Hill, K2 or Training Hill, Knickerbocker Hill, and a final climb to the finish called Overlook Hill. The 50K race distance was also the 2017 USATF National Trail Championship, attracting the likes of Max King, David Roche, Meghan Arbogast, and more.

For me, the 50K would be about just trying to survive on the day. Not quite into the swing of training for Tahoe Rim Trail 100, my training miles did not align with running the FOURmidable 50K. Thus, my expectations were very low for the day. In the end, it was not my day to run the whole 50K, but I learned several things along the way. Here is a quick rundown of the events from my perspective of the race.

Gathering for the Start

Nicole and I arrived at the Auburn Dam Overlook (ADO) around 6:30 AM after a 90-minute drive from Modesto, CA. As I checked in for the race and made final preparations for the day, a light rain was falling. The rain did not seem to be dampening anyone’s excitement, though. After all, the torrential rains throughout this part of California have left the ground overly saturated in the past month. The course was already extremely muddy, so what was a little more moisture.

A large group of Dusty Bottoms Trail Runners gathered to run the FOURmidable Trail Race.

We took our time getting ready, chatted with fellow Dusty Bottoms Trail Runner members and took plenty of photos. One of my primary goals in 2017, in addition to becoming faster and stronger, is to be more of an all-around ambassador for trail running. Showing up at more events, more volunteering, taking photos, making videos, and cheering on other runners. All in the name of the sport of trail running and fellowship.

The 35.5K and 13.1-mile runners got on their way at 7:45 AM and shortly after that the 50K started at 8:00 AM, followed by the 13K.

Photo Courtesy of Captivating Sports Photos.

ADO to Cardiac Hill

I lined up at the outset just behind the expected front runners for the day. While I was not there to contend, my plan was to start quicker than my overall expected pace. I knew that once the pack of some 200 runners began to encounter single-track muddy trails and creek crossings that things would get bottlenecked real quick. However, I did not mean to start as fast as I did, putting down a 6:42, 7:00, and 7:58 pace over the first 3-miles. The course opened with lots of pavement, gravel, and downhill running, which just made for fast running.

As I hit the start of the Cardiac Hill climb, my calf muscles screamed at me with the transition in terrain. The climb immediately forced me into a power-hike to control my breathing and energy expenditure. The Cardiac Hill climb was around 800-feet of elevation gain in 1-mile with mostly singletrack switchback trails. Thankfully, we had not encountered to much mud yet on the course, but this would soon change. After a blistering opening 3-miles, my pace dropped to 15:55 for the climb. With the slower pace, I focused on relaxing and hydrating before the first aid station.

Cardiac Hill to No Hands Bridge

Topping Cardiac Hill, my calf muscles finally got the chance to relax and the persistent burning sensation dissipated within a couple of minutes. With the more level terrain from here to the first aid station, my pace dropped back down under 9-minutes per mile. The pace felt very comfortable. However, with the lack of true ultra-training in recent months, I knew my body and mind were not in sync. I kept telling myself to slow down. My long training run of 16-miles was not enough to carry this pace for 31-miles. Instead, my body kept saying this is easy and pushing the pace forward.

After passing through the first aid station (mile 5.6) in 52-minutes, the course began a steady 700-foot descent over the next 3.5-miles. We were now on the same trail like all the other race distances taking place today. The added foot traffic intensified the wear of the trail. Now, the sloppy mud sections were becoming more frequent. There was one section in particular, which I almost fell flat on my back as my feet were sliding down the hill. I thought to myself, where are my skis when I need them.

From Cardiac Hill to No Hands Bridge, I traded positions several times with Santa Cruz runner, Peter Fish. Each time, we encouraged each other and commented on our different running styles. Peter was not as efficient on the downhills, and I was not as efficient on the climbs. With four challenging climbs on the course and a bunch more rolling hills, I was sure that his strength would win out.

I reached the No Hands Bridge aid station (mile 9.2) in 1:24. The run across No Hands Bridge featured a large puddle that was un-escapable. I charged right down the middle of it, soaking my feet for the first time on the day. As I hit the far end of the puddle, I jumped up in the air and came splashing down to cheers of the aid station workers and a few spectators. After all, it’s not fun to be out here, if you’re not having fun as well.

You would not expect to find a puddle like this on a foot bridge 200-feet above the American River.

K2 Climb

Unfortunately, I had run faster than expected to reach No Hands Bridge. Thus, arriving before Nicole could get here to see me. I filled my water bottle, looked around one more time for Nicole, then started down the trail toward the K2 climb. Technically, no crew was allowed during the FOURmidable 50K and my Oranged Mud pack was stocked with Tailwind, Run Gum, and Snickers bars. So it was not essential for her to meet up with me. As I began to climb K2, I called Nicole to let her know my progress on the course and that I would not see her now until mile 27.2.

I have run the K2 climb several times before to know that it is steep, but thankfully not too technical or long. Peter Fish passed me for the final time on the day half way up the climb. He was running towards the front of his USATF Age Group and looking to make a strong push over the last two climbs. I gave him some final words of encouragement and settled into my power-hiking pace. Unlike Cardiac Hill, my calf muscles were not burning going up K2. I guess they had warmed up enough and realized the punishment was not going to end anytime soon.

K2 to Knickerbocker Station

After 20-minutes, 1,000-feet of gain, and 1-mile, I was at the top of K2. This point in the race was the first time that I knew I might have to drop out before the finish line of FOURmidable. I had been going for 11-miles and almost 2-hours. In that time, I had already climbed around 2,000-feet. Yes, I was still on pace for my predicted 5.5 to 6-hour finish, but the energy and fitness were just not there.

From the top of K2, the next four miles would mostly be downhill and include one aid station. I slowed my pace and continued to try to relax. Unfortunately, the mud was getting the better of my ability to concentrate. Each time I would try to get into a steady run, a shoe-sucking mud puddle or a near slip and fall on the trail would break my pace.

Coming into Knickerbocker aid station (mile 13.4), I had pretty much had lost hope on finishing, but I continued to press on.

Knickerbocker Canyon

After a quick refill of water, I was on my way down into Knickerbocker Canyon. Despite the downhill and smooth trail for 2.5-miles, my pace struggled to stay under an 11-minute mile. However, I took pleasure on the descent enjoying the site and sound of the rushing water in the American River below.

As I began the ascent up Knickerbocker, my right quad started to cramp intensely. I had done a good job with hydration and fueling to this point in the race. This was just another sign that I was pushing my body to its current physical limit. I chewed on a piece of RunGum to see if that could lift my energy levels enough to get to the top of Knickerbocker Canyon. The caffeinated gum combined with a full bottle of water and a few sips of Tailwind subsided the cramping in my quad for the time being.

Shortly before the second time through Knickerbocker aid station (mile 18), I spotted another Dusty Bottoms Trail Runner, Nile, coming up behind me. He is an adamant and talented ultrarunner, so don’t

read this the wrong way. However, Nile catching me, put into full perspective how much I was slowing down. We traded a few words at the aid station. Then, he moved past me as we crossed a near knee deep stream. Nile ended up with a solid 6:12 finish on the day.

One of many deep stream crossings on the FOURmdiable course.

Oh the Pressure

After the Knickerbocker aid station, the course featured more steady rolling hills that should have been runnable. However, once again the wet and muddy conditions proved to be a difficult challenge. In fact, the next 6-miles of the trail were probably some of the worst conditions I have ever experienced. Reviling both the bog of despair at Burning River 100 and the sloppy 2014 Delirium 24-Hour Ultra 1.2 mile loop.

Also, between the Knickerbocker and Cool aid stations, I started feeling the need to go to the bathroom. The sort of bathroom break you don’t want to take on the side of the trail. My pace over these miles ranged from 13 to 17 minutes per mile as I tried to run as much as possible between challenging sections of trail and the mounting pressure. Unfortunately, it seemed to be way more walking than running.

Town of Cool Aid Station

By the time I entered the Cool aid station (mile 23.4), I was four and half hours into the race. If my fitness levels and current feelings were better, covering 7.6 miles in 90-minutes would not have been a problem. Instead, I was tired of the mud, and the pressure to go to the bathroom had pushed me to the limit. Thankfully, there were restrooms at this aid station. One more swamp of water to cross, then I made a v-line straight for the bathrooms. After this stop, I stood at the aid station table for a few minutes and tried to relax. I explained to the volunteers that I thought about not continuing. They, in turn, encouraged me to keep going, that I was almost there.

Finally, I mustered the courage to leave the aid station, but it was very short-lived. Less than a half mile outside the station, the pressure to go to the bathroom was back. I knelt down on the trail and called Nicole to tell her to pack up at No Hands Bridge to get me. In the 20-minutes that I waited at the aid station for Nicole, I went to the bathroom two more times. Feeling better each time, I thought about continuing again. However, I didn’t want to get halfway between the aid stations only to have this feeling come back again. As tough as it is to quit, I was making the right decision to stop for the day.

Lessons Learned

It is usually tough to settle with dropping out of an event. This DNF, however, came at no surprise to me. My long run in training was 16-miles in 2-hours on trails. Today, I had pushed 8-miles and almost 3-hours further than that over difficult terrain. My body had given me all that it could for the day. No reasonable amount of rest at an aid station, hydration, or fueling was going to turn things around. I walked away from Saturday with these final thoughts…

  1. My passion for the trail running community is probably the strongest it has ever been. I was excited to see all the Dusty Bottoms Trail Runners, meet new people, and explore the trails around Auburn, CA. I couldn’t wait to take videos with my GoPro and see the photos of other runners that Nicole took throughout the day. After reviewing the exciting footage, I wished we had gotten more!
  2. My current training stinks! While I have been consistently completing speed work and strength work each week, I do not have a rhythm to my training. All of my knowledge of running is not proving to be enough to get me back to a solid routine. I’m enjoying the running I can do, but it won’t get me to my goal of finishing the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 later this year. Thus, I am taking my coaching advice and bringing in an additional resource to help me focus. This week I have committed to a 6-month coaching plan with ultrarunner Emily Harrison. I am super excited to see what she will draw up for me and the accountability that she will bring.

In the end, I was happy with my performance and experience at the FOURmidable 50K. Single Track Running did a fantastic job putting on this event, and I would highly recommend it to any ultrarunner. I will be back in the future to complete the challenge that is FOURmidable 50K.

Start of the FOURmidable 50K. Photo courtesy of Captivating Sports Photos.