Age Group Winner, Wierdest Race Ever

 Plans change and I ran a different race this week then I had intended. As it turned out, I finally found that race where I could win my age group. Being the only male in the 50-59 age group, all I had to do was finish to win my AG. First ever. Probably the last. I appreciate all the congratulatory remarks, but they are probably less deserved that it may first appear.

I was scheduled to run the Gold Rush 50k, but due to a permit issue, their course was changed to multiple laps on the paved bike trail near Sac State. 31 miles on pavement is not my idea of a good time, so I accepted their refund and registered for a race around Jenkinson Lake at Sly Park. I’ve trained on these trails before and I love the terrain and the views. This was the location of my first 50k, but that race took me out through Fleming Meadows. I found that particular trail to be hot, exposed, and dusty. I decided it was not pleasant and ran the 20 miles is subsequent years. This weekend’s race was three laps around the lake.. well, sort of.

For my non-running readers or those who might be unfamiliar, there are three basic ways to organize a run. The point-to-point, as it says, starts at one place and runs to another. Advantages are that terrain is never repeated and when you reach the finish, you are done. The disadvantage is that runners have to worry about transportation. If your car is at the start, you need a ride back from the finish. The out-and-back solves the transportation issue, but the drawbacks are that you repeat the terrain and when you “finish” you then have to run back. A loop combines the best of both; runners do not repeat terrain and end up back at their cars. There are multiple ways to combine or modify these. Loops are often modified to create runs of greater distance or provide more variation. Some races create a modified loop with a “figure 8” that goes back through the start/finish in the middle and end of each loop. My favorite of these is Born To Run (I am sworn to secrecy to never reveal the actual course) which is a figure 8 course that looks nothing like an 8. The race I participated in this weekend had 3 loops and was run washing-machine style, switching directions on subsequent loops. This race ran two loops in one direction and then switched to the other…

Wait, let’s start at the beginning…

When Gold Rush changed their course, I signed up for Troy’s California Trail Runs Trail Run at Sly Park. When I arrived at the check-in station I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. The parking lot was nearly empty and there were only about 6 people milling around. I could see they were runners, so I parked and went inside the event center at Sly Park Recreation Area and found a few people I know. Generic bibs were handed out, a different color for each distance, and a few people were standing inside waiting for the bathroom or just chatting. I was told that we would walk across the street to the starting line at about 7:45. Around that time Troy showed up from setting up and aid station and we shuffled over to the starting point of the race. Standing there with 25 runners, next to a pop-up and two tables that would make up the aid station at the end of each lap, I felt like this might have been what it was like when trail running was new. There is no start line, no inflated arch, no giant clock, no sponsor signs… just one guy trying to explain to a small group of runners what to expect on the course.

The pre-race instructions went on way too long. There were several tangential discussions on the sport, other races, why things had or had not been done, etc. We were instructed to follow pink ribbons out, except that there would be some yellow ribbons indicating a sharp right for the 5k runners, who would then return following orange ribbons until they rejoined pink ribbons back to the start. Everyone else would continue to the creek and the bench where the 10k runners would turn around and follow the pink ribbons back to the start. The half marathon runners would follow the 10k course (pink out and back) and then do the 5k course (pink out to yellow and then orange back until pink). The 20-mile race and the 50k race would follow the pink ribbons all the way around (except that he ran out of pink ribbons and had to use some used red ribbons instead) for the first loop and then follow pink/red until the trail split and we follow the orange ribbons (also marked as the 20-mile loop) for the second loop. 20-milers are then done, but the 50k runners turn around at the start/finish line and repeat the pink/red/orange/pink loop in reverse order. In addition, the course had been modified at the last minute due to forest service work on part of the trail. We would run on the paved park road for part of the course and that would end up shorting us to about 27 miles at the end of 3 loops. We were told we had the option of doing the first 3 loops and then continuing back out to do the 5k loop (pink-yellow-orange-pink) to get closer to our 50k distance. Got it? Good.

“Ready, set, go!” And we were off, as the start/finish/aid station person started a stopwatch. Yes, a stopwatch!

We all started together down a fairly steep gravel road, up a switch back single track trail, over fallen trees and across the street to the trail next to Jenkinson Lake. I love this trail and enjoyed the rolling hills along the lake. I ran the first 4.5 miles with Carina, Veronica, and Sheng, who are also training for their first 100k at Loco next month. I felt pretty confident in the trail markings as I saw the yellow and the orange trail variations for subsequent loops. When we reached the mid-loop aid station, Race Director, Troy told us that we need to run the extra 5k loop at the end to be considered as completing the 50k course. We were OK with this since we planned to do it anyway.

I tried picking up the pace a little while continuing up the road, but I had to pause a couple of times to make sure I hadn’t missed a turn. Ribbons were sparse in this area and there are a lot of places to rejoin the dirt, but none were part of the course. Although it was road, it included several longish climbs that drained me. I reached the end of the first loop on my pace and felt pretty good heading out for loop 2.

Then it got weird.

Beginning the second loop on familiar trail (pink ribbons) until I got to the fork in the trail where the orange ribbons began the alternate roof, I was feeling pretty comfortable on my own. I Continued following orange until I saw some pink ribbons and continued up on the higher trail. The the trail just ended. That’s when I realized that the first service was using pink ribbons to mark trees for removal. I shook my head at the unlucky coincidence and looked around. The trail was just below me so I scrambled down the hillside to get back on course. I hadn’t added much additional distance, but the time looking around and scrambling was a little frustrating. I followed orange/pink/orange/pink until I found my way back to the mid-loop aid station where Troy asked me how it was going. I told him about the forest service ribbons and he said “oh yeah, forgot to tell you guys about that.” It was here that he told me that they were hoping to get this done in 8 hours and the two ladies and two gentlemen I had just caught up with  commented that it would be difficult to complete this course in that time. I put my head down and pressed on up the paved park road for the second time. This time I arrived at the start/finish aid station a little behind when I had hoped, but still looking like I could get to the 8 hour goal… maybe.

I turned around and headed back out in the reverse direction just as the two young male runners arrived. They got out of the aid station quickly and caught me on the first climb. The trail markings looked decidedly different in the opposite direction and I found myself questioning my choices and taking some slightly longer paths up the same hills I had just come down. I was trying to catch Lily and Shauna, who were now a little ahead of my and stay ahead of George and Walter, who were now on my tail. Once I got to the road I was moving fairly well on the general downhill to the aid station. There Troy told me that if I wanted to complete the 50k I needed to leave the start/finish area by 3:30. Having a cutoff announced at mile 22 of a 50k was a curveball I didn’t know if I could hit, but I didn’t have time to think about it. I picked up the pace and followed the orange/pink/red/orange/pink ribbons back to the start finish area. Just before the aid station I saw Lilly and Shauna coming the other way for the for the final 5k. It was here that a female runner caught me moving very fast. I had last seen her on the road as I was approaching the mid loop aid station for the final time and she was heading the opposite direction, before doing her return loop, with her father (I heard?) on a bicycle. She surprised me and immediately offered her garmin as proof that she had run enough distance, claiming she had run the 5k (she added “actually the 10k”) first and then proceeded to the remaining loops. She claimed victory as the 1st female runner to complete the course, but no one saw her anywehere else on the course and she is not present on the results list.

I arrived at the start/finish area and asked the time. It was 3:37. I was told that going back out was my choice. I was determined to get all the miles in and mentioned that, if we had started on time, it wouldn’t be 3:30 yet. George and Walter came in just after me and George stopped while Walter continued. He was suddenly running much faster and soon went by me on his way to complete the last 5k loop. I was determined to catch Lilly and Shauna and pressed on. I caught a glimpse of Carina, Veronica, and Sheng coming in on the orange trail as I went out on the pink in search of yellow. Just when Walter caught me we saw the sweep coming towards us on a mountain bike. He had pulled all of the ribbons and wiped out the course markings. We continued, hoping we would recognize the hard right turn where the yellow ribbons were supposed to be. I saw a singl yellow ribbon and made the hard right, but instead of climbing up the steep hill I was expecting, I was on a trail the soon returned me to the lower trail that I had just come out on. Shortly after this I crossed paths with Shauna and Lily and we ran the last mile or so together. They had not seen Walter. Our watches had matching miles, so the best I can figure is that I was on a parallel trail, again. We started hiking up the road to the final finish, but decided to sprint to the finish where everyone else was cheering us on. Three loops ended up being very close to a marathon, so that distance was added to the results list for those who stopped then. We waited for Walter, who must have missed the turn and run some bonus miles of his own.

Truth be told, 8:32 is not what I was hoping for, but I learned what I needed and I felt good the entire race. There was a lot of ups nd down and at elevation to begin with, so it should prepare me for Loco in June, but I’m a long way from being prepared for 100k with a 16:30 cutoff.

If you’re looking for a small race with minimal but adequate support and organization, where you don’t need t-shirts, chip timing, or awards, Troy’s Californian Trail Runs may be for you. It’s more like a group of friends going for a trail run than a race. And that’s ok.

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