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June 8, 2011

An Extra Dose of Cool: Auburn Trail Run Race Report

"My body tells me no -
But I won't quit, 'cause I want more ... I want more!"
- Young the Giant, "My Body" (video after post)

Under normal circumstances, if you’re looking for some solid heat training in preparation for a summer 100-miler, finding a race in Auburn, CA at the beginning of June seems like an absolute slam dunk.

And then there’s 2011 – where January featured beach weekends strung back to back to back, February saw winter snowstorms return with a vengeance, and March had so much rainfall that the neighborhood animals were lining up in twos. Springtime has been one of those schizophrenic seasons where you have absolutely no idea what to expect – so I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a plan I crafted back in February to get some heat training in June wouldn’t exactly turn out the way I wanted.

That doesn’t mean the day was disappointing, however; the Auburn Trail Runs feature small crowds, beautiful trails, and great aid station support on a course that includes an 8-mile stretch of the Western States Trail as well as one of that race’s most famous landmarks. I came with two goals in mind: 1) stretch the 34-mile race into a 50-mile training day, and 2) get some familiarity with part of the trail that I’d be returning to as a pacer in a few weeks – more on that later.

The only thing that was missing was the heat – and while I was more than a little bummed about the weather, it’s not like I haven’t had experience with running all day in the rain. You may recall that the last 50K I entered, at Woodside this March, had similarly wet and muddy conditions. You’ve heard the expression “Bring your own weather with you?” Apparently I’m the guy who brings rain to his 50Ks. There’s probably some symbolism in that … but I’m afraid to consider what. So let’s just start the report.

(As usual, click to enlarge all photos.)

One thing that continually impresses me about ultrarunners is that there’s very little drama; before the race, I didn’t hear one complaint about the weather, and nobody made it out to be a bigger deal than it was. The only acknowledgement of the rain came from RD Robert Mathis, who told us “I’ll keep my announcements to 30 seconds, so you can start running in the rain rather than standing in it.” I thought that was considerate.

The first four miles of the course are mostly downhill on the Western States trail until you reach an aid station at No Hands Bridge. During the WS100, No Hands is at mile 97 - and for most runners, crossing it is the point where they realize that the finish line they’ve struggled toward all day and night is finally within grasp. During the Auburn Trail Run, I’d end up going back and forth across the bridge 5 times in 10 hours, so the mystique wasn’t exactly the same – but it’s still a pretty cool landmark.

After crossing the bridge, you leave the Western States trail and start the first of two loops with what’s known as the “training hill” – a 1000-foot climb in less than one mile, complete with roots and rocks and, particularly on the second time around, quite a bit of mud.  I'd say that makes for some pretty decent training.

The reward for the climb is the open meadows and gently rolling terrain of an area called the Olmstead Loop, where the trails are extremely runnable and your legs can settle into a nice rhythm for several miles.

My other reward near the top of the climb was catching up to my soul sister Gretchen, who obviously wasn’t in much of a hurry on what would be her last long training run before Western States in three weeks. She was taking it easy and enjoying the day – several times, she made a point of saying “This is what we do for fun!” – which meant that I had a somewhat reasonable shot at keeping up with her. We ended up running most of the race together, which was perfect practice for both of us, since she also happens to be the runner I’m pacing at States.

It was also nice to have someone else taking pictures every now and then, since there’s no way I would have run back and forth across this creek several times in hopes of getting a self-timer photo in the rain.

Approximately 13 miles into the race, we reached an outpost near the small town of Cool, whose name predictably lends itself to some pretty fun wordplay. For example, that’s a Cool little aid station pictured above, don’t you think? There were some Cool people there with Cool snacks and drinks for us. And since we were doing two loops, Gretchen and I were already looking forward to coming back again later – because you can never really have too much Cool.

After the aid station, we encountered another cool (small c this time) part of the course: we got to take a short cut! There was only one catch …

… as this particular section of the Western States trail is extremely rocky and technical, which combined with slick conditions and a fairly steep downhill grade to make this the most challenging part of the course for me. See that blue dot in the distance? That’s Gretchen, who dropped me like I was hot as soon as I lost my Cool.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long before I was able to see No Hands Bridge at the bottom of the canyon, where Gretchen was socializing with a friend of hers while waiting for me to catch up. Seriously.

By this time, the constant rainfall of the day had made trail conditions pretty sloppy …

… but no less pretty, of course.

The rough trail conditions posed something of a challenge for my moccasins – which brings me to my minimalist tangent for today. Although the trail outsole on my RunAmocs isn’t nearly as aggressive as traditional trail running shoes, there were only a couple of instances where I felt like I was at risk of losing my balance. I think this is largely due to keeping a short stride length and landing fairly flat-footed, which keeps my center of gravity above my base of support (Sorry, I can be a biomechanics geek sometimes) and increases my initial surface contact on the ground. I also noticed that my feet were able to flex and contour very nicely in response to rocks and roots and other trail irregularities. So, yes, wearing moccasins in the mud was a little tricky – but not nearly as tricky as you might think.

Meanwhile, back at the race …

One nice thing about spending four hours in the rain is that you don’t worry about getting your feet and ankles wet at river crossings anymore.

On our second trip around the loop, Gretchen began pulling away from me on almost every little incline – but since it was a fun run for her, she never took me up on my suggestion to just leave me in the dust. (Or mud, as the case may be.)

So here’s something that isn’t so Cool: this photo isn’t from the trail – we took it in the parking lot after the race. The reason I’m putting it here is because when we got to the Cool aid station the second time, we asked one of the Cool volunteers to take a Cool picture of us with my cool camera. The volunteer appeared to take two Cool photos of us, but when I got home, somehow they weren’t on my camera. She must have pushed the wrong button or something. Very unCool.

Gretchen waited up for me again on the long descent to No Hands Bridge, where we faced a 4-mile uphill return to the finish …

… which was far and away the most difficult part of the whole day for me. It’s one thing to plan on tacking miles to the end of an ultra, but it’s another thing to keep that same mojo when you’re soaked to the bone, dragging yourself along on sore and tired legs, and struggling to keep up with someone who’s clearly taking it easy out of sympathy. Each step drew us closer to the parking lot, which normally would be a good feeling … but all I really felt was increasing dread about having to turn around and retrace my steps for another four hours after getting there.

Eventually I made it to the line for my official race finish, where … yeah. She had to wait for me again.

Perhaps if I had time to stand around and think about it, I might not have headed back onto the course. However, since the rain was still falling, I knew that if I wanted to stay warm, I had to keep moving – so I stopped at my car, strapped on a hydration pack, bid farewell to Gretchen until I see her again at Western States … and headed back down that very same trail toward my turnaround destination at Cool, just over 8 miles away.

Once I got over the mental hurdle of heading back onto the course, the remaining miles actually felt surprisingly comfortable. The No Hands volunteer was still there, and let me eat a potato before wishing me a happy run …

… which is exactly what it turned out to be. There was also a far different mental vibe about being on the course by myself; this time around, there wasn’t a race going on or anybody else to worry about - it was just me getting to know the trail, soaking (literally) in the experience and enjoying almost every step of it. Gretchen was right: This is what we do for fun.

When I got to the Cool aid station, it had long since closed down … which was actually a pretty Cool feeling for me. And then another Cool thing happened: the rain broke for long enough for me to take a timer photo …

… which would be this one. That’s three fingers, as in 3 Times Cool. Boo-ya.

The return descent to No Hands was remarkably mellow, and I was feeling really happy with the decision to add extra miles, and with the way the whole day had turned out. There was only one thing that didn’t go the way I hoped: since it rained all day long, I didn’t get to display my Soft Star shirt for anybody on the course – which, considering how I recently christened myself Team Soft Star, seemed like kind of bad form …

… so I decided to stop and give the sponsor some love. Admittedly, it’s not much, but I felt like I should at least make the effort.

Shortly after this photo, my camera finally succumbed to the moisture and grit from 10 hours on the trail, and the lens began to malfunction so that I couldn’t take any pictures. It didn’t come back to life until I was about an hour down the road in my car, finally dry and warm after a long day in the rain – and fittingly, this was the first thing I saw out my window:

I guess there’s some symbolism in there as well … but this report’s already long enough, so I’ll think about it another day.

As for the musical selection - it's one of those "overnight success" stories that was at least seven years in the making on the Southern California concert scene; not a bad little analogy for the benefits of perseverance.

Young the Giant, "My Body" (click to play):

*See other race reports under tab at top of page.

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Malcolm 6/8/11, 9:38 PM  

ot: Are We Built to Run Barefoot?

Have you read this article?


Gretchen 6/8/11, 11:11 PM  

Oh Donald, I wasn't waiting for you out of sympathy! Trust me, I needed your company out there.

And with all those Cool remarks, I can't believe you didn't mention the Cool-aid station. My favorite.

Awesome day out there, Donald. And, yes, this is what we do for FUN! Which reminds me, I made sure to finish writing my report before reading yours. Between the two of them, it sounds like we had a blast. I'll get mine up tomorrow though. I have to go to bed now!

Also, have I mentioned you're a badass?

David 6/9/11, 5:01 AM  

Recently, my 6 year old son was talking to me about career day at school, and how he wanted to be a physiotherapist when he grows up.

The conversation turned to running and how you should listen to your body, when he suddenly got a puzzled look on his face. "That's the opposite of what they say in that song?!" (referring to 'My Body'). Great song though.

Excellent race report, and you've further reinforced my desire to bring a camera on my ultra debut next week (Highland Sky 40 miler).

Cherylrunner 6/9/11, 11:32 AM  

Donald - You are so lucky to get to run with Gretchen! SHE's the badass! Good luck to you both in your 100 Milers... I'll see you at TRT!

JimDog 6/9/11, 1:55 PM  

"Three times cool. Boo-ya!" Haa haa...love it!!!

Great report!!!

Jared 6/9/11, 1:59 PM  

Great report. Two thoughts:

1 - Cool is a nice name for wordplay. But Intercourse, PA is better.

2 - Softstar has got to get a better website. Runners, ultrarunners in particular, like to think themselves as tough and want their shoes to be the same. Hard to convey that when they are lined up with vegan baby moccasins the like. 2 cents.

jonnyb 6/9/11, 6:05 PM  

Donald, I ran an extremely muddy 50 miler in my runamocs recently and slid all over the place. It had several turnaround points on a narrow and muddy trail, so that getting off to the side when the fast folks came caused me to slip and fall over and over. I ripped both shoes wide open, so that they flopped around after mile 25 or so.
A really bad fall at mile 32, about 6 hours in, had me limping the final 18+ miles at a slow walk, finishing in just under 13 hours. So I bought some merrel trail gloves the next day, trained in them and wore them in my next race. Meanwhile I had bought an awl, stiched up my runamocs, resoled with with a new 4mm vibram cherry bottom (for the 3rd time now), and put them in my drop bag at mile 32. I would not have finished in the Merrel's.

I'm a SoftStar Fan. Around 1800 miles in one pair of $87 mocassins in all conditions--what's not to love about them?

I would like to think that a slightly shorter stride could correct the problems I had in the mud.

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