Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Race Report: American River Parkway Half Marathon

At 4am this past Saturday, I got up and drove to Carmichael (Sacramento, basically) for the American River Parkway Half. Initially I signed up for this race because I kind of just wanted to race a half marathon after NVM & see what I could do. After talking to Coaches Tom & Ashley, though, I decided not to try to race. They felt that 9 weeks wasn't really enough time post-marathon to put up a strong enough half to make it worth sacrificing time for taper/recovery. So for a while I kept going back and forth about what I wanted to use the race for, and finally decided on trying to run goal marathon pace (8:00 miles) & seeing how it felt.

I would like to preface this race report by saying that this race was one of my most deeply unpleasant & miserable race experiences in recent memory (short of ones where I did serious injury to myself, which, spoiler, thankfully did NOT happen!). I mean it was so absurdly miserable at some points that in retrospect it's actually kind of funny. Still, if you are really into cheery, heart-warming race reports involving a lot of talk about personal mantras & believing in oneself & non-ironic uses of the word 'gratitude', you may be disappointed.

(If, on the other hand, you're into snarky gifs, I humbly submit it may be right up your alley!)

If I had a personal mantra throughout this race, it
was definitely "F#@$ All Y'all." Bonus points for anyone who
can get it for me on one of those cute little Kara Goucher necklaces.

My first observation upon getting out of the car at 6:30: It was not cold. I knew right then that my original race plan was in trouble.

The race website had listed historical weather conditions/averages (51° by 7:00 am, 53° by 8:00, 60 by 10:00, 64° by 11:00), so I'd done the mental math & figured, well, I'll be done by 9:30ish, so I should be running in 50-something temps the whole time, which is totally reasonable.

The day before, I checked the forecast, which called for slightly warmer temps (~65ish by 9:30 or thereabouts, I think), but also full sun. Now, despite the fact that I've run a number of races in the mid-to-upper 60s on black top in full sun, I always really, really want to believe that this will be perfectly fine, slightly-warm-but-perfectly-reasonable running weather, and not at all like running in the ninth circle of hell. Every time, I swear it will be the last time I let myself be fooled. For whatever reason, though, that lesson has yet to sink in.

(Also, I just can't not mention the ridiculously high percentage of runners/walkers decked out in tights and long sleeve shirts. Just looking at them made me sweaty. I even overheard one woman telling another, "I had no idea it would be so cold! I'm shivering," and her friend reply, "I know, I'm sooo glad I wore layers." Part of me wanted to shake them and yell, "WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU??? IT'S 6:30 AND ALREADY NEARLY 60 DEGREES!!! DO YOU HAVE ANY *IDEA* HOW MISERABLE IT'S GOING TO BE OUT THERE? DO YOU?!?!?11?"

On the other hand, at least race organization was quite smooth, & the little tent city erected by the start/finish was easy to navigate. The first bit of staging I encountered was a beautiful line of port-a-potties with almost no lines. Then I went in search of the bib table, where again, I only had to wait behind one person (and only because her last name fell in the same range of letters as mine; the other volunteers passing out bibs had no line at all). I also walked right up & got my shirt.

Now that it was 6:45, I found myself with some time to kill. My loose plan was to do all my race prep (sunscreen, BodyGlide, hair, FlipBelt, bib, etc.), watch the walkers' race start at 7:15, then jog 2 easy miles before the runners' start at 7:45. (I thought it was cool that there were not only two separate starts for the runners and walkers but also two completely separate courses, both out-and-backs that headed in two different directions.)

The walkers' start

I am a weenie about cold and most of the time wait until the last possible moment to ditch my warm-ups, but this time I didn't even bother putting them back on after slathering up, and was already sweating after one easy warm-up mile in one of my thinnest, lightest tops. Not a good sign.

At 7:40 I lined up at the 8:00 min/mile sign, the Folsom High School jazz choir sang the National Anthem (OMG *SUCH* a huge improvement over the amateurish solo performances most races get), the horn sounded, and we were off.

Runners' start. For the record, the 23-year-old baddass in the yellow
top is Olivia Mickle, who a) has a blog and b) went on to win this thing in 1:17:34.

As with Foster City Ten Miler, my biggest issue in the first few miles was overriding the "RACE!!!!" reflex and trying not to go out too fast. My legs really wanted to run more like a 7:30-7:40ish pace and I spent a lot of time looking at my watch and trying to slow my breathing and relax, particularly since the sun was already getting hot and I suspected that if I was really going to try to hold an 8:00 pace, this race could end up being a lot harder later on than I'd anticipated. My first mile was 7:59 and I knew that was still too fast this early if I was trying to average eights.

The first couple of miles weren't too bad because there was more shade, but by the time we hit mile 3 there was less and less of it and more and more time fully exposed to direct sun. By the end of that mile I could tell I was working way harder than I should be to stay in the 8:00-8:10 range, which was a big blow to my morale because the whole point had been to practice marathon pace and I didn't really have a plan B. Should I try to hold the pace anyway, knowing it would be harder in the heat, and treat it as practice running the inevitably tougher second half of a marathon? Forget about pace & just try to run at marathon effort? Give up on marathon practice altogether & just get the long run miles in? Eventually I decided I'd just hold 8:00 pace as long as I could, and if I needed to run the last few miles at an easier pace, that was fine.

    Mile 1 - 7:59
    Mile 2 - 8:03
    Mile 3 - 8:02

Through mile 4 I really struggled to stay positive because I could already tell how much the rest of this race was going to hurt. We'd run through a shaded section and I'd think, "This isn't so bad! I can totally hold this pace for 9 more miles, no problem. I can totally do this." Then the shade would end and immediately I'd be like, "NOPE! Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope," and the idea that there were still over eight more left to go would become utterly depressing.

Then we hit mile 5, which comprised a) a terrifyingly brief and steep downhill to go under a bridge, followed by b) a brief and barely runnable uphill, and c) a looooong, gradual uphill on gravel with absolutely zero shade.

My first thought upon hitting the gravel:

I actually don't think I have the capability to express to you how much I HATE running on gravel. Add to that an ENTIRE MILE of uphill in direct sun with nary a tree or aid station in sight?


Just no.

I'm pretty sure I made it through that stretch purely on spite and the knowledge that if I collapsed and died now I would be unable to murder anyone for this god-forsaken stretch of hell's asshole after the race.

Mile 6 included another sharp downhill/back uphill to go under another bridge, and another long, fully exposed stretch toward the turnaround.

At this point I was way slowing down at aid stations, grabbing a cup of Gatorade to drink plus as many cups of water as I could carry to pour all over myself. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that for the entire rest of the race there was no period of time during which I was not desperately thirsty.

    Mile 4 - 8:12
    Mile 5 - 8:07
    Mile 6 - 8:00

This picture is here so you can notice how my top is so completely,
100% soaked that it's sticking to me. I even had blisters from wet socks.

My inner optimist (not dead yet!) was super excited to reach the turnaround, but was then almost immediately deflated by the thought that I still had over six miles of this business left to go, which felt just impossible. (I mean not *actually* impossible, but completely and utterly pointless and miserable. I just had absolutely zero desire to run the rest of this race except that that seemed like probably the fastest way of getting back to civilization, given the lack of surface streets.)

I had hoped that because the first half of the race had felt mostly like a gradual but relentless climb, the second half would be a pleasant, subtle downhill. The problem with that logic was that the way out followed the American River Parkway bike trail, and at the turnaround you went down yet another brief yet super-steep downhill onto the levee trail. So, we got to spend the return trip on the lower trail gradually working our way back up to Parkway level.

I was holding my pace, more or less, but it was so hard, and people were getting more and more spread out, so you could spend fairly long periods of time running nearly entirely by yourself in the blistering sun. In tough races, I feel like the energy of people around me and the trappings that remind you you're actually running a race are a big part of what help me stay strong, but at this point there was just NOTHING for fairly long stretches. I might as well have been just out for a run on my own, which made all the misery start to seem like not really worth it.

(Also, while I certainly appreciate the musicians who volunteered to play on the course, I kept suffering crushing disappointment from spotting their tents on the horizon & mistaking them for aid stations. It kind of made me want to cry every time.)

I have a strategy for getting through the last 20-25% of a really hard race, which is to start counting backwards from 400 at each mile marker with three steps per count. (I think it's effective because it gives me something else to focus on and always helps me feel like I'm making some kind of progress when every tenth of a mile seems like an age unto itself.) So, I knew it was a bad sign when I found myself resorting to that mid-way through mile 7. My pace was definitely starting to slow, but I didn't really care; at that point I was just trying to run as fast as I could manage given the number of miles left, not because I thought I might salvage a kinda-sorta not-awful time but because I was so freaking miserable and couldn't bear the thought of staying out here any longer than I absolutely had to.

    Mile 7 - 8:08
    Mile 8 - 8:09
    Mile 9 - 8:12

Weirdly, I found my pace picking up a little in the last 2 miles, probably because my mind and/or body decided that was a fairly manageable distance and it probably wouldn't kill me to run 0:10/mile faster. It was still hard and I felt like I might hit a wall at any moment, but at least it seemed like the folks around me were suffering at least as much or worse because, in spite of making zero effort to do so (see above), I found myself passing runner after runner as early as mile 9.

At that point the optimist poked its head up a little and I found myself thinking, "Okay, I don't really have speed right now, but what I DO have is a marathoner's strength and ability to endure a reasonably high level of discomfort for long periods of time." Yes, it sucked and I wished it were over, but physically, there was no doubt in my mind that I did actually have the ability get through it without the wheels coming off (which, to be honest, was also kind of depressing, because it kind of would've been a relief to just have my body quit *for* me).

I mean I literally don't think my brain would have let me slow down or walk even if I'd wanted to, because every part of me was just *so* opposed to anything that would delay the cessation of this wretched experience by even a moment.

I also had that weird experience that I kind of think I need to work on where with two miles to go, my body was 100% certain it absolutely, positively could not run even a tiny bit faster, and then HEY LOOK IT'S THE FINISH LINE, BETTER SPRINT THIS ONE IN AT 5K PACE BECAUSE WHY NOT.

    Mile 10 - 8:13
    Mile 11 - 8:15
    Mile 12 - 8:08
    Mile 13 - 7:57
    13.1(7) - 6:39 pace

I would like it noted that I was so pissed at the end of this race that I actually went out of my way to take an ironically happy finish photo:

#blessed #yolo #gratitude #f&@$allyall

So, yeah. Final score:

    Official: 1:46:29/13.1 miles/8:08 pace
    Garmin: 1:46:31/13.17 miles/8:05 pace

    Overall: 106 out of 1248
    Women: 27 out of 791
    A/G: 5 out of 15

Okay, WTF 30-34 women?? Where you at??

I'm trying to figure out what my takeaways are for this race, and here's what I've got so far:

  • Even once it felt hard (read: mile 3), I hung on to within spitting distance of my goal pace for a good long while in spite of how completely miserable I felt. In fact, I think I was kind of using my anger and misery as fuel. Life skills!
  • I had a rough few miles in the 9-10-11 range, but I managed to come back after that and finish strong even though I basically wanted to die, and I think that says something about the strength I've been building up even though I'm not fast (for me) right now.
  • The runners who were ahead of me for most of the race were running sub-8:00 pace, and that period in miles 9-11 when my pace dropped off by 10-15 seconds was *still* when I passed the most people.
  • I was never passed by a woman I didn't eventually pass back.
  • Part of me keeps trying to be like, "Oh, look, your half marathon is worse than it was in 2010 when you barely trained. GOOD JOB YOU!" And so I have to keep beating that voice back by reminding myself that I've done zero LT training and almost zero speed training in nearly a year, and also instead of tapering for this race I ran a long, tough hill interval workout in 80° heat on Thursday (since I wasn't willing to skip a key workout).
  • In a way, I feel like I kind of unintentionally did end up practicing the back half because things got just so hard so early. Then again, it's hard to say that anything ever really accurately tests your ability to run the second half of a marathon at pace except the second half of a marathon.

So, yeah. If nothing else, it was definitely good practice if not with embracing the suck, then at least with managing & pushing through it (er, sort of), which I apparently do via violent mental rage & imagery.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*LOGISTICAL STUFF~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Location: Sacramento, CA

Date: First Saturday in May (May 2, 2015 this year)

The Deal: This race is a fundraiser for the American River Parkway & is entirely volunteer-run.

Prices: $50 by 2/18; $65 by 4/28 (online deadline); $80 if registered at bib pickup (4/30 or 5/1) or on race morning.

Field Size: 1248 finishers in the runners' half marathon (I want to say they said the cap is 2000), 382 in the walkers' half marathon, & 224 in the 5K. There was also a half marathon walk relay and a half marathon wheel chair division.

Deadlines/sellout factor: There was race day registration, so you probably don't have to worry about rushing to sign up.


The race was staged at William S. Pond Park on the banks of the American River. There were two start/finish lines (one for walkers that headed north & one for runners that headed south), lots of little tents for bib pickup/registration/gear check/local running groups/other organizations, a post-race food & drink area, and the obligatory giant line of port-a-potties.

The one thing that made me sad about the staging area was that there was almost NO natural shade, so the only areas where you could get out of the sun were the small tents, most of which were over grass. There were some picnic tables on concrete platforms, but these were not shaded. (Also there just weren't that many of them.)

The Course: From the website description of the runners' course: "For the runners, we start and travel along the scenic river-level trail until the turning point. From there, we turn and briefly travel back along the levee trail before crossing Sacramento's most famous footbridge known as the Little Golden Gate bridge - a classic suspension bridge that looks just like the most famous bridge in the world! Once you've crossed the river, you follow the Parkway's 'Lost Trail' for several miles taking in scenic views and running through forests on a path less traveled. Then, another crossing of the river over Sacramento's newest bridge, which returns you to the final three miles on your way to the finish line."

Part of me is wondering if maybe the course got changed between the time this was written and race day, because we definitely didn't cross any bridges (though we did run under the Little Golden Gate). Also, race directors....We have to have a little talk. This word 'scenic.' I do not think it means what you think it means. The only scenery on this course were trees. And not like particularly interesting or unique trees--just the regular kind. And there's nothing wrong with that! But don't call it scenic.

There were little music ensembles playing every mile or so, maybe, which was a lovely gesture, though I felt bad for them because, especially if they were past the first few miles, it must have been boring as hell a lot of the time. In the back half of the course when runners got really spread out, sometimes they would literally strike up a few chords as they saw me coming and then stop once I was gone (which I don't blame them for at all, even if course entertainment was my bag, which it's not). Speaking as a musician, I personally I am not a good enough person to volunteer for a gig like this.

Another thing to be aware of is that, because there isn't a lot of easy access to the Parkway, there's almost zero crowd support. There were a few knots of people here & there (also some surprisingly good signs, and I notoriously hate 'witty' race signs), but mostly you're just kind of out there on the open road. I don't usually miss crowd support but because this race was just so much straight, flat, nothing, it did get really mind-numbing at times and I just wanted *some* kind of stimulation to reassure me that, yes, I was actually making progress.

Something I thought they did a good job with was having volunteers out at spots to call your attention to things, like when we ran by this construction site & there was a big sort of speed bumb protecting a bunch of power cords running across the path to the site. They had two volunteers out there with big red flags being like, "Speed bump!! Don't trip!!"

Also, like I mentioned above, not much shade and a mile-long uphill stretch of gravel.


This year different bib numbers were assigned different parking "zones" in the area surrounding the start at William B. Pond Park, with different arrival times. The race email had specified that my assigned parking zone should arrive between 6:00 & 6:30 in order to get parked and take the shuttle to the start. This was confusing to me because on the map it looked like the parking area (a residential area by the park) was pretty close to the start/finish area, but since the email included warnings like "If unforeseen circumstances interfere [with your arriving in the time window specified in the email], we will have bus service after your assigned arrival time, but we cannot guarantee on-time delivery," I decided to get there around 6:15ish.

Thankfully there was no traffic and thanks to the many signs it was easy to find and park in my designated zone (though, despite email warnings to the contrary, it did not seem like anyone was enforcing it.) I started walking towards the spot on the map with the little shuttle icon, but after maybe five minutes of walking towards the park I could see the start/finish, having never encountered a shuttle bus. (Later I did see a bunch of school buses driving around with runners getting on & off, but I never did figure out what the deal was with this since the parking was literally a 5-10 minute walk from the start. It would have been like a two-minute bus ride, max. It makes me wonder if some of the parking areas were significantly further away.)


Logo tech tee, nice medal, & I think the best post-race food I've ever had at any race. It was actually catered with different types of BIG wrap sandwiches (turkey, ham, veggie, etc.). I was actually really sad that in my post-race brain dead state I managed to douse mine in water. (I still ate almost half of it anyway.)

Overall Assessment:

I think this is a race some people will love and some people should never do again. It's a nice "big-small" race with a local feel, everything was well-organized and ran quite smoothly and overall they did a nice job with it. That said, it's unlikely that I personally will run it again, particularly given that it's almost 2 hours to get there and nearly 3 to get back (courtesy of west/SF bound Bay Area weekend traffic). It was maybe a little warmer than usual this weekend, but temps were really not much higher than historical averages and full sun in spring in the Central Valley is not rare, and I know from experience that I just do NOT run well in those conditions. Also, for me, personally, the course was mind-numbingly dull, and there is my intense, firey hatred for gravel to consider. But, if you live nearby and those things don't bother you, this could be a good choice for an excellent price if you're looking for a smallish, spring half.


  1. At least the medal is nice. Don't feel too bad. We've all had sucky races like that. They're just par for the course and they remind us of just how great it is to have a good race.

  2. What's really positive to me is that you ran sub-8 for your last mile. You struggled, but it was circumstantial, not training or strength - you still had that fast mile in you. Good sign.
    Re: "cool" temps in full sun and blacktop - Miles 19-22ish or thereabouts in a marathon I ran once in such perfect weather was full sun and blacktop and I was sweating like a pig. It felt at least ten degrees warmer than the forecast.

  3. Hey, you placed pretty well, actually. This means that other women were struggling too! Gravel is the suck. I agree. It will also slow you down. Heat can be difficult if you are not acclimated. That full sun is a bear if you are used to cloudy/fog. I think it was a good effort, a good solid long run at a decent pace even if it didn't meet expectations. Moving on to better running days now...:)

  4. I can't run in heat (although humidity is even worse) either. I actually enjoy reading race reports where races went poorly and the blogger writes about how much it sucked. Not that I want people to have bad races. But reading a post that fully embraces the suck is a nice change of pace from all the positivity on the 'netz.

  5. Oof. That is a long way to travel for a hot, dull training run, although if you are going to do a hot dull long run, it might as well have other people around you and course support. (In Singapore *all* of my long runs were hot and dull - sometimes only the entry fee and the logistics of getting to a race start at 5.30am were the only things that stood between me and signing up for some of those.) All things considered, I think you handled the suck pretty well, though; at least you've got that mental .