Hillclimbing in a Relaxed Town with Some Serious Athletes
Auburn, CA is a quiet little town.One that played host to some of the original '49ers back in the gold rush days of the 19th century. Host of the annual Western States 100, a foot race consisting of 100 long and grueling miles. Now it is home to some of the best ultra runners and endurance athletes in the world. For me today would be the very definition of irony- this picturesque little town in Northern California is where I just completed the shortest race of my career.
The morning of the event was cold. I woke up at dawn to a brisk 37 degrees and stepped out of my room and into a cozy den. Here my buddy Glenn was up reading the paper while his kids and two dogs ran around the room with excited anticipation for the day to come. After downing a cup of locally roasted coffee and a ripe red apple I was invited on a little jog with Glenn and his two trail dogs, Finn and Rosie. I figured this would make for a wise use of time that would not only provide a great warm up for the event later in the day but would also give me a chance to learn a little history about Auburn while getting the lay of the land.
Gearing up in my Method pants and Sentry shirt from Rhone apparel, lacing up my Salomon S.Lab trail shoes, I joined the trio for our first adventure of the day. We left out the back door and jogged down a windy single lane road of cracked asphalt with dirt footpaths running parallel. A half mile later the road gave way and dropped down onto the trail head.
From there, far off in the distance and nestled in overlapping fog banks that jockeyed for space in the growing morning light, the Foothill bridge stood; sturdily placed across the top of the adjacent peaks. 3 miles out from where we stood, the pale green and concrete structure lay in stark contrast to the surrounding forest and rock formations.
The beginning of the trail led us on a craggy, technical descent towards the lower valley that then lead to a path running along the American River. With the Finn and Rosie just ahead, we maneuvered around the fallen branches and rocks jutting out of the forest floor. This terrain is not the type that one can enjoy while on the move. To look up, if only for an instant, just to take in the view, could cause the ground to come up very fast as you may trip over a rock and face plant.
About a mile later the trail opened up into a wider path with a much softer tread. This wider route allowed the first opportunity to gaze up at the growing mountains around us as they just began basking in the warm glow of the first mornings light. As we moved down the path, cutting through the frigid morning air, Glenn explained to me that what we were currently running along what was part of the old California Central Railroad Line that wound along the bluffs just above the snaking river below. It used to run from Sacramento, through Auburn and Folsom. All throughout Placer county. This line had long since been abandoned when the tracks were stripped for steel during World War II.
Two miles further down the old railroad- 'No Hands Bridge' came into view. This was an older bridge constructed of concrete that had worn rough over the decades of exposure to the elements. It was placed much lower in the valley and was also a part of the old railroad line that made up parts of the network of trails weaving in and out of the surrounding mountains of Placer county.
Still another mile further the Foothill bridge loomed, once distant but now towering 70 stories above us, the fog still dancing around the span of the bridge. Now more visible that the sun was a few degrees higher in the sky and even larger since our last sighting had been 3 miles out and at a level altitude.
From this point on 'No Hands Bridge' we were situated 40 feet above the water. Directly below us in the granite rock formations all along the waters edge there were many pockmarked holes randomly dotting the banks. These holes were created by Native Americans that once inhabited the surrounding area. They would use crevices in the banks as mortar and pestle to ground seeds and nuts into various staple foods in their diet. Over time these would form small craters that were used from one generation to another. History from a time past was making this into a very memorable morning jog.
We hung out on the bridge for a few more minutes and as it closed in on time to get up that monster hill we doubled back and retraced our steps up the trail. Back along the bridge over the Indian's prep kitchen, down the path of a once proud railroad line, back up the craggy ascent to the trailhead and finally returning along the old asphalt road and into the back door of the house. We quickly packed our things, hopped into the car and drove down the road towards the race registration area.
The Foresthill Uphill Challenge 1K (or F.U.C.1K. for short) is an uphill sprint consisting of a distance of only 1 kilometer. The crafty minds at Single Track Running have this event beginning in the sleepy valley of the northern fork of the American River. A rocky, winding beast that runs between massive granite and greenstone crags, complimented by a lush deciduous forest. The course spans just a little over half a mile of gravel, loose pieces of shale and good old fashioned mud and it climbs to a respectable 723 ft. In a word, Up.
Arriving sweaty, warmed up and with no time to spare I gave the organizers my name and they directed me down the fire trail which immediately turned into the steepest hill I have ever had the pleasure of doing battle with. Now it was time to climb but some points this hill bordered on being a 'cliff'. Once the ascent began the lowest grade was 23% and the highest was a muddy 65%.
Clad in my trail shoes, work gloves, and Mako shorts I marched, in almost a slow stomp, swinging my arms hard and trying to make use of the momentum they created. Left, foot then right foot and many times hinging at the hips and scaling on all fours for traction. I was very selective of the routes that led up towards the Foothill bridge, towering ahead in the distance. I needed to use my energy in the most efficient way because in a race this short every step counts and needs to be strategized to some degree.
In the F.U.C.1K. finding washouts and divets to utilize upper body strength and mitigate energy expenditure is a key tactic to completing this course as quickly as possible. Energy is the currency we operate in and while this endeavor is entirely aerobic the routes I chose would produce different anaerobic responses to my systems. Because of this I was very cautious of the cost benefit relationship of: more incline with less ground covered versus the less energy expensive opposite of a less steep route with a longer distance to travel. Either way I was moving towards my target but if I made a poor choice, here, it would adversely affect my performance a few feet further causing me to over exert and then crash out.
There was a special prize offered for participants who completed the course in under 10 minutes. Having never run this particular hill and being in the endurance Capitol of the world I wasn't expecting to hit that mark but at halfway up I checked my watch and it seemed within my grasp.
My arms and legs were locking with lactic acid. The buildup was literally shutting down my forearms and legs. My heart was over 200 bpm and the only sound I could hear was my loud, coarse gulps for oxygen as my chest heaved air to and from my lungs like a bellows to a bonfire.
After scrambling for each and every inch of progress towards the top, literally clawing tooth and nail for ground- 9 minutes and 58 seconds later- legs & arms on fire, lungs bursting, blood pumping so loud in my ears that it almost drowned out my obnoxiously loud breathing- I reached the summit.. I had arrived at the eastern span of the Foothill Bridge and stumbled across the finish line with just 2 seconds to spare.
The hill climb ended with a rolling crash onto the gravel just beyond the finish where a nice woman set down a bottle of water next to me and handed me a cool little wooden disc 'medal' for completing the race. I stumbled out a few words that she understood as my gratitude then she left me to lie on the ground until I was ready to rejoin reality with the other competitors and do the post race hang out thing. There were seats on inflatable couches, snacks, hot chocolate and space heaters set up for athletes at the finish line. All these were a courtesy of the organizers at Single Track Running.
Post race for Auburn folks is almost more fun than the competition itself. This was the smallest event I have ever participated in so there was an inviting local feel when afterward we all met up at the Knee Deep Brewery. Here the awards ceremony would take place while people put away some good food and, of course, good beer too. The Aviation IPA and 'Hella Deep' American IPA are not to be missed.
It's post race times like these that everyone has a story to tell about their own experience during the event so you make friends fast. Meeting the race directors and other ultra athletes while we shared brews and stories was a great cap to a day well spent. We stayed until the sun hung low in the sky and eventually made our manners and went down the road making our way back toward San Francisco.
In the end I discovered a relaxed little town with some serious athletes, I tested out some top notch gear, made some new friends and won a hat. Oh yeah and I climbed a big hill too. Thank you Auburn, CA for showing me that it's not only where you go for adventures but who you meet along the way that make the time you spend truly worth while. I will see you next time at the next great event. Until then, train smart, race well and make sure you've got friends with good beer to share at the finish line. Cheers.