On April 7, 2018, nearly 500 athletes arrived at an overlook at 4 a.m. to board the buses and eat breakfast on the way to the starting line of the American River 50. With sleep in their eyes, runners from all levels and backgrounds chattered in excitement as stories and wisdom were passed around the crowd from AR 50 veterans to the rookies. Their nervous laughter could be heard over the pouring rain as the start time approached.
Stretching from Brown’s Ravine Marina at the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area in the Sierra-Nevada foothills to Folsom Point, the 39th annual American River 50 is the second-largest 50-mile race in the United States, as well as one of the most historic and prestigious.
“The course was beautiful!” Reflects female champion Emily Hawgood, 23, from Beatrice, Zimbabwe. “It was an amazing day. My body, soul and mind felt all in sync which makes any race a lot more fun and focused, and allows for a breath to appreciate running in the footsteps of so many American River ultrarunners before me.”
Since its creation in 1980, the race has grown to become a cornerstone event in the trail-running world. “Every year we receive such a diverse group of runners, traveling from different parts of the world who each have different strengths and weaknesses,” says race director Julie Fingar. “But at the end of the race, we all come together as a running community and celebrate each athlete’s accomplishments.”
It’s All About Community
The draw of this event is rooted in its community and ambience, which was evident even at the 6-a.m. starting line in the middle of a rainstorm.
“As all of us athletes huddled up under the tents for warmth and an attempt to stay dry,” says Hawgood, “jokes of how crazy we all really were, and what were we thinking were flying around so fast my ribs were sore before we started from laughing so hard.”
Once the gun went off, many runners cast out seeking to set personal records, and elites perhaps to maybe even take a stab at the course records—which have remained unbroken since 1981 (men’s) and 1993 (women’s; Ann Trason, 6:09:08).
Though Jim Howard’s 1981 record of 5:31:18 still stands (set on the original course; current record on new course is 5:33:21, by Tom Johnson, 1994), this year’s men’s champion Zach Ornelas, 26, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, reeled in an impressive first-place finish for the men’s division at 6:22, followed by Coree Woltering, 28, of Ottowa, Illinois, at 6:39, who held first place until mile 41 when he was taken by Ornelas. Rob Bien, 45, of Bend, Oregon, took third in 7:02.
The women’s podium reflected the race’s diverse talent pool, with Hawgood taking first with a time of 7:44, followed by second-place finisher Katie Krehlik, 28, of Juneau, Alaska, and Lisa Daane, 46 of Reno, Nevada.
This year, not just the winners received prizes. The introduction of the Lucky Trails Jackpot emphasized the event’s camaraderie: participants that finished 50th, 150th, 250th, 350th, 450th, 550th and the caboose each were awarded a $50 prize.
38-Year-Old Race Meets a 15-Year-Old Racer
“Year after year, we experience an overwhelming amount of emotion from all participants” says Fingar. “Seeing Ben Edwards, our youngest runner at 15-years-old, cross the 50-mile finish line at such a young age was a thrilling feeling as a race director and lover of the sport.”
AR 50 was Edward’s first race of more than 13 miles—quite a jump for a runner of any age.
“I will definitely remember both the start and the end of the race a for the rest of my life,” says Edwards. “I was super nervous, but everyone seemed to have a really good attitude and everyone was really happy.”
Despite bonking for the last seven miles, his training paid off and he was overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment—and a cheering crowd—at the finish line.
—Jacky Thompson has been running for nine years. When she isn’t rock climbing, running, foraging or frolicking outside in some way, she can be found practicing yoga and playing music.