Thursday, June 16, 2011

Highway 49 to No Hands Bridge (Miles 93.5 to 96.8) (9 days to go!)

The 23rd stage of the Western States course departs the large aid station at Highway 49 and works its way to No Hand Bridge over the American River. Given how far into the race runners are when they depart Highway 49, that initial couple hundred foot climb is a tough one. But soon, it's all downhill to the river.

Special thanks to Jim and Connie O'Connell, Amy Sellers, Kathleeen Ricketts and family, CJ Rog, Liz Anderson, Katie O'Connell, Ben Baughman, Vanessa Garza McAllister, and Casey Wendeln for their donations the Wounded Warrior Project that sponsor this segment of the course tour. Special thanks to Jim, who served two tours of duty in Iraq with the Army, and Ben, who also served in the Army (if I recall correctly--sorry, Ben!).

None of the photos I found accurately portray that climb out of the aid station. It's a rocky, rutted climb over a trail battered by runoff water and horses. The footing is poor, and it is steep enough to frustrate even the strongest of runners. I found myself struggling up it over Memorial Day, and I imagine I'll walk this climb, particularly since I know what comes afterward.

Once runners have reached that peak, they'll find themselves in a meadow. The meadow is single track, and full of flat and downhill sections that are best described as cruisers. I remember turning my ankle slightly while pacing Fernando last year, but it's a fast section where even battered runners can get back into a running pace.

After a mile of meadow running, runners emerge onto a fire road again. While it probably won't be in view (I can hope anyway), the tallest bridge in California, the Foresthill Bridge, appears to the runners' right.

Foresthill Bridge is just a few hundred yards from the hotel room I've reserved in Auburn. Built when the federal government had plans to build a dam that would have flooded the canyon we will be running through, it is stands 730 feet tall, higher than the Golden Gate Bridge. I've never seen the scene, because I cannot stand Vin Diesel, but the movie XXX apparently features Diesel's character driving a Corvette off the bridge, opening a parachute as he falls toward the American River.

Before long, though, the trail turns to the left and the bridge commonly known as No Hands Bridge will come into sight, even at night. The aid station volunteers line the bridge with white Christmas lights, a beautiful scene in the darkness of the run. They also set up a large video board that projects movies, more probably for their entertainment than that of tired runners not wanting to waste any time with only a few miles to go to the finish line.

This last photo shows where the aid station is located. The bridge itself is to the left of the aid station, and from there, it's a about a 2 1/2 mile climb up to the city of Auburn.

The lead runners will arrive at No Hands Bridge around 8:25 PM. It's fairly safe to say that in a typical year, the runner who leads at NHB usually will win the race. I'll tell the tale of one who didn't in our final segment of the tour. 24 hour runners will arrive at 4:10 AM, with 50 minutes left to travel the final 3.4 miles. 30 hour runners arrive at 9:55 AM, and the aid station, like the race itself, closes at 11:00 AM. Only 3.4 miles to go!

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