NorCal Ultra's "Way Too Cool 50K" is one of the most sought after 50K races in the country. Year after year it attracts ultra running icons such as Ann Trason, Scott Jurek, Geoff Roes and Max King. It is common to see local elites like Tim Tweitmeyer, Gary Gellin, Rory Bosio and Victor Ballesteros, and the infamous Gordie Ainsleigh has become a regular. The race is so popular that upon entering the age of digital registration, race director Julie Fingar had to institute a lottery system in response to the race selling out within minutes. The combination of beautiful single track looping through the Sierra Nevada foothills, parts of the Western States trail, and stellar race organization has made the Way Too Cool 50K a race that should be on every ultra runner's bucket list.
I first learned of the Way Too Cool 50K years before I started running. On a blissfully sunny Saturday morning over a decade ago, I was whitewater kayaking on the South Fork of the American River outside Cool, California. On my way to the river at 7:30 in the morning, I passed a throng of thousands near the fire station. It did not really register that there was an ultra marathon going on, but the name Way Too Cool stuck with me. Fast forward ten years later, and I came to the realization that one of the premier 50Ks in the country happens in my backyard. I knew I had to do this race, and I was lucky enough to be picked in the lottery on my first try.
|Fog fills the American River Canyon|
|Outweighed by a frog|
The event start/finish area was overflowing with runners warming up, and Twirly dropped me at the entrance before going to find somewhere to park. I had about 40 minutes before the main wave started, and there was no line at the runner check-in table when I walked up. Norcal Ultras really cater to the runner, and my pre-race experience went without a hitch.
|A beautiful morning, Way Too Cool 50K start, courtesy of Norcal Ultras|
I caught up with some friends as the runners congregated in the starting area, and the excitement began to build as the announcer began to call out the names of runners who had won backpacks from Patagonia. With minutes to go, we were encouraged to come forward to the starting line, and then we set off on the adventure. I started near the front, and settled into a nice easy warm up jog as we wound down the asphalt road taking us to the Olmstead Loop and the first 8 miles. Some runners bolted ahead, while some took early walk breaks. Just before we hit the single track, a guy in a banana suit was high-fiving runners, and a gorilla on crutches waved from the side of the road.
|A gimpy gorilla and his banana|
I could see Gordy Ainsleigh up ahead, and spent some time running just behind him as we descended to Rock Creek. I overheard him scolding runners for stomping through the creek, telling them to stay on the rocks. Good advice, I thought to myself. Why deal with wet feet to gain a few seconds/positions if the course did not require a wet crossing?
I kept a steady pace on the rolling single track of the Secret Mine Trail, and fell in behind a couple of volunteer safety runners for a spell, content to continue a pace between 10:00 and 10:30 per mile. We chatted about the race organization, and this year's Western States, which one of them was lucky enough to get in to, and as we turned back towards the firehouse and began to climb, I passed them and picked up my effort a bit. I had run this section in January while the ground was still frozen and the race mascots were but pollywogs; this morning the temperatures were balmy and I had to smile every time I heard the telltale croak of a frog. A quick body check yielded no niggles, and I felt strong on the small hills as I passed runners consistently. A little voice began to whisper things about new goals for my finishing time, but I set those aside, and focused on maintaining a steady effort. I cruised through the start/finish area in 307th (1:17 - well before my goal split) and set out to bomb the descent to the American River.
|More Olmstead Loop single track|
|Gently climbing back towards the firehouse|
|Cruising the early miles, courtesy of Facchino Photography|
I have been somewhat surprised during trail races this year by how many people I can pass on the descents. Granted, during American Canyon 50K, I was passed by many on the climbs, but approaching a technical downhill like a ski run is one of my favorite aspects of trail running. As I caught up to the back of each pack of runners, I would watch for a wide spot in the trail before jumping out to the left and shifting gears to more of a controlled fall, "on your left, thank you" I said repeatedly, picking up speed as I went. A couple runners would follow me as I made the passes, and once in the clear we would chat about where we were from, or how beautiful the day was shaping up to be. I knew I was going to have a good day when I ran through the lower 49 aid station 15 minutes ahead of my split, and set my sights on the runners up ahead along the quarry road. The fog had lifted from the river canyon, the temperatures were just right, and I was still passing people. A couple of runners caught and passed me in this stretch, but I managed to keep them in sight as I ran much more of the climbs than I had the previous month in the AC50K.
|The start of the Quarry Road section (not my best race pic), courtesy of Norcal Ultras|
|Climbing American Canyon|
I was in such a groove that I was surprised to return to the single track on American Canyon; the small voice whispered more loudly that a PR was not only in hand, but if I could find another gear on the return trip I could best my goal by 20 minutes or more. I settled in behind a small freight train of runners as we steadily climbed the East side of the creek, and tried my best to out-power-hike the lot of them once the trail opened up. At the top, I was once again caught up in a pack, but the pace was below 10:30, and I knew I could get in and out of the Auburn Lake Trails aid station before most of them. I was having a great time and cruised through the 20 mile wall feeling better than I ever have, even on training runs. As we neared the switchbacks descending to the aid station, I took off my pack and had it open to receive more water, and there were numerous volunteers with pitchers ready to help. I zipped up the bladder, turned around to grab a few extra S!Caps, a couple pieces of potato dipped in salt, and a handful of potato chips, which I munched on while running out of the aid station, clocking 2:14 for the split (I improved my rank on the middle section to 229th). In and out in less than two minutes, and I had a little room to run again. Less than ten miles to go!
|Taking Gordie's advice and keeping the feet dry, courtesy of Facchino Photography|
I soon caught another pack of runners, and the trail was just too narrow to pass, so I slowed and settled, biding time. An impatient woman in a yellow top was suddenly on my heels, and said "I want by you please, on your left" as she crashed through some bushes. I had to admire her determination. You gotta take advantage of the speed when it strikes you, I guess. Over the next mile she picked her way through the pack of about 12, and took the two I had been shadowing with her. One by one runners would step off the trail, and within a couple miles, I was alone once again. The best section of trail lay before me, a smooth, winding single track descended for the next two miles. A notoriously warm section, but I had plenty of water, and still felt like I had good leg turnover, although I did trip once or twice, reminding me to take an extra gel to stave off the wall and another fall.
I caught up to yellow top, and passed her back near the bottom of the section before the dreaded march up Goat Hill. I knew what was coming, so I jogged up the dirt road on the approach, and passed a few more people along the way. Once on the climb itself, I bent over, hands-on-knees, and focused on climbing steadily. A couple people passed me on the way up, but I held my own to the top, where volunteers held signs and encouraged the runners. Their energy was contagious, and I resumed a steady pace at the top, running straight through yet another aid station, still ahead of my goal splits, but having given back a little of the buffer I had built up. The day was warming up, and I began to feel a little dehydrated. I drank extra water, but my stomach began to slosh, and my pace slowed a bit. I could still attack the downhills, but the uphills were sapping my energy. I yo-yo'd with a woman for the next few miles, passing her on the descents and being passed on the climb. I hoped to find some Tums at the final aid station at Highway 49, and continued to take in water, knowing that I needed more. I was still holding off all of the runners I had passed, and my goal was in the bag, as long as I continued my relentless forward progress.
I was in such a hurry at Highway 49, I totally missed the chance to say hi to Adventure Gretchen, whose blog I read, but I found the Tums I needed (score!), drank some electrolytes and Coke, and set out on the home stretch. Runners around me looked less like racers and more like people trying to catch a train while toting luggage. Gaits were akimbo, and the final climb added insult to injury as we trudged past the one mile spring. I heard many groans as the trail leveled out and runners returned to actually running. The finish area was visible from about a half mile out, and for the first time in an ultra, I actually felt like I had a little finishing kick. I had a little room to run by myself, and enjoyed the throngs of spectators cheering us into the finishing chute. There was a timing board about 50 feet in front of the finishing line, enabling the announcer to call out my name and hometown as I crossed the line smiling at 5:23:15, setting a new PR and besting my goal by almost 8 minutes! I ranked 226th for the final section, which meant I had managed to "negative split" my race in comparison with the other runners.
Having run a strong race is a huge confidence boost. I learn a little more each time, and I look forward to improving on this course in the years to come. I know now that I could have gone out a little faster, and that if I had hydrated better in the early stages, I probably could have avoided the GI issues of the last 5K.
|Watch? What watch? courtesy of Facchino Photography|
The race was easily the largest trail race I have run so far. It felt like the Super Bowl of 50Ks; everything was extremely well organized and glitch-free. The "Ultra Village" provided stellar amenities: post-race pizza, free massage from Monsters of Massage, a recovery lounge including couches and beer, sponsored by Patagonia, and the famous frog cupcakes. The hundreds of volunteers were all efficient, kind and encouraging, and I could not thank them enough for being out there. I've never seen an aid station with so many people tending to water, and I volunteer at Western States!
Here is my Garmin data: