For the past decade, I’ve heard trail runners describe the Way Too Cool 50K as “classic,” “iconic” and, of course, “so cool.” On March 9, I got to find out what all the fuss is about.
As part of my vow to race only new-to-me events in 2013 (a vow I made while experiencing burnout in December’s North Face Endurance Challenge 50), I decided it was finally time to run Cool, which is widely viewed as the spring kickoff to the year’s ultra racing season. Thankfully, I got in on the lottery. The race began as the “Cool Canyon Crawl” in 1990 and attracted a few hundred runners, and then it became Way Too Cool in 1998 and grew to around 500 entrants. Now it tops out at around 1000, with a couple hundred more on a waiting list.
I knew it would be a fast course. It attracts top competitors who set a breakneck pace, and the course is relatively smooth and runnable. I set a goal to finish sub-4:46, which would be a personal record for the 50K, and I trained hard—until February, when the unexpected illness and loss of my dad turned my life upside-down. My training miles went down and weight went up—but at least I felt well rested and injury-free. I headed up to Auburn to spend the night before the race with my goal adjusted to a range rather than a specific time. If I got close to 4:45, that’d be fantastic, but if I managed anything sub-5, that’d be good too.
Mostly, I felt excited to finally run this trail and to have an excuse to hang out in Auburn. As I checked into the race HQ at a true trail runners’ store, The Auburn Running Company, and marveled at the monument to endurance in the lovely renovated historic downtown—a monument that celebrates Auburn as “the endurance capital of the world” for hosting events like Western States and the Tevis Cup—I thought, really, why doesn’t our family spend more time up in the foothills north of Sacramento, a mere two hours from home?
On the morning of the race, I drove the seven miles from Auburn to the little town of Cool with my friend Christine Chapon, while my husband and son headed an hour up I-80 for a glorious day of snowboarding. The Cool Fire Department, site of the start/finish, looked more like the scene of a road marathon than a back-country trail-running event, with a blow-up arch, blaring music and multiple vendor tents. Christine and I expressed relief that we allowed a lot of extra time to get to the start because it was so crowded, with a backup to park.
A two-wave start reduced congestion when the time came to line up for the countdown. I felt unusually calm, but ready to start fast. This is one 50K where you want to go out fast because after a mile or so, runners veer off the paved road onto several miles of rolling woodland single track on which it’s hard to pass, so you want to hit the trail in a pack that runs your desired pace. Consequently, I took off at a 7-minute pace, as if I were embarking on a downhill road marathon rather than a mountainous 50K.
The first eight-mile loop, which returns to the starting area for the first aid station, felt almost as intense as a 10K, with everyone very focused and not talking as we raced in a line through rolling, grassy, shady hills. I put my running on autopilot and went with the flow, feeling good but eager to get past this first loop so the pack would thin out and I wouldn’t always have someone on my heels.
Around Mile 7, we hit a calf-high stream that I jumped in and plowed through. I don’t mind running with wet shoes, and I wear knee-high compression socks partly because I know they won’t slip down and bunch up when they get wet. But after crossing the stream, I realized I had an annoying problem: my new Montrail Masochist II shoes with their “OutDry”-brand waterproofing were so waterproof, they held water in! My shoes became two buckets that refused to drain. I ran in pockets of water that added a not-insignifcant amount of weight to each foot, and my feet felt loosey-goosey on the terrain as they sloshed around. I debated stopping to take the shoes off and empty them, but I was sure the water would squish out on its own. But, no, they stayed full for a good three miles at least! Bottom line: While I like these Montrails, I do not recommend paying extra for the OutDry finish, and I won’t wear them in April’s Lake Sonoma 50 race given all its stream crossings.
I ran hard and fast on the downhill from Miles 8 – 11, trying not to be too bothered by my drowning feet, and I approached the second aid station with a telltale sensation in my lower gut. All that hard, fast running meant my breakfast needed an escape hatch, quick! I recalled Gretchen Brugman’s hilarious 2012 Way Too Cool race report, in which she ran with clamped butt cheeks to the second aid station, desperate to make it to the porta-potty. Upon discovering it was occupied, however, her race mentality prompted her to keep running, which led to near-disasterous consequences a few miles later. I vowed not to repeat Gretchen’s mistake, so when I found the porta-potty occupied (of course it was), I knocked firmly on the door and tried to keep my cool as a minute ticked by and other runners flew past.
Finally the door opened and I went in—only to have my body play a trick of “nah-huh, not ready.” F— you, colon! I departed the porta-potty pissed off and running hard, trying not to dwell on dashed hopes for a PR.
The next five miles should have been a dream to run. This stretch features a hard-packed dirt road, mostly flat with a few gentle hills, overlooking the American River. Legs should fly. But I was living out Gretchen’s nightmare and needing to make a pit stop, which I did, and afterwards it was difficult to regain a steady, strong rhythm. I welcomed an uphill climb following the third aid station around Mile 17 because power hiking stretched out my legs.
With a total elevation gain of about 4850 feet, the hills on the Way Too Cool 50K are not too numerous or extreme, but you feel the big ones, especially those at around Mile 17.5 and then “Goat Hill” at Mile 25.5. (Click to enlarge course profile below.)
Right after Mile 18’s big hill climb, we hit a very runnable, beautiful section of trail carved into the mountainside. I knew I wasn’t running as fast as I could, and I felt dangerously close to my mid-race “space out” mode wherein I decide it feels so much nicer to think of a trail race as a brisk, scenic hike, and who cares about time goals anyway? Then a runner approached from behind, said hello and politely asked to pass. I recognized her immediately—it was Clare Abram! My mind flashed back to the American River 50M in 2011, when she passed me and I felt so discouraged, because back in 2010 – 2011 I tended to finish events just a bit ahead of her. Now, however, I had the opposite reaction—I felt elated. Clare is definitely speedier and stronger than I these days, so when I saw her, I thought, “Oh, yay, if Clare is here, I must be doing pretty well after all!” She wore a shirt that on the back posed the question, “Your pace or mine?” and I thought, yours!
What followed were a couple of the most enjoyable, and strong, miles of my race, thanks to the motivation and camaraderie Clare’s presence gave me. I was sad to lose her at the fourth aid station (Mile 21) because I had to refill. Then I needed to make a major pit stop deep in the bushes again, argh.
For the final ten miles, I did my best to stay steady. Not fast, just steady—that’s the best I could do. Periodically I would reflect on the past month’s events, and try to think of my father for inspiration, but each time my mind would shut that door and I’d tell myself, “Nope, not gonna go there.” I did not want to be self-reflective and potentially emotional. I tuned out everything but the trail—and what a trail it is. I see now what the fuss is about. It’s not particularly dramatic or scenic, it’s just plain pretty and pleasant. It lulls you into going for miles.
I realized my Garmin was under-measuring the course, because the aid station at Mile 26.4 came when my watch had just turned to Mile 25, so I became confused as I tried to estimate a finish time. I guessed I could break 5 hours, however, and wanted to get under 4:55. I had no hope of placing in any division given the uber-competitive field, but I wanted to be less than ten minutes from my PR goal. I ran a strong final mile, finished in 4:53, and felt so good at the end that I did a cartwheel. (You can watch the finish-line video here; I come through on the recording at around 47:10.)
I averaged a 9:25 pace, which I feel pretty good about considering the three pit stops and additional stops at aid stations. Compared to the leaders, however, I was really slow! Max King, 33, knocked almost 10 minutes off the course record to set a new CR in an incredible 3:08:50, which is an average pace of 6:04. (That’s my mile time when I’m pushing it at the track. I can’t imagine multiplying that by 31 and maintaining that pace over all those hills.) Women’s winner Meghan Arbogast, 51, finished 23rd overall in 4:06:45, a 7:56 pace. I was 25th woman and 135th overall out of 859 starters.
Afterwards, I thoroughly enjoyed relaxing at the Inside Trail team tent. As I sipped a Lagunitas IPA while seated in between two guys I’d like to spend any afternoon with—Running Stupid’s Ken Michal and Ultra Runner Podcast’s Eric Schranz—I reflected on how the post-race festival scene captured the changing demographics of the sport. On the one hand, I saw dozens of younger runners I didn’t recognize, and everyone was buzzing about the leaders’ fast times. It’s a growing sport that looks and feels younger and faster (the 51-year-old women’s winner being a notable exception). What’s happening to ultra trail running, someone said, is analogous to what happened to mountain biking: When roadies and Europeans got into the laid-back sport, the competition shot up and the race times plunged. Previous winning times in the Western States 100 wouldn’t even crack the top 10 now.
On the other hand, older luminaries of the sport also milled around the crowd, along with dozens of runners I’ve gotten to know over the years. Tim Twietmeyer, now 54, finished the race in 4:25 and hung out shaking hands and slapping backs for a long time afterward. UltraRunning Magazine’s John Medinger took photos along the course, and Run100’s Stan Jensen directed traffic.
The event exuded a sense of community in spite of doubling in participants in recent years, so while the size felt to me a bit too big, the experience overall—and that glorious trail—felt just right.
Want to run around Cool and Auburn but can’t get into Way Too Cool or Western States? Check out these two newer events:
Knickerbocker Canyon 30K/Half Marathon/10K on March 24, 2013
Cool Moon 100M/12hr/6hr/Half Marathon on August 3 – 4, 2013
Apologies I do not have many photos accompanying this report. I did not carry a camera, and the race photographer has been delayed in posting pics. To see a great series of photos of the course, check out Scott Dunlap’s report from last year.