The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost
What does a popular trail race in Northern California have in common with the New York City Marathon—besides a start and finish line?
Looking around the small grass-and-dirt staging area adjacent to El Dorado County Fire District Station 72, you’d have been hard pressed to come up with the answer. The Way Too Cool (WTC) 50K is annually—and it’s not close—the biggest and most exciting show in town for the residents of Cool, CA, a sleepy community of ~4,100 in the Sierra foothills. In contrast, while the New York City Marathon is a big deal to runners, it’s hardly a blip on the radar to its sleepless host city of 8.5 million.
Not only that, but the hundreds of Camelbak-carrying runners waiting to descend on the Auburn State Recreation Area looked much more relaxed than the tens of thousands of type-A road marathoners who fill the streets of New York every November. Not surprising, given the amount of time and effort required to reach each start line: WTC’s easy car ride and (at most) five-minute walk was a far cry from NYC’s epic “by foot/by subway/by ferry/by bus/by foot” route I’d followed just to reach the start line in Staten Island—a journey that had taken nearly as long as running the next 26.2 miles to Central Park.
And unlike the raucous crowds that line the streets of the five boroughs, the spectators on hand here in Cool would be largely limited to any locals that may be watching from the trees and foliage, most of them too preoccupied with the start of their mating season to worry about a bunch of heavy-footed humans running away from—what, exactly?
But like New York City is to so many road runners, Way Too Cool is to many trail runners a “must run” race. And just as New York is the largest marathon in North America, so too is WTC its biggest ultramarathon.
That may be where the similarity ends, though, because unlike NYC’s historic 51,000+ finishers, Way Too Cool saw a whopping—brace yourself—818 runners cross triumphantly under its green finish arch in 2016. And that was 9% more than the next largest ultra, the JFK 50 Mile.
Start – mile 8: A speedy start
Only one number mattered, though, as the start line announcer’s countdown and “GO!!!” directive sent the first wave of runners charging down the narrow paved road: 31.1 miles. The distance between us and the finish line.
Cool temperatures and mostly cloudly skies meant perfect running weather, with the rain that had threatened all week long now looking increasingly like tomorrow’s concern. Northern California had already seen more than its share of winter rain, and though the week leading up to the race had stayed dry, the trails still promised to be a sloppy, soggy adventure. Luckily for us, messy footing is a happy alternative to running in the rain.
The first mile+ of the course is a gentle downhill on asphalt to help the legs loosen up and lull you into thinking “Hey, maybe I can run a sub-5:00 50K today”. Before too much false hope could set in, though, a left turn onto the dirt took us down a damp and rocky slope where my progress slowed immediately. Rocky downhills are my least favorite terrain, and I felt like a water buffalo cautiously working my way downhill as my fellow runners flew by me with smooth, confident strides. Better safe than sorry this early in the race—I really didn’t want to land awkwardly, pitch forward face first and end my day before it had even begun.
The eight-mile “warmup” loop at WTC teasingly takes you back to the start and under the green finish arch before sending you on your way for the next 23 miles. This was a fast loop with only minor elevation changes, and unlike most of the trail races I’ve run, everyone here seemed to be running to stay ahead of the person pushing them from behind. With the pack bunched up in the early miles and moving like a fast-flowing stream, I felt pressure to keep up and not be the bottleneck. This made for a faster start than I would have run on my own, but rather than pull back on the throttle I decided to go with the flow, knowing the herd would thin out and my pace would slow after this first loop. Besides, running fast is fun, and I was having fun.
We reached the first stream crossing early in this loop, soaking our feet and getting that initial dunking out of the way quickly. There’d be—I’m guesstimating here—10-15 actual stream crossings along the course, places where I’d have no choice but to wade through shin-high (or deeper) water. Not to mention countless other instances where the path of least resistance required me to hurdle small streams or slog through soft mud. In many places, the trail had been obliterated and replaced by a muddy swamp of sunken footprints.
Returning to the staging area at mile 8, I saw Katie for the first and only time and briefly checked into the aid station for a quick sip of water and a bite of banana. One of the best things about ultras is the food at the aid stations, and WTC was no exception: offerings included bananas, pretzels, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, boiled potatoes, M&Ms and Rice Krispie treats as well as “energy” (i.e. sugary) options like Clif Bloks and various GU flavors. Not to be outdone, the drink menu featured water, Coke, Sprite, GU Roctane and even warm chicken broth.
As I learned at the Ice Age Trail 50 last May, one of the keys to ultra success is getting in and out of each aid station—inviting though they may be—as quickly as possible, because time spent noshing and stretching at aid stations adds up in a hurry.
> Average pace (miles 1–8): 9:46/mile
Miles 9 – 14: A river runs through it
WTC may be the nation’s largest ultramarathon, but it’s a far cry from the world’s largest. That distinction belongs to South Africa’s finest, the 90-km (56-mile) Comrades Marathon which each year accepts 20,000 entries from around the world. In fact, I’d signed up for WTC in part as a well-timed training run for Comrades, which I’ll be running this June.
Headed north away from the staging area, the herd thinned and I decided to let any determined faster runners behind me forge ahead. While the first loop had been a nice way to knock out a few miles and get the blood flowing, my idea of an enjoyable 50K wasn’t going to be acting as someone else’s hare for the day.
For the next two miles the dirt, grass and mud trail followed a gradual downhill trajectory into the WTC “bowl”, crossing Hwy 49 before meeting up with the gravel Western States Trail for a smooth six miles along the American River. This for me was the scenic highlight of the course—being able to focus my attention on the tranquil river rather than the technical singletrack was a nice change of pace, one that allowed me to relax and bask in the beauty of my surroundings. And my legs responded, clocking an 8:35 mile 12 before the trail headed uphill away from the river and I wisely dialed down the pace again.
Owing to the cool temperatures I’d opted to wear my hydration pack minus the hydration, simply as a means of carrying my own nutrition including the baby food pouches that had served me so well at Ice Age. Every so often I’d pop a Clif Blok in my mouth while running, just to keep my blood sugar levels up. And despite still feeling fully charged at the mile 14 aid station, I took the time to down another bite of banana and a packet of GU before charging on. Blood glucose, check!
> Average pace (miles 9–14): 9:37/mile
Miles 15 – 21: Up and out of the Bowl
Road marathoners quickly learn that while mile 13.1 may be the actual midway point of the race, mile 16 or even 18 represents its practical (i.e. psychological) midpoint. Not so with ultras, at least not for me—as soon as I hit the midway point at WTC (mile 15.5), I quietly celebrated my “halfway to home” status and started counting down to the finish.
In mile 16 we traversed yet another type of terrain: a river bar, a gray and brown field of water-polished rocks of all sizes, reminiscent of the moraines in Alaska and Montana left behind by the slow movement of glaciers over time. More than any other race I’ve run, WTC scores an A+ for the diversity of its terrain. Over the course of 30+ miles we encountered asphalt, dirt, red dirt, mud, short grass, tall grass, gravel, dead leaves, roots, pine needles, toppled trees, foot bridges, water crossings—you name it, we probably ran on (or through) it. A kick-ass choice for my first trail run of 2017.
Starting at around mile 17, the course took a severe upward turn and the pace slowed significantly as we climbed out of the Bowl. Miles 17–20 were an uphill struggle, penance for the easy descent that had led us down into the Bowl.
I shadowed one seemingly tireless woman in these middle miles, both of us clearly determined to run as much of the uphill as possible. Passing a fellow runner catching his breath on the side of the trail with his hands on his waist, she glanced over at him and said, with what sounded like a smile in her voice (I could be wrong), “Tired?” With that one word, and without pausing, she blew by him with me in close pursuit.
Reaching one particularly high creek crossing, I momentarily lost sight of the orange visor and dark ponytail before spying a flash of movement just downstream. I turned to see my rabbit crossing a wooden plank spanning the creek with the help of a rubber garden hose tied between two trees on either side of the water. I followed, grateful for not having to wade through cold, waist-deep water.
The pattern continued unabated: slop through mud, wade through water, slop through mud, wade through water. I could only imagine the sheer joy of navigating this course during the steady downpour of 2016.
On the bright side, the swampy conditions meant the locals were out in force, and their croaking resonated at several points along the course. We were, after all, intruding on their mating season—hence the frog theme of the race. Their throaty calls evoked childhood memories of warm spring nights in Texas, and distracted from my mounting fatigue.
By the time I reached the mile 21 aid station, I’d lost my rabbit—or rather, she’d lost me. I drowned my sorrows in a packet of baby food and another bite of banana, threw back a few sips of caffeinated energy drink and set my sights on Goat Hill.
> Average pace (miles 15–21): 11:34/mile
Miles 22 – 26: Gunning for Goat Hill
Miles 22–26 of any 50K are sort of the dead zone.
Despite the psychological boost of knowing you have single-digit miles to go, you still have an appreciable distance to cover, plus you’ve yet to reach the marathon milestone at mile 26. And depending on the terrain, your quads and knees are probably starting to stiffen up, making it increasingly tough to speed up and negotiate technical footing. Especially when you’re constantly wading through shin-high water or trying not to sacrifice your shoes to the mud gods.
And speaking of technical footing: as the miles wear on, the mental focus and vigilance needed to constantly be scanning three steps ahead for rocks, roots etc. start to take their toll. As the body tires, the mind wanders and the odds of a misstep grow with every footfall.
So yeah, 21–26 may be my least favorite miles of any 50K—they’re challenging mentally and they’re challenging physically. And in the case of WTC, I’d been warned that at the end of this relaxed, gently rolling stretch awaited Goat Hill.
Welcome to the Way Too Cool 10K, I thought as my Garmin beeped to signal mile 25.
Way Too Cool wasn’t a target race for me—rather, it was a timely opportunity to run some beautiful trails with some excellent friends, at a time when I had no other races on the docket. So there’d been no taper for this, no gradual decrease in training mileage to ensure my legs were at their well-rested bestest. Nope, WTC in effect would be a slightly longer version of my usual weekend long run. Plus, we’d returned from a work conference in Florida earlier in the week, just in time to hop a plane to the Bay Area. So sleep hadn’t been a priority, either. And now, as I chugged through the woods on cruise control, the bill came due for my pre-race nonchalance as a wave of fatigue washed over me.
The good news: the mile 26 aid station now lay less than ¾ of a mile ahead. The less good news: in that intervening ¾ of a mile stood Goat Hill. Someone would later tell me the course’s most intimidating hill had been extended this year, making it longer than usual. In any case, Goat Hill was a tragedy in three acts—where I’d been expecting one brief but nasty ascent, instead I got triple my money’s worth. Brief stretches of level ground—just long enough to make you think you’d reached the top—twice transitioned into another short but steep incline. On the bright side, there was no sense in even trying to run this, so I opted for the tried-and-true hands-on-quads strategy to power-hike my way uphill.
“Passing… on… the… right,” I laughed as I slowly trudged past another runner who’d stopped to catch his breath.
But like all good things, all bad hills must end, and finally I emerged at the top to find the mile 26 aid station awaiting. This, I thought, would be an awesome place for the finish line of the Way Too Cool Marathon.
> Average pace (miles 22–26): 12:34/mile; 18:45 for mile 26
Mile 27 – finish: Are we there yet?
One more baby food pouch, one more bite of banana and one more sip of energy drink later, I did a few knee raises to loosen my quads and hip flexors, took a deep breath and pointed myself down the trail toward home.
I soon realized there’d be no relief in these last five miles. A series of wet, rocky downhills followed as the trail seemed to get even more technical. Not wanting to do anything stupid (well, stupider than running 31 miles), and with my quads and knees feeling increasingly like stone pillars, I switched gears to “slow and steady” mode. 26+ miles into a long and enjoyable training run, this was no time to go hero on the course and do something stupid.
My only real time goal for the day was simple, and hardly a stretch: anything better than my current 50K PR of 6:33:45, set four years earlier at the Harding Hustle where temperatures reached 100°F. That effort in turn had eclipsed my first 50K finish time of 7:39:51 at the 2012 Brazen Diablo Trails Challenge (my first-ever blog post)—there too temperatures had peaked in the 90s, and I’d nearly left a kidney on the course owing to overheating and dehydration. Talk about rookie mistakes and learning the hard way…
I figured with today’s cool temperatures I’d have a legit shot of breaking six hours, thus giving me one seven-hour 50K, one six-hour 50K and one five-hour 50K on my résumé. Hard to argue with that rate of improvement.
Right now, though, as I trudged along feeling more tortoise than hare, I sure didn’t feel like a man in pursuit of a sub-six finish. Gently flowing rivulets that I would have vaulted in stride earlier in the day became three-step exercises in pause-plant-leap.
Ever helpful, my Garmin chirped to indicate the end of mile 28. Easy peazy, I told myself. Welcome to the Way Too Cool 5K. Suddenly, three miles felt like an absurdly long way.
Crossing Hwy 49 once again, I flashed a weak smile at the folks directing traffic just ahead of the final aid station, which I passed without stopping. Not now, no more time to waste, not with the finish line so close.
“Half a mile to go!” a couple shouted as I passed. “You’re everyone’s best friend!” I responded. Several spectators in the last mile commented on the fact that I was still smiling. I’d heard that in Louisiana too… and why wouldn’t I be smiling? With everything that’s going on in the world right now, how lucky am I to be able to run 31 miles just for fun? It’s something I’ll never, ever, never never take for granted.
At the same time I was confused. Half a mile to go? My Garmin hadn’t even reached 30 miles, so this was probably another case of spectator overzealousness, something I’ve seen more times than I can count—like the fellow at mile 20 of a marathon who shouts “ALMOST THERE!!!”. And yet now that the seed was planted, I felt one last burst of energy kick in, propelling me onward.
Luckily in this case, the spectator was right. As the inflatable green finish arch came into view once again, I glanced down at my wrist and was amazed to see a time of just over 5h30m. As much as I’d slowed after my speedy pace in the early miles, I thought for sure I’d be pushing six hours. Even if the course had been a full 31.1 miles, I still would have had plenty of buffer to break six hours.
With a final turn and a wave at Katie, I hopped one last patch of mud and crossed under the arch with a shiny new 50K personal best of 5:35:39. Yes the course had been roughly a mile short (according to my GPS and many others on Strava), but I figured that was a fair tradeoff for all the stream crossings and mud I’d lugged on the soles of my shoes for the past 5½ hours.
Two friends I’d met through Brazen Racing, Patricia and Yoly, were the first smiling faces I saw on crossing the finish—Patricia hung the finisher medal around my neck while Yoly greeted me with her usual huge smile. Way Too Cool mission accomplished!
> Average pace (miles 27–30.1): 13:29/mile
I briefly chatted with Yoly and some fellow finishers before reuniting with Katie, who once again had somehow found enjoyment in hanging out in the middle of nowhere while I ran in circles for nearly six hours. We diffused over to the vendor tents where a nice post-race spread awaited, including warm soup to warm my innards. As I stood sipping at the soup I missed another Brazen buddy, Mike B., finish strong with his own PR of 6:05:xx. Dammit, I’d had no idea he was that close behind me.
Mike and I shared congrats and then made our way toward the Sufferfest Brewing beer tent. There we met more friends before Katie and I eventually found our way to the most important tent of all, where volunteers stood handing out the race’s signature frog cupcakes. I still remember my brother and sister-in-law, after running WTC back in 2012, showing up at our place in Berkeley with a gift of frog cupcakes, the dashboard of their car smeared green where one rogue cupcake had tried unsuccessfully to make its escape.
And with that, our work here in Cool was done. Saying our farewells, we made the long three-minute walk back to the car before putting the Sierra Foothills in our rearview mirror. For now. Hopefully I still have many memorable road and trail races ahead of me—throughout the state, across the country and around the world. But will I ever find a more welcoming yet challenging race on a more diverse and beautiful course than Way Too Cool?
Frog-et about it.
BOTTOM LINE: Way Too Cool earns its name, from the awesome scenery to the race day temperatures to the chilly water that awaits at every stream crossing. As the largest trail race in the country, it’s a bucket list event for serious dirtbags. And you may never find a more scenic and diverse course than the network of trails you’ll follow on your 30+ mile journey along the Middle Fork of the American River Canyon and through the Auburn State Recreation Area.
The North Face Endurance Challenge, my benchmark for trail races in California, is a much different course than WTC—its jaw-dropping vistas of the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Bridge notwithstanding, the trails and scenery at TNFEC are less varied than at WTC.
The reasonably challenging course (4,000 ft of elevation gain/loss) is predominantly single-track with no two-way traffic, so slower runners need never worry about the possibility of colliding with speedier oncoming elite and sub-elite runners. There’s even significant overlap (roughly 12 miles) with the iconic Western States 100 Trail. Along the way you’ll have the occasional croaking of the locals (it’s frog mating season in Cool) to relax your mind and remind you that you’re far away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of urbania. Plus, in early March you can be confident of cooler race day temps—the real variable when it comes to the weather is how wet you’ll get.
The icing on the cake at WTC is… well, the icing on the cake. Cupcake that is, since you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the race’s signature frog cupcakes at the finish line festival. What better way to quickly normalize blood sugar levels?
PRODUCTION: Smooth sailing with no real complaints. Pre-race packet pickup gave us an opportunity to support the local Auburn Running Company, which feels like a shrine of sorts to the iconic Western States 100 Endurance Run.
Race day itself flowed seamlessly: the course was well marked with ribbons, leaving no chance for a wrong turn even after my mind switched over to auto-pilot mode in the later miles. And the finish-line festival offered one of the more interesting assortment of vendor tents, with the presenting sponsor Clif Bar joined by GU, Camelbak, Dickey’s BBQ, Red Bull, Sufferfest Brewing, Salomon, Rock Tape, KaiaFit, Squirrel’s Nut Butter (great to prevent chafing!) and Monsters of Massage.
Aside from the number of stream crossings, the only real issue for most runners will be the sparsity of aid stations, which were few and far between at miles 8, 14, 19, 26 and (I think) 29. Thanks to the cooler temps I didn’t need to carry my own hydration, but I did bring my own baby food pouches just in case I felt my blood sugar dropping.
A note about parking: At our pre-race dinner the night before (at La Fornaretta, a comfy Italian restaurant in nearby Newcastle), there was anxious discussion about how early folks—including several WTC veterans—were planning to arrive the next morning to secure a good parking spot. Many folks planned to show up over two hours early and nap in their cars, just so they’d be assured of a parking spot as close to the start line as possible. Not willing to forego that much sleep but wanting to play it safe, Katie and I decided to show up just over an hour before the start (way early for us)—and we ended up parking easily in the empty “overflow” lot of the local Holiday Market, no more than a five-minute walk from the start line. Other cars continued to park near us for the next hour or so as we sat waiting. In other words, parking is easy no matter what time you get there. Cool is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town so there’s no traffic, even on race day. Many runners park directly adjacent to the fire station (start line) on St. Florian Ct, which the race organizers close to traffic an hour or so before the race, But there’s no need to park that close unless maybe you’re expecting heavy rain and want immediate access to your car after the race. And you’ll benefit much more from the two+ hours of extra sleep than from the primo parking spot.
SWAG: Not much to recommend here. Honestly, the shirt was awful—a thin, poorly fitting Greenlayer tee that went immediately into the donation pile. Luckily the finisher medal was better, small and simply designed with the race name and frog logo (apparently the medal is the same every year, the only difference being ribbon color). The swag was the only aspect of the race that wasn’t way too cool, though trail races get the benefit of the doubt since trail runners tend not to be swagophiles like the typical road runner. If only cupcakes counted as swag…
March 4, 2017 (start time 8:00am)
30.14 miles in Cool, CA
Finish time & pace: 5:35:39 (first time running Way Too Cool, 3rd 50K overall), 11:08/mile
Finish place: 201 overall, 52/159 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 700 (419 men, 281 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy (start temp 46°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 4,029 ft ascent, 4,023 ft descent