On March 3, 2018, I ran my first ultra of the year: the Way Too Cool 50k.
Back in December, while injured & unable to run, I began to cast around for races to run in 2018. I thought that Way Too Cool would be good because it ran on some of the same gorgeous trails as the Rio Del Lago 100, it was in early March, so heat wouldn’t be an issue, it would be a brand new experience, and it is “the most popular 50k in the USA!”
With zero knowledge of the race beyond these facts, I signed up. Then I watched some videos on Youtube.
In one video I counted six stream crossing in the first eight miles. That same video also showed logjams of people forced to drop to a walk due to the overwhelming number of runners packed onto to single track trails.
I like mud. I like tough conditions. But having soaking wet feet for 31 miles? That’s something I have zero experience with. Being stuck at a walking pace because of crowded trails? Not my favorite thing. And as race day drew nearer, it was looking like the temperatures would be at or near freezing for a good portion of the race. I have never raced at such low temperatures before.
At one point my wife said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
My answer? “Yeah…of course!”
The overwhelming theme of my pre-race planning was indecision. What to wear, what to wear…this lingered on so long that I wasn’t 100% sure about my clothing choice until about mile seven. But I committed to a short sleeve shirt under a semi-water resistant, fairly breathable jacket thingy. Same one I wore for the last leg of Rio Del Lago.
Next decision: when to arrive at the start. The Way Too Cool website suggested that runners arrive at the start “80 minutes before your original time you had in mind.”
My original “time in mind” was to arrive at 7 am (for an 8 am start). Were they seriously suggesting I arrive at 5:40 am?!?!
Not gonna happen.
I left the hotel at 6 am, arrived at the start at 6:20 am, scored a fantastic parking spot, got checked in and ready to run…and it was 6:40 am. Geez, that left me 80 minutes to wait around until the race started…coincidence?
While I was waiting, Jamil Coury walked by my van…yeah, JamJam…famous Youtuber & race director extraordinaire. And of course he was busy making a video. I would see him again later, about 2 miles into the race, dashing back toward the start to get more footage of the race leaders.
At about 7:30, I went around the back of my van to get all my gear ready. I heard two guys talking about 5 feet away from me, so I glanced over to see Jim Walmsley and Dylan Bowman (serious running studs) casually suggesting they “go for a little run together” after the race started (they weren’t racing).
Then Max King walked by. Yeah, Max King who would (spoiler alert) go on to win the race, finishing almost two hours before me. Two hours. Two. Hours.
And if that wasn’t enough, I saw Ann Trason after I crossed the finish line. If you don’t know who Ann Trason is, please check out her Wiki.
And those were just the people I recognized. How many giants of the sport, both past and present, were wandering around unrecognized by me? That alone was almost worth the price of registration.
But there was still the small matter of running a 50k with 850 other maniacs.
We all huddled at the start, shivering, jumping, bouncing and packed together like this was a massive road marathon. I had visions of a line of runners walking heal to toe for miles until the single track turned to fire road around mile 10.
But the race starts with a long stretch on a paved road so, shortly after passing under the starting arch, I was running a sub-10 minute mile pace with plenty of room to stretch my legs. In fact, my fear of forced walking never materialized.
Once we completed the road portion, we were dropped into a trail runner’s dream: gorgeous muddy trails winding through field and wood, dipping down short hills into smallish ravines, crashing through streams, and climbing back up the other side.
The first eight miles were heavenly! The sun came out, the rain fell, the clouds moved back in and then flew off again as we runners splashed into the first aid station.
I have to admit it was a little weird, after eight wondrous miles, to find myself back at the start, running through what felt like a finish line chute…but the sound of cheering, the cowbells, the high-fives, the music…it was a serious boost. I ran through that first aid station without stopping, and the energy I gained from it was incredible.
With soaking wet feet and a big smile I was ready to tackle the rest of the course as we wound our way over a muddy, sloppy, roller coaster ride of fantastic single track and fire road.
By the time we hit the second aid station at mile 13, I was still feeling strong. We hadn’t hit any serious hills, my feet seemed to be holding up despite the intermittent soakings, and I was never really cold or hot. My gear was doing the job.
At mile 13, I stopped for a quick sip of electrolyte sauce, but then quickly continued on my way. One of my goals was to spend as little time as possible standing still, this wasn’t just a race strategy, but also a way to avoid getting chilled. I had no interest in a DNF due to hypothermia.
The next several miles were a lesson in just how varied the weather can be: cloudy and drizzling, sunny and raining, cool and cloudy, warm and sunny…hey how about some hail and sunshine at the same time? Why not.
At one point the sun was so warm and the ground so cold and saturated with moisture that we ran through a thick haze of steam that obscured the trail better than any low lying fog ever could. It was bizarre. It was amazing.
We reached the mile 20 aid station and it was time for a more prolonged stop. I refilled one of my water bottles, grabbed a trio of gels, dumped my empty wrappers in the proper waste receptacle, and grabbed a cup of electrolyte. I thanked the volunteers on my way out and one of them told me that the rest of the course wasn’t too muddy, the trails were nice and tacky, and it would be smooth sailing.
Fortunately, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that, as wonderful as they are, the volunteers are not all-knowing. How could this guy at mile 20 possibly know what the conditions were like over the last eleven miles?
Answer: He couldn’t.
I knew that the on-and-off rain would affect conditions. I also knew that Goat Hill was ahead of me, somewhere around mile 25…
This section was a wonderful ride. I was sharing it with some great runners, the trail was muddy and sloppy and wet and exactly what I expected. When we reached Goat Hill I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was not as steep or long as I remembered.
It was steep and it was long, yet I made good time on the climb to the mile 26 aid station with tired legs and heavy breathe. I stopped to have more electrolyte…and then I saw a sign that said “Red Bull.”
I’d never in my life had Red Bull or any other “energy drink.”
But, it gives you wings, right?
Never trust a runner to make a good decision after 26 miles…I gulped down the Red Bull like I would water. Little did I realize that Red Bull is carbonated. Ouch.
My throat was kind of burning, but I felt suddenly energized as I left the aid station. Surely the Red Bull didn’t work that fast, so I will credit the wonderful volunteers.
Men and women who stand in the rain and hail and near freezing temperatures for eight hours for the sole purpose of handing out soup and gels and Red Bull to people they probably don’t even know are the finest citizens this country has to offer.
I mean that sincerely.
So there I was. 26 miles lay behind me. Goat Hill lay behind me. The sun was out, the rain was still falling on and off, the trails were essentially one long mud puddle. Was this heaven?
Probably not, but I felt good enough to push the pace a little. Time and trail blazed by and I soon found myself at the mile 30 aid station. With only a little over a mile to the finish, I clearly did not need to stop for aid, but instead pushed myself a little harder knowing that my day of running was almost over.
When I rounded the final turn, I was met with an astonishing sight. The clock beside the finish arch read 5:01. I was going to crush my 50k PR! In the mud, the slop, the river crossings, the innumerable puddles, the hail, and all of it, I was going to better my best by over 15 minutes.
Just steps before the finish line, there was a massive puddle in the middle of the trail. Some runners went around it on the right, some on the left.
I leaped into the air and came splashing down right in the middle. It was deeper than it looked. I sunk in past my ankles spraying water everywhere. The crowd of people cheering from beyond the finishing chute must have thought they were on a water ride at the local amusement park.
I hope I didn’t get them too wet.
5 hrs 1 min 38 secs
86th place overall
24th in my age group
9:43 average pace