March 17, 2011

Way Too Cool 50k (Race Report)

There's a lot I want to say about Saturday's race, Way Too Cool 50k, better known as my first ultra. And since I believe the length of a race report should be proportional to that of the race, sit back because this is gonna be a loooong one : ) I didn't quite know what to expect of the race or of myself, and I was more than a little intimidated by the thought of running 31 miles, 5 more than I've ever covered on foot. And in a strange way I felt like my performance would set the tone for my next big ultra, AR 50. So naturally I was a bag of emotions: nervous, excited, anxious, and scared. But ready or not, the moment arrived.

Way Too Cool has become one of the biggest and most popular 50ks in the country (for good reason), so this year they used a lottery to select participants. I was thrilled when I found out I got in, both because it sounded like an awesome race and because I hoped to use it as my longest trail run before AR 50. The timing was perfect and there was no way I was gonna run 30+ miles on my own, so I eagerly added WTC to my race calendar. The week leading up to it I managed to remain in denial until the very last second. The reality of the race, and the fact that it would be the longest distance I'd ever run, literally didn't hit me until I had already started running. I think my training leading up to this was just so different than my marathon training in the past that it made everything feel different.
course map
elevation profile

Friday night I went out for dinner with my family then headed home to lay my stuff out for Saturday. It's amazing how much "stuff" I take with me on trail runs, far more than needed on the roads! With my pack ready and my clothes laid out I hit the sack and tried to put all thoughts of the race out of my head. After a somewhat restless nights sleep I woke around 5:30am and began my usual pre-race routine. I was out the door a little after 6am and on my way to Cool, CA, about an hour from Sac. I found the start at the fire station easily, but since parking was limited I ended up following the caravan of cars and parked nearly a half mile from the start. I had just enough time to pick up my packet and bib, use the bathroom, and drop off my bag before I joined the throngs of runners heading to the start. I lined up in the back of the pack near the 12+ min pace sign and quickly spotted Ron. It was great to see a friendly face amongst the nearly 700 runners, and despite never having run together before, Ron made fore excellent company over the first 21 miles.
start area
Ron and I pre-race
back of the pack

The race began at 8am on the dot and we were off! The start line was a bit congested and we did the start-and-stop shuffle before finally getting across. The first mile was on the road where I discovered that my Camelbak was not issuing any water. I quickly discovered that the tube was simply pinched and managed to fix it mid stride, but I couldn't help but get a little anxious at the thought of a mishap so early on. As if I needed something else to worry about before I finished even one mile, I developed a sharp side cramp that lasted the next couple miles. I managed to run through it and tried not to let it psych me out. The first 8 miles took us out on the Olmstead loop, a pleasant single track lined with green grasses and shady trees. From the start it was clear that mud would be a big issue for the day, but I've learned to embrace it and slop right through it : ) Although there were a lot of runners out there I was surprised that we didn't see a whole lot of bottle-necking. Having never run on this kind of trail with so many people before it was a new experience. While there was a nice social atmosphere, I felt a little more pressure to run at a certain pace and I didn't feel like I could easily slow or walk when I felt like it. There were a couple stream crossings on this loop which was fun, and soon we found ourselves back at the fire station and the first aid station.
just lovely
traffic jam at the first stream crossing
first aid station back at the start

A few miles in I started developing some discomfort in my chest, almost like heartburn. I had no idea what could have caused it, but it reminded me of this miserable run and I sort of freaked out that this race (which was much longer than that run) would be miserable as well. Despite my anxiety I did what I had to and moved along. Ron had stopped to used the bathroom but quickly caught up when I stopped to stretch my hips, which were already giving me a little trouble. I chatted briefly with a couple folks and was reminded just how friendly trail runners can be. The next several miles are a little blurry to me, partly because my "heartburn" was becoming increasingly unbearable. Running downhill only seemed to jostle me and make it worse. I just tried to keep up with Ron and soon enough we found ourselves crossing Highway 49. Once again, I found myself stopping dead in my tracks at the awesome sight of the Foresthill Suspension Bridge and the vivid blue American River drifting underneath. We continued on, heading down to Quarry Road and the second aid station at mile 11ish. As I eyed the table full of sweet and salty goods I spotted an antacid. I figured I had nothing to lose so I chewed one up and Ron and continued on.
Foresthill Suspension Bridge
the Hawaiian themed Quarry aid station

The next several miles had some good ups and downs and the ratio of running to hiking started to shift. We passed the time chatting about training and races, Ron nonchalantly discussing his 30+ marathons and Ironman, making me feel like a mediocre loser : / Seriously, though, I was totally impressed and inspired! My hip flexors were pretty unhappy at this point thanks to all the ups and downs, and with so much further to go I decided to take the ibuprofen I'd packed with me. Turned out to be an excellent decision and it made such a huge difference over the rest of the race! The runners had thinned out considerably at this point and we often found ourselves alone on the trails. From the Quarry Road down by the river we began the climb back up the canyon. At one point we hit a nice flat stretch and it was so nice to actually run long enough to get a rhythm going. Of course that didn't last and we had a few more hills to climb before arriving at the Maine Bar aid station at mile 16.7. By this point I was feeling much better so I chalked it up to heartburn and was glad I found that chew.
Ron hiking up another hill
and another one...

Over the next four miles I was feeling progressively better, meanwhile it seemed like Ron was feeling worse. There were some good runnable sections along this section and the trail was absolutely beautiful. A couple more stream crossings and a lot more mud, but the miles continued to tick by. It was kind of funny to see some folks carefully try to cross the streams, stepping on rocks or logs, meanwhile I passed them, splashing my way across : ) From the beginning my Garmin had been measuring the course short, so I wasn't quite sure when to expect the next aid station and I started to get anxious. I got some mad cravings for the peach flavored GU chomps in my pack and I had the munchies, plus I was ready for a mini break. Mentally I knew that once I got to 20 miles it would be easier to wrap my head around having "just" 10 more miles to go. I had broken the race into three 10 milers, and I wanted to be two-thirds done. After a nice little descent we finally arrived at the ALT aid station at mile 21. Ron arrived as I was stuffing my face and tossing back cups of electrolytes and told me to go ahead and run my own race. I had really hoped we could finish together and would have loved the company for the last 10 miles, but I was feeling pretty good and was also eager to see what I could do. With one more glance back I took off, munching on my chomps as I went.
on our way to the aid station at Maine Bar

Here's where things enter a realm that defies explanation. As I left the aid station I got a sudden second wind and was just cruising on the trails, passing people one by one. I approached one guy who was running a great pace and just latched on and followed his stride, one foot after the other. He walked when I felt like walking, and I could just zone out and follow him. I hope he didn't mind me breathing down his neck! After a couple miles he paused to tie his shoe and that was the last I saw of him. I don't know what happened to me, but during miles 23-25 I powered along the trails passing at least a dozen people. The whole time I kept thinking "who am I?", but I've learned that on long trail runs I experience natural ups and downs and when I'm having an "up" I need to ride it as long as I can. Plus, I knew the biggest hill of the course, Goat Hill, was coming up at mile 25ish and I wanted to bank some time. I can't quite describe how I felt out there but if I had to I would say "alive". It was like everything started to click and I could finally taste the finish!

Although I didn't mention any goals going into this race other than to not die and to finish, I did have a secret goal: sub-7 hours. Based on my times on other trails runs and races this was a bit of a stretch but I figured if I had a could day then maybe. Just maybe. I was pleased to find out that Ron had a similar goal so we had that sub-7 carrot dangling in front of us, calculating our pace and assessing our progress at various points. Once I was on my own the obsession only grew worse and I couldn't focus on a whole lot else. I kept trying to do the math, which at that point in a race is much harder than it should be, but I knew that it was within my grasp.

And then, I hit the infamous Goat Hill. Earlier on a fellow runner had mentioned that this hill was just before the next aid station so I'd asked just how bad it was. He replied that it was steep, but short. Well, I start walking up this hill thinking that it wasn't so bad and, looking at my Garmin, that I was nearing the top. Only to turn a corner and see a volunteer telling us there was less than a quarter mile to the top, meanwhile the incline of the hill might as well have turned vertical. I let out a loud curse then bent low and started a long, slow, and painful hike to the top. At some spots I actually had to lift my leg with my arm to step up a ledge and I swore my heart was going to explode. While looking at my splits later on, I noticed that the mile that included Goat Hill was clocked at 20 minutes. Ha! Mercifully I made it to the top, gasping for air, and rested for a moment at the aid station. There were fun signs announcing that we had covered a marathon, which meant that every step from there on would be unknown territory.
the base of the treacherous Goat Hill
this pic does not do this hill justice!
aka climb this freaking hill
marathon mark! onward to the unknown!

With the relentless Goat Hill behind me I was antsy to get through the final miles and finish this thing! I did more calculations and determined the average pace I would need to finish sub-7 and just hoped my "up" and energy lasted long enough to get me there. There were some extremely muddy sections along the way which made running difficult and a few nice hills, too. I would get so frustrated every time I had to stop and walk, not from lack of energy, but because of a hill or stretch of mud and I worried how it ate away at my time. I took advantage of every runnable section and continued to pass folks in these last miles. It was a weird feeling to see mile numbers bigger than 26 on my Garmin, but even though I had never run that far, my body never really registered the distance and didn't feel all that different from a marathon. At mile 29.6 we crossed over Highway 49 again (different spot) and hit the last aid station. I didn't stay long as I was anxious to finish, but it was nice to hear the volunteers tell me I looked strong : )

As if playing a cruel joke on us runners, the last couple miles involved a nice, rocky, and muddy hill and I was once again reduced to a walk. Unexpectedly (because my Garmin was a bit off) I came across a sign saying one mile left, and looking down at my watch I knew that even if I walked the rest of the way, I had sub-7 in the bag. Although this was a great feeling, I really wanted to finish strong and this hill was putting a cramp in this plan. Some women behind me assured me that I was almost to the top and then it was just a nice, flat section through a grassy meadow to the finish line! I made it to the meadow and could see the finish area in the distance. There was an announcer about a half mile from the finish urging us on and as I passed him I kicked things into the last gear I had left and cruised past the two runners in front of me. As I made the final turn to the finish I spotted my parents on the side cheering and gave one final push to cross the finish line in a blissful 6:44:06 with a huge smile on my face : )
so close!
the final stretch & finish
I felt surprisingly good after finishing and could have kept going (although I don't know about another 19 miles...). In fact, I was so concerned with the fact that my Garmin had measured the course at only 29.5 miles (strange, because Ron's measured 31 miles) that I almost did a cool down "lap" to at least get it to say 30, but then it died. Probably for the best. I found my parents and took some finishing pics then went to wait for Ron to finish. I knew he was hurting those last miles so I was happy to see him come in and finish his first 50k. Awesome job, Ron, and thanks again for the company and encouragement! See you at AR 50!
ultra marathoner!
Ron on the final stretch!
50k finishers

My mom and I hung out for a while longer, enjoying the post-race picnic atmosphere. I forced myself to down a GU Recovery and refueled (or got a start, 31 miles burns a lot of calories!) with a slice of pizza and a little cup of homemade minestrone soup. Hmmm : ) They also had their famous frog cupcakes for finishers but I just couldn't stomach that much sugar at that point so I just took a pic instead. Before we left I took off my shoes and socks and was pleased to find not one blister (thanks, Drymax socks!) and amused that my feet looked more like those of a cadaver thanks to being exposed to so much water and mud during the race. Worry not, eventually they went back to normal : )
despite the frog theme i saw zero out on the course...go figure
on the trails, i say "the dirtier, the better"
 my dirty, wrinkled, cadaver feet

It's amazing the difference road racing and trail running have on the body. I was only a fraction as sore after WTC than I have been after all of my marathons, and just a couple days later I was back to running and feeling pretty good. If anything, I've just been very tired these last few days and I was pretty ravenous for a couple days after. I really couldn't have asked for a better race experience for my first ultra or a better confidence booster for upcoming AR 50. The race itself was extremely well put together and I highly recommend it! I would love to run it again in the future. But until then, time to focus on the next big challenge: running 50 miles next month!


  1. Oh my goodness, Rachel. I LOVE IT! What an awesome race report! I am so so so so so proud of you and thrilled for you! You did such a wonderful job, and you described it so well, I felt like I was going up that crazy hill with you!

    So impressed, and so happy. You are awesome! So excited for your 50 next month!

    I owe you an email. :)

    Have a great weekend!

  2. Awesome job! Way to kick it into gear at the end, that's amazing. It's interesting to see how much of trail running is mental - I can so relate to that feeling early on of "oh god, if it's this painful now how am I ever going to finish?" That is a great time for your first trail 50k, and I agree about the soreness not being anywhere near as bad as road running. Great job, again!

  3. How much fun did we have? It was an honor to run with you for those first 21 miles. When I was (finally) finishing my race and you told me your finish time I was so so so proud of you.

    Thanks for making my first ultra a fun one and I can not wait to run with you again at the AR50 (at least for the first 30 miles).

    All the best,


  4. Congratulations on your 50k!! Such a great accomplishment - enjoy every moment, esp. as continue to float on cloud 9 right now :)

  5. Congrats, awesome job love the race report

  6. What an adventure of a race. Way to go!

  7. What a great race recap! I loved reading it. How exciting that you did this...I can't believe how far you've come, so happy! Can't wait to hear how the race next month goes. I love reading your BLOG...

    Keep up the amazing work!

  8. Congratulations!! It sounds like you had a great day despite all of those crazy hills. :)

  9. You are my hero!!! What an amazing race and such a great report. I'm not sure I could have resisted that cute cupcake though :) I'm doing my first ultra in '12 and it's a road race so I'm a little worried about the pain, it's 56 miles too. Ouch. But reading this and knowing you have a 50 right around the corner is such an inspiration. I'll be cheering you on from afar!