Way Too Cool is a 50k trail run that starts and ends in Cool, California. It runs along the American River and on parts of the Western States course. I’d entered the lottery in early December along with most of my trail running friends. I had gotten caught up in the excitement with them but by the time January rolled around that had worn off and my level of interest in the race had dropped to zero. I didn’t want to do it.
North Face 50 Mile in December had knocked the mental stuffing out of me and I was rebelling against stepping foot anywhere near familiar territory. All I wanted to do was explore so a repeat race didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. But I paid my money so I was committed.
I spent January and February highlighting my Mt. Tam trail map with all the new trails I had covered. It was beautiful and it was fun even when we’d get a little lost or found ourselves crawling up slopes so steep we were almost on hands and knees. It was awesome and ridiculous. That I was also getting training in and having a great time was entirely the point. By the time Way Too Cool rolled around I wasn’t annoyed anymore that I had signed up. It was going to be a great road trip and a wonderful experience shared with two friends who’d never done it before. And I also started thinking PR.
The course is benign compared to the races in the Marin Headlands and Mt. Tam so it’s as good a place as any to set a PR. It’s still got 4,800 feet of gain with a nasty climb called Goat Hill at the marathon point that looks like the edge of a cliff on most elevation profiles. Even after Goat Hill it’s no easy cruise to the finish as there are several climbs that feel like body punches concluding with a half mile climb as a parting shot right before the end.
Last year I aimed for a PR and got it, but it was a train wreck getting there. I paced myself so poorly that by the time I got to the last aid station only 1.4 miles from the finish I felt terrible and had descended into such a deep black hole that I wanted to quit. Just put me in a car and drive me back to the finish I stated to the woman trying to help me. Everything had been going well (or so I thought) when the wheels fell off in epic fashion around mile 25. My stomach hated me and my legs had turned to lead. I ended up walking a lot of those final miles. I’d never experienced such a dramatic turn for the worse and I didn’t know how to handle it. Fortunately, the volunteer babysitting my whiny ass was unsympathetic, made me take a Tums and kicked me out of the aid station. I managed to get the PR but I was not very happy about it.
This year I was determined to do things differently and employ a better race strategy than my previous “go hard until you blow up spectacularly” plan. I set up some goals for myself:
(1) Keep an even effort throughout the race and remember that what feels easy at mile 5 will feel hard at mile 20 and monumental at mile 30.
(2) Move through the aid stations efficiently. There is no free lunch but not lingering at an AS is pretty darn close.
(3) Get a PR.
I figured if I executed (1) and (2) I stood a good chance of getting (3). Despite my less than stellar approach to the PR last year, I knew it would still be a tough time for me to beat.
Miles 1 – 27 went by without incident. I was fueling well, the weather was perfect and I was motoring along clicking off the miles. When mile 28 rolled around things changed. I was moving well enough but I felt strange. I was starting to feel really tired and mildly dizzy. I was on a runnable, pretty, tree lined single track – the type of terrain that’s right in my wheelhouse, but I was struggling. I was still on pace for a PR but I knew from last year how quickly things could head south. As I was going through my mental check list of what might be going on and coming up with nothing of substance (no pain, stomach was ok), just a generic “I don’t feel good”, another voice entered my head that stated matter-of-factly – It’s not supposed to feel good.
Geez, now that’s cold. Once I got over the initial shock of “where did THAT come from” I reminded myself that I wasn’t treating this race like a training run. There are times for that but this wasn’t one of them. I was putting in an effort that was hard and uncomfortable and getting more so by the minute. I wasn’t going to let that PR slip through my fingers without a fight. I just had to keep it together for a few more miles. I passed that infamous last aid station at 1.4 miles to go and this time I wasn’t asking for a ride in. I slogged up the last climb and finally found myself on flat fire road and could hear the announcer and see the finisher’s arch in the distance.
Home free! Or so I thought. I rounded the second to last turn of the dirt road trying to go as fast as I could and ended up hitting the deck hard. Really? I make it through the entire race floating on the rocky, rooty stuff and bite it on the flat? One choice expletive later, I popped up covered in dirt; bruised and bleeding. Yet more skin and blood paid as tribute to the trail running gods. It’s becoming a familiar ritual. My head was clearly moving faster than my feet at this point. I quickly regrouped and made as mad a dash for the finish line as I could muster.
In the end, I had my PR in one hand and my frog cupcake, a WTC signature finisher’s reward, in the other. And I wasn’t grumpy about it this time.