“Careless in our summer clothes, splashing around in the muck and the mire.”
- Hang Me Up To Dry, Cold War Kids
A brilliant springtime sun shone down on Cool as a thousand fools sought 31 miles of soggy feet, mud-splattered legs and sweet, sweet suffering.
I eased towards the front and the fringe of the ultra “scene,” watching racers I knew only by name or by face joke and jeer and get ready to run. A tinge of envy crept into my body as I marveled at those willing and able to dedicate enough of their lives to this crazy sport to be part of the elite.
And while I wasn’t quite part of the gritty crew at the front of the pack, this year I was ready. After my meltdown at mile 20 in the 2013 Way Too Cool, I have spent the better part of the past 12 months training my mind and body for redemption on these trails. I think back to last year and am amazed at how little I knew, how woefully unprepared I was for the time I ended up running. And I paid for it with the most miserable 100 minutes of running in my life.
Luchi and I arrived in Auburn the day before, grabbed our race packets, checked into our hotel and cruised out to Cool to check out the trails. Crimson dirt crunching under my feet, I remembered how smooth and fast these trails are. But less than a half mile into the run we were greeted by the muck and the mire.
An unseasonably warm and rainy past few weeks turned meadows and creeks into a muddy bog. The trail sliced through and creeks which had run up over their shores. I thought back to last month’s 50k in the Headlands where I was soaked the entire way, wind and driving rain for five hours. But there is something different about running the rain (read: awesome) and running in the sun with soggy, heavy feet (read: not nearly as awesome).
After a leisurely dinner and night cap in Auburn, Maura and Jessica arrived and we turned in, alarm set to blare with a 5-handle. I slept terribly, pretty standard pre-race fits of jerking awake to look at the clock, just to realize it had only been an hour since last time I thought I had slept through my alarm.
5:15 finally came and we dragged ourselves into the nippy air, through the hotel parking and past a dozen or so other runners prepping for the 15-minute haul into Cool.
Nor Cal Ultras puts on a generally phenomenal race, but this year they were short on bathrooms and the line wrapped around the parking lot, even at this early hour. And as toilet paper began to run short, I was reminded why arriving early to races is a win-win proposition.
This was Luchi’s first 50k and he was a bit nervous, understandably so. But ultimately his excitement took over and we fist bumped good luck as I trotted off to join the starting line and my aspirational group of elite and semi-elite ultrarunners.
I couldn’t have asked to be better prepared at the starting line: Legs felt good, mind felt good and I had a decent race plan based primarily on correcting my mistakes from last year and having fun. I knew that if I had fun, a better time would follow. In the back of my mind was the past week’s atrocious tapering, which included only one run and 5-nights straight of socializing, crab-feasting and booze. But when my feet launched over the starting line, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I could only run.
In the days leading up to a race, I revel in the anticipation. I am reminded that time marches inexorably on and that whether you’re ready or not, the future will eventually become the present. And in that present all the waiting and imagining is wrapped up in the moment. You start running and its happening. There’s nothing left to do but do it.
The first mile of Way Too Cool is notoriously fast, down a gradually sloped road where almost everyone goes out to fast. I settled into a comfortable pace and went by the first mile in just under 6:20. I knew it was too fast, but over the past year my cruising pace has slipped down into this range so I wasn’t alarmed. What alarmed me was the company I kept.
When I recognize you from nothing but your full back tattoo, you’re a real runner. I ran on, listening to the banter of the runners around me catching up, talking goal times and sharing war stories. Those around me were aiming for the 4-hour mark, which is what I had quietly set as my goal time.
We hopped off the road and onto the trail, descending down some fun and technical down hills. The volume of chatter told me that everyone was still warming up, enjoying those first few easy miles before the real race begins.
We were cruising, keeping a great pace through the winding trails. I felt fast and strong, and in these short moments I wandered into a world where I didn’t quite belong, keeping pace with runners I knew were better than me, thousands more miles under their respective belts. It didn’t really occur to me that I should slow down until I heard the following exchange, as the two guys in front of me were discussing a couple very fit-looking women ahead.
“Who’s Caitlin running with up there?”
“That’s Magdalena, Olympic marathoner.”
Oh. Those two ladies finished 1-2, with third place 20 minutes behind.
So I backed it down. Or, put another way, I got dropped.
But for those first few miles, I felt like a real ultra-runner. I wasn’t worried about pace, wasn’t keeping it in third gear because I had 28 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation left to go. I was just running, chasing the guy in front of me, surrounded by some of the most accomplished and fearless ultra-runners in the sport. It was a privilege just to be on the trail with them.
But I was here to have fun, and blowing myself out in the first hour was a sure fire way to have a repeat performance of last year. So I let the pack of elites drift off into the distance. Maybe next year, maybe next year.
My ostensible goal was to come through the first aid station at mile 8 keeping a pace around 7:30-7:45. As the trail wound up and down hills, through creeks and mud pits, the numbers on my watch ticked up towards that mark. I let them go. I chatted with a few friendly runners, including a guy named Andy with whom I would crisscross paths for the rest of the day.
The sun was out, not too warm, not too cold. A bright new day in the pristine foothills and we were the chosen few lucky enough to be out there running through it all.
With the opening loop nearly done, I saw Maura cheering on the right side of the trail. She shouted encouragement and high-fived me as I went past. I stopped at the aid station, grabbed some water and a banana and sped off. With flat then down ahead, I’d load up at mile 11.
Last year I spent the entire race dehydrated. I would fill my water bottle at the aid station then take off without drinking anything. I’d rehydrate from my bottle for the first mile and feel great, but have to ration water until the next aid station. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I cruised down at an even pace, passing where possible but conserving energy. I used to fly on the downs but have become more disciplined, conserving energy while still making hay. Andy flew past me, shouting, “See, I love the downs!”
We popped out across Highway 49 and down the steep gravel path to the American River. What a view, straight upriver with steep canyon slopes on either side. In the distance, you can see the trail wrapping along the bank, the lone truly flat section of the course.
I slid into the aid station and jammed a big potato into the salt bowl. Woah, too much salt. But I’d need it later so I forced it down. I also grabbed some of the Gu they were handing out, that Rocktane stuff which is truly disgusting. I carried it but never touched the stuff. Turns out I should have.
Last year at this point I felt great and ran the river section hard. I hadn’t expected the rollers and blew precious energy in the mid-section of the race. So this year I took the opposite approach and settled into an easy cruising pace on the flats. I still hovered around 7-minute miles but was getting passed rather than the opposite like last year. That was OK, I had my plan and was sticking to it.
As the ups and downs rolled out, I hiked the ups, the only one around me doing it. I was losing ground but I wasn’t worried -- I’d see them on the ridge (or so I thought).
As the trail turned back up towards the ridge and Cool, I settled into a comfortable hiking pace. Still getting passed periodically I fought them temptation to run. I still had juice left, but kept disciplined. There was plenty of up left and I wanted to save it for that ridge trail.
We neared the top and I started getting passed by more runners. The trail flattened out and I started to run, but was pretty gassed. I knew there was an aid station up ahead, so I settled in behind one of the guys who had passed me and we ran evenly towards an aid station that seemed to never come.
It was about this time, mile 20, when I realized the race was on. Here I was at the same place I fell apart last year, starting to fall apart again, starting to make bad decisions. Descending down a trail from which its hard to return.
I snapped myself out of it. I had been waiting for the aid station to take more salt, but what for? I popped the salt and told myself to take control of the race, rather than the other way around. I heard cheers in the distance and said to the guy in front of me “best sound you can hear out here.” He agreed, commending that he could have handled it coming sooner. No doubt.
I swigged some soda, took more water, salt, an orange and jammed potatoes into my food pouch. I felt worlds better and raced off down the hill. Next stop: Goat Hill.
Doing my best to avoid peaking and crashing, I eased into the first half mile or so after the aid station. I didn’t want to blow through all my energy with that gnarly hill yet to come.
In reflecting on the race, this is where I started to lose it. I’d be OK for the next few miles and even managed to stay hydrated. But I forgot the other element of nutrition, and perhaps the more obvious one: calories. I almost abandoned food. As I reflect on what I did wrong, why I ended up falling apart with a few miles left, I basically forgot to keep eating. It’s truly amazing how such a simple and seemingly obvious thing can just disappear from your consciousness.
I tucked in behind the next runner I came to and when the trail opened up, passed. I took off, racing the gradual down, looking for that wonderful zone where the surroundings blur and instinct takes over. You can’t think your way through this terrain, you have to feel it. I passed perhaps a half dozen runners before starting to feel fatigued.
I once again settled in behind a runner in front of me who was keeping an even pace. I remembered being tortured last year as the trail emerged from the shade into the beating sun, heat soaring up the canyons. It sapped my strength then, it fueled me now. I gritted my teeth and ran through it.
I passed again and hit the next down in stride. Up ahead I found Andy running tandem with a lady who had passed me by the river, and I called out. Andy said what’s up and as I blew past, said I looked strong. I told him I was faking it. Which was only partly true. I did feel strong, but knew my ups were limited and more than likely would be gassed by the end.
Goat Hill rears straight up after a gradual grade pulls you out of the canyon. Strava sponsored the climb this year with a big orange starting flag at the base. Just before I made the right hand turn up the dizzyingly steep pitch, two ladies leapt past me and took the hill like it wasn’t there. I laughed – some people are damn fit. I never saw them again.
I trudged up the hill, which unsurprisingly was not as bad as I had remembered. It was steep as hell, to be sure, but whereas last year I described getting up that hill as one of the hardest things I had ever done, this year it was just a steep climb. When I emerged at the top and hit the aid station, a pack of runners was on my heels. I refueled, filled my bottle and ran off.
A few minutes later though, I realized that I had not restocked on salt. I checked my pockets and to my chagrin, was empty. There was nothing I could do about it, but knew I’d pay for this error in nutrition management. This, coupled with a neglect of calories, would catch up to me just down the trail.
A steep, twisting, rocky descent meets you after Goal Hill, and my legs were shaky after the steep climb. But I kept pushing, knowing that my only chance to gain ground was on these downs, that once the trail turned up again I’d be making backwards progress.
There isn’t a lot of fun going on in this section of the race. Once you hit the bottom, miles 28 and 29 click off in slow motion through winding bogs, berry bushes and more creeks. At this point, even the slightest incline was a killer. I was barely jogging them. I started getting passed again on these gradual ups and images of last year started flashing through my mind.
I did make a couple more passes on the intermittent downs, but the grade was working against me. I tried not think about the salt I didn’t have, but at this point in the race your mind is really not working that well. I kept forgetting to pop blocks into my mouth, and the ones I did I couldn’t choke down. I had a Gu left along with some potatoes, but it never occurred to me to eat. I was just trying to make it to that last aid station.
As a woman passed me and gave me some words of encouragement, she reminded me “Just one last big climb.” “That’s one more than I have left," I responded.” “No way, you got this,” she said. I cursed myself for the negativity, but I was cracking.
The trail finally flattened out and I’ve never been so happy to hear the roar of cars as we emerged across the highway.
I probably took too long at that last aid station, but needed some courage to tackle the last mile and-a-half climb back to the finish. I popped more salt, filled my water and watched Andy run past and up the hill. I tried to catch him, to no avail.
At this point last year, I just wanted to stop. I was walking up the last hill with what felt like hoards of runners blowing by me. I’ve never been so close to the finish and wanted to badly to quit.
So I took it moderately easy, knowing the climb was for real and that the last mile doesn’t ignore the fact that you’ve put 30 behind you. With a half mile to go, I was struggling. The gradual incline allowed me to run, but at a miserably slow pace. Spectators started dotting the trail, encouraging us upward. As a roar went up, I glanced back and saw a woman charging towards me, finishing strong.
I resolved to not let her beat me to the finish. I found some strength left in my legs and kicked up the hill to the last quick down, right turn and to the finish. Catching the glimpse of the finish line, I couldn’t believe it took so long.
Finishing is always bitter sweet. I couldn’t wait to be off my feet, but the race is over. The experience done. The present is once again the past, memories now fighting anticipation in my crowded mind.
Maura greeted me at the finish and helped me find a place to sit. She retrieved my bag with a change of shoes and a dry shirt, and as I tried to recount the race I found myself breathing heavy just talking. Somehow she figured out that I just wanted to be by myself for a bit and went back to rejoin Jessica. I took some deep breaths but wasn’t feeling any better. My arms and head started to tingle.
I drank some water, choked down a couple grapes and tried to relax. I am a veteran of “is it getting worse?” self-assessments and while it wasn’t actually getting worse, it certainly wasn’t getting better. I had never felt like this before and while I wasn’t worried per se, I also didn’t really like it. As I got to my feet, no real plan in mind, the world started slowly spinning and I resolved to wander to the medic tent, just to be sure.
Upon arrival, I explained that I felt tingly and light-headed. With friendly smiles, they reminded me that I had just run 30 miles and if I didn’t feel like that, I probably didn’t go hard enough. They gave me Gatorade and a couple salt pills and sent me on my way.
Maura had smartly convinced me to sign up for a post-race massage right away and checking back in the table was mine. I lied down, got my calves kneaded for about 10 minutes and let my body soak in the electrolytes. I felt like a different person getting up and was ready to resume the post-race festivities.
In other words, I was ready for a beer.