Way Too Cool. Way too hilly. Way too painful. Way too awesome.
Way Too Cool is a lot of way-too things, both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, or at least what many seems to agree on, is that it’s a damn good course. And I could agree with that. Having run most of the trails that comprised the first 10 miles during my Cool Moon race, I enjoyed the familiarity of the course, even though the trails were in different succession and used different connectors. (I have to point out here that the trails look VERY different when you’re not hallucinating. I almost couldn’t recognize them!)
I went out there together with a friend who ended up being bloody spectacular. Not bloody like I tend to be but bloody spectacular. He finished in 4 hours. Okay, 4 hours and 1 minute. But holy cow. But maybe we should leave the finish for later and start, well, with the start.
I didn’t exactly plan to run this race, and neither did my friend. But I signed up for the lottery, as this was the first year of the race basing entries on a lottery. I didn’t think I’d get in. I told my friend about entering the lottery and he entered, too. Just for fun, as he, too, didn’t think he’d get through.
As it ended up being, we both got in. I messaged him when I got my email.
“Are you running?” he asked.
“Of course, you don’t say no to WTC!”
Only later I learned that he didn’t plan to sign up. But apparently, me saying that it was a no-brainer, and that one simply couldn’t not run WTC when given the opportunity got him to enter the race.
I didn’t hear the alarm. Neither did my friend. We both woke and got up before our phones had the chance to ring.
“Oh no. It’s like, snowing,” my friend said.
“No…” I managed to get out with a grunt, still refusing to open my eyes fully.
“Yeah, look!” he put the shining phone right in front of my eyes and I couldn’t see a thing because my eyes immediately hurt from the brightness. My face reflexively contorted into all kinds of shapes. Technically, it wasn’t snowing. It was just sleet.
It was nice (and that is a weak word) to have someone to share the pre-race morning with. I didn’t exactly have pre-race jitters, no. I wasn’t too nervous—or as nervous as I’d expect. But being with a friend made the morning about a hundred times better than it would have been had I been there alone.
It was my friend’s first ultra. Now, he’s a fantastic runner. I took him up Mount Tamalpais, and I suspect he was really holding back on the mountain because I led the way down a very difficult, technical trail and it took him some time to catch up when I stopped at the end. Some five weeks later, he won a trail half.
“I’m nervous,” he said. “I feel like I don’t know what to do.”
“Do you know you can do the distance?”
“Do you know you can do it under the cut-offs?”
“Then the only thing you have to do is enjoy it. It’s your first ultra. Enjoyig it is the most important thing.”
I didn’t know I had it in me to be a coach slash motivator in the morning but alas.
We got to the start line.
“Where do you plan to start?”
“With the 10-minute people.”
“Sounds good. I’ll move to my place at the back of the pack,” I smiled. We hugged. “Good luck.”
The first miles went. Oh boy, they went. I stuck to the side of the road on the soft stuff to avoid as much of the pavement as I could. I didn’t check my watch to see my pace, only tried to go at a pace that felt comfortable, so long as it was bellow 15 min/mile.
The shoelaces on both my shoes undid themselves about halfway to the first AS. Knowing I had to make it in under my usual ultra pace in order to go through before the cutoffs had me push through my blasted period cramps that made me keel over a few times. I wanted to curl on the ground in a fetal position; they were really pretty bad.
I made it through the first AS under the cut-off. Actually, I made it through more under the cutoffs than I even dared to hope for but I didn’t even realize that until my friend mentioned it later. I pushed down a salted potato, refilled water and electrolyte drink, not having drunk enough, and headed back out with my mouth still stuffed full of potato.
The downhill came. And I knew that downhill, or at least half of it. I got passed a lot since the start. On this downhill, my body kicked in gear; this is what we know. This is what makes us feel alive. This is what we love. Roots and rocks and letting it all go, dancing over it. Yes, dancing. Because it is a dance. The footwork, the focus, the whirling; running downhill on a technical trail is a dance. I passed people, a lot of them. Maybe 20, maybe 30. Then the trail spat me on the HWY, crossed to the cheers of a few spectators and a policeman who was holding the traffic for us.
The steep and difficult downhill turned into a slow, smooth, wide service road of a downhil… and my legs slowed down. On the difficult stuff, I went down to just above 10 min/mile for two miles. Here, I was back to 13-something.
Then Quarry Road aid station came. And just as I was through, mile 13, like a lightning out of clear sky… my knee got f… messed up. The pain came suddenly and without explanation… and I could run on the downhills and flats no more. Which, for me, meant I couldn’t run at all because uphills just aren’t happening for me by default.
Jesse found me there, with hands and mouth full of food.
“Why with food? Everyone has running photos and I’ll have photos with food?” I called out to him and he and his colleague laughed.
Between there and ALT AS, the dark patches came. I was in a lot of pain. Like, an incredible amount of pain. Like, really fucking lot of pain. I wasn’t sure if I was going to finish. (Well, I wasn’t really thinking about that. I knew I’d keep moving until they pulled me off the course. But I didn’t know if I’d be able to come in under the cutoffs, which was the one goal I had. I’d never finished a 50k fast enough to come through under the cutoffs.)
I made it to the aid station, going down the hill backwards.
“Stretching those quads, good idea!” someone called out.
“I’m not, my knee is blown,” I replied, and it was almost a cry.
“Pavlina! You made it!” Kate, a friend of mine who was volunteering there, called out, a wide smile on her face. The smile went away when she saw me struggling, but she gave me a giant hug.
“I’m gonna get you a coke,” she said, and I didn’t have the strength in me to say no. I didn’t want to say no; I hate coke, and I know it never helps with anything, but I really wanted it to help me, so I listened to Kate.
An older man who looked like he had a lot of miles and experience under his belt came over to ask about the knee. At first, I told him how and where it hurt. Then, immediately, I said,
“It’s happened before. I know I can make it.”
I don’t know if I believed that. But I was scared he’d pull me off course. Looking back at it, maybe it was a tiny moment of strength. Or resolution. Or just good ol’ pig-headedness.
Kate forced a bag of chips and an uncrustable on me and sent me back out. It hurt like a motherfucker. I tried to run. It didn’t work.
I made it up to some higher parts of the canyon, and the American River Canyon opened up before me. For the first time that day, the sun made an appearance. It poked out from behind the cloud cover and illuminated the far end of the canyon. It was beautiful. So incredibly beautiful… I was in pain, wanted to finish so badly, didn’t know if I could, and the canyon was so beautiful, and I remembered that I was going to have to leave and…
And I started to cry. Because of it all. Only a little tho. Couldn’t waste too much water.
Often, I thought of my friend. He’s gone through here. Where is he now? Hopefully, I won’t catch him; that would mean he’s having a really, really bad race. I wondered if he’d finished already.
“You can’t let me catch you like that!” came a voice from behind me.
“I blew my knee.” I moved aside to let a man I’ve been leapfrogging pass.
“Oh no, I’m not passing. I’m going to push you.”
And tht’s how I met John who pushed me through the next three miles and up Goat Hill, arguably a steep hill. The worst one of this race. Only of this race; I had to go up Pig Farm twice during Cool moon, and that was much worse. Steep as fuck and much longer.
Surprisingly, Goat Hill was the least painful thing since mile 13. Uphill, the knee was good.
I left the aid station at the top of the hill with John and we split soon.
“I’ll catch up to you,” I called after him when I slowed down. But I knew I wouldn’t catch up to him. It was downhill. Normally, I’d be excited to go downhill. But that was hell. But I knew I’d make it at that point. I knew it.
I’ll make it
Is what I texted my friend.
Woohoo!! You’ve got this! I saw you came in well under for the first 8 miles! What mile are you at right now?
Just left the last manned AS about half-mile back. So like 5 miles to finish? 4? I forgot.
Nice!! Good job! You’re doing great!
I didn’t expect to have such a big support in my friend. He just finished his very own race, and his first ultra. If anything. I was supposed to be the one who cheered him on. Then again, he doesn’t carry his phone on runs and I’m super slow so there was nothing I could have done past the start line.
I crawled down the hills. It hurt. When I neared the end, I started to run over the pain more than before; it didn’t matter at that point if I got injured more, I was close enough to the finish. It’s easier to push through 3 miles of injury and pain than 18.
I got completely slowed down a mile before the finish. I don’t remember the volunteers at the AS but I do remember that they had costumes. And I do remember that last uphill. Because that was more brutal than Goat Hill. I actually fell down for a bit and didn’t want to get up. I was super slow, down to 24 min/mile, the slowest mile of the whole race.
And then I met some hikers. And they told me I was close.
And then I met some runners. And they told me I was close.
And I knew exactly where I was thanks to Cool Moon.
And then there it was.
Jesse, the photographer, with a camera.
People with signs.
And the arch.
I saw it as I ran out onto the road. There were barriers around the finish line and there were people cheering and there was someone saying my name into the speakers and there was someone with balloons and then there was my friend.
I heard him call my name. And I looked up and called his. And he started to run along the barriers with me, and was saying something, probably something along the line of “you’ve got it” but I can’t be too sure because everything was a blur and then I ran under the arch and didn’t want to stop until the well-earned hug I knew was coming. But a volunteer stopped me to give me a medal. I don’t even remember much of that; she put it over my head and around my neck and then there I was, having come in under the cutoff, hugging my friend.
“How did your race go?” I asked him when we left the immediate finish area.
Turns out he ran it in 4 hours and 1 minute. I almost dropped my chin on the floor when he told me.
“Came in 25th.”
“You’re awesome, oh my god, congratulations!”
And he was. And he is. An awesome runner, an awesome person. And I could do this for the rest of my life. Be in Cali. Run. See my friends at finish lines, whether they’re mine or theirs.
I got a cupcake. The cupcake. The frog cupcake.
And then it was time to go.
The night before, we talked about fast food and I told my friend that I, very rarely, get In-N-Out as a reward after big efforts. So he suggested we go get In-N-Out. Definitely deserved. So we did that and we just ate it as we were in the car.
Was WTC the perfect race? No, not even close. With period cramps and blown knee, it was far from it. Before the knee problems came, I was on a 7-hour pace. Which might not sound like much when compared to the winner, or to my friend. But for me, that would have been an unimaginable achievement.
But as much as things went south, WTC was the second best race I’ve ever had. First would have to be Cool Moon because even though more things went even further south than during WTC, I finished against all odds. But WTC is so very close, especially thanks to the finish line, they might as well share the first place.
I can’t end this post without thanking all the awesome volunteers and runners I met during that day. WTC was everything the trail/ultra running community is about, and more. I was a bit worried because it’s a race with quite a big name but the community came together as always, in all the best ways it could have.
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