By Larry Carroll
The name of the city is Cool. The participants are cool. The event is Way Too Cool — even if running this 50K feels like the polar opposite of a laid-back lifestyle.
On March 2nd, the 30th annual running of the Way Too Cool 50K Endurance Run will bring back what NorCal Ultras dubs “the most sought after 50K in the United States for veterans and novices alike.” Its mascot is the frog, which feels only appropriate since amphibians are equally at home on land or in water — and make no mistake, in Cool you’ll definitely get muddy, thanks to a course that crisscrosses the Middle Fork American River and watery Knickerbocker Creek.
Pictures from past events show runners knee-deep in water, navigating slippery rocks and covering their faces in mud splashes. Since 1990 the race has been touted as an ultra-runner’s rite of spring, with founders Pat and Sandy Whyte beginning with 130 entrants and a trail that had a runner jumping into a tractor to expand the final 50 yards — and growing it to a smoothly-orchestrated event that now has 1000 starters and a lottery just to be among them.
The combination of timing and location makes Way Too Cool (formerly known as the Cool Canyon Crawl) a popular race for runners who are training for events like the American River 50 or Western States Endurance Run. In the past, it has attracted many of the sport’s accomplished athletes (including 14-time Western States women’s title winner Ann Trason, 7-time Western States champ Scott Jurek and 5-time Western States winner Tim Twitmeyer), but prides itself on embracing the first-time runner.
“The middle and back of the pack is non-competitive,” former race director Greg Soderlund says on the Way Too Cool website. “It’s more like a training run than a race.”
Pushing off from the Cool Fire Station, the race is always eagerly anticipated in this town where the elevation (about 1500) is nearly equal to its population (posted as about 2500). Known as the gateway to El Dorado County, Cool was once a key stagecoach stop during the Gold Rush; today, Way Too Cool follows sections of that same Western States Trail, with more than a 7000 foot elevation change along the route. Over the years, runners have come to develop love/hate relationships with the challenging climbs over Goat Hill and Ball Bearing. As a quote on the site’s front page attributed to author/athlete Roger Crawford reads: “Being challenged in life is inevitable; being defeated is optional.”
Before every race, NorCal Ultras sends out “The Newt Patrol,” a group of folks whose purpose is to clear the trail of the California Newt — warty, slate-gray critters who resemble frogs and have become the unofficial mascot of the race (frog…newt…what’s the difference?). Always eager to embrace the beautiful terrain they inhabit, Way Too Cool ushers as many of these little guys as they can to safety before some 2000 running shoes come flying down the trail.
After the race, participants have long enjoyed post-race festivities that include a “soup for your soul” dish carrying on the tradition of the black-bean soup served by the Whytes in those early years of the Way Too Cool. The post-festivities feast is also known for their signature frog cupcake — a chocolate concoction with green frosting and oversized eyes. Which seems only appropriate, as it marks the conclusion of an endearing evet that is anything but a piece of cake.