Written by: Bryon Powell
The American ultrarunning season kicked off in earnest this past weekend with the Way Too Cool 50k (WTC) in Cool, California. This race is the most competitive trail 50k in North America, if not the world.
The start list for this year’s WTC showed a world-class field. Among those toeing the line were Ultrarunning Magazine‘s 2009 Ultrarunners of the year Kami Semick and Geoff Roes; a multiple-time American representative at the IAAF Cross Country World Championships, Max King; past Way Too Cool champions, including Leor Pantilat (2009) and Joelle Vaught (2006); and many other laudable trail runners.
Going into the day, it looked like it would be a three-man race for the men’s title and it was. In order to repeat, returning champion Pantilat would have to outrun King and Roes, a duo more likely to set a course record than be beaten in a long trail race.
Under sunny skies, Pantilat established the early pace with King following close behind on a course that had seen more than an inch of rainfall in the preceding 24 hours. Around mile 15, King passed Pantilat and slowly built a lead of nearly a minute. Roes, an Alaskan who excels under tough conditions, hung back in the early going. On-course estimates had him anywhere from two to five minutes behind
Through the day, the runners were slowed by a dozen stream crossings, some as high as waist deep. In the last third of the race, the course doubled back upon itself. Here, the churning of 500 sets of feet earlier in the race created the muddiest conditions of the day.
Not far before the Goat Hill Aid Station, which sits just past the marathon mark, Pantilat retook the lead from King. He did not hold the lead for long. Shortly after the aid station, Roes flew past Pantilat on a technical descent. Already thinking that Roes had more left in his tank than himself, Pantilat had his hopes of a repeat further deflated when he turned his ankle at the next stream crossing.
A few miles later, Pantilat crossed the finish line proud to have placed second to Roes with a time of 3:41:48. Moments later he realized that he’d broken the tape. He’d won Way Too Cool for the second year in a row. Unbeknownst to him, Roes had followed the wrong flagging with 2.5 miles left and went far off course before realizing his mistake. King also took advantage of Roes’s misfortune to take second in 3:47:39. Roes slipped to third with a time of 3:51:52. Pantilat’s training partner, Gary Gellin, finished as the top masters runner with a fourth-place finish in 3:54:52.
Both Pantilat and Roes learned valuable lessons from the race. Following the race, Pantilat admitted that he allowed the combination of Roes passing him and turning his ankle to get the better of him. He mentally threw in the towel, internally settling for second. Seeing how easily things can go awry for others taught him to never take his foot off the gas. On the other hand, Roes admits on his website that he learned a lesson in “acceptance.” He had to accept that he made an “impatient mistake” when he chose the wrong turn on the trail.
Despite the stellar field, the actual women’s race was a one-woman show this year. Joelle Vaught passed Kami Semick after the first aid station and did not look back. She won the race in 4:13:54, adding a second WTC victory to her title from 2006, another muddy year.
Vaught ran strong all day and believes she benefited from the longer races she added to her schedule in 2009. Those races taught her to stay on top of her nutrition and hydration. She felt these changes had her running much stronger up the hills later in the race that previously made her dizzy. Vaught, once an international-level adventure racer, has begun concentrating specifically on her ultrarunning. This means she’s running every day rather than alternating between running and riding her mountain bike. That also means trouble for her ultrarunning competitors!
With her win at Way Too Cool in the books, Vaught is looking to run a 50-mile or 100k race this spring before attempting her first 100-mile race at the Western States Endurance Run in June.
Finishing 16 minutes behind Vaught, Beverley Anderson-Abbs took second for the women and was the top master in a time of 4:29:41. Darcy Africa took third in 4:37:12. Kami Semick eventually dropped out due to illness.
Bryon Powell is a competitive trail runner, coach and editor of iRunFar.com.