By Justin Swanson | NB Indy
The Whoo’s El Morro ultramarathon takes off this Saturday, May 11, in the trails of Crystal Cove beginning at 6:30 a.m.
Ultrarunners will gather to tackle either the 25k or 50k course, depending on preference, under the required completion time of eight hours. It is a celebration of the sport that both challenges its participants and rewards their dedication to achieve an outstanding accomplishment.
Conceived by Dover Shores resident Molly Kassouf in 2010, Whoo’s was conceptualized as a marathon that rejoices in its very running, honoring everyone who passes its finish line.
Kassouf herself began ultrarunning after the birth of her third child. Already a traditional marathon runner, she wanted to take the next step. What is next–what is the next distance, she asked.
“You have to be dedicated,” she said as she explained her attraction to the intensified distances.
Upon joining the ranks of fellow ultramarathoners and their races, Kassouf realized there was something missing. Only the elite were outright rewarded upon finishing. In part due to the size of the sport, very few left with any physical evidence of their achievements, much less were given the treatment of a first place finisher.
“I decided to switch it up and give back to the sport,” she said. Kasssouf decided her race would award everyone medals, give everyone shirts, and provide everyone with gift bags, all of which were sorely missing from the ultramarathons she took part in.
“Molly goes above and beyond to make sure runners are taken care of,” said friend and volunteer Donnell Csyani, of Costa Mesa.
Having always trained on the grounds of El Morro in Crystal Cove, it was only natural for Kassouf to lay her own course for the marathon she created there. The Whoo’s name is a nod to the abundance of owl sounds one hears in the morning on those trails.
After the success of two annual races, Kassouf expanded the event to twice a year: one in May, the other October.
“It’s getting bigger,” she said. “We’re up to 250 people.”
“There are a lot of returning runners, even twice a year because of the great program,” Csyani added. “There’s a lot of camaraderie, with healthy people looking to challenge themselves and setting personal goals.”
The course, for the longer distance, is a 15-mile trek out and then back along trails and even the fire road. There are aid stations along the way, where all the runners are required to check in. A team of 20 to 30 volunteers – mostly fellow runners and enthusiasts – helps Kassouf manage the race. Kassouf runs the course the day before the race to set up markers for the runners to follow.
One of Whoo’s charms is that every participant gets a chance to break tape upon completion so that every runner is treated the same when they finish.
Whoo’s also is a charitable event, raising money mainly for John Wayne Cancer Foundation for its research. The rest of Whoo’s charities are all cancer related.
Despite the amount of time it take to organize the race, Kassouf still finds time to be with her kids this time of year, including Mother’s Day. The management of the race is not unlike the life of mothering her three kids (ages 13, 11 and eight): “organized chaos.”
Days before this year’s event, Kassouf has been taking care of her daughter, who injured her clavicle. Further still, Kassouf gets all her brood involved, handing out goodie bags and medals to runners. Even her husband Alex lends a hand, barbequing burgers after the race, as provided by TK Burger. Kassouf’s own marathon running schedule is determined by those of her kids, who are all active athletes.
On the example she’s setting, she noted that “it shows them if you set your mind to something, you will succeed. Put your heart and passion in and be true to what you believe.”
Whoo’s expansion to a biannual event is due to popular demand. Runners from all over the world have found out about Whoo’s and want to experience its course. Previous races have pulled participants from as far away as Germany, Nevada, and Nashville.
“We want to keep it unique and quaint,” Kassouf said, who makes a point of knowing every participant in the race.
“I want to know every entrant that crosses the finish line,” she said. That, too, is one of Whoo’s charms.