Stone Steps and Cold Creeks in Ithaca

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Finally! My first trail race of the season! Ok, in fact, it happened over a month ago, but I’ve been rather busy between starting a new job, training, and doing work / renovations at the homestead. The cedar deck is looking mighty fine at this point… But I digress, this post is about the Cayuga Trails 50 Miler. Yup, that’s right, I decided to start with an 80km race this season. It’s part of my decision to focus purely on trail running this year, building up all summer with a range of events to culminate with the Ultra-Trail Harricana 125km race in September, where I need vindication for last year’s DNF. Read on for all the deets on my adventures in and around Ithaca, NY, where the Cayuga Trails race took place.

Before I actually get to the race story, I should mention a few things. First off, as most of you know, I have been dealing with *really* annoying foot issues, including plantar fasciitis, bursitis, bone edema, rolling ankles, etc. As such, at the end of last season, you’ll recall I hobbled my way to a personal worst in a marathon. From there, it was off my feet for months while I awaited results from scans, MRI, etc. to try and get sorted. While I’m not at 100%, things are looking a bit better this year. Once I got the green light to get back into it, I mapped an audacious return to form, and decided that my FIRST race back would be nothing other than the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile race (80km)! Notable about this race is the fact that while I have ran in a longer event (a 100km trail run), it was not an all-out effort. And while I had started a 125k race last year, I had to bail shortly before the 80km mark. SO, this would be my first REAL 80K race.

A second notable feature of this race is that it isn’t a totally low-key locals-only kind of event. Nope, it is in fact the USA Track and Field 50 Mile trail running championship event. Yup, that’s right, I was toeing the line with some of the strongest trail runners from across the US vying for a national title. Obviously thoughts of a podium were furthest in my mind, but a strong category showing was my hope (well, that along with actually finishing feeling strong!). With this as my backdrop, as soon as I possibly could, I threw myself into my training, and actually followed a specific training program credited in part to Killian Jornet himself! It was a good mix of hard hill runs, varying pace workouts, speed workouts, really long runs, etc. You know, the kind of thing you SHOULD do when preparing for a season of hard racing. I had decided ad hoc preparation wouldn’t work, and I had to be dedicated. We’ll see how things go throughout the rest of the summer, but so far, so good!

Bacchus Brewing

So, back to Cayuga. Why did I choose it? Well, basically, it was pretty much a perfect combination of timing, location, and the fact that it looked cool and I’d never raced in that area. I’ve driven through Ithaca a number of times, but never stopped long enough to get to know it. Less than 4.5 hours away from my front door, with promises of slot canyons, state parks, and nearby breweries. I was sold. Deanna and I opted to camp the 2 nights down there, and we pretty much lucked out with the weather (we did have to pack up and bail in a hurry on Sunday, but overall, no issues. Also, in fine tradition, on the ride down, I scoped a number of breweries that we stopped in to do some sampling (hello Bacchus Brewing and Hopshire Farm & Brewery), as well as a visit to a VERY well-stocked bottle shop to buy a wide range of beers to bring back. If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit to the Finger Lakes Beverage Center!

So, about the race, what can I say about it? Well, for starters, even though it was the Championship race, it still managed to retain a very relaxed and grass-roots feel to it. Organizers, volunteers, and participants were all awesome to deal with, and an excellent race was put on for us. For swag, we all got a pair of nice farm to feet socks, and a collapsible cup to use for drinks at aid stations. The race was very focused on having a ‘green’ footprint, and did well on that front, including composting at all aid stations, and finish line souvenirs that were made of recycled materials. I will cherish both my finishers metal cup, and metal finishers plate/plaque.

Course Map

The race course was one of the most compact races I’ve ever seen, making it super-friendly for spectators to see and cheer for their favourite runners. It was a 2-loop, ‘bow-tie’ course, meaning that it looked like a figure 8, and we did it twice, visiting the middle part 4 times. This meant we saw some aid stations 4 times during the race, and as far as driving went, Deanna never had to travel more than 5k or so at a time! Logistically, having less aid stations also meant they could be extremely well stocked and staffed, with easy road access for them. However, as a runner, we were never more than 10k between these oases on course. As a result, a large portion of the runners were content to head out with only hand bottles to sustain them over the race.

For my part, I still opted to carry a small pack, so that I could carry my camera and tripod (of course), a hydration pouch, collapsible bottle, my own food, some first aid, and ‘just in case’ foot braces. While it may have been overkill, it gave me comfort knowing I was covered. I guess I’m just more used to ‘rugged, remote’ courses, so I couldn’t imagine stripping it down to only a bottle!

Stairs and Waterfall

And this leads me to comments on the actual course. Situated literally on the edge of town, and traversing between 2 state parks, I was frankly shocked at what was hidden / tucked in the surrounding hills. Looking at a map, you’d be forgiven for assuming the terrain was not challenging. But you’d be wrong. Ithaca has a slogan. “It’s a GORGES place to visit.” Yes, there are towering canyons just out of sight in these parks, with very impressive series of steps (a combination of hand hewn stones and wooden steps). Alongside these canyon sections? Gorgeous cascading water features like Buttermilk Falls and plenty of others. Between these jaw-droppers we were treated to a good variety of trail types, including nice twisty single and double track, sometimes crossing fields, but more often than not, in the woods. There were of course also some forest service type roads which were less interesting, and a TINY bit of pavement, but all in all, a very inviting mix of trails, with nothing super-technical to deal with. It was definitely a course that would favour the fast-footed rather than the sure-footed. Too bad for me, right?

So, race time! Things were slotted to get underway at 6am for the 50 miler, and it did! It was already warm enough to be in shorts and T’s, so there was no need for warm-up gear. In fact, my concern was more about heat later in the day. Luckily, the numerous water crossings en route would help keep that at bay as I’d learn later. I had full intentions of starting at a conservative pace, and just holding that all day. My time goal was 10 hours, netting me an 8km/hr pace for the whole day. I had printed a pace card for reference with all my aid station splits. However, it was extremely hard not to let the spirit run free and just push hard right out of the gate. I felt extremely fresh, based on a proper taper the week before, and definitely didn’t feel I was pushing, even though my pace said otherwise. I decided to ‘run with it’ and see what happened.

Cresting a Hill

The opening 2k or so was flat to moderate before we hit the first set of stairs that went up pretty steeply. I was ready to tackle them all with a vengeance and did so. I found myself at the first aid station (the 5k mark) in seemingly no time flat. I completely bypassed it, in spite of the wonderful spread, and kept hammering along. From here we entered a really great section with lots of amazing climbs and canyon views. It was easy to get lost in the scenery in some spots and lost focus, which would probably be a good thing later on. We also navigated a couple shallow water crossings. Enough to cool the feet off nicely. Realizing just how many times I’d cross water, I was glad I’d opted to use a silicone cream on my feet to minimize the effects of running with wet feet all day. There is nothing worse than getting a bad ‘wrinkly foot’ blister under my foot pad. It can easily hobble me after hours.

After the next aid station we were heading into the most beautiful section of the course for the next 20k, and also crossing the deepest water of the course, with water reaching up to our waists. I’ll admit it, the first time through, I tried skirting and finding a shallower (albeit longer) route around, with success. However, subsequent crossings (we’d cross this 4 times), I went right into the deep part and enjoyed the body chilling effects! I was not alone in this, especially in the afternoon heat. Shortly after the water crossing was also the longest steady hill climb (without stairs). The reward though was a spectacular rim trail along the canyon, first on one side, emerging at Buttermilk Falls State park (where we were actually camping!), then back up and along the other side. It was absolutely stunning.

By now, I had passed the third aid station, and was still making very good time. I was also taking advantage of the very well stocked aid stations, enjoying PB&J sandwiches, boiled salted potatoes, and electrolyte drinks. I skipped the real junk food, but did always grab 1 or 2 gels for the next section. I also decided that the caffeinated ones are pretty much ideal for getting me through each of the sections. I ended up creating a pretty consistent routine between aid stations, and focused on that. I was also starting to see familiar faces along the way, since most runners have strengths and weaknesses, we end up passing and re-passing each other. It gives you something to focus on in different areas, like “I’m just going to catch up to and pass black hat guy on the next hill”… that sort of thing. But they are also great excuses to chat and get your mind off the running if you need it. Most people are willing to at least tolerate a little chit-chat along the course, but you have to know when to talk and when to shut up J. I liked motivating / joking a lot on tough uphills. Not talking to anyone in particular, but getting people to laugh and not think too hard about what they were doing. I *think* it was appreciated on the 2nd time up the really hard hill.

Running the Lonely Trails

So get this: I’m arriving at the turnaround point, the 40.5k mark in the race. My time? 4:29!!! Yikes, I was essentially 30 minutes ahead at this point, and at that pace, would bust my goal by an hour!!! I was simultaneously excited about being that fast and petrified that I’d gone too hard. It didn’t take long to learn which it was, as I had a SERIOUS drop in energy for the next 10k or so. I felt depleted and started really worrying that I had blown up. At the next aid station, I thought hard about my nutrition and hydration needs, and made a couple adjustments, adding salt pills to the mix to ward off cramping, and adding more fresh fruit (watermelon, bananas, oranges) to the mix. After the initial 10k slump, I got my groove back, and started picking things back up. Nowhere near my first lap speed, but definitely back into the ‘needed’ speed territory. The thing about having the pace card was that I knew at almost any point exactly how much time I had in the bank. I had flashbacks to the time I needed to finish a marathon in 3:10 to qualify for Boston, and what I had to do at the finish to meet the goal.

The next 20-25 km went pretty well, with me wasting NO time anywhere at aid stations. I’d come in basically either yelling out my ‘order’ of what I needed (not rudely, but they actually WANT to help you at the aid stations), or grabbing it directly on my way through, pausing only long enough to re-fill my bottle before trotting off. No point in stopping to eat, I’d just shovel things in as I kept moving (forward progress above all else). This left the final 5-10k of the course. I knew I was cutting things close, but was most definitely starting to bump the needle on E in my tank. Knowing it was so close, I dug deep, blocked all else out, and veritably started FLYING again where I could. I ignored any pain (there is ALWAYS pain after running these distances in punishing terrain).Remember, this isn’t flat terrain, but lots of up and down.

Running Strong

As I got closer and closer to the final finish, I recognized the landmarks, and could tell I should make it provided I kept it up. I desperately scarfed down 2 caffeinated gels in the closing 5k. I also foolishly ran out of liquids, so had to run through knowing I could cramp if I wasn’t careful. Lucky for me, I made it. Official time: 9:57:24. With a high 5 from the race director, I crossed the line, collected my cup and plate, and was welcomed by Deanna, who had been shadowing me all day at the aid stations cheering me on. For my efforts, I was rewarded with 47th overall, 38th male, and a very satisfying 5th in my age group.

FIlling up on Beer at Finish

Directly after finishing, I got to enjoy some excellent BBQ food for racers, and wash it down with a special beer brewed by Ithaca Brewing just for the race, the Lucifer’s Steps IPA, in honour of one of the longest and trickiest stair sections of the race. After hanging out for the awards, we returned to camp, I grabbed a shower, and we headed back out, this time to the actual Taproom of Ithaca Brewing, where we had junky food and sampled lots more beers, along with a lot of other runners. All in all, an amazing day of racing in great company and with a great atmosphere.

Funny enough, I know that when I had crossed the line, I mused that I really didn’t want to do that again, but as I type this, I’m actually really looking forward to my next 50 miler, which is in under a week! Can I improve on 10 hours? I don’t really know. Perhaps if I hold it back a bit more at the start, and keep the nutrition, hydration, and pace right, I can pull off 9.5 hours, but it all depends on the course. Stay tuned here to see how things work out!! And till then, I know I’ve been slow updating the site, but rest assured, I’m not gone, and there will be lots of future adventures! Till then, get out there and have some fun! Oh, and if you haven’t done so already, have a watch of the video I put together for this race!

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