Welcome back race fans. Two weeks ago I lined up at the start line of the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile race for the second time. This is notable in some respects, as I VERY rarely repeat ‘away’ races. I ran in (and covered) this race last year, and was captivated by it for a few reasons. Firstly, Ithaca is a really cool little New York town, with a hidden secret: the canyons / waterfalls just outside the core! I had absolutely no idea that there were such cool natural features so close! Add to the fact that there is a tasty brewery close by, and two great state parks to camp in, and there is ample reason to choose to try this race out. In addition, it is only about a 4.5 hour drive from Ottawa, and the timing makes this a great early season test race. While I didn’t film any video this time around, I have a pile of pictures, you can see them all by clicking left / right in the frame below.
It was therefore with high hopes that I was coming back to this race a second time. The race also serves as the USA Track and Field trail 50 mile Championships, so you just KNOW there will be excellent competition to mix it up with ( and in my case, I just KNOW I have NO chance at a podium!). Deanna and I once again made this a pretty quick trip, spending less than 48 hours total in the States. We had 2 nights booked in the Robert H Treman state park, which also serves as the start / finish area. Boy, are we glad we FINALLY bought a bigger tent last year. So nice to actually be able to stretch out, relax, and get dressed without knocking each other out (and we each have our own door!).
As mentioned, I had high hopes. Last year, I managed to finish just under 10 hours, but was hoping to better that time by an hour if at all possible. I was pretty confident I could at least take 30 minutes off. Part of my bravado came from the fact that a month ago, I felt I had proved myself pretty capable by snagging 5th overall at the 12 hour Black Fly Trail race, and believed that the suffering I had put in there might translate to extra strength and speed a month later. My training had been going well, and recovery after hard efforts even better, so I believed in myself.
Race start was 6am on Saturday morning. We’d gotten in town around 7pm the night before, so we didn’t have an abundance of time to get into the ‘zone’, but I slept well enough, and had no excuses. I got my kit together, and headed to the start. Ironically, almost exactly like last year, I found myself as the last dude waiting to use the washroom, with a mere minute or so before the start of the race. Nothing like pressure! Ha ha ha. Luckily, we actually started a couple minutes late, so I still had time to mingle and get settled into the start chute before the start horn (literally, a horn made of an animal horn of some sort….).
The plan out of the gate was to not go all out. At the Black Fly, I stuck to the front runners from the star, but in this race, knowing it was the championships, I didn’t want to get sucked into an untenable position. So I let myself float back a bit in the crowd, opting to chat with people I recognized from last year. This made the first few kilometers fly by without even noticing, but once we hit the first set of climbs and technical bits, my desire to pick up the pace a bit took over, and I started pulling away and passing other runners.
I decided to run pretty much by feel, and not pay too much mind to my watch. The only exception was when I’d get to an aid station, just to see how far ahead of my conservative 10 hour pace card I was. The course is a double-loop course, but also a bit of a figure-8, so there are really only 3 aid stations that you see several times during the race. The first one is always basically ignored on the opening lap, as it comes up only 6k or so after the start. In fact, it wasn’t even really set up when we ran past it the first time.
By and large, the course was pretty much the same as the 2016 edition, with a few modifications, including a new 1.6km trail section through old growth forest. The idea was that this modification would cut off a bit at the end, to give us the full 80k. Most of this race is in the shade (luckily), and takes racers through impressive canyons with even more impressive stone steps to run up and down. There are also long sections in the woods, and a few access roads and VERY little pavement, which is greatly appreciated. A couple sections are less awesome, like a seemingly long stretch running in an open field, but all in all, I find the course very balanced. The big challenges are the stairs, which cumulatively lead to some serious quad fatigue during the 2nd lap. The overall climbing only registered as 2,600m, but it seemed a lot more than that. Of course, given the GPS coverage challenges in the canyon, perhaps it was…
After the first aid station, I found myself running more or less alone, keeping my eyes on a few runners just off in the distance ahead. I was enjoying my solo running, feeling light on my feet. However, all of a sudden, I realized I had a runner right behind me. I figured he must have just been off the trail taking a ‘nature break’ before joining in with my stride. I assumed he was a more speedy dude, and would want to pass me, but instead, he seemed happy to just stay on my heels. I was trying to decided whether I should pull ahead, or pull aside, and then just opted to run my race. Eventually, we struck up conversation, as it became clear we’d likely be running together for a while. Sometimes I like the solitude, other times, the company is nice. In this case, it was welcomed company, and we learned all about each other as we ticked over the miles on the course.
Interestingly, at this point in the race, I was WAY ahead of schedule. I’m talking like a projected finish of just over 8 hours!! I had told Scott, and he intimated that this was probably not sustainable, and I also agreed, so mentally we tried to reign it in a little bit, but things just felt good at that point. We actually kept running together again after this turnaround, as he caught back up to me as I was navigating the long stairs back up the canyon. Once again, the miles started ticking by. Unfortunately, this is also about the time that I took a spill. As usual, in the heat of a race, I never really remember if it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as my focus is on recovery. Essentially, it was one of those ass over tea kettle falls, with a bottle being ejected. I stunt-man rolled with it, recovered my bottle, and was back on my way as soon as possible. My new friend Scott had seen the whole thing (and reported on it in his blog), and was making sure I was okay. Of course, macho racing ActiveSteve shrugged / limped it off for a few hundred meters, and thought nothing of the impact or the slight trickle of blood from my knee. At the next aid station, Deanna also noticed it and said “looks like you fell”. Indeed. But another quick inspection didn’t concern me.
I’m not sure where exactly I pulled ahead of Scott, but I did. In ultra running, there is no real saying ‘goodbye’ and pulling away from people, it just sort of happens. Everyone ebbs and flows in the energy department at different points, so this is the natural flow of the race. Actually, now I remember. It happened when another runner joined us, a female from Toronto named Karen. She was FLYING. I got sucked into her slipstream as she passed and we were talking. I guess we sort of pulled slowly away from Scott, and that was the last time we ran together. I stuck with Karen until after the next Aid station, when I told Deanna I had to get going as I had to follow my new friend. However, it was clear she had the engine firing on a better gear than me, and I was now limping every time I had to start running away. I had noticed a little tightness in my right calf lately. Nothing debilitating, but noticeable nonetheless. As I kept running, I decided it was perhaps a side effect of switching to zero drop shoes recently, since tight calves / Achilles are common. I decided I’d change shoes at the halfway point to hopefully provide relief. Again, status check didn’t raise any red flags, so I ran through the niggling pains. Good ole endorphins!
As decided, when I cruised into the halfway turnaround point (the start/finish), I took a slightly longer pause to change shoes and socks. There are a number of water crossings, so it feels SOOOO nice to slip into dry socks for even a little bit. I told Deanna that I’d be slowing down, and noted that I *was* feeling some pain in my leg, but not to worry. I headed back out, and settled into a comfortable ‘ultra-cruising’ pace, which is somewhere between 7 and 8 mins / kilometer. The opening 25% I ran in 2:10, by the 50% mark, I was at 4:30, so I was definitely slowing, but still hopeful for a 9.5 hour total. Sadly, I got into my own head for the second loop.
I spent most of my loop on my own, and with no one to visibly chase, and with no one passing me to put the pressure on, I just let my pace naturally drop I think. By the time I hit the 75% mark, I’d hit 7:15, or in other words, it took me 35 minutes longer than first time to cover this distance. As I often do to pass the time, I started crunching numbers, and knew hitting 9:30 would be VERY difficult. I once again chose to ignore the watch and just focused on getting through what was now just becoming a painful final 21k or so. Luckily, my nutrition and hydration were working perfectly, so that was a good thing, and something to note for my next race in terms of strategies.
This last 21k became VERY challenging. I willed myself to keep actually ‘running’ and not power hiking the climbs, but some of the long stair sections did get the better of me. I also had the realization that the course would definitely be over 80k (I logged over 83k by the finish). I was extremely relieved to reach the final aid station, knowing it was mostly downhill and only 6-7k to the finish. I had a few final perogies (god-send out there!), and got back out there. Somewhere in the closing section I risked a look at my watch. Ugh. I realized that if I rallied, I should at least be able to salvage a sub 10 hour finish. I gave it one final mighty push (once again sacrificing my toenails on the descents!), and flew the final downhills until I could literally hear the finish line music and see the open field leading to the finish.
With a mighty effort, I crossed under the banner clocking an official finish time of 9:58:26, almost EXACTLY 1 minute slower than my 2016 time. However, the course ended up being a bit longer, and I will argue that conditions were not as good this year (some mud sections). The final results bear this out, as the 2016 winner finished in 6:40, whereas this year it was 7:32! My overall standing also improved. I finished 32nd male, and 6th in my category (last year was 38th and 5th respectively). Overall, I couldn’t complain.
We capped off our day by delicious Five Guys Burgers, and picked up some tasty Ithaca Brewing beer for the campsite. With only a month until my upcoming 100 Miler, my plan was to recover fast and get in some final training, but as some of you will note, that nagging pain in the race? Yeah, not great. Turns out I tore something (undetermined as of this writing, as I await an MRI). However, I believe it is healing well, and I’m still optimistic. Regardless, once again, Cayuga Trails kicked my butt, and was another memorable and enjoyable race. One of these times I should really add a day to the trip to truly enjoy the area! Maybe next year, right? Well, until next time, hope you enjoyed my wordy race report!