Tag Archives: Ithaca

Staring down the Stairs in Ithaca

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.

Cayuga Trails 50 - 2017

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!).

Gangsta Camping

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….).

Awaiting the Starting Gun

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.

Piper at the Stairs

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.

Winding our Way Up

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.

Entry to Underpass Aid Station

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.

Sock and Shoe Change at Turnaround

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.

Daunting Challenge 2nd Time

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.

The Finish Chute

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.

5 Guys Burger and Fries Post Race

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!

Strava Track

Stone Steps and Cold Creeks in Ithaca

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!