Cayuga Trails 50

Guest Blogger: A Cayuga Trails Recap from Phil Vondra

all photos: Joe Azze
It's been a little over three months since my last race at the Cayuga Trails 50 mile, and I'm just about ready to get back on the horse.  My training partner Phil, with whom I've shared many, many miles, finished just a few minutes behind me there, and returned to racing last weekend with his second straight runner-up finish at the famed SOS triathlon.  This week he sent me his CT50 race report for some reason, and as he doesn't waste anyone's time with a blog, I offered to waste some more of my readers' time by posting it here.  So, here's Phil's slightly delayed CT50 recap.  I think you'll like it.  It's kind of like a race report on acid.  Picture a drunk British guy telling you about his last race and you've got the general idea.


Race : Cayuga trails USA 50 mile trail champs.  3 June 2017 Ithaca NY

  • Improve on 2016 place and time.
  • Eat, drink beer and hangout with a bunch of cool ultra runner type people.
  • Hangout with Laura Kline
Loop 1

We arrived at the park with about 40 minutes until the start time and organized a drop bag for Buttermilk Falls with some spare bottles and nutrition in it. The weather was perfect and glowing red/pink cotton ball clouds drifted over our heads, today would be a good day to die. I lined up 4 or 5 rows back and found Jay my New Paltz running buddy. Ian said a few words and then blew the rams horn, we were off. We set off at that quick pace that almost every race starts at and we hit the first small hill, I backed off and started to think about the miles that lay ahead. Jay and I ran close to each other and chatted a bit. The trails where nice rooty, rocky and rolling, the miles passed easily. We hit the new loop which added some vert but also some fun trails. I was jumping over a few logs which was fun but I knew in 5 hours each one would be a cunning trap just waiting to send me face first into the dirt. We ran past the Old Mill aid station, no need to stop. We headed to the first river crossing, it didn't have as much water as i expected and it was actually nice to get my feet wet. Let the squelching begin! 

The miles passed quickly and the trails were really nice rolling forest rooty and soft. Jay was in front of me and was running the steady smooth pace he always runs. We headed down to Underpass aid station and onto the easy single track and river crossing, I thought the crossing would be deep and was expecting it to be waist deep. Jay was ahead of me and I figured he would go in head first but it was kinda shallow so sadly no fun. We popped out the other side and cruised to the base of Lick Brook climb, I felt great on this climb, but kept a lid on it, knowing that these trails wouldn't give up a finish without a fight. We got to the top and started to roll through the forest and fields. I knew some of this course would be muddy but so far it was in great shape. Rolling along and chatting to Jay we missed a turn and ended up next to a farm and a pig pen, when I heard the banjo playing I knew we had over shot our turn. We did a 180 and ran back to find the turn we had missed. Running with Jay is like being with an able-bodied House MD, so i was probably riveted by some intense medical chat and didn't see the big red arrow telling us to enter into Mirkwood. 

Into the wood we went, it was wonderful mudfest everything an East coast runner wants. Jumping rooty and muddy ground I prayed my shoes would stay on my feet. We emerged onto some grassland with the odd mud patch. At this point I felt hungry and wasn't sure why, I had been good with nutrition and fluid, it was odd but I figured my body was giving me fake news and I would go all in at Buttermilk Falls AS. We headed to Buttermilk Falls, all was good. When we hit the aid station, I took on about 450 calories and some fluids, we got in and out very quickly. The climb up Buttermilk Falls was harder than I thought it would be but I kept my legs moving, spurred on by the fact my T-shirt had turned into a weapon of mass destruction. It single-handedly contravened several international weapon and pollution treaties, but I was racing I had no time to hand it over to the appropriate authorities. The waterfall is beautiful and the trails are perfect. I saw my buddy Tim at a merge point and he was looking good, that gave me a nice boost.  We headed back through the muddy forests and fields along the rolling descent, over the way too shallow river and back to Underpass AS.  It was time to go the dark side.

“Coke please.” 
“More Coke.” 
“Just one more Coke.  What's the worst that could happen?” (I have Youtube, I know the worst that can happen, especially if you're a tooth, a coin or a Mento!)

Fully loaded on sugar and chemicals, I set off again hanging just behind Jay. I took a fall but the ground was soft and I was fine. I felt it was a bit early to be falling.  The trails are good, the Coke is working, I felt great. We hit that big flight of stairs and I felt a bit weak but not too bad. The descent felt good and we headed along the trails to the river crossing and back to Old Mill AS. I got some Coke and ginger ale, the more sugar the merrier! We set off for the turnaround, some easy trails, some rocks some roots but it was fun, until I had another fall, this was a type 3 trail running fall, you don't see it coming, all you know is you're on the ground and you're cut and you hurt but nothing was broken or twisted (well, no physical part of me), I got up and felt ok but not great, I felt a bit sick. We ran into the turn around and I grabbed a few things, forgot a few things and lingered deciding if I should run back to my drop bag. I felt quite sick and weak at this point, so I figured I would just get back to running.

Loop 2

Jay was gone. I wasn't feeling great, I was sure I would be sick. It wasn't an exciting prospect. I also felt weak/dizzy running through the new loop near Old Mill. I knew that if I kept going it would pass. I got to the Old Mill AS and had some more Coke and ginger ale. Shuffling on the easier trails felt ok but I wanted to walk now. The internal battle was raging, "Just walk you'll feel better"; "Why walk on the flat or downhill that's silly;” “ A 15 min mile is better than a 20min mile;” “I'll run flat and downhill and walk ANY hills- that's the deal otherwise all the beer will be gone when you finish- lets go” on I went feeling kinda sick but pushing as best as I could and sticking to the deal my mind had made with my body. 

I crossed the river and wanted to sit in the water for a bit. I didn't, I pushed on. Up and down a few hills, I got a bit lost, I turned back and went down a hill I had just walked up, I saw a runner coming towards me and they confirmed I was on the right trail. All good, back to the struggle. The miles passed more quickly than I thought they would. I got to the Underpass AS and gorged on that sweet dark nectar! Off I went over the tracks and through the river. I got to the Lick Brook climb and I was slow but just as slow as the other runners already on it. I was starting to feel better, I was going to finish strong. I found extra strength knowing that I had passed that epic low and what lay ahead would be better. I was starting to overtake people and getting stronger. I felt strong running through the muddy field and forest, jumping roots and dancing around shoe stealing mud pits. Stairs, rocks, roots it was all passing by me now, I had sub 15 miles to go. The T-shirt was excited too, it often reminded me, it had gone from awful to suggesting that it was a close relation to a long lost ancestor who was responsible for the London plague and the rats where purely minions in a grand scheme. I thought about ditching the T-shirt but it wouldn't have been fair to leave it at at aid station that didn't have a hazmat team on standby. I would have to finish with it. 

Phil with Laura and Tim at a happy finish line.
I got to Buttermilk Falls AS. Coke, Ginger ale and watermelon. I was homeward bound, I was strong, climbing the falls felt good but I wanted to get into the cool waters. On I pressed running flats, downhills and small hills, i was overtaking people. I was going to enjoy the last 10 miles. It was nice to get encouragement from other runners and people out for a hike, it really helped. Coke and Ginger ale at every aid station, I got to Old Mill and was told 5k to the finish, time to give it my all. I got just passed the AS to the stone bridge and the volunteer said 2.6 miles to the finish, heck yeah I eat 2.6 miles for breakfast. The miles passed quickly. I overtook the lead woman and she said “you go girl” and then said “Oh sorry you're not a girl!” I wanted to say something witty/encouraging as a response but I had nothing. I got on the downhill back to the finish and felt great, took the left and ran to the finish. I had so much energy I sprinted to the line to finish a shade over 9hrs. I was happy and Jay told me I was 16th! That was better than 2016 and I knew that lots of beer was left! I got to eat and drink beer with some awesome trail people.

16th place, 9hrs 13 seconds (my time was slower than 2016 but the course was longer and had more gain)
1st AG 45-49
The new course was amazing, it had everything.

What did I learn  the advice i got from an ultra runner a while back was so true on this day. “You're going to get lows, everyone gets lows, you have to believe they will pass because they will.”

Thanks Ian and your volunteers you put on an amazing race!

Gear used
Salomon shorts
Hoka One One Challenger 3ATR
Patagonia T-shirt and its 20million microbe friends
Injinji compression socks
Salomon 2L vest
Huma gels
Ginger Ale

Race Report: Cayuga Trails 50

All smiles.
all photos: Joe and Elizabeth Azze
I’ve been having a difficult time starting this recap, both because I'm a little ambivalent about my performance--I'll get to that in a minute--and because I feel like I don’t have anything new to say about this race.  This was my fourth time running the CayugaTrails 50 mile in the race's five-year existence, and I’ve written extensively in thepast about my previous experiences.  It’s a race I keep coming back to year after year, despite the fact that I struggle with the course and I never seem to run it particularly well.  I keep returning because the race is in Ithaca, one of my favorite places; because the course is as beautiful as it is challenging; because as the 50-mile national championships, it’s a great opportunity to run against some really top-flight competition not far from home; because Ian continues to put on amazing events that put the athletes first; and because my MPF/RNR teammates annually put on a show of force that I always want to be a part of.  But my experience with this race has always been a mixture of positives and negatives, and this year was certainly no exception.

Last year I had an ideal buildup for this race ultimately foiled by another bout with Lyme disease, and this time around unfolded much the same.  After Rocky Raccoon it took a bit longer than I anticipated to start feeling back to normal; I didn’t really get into a good flow until early April.  But several strong hill workouts and two solid wins in low-key tuneup races (the XTERRA Northeast 50K at Wawayanda State Park in early May, and the New Paltz Pizza Challenge six days later) had me feeling pretty confident as taper time drew near.  Sixteen days out, I was forced to cut short a low-key track workout (three sets of 800m/400m repeats) with extreme fatigue, upper-body achiness, and dizziness.  I was immediately reminded of last year but tried to convince myself it was heat-related; temps were in the mid-90s, and I thought I might be dehydrated.  But when I had similar symptoms six days later, barely able to gut out 4 x 800m at 2:55 pace (which should have felt barely harder than a jog, given my fitness level) despite reasonably mild temps, I knew the Lyme was back.

At that point, eleven days from race day, my instinct was to pull the plug.  After dropping halfway through last year's race while on antibiotics I had no desire to repeat the experience. That night, however, I spoke with a buddy from med school who specializes in infectious disease, who thought my symptoms and previous lab results pointed more towards anaplasmosis (a Lyme-related, tick-born infection) rather than Lyme. If that was the case, I might be able to get away with ten days of antibiotics--which would finish up the day before Cayuga--and maybe feel well enough to compete.  I decided to wait until Tuesday before the race--my usual day for a final "hard" workout--before I made any decision.  I planned on 2x1mi at a relaxed but hard tempo; after I was able to run a 5:50 mile without feeling like it was the end of the world, I skipped the second rep and decided to go for it.  Cayuga would be my last race anyway before some planned down time; after I couldn't get the weekend off of work to run the Whiteface Skyraces in July, I was already anticipating my first real offseason since last summer.  So either way I figured I'd give Cayuga a shot.

Two old men trying to stay warm.
You know it's cold because Ben's wearing a shirt.
My jog with Phil and Tim the day before the race felt pretty solid, and as we lined up Saturday morning I felt reasonably confident (despite a restless night of sleep) that I could approach my perpetual goals at Cayuga of 8:00-8:15, top 10-15, top-3 masters.  I knew from prior years that even splits on the course were a near impossibility, even for the top elites, and that it would take a 3:50 opening lap to have any chance of running 8:10 or better for the race.  Given my recent illness, I had decided to run completely on feel, and let the time and place take care of themselves.  The goals were the goals, but just getting through this one without feeling like complete garbage was going to be a win.

As planned, Phil and I ran together in the early going; as usual in these circumstances, I set the pace with Phil tucked just behind.  We settled into position in about 30th place, running just over eight minutes for the first mile before easing off as the climbing started in earnest.  At the top of the first climb, about three miles in, Ian had added a mile-long loop of rolling singletrack that, while pretty, was obviously going to be a real slog on the second lap.  This threw off our splits as compared to previous years, but the effort level seemed to be in check as we rolled through AS1 and headed back down the gorge towards the river.

We crossed the river feeling strong and made a relaxed climb out of Lick Brook gorge nearing the top 20, but missed a turn at around mile 10 that cost us about three minutes and four or five places.  We still had a long way to go, though, so tried not to panic as we made our way back onto the course and into rhythm.  The trail was in great shape, for the most part, though there were some very soft sections that were going to get very muddy later on.  We came through Buttermilk Falls (AS3) just over two hours in, grabbed a few supplies out of our shared drop bag, and began the climb back up.  Coming back down Lick Brook we caught the second place female, and we maintained a nice rhythm back up towards Lucifer's Staircase.  Before reaching the stairs, we crossed paths with the marathoners on their way out; seeing many friends and training partners hammering by early in their race gave our spirits a boost as we faced the daunting climb.  We caught the women's leader at the base of the staircase and pulled away at the top.  Coming back down past AS5 to finish the first lap I was feeling very strong and was holding back so as not to put any undue pressure on Phil.  About a mile from the start/finish he caught a root and almost pitched off the side of the trail into the gorge; he was able to pop right up but seemed a bit shaken and had a little trouble maintaining contact the rest of the way down.  (He told me after the race that he felt like he was "in shock," and that it ultimately took him several miles to fully recover.)

We reached the turnaround in 4:04 on a course that was ultimately about two miles longer than previous years--maybe equivalent to a 3:55 previously.  I was feeling great.  Legs felt strong, the weather was cooperating.  After running the first 14 miles without carrying any fluid, and then using a handheld for the subsequent twelve, I switched to my Orange Med Single Barrel HydraQuiver for lap 2.  We were in 17th and 18th place, less than two minutes behind 15th, about 6-10 minutes behind 10th-14th.  I was ready to start hunting.  Phil was dawdling a little bit in the aid station, trying to get himself back on track, and we had planned on splitting up at that point anyway, so I grabbed a banana and took off.  Within fifteen minutes I had caught the two runners ahead of me and pulled away; by AS7 at the top of the gorge I was running solo in 15th place, with a little more than twenty miles to go.
Working my way through lap 2.

The Cayuga course is an unrelenting beast.  While the trails are almost universally runnable, the constant short ups and downs and sharp turns make it difficult to find a rhythm.  Small logs and stream crossings that pass unremarked on in the first lap become major hindrances in lap two.  Avoiding lapped runners, front runners, and marathoners in both directions begins to take its toll, adding in countless small lateral movements that sap momentum.  The staircases that were run up cautiously in the early stages become nearly insurmountable objects; the downhills pound the quads into submission.  Four hundred runners traversing a double out-and-back turns numerous soft patches into ankle-deep, shoe-sucking mud pits.  For me, the second lap of Cayuga is always a mental battle trying to avoid negative self-talk.  The difficulty of the course wears me down; there is a constant sense that the finish line is so far away.  I was running pretty well, making it easier to keep a positive outlook, but there's no getting around the fact that year after year, lap two of this course is a slog.  Ultimately, after my two early passes I was completely solo the rest of the way; I wound up about five minutes behind 14th and about five minutes ahead of Phil in 16th.  Despite a 4:50 second lap--about what I've done in previous years--I wasn't close to getting caught by anyone, which is a first for me at this race and speaks to the length and difficulty of this year's course.  (Times were generally 30-40 minutes slower than previous years among repeat runners in the top 20, with the exception of Scotie and Cole, who had amazing performances; I'd suspect my effort was worth about an 8:20 or so on the old course.  I'll take it.)  I would up fourth master, third in the 40-44 group behind Ben and Scotie--my fifth AG top-3 at a national championship since becoming an old man, but still looking for that first AG win. 
Mostly just relieved.

Much like Sabrina wrote in her fabulous recap of the race, I was somewhat ambivalent about the race in retrospect.  It wasn't my best day, but it wasn't my worst.  I finished about where I should've in the field, but certainly didn't make any great strides or achieve anything beyond my potential.  My time was the slowest of my three previous finishes, but I was closer to the winner and to most of the elite returnees like Ben and Matt than I've been previously.  Ultimately I decided I'm satisfied with the result, if not completely happy with it.  Which, considering the illness coming in, I guess is about all I can ask for.

Patagonia Strider shorts and top, courtesy of Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing
inov-8 Race Ultra 290s
Orange Med Single Barrel HydraQuiver and Handheld
GU Roctane gels and GU Brew

Race Report: Cayuga Trails 50 Mile

Pre-race, with part of Team MPF/RNR.
photo: Elizabeth Azze

I don't really have the heart to delve too deeply into recapping last weekend's Cayuga Trails 50 mile.  Plus there isn't much to tell, so I'll keep this post brief.

The buildup to my third USATF national championship race of 2016 went as well as I could have hoped.  Following the two 50Ks I ran in March, I took a week off of running completely before starting up again at the beginning of April.  I was soon running 85-90 mpw, and continued to build up to a peak of 130 miles in mid-May, towards the end of a 10-week block of over 1000 miles.  I was running strong track and hill workouts with Laura, and had long runs with Phil of 35+ miles at sub-9:00 pace.  I had Elizabeth come by and beef up my core routine.  I got down to race weight with two weeks to go before race day.  Things could not have gone better.

Eight days before race day, Phil and I were out for an easy two hours, the last "long" run of the training cycle.  It was warm, but not too warm; nothing close to the near-90s I had battled with Laura on the track the night before.  The first part of the run went quite well; as we climbed up our usual trail to the Mohonk Preserve, I felt ridiculously strong and relaxed.  But about an hour in I started to feel poorly.  I suddenly felt flushed and achy, particularly in my neck, shoulders, and upper back; as we started back down the hill for home, I was exhausted.  A little less than a mile from home, I got very weak and lightheaded, to the point that I stopped and sat by the side of the road for about five minutes before I felt well enough to jog the last few minutes home.  Unfortunately I was intimately familiar with these symptoms--it felt just like my previous episodes of Lyme disease.

Panic mode quickly set in.  It was Friday afternoon; I couldn't get a Lyme test for at least a couple of days, and having had a positive antibody test in the past, I wasn't sure whether a blood test would be useful anyway.  I dug through the medicine cabinet and found an old course of doxycycline that I started immediately.  If this really was Lyme, maybe I could get on top of it with enough antibiotics in the upcoming week to feel normal by race day.

Over the next few days, I convinced myself I was feeling better.  My legs certainly didn't have the pep of even just a few days previously, but I chalked that up to a combination of the taper blues and the heat wave that gripped the east coast, ensuring all my runs took place at a humid 85 degrees.  Laura and I ran our last track tuneup on Tuesday; 2 x 1 mile at 5:50, which felt aerobically fine but significantly achier than I expected.  It was still awfully hot, though, and I kept telling myself my legs would come around.

After an uneventful trip to Ithaca on Friday and a restless night of sleep Friday night, I headed off with Phil at the back of the lead pack Saturday morning at 6am.  The field was incredibly deep, even for a national championship; much deeper than we had raced at Bandera.  My goal was a sub-8:00 finish, which I figured would be in the back part of the top-15.  With the stacked field up front, I was banking on the top contenders beating each other up a bit; enough carnage (which is usually the case at Cayuga) and a smart race and I might sneak into the top 10.  I wanted to run the first 25-mile lap near my 2015 split of 3:50; while that had been a bit too fast for me to handle last year, I knew with my fitness level that I could comfortably come through halfway at 3:50 and have a strong second lap in me.

The race started out as quickly as I expected; despite passing through AS 1 (uphill 5K) in 27:00, just 30 seconds slower than last year, Phil and I had at least 40 runners ahead of us, including the top five women.  We reassured ourselves that we were being smart, and ran a very relaxed tempo, keying off Sabrina Little about thirty seconds in front of us, chatting easily.  It was a bit humid but not uncomfortable, and it seemed like I was having a good day.  We passed AS 2 (7+ miles) in 1:01:30, two minutes slower than 2015 (when I had run that segment way too fast) and about three minutes faster than my 2013 split.

The miles passed by easily enough as we climbed up the Lick Brook gorge and made our way over to Buttermilk Falls.  We caught Sabrina about 10 miles in and ran together down to Buttermilk and AS 3 in 1:52--again, two minutes slower than 2015.  Phil and Sabrina both stopped to refill bottles while I ran straight through the aid station.  My stomach felt great, energy levels were good, legs fine as we started climbing back out of the gorge for the return trip.

Climbing out of Buttermilk Falls.
photo: Elizabeth Azze

About ten minutes past the aid station, nearing the top of the Buttermilk Falls stairs, I noticed the first hints that things were not going as planned.  The pace hadn't changed, but somehow the effort level had spiked considerably.  In fact, I was having to slow down to keep the effort level steady, especially on the climbs--not unusual, except for the fact that I was only two hours into an eight hour race and had no reason to feel this way.  Picking my way through some navigable single track, I noticed that my pace had dropped off significantly, and my legs were starting to ache much more than I expected at this point in the race.  I chalked it up to a bad patch and took an extra GU, but within a mile Phil, Sabrina, and a group of about four other runners had caught up with me and passed by as we started to step drop down Lick Brook towards AS 4.  I fell in with Phil, telling myself it was way too early to worry about racing for places now, and focused on staying relaxed.  I re-passed everyone in the aid station, as once again I blew through while they all stopped to refill bottles, but again, I was re-caught fairly quickly.

By the time we reached the base of Lucifer's staircase, about 20 miles in, I was struggling, already walking many of the smaller uphills.  I wasn't losing ground--in fact, I still had a slight lead on Phil/Sabrina et. al.--but I certainly wasn't moving well.  At the top of the stairs, I felt as though I was forty miles in instead of twenty.  Nothing hurt, really; I was just exhausted, and I couldn't imagine continuing on for another five hours.  We continued our usual pattern at AS 5, as I opened up a small lead over my nearest companions by forgoing aid, and was once again caught about a mile later.  By this time I had made the decision to drop, and I told Sabrina and Phil as much.  They were both a little surprised, but too wrapped up in what they had to do to try to change my mind, not that it would have mattered much.

I reached the start/finish at 3:58 and pulled the plug.  It was incredibly frustrating.  I wasn't hurt, my stomach was fine; I was hydrating and taking nutrition without a problem.  I just knew I couldn't run another 25 miles.  I could have jogged and walked, very slowly, and finished.  It would have taken me a minimum of six hours for the second half of the race.  I just didn't have it in me.

Eventually I hooked up with Brian, got out on the course to help support Dylan as he gutted out a tough fourth-place finish; commiserated with Cole and Iain in our mutual DNF disappointments; and got to cheer in a lot of great finishes from teammates and friends in both the 50-mile and the marathon; the list of courageous and inspiring performances is too long to get into here.  But there's only so much fun you can have at the finish line of a race you've just dropped out of, and it's been a pity party on this end for the last several days.

With Jason and Laura, who both did it right.
photo: Elizabeth Azze

The drive home that night was brutal; I had a splitting headache and felt nauseous most of the way, further reinforcing my feelings that it's once again Lyme I'm dealing with, though who the hell knows.  I'm about two weeks into antibiotics at this point and feeling minimally better.  Had blood work done two days ago, so stay tuned on that end.

I'm a bit unmoored right now.  This disaster of a race experience has shaken the confidence quite a bit, especially in light of the fact that I don't feel much better almost a week later.  As crappy as a DNF feels, I'm no stranger to the experience, and after a little self-reflection and rationalization I can usually refocus pretty quickly on what I need to do moving forward.  But right now the uncertainty is making that almost impossible.  The goal is to be ready for the fall racing season--I've basically given up on an summer racing at this point--but without knowing when or how I'm going to get back into training seriously, I'm finding a positive outlook tough to come by.

Race Report: Cayuga Trails 50 Mile

Photo: Ron Heerkins
I came into the Cayuga Trails 50, which doubles as the US National 50-mile Championship, off of one of the best training blocks I've had in recent years--a six-week stretch of over 650 miles with some excellent workouts on both the roads and the track.  In the weeks leading up to the race, I was extremely excited and confident.  I couldn't wait to get back to Ithaca and run the beautiful trails of Treman and Buttermilk Falls State Parks, to compete with my MPF/RNR teammates, and hopefully put up a national-class result.  Six days before the race, unfortunately, the family and I were in a pretty good-sized car accident (we're all ok, thanks!  A little sore, but no major injuries.  No, it wasn't the new car; it was Jodi's car, which was eleven years old and had over 200,000 miles, so she's going to get a new one.) and so my final week of preparation wasn't quite what I had hoped.  But between some ART from Scott Field at Performance Sports and Wellness, some electrical stimulation from Greg Cecere at Momentum Physical Therapy, and some excellent massage from my good friend Angi Williams, I was able to make it to the start with some soreness in my ribs but otherwise ready to go.

I graduated from Cornell in 1997 and so Ithaca holds a very special place in my heart.  I had run the inaugural CT50 two years ago, and I knew that my friend Ian would put on another world-class event.  Plus, this was one of the big races for the Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing team.  Many of my teammates were gathering in Ithaca to test ourselves against some of the best in the country.  Ian hosted a pre-race dinner for the team at his house on Saturday night, and I had a great time meeting some of my new teammates and catching up with some old friends as my kids ran around with Ben's and Ian's in the backyard.

Race morning was overcast and a bit humid, but with temps in the mid-50s, nearly perfect conditions (though the trails were a little soggy from recent rain).  My warmup was OK; my ribs were tender from the accident but didn't feel as though they would limit me much, and my legs felt absolutely ready to go.  We took off at 6am, the start feeling a bit more controlled than it had two years ago, which had felt like an all-out sprint to the mile mark; I settled into a quick but comfortable tempo, about twentieth place, running with Brian Rusiecki and several others at the tail end of the lead pack.  We strung out pretty quickly, and by about the ten-minute mark I was running with just one or two others as we started to climb the steps past our first gorge to AS1.

The requisite elevation chart.  Yeah, it's as bad as it looks.
The CT50 course is an unrelenting beast.  It's more or less a double out-and-back, with four major climbs per lap, a total of 10,000 feet of elevation gain.  The footing is generally superb--a mixture of double-track, some paved roads, and a ton of technical but eminently runnable singletrack.  And steps.  Oh, my god, the steps; hundreds of them per climb; thousands over the course of fifty miles.  It's a brutal course because almost the entire thing is runnable but extremely hard.  You rarely get a break from going uphill or downhill, and when you do, you feel like you need to take advantage of it and hammer.  And that's a tough combination.  In three years, only five runners have ever broken seven hours, and they're some of the best ultramarathoners in the country: Sage Canaday, Chris Vargo, Matt Flaherty, Jordan McDougal, and Mario Mendoza.

My point is, it's not a PR course.  In 2013, I had run 8:48 for 16th place.  My goal this year was eight hours, which was a pretty good bet to be in or close to the top 10; I thought even with an OK day I was in shape to run 8:15-8:20.  Anything outside of 8:30 or a top-15 finish was, frankly, going to be a disappointment.  Ideally, I'd like to try to run even splits, but on a course like Cayuga, this is incredibly difficult; since there is obviously no respite in the second half, some slowdown is almost inevitable.  I set a target of 3:45-3:55 for the first lap, which would give me a bit of a cushion to slow down by 10% or so over the second half and still have a shot at that 8:00-8:15 goal.

I climbed the first section well and reached AS1 (5K) in 26:30, a little faster than I wanted to be, right with Scotie Jacobs, a MPF/RNR teammate and the facilities manager for the Ithaca Beer Company.  Scotie and I don't know each other well, but he is easy company, and a very strong runner, and we attacked the next section of the course with a bit too much enthusiasm.  Scotie was definitely pushing a little faster than I would have otherwise, but I was feeling great, and I was so excited to be not just racing--finally, after all that prep--but racing with a teammate, and went along for the ride.  We hit AS2 (seven miles) at 59:30--way too fast.  As Scotie said, though, at this race, you have to take what the course gives you, because it doesn't give you much.

Climbing with Scotie.
Photo: Ron Heerkins

I settled in.  The miles clicked by pretty easily.  I pulled away from Scotie and ran solo for awhile, feeling in control; he caught back up and pulled a bit ahead on the bomber descent down to the base of Buttermilk Falls, the quarter pole for the race (1:50 and change, still a little fast but seemingly in control).  We immediately started climbing back out of the gorge, passing through the aid station without stopping; I hadn't stopped at an aid station yet and wasn't planning to for awhile.  We saw Elizabeth and Joe Azze within the first half mile of the climb; Joe chased us with his video camera as Scotie and I ran what I thought was a pretty solid ascent of the gorge.

Just past the top I pulled away again and was running solo; I felt great and focused on running a sustainable tempo for the second quarter of the race.  I picked off a couple of spots and before I knew it I was heading back toward the start/finish line at the end of lap 1, hitting the turnaround in a near-perfect 3:49 (1:50/1:59), in 17th place.

On my way out to start the second lap, two problems became quickly apparent:

1. There were about ten runners, including Scotie and our teammate Ryan Welts, tailing me by about five minutes or less.
2. I was starting to get really, really tired.

The first problem wasn't a big deal.  I didn't have any room for error, but I wasn't far from where I wanted to be either; Cole, Carlo, and Silas were running ninth through eleventh, and I wasn't more than ten minutes behind them.  Both my time and place goals were within reach with a strong second half.  The second problem was obviously going to be an issue, but my legs still felt pretty good.  Nutritionally, I was on top of things.  My stomach felt fine, I was well-hydrated.  If I could run close to two hours for the third quarter of the race--giving up about 1 minute per mile to my time from that segment of lap one--I'd be in good shape.  I was definitely walking more now, but was still making solid progress.  I saw Ian just after AS6, which I reached 30 minutes after leaving the start/finish, having surrendered my minute per mile.  I could tell from his expression that I still looked OK.  Fake it until you make it, I thought, and pushed  on down past Lucifer Falls.  I hit AS7 in 5:01, 72 minutes since the turnaround and a little slower than I wanted, but hanging on.  Legs still OK.

photo: Ron Heerkins

It was on the descent into Buttermilk Falls nearly an hour later that I knew I was in trouble.  Until then I had been holding it together--leaking minutes, to be sure, but I had actually picked up another spot or two, and was maintaining about 10 minute/mile pace over some pretty difficult terrain.  But as I started the descent I could tell my quads were not going to hold on for another 13 miles.  I hobbled downhill, each step becoming more and more painful; I tried to open up the stride to remove the "braking" element from my quads, but couldn't maintain the turnover.  I reached the aid station at 6:01, still technically on pace for an eight-hour finish, though that obviously wasn't going to happen.  My three quarters of the race had now gone roughly 1:50, 2:00, 2:10.  Could I run a 2:20 for the final quarter, maybe salvage an 8:20 and hang on to my top-15 finish?

In a word: no.

There's not much to say about the last 12.5 miles beyond the fact that it sucked.  I walked, limped, hobbled, spent a miserable 160 minutes out there just trying to move forward.  My quads were so shot that on the final stair climb up Lucifer Falls, with about five miles left in the race, I literally questioned whether I could get up the staircase.  I lost eleven spots in the last 12 miles and it's a miracle it wasn't more.  My quads felt like they had been through a meat grinder; I couldn't run uphill or downhill, and could manage a slow jog on the rare flat stretches.  By the time I stumbled into the finish chute I didn't really care how poorly it had gone, I just wanted it to be over.

Is he laughing at me?  I think he's laughing at me!
Photo: Joe Azze
Later, after I had a little time to reflect, I obviously did care, and was obviously pretty unhappy.  My 8:40 was eight minutes faster than I had run in 2013, but it was at least 20-30 minutes slower than I thought I was capable of.  The first half of the race had been great, and I had hung very tough through 37 miles, but it's a 50-mile race, and with the training block I'd had, I was bitterly disappointed with the finish.  Nutritionally things seemed to go pretty well, and the failure was less of a dietary/bonking issue than my legs just not being up for that pace on that course.  Looking back on my training, the one missing element was hills; I get plenty of climbing in on my daily runs, but didn't focus on hard hill workouts, doing most of the quality work on the roads and track.  Maybe that was the issue.  I don't know, I'm kind of out of answers.  As well as I feel like I can run a 50K, I feel pretty lost at the 50 mile distance right now, and I really don't feel any closer to an answer than I did the last time I ran this race two years ago.  Maybe 50 miles is just too far for me.  (I hope not, I'm running my first 100K in September.)

For now, recovery, and a quick rebuild before the Whiteface Skyraces at the end of this month.  All hills between now and then.  I'm not expecting much; I can't imagine the course will suit me particularly well, and I have to let Ryan beat the crap out of me on a course like this since he was a good sport and came to a "runnable" one last weekend.  So hopefully it'll just be a fun weekend with Jodi and my teammates.  As disappointed as I was with this race, it really was great running on a team again, encouraging each other on the course, feeding off the great support from Joe, Elizabeth, and Ian.  That's what I'll take away from this race and look forward to next time.

Goofing around a bit, before things started getting ugly.
Photo: Joe Azze
Almost forgot, quick gear report: Patagonia racing kit courtesy of MPF/RNR; Orange Mud HydraQuiver Single Barrel (continues to perform brilliantly) and trucker hat (I know it's cool, 'cause Kevin Bartow was wearing one too); Shoes: split time between the Salming Trail T1 and the Montrail Fluidflex.  Nutrition: GU Brew and Roctane, as usual.  The Sea Salt Chocolate gets a big thumbs up!

Race Report: Cayuga Trails 50

They may run gorges, but it is some tough running.

When Ian Golden, the owner of the FLRTC and director of the Virgil Crest Ultras, announced the inaugural running of the Cayuga Trails 50 last fall, I couldn't have been more excited.  I went to college in Ithaca and always love any opportunity to go back.  I've run the Finger Lakes 50K twice, which is about 45 minutes outside Ithaca, off Seneca Lake.  It's a great event, but I knew Ian would put on a real world-class race, on the trails I used to run in Buttermilk Falls State Park back in college.  Ian announced a $12,000 prize purse as well, and made reference to forming an elite field, so I emailed him and asked him whether I might qualify as "elite."

"Well, it all depends who shows up," he said.

"Who have you asked so far?" I asked.

"Oh, Max King, Sage Canaday, Dave James, Yassine Diboun, Ben Nephew..."

Oh.  OK.

In the end, the field Ian put together was probably the second-best 50-mile field of the year, after Lake Sonoma.  Dave James (the two-time defending national 100-mile champ), Leigh Schmidt (top-10 WS100 finisher and VT100 CR holder), and Dave Mackey (2011 Ultrarunner of the Year) all pulled out last-minute, which diminished the star power only slightly.  Sage Canaday (quite possibly the world's second-best ultramarathoner), Jordan McDougal (a 14:00 5K runner and three-time winner of the North Face-Bear Mountain 50-mile), Matt Flaherty (winner of the highly competitive American River 50), Ben Nephew (eight-time winner of the Escarpment Trail Run and sixth at the World Trail Championships in 2011), Brian Rusiecki (winner of the VT50, VT100, MMT50, Bull Run Run, and many, many others), Yassine Diboun (Leona Divide 50K winner and 12th at WS100 last year), and Denis Mikhaylov (winner of the Virgil Crest 100 and the Massanutten 100) all toed the line.  The field was so stacked that Sam Jurek (Stone Cat 50 champ) and Jim Sweeney (a 6:06 50-miler and winner of the Umstead 100) got no love in the pre-race coverage.

Lining up for the start next to Jim and behind such an elite group (of women as well; Cassie Scanlon, Amy Rusiecki, Sandi Nypaver, Kristina Folcik, Debbie Livingston, Sophie Limoges...) I knew, obviously, I would not be contending for a podium spot.  Starting among such a field was a bit intimidating--this was a deeper field than any national championship race I've ever run--but also liberating, in that it freed me to run my own race.  I wanted to focus on staying mentally strong, avoiding down periods, and staying on top of my fueling.  If I could accomplish all this, I figured my placing would take care of itself.
A little bit of climbing...
The difficulty of the course also freed me from having to worry about time.  With a reported 10,000 feet of climbing, it was not a day for a PR.  This too helped me focus only on myself and let the race come to me, rather than worrying about hitting any particular splits. 

The opening pace, as expected when you've got a field full of studs, was pretty quick; I let the large lead pack go and ran in about 20-25th place for the first mile, uphill, in 7:50.  The first 5K section to AS 1 was a basically uphill jaunt up the Gorge Trail to the top of Lucifer Falls, immediately showcasing the spectacular scenery Ithaca trail runners know well.  I was happy enough to maintain 9-10 minute pace and just try to let the early miles pass.  At about 5 miles Jim and two other runners went by me quickly; they had made a wrong turn earlier and Jim explained they lost about 1/4 mile before getting back on track.  (At least that's what I think he said as he blew by.)

I reached AS 2 feeling fine, right around 1:05 for 7 miles, around 9 minute pace.  Looking at the course profile I thought 8 hours--just under 10:00/mile--would be a good day for me, so at this point I was pretty pleased.  Leaving the aid station I immediately caught up to women's leading and pre-race favorite Cassie Scanlon.  Cassie has been tearing it up this spring, with wins and course records at both Lake Sonoma and Ice Age, so I knew if I could run with her I'd be in good shape.  She was clearly laboring with what turned out to be a bad hamstring pull suffered on a fall in the early miles, but she hung tough for quite awhile, and we basically traded spots back and forth for the next two hours or so.

The course was beautiful.  One of the things I love about trail running in Ithaca is the balance that the trails tend to strike between difficulty and runnability.  Much like the singletrack around Cornell's campus or the trails I ran at the Virgil Mountain Marathon a few years back, these trails were challenging but runnable.  Unlike alot of courses I hate, I rarely felt forced to walk by the terrain, and it was great to find some areas where I could really slip into a nice steady rhythm.

Coming back to complete the first lap, I felt very strong.  Kristina Folcik caught me, and then Cassie, on a long downhill section near mile 18; the three of us ran together until Cassie fell back (eventually dropping after the first 25 miles) and Kristina pulled away very strongly; I wouldn't see her again for the day, though I was able to catch up with her fiance, Ryan Welts, an excellent mountain runner who was crewing for her.  I hung within a few minutes of Kristina most of the rest of the way and so was able to chat with Ryan at many of the aid stations; always fun to see a friendly, familiar face.  As we descended the gorge steps retracting our path to the start to complete the first lap, I picked off a number of faster starters, including a few who had gone by me between aid stations 1 and 2, and rolled into AS 6, the start/finish area, right around 4 hours, feeling tired but strong.

Lap two started off a bit slower than lap one and I had already surrendered three minutes to my first lap split by the time I reached the top of the gorge at 28 miles.  I tried not to worry about splits and just focused on getting nutrition in.  I had worked out a nice system of trying to take in 1-2 GU Roctanes between each aid station and then replenishing them at the next stop, along with filling my handheld with GU Brew each time and drinking some extra fluids in each aid station.  This, combined with a steady intake of S! caps, worked pretty well.  I'm not going to say I felt great the rest of the way, and I certainly spent my share of time walking on the uphills, but I never felt like I fell behind on the nutrition or completely hit the glycogen depletion wall.

The course got pretty muddy--two hundred runners traversing a double out-and-back on wet trails will do that--and my pace slowed throughout the second lap, though I was able to find a nice rhythm in some spots.  I was passed by one runner leaving AS 8 (32 miles), but otherwise saw no one between the 25-mile turnaround and the finish save for two runners who passed me in the final two miles (including women's runner-up Sandi Nypaver).  My GPS battery barely made it to the finish, and felt it necessary to warn me that it was running low; for the final 6 miles my watch display simply read "LOW BATTERY," which didn't help my split times any.  But I held it together as best I could for an 8:47 and a 16th place finish.
Almost there Dylan!
This was my slowest 50-mile ever--and also probably my best one.  Unlike every other attempt I've had, I was never stopped or reduced to a walk by "The Wall" or by overwhelming fatigue.  I certainly slowed down a ton, but my second lap was less than 20% slower than my first--not ideal, but not horrible either, and a reasonable showing on a difficult, muddy course.  If I could have held it together a bit better over the final 15 miles and maybe squeezed into the top 10-12, I would have been thrilled, but as it was, I finished the day pretty happy with the way things went.

As I said after Rock the Ridge, every ultra is a learning experience.  I had several good lessons to take away from the CT50, mostly in terms of nutritional strategy and pacing. I have several areas to improve, mostly in terms of training/preparation and mental toughness.  But I'm getting better.  I'm looking forward to enjoying the next few months (a trip to Spain, sans kids, for our 10th anniversary; what should be fun racing trips to Maine for the Great Cranberry Island 50K and to Lake Placid for the Whiteface Hill Climb).  Part of me, though, is already thinking about the next time I'll line up against a truly national-class field, likely at the Tussey Mountainback in October.  Lots of work to do before then.
With Yassine at the finish.  Good luck at WS buddy!

Thanks to Ian for putting on a great race.  From the course markings to the aid stations to the field to the post-race spread, truly a world-class event in every respect.  Thanks to the aid station volunteers who were incredibly friendly and helpful.  Pulling into AS 8 at 32 miles, I asked for some Vaseline to help with some, um, chafing.  They didn't have any, but one of the volunteers produced some shammy cream, which did the trick.  And I'll be damned if when I return to the aid station eleven miles later there wasn't a tub of vaseline waiting there for me.  Way to go, guys.