After my first Boston Marathon, I took a week completely off. This is something I force myself to do. After that week I had exactly 6 weeks, including any kind of taper, to prepare for Cayuga 50. I use the FIRST method for road marathon training which is three key workouts, all pretty hard, and everything else is just recovery miles if any. I averaged only 35 miles a week and maybe 3.5-6 hours of running time each week. That’s far from what I need for a 50 mile race, especially one as tough as Cayuga. I was in killer shape, for sure, but it was 5 months before Boston since I had run for longer than 2:37. There’s a gear you just don’t have without regular runs of 3, 4 and 5+ hours.
And believe me, I want to do well at Cayuga. It was my first REAL 50 mile race back in 2014 and I was unprepared and went out way too hard. I suffered a lot in the last 12 miles and finished in 9:22. Much worse than I am capable of, even then. Cayuga is the USATF 50 Mile Trail National Championship with decent prize money and the winners were going to be eligible to join the National Trail Ultra Running Team and could race in the IAU Trail World Championships in Portugal this October. With that at stake and the increasingly high profile of this race, the competition is WAY above my level. I wasn’t really even thinking about place. I knew I should be able to do much better than my 38th place two years earlier, but I was chasing a time, not a place. And that time was 8:30. Why 8:30? Just from looking at last years results and the runners that came in around that time appeared to be around my level. 8:30 was pretty arbitrary, but goals are good and I needed one.
With all the above said and my short 6 week ramp up from road marathon to challenging 50 mile trail race? I started running like I never stopped and was looking at Hal Koerner’s training plan in his book. I had a lot of questions about some of his plan and there wasn’t enough detail in his book or online. There were really long runs with a “tempo”. No clue how many miles to run hard. By the end of that week, I ended up buying a training plan from Sage Canaday’s Website. I chose the advanced plan because, by the descriptions of each level, it sounded the most like the fit for me. I finished off that week using his 16 week plan but starting at week 11 (not ideal). For that week and the next three I averaged 70 miles a week and peaked at 82.5. I love the plan because it is designed the way I want to train from now on. Lots of easy miles, pretty high volume but having those fitness workouts (like tempos, intervals, and short hill repeats) thrown in.
My problem early on was… that lack of “time on feet”. Once I’d hit 2.5 hours or so, my heart rate would start climbing and I’d have to slow down. The cure? I paced a friend during his epic sub-23 hour MMT 100. 34 miles and 8.5 hours with him was a hell of a long run! After that week I knocked out a great 21.3 mile run with 4,000 ft of climb at 9:10 pace. And it felt pretty easy. I was ready.
My friends Matt and Jim were running the inaugural Cayuga Marathon. Together we rented a house in Ithaca and 15 minutes from the race start/finish. Friday night we walked around the always excellent Ithaca Arts Festival and tried not to eat too much delicious but possibly stomach upsetting food. I can’t say enough about this town. It really is a great place to visit and is unique in its culture and great food while also having incredible nature all around it.
The house was very eco-friendly and had no A/C. It was pretty warm upstairs. The heat, pillows that were too soft and the cars ripping by all night made for a pretty lousy night’s sleep. Bad sleep the night before a race? That’s pretty much standard for me.
I wore my trusty and cool Pearl Izumi In-r-Cool hat, Pearl Izumi 2016 Run Champion singlet, North Face Better Than Naked split shorts, Swiftwick Aspire One socks, and Pearl Izumi Trail N2 shoes. I took a couple of my own Gu Roctane before the first aid station then ate Gu Roctane from the aid stations the rest of the way along with many Salt Stick pills and some Coca-Cola. I carried my trusty old Ultimate Direction Fastdraw Extreme for hydration. Pre-race I ate a Clif Banana Maple Oatmeal pack.
Another friend Darrell was running the 50 miler and was staying up the road from us. He picked me up and we went to the start. Always a great and comfortable pre-race atmosphere with a large indoor area with bagels and coffee. Before we knew it, it was time to race.
The temperature was decent at the 6am start and a very large pack went out in front of me. I mean WAAAAY out front of me. I later found a video of the start and counted no less than 53 runners ahead of me before we even turned to the driveway. My now more seasoned, experienced and mature mindset is the same as any other race these days. That mindset is this:
All those guys pushing hard from the start are either MUCH better than I am, so they deserve to beat me. OR, they are going to bonk, fall apart and drop or I’ll pass them later. Either way, for the first half of the race… they have nothing to do with me. I run my own race. And it’s a LONG race at that.
Pretty quickly I found myself running with a female runner who was wearing a Western Mass Endurance Project singlet. She was very nice and a couple runners would jump ahead of us and some of them would fade quickly. Generally, the first 5 miles of a 50 miler is NOT the time to “make a move”. One guy charged up a hill with these giant, long, bounding strides. I was pretty sure there wasn’t a 10k running at the same time but what do I know. As what’s typical with the hill chargers, we’d crest the hill and hit a flattish, smooth runnable section and they run slow. My HR was dipping down to the 130s. I want to take the first half easy, but not that easy. So around then i went and the female followed.
Run my own race. Don’t chase the rabbits.
We shared some miles and apparently had the same goal. I told her about how the course feels easy during the first out and then by the time you get back to the start, it can be too late and you realized you went out too hard. See, the course is pretty much a 12.5 mile trek with a lollipop loop at the end and two other splits that return to the mostly out-and-back course. You run a lot of the trail both ways, but it’s beautiful so you really don’t mind. As for my goal, I aimed to get back to the start in 4 hours which would give me 30 minutes to lose in the second half of the race.
Those of you reading this that have run trail races, you know that there are a large variety of course styles. Groomed trails, technical trails, flat, hilly, etc. Cayuga has a great variety that pretty much includes all these descriptions (if you count stone staircases as being “technical” due to the care and attentiveness required to transverse them). The course doesn’t have tons of little creek crossings. Basically, there’s one small one and one BIG one. The small one is going to get your feet wet, the big one if young to get your ass wet. I’m a bit over 6″ tall, mostly legs. The water was waist deep in the route the RD purposely chose due to the old route being a little shallow this year. There’s always a photographer at the crossing and there’s an award for the most ridiculous splash/dive into the creek. Knowing this the female I was running with slipped in front of me and took a dive. I laughed and asked the photographer if he got that one. I barely got those words out before they reversed their course and I ate them. I stepped on a boulder under the water that felt like it was coated in transmission grease. My feet went back and my torso went forward. Soaked. It’s part of the fun and on a warm day, you don’t mind it.
The soaking wet shirt felt great in the heat, but started to bug my right nipple, which bled during Boston. We hit the turnaround at 12.5 miles in 2 hours flat. I left the female runner and hit a section where you cross a road and go right back into the woods. The runner in front of me made a right onto a fire road. I stopped, looked around to make sure I was right and yelled to him. Another runner caught up to me and said that the road he took is pretty much right next to the trail and he’d probably notice. That’s what happened. He came back onto the trail and in decent English with a French accent he asked if I was behind him before he turned off. I said yes and the three of us pretty much ran together back to the start/finish to end our first lap. Both are Canadian with Xavier Berruel being from Montréal, Québec and Christopher Giesler from Cambridge, Ontario.
As for this course, there is quite a bit of variety and extremely unique attributes (stairs). The common terrain is long hills, short steep hills, switchbacks, fire roads, a little pavement, flatter runnable single track through forests and meadows. There are some muddy sections, downed trees, and other obstacles as well. There was on down tree that was almost waist high. My first time over it I planted on hand on it and leaped over it with both legs. By the last time I as so tired I pretty much climbed up onto it, sat on it for a second and spun off.
Around mile 19 Xavier and Christopher were within 15 yards of each other and I soccer kicked a rock with my left that did not move when I kicked it. I never saw it. We were moving pretty good through a runnable section, probably around 8 minute mile pace and BOOM I slammed onto my right side and slid in the dirt. Xavier and Chris stopped to see if I was ok and Xavier grabbed my handheld bottle that went flying. Luckily the bottle went to the left of the trail instead of to the right where it could have gone down a 100 foot hill. I got up and assessed the damage. Some minor scrapes, dirt all over my right side and nothing felt like it was locking up or going to swell up. However, I had surgery on my left big toe about 9 years ago to clear out the joint of a bunion that was formed on the top. The joint barely moves and hurts from time to time. I’m sure that kind of force straight into the tip of that toe wasn’t going to do any good. But for now I could run and so I ran on!
As we came into the finish, I took a good look at the faces of the runners coming out of the start/finish to start their second lap and boy did they look ROUGH. I wasn’t surprised and expected to do a lot of passing in the next 25 miles. I got to the drop bag area and heard my friend and MPF RNR team member/coach Iain Ridgway ask me in his thick Manchester, England accent if I needed anything. I was shocked because Iain started the race as a competitor and is already out of his running gear and helping at the aid station. Iain has raced a lot in the last year and just flew back from Spain two nights before. Iain dropped after feeling worn down. He filled my bottle, I ditched my shirt and was off for my second lap with Xavier in tow.
Over the next 12.5 miles Xavier and I ran together and passed a whole lot of runners. Sometimes 3-4 just hanging out at aid stations. Sometimes slipping past them on the course. It was climbing over 80º and some of the gorges feel very humid. It was taking its toll and I just tried to mentally not let it affect me. Xavier in his French accent was cracking me up saying things like “it is tough but it is ok because it is trails” and “you are pushing me to my limit!”. I kept telling him that I enjoyed running with him but I didn’t want him to ruin his race just to keep up with me for as much as he could. He told me he was having fun so it was ok. When I told him we just hit 50k in 5:15 he said, “Oh no, that is too fast. Too fast! But it is ok”. I told him he was tough as nails and was running great.
Although many trail runner dread paved road sections, I don’t. Well, as long as they aren’t 8 miles long! But to me, coming off of a trail and hitting something flat with traction just means I get to eat up some miles quickly! I go into marathon mode, up the stride rate and haul ass! At around 10.7 and 35.7 miles we hit the Buttermilk Falls park Rd and I ran sub8 and even sub-7 mile pace. I passed a few guys here both times and this was the last I saw of my pal Xavier! He ended up finishing in 8:55 which I believe was well under his goal!
For the next 12.5 miles I just tried to keep pushing as best as I could. I continued to occasionally pass runners who seemed to be barely moving when I caught them. Like I said, the last 1/4 of this race can be really hard. I still felt good but my legs were definitely getting tired. Running down steep descents and stairs with soaking wet shoes caused my feet to move around a bit as my wet laces loosened. My toes were taking a beating and the big toe that head-butted the rock felt the worst. This combined with thoroughly tortured qauds cause my descents to be a little slower than I liked. My sub 8:30 goal was looking unlikely but a huge improvement on my 9:22 time in 2014 was pretty much guaranteed. My last climb at Lucifer Fall’s stairs was pretty slow. I was beat with no more pep in my step. At mile 48 there’s a half mile uphill then it’s runnable downhill to the park road and a flat run to the finish. I sped up my turnover and with the excitement of finishing ran a 7:07 last mile for a finishing time of 8:35 to take 19th place. With all the stairs and ups and downs, it’s a respectable time.
Overall I was happy with my race. I knocked a ton of time off my race from two years before and things could of went a lot worse with just 7 weeks between very different marathon training and this race. I’m confident I could go well under 8:30 with more time for ultra prep and may give it a try in a year or two. I really love this race, love the town of Ithaca, the timing of Ithaca fest is perfect and can’t see myself going more than a couple years without coming back.
On August 20 I’m running the Waldo 100k which is about 3 hours south of Portland, Oregon. It will be my first west coast race and my first race at any kind of high altitude. After a week off, back at training again with a goal of top 10!