Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cayuga Trails 50 Race Report

In the Devil's Footsteps

There I sat, dejected, head in hands, less than halfway up the 222 stairs standing between my first DNF and the final five miles to a hard fought personal victory. My secondary goal of a sub 11 hour finish had just gone down stream, washed away in the current and sucked over Lucifer Falls, well beyond reproach. Although my body and organ systems were, for the most part, still intact and fully operational, my spirit was suddenly crushed beyond disrepair and my mind completely fried. 45 miles into the beast known as the Cayuga Trails 50, I had come to the base of the 222 step stone staircase that ascends adjacent to Lucifer Falls at Robert Treman State Park. The first climb up these stairs, 20 miles and six hours ago, had left me lead-legged and light headed. This second climb seemed certain to finish me off. I'd gladly have sold my broken, lactic acid filled soul to Lucifer himself for an elevator ride up the gorge, but surely even the Prince of Darkness himself could not contrive a hell any worse than what I was experiencing at this God-forsaken moment. Had six months of training and nearly 10 hours of continuous running ultimately come down to this? How had I ever come to this point, on the verge of such a breakdown?

Buttermilk Creek.



First, a bit of background leading up to the moment of truth. The Cayuga Trails 50 is the brainchild of Ian Golden, local trailrunner, ironman, race director, owner of Finger Lakes Running & Triathlon Company and Confluence Running, and all around great guy. The race is a double loop, beginning and ending at the east end of Robert Treman State Park in Ithaca, NY. The course runs entirely along trails, features roughly 11,000 feet of vertical gain and an equal amount of descent, and showcases
some of the most amazing natural scenery New York's Finger Lakes region has to offer. After exiting Robert Treman State Park, the 25 mile loop winds it's way accross a major creek, through the Sweedler Preserve at Lick Brook and into nearby Buttermilk Falls State Park. Runners climb the Gorge Trail up Buttermilk Falls, pass several waterfalls and high cliffs, then return to the starting point via a similar route with a few variations thrown in. The finishing cutoff time is 15 hours.

Robert Treman State Park. (Photo: Hayley Rein)

This was the second running of the Cayuga Trails 50, and Ian once again succeeded in attracting top level trail running talent from across the county. The elite field was comprised of runners such as Matt Flaherty, Jordan McDougal, Chris Vargo, Yassine Diboun, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet and Krissy Moehl, to name a few. Last year's female champ, Kristina Folcik, and local stud Cole Crosby both returned as well. This year the race doubled as the USATF 50 Mile Trail Championships, making the podium even more prestigious than last year.

The week leading up to Sunday's race was packed with activity. Elite runner and former Ithaca resident Yassine Diboun and his business partner Willie McBride flew in from Portland, OR, bringing their Animcal Athletics training camp to Ithaca for a week of running related strength and agility sessions. The sessions included boot camps, core functional training for runners, and hill running sessions. I attended one of the boot camps and learned some things from Willie and Yassine that I can apply to my everyday training to improve as a runner. (Knowing that I was running the CT50 two days later, they claimed they would take it easy on me.)

In addition to the presence of Animal Athletics, the local running community had much to look forward to.  Ithaca Festival kicked off on Thursday night with the Ithaca Festival Mile, a fundraiser for the Ithaca Youth Bureau scholarship fund. I ran the competitive division of the one mile road race - a flat, straight shot right past my house - comfortably hard. Having never raced anything less than 5K I wasn't sure what to expect. I suffered pretty hard during the mile, but realized I had signed up to suffer just as hard for an additional 10-12 hours only a few days later. Following the competitive heat, a thousand or so kids and parents took part in the fun run heats. It was cool to watch hundreds of kids at a time go charging past my house like tiny Olympic sprinters on the hunt for the Gold. The Festival Mile followed up with a huge parade and street fair. The fair would continue on through Sunday night.

The following evening, I attended a "pre-pre-race" gathering at Ithaca Beer Company for the chance to mingle with those attending the event two days later - runners, crew, volunteers and spectators. Many of the elite racers were here, and the brewery unvailed a new microbrew called Lucifer's Steps. I enjoyed a pint of the Steps and found it light and refreshing.

The following afternoon, runners gathered at Finger Lakes Running & Triathlon Company for packet pickup, the purchasing of last minute supplies, and a group shake-out run led by Yassine. About a dozen of us participated in the group run around the trails at Six Mile Creek. During this relaxed fun run, it hit me that trail running is the ONLY sport in which average and beginner amateur athletes like myself can hang out with the best in the sport at a major event. How many hoops fans have played pickup games with Lebron James prior to tip-off, or even run around the block with Ryan Hall the day before the Boston Marathon? Any ultrarunner will tell you that the humble nature of most of our sport's elites helps to ensure that sense of camaraderie and community on the trails. I can now say from experience that I agree wholeheartedly. (As does Matt Flaherty in his own race report.)

Upon returning to the store after the shake-out run, I grabbed my bib and swag bag before biking the mile back home. The bag included the coolest swag shirt I've ever gotten - a green, blue, and white half-zip tech t-shirt. The bag itself will come in handy for carrying things easily when I bike around to stores and the farmer's market.

Next up for the afternoon was the Trails In Motion Film Festival at a downtown local movie theater. This was one of only two North American screenings of the festival. Members of Red Vault Productions, a film production company from Long Island, were on hand to discuss one of their short films which would be screened that afternoon. The Red Vault guys then informed the auience they would be out on the trails the following day to record the race and possibly turn it into a film to screen at next year's festival. Matt Flaherty and Krissy Moehl then introduced the rest of the movies, and moviegoers were treated to the films featuring ultra aces like Anton Krupicka, Scott Jaime, Killian Jornet, Seb Chaigneau, and Krissy Moehl herself. (Click here for the full film line-up.) After the festival let out, it was time to head home to finish race day preparations and hopefully catch a bit of shut-eye.

Race gear. Cat included with the drop bag.

After a restless night and a mere three hours of sleep, I arose and downed a fruit and vegetable smoothie I had made the night before. I dressed, applied a Performance Enhancing Kokopelli tattoo, (courtesy of Trail Runner Nation,) then grabbed my gear and drove the four miles to the starting line. It was convenient to be running a large caliber race held virtually in my own backyard. After checking in and chatting with fellow runners, the 230 of us gathered at the starting line. With the 6:00 AM temperature in the high 40's, the long, warm day was off to a rather nippy start. After some announcements from Ian regarding the course, runners chanted aloud for the final five seconds of the countdown. Ian blew his ram's horn to signal the official start and we were off!

TRN's Performance Enhancing Kokopelli.

FLRTC teammate/wardrobe buddy Dan and I, pre-race.
(Photo: Amy Lopata)

Toeing the line. (Photo: Richard Bolt)

The elites take a commanding lead 6 seconds into the race.
 (Photo: Richard Bolt)


Parks and Conservation

The inital 2.9 miles to the Old Mill aid station went by in a flash. I remember running along side other runners on the doubletrack trail, focused on my own thoughts and impervious to the noise around me. I remember walking up the trail's stairs and running the flats and downhills, but don't recall much else. The next four mile section covered the southern trails of Robert Treman Sate Park and included hopping down the steps past Lucifer Falls, the same stairscase that would haunt the back of my mind until its second ascent 40 miles later. During this stretch I really made the effort to take in the scenery. Enfield Creek runs through the heart of the park, creating some beautiful towering gorges that we were now cruising through at ground level. The park features several other waterfalls besides Lucifer, and the trails at the top of the gorge provide enough scenic overlooks to fully enjoy Treman's beauty. Some runners stopped to snap pictures. As one who lives locally, I decided to save my energy and grab some scenic shots another day.

Me coming into Old Mill.
(Photo: Amy Lopata)

Immediately before the Underpass aid station at mile 6.9 I had to deal with a large creek crossing. I was hoping to practice the crossing during a training run but never found a good opportunity to do so. Runners who'd run the race last year told me the best strategy is to plow right through, so into the chilly, thigh deep water I went without a second thought. The crisp morning air was still pretty cool but the water felt good on my hard working legs none-the-less. I exited the creek to continue on to the Underpass aid station, where I paused just long enough for a volunteer to refill my two water bottles. About 10 minutes later, my feet were almost completely dry. One advantage to wearing the Saucony Kinvara trail shoes is that they don't retain water for long.

Immediately following Underpass was the dreaded Lick Brook climb, part of the Finger Lakes Trail that passes through the Sweedler Preserve. During a training run, I had calculated the 1/4 mile climb to ascend about 300 feet, roughly a 22% grade. Needless to say I hiked slowly here, and halfway up met a runner using trekking poles. Soon after the climb I regained some strength and picked up the pace again. At the subsequent Lick Brook road crossing I met fellow FLRTC team member Lisa screaming words of encouragement and snapping pictures.

Lick Brook road crossing.
(Photo: Lisa Holt)

The next few miles saw some muddy fields, with the sun starting to make its way overhead and no trees covering the course. I slogged through this stretch, crossed another road, and entered the south end of Buttermilk Falls State Park. It was soon after entering the park that I caught sight of a pack of runners heading towards me up the Bear Trail. I thought nothing of it until another runner next to me uttered "You've gotta be kidding me!" It was a pack of five or six frontrunners, the elite men. Only ten miles into my race and they already led me by about five miles and at least an hour. I would soon encounter more and more runners speeding by in the opposite direction, some thinking they could catch that lead pack and others just aiming for their best finish possible.

After a few miles along the Bear and Rim trails and two brief wrong turns, I was at the Buttermilk aid station at mile 12.4. This aid station is located at the base of Buttermilk Falls, near the park's north entrance. The base of the falls and the adjoining gorge trail is a tourism hotspot and popular swimming area. Ignoring the drop bag I had transported here, I downed some watermelon, stocked up on water and began the hike up the Gorge Trail past several more waterfalls, eddies, and steep gorge walls. I passed a few more runners who stopped to take some photos, plus a bunch of tourists here for the views, probably unaware of the race in progress. As I made my way to the turnaround, the Lick Brook stream crossing felt even more refreshing than the first time. Lisa was still at the Lick Brook road crossing to cheer for me and the rest of the Team FLRTC runners. I made it to the North Shelter aid station at end of loop one in 5:01, a little ahead of schedule. I took my time here, sat down to change my socks, drink some Yerba Mate and rearrange my pack and drop bag. After a ten minute break I was off again, still feeling fresh but knowing a huge positive split was imminent.

The base of Buttermilk Falls
North Shelter aid station/course turnaround. (Photo: Richard Bolt)


All Pain, All (Vertical) Gain

With the first half in the books, the rest of the way was all about grinding out the miles and surviving. The climb up the Robert Tremen gorge felt much more strenuous the second time around. I ran for a few miles with a guy named Matt from Buffalo, NY. He told me how he'd tackled the Buffalo Marathon only a week earlier, and was now trying to complete his first 50 miler. By now my core temperature was really starting to heat up, and when I reached the Lick Brook stream at mile 31, I paused mid-crossing to cool down my legs and douse my head in the cool creek water. I waited an extra minute at the Underpass aid station for Matt to catch up, and he and I discussed different races and trails we'd run in order to take our minds off what was quickly turning into severe mental fatigue. I also chatted with a French runner who was living in New York City and made the journey upstate to complete his second 50 miler.

A few minutes into the uber steep Lick Brook climb, the French runner keeled over with a wave of nausea. I stopped to offer some ginger chews and water. He declined and told me he'd be fine. Sadly, I never learned the guy's name or weather or not he finished the race. Surprisingly, I got a rush of energy and the second climbing of Lick Brook actually felt no more difficult than the first.

The ensuing muddy trails through the fields prior to Buttermilk were now blazing hot. I swear I could feel heat rising from the tall surrounding grass while the sun broiled me from top down. The ice in my bottles had long melted and I was already running low on water with another two or more miles until the chance to refill again. Other runners I encountered also said they were running on empty. I shuffled through the next few miles and coasted into the Buttermilk aid station on fumes, now with 3/4 of the distance complete. Here I rested for a bit and downed some more Yerba Mate from my drop bag. The flavored tea was so cool and refreshing I was tempted to chug the whole bottle. I forced myself to refrain, since I had never actually drank the stuff mid-run until today. I was afraid the caffeine and/or large quantity of liquid would upset my stomach and ruin my afternoon. It's true that trying out new fueling strategies during a race is a terrible idea, but for whatever reason it seemed like a good idea at the time. I threw caution into the wind and hoped for the best. Hayley arrived here just as I was ready to leave. I gave her my expected finishing time, which was still around 11 hours, and began my climb up the Gorge Trail. This late in the day there were many more hikers, tourists and spectators along the Gorge Trail than there were in the mid-morning. I had to trudge past them and dodge little kids. Most of the spectators and hikers offered words of encouragement, in which I grunted a "thank you" in response. Trying to keep a smile on my face and a positive mindset was extremely difficult after 38 miles, but the encouragement from other people helped steer my mind in the right direction.

Steep stairs ascending Buttermilk's Gorge Trail
Climbing up the gorge, I did a self check to ensure I was physically okay. My legs were definitely fatigued beyond belief, but there was no deep pain or traumatic injuries, no blisters, no major chaffing, and no permanent bodily damage seemed imminent. I realized then that it was all mind games from here on out. "This," I thought to myself, "is where things will start to get interesting."

For anyone reading this who's never run an ultramarathon or participated in an ultra endurance event, I'll try to explain to the best of my ability what was happening to my brain 40 miles into the race. (If you're not interested in a human biology lesson, skip the next two paragraphs.)

Glycogen is one of the body's two primary fuel sources during an endurance event, whether a 5K or a 100 miler. Glycogen is formed when carbohydrates are ingested and broken down to be used as fuel. It is stored in the muscles where it is converted by the muscle cells to glucose, thus fueling the muscles and allowing for bodily movement. Glycogen is also stored in the liver, where it is then converted by the liver into glucose. This liver glucose enters the bloodstream as needed in order to circulate through the body and provide various organs with the energy they require in order to function properly.

After 9+ hours of forward progress, my body's glycogen stores were long since depleted. The fruit and GU gels I'd been eating along the way only offer little help in terms of glycogen replacement. The body's other fuel source is fat that is stored in the body as adipose tissue. While fat stores in every endurance athlete, thick or thin, are always plentiful, it is less efficient for the body to break down stored fat for energy than it is to use glycogen. In short, my brain was literally starved of its energy supply, (glucose), resulting in extreme mental fatigue.

As I pressed on slowly up the Gorge Trail, it became increasingly difficult to focus on any one thought at a time. Notions erratically passed through my brain at light speed while my legs continued to press forward, seemingly disconnected from my central nervous system. In my head I could hear loud and clear the opening guitar riff to Metallica's "Seek and Destroy," which quickly decayed into the mantra "Relentless. Forward Progress," followed by thoughts of more Yerba Mate, some obscure Beatles songs, more Metallica... what if The Beatles covered Metallica... "Why am I doing this to myself? Oh yeah, I enjoy running and the outdoors...Gotta remember this so I can blog about it later... Kentucky over Syracuse for the 1996 NCAA Championship, 76-67, biggest letdown of my childhood - Who was the leading scorer for Kentucky that game? hmm... what Kindle book can I download for free that's actually worth reading. Oops, left my Kindle at home.. Paul Pierce, no he might have played for Kansas... WATER! don't forget to keep hydrating... Ulysses. Maybe Joyce wrote Ulysses while running an ultra - Celtics star Antoine Walker, I think it was him. Bloomsday is in a few weeks, what day was it again?...Saturday. No dummy, today's Sunday..."

At times I was able to will myself to run, because once I got running it really didn't feel that bad on my body. This is where previous ultra experience came in handy. I knew that convincing my brain it was time to run would be harder than actually running and maintaining a steady 10:00-11:00 minute per mile pace. I felt fine once I began running and then let my mind wander again. The problem was, each time I came to some new variation along the course - a hill, a sharp turn, out of the shade into the sun - I would inadvertently break my stride and come to a walk. Each time I came to an incline, no matter how minute, my legs would stop altogether. I'd have to use the same mind tricks to get my legs moving in order to walk up the hills. Occasionally I would talk aloud to myself, unaware of it until I'd hear my own voice and realize no one else was in sight. When I ran my first 50 miler a year earlier, I had no idea how to play these mind games with myself and walked much of the last 10-15 miles, despite the easier course. This time around I knew from experience how to handle myself much more efficiently. I continued to play these run/walk mind games up through mile 45, which brought me face to face with the devil himself - Lucifer's Steps.

The base of Lucifer's Steps. (Photo: Hayley Rein)
I had already passed through these stairs three times today (once ascending, and twice descending), and each time volunteers were present to make sure no one fell and got hurt. This time there were no volunteers, no hikers, and no other runners to be seen. I began the long slow trudge up the stone steps, eyes straight down in front of my feet, telling myself each step was the last one before the top. I made it about a third of the way up, muscles shrieking in agony, my brain telling me I had nothing to do but take a rest. I sat, hunched over, trying to muster up some reserve energy for what seemed like the 100th time today. I think a runner passed me and asked if I needed anything, but I waved him off. "Just taking a little break." A few minutes later, I got up and pushed toward the top. A few dozen steps later and I was back on my ass. Another runner came along. By now I was almost in tears and cried out in despair, "I HAVE NO IDEA HOW I'M GOING TO DO THIS," hoping in vain he could wave his hand and grant me temporary reprieve from this nightmare. He stopped for a moment to make sure I was okay, and I assured him I was. The runner trudged on, no faster than the pace I had set for myself. As he ascended past me, I told him, matter of factly "Okay. I'm going to let you pace me. I don't know what else to do." "Alright, let's get it done," was his reply. I hopped to my feet and followed him, half walking, half crawling on my hands and knees up the rough stone cut staircase. Another agonizing minute and my legs gave out yet again. The other guy didn't seem to notice I'd faded and continued up the stairway to Hades. It was here with over 100 stairs to go that I was certain I was finished. Head in hands, I began to sob. Lucifer Falls had sapped my energy, taken everything, and I had nothing left to give. I thought of the months of training, and how much of a failure I'd be in front of everyone who'd wished me luck prior to the race. I thought of jumping into the falls and letting Lucifer take me whereever he damn well pleased... at least the cool streamwater would feel nice on my skin and cool me down...

...wait, a second! Suddenly my mind cleared completely. There was one more stream crossing, a smaller one than Lick Brook but significant none-the-less. It can't be more than another mile, right before the Old Mill aid station. If I could just make it there I could cool off, then relax for awhile at Old Mill. Just then another runner passed me going up the stairs. "If this guy can do it then I can," I thought to myself. "I'm younger and in better shape." I paused a few seconds longer, still with lingering doubts about my ability. "MOVE, DAMMIT!" I heard myself say aloud. I suddenly felt myself rising to my feet, in total control of both mind and body. I felt the devil looking me straight in the eye, daring me to defy him. "To Hell with a DNF. I'm heading for that stream." And with that, I trudged slowly and painfully up the remaining stairs, 100 pound weights where my feet once were. I paused one last time at the final overlook to take in the awe inspiring scenery of the gorge and falls and then continued on my way. 

Lucifer Falls from atop the stairs. (Photo: Hayley Rein)



The same run/walk mind game shenanigans continued to the stream, which was more like two miles away, but I felt relieved that I'd gone through Hell and come out clean on the other side. When I finally reached the stream, the water was very refreshing on my hands and face, but it was not the heavenly oasis I had promised myself while on the stairs. At this point I didn't care - Old Mill was only a few minutes away.

I came into Old Mill around the same time as one of the guys who passed me on the stairs, the one who I'd told was going to pace me. I immediately went for a bowl of grapes while a kind volunteer filled my water bottle. The other runner flopped down in the ground in agony. I asked how he was doing, and he said he was certain he was about to vomit and wasn't sure if he'd make it. The volunteer offered him some water and tried to help him up, but nothing doing. It was then that I remembered the crystallized ginger chews in my pack. I had brought them in case of any nausea of my own and hadn't needed any the whole race. I offered some to him and he choked them down. I sat to rest a few minutes and clear my head. Only 2.9 miles to the finish, but it could be all the way to Seattle and not make any difference to me - the North Shelter/finish line was an eternity away. I decided some additional salt in my system would do some good. Pretzels and chips were a no go because my mouth was so dry. I had eaten pretzels about six hours ago for the sodium and even then it dried my mouth out pretty badly. The aid station volunteer informed they had run out of salt pills awhile ago, so it was either pretzels or nothing. Luckily, the nauseated runner was now sitting up, overheard my conversation with the volunteer, and pulled out his own supply of salt pills, offering me as many as I wanted. Now here was a prime example of camaraderie on the trail - two strangers helping eachother out with nothing in it for themselves. I realized then that if that good Samaritan failed to finish the race I'd be almost as disappointed as if I'd DNF'ed myself. I thanked him perfusely and took off up the trail, next stop the finish line.

Only a few minutes later I was suddenly stricken with runner's high. Some inexplicable rush of endorphins to the brain caused my mood to instantaneously skyrocket through the roof. Suddenly I felt no sense of pain, had no doubt about finishing, and continued to visualized my self sprinting down the home stretch in a blaze of Olympic caliber glory. I don't remember much over the next 2.5 miles, just a rollercoaster of uncontrollable emotions that caused me to break into tears more than once. I do remember passing several runners that looked like the walking dead and shouted words of encouragement in their general directions. I also remember nearly breaking out in uncontrollable tears while descending a hill, and upon rounding the corner, forced myself to hold it back while passing an unsuspecting family out for a day hike. I passed a girl while on the final descent down the service road leading to the North Shelter. "I can HEAR the finish, right around this last turn." I hit the park's bright green grass and followed the orange cones toward the finish, almost veering off course through the parking lot. I saw Hayley, and a hundred yards past her, the ticking clock. "I love you so much!" I yelled to Hayley, as I tore off my hydration vest and dropped it at her feet. I crossed under the green arch in 11 hours 22 minutes and change, and it was all over.

About 100 feet to go and I'm done! (Photo: Hayley Rein)

I made it across the line just as the awards ceremony was underway. Chris Vargo took first place in 6:57 while Magdalena Lewy-Boulet won the women's crown in 8:22. As expected, the winning times were slightly slower than last year's due to the additional vertical gain that came with the course changes.

Chris Vargo wins it for the men. (Photo: Richard Bolt)

...and Magdalena Lewy-Boulet for the women. (Photo: Richard Bolt)

I spent the rest of the evening stuffing my face with as many calories as I could handle while cheering for finishers as they crossed the line. It was thrilling to watch my FLRTC teammates and the random people I'd met along the course come in after 12-15 hours on the trails. I struck up conversations with some of the elite runners and offered congratulations. I sat for awhile near the finish line with Rich, a dentist from Toronto who was the runner who using trekking poles on the Lick Brook climb. Rich told me he was waiting for his wife to finish, and the pair of them were using the CT50 as a warmup race for UTMB later this summer. I also spoke with the runner who'd given me his salt pills. He made it through the last 2.9 miles without any more stomach issues. 14 hours and 48 minutes after the ram's horn signaled the start, the final runner came through, 12 minutes ahead of the 15 hour cutoff. The remainder of the crowd went wild, knowing he was the final runner on the course. With this, I hobbled back to the car, and after some slick maneuvering to avoid impending leg cramps, dropped behind the wheel and headed for home.

Post-race soreness. (Photo Amy Lopata)

Once again, thank you to RD Ian Golden, all the volunteers who helped make the event possible, the USATF, the Finger Lakes Runners Club, Team FLRTC, the runners I met along the trail who help keep me going, and all those who wished me luck and offered support. I hope to see you all next year!



Gear used: 

I don't endorse any gear whatsoever. I feel strongly that each runner is unique, with his or her own preferences, and universally recommending a particular item or brand is not what I do. If it works for you, then go for it. With that said, here is the primary gear that worked for me:

Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Ultra Vest
Saucony Kinvara TR2 trail shoes
Garmin Forerunner 405 GPS Watch
Smartwool PHD Socks




Again, I recommend whatever works for you. Each individual has different tastes and dietary preferences. I ate the following and had no GI issues at all:

Pre-race - homemade green smoothie
Organic medjool dates (pits removed ahead of time)
* Watermelon, oranges, grapes
Homemade energy bars (based on the No Meat Athlete formula found here)
GU Energy Gels
GU Roctane Endurance Gels (with caffeine)
Guayaki Yerba Mate
* Salt Pills (unsure of what brand)

* Supplied by the aid stations

1 comment:

  1. This is a great write up Pete! Wow what an amazing day you had. I just ran 18 miles of the course this weekend and thought that Lucifer's stairs would probably break me later in the day - they were hard enough just ONE time!! Congrats on a really GREAT race. Amy