Cayuga Trails 50-Miler
This is going to be a lengthy one. Cayuga Trails 50-Miler was my first 50-miler and I put my all into training for this race for the past 6 months between working a full-time job as a nanny, buying my first home with my husband, getting my personal training certification and starting my own business. It's been a crazy few months and the training I've put into this race has been the hardest yet, but I have loved every minute of it. Track sessions, stair repeats, hill workouts, strength-training and weight-lifting, I really felt prepared and strong leading up to race day, and winning the Wapack and Back 21.5 miler a few weeks before really set the tone for how things were going to go race day (or at least I had hoped!).
Cayuga Trails 50-Miler takes place in Ithaca, NY starting at the Robert H. Treman State Park . It draws a lot of speedy, elite trail runners as it's also the USATF 50-Mile Trail Championship course (which I was registered for as well). Although there is a lot of runnable parts, it's a challenging course with steep ascents and descents, 9,000 feet of elevation gain, multiple water-crossings, some technical sections, and hundreds and hundreds of stairs. I knew there were a lot of stairs, but there's really no way to describe how many stairs there actually were. The course is a C-shaped 25 mile out-and-back with a lollipop loop on the far end and some split-off's throughout. It starts on the Gorge Trail at Robert H. Treman State Park passing though Lucifer Fall's area in the upper gorge, then continues on to the Finger Lake Land Trust's Lick Brook Gorge and into the Buttermilk Falls State Park where it loops around back to the start. Fifty milers do two "loops" and marathoners do one.
My husband and I drove up to Ithaca Friday afternoon with our one-year old puppy. It was a long drive, not ideal for the day before running a race, and I ended up eating a crappy cheeseless Pizza Hut pizza (or Dominos? nothing rememberable) because the vegan options of where we were driving through were non-existent. When we finally arrived at our hotel in Ithaca, I nearly cried looking at our pathetic excuse of a coffeemaker in the room, so my husband (my hero) went to the Wal-mart across the street to get an $8 coffeemaker that was much more suitable. If I was going to be running 50-miles, I at least needed a good cup of coffee in the morning! I headed to bed early but barely slept. It wasn't the usually pre-race nerves, it was more excitement. I was so eager to start running and I truly felt like a kid on Christmas Eve. The day I had dreamed about was only a few hours away and sleeping was not going to come easy.
The next morning I woke up bright and early (3:00am!), ate breakfast, watched the Golden Girls (like I do before every long run or race), and had my husband drop me off at the start. Since we had the pup with us, I told him to not come until later on in the day. I don't stop at most aid stations, and the few that I do stop at, I stay for as long as it takes to fill my water bottles, then head out again, so having a crew isn't necessary. My husband says I'm a very anti-climatic person to spectate! It was 40s at the start which was perfect. Ian Golden, the race director, gave a speech that I may have heard one word of because I was just so eager to get moving, and then a minute or two after 6am, we set off. I didn't want to get caught up with racing with the front females, so I started somewhere between the front of the pack and middle of the pack. Within the first few miles, runners were flying by me. I had no idea what place I was in, but didn't care because I had all day. Regardless of being passed, I kept a conservative pace and every time a runner passed me, I put an imaginary "x" on their back. I knew that if I paced my race well, I would eventually see all these runners again later in the race. Running at a slower pace at the beginning allowed me to really take in the course which was absolutely stunning. When we made it to the first gorge, I was just amazed. I had seen pictures online of the course, but it is just so much prettier in person. There was someone playing a bagpipe and I got a little emotional, but then I quickly hit the first set of stairs, and that brought my attention back to the course. I took my time going up, which meant more people were swishing by me and more imaginary "x's". The miles after the first waterfall were really smooth single-track and I thought to myself that if the rest of the course is like this, this is going to be a piece of cake! We hit the first aid station and then before I knew it, there was the first water crossing. I starting running across it, but then it got a lot deeper than it looked, and I was forced to slow down before climbing out. I run in the rain and on wet trails all the time, so running with wet feet was not a problem, but at 7am, it was a little chilly! The next few miles were easy single-track again, with a couple of climbs and some steep descents before hitting the next aidstation and then shortly after, the next water crossing. This one was even deeper and wider, and kind of took you by surprise. I had never done anything like that before, and it was lot of fun.
Heading into mile 8, I knew there was a big hill coming up that I had been warned about by my friend, Jason Mintz, two-time Cayuga Trail 50-miler finisher who was running the marathon later that day. Sure enough, not too long after the water crossing, there it was. Up until this point I had been walking the hills to save my energy, but they were all runnable. This wasn't even runnable. It felt like it was miles long and seem to take forever to climb. I laughed to myself because I knew I would have to do it again in 25 miles on tired legs. After Heartbreak Hill, as I was referring to it, there was more easy single-track that lead to some grassy powerline trails. I came upon the pink flagged entrance back into the woods but the runner ahead of me kept going straight and I yelled "dude! this way". I don't know why I said "dude", it just sort of came out of my mouth faster than I could think, but the runner thanked me and jumped ahead again. This section of the course was the only muddy section, but it was REALLY muddy. Shoe-sucking, ankle-deep mud, plus some rocks and roots for some added trippables. If I recall the order correctly, you left the woods again into some more grassy powerlines trails and the mud here was insane as well. It made me even more thankful for the water crossings. After this there was a long stretch of pavement, which was not the most fun to run on with my Altra Superior's but it did allow for some easy running while taking in some fluids and fuel. Then there was one more steep descent before reaching the Buttermilk Falls Aidstation, halfway point.
I was so happy when I reached the Buttermilk Falls aid station (the only aid station I stopped at during the first loop), because that meant I was a 1/4 of the way done, had seen almost the whole course and was 1/2 way to meeting my husband and puppy who we were waiting for me at the start/finish before my second loop. Immediately leaving the aidstation, you start climbing more stairs again but the waterfalls were just so gorgeous, that I didn't mind having to slow down. There was a little bit of technical single-track before reaching some grassy fields and a conveniently located bathroom with no one around. I stopped to pee, and at the time I thought it was so bizarre that I was stopping to pee in the middle of a race because I've never done that before, but I also knew that I'd be out there for over 9 hours and if I had to go then I had to go. It was the fastest pee of my life and I ran out while still pulling my shorts up which gave some bystanders a good laugh. Now it was just a matter of following the course back to the start. More water crossings, more mud. I was noticing every time I hit a road crossing or grassy open trails, that it was getting a lot warmer. Somewhere around mile 17-18, I saw my friend Jason, who I mentioned earlier, crushing the marathon with the lead males. I also saw the friend I had made at Wapack and another TARC runner. It was so great to see familiar faces! Before the last water crossing and aidstation, I was trading places, back and forth, with another female. I wasn't trying to race at this point, but we were running such similar paces that I would get ahead of her slightly, and then she'd come running up behind me. At one point when I was in front of her, we hit a small set of stairs (did I mention there were stairs EVERYWHERE on this course, not just in the gorges). She was breathing down my neck, as if I was in her way, so when we got to the top, I went to immediately start running so I could either get away from her, or move to the side and just let her have at it. My attention was removed from the course and I tripped on some foreign object, smashing onto the ground. That was one way to let her pass me. I immediately jumped up and started running again, the whole left side of me covered in dirt and my knee covered in blood. My knee and hip were throbbing. I started to cry a little as I thought that my race was over at mile 20, but I made a quick recovery within the next mile or so and tried to wash off the blood at the next water crossing so that my husband didn't see me such a mess. A mile or so before the start/finish, I started to feel a side stitch on right my side. I ignored it and thought about exactly what I needed to do at the start/finish. I tossed my water bottles to my husband while trying to avoid the puppy jumping at me, took off my shirt, tossed on my TARC hat, restocked my Ultimate Direction pack, gave the puppy a kiss, and took off running again. A mile or so away, the side stitch couldn't be ignore anymore. I stopped to walk, drink and eat, and then quickly got back to running. The pain was still there and becoming worse but I tried to stay hopeful that it would be gone soon. More stairs, more beautiful waterfalls and easy moving single-track, more throbbing side pain. I grabbed some watermelon at the first aid station, which tasted amazing, but didn't help. At some point around this time I saw Ellie Pell and then at the water crossing I saw Laura Kline, two friends and super fast females who were at the front of the pack for the marathon. I was ecstatic to see them, and it took my mind of the pain, but only for a second.
More rolling single-track, more pain and I finally made it to mile 30. My coach had given me an amazing pep talk the day before the race, and one thing he said was that if after mile 30, I was feeling good, then that was the time to start racing. The whole race I kept thinking about how I couldn't wait to get to mile 30, lose this conservative pace I was trying hard to keep, and start really running. Well, now I was at mile 30, my legs felt great, but I was in so much pain. I saw my husband at the next aidstation and I told him that my legs felt awesome but I had a terrible side stitch, and he said to eat more salt. I grabbed some pretzels and stuck them in my pack, knowing full well that I had eaten plenty of salt so far in the race, but maybe some solid food, versus the chews, gels and GU Roctane Endurance drink I had been consuming, would help. I hit Heartbreak Hill again, and took my sweet time going up, using this as an opportunity to eat, drink and really focusing on my breathing. By the time I made it to the top, I was pain-free, but immediately upon running, the pain was back, but on the opposite side. I told myself that I knew I was going to feel pain somewhere at some point during the race, and this was it, so now was the time to just push through it. I tried everything you could think of to get rid of it. Rubbing my side with my fingers, holding pressure on it (which actually helped but its not easy to run like that), taking deep breathes, holding in my breath (not recommended when running), sipping water, taking gulps of water, eating ginger chews, eating a ginger gel. I literally tried everything. It hurt more on the downhills, which was so defeating because at this point in the race, I was suppose to be crushing these downhills, but I couldn't. I took a few walking breaks to see if that would help, telling myself that it was ok to be slow right now because as soon as this pain is gone, I'm going to run my ass off and make up for all of this lost time. And then finally, somewhere around mile 38, right before reaching Buttermilk Falls for the second time, it was gone. After over 10 miles of dealing with this pain, to say I was excited was an understatement. I knew that now was the time to drop the hammer, because a) my legs were still feeling really good, and b) I did not know if that pain was going to come back.
When I got to Buttermilk Falls, my husband was there with the pup and he asked about the pain, and I told him it switched sides, but I didn't say it had gone away because I didn't want to jinx it. After leaving that aidstation and knowing that I just had to run back to the start/finish, I felt like a whole new women. Although I was moving a little slower on the stairs and climbs, I was much faster on the flats and downhills. I immediately started passing other runners, people who I had seen fly by me at the beginning. I stopped again to pee at the same place I stopped at mile 14 which made me happy because it was pretty warm outside now, and knowing that I had to pee meant that I was taking in plenty of fluids. Because of the out and back nature of the course, I was running in the opposite direction of the back of the pack 50-milers and marathoners, and because I was cruising now, I was receiving so many compliments and cheers, and people were jumping out of my way to let me pass. I just couldn't stop smiling and it made me push that much harder. I got to the really muddy section again and was glad to be running through it for the last time. That section of the trail was a disaster and I actually stopped to walk some of it because the slipping and sliding felt terrible on my legs and hips at this point, and I also didn't want to wipe out with less than 10 miles to go. When I got to the second to last water crossing of the race, I stopped for a second to take a little dip before running again. I got to the Underpass Aidstation and was so excited to see my husband, but he wasn't there so I just kept going. I pulled out some Clifbloks to eat and had to stop and walk to open them. As I was crossing a street trying to get this wrapper open, there was my husband sitting in a chair with the pup. I was so mad that I was crushing the end of this race, but at the moment my husband sees me, I'm walking, fumbling with this wrapper. I yelled to him "I'm moving so much faster now but I can't get this damn thing open". Immediately after, I passed another female runner, and now I was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, I was in the top 10 now, but I really had no way of knowing. More single-track, more stairs, last water crossing, last aidstation, and now I was in the finally stretched. At this point my watch said that I was at mile 48, but I knew that I had more than 2 miles to go. That stung a bit. I hit the stairs where I wiped out at the top of last time, looked around for what I tripped on, and there was absolutely nothing there. That stung a bit too. Regardless, I just kept pushing and it felt like I was running a 5k effort, although the splits on my watch said different. I got to the last ascending staircase, which seemed to go on and on forever. I was using my hands and arms to pull myself up because my climbing legs were toast, and I yelled "fuck!" at the top, smiled, then moved on. I got to the last gorge and there were so many tourists there. I yelled as loud as I could "RUNNER COMING THROUGH!" followed with "THANK YOU SO MUCH!". I was practically begging people to move out of my way as I was flying down stairs and across the slippery stones. My watch hit 50 miles right as I was about to start climbing the last hill of the race, in 9 hours 46 minutes, and this made me so frustrated that it was hard to keep moving. However, I wasn't exactly sure how much longer there was until the finish and I really wanted that sub-10 hour finish. Once I got to the top of the last climb, I ran as hard as I possibly could so scared that I wasn't going to make it in time. 9:51, 9:52, 9:53, the timer on my watch was ticking down and I was spitting, breathing heavy and probably looked completely insane trying dig deep. It worked and I ran mile 51 in 8 minutes, moments from the finish line. Once my feet hit the grassy section right before the finish, thats when the tears starting welling up. I crossed the finish line in 9:56:11. Ellie came running over and gave me a big hug, and then my pup jumped all over me, having been wanting to do so the whole race. My husband and Laura came running over, and the first thing my husband said was "Kehr Davis just finished not too long before you!". My husband knew that Kehr is one of my female ultrarunning heros and I started crying again. I asked what place I was in and my husband said 7th female, he wasn't sure and when I checked, I was told 9th. It wasn't until a couple days later that I found out that I was indeed 7th female overall, and 5th in the USATF 50-Mile Trail Championship. I also did not know at the time that all the top female finishers finished over 9-hours, making it a slower than usual year due to some changes in the course making it a little more difficult. I had never run the course so I obviously didn't notice it being anymore difficult!
I'm emotional just writing this. Saturday was a day that I will never forget. I knew that I had trained hard and put in all the work, but I really wasn't sure what race day would bring. I had confidence in my ability, but not as much as others had in me.
However, after finishing the Chicago Marathon last Fall, with a successful result but feeling a bit of disappointment in my performance, I was determined to not let that happen at Cayuga. Saturday I toed the starting line with runners with so much more knowledge and experience, sub 24-hour Grindstone 100-mile finishers, US National 24-hour record holders, extremely fast marathoners, and the list goes on. I finished amongst athletes who I aspire to be. And to top it off, I had almost a flawless race and ran with a smile on my face even when I was hurting. The last 10 miles of Cayuga, I felt the best I ever have during a long distance race, and the race was 10 miles longer than I had ever run. I feel like this is just the beginning of what's in store for me and I have just set the tone for many years and races to come. I am counting down the days until I can do it all over again.
I need to thank my husband for putting up with me the few days before the race, and for being so supportive and encouraging throughout training. And also, for "crewing" me at Cayuga with the pup. He is my number one fan (trophy Husband as he calls himself) and I don't think I could do any of this without him. A huge thanks to my amazing coach, Scott Traer (www.runfastah.com). I feel so lucky to have found a coach who not only gives the best coaching and gave me all the tools I needed to be successful at Cayuga, but who also probably knows me better than myself when it comes to running and knew exactly what to say to me the night before Cayuga. I have grown so much as an athlete under his guidance this past year and have so much more confidence in myself. I am so thankful, and so excited for the future!
Here's the Strava from the race: