When my wife asked me what time I would be finishing the Cat’s Tail Trail Marathon, without even thinking I replied “Well it’s only a marathon, so it shouldn’t take too long.” She laughed and said that not many people can so nonchalantly use the words “only” and “marathon” in the same sentence. She made a good point, but after running the very challenging Virgil Crest 50 only two weeks ago, 26.2 miles honestly didn’t seem very far. It’s all relative I suppose…
Traffic leaving NYC on Friday afternoon meant that I arrived to Phoenicia, NY in the dark in a cold, drizzly rain. I was tired, hungry, and cranky from the drive so I scrapped my usual three-mile shakeout run and instead just met up with my parents, who had come to spectate, and headed to town for some dinner. A burger and a Guinness improved my mood immensely. After dinner I found Elizabeth and Joe Azze back at the campground and got some info on the course. I generally like to research the course and terrain prior to a race, but the previous week had been busy so the insight was much appreciated. Elizabeth told me that the trail was very technical, and the rainy forecast would slicken the rocks and add mud to the equation. She told me to expect to run around 5 hours for the course. I grew up running in Upstate New York, so I thought I knew what I was in for and was a bit skeptical that it would really take so long. Wrong again.
It was still dark and cold when I rose and drove to the trailhead for the start, but mercifully not raining. That would change as the sun came up and start time approached. I warmed up on the road in an intermittent cold rain, debating how many layers to wear. We got some last instructions from RD’s Charlie and Mike, and then were off for our adventure through the Catskills.
An early group of MPF/RNR folks formed at the front consisting of Ben Nephew, Iain Ridgeway, Jan Wellford, and myself. Jan went to the front as soon as we hit the trail and was setting a fast pace up the first climb. Iain was nursing a sore IT-band from the 50k at Virgil Crest so he soon eased off the pace, leaving the three of us to forge on.
As we crested the peak it started to rain harder, and the wind on the exposed ridge made for some very cold runners. As we started down from the summit I got a hasty introduction to just how technical trails in this part of New York really are. Off-angle rocks, roots, mud, leaves, climbing on all fours, 3-foot drops, slippery moss… you name it and this trail had it. I love this sort of running but I don’t get the chance to practice it living in Manhattan, so I was hard-pressed to keep pace with Ben and Jan. Aside from some very cold hands (should have worn the gloves I left in my bag), everything went well until we started the descent of Slide Mountain.
Fatigue was beginning to set in by this point and it was getting more difficult to move quickly over the rocks. I was hopping down a ledge when suddenly my foot slipped and my left knee slammed into a rock. I paused and let Ben go past me as I limped my way down. My knee was bleeding and sore but I didn’t think there was any real damage done, but it slowed me down substantially for the rest of the descent. By the time I got loosened up and moving again Ben and Jan were completely out of sight up the trail.
I had been told that the last 9 miles of the course down to Phoenicia was newly built trail that was runnable and fast. I tried to make up some ground but I was pretty spent from the relentless technicality and vertical of the course. The new trail was fabulously flowy singletrack that switchbacked down the mountain and in different circumstances I would have loved the chance to run it, but given my current state I just wanted to get to the finish as quickly as possible.
I eventually popped out into a cul de sac and ran the last mile on the road hard to the finish line for a time of 4:56. Elizabeth was spot-on with her prediction the night before! Ben took the win (4:31:35), with Jan second (4:40:39). Full Results
Dry clothing, a warm building lunch, and trading stories from the course with everyone who finished capped off the day’s adventure perfectly. Mike and Charlie also presented us with our awards of feather-boa cat tails, complete with elastic waistband!
This race was hard, harder than I expected it to be. I spent a good portion of the day cold, wet, tired, and bleeding. That might not sound like a very positive endorsement, or make you want to sign up for next year- but in its discomfort and difficulty it was also sublime. We don’t sign up for these races for them to be easy. Even if they don’t consciously realize it, every person on the start line of an ultra wants to be challenged to the utmost because it satisfies some primal need deep within us to succeed in the face of hardship. The crappier the weather, the harder the course, the more cuts and bruises we get the better the stories we have to tell, the better the warm clothing feels, the sweeter that post-race beer (or hot coffee in this case!). We don’t run trail races to be coddled. They’re SUPPOSED to be hard and uncomfortable.
It is the same reason I tell my wife not to baby me at aid stations- I signed up for the race and put myself in that position. I’m looking for that pain and challenge, so even though I may be whining and throwing a pity-party for myself, I just need to be sent back out there with a fresh bottle and some strong words.
To everyone who came out for the Cat’s Tail Trail Marathon- I salute your spirit and resolve. I applaud your going to great effort to put yourself in great discomfort. In this we are all united and come out the other side better for it.
As always, a huge thanks goes out to Mountain Peak Fitness, Red Newt Racing, Finger Lakes Running and Triathlon Company, Confluence Running, Run On Hudson Valley, Patagonia, and Ultimate Direction for the support. Such a fantastic team of people that I am grateful to be a part of!
Salomon Sense Ultra 4 Shoes
Salomon S-Lab 5 Set Hydration Pack
Patagonia Air flow Singlet
Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Crew
Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts
Patagonia Duckbill Cap
Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody (post-race, soooo nice and warm!)
Injinji Original Weight Crew Socks
Garmin 910XT Watch
Ultimate Direction Handy 20 Bottle
Tailwind Nutrition Lemon Endurance Fuel
GU Energy Gel Salted Caramel, Root Beer