The 2015 Cayuga Trails 50 by Ben Nephew

I’ve finally recovered enough to write a race report. It’s been a busy spring of long races, but the USATF Cayuga Trails 50 Mile Championships is always rough, no matter what the race schedule is. All three years have been very competitive, and this year it was probably the deepest it has ever been considering the surprise entrants and results. While I was a little beat up heading into the race, I was excited to finally bring the family with me to see the trails after two years of heading to the race by myself. I knew the boys and Steph would love the trails, and both Steph and I are big fans of Ithaca from our college days. While it would have been great to be at the Treman campground at the start to hang around with rest of the runners, the Buttermilk Falls area where our cabin was is just as spectacular and it gave me the opportunity to check out that section of the course while hiking

We headed over to Ithaca early on Friday to catch the dinner at the Ithaca Brewery, which was awesome as usual.  Deep fried softshell crab over waffles with some bacon and awesome sauce, so tasty.  After catching up with the locals and meeting some new friends, we went back to set up our cabin.  Most of us were tired, but as we all settled in our bunks around 10pm, Gavin grabbed a book and sat on the floor by the door to catch the sliver of light coming through from the porch light.  I took a photo, and Steph, Aidoo, and I laughed.

I got up the next morning and it was disgustingly humid; absolutely oppressive.   It was one of the worst runs I have had in recent memory in terms of how I felt.  The one highlight of the run was the larch loop which took me through extensive fields of purple wildflowers; it easily took my mind off how exhausted I felt.  When I got back to the cabin, Elizabeth and Joe showed up, as Steph and Elizabeth were going to run and check out the course.  I gathered up Gav and Aidoo to hike the Gorge trail from Buttermilk.  With the never ending waterfalls and stone steps, the boys loved the trail.  Aiden did a good bit of climbing up the stairs with generous help from his big bro, but after a while his little legs were done and I put him in our soft pack for the rest of the hike, so we could sweat on each other.  

We then headed into Ithaca for the Trails In Motion film festival, which even Aiden enjoyed as he added his commentary from time to time. It was an unexpected treat to see Finding Traction, as Nikki Kimball is an old friend from when she lived in the Adirondacks. The movie was followed by a tour of downtown Ithaca and the street festival, complete with some outstanding African dancers. Our day ended with dinner at Ian Golden’s house, where the boys had a blast hanging with all the other kids and climbing on Ian’s climbing wall. All the food was excellent, I think I had fourths. Steph made plans to meet up with Jason Friedman’s family during the race, and I told her that sounded like fun, I might join them. Although I was looking forward to the race, as long as the forecast cooler weather arrived, it had been a good year of racing already, and part of me just wanted to take the boys to see the falls in the first few miles of the race.

After a few hours of sleep, I got up at 2:30 to have some coffee and the best bread I have had outside of France or Quebec from the Ithaca Bakery.  Happily for the family, I was able to get a ride to the start from Dom who was picking up Andrew Benford and Mario Mendoza.  We got over to the start early, and it was ironic that I was ready so early this year when we made it a family trip, and I was incredibly rushed the past two years.  On to the race.  To save considerable time, I can thankfully refer you to the race preview from Jason Mintz to give you an idea of the field.

Notable omissions from Jason’s list on the men’s side is Mario Mendoza, who beat Ryan Bak at a trail 50k the week before Cayuga, and Pat Moulton, a 2:15 marathoner who ran 5:37 for his first 50 miler on the roads last fall on a course that is not exactly the fastest.

The start was refreshingly mellow, and I settled into 6th place or so up the first gradual climb. As we got into the undulating trail in the gorge, the pace started to pick up, and a few runners went by. The pace felt quick enough to me, so I didn’t make any effort to go with anyone. Optimally, it would have been great to feel comfortable with the pace more towards the front, but it was obvious that the pace of the leaders was similar to the very aggressive pace from past years, which ends badly for about half of those that attempt it. Although my left calf was stiff and sore, my legs generally felt good, and I was thoroughly enjoying the cooler weather. It was amazing how much better I felt compared to Saturday.  

Things started to spread out past the 7 mile aid station, and I got the impression that Cole Crosby, Chad Trumbo, and myself were the tail end of the extended lead pack.  Cole and Chad were a bit more aggressive, but not enough to open a major gap on me.  My goal for the first half was to Do No Harm, so I just tried to run as fast as possible as easily as possible without putting myself in a hole.  With some very hard, runnable downhills, it is easy to do damage early on, and I’ve made that mistake before.  Last year, my quads were dead for the last 12 miles at least, so I went with a little more shoe this year, the Raceultra 290’s.  I don’t think I was much more cautious on the downhills, they just didn’t feel as rough in the 290’s compared to the Road X 255’s from last year.  

I was a bit surprised to see our split time as we approached the 12.5 mile aid station, as I think I was about 3 minutes slower than last year, and we had gone through the 7 mile split right at my pace from last year.  I was probably in 11-12th place at that point. If anything, we had picked it up a bit trying to stay in touch with Sam Jurek. I figured it might be due to the course change, and was more annoyed than concerned. Cole and Chad pushed pretty hard up the Buttermilk climb after the 12.5 mile aid station, and I was happy to give them a bit of space at that point in the race. I did want to stay in touch, though, so an unplanned pit stop past the top of the climb was not ideal.

I was then on my own, and focused on settling in to a steady pace back to the start to begin the second loop. As I ran back through the fields, I was surprised to see Andrew Benford limping on what appeared to be a sprained ankle. I couldn’t think of anything to say that would have really helped, so I just ran past with a wave. Cayuga had claimed its first victim. On the longer stretches, I could see Cole and Chad, but they were quite a ways out. I tried to take advantage of my downhill running on the steep run down the Lick Brook climb, but I still didn’t seem to be catching anyone. However, across the wildly scenic forest field at the base of the climb, I thought I spotted the back of Cole as he trailed an entire train of runners. Was I reeling in several runners?

I tried to avoid starting to race so early on and hoped my steady pace was just a bit faster than the pack up ahead. They soon disappeared, and I wasn’t sure how close I really was. The 4 mile section leading up to the last 3 miles to the turnaround has a number of tough hills leading up the famed Lucifer’s steps, a 300 foot stairmaster to hell. I thought that the course might put the hurt on a few runners as it always does, but I didn’t expect it to be before the halfway point. As I rounded the turn leading to the stairs, there was Pat, Fred Joslyn, Cole, and Chad. I passed them all either on the stairs or on the hill at the top of the stairs. Other than Chad, they all looked like they were hurting pretty good.

I skipped the aid station and headed down the onto the slate gorge trail. My 290’s had been gripping well on the wet stairs all day, but one set had a surprise for me. Just after I passed Joe Azze with his camera, I started down the first flight of stairs and tried to turn on a layer of slick mud. Both my feet went out in a millisecond, and my right hand splashed muddy cesspool water into my mouth, nose, eye and ear. It smelled and tasted like dead animal in the bottom of a garbage can in August. I almost hurled. It could have been worse, I could have become the toothless runner if I had not had gotten my hands down fast enough. The whole fall ended up being some sort of strange ultra burpee for failing the stair obstacle.

I continued down the gorge while trying to wipe the biohazard off, wondering how long I had until the infection started.  Chad soon caught up with me, and we had a nice conversation heading to mile 25.  I waited a few seconds for him to get set before heading out on the second loop, and although I felt good and we didn’t seem all that far behind the leaders (we were in 6th and 7th), there was a train of runners not far behind, Cole, Brian, Fred, Pat, Carlo, Silas, Jason Lantz, Daren Oskvig,  and Aaron Saft.  Heading up the first hill, Chad seemed to be hitting a low and I pulled away without a deliberate effort.  I was hoping to gain some ground on Sam, but knew it was still too early to force anything.  

Running the stairs to the first aid station, I made decent time and ended up catching Sam shortly after. With Lucifer’s stairs mostly to myself, I took them more aggressively than the first lap and was on my way to the Lick Brook climb. My calf was feeling better, and I ran more of this climb while trying to save some for the last 12.5 mile section. Being alone with so many good runners not far behind, the paranoia started to grow like a weed. At the Buttermilk aid, people started to tell me that some of the guys up ahead were hurting, and I hoped they were not going to be saying the same thing about me!

While my legs were starting to tire on the final climb up Buttermilk, I was moving well over this 5.5 mile section, and felt much better on the downhills than last year. As I arrived at the Underpass aid station with 7 miles to go, Joe let me know that Tristan was only a few minutes ahead.  I pushed the next two miles or so, but at that point my legs were about done. My left calf was getting tight, and I struggled up Lucifer’s steps. I am not sure what happens to those last three miles, but suddenly there is much more uphill in that section as you head towards the finish.  It is like the twilight zone, every year. Considering Brian had put 2 hours on the second place runner at the Massanutten 100 in the last 30 miles, I was convinced he was going to come charging by at any second.  

The final loop around the field seemed to take forever, but I eventually finished in 5th in a course PR of 7:28:34, with Steph and the boys cheering on from the playground. Before I had a chance to catch my breath, Chad and Brian finished about 3 minutes later with Carlos and Silas not far behind. Tristan ran strong over the last few miles and ended up about 6 minutes ahead of me, Mario won, Jared Burdick was 2nd in his ultra debut, and Tyler Sigl was third after pushing the pace along with Tristan and Jared early on. Mario ran patiently and had a strong second half to be the only guy to beat the course. Cayuga got us all to varying degrees in the second half. Impressively, even with a considerable amount of carnage, there were 13 guys within about an hour of each other.

As always at Cayuga, it was a great weekend all around, and I was really glad we finally made it a family trip.  Aiden loved the cabin, and talks about going back every day!  Ian Golden is a master of the RD trade, he was clearly meant to organize races, with plenty of local help all over the course.  I don’t think I realized it until after the race, but it was insane how many of the runners called me by name, I began to think I had my name on my bib.  I have to apologize for not returning encourage all that often in the second half of the race, all I could manage was a grunt or a nod due to my level of fatigue and the fear of getting run down.  I greatly appreciated all the cheering, even the woman who informed me that catching Tristan was not going to happen!  It was awesome seeing Joe and Elizabeth all over the course, even though Joe made me fall (kidding), and I was proud of the performances from the rest of the MPF RNR team.  Joe’s race video is outstanding, and clearly underscores how fortunate we all are to be able to run an ultra on those trails.  On to the Whiteface Mountain Skyrace, back home in the Adirondacks!