The 2016 Cayuga Trails 50 by Ben Nephew “On Being Social”
For the first three years of this event, I had placed 7th, 5th, and 5th, with progressively faster times on the varying versions of the course. For this year’s event, the training had been going well, although slightly different with more hills than most years, and I was hoping to run in the low 7 hour range, improving on my 7:28 from last year. In terms of place, the field this year was incredibly deep, even deeper than the vast majority of people realized due to the wide variety of runners. While it was common knowledge that guys like Matt Flaherty, Jared Burdick, and Tyler Sigl would be up front and other guys like Brian Rusiecki and my teammates Jan, Cole, Silas, and Iain chasing, there were also many more strong runners such as Adam Russell, who I had chased most of the day at Breakneck, and Robert Bond, a GBTC runner that was 3rd at JFK last year.
I decided to sleep in a tent instead of a cabin this year, and ended up getting 5 solid hours of sleep, which is about two nights for me. The weather forecast had looked promising, with a forecast high of 78, and I thought maybe we would get a cool year at Cayuga. After a short warm up, the race was off at 6am, with Tyler heading out on his own. It didn’t seem like an insane pace, and I was almost tempted to run ahead to catch up with him. The rest of field seemed to be closely watching Dylan Bowman’s pace, and it was nice not to have a suicidal speed right from the gun. Brian Rusiecki and I ran these early miles together with a large pile of competitors close behind. My legs felt good, and, the air was still nice and cool.
I was still in 5th or 6th place at the Underpass aid at 7 miles. As I stopped to grab some Coke for my bottle, things suddenly got crazy. I was handed an unopened bottle which absolutely exploded all over me. It then took a while to fill my bottle, and by the time I got back on course, I must have been passed by 8 runners. Not just passed, but dropped, everyone was gone. The only person I could see was Matt Flaherty, and he was a good ways up the trail. It was far too early to be racing, so I just settled into my own pace. I have always found the practice of surging around aid stations early in ultras strange, as I don’t see the point getting 30 seconds on someone so you can run alone for another 6 hours. I run alone enough in training, and one of my motivations for running races is to actually see another human runner. Some of the surging in this race was more due to a few runners not carrying anything with them, which I was impressed with.
While I have had carbonated Coke at plenty of races, it wasn’t quite sitting right in my stomach, which was making it harder to maintain my pace. Cole and a couple other runners caught up with me, and I latched on as they went past. I didn’t feel awful, but I certainly wasn’t 100%. Things did not improve heading up the Buttermilk stairs, and I began to wonder if running another 5 hours like this was worth it. Cole was holding a good pace, and I just latched on and hoped that I would feel better at some point. It didn’t help that a runner heading the other direction counted 14th, 15th, and 16th place for Cole, another runner between us, and myself. That was not what I was looking for.
As we descended to Lick Brook, the trail wove through an incredible field of wildflowers that boosted my spirits a bit. Cole began to struggle, and Aaron Saft, a runner that I have known for quite a while but rarely see, caught up with us. We had a nice chat, and I started to feel stronger as we approached the 22 mile aid station to run back through the northern part of the gorge to the start. I decided to try and see if I could handle a little more speed, partially because I enjoy running through the gorge trails.
It was shocking how far ahead Tyler was as I made my way to the halfway turn around, and I was encouraged when I realized that most of the other runners ahead of me were closer than expected. I made up some ground over the last mile to the turn, quickly refilled, and headed back into the gorge. While there is always quite a bit of carnage at Cayuga, I was surprised at how early on a number of runners were struggling. It was certainly getting hot, but I tried not to dwell on that, as I don’t enjoy running in the heat myself. I passed Amy Rusiecki heading the other way, who instructed me to work together with Brian, who was just ahead. It is always smart to listen to wives, even when they are not your own. I did as Amy instructed and caught up with Brian after passing Zach Ornelas, my third pass of the first 3 miles of the second half, at around 28 miles.
As soon as I approached Brian, he let loose with an impressive ode to the course that was something of a cross between Debbie Downer and Donald Trump. He was also having a less than stellar day, and apparently it was all the course’s fault. He had some good points, but it is just a tough course that is hard to get right and can really beat you up, especially for guys like us that don’t put many miles on the roads. Even with the flood of negativity, Brian was running as steady as a metronome, and I appreciated having him there to run with. The two of us could be exhibits of how negative energy can be used effectively to improve your race. Everyone always talks about smiling their way through ultras, which I think is the result of too many viewings of The Sound of Music. We were not smiling much, and I’ll take this opportunity to thank the 9 million runners who enthusiastically greeted me by name during the race and apologize for only nodding or grunting in return. Cayuga trails, where everybody knows your name.
We passed a few more runners on our way back to Buttermilk. While each of us would have a short low occasionally, we were making decent time considering the heat. It wasn’t the pace I had been hoping for, but I felt much better than during miles 7-22. The Coke at the aid stations was all flat now, which helped, and one station had even loaded it into a dispenser jug. We moved through the Buttermilk station quickly and Brian was strong heading back up the stairs. He started to pull away at one point, but I caught back up once we headed back into the trails at the top. The open fields were rough as the sun beat down on us, and we were hitting the fluids pretty hard. Brian, being the amateur that he is, did not put his salt tabs in a container, and they were all stuck together from the river crossings so he had no salt. On our last run together in VT, all his water froze solid for the entire run. I’m sure he’ll figure out these details with a few more years of ultra running and racing under his belt.
The heat was affecting me most on the uphills, but my legs were in good shape no cramping at all, which Brian was struggling with at times. Submerging in the river was a life-saver during the second half. In cramping desperation, Brian grabbed a pile of 5 S-Caps stuck together and tried to swallow all of them about 5 miles from the finish. It almost killed him. He started choking, stopped makings sounds, and just as I was ready to drop kick him in the stomach, the conglomerate fired out of his throat onto the ground. It was honestly scary for a few seconds, but he was back to speed within seconds of the episode. We were hurting heading up the last stair climb, which is followed by a rude hill, and it was a relief to reach the final aid station with a mostly downhill stretch to the finish. At about 2 miles from the finish, I asked him if he wanted to run it in together, or duke it out. He told me his dukes were shot, and I was perfectly fine with finishing together.
We ended up tying for 6th in 7:40, which I was certainly happy with considering how I felt earlier in the race and my placing at that time. I would have liked a better time, but I couldn’t have expected to do much better than 5th even with a very good race. It was great to see Jan and Silas finish a few minutes later to get 3 MPF RNR runners in the top 10. They both ran really smart, and without Brian to pull me along, they might have run me down. In terms of the heat, despite drinking about 140 ounces of Coke during the race, I never had to make a single pit stop, where in the past years I’ve always stopped once or twice. It was hot. In contrast to past years where I have spent massive periods of time running by myself, it was really enjoyable to run with Brian. I could have put time on him at some aid stations, and he probably could have dropped me on a few hills, but it would have resulted in us running a minute or so apart for 10-20 miles. This would not have helped either of us, and most likely hurt our performances if any sort of surge was involved. Apparently this is becoming a trend for me this year; running with Jay Lemos at Tammany, with Iain for the entire race at Rock the Ridge, and now with Brian. For two guys that run and race alone most of the time; it was amusing how much we both appreciated the company.
In contrast to Brian’s steady pacing, the surging tactics common at ultras are often associated with massive positive splits, which are not always a bad thing. This came up in the discussion of Tyler’s impressive run, where he took advantage of the cooler temps during the first half of the race. The trick is that you have to be able to tolerate the demands of an aggressive pace, which require ideal fitness and fueling. Given Tyler’s performance, I think he could have won using just about any race strategy one could think of. His halfway split of 3:05 was ridiculous, as well as running 6:43 in that heat. Jared’s attempt at running him down to finish in 6:55 was also impressive, but even he acknowledges that Tyler was not going to be caught. While the hard early miles worked for Tyler, there were at least 8 guys ahead of me where the fast early pace did not work out, and I had an unhealthy positive split myself.
Congratulations to all the runners who survived that beast of a course that is always harder than it seems and never gets easier! Having so many MPF RNR teammates out on the course, both running and supporting the race, made it feel like we had a home field advantage. While I hope to have a stronger race next year, my main goal will be to enjoy the course more. I got a bit too caught up in the racing to enjoy the scenery as much as I have in the past, and that is unacceptable at Cayuga. Thanks to the Red Newt Racing crew and all the volunteers for putting on such a spectacular event, we are lucky to be able to race through such unique terrain!
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