Race Report: Cat’s Tail Trail Marathon 2017 “Coming in Hot” by Ben Nephew

When I downloaded my GPS data from Cat’s Tail this year, the first “top result” listed was 400 meters in 71 seconds, my second best 400 on Strava. That was how we started the race. I don’t wear my watch for everything, but Catstail is a technical trail marathon with 7k of climb that takes 4.5 hours. Yes, the first 400m is downhill on a road, but that still doesn’t really make 4:44 pace a good idea. To put this in perspective, my mile PR is 4:34. This was a new level of “Coming in hot.”

 Awaiting the start with Aaron already on my heels – Photo: Joe Azze | MPF

Awaiting the start with Aaron already on my heels – Photo: Joe Azze | MPF

The other part of the “we” was Aaron Stredny (race report), who probably went through the 400 in 69 seconds. To add some more perspective, there is a 700’ climb from 0.4 to the first mile point, then another 1300’ of climbing over the next two miles. The grade adjusted pace was similar to an aggressive start at Escarpment, which is 9 miles and 1.5 hours shorter. It gets better. The smart thing to do would have been to let Aaron go and try to make up ground later. For some reason, I felt an intense need to stay right on him, which I am sure was uncomfortable for both of us. Around the one mile point, he started to back off the pace, and instead of going along with that common sense, I passed him to keep digging our physiological hole. We were on a choo-choo train of self destruction, feeling the flow, doing the dance.

I think I can, I think I can, I know I can destroy myself!

By the fourth mile, we had settled down a bit, but were still rolling along on the downhills. For the first time in the race’s history, the course was dry and it was nice and cool at the start. I always like to take advantage of good conditions, but that first climb might have been over the top. I will say we could still thoroughly enjoy all the ridge running on Panther Mountain, as well as the ballistic serpentine descents over shale ledges. While I was leading, I had the impression that Aaron was allowing me to lead; he seemed perfectly comfortable with the pace on the flat and downhills sections. Any gap I would get on an uphill was closed with impressive ease.

We made quick work of the fire miles from 6-9, and I waited for him to start the grinding climb up Slide as I re-tied my shoes. I run 99.9% of my miles alone, and saw no point in getting a 30 second gap so we could run the rest of the race by ourselves. That, and I needed a break to recover from our tempo run start. The crazy thing was that we were 4 minutes behind the pace that David Kilgore set to the first major aid station at 9 miles in 2016. I continued to lead up the climb, with Aaron right on my heels the entire way. As can be seen in Joe’s photos, the views up the trail on the climbs were incredible, with the sun shining through the trees and lighting up the mist and neon-green moss over the rocks. We hit the summit of Slide, the highest point in the Catskills, about 5 minutes behind the 2016 race pace. I was a bit surprised at this, but at the same time thought it would allow for a strong second half despite our efforts at ruining our legs early on.

 Nearing the top of Slide Mountain in the earlier morning hours – Photo: Joe Azze | MPF

Nearing the top of Slide Mountain in the earlier morning hours – Photo: Joe Azze | MPF

Based on Aaron’s starting 400 meter speed and his equally impressive speed on the downhills, I was thinking that the climbs up Cornell and Wittenberg were going to be my best chances at getting some sort of separation that might be necessary if I had any hope of winning. Once you get behind Wittenberg, there are no major climbs. I was also hoping that I might be able to put some time on him on the steep downhills, which were a bit wet, considering I was wearing Orocs.  

The reality was that I spent much of the technical descents admiring his speed down the wet ledges. When I did lead, I could start to pull away by dropping straight down 5-7’ ledges, which Aaron found quite entertaining, but he would hammer back to close the gap on the easier sections. He would reel me in so fast that I would duck as he approached, thinking he was going to run me over.  I’m not sure the big drops were the best things for my legs. The story was more of the same on the climbs up Cornell and Wittenberg, I could not open up a gap of more than a few seconds, and it had become clear that there wasn’t much point in trying too hard, mostly due to the fact that we were comfortable with the same pace and having a good time on the wild summit terrain.

The day was heating up as we reached the last major aid station at 16 miles, and we filled up before the hard running across the exposed trail. We ran into a new twist at around mile 17; some of the course markings were on the ground and following the trail became increasing difficult. There were a few spots where it took us some time to find where the trail continued, which is one of my least favorite things to do. It definitely helped with the two of us being together, as it seemed we were taking turns running off trail and then finding the markings again.

As each mile passed, we got closer to the final 5 miles which are mostly downhill.  I was not all that confident that I would be able to hang with Aaron on this section, he was consistently strong on the runnable downhills and seemed comfortable in our ongoing conversation. I just tried to be patient and keep the pressure on at the same time, especially on the uphills. We were both starting to suffer as the temperature continued to rise. The climbing efforts starting to pay off around mile 21, but fears about his downhill speed were realized as would reel me right back in. The only thing left to do was to really hammer the last 2-3 miles. Waiting until the last half mile on the road did not feel like a wise choice.  

For the love of preventing delayed onset muscle soreness, please, no more sprinting!

Given the overly aggressive early pace, it was likely I only had about 2 miles of hard running left in me. As the trail wound its way into the final runnable switchback downhill I put my head down and tried to turn the legs over as fast as possible. My lead grew slowly at first, and then I could not see Aaron on the switchback above. I was not convinced I had sealed the deal, and continued to run scared. I was not all that fond of the open forest at this point, and I thought about trying to run while in the crouched position, but this seemed to restrict the diaphragm.

After the 20th switchback and one section that felt like a bushwhack, I ran out onto the road section leading to the finish like a kid running from the neighborhood bully. My pace was considerably slower than our start, but it got the job done. I won in 4:33, about 2 minutes off my CR from 2015, with Aaron close behind in 4:38. There was a bonus for getting the course record, and I speculated that the RD’s, Charlie Gadol and Mike Siudy, took down the course markings to prevent a new CR. I have no proof of this, however. The other conspiracy theory is that I’m trying to build up the bonus for next year, as it accumulates over time. This would make about as much sense as starting the race at 4:40 pace.  

The race management was awesome as usual, with professional grade aid stations and great markings other than the trail hoodlum action. As someone who spends quite a bit of time trying to shave time off of FKT’s, it was nice surprise to see Peter Bakwin, gatekeeper of the FKT site, at the race! Catstail tends to be a major MPF RNR Team reunion, and this was true again this year. It is nice to be able to see everyone finish at these relatively shorter events, and it was fun to see so many runners have great races with the nice fall conditions for much of the day. Thanks to the RD’s and the army of volunteers, many my MPF RNR teammates! If you are looking for a race where you can get your speedwork, hills, and long run done all in one run across amazing singletrack, Cat's Tail is your race!