Spring Review: Naked Bavarian, Injury & The Cayuga Trails Marathon by Rich Heffron

As spring arrived, my preparations for the Cayuga Trails 50 Miler were going swimmingly. I had taken advantage of a mild Ithaca winter to get in a steady diet of 70–90 mile weeks coupled with regular workouts and even a few runs on the trails at Treman and Buttermilk.

At that point, things were looking good for CT50, as evidenced by a comfortable win at Naked Bavarian, a relatively new 40-mile race down in Leesport, PA. The course at Naked Bavarian is ideal for a season opener as it consists of two-loops on rolling, buffed-out single track around Blue Marsh Lake. As for the race, it was uneventful, which tends to be a good thing in ultras. I ran the first loop with David Lantz and Michael Dixon—both great guys to run with—before gradually pulling away on the second loop, recording a slight positive split to finish in a new course record of 5:09.

And then, over the course of a weekend in early April, I was stopped in my tracks. On Saturday, I ran 20 miles on the Schuylkill River Trail and the next day I was reduced to limping around the trails of Wissahickon because of tendonitis in my right knee. So it goes.

I quickly scheduled a physical therapy appointment and consulted with MPF coach, Elizabeth Azze, but the damage was (temporarily) done. There was no quick fix, which meant no Breakneck and likely no Cayuga Trails. I’ve been here before but it never gets any easier or less disappointing. Admittedly, my aversion to strength work—or really anything that is not running—is likely the main reason I got injured.

I began an intensive rehab program as I waited for the inflammation in my knee to subside, which took four weeks. Then I began cautiously running again, logging weeks of 8m, 15m, and 28m before deciding to give the marathon at Cayuga Trails a go. Two weeks before the race, I did some crash training with a fartlek run and a long run of 18m on the CT course. The decision to race wasn’t the most intelligent one coming off an injury, but CT is a hometown race, an MPF/RNR team race, and my buddy Matt Flaherty was staying with my wife and me for the 50, so I had serious fear of missing out.

Race Day

I got up at 6 a.m. after a restless night’s sleep. Matt was out the door at 5 a.m. for the 50, so no complaints from me. For breakfast, I had a couple cups of coffee and oatmeal with peanut butter before heading over to the start at Treman at 7:30 a.m. After drills and strides, it was time for the start. The weather was perfect with sun, blue skies, and temperatures in the low-50s.

My plan for the race was to be conservative: find a comfortable pace and rhythm, one that felt slightly too easy, and maintain it for as long as possible. Also, I vowed not to get caught up in competition until we re-entered Treman just before 20 miles.

The Cayuga Trails course is death by a thousand cuts. There is no one killer section but rather it is the course’s combination of steep climbs, rocks, roots, mud, and the innumerable steps that slowly saps your strength and will. From training at Treman and Buttermilk, I knew it was a fool’s errand to “fight against” the course, especially given my limited training.

After Ian blew the ram’s horn, I settled into 4th/5th place with Alistair Munro, an ace veteran runner who had placed 2nd in the marathon the previous year. Gabe Rodriguez, in his blazing orange kit, was off the front bounding up the Gorge Trail, while Jason Mintz and Aaron Stredny kept a more reasonable tempo in 2nd and 3rd. After a couple miles with Alistair, he urged me to go on and catch the pair ahead, which I did after a brief hesitation. I caught up with Jason and Aaron before the climb up Lucifer Falls and settled in.

The climb up Lucifer felt rough as my heart rate shot up and my legs felt heavy. As negative thoughts began to creep in, I reminded myself that my body usually takes a few miles and a couple climbs to “wake up.” This turned out to be true as I found my rhythm again as we headed out of the first aid station at Old Mill.

The next seven miles were passed pleasantly as Jason, Aaron, and I chatted about a smorgasbord of topics. At the Underpass AS, we learned that Gabe was two minutes ahead, which wasn’t surprising. None of us had a desire to chase after him this early.

The pace picked up when we dumped out onto the trail around Treman Lake. Ron Heerkens grabbed some great footage of this section.

At first, I had trouble shifting gears coming off the muddy Lick Brook connector, but by the time we hit the road at Upper Buttermilk I was the one pushing the group. Jason responded quickly and looked strong while Aaron slowly drifted off the back. As Jason bombed down the Rim Trail, I began kicking myself for instigating the change in pace. Then, out of nowhere, we passed Gabe stretching out his quads near the bottom of the descent. Game on! Jason and I were now racing for the win, or were we?

Adrenaline carried me past Jason on the climb up Buttermilk Gorge. No sooner had I taken the lead then suddenly the orange flash of Gabe blew by me, taking the stairs two and three at a time. In no time he was out of sight. What?! It looked like he was going for a Strava CR in the middle of the marathon.

Jason caught me on the Bear Trail heading out of Buttermilk. We settled back into a sustainable pace and discussed Gabe’s resurrection. It seemed like we were both recovering from the adrenaline spike of being in the lead. Just as we resigned ourselves to the race for second, we again spotted Gabe up ahead on the Lick Brook connecter. He was struggling in the ankle-deep muck and waved us past. Was Gabe truly done or would he rise again?

Jason and I hammered the Lick Brook descent and headed into the Underpass AS together. While I still felt solid, I wasn’t sure how to drop Jason. I didn’t have the confidence or energy to push on the uphills and he was crushing the descents.

I hit a rough patch as we made our way up the first section of the Rim Trail in Treman. My legs were sapped and I began to power hike. Given the rapport Jason and I had developed over twenty miles, I admitted to him that this was the longest I’d run in a couple months. Like a true competitor, he took advantage of my admission and pushed the next climb. I watched him steadily pull away as I shuffled and hiked in his wake. At this point, the excuse factory in my brain began pumping out consolations: “You put in an admirable effort.” “You’ve only been back training for three weeks!” “Jason is in peak fitness for Western States.”

Shortly thereafter I somehow stubbed my toe on the groomed, gravel trail and flailed to the ground. My pity party was in full effect. The climb up the staircase—222 steps, Pete Kresock has counted them—seemed endless. At the top, however, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Jason up ahead. “Damn,” I thought to myself, “I should try to catch him.” I quickly consumed my bottle of Tailwind along with a gel and tried to rally my mind and body.

The volunteers at the last aid station urged me to press on: “He’s only thirty seconds ahead!” “You can get him, go get him!” “You’ve got this!” I filled up my bottle with water, chugged it, and then filled it again for the road. I braced myself for the final push.

I’m not sure what righted the ship, but my legs felt stronger on the climb up into the Red Pine loop. I spotted Jason up ahead—mesh hat, Salomon pack, blue shirt—and went after him. Only it turned out to be his doppelgänger, which I didn’t realize until I approached and saw the USATF 50m bib. “Okay, no worries, regroup, keep pushing.”

I hopped, skipped, and ran down the stairs of Lucifer Falls as fast as I could in pursuit while shouting out warnings to the numerous competitors, hikers, and families on the Gorge Trail. “Excuse me. Pardon me. Coming through. On your right. On your left.” I saw glimpses of Jason’s back but wasn’t gaining any ground. Did he know I was only thirty seconds back?

Off the steps and back on the trail, I pushed on. “Come on! Just get in striking distance,” I muttered to myself. I was slowly making up ground but quickly running out of space.

After cresting the final climb, I let loose on the mile-long descent to the finish. Arms and legs flailing, I hammered as hard as I could. I yelled ahead to Jason to give him warning that I was coming. He glanced back and started sprinting. For a moment, it seemed like he might pull away again but then his cadence slowed. I apologized as I passed with a quarter mile to go. At the end, only eleven seconds separated us. Aaron and Alistair came in a few minutes later to finish third and fourth. Gabe ended up dropping at the Underpass AS (19mi).

(Video of the finish. That’s my wife yelling. She rocks!)

Kudos to Jason for pulling me along most the day, he’s ready to roll at Western States next weekend. It was a joy to share many miles with him, Aaron, and Alistair. A big shout-out to my MPF/RNR teammates, they crushed it in both races, taking five of the top-15 spots in the marathon and the 50m. Make sure to check out the race reports of Ben and Scotie.

Finally, thank you to Ian Golden and all the volunteers for putting on another first-class event. I am already looking forward to tackling the 50 next year.

It feels good to be healthy again. Next up, Many on the Genny 40 Mile Trail Ultra.