Alone Time at the 2017 Cayuga Trails 50 by Ben Nephew

I was very close to not running Cayuga Trails 50 this year. It is always a busy time of year, transitioning between the academic year and the summer research season, and I tend to have a pattern of running a race for 4-5 years and then moving on to try another event at that time of year. I was also tired of not having the race that I’d like to have there, and spending more time suffering than I’d prefer. I like my suffering, but it is frustrating when the suffering does not generate the result you want.

Then I looked at my race report from last year, and 2-3 photos from the race. There are races, and then there are events, which Ian Golden is the master of. When do I get a chance to run through gorges like that? Never. I also knew the boys have really enjoyed our weekend trips to the race, and while Steph and Aiden would stay home so Steph could professionally train for the SOS, Gavin would come with me on a man camping trip. Then there was the fact that I only see my teammates a few times a year, so I was definitely racing.

I actually became excited for the race as the forecast predicted the first cool day in the race’s 5 year history. Cayuga is a hard race even in good conditions (that has clearly been confirmed), but it can be a sufferfest that drops runners like flies in typical hot/humid conditions. I don’t really enjoy hot races, and I was curious to see if I could have a stronger second half when the temp stayed in the rational range.

Gavin and I picked up some cheese, bread, and sopressata from Pecorino in Grafton, and hit the road for dinner at Ian’s while he was away at a wedding. That guy’s schedule is loco. After a mellow evening with the team and several other runners, Gavin and I set up our tent and were quickly asleep in the cool, dry air. I got up at 3am to get some breakfast, and it was too cold to even shower in the lukewarm campground showers at Treman. I put all my running clothes on and relaxed in my bag before heading over to the start.

Gavin was earning his keep by crewing for Scottie, as well as Matt Flaherty (no loyalty to his own father), and keeping Sammy the dog from joining the race. Apparently he also needed to patrol the water crossings. With Gav passed off to Elizabeth, I did a short warm up, thoroughly enjoying the conditions, and the race was soon off into the gorges.

While I did lead out the first mile or so, it didn’t feel as hard as past years in humid conditions, and my first few splits were very similar to those from past years. Cole Crosby took over the lead, and actually cranked up the pace a bit, after the first mile. I let him and two others go, and ended up by myself by about 3 miles into the race. Ian’s latest version of the course added a hilly mile at the end of the first gorge. It wasn't too bad at the start, but I knew it would be rough on the second lap of the course.

I settled into my own pace, then did a face plant in the first water crossing. There was a hard to see ledge in the stream that dropped about 18 inches where I was expecting about 4-5, and I had chilly baptism. We soon were routed onto an extended section of the Finger Lakes trail that was in fine shape. I was alone through the aid station at 8 miles up the steep Lick Brook climb, where I ran conservatively with the hopes of a strong second half, the pipe dream of Cayuga racers.

Shortly before the first turnaround at 13 miles, I took a pit stop and a chase pack of about 7 rolled on by. I latched on to the pack, but had a hard time getting back to race pace. At the aid station, everyone bolted, and much of the pack was fractured. I gave Gav a quick high-five, and gave chase. My legs went from feeling good to tired pretty quickly, and I had to back off the pace. Aaron Saft caught up with me and we ran for a while before he felt the need to move ahead a faster clip. We had spent some quality miles running together at Cayuga last year, and it was frustrating to not be able to run with him so early in the race, not a good sign. He put about 30 seconds on me pretty quickly, and then my legs started to turn around and I reeled him back in. He was holding a good pace, and I settled right in to potentially follow him to the halfway turn, he turned his ankle pretty badly and had to stop to assess. I was once again on my own, and managed to pass a couple of runners hurting from the early pace.

As I approached the Old Mill aid leading into the Treman gorge, I was feeling good and enjoyed the last few miles to the turn, where I realized much of the field was not too far ahead. I also realized that there were quite a few folks only minutes behind me, and that this was going to be a long version of Cayuga, as I was about 10 minutes slower and a mile longer compared to recent courses. Overall, I felt good, but my pace on the uphills was not what I was hoping for. There was no point in trying to forcing anything, and I focused on trying to run conservatively until the last 12 miles and assess how I felt then.

Most of the trails were still in great shape, and even the insanely slick mud sections were not too bad. As the fatigue continued to accumulate, seeing Gav at the aid stations became a bigger boost throughout the day. I also knew he would be having a blast hanging out with Elizabeth, Joe, and all the awesome aid station crew all along the course. At this point, I know how hard the last half of Cayuga is, which is good and bad.

I was thoroughly appreciating the awesome weather; it would have been a death march on hot day. One reason I debated not returning to race this year was that I get too caught up in the race to really appreciate the course, and I made a specific effort to look around this year. It really is an incredible place to run, and one of the views I noticed for the first time this year was the amazing structure of the upper sections of the Lick Brook falls. I almost went off course to get a better look. On the way back down Lick Brook after running alone for hours, I spotted Joe Azze getting some film, and we had some fun winding through the downhill slalom that is one of the best miles on the course. It was a great distraction from the suffering, and kept me going until the final run through the Treman gorge.

I hung on for a 7th place finish and the master’s win, in 8:07. That is quite a bit longer than I was hoping to be out there, but it could have been worse. Although I let Cole and the eventual winner, Chris Raulli go pretty early on, the early pace may have cost me in the second half. Brian Rusiecki, who I ran with last year and was not far ahead after the first half, ran a very strong second half, along with Michael Owen, to finish 2nd and 3rd. They gained significant time on Chris, who was flying through the first half like a boss. Cole hung on like a pit bull for 5th, and Jason Kolb almost ran me down in 8th. Scotie continued his strong year as 2nd master, and Jason Friedman just missed making it a MPF RNR masters sweep with his master’s 4th. I don’t think it is too much to ask to only lose 20 minutes in the second half, but that is not something that happens very often at Cayuga. It is a very runnable course, but it is extremely difficult to maintain a pace that seems completely reasonable in the first half.

After cheering for the other finishers, reconnecting with other runners, and attending the awards, a few of us headed over to Ithaca Beer for a pork bahn mi sandwich….made with pork belly. Gavin (in his new, prized MPF RNR hat) and I had one final high-five for that before heading back to the finish to help Ian pack up a small mountain of gear. Gavin ran around like some sort of automated packing robot for an hour before we had to pack up the tent and head home, where we arrived at 3am, completing my 24hr day.

Another awesome Red Newt Racing event. I’m annoyed at myself for even considering not going. Thanks to Ian, his entire extended family, my MPF RNR teammates and the local runners who keep me going all day, all the wicked good aid station crew folk, my wife for enabling my functional race habit (Amy Rusiecki asked me if I do one ultra a year….), and Gavin for agreeing to take part in my parental and community based running programming experiment.  He is quite the outlier, but I have no concerns about that type of outlier, at all.