The Jetlag Boogie: The 2018 Cat’s Tail Trail Marathon by Silas Carey
Picture this: You moved to New Zealand a year ago, and you’re planning your first visit back to the U.S... You notice that the Cat’s Tail Trail Marathon is the same weekend you arrive. You think to yourself “Oh, perfect! I’ll run it!” Then happily go on with your life without giving it another thought.
Fast-forward three months. You arrive at the airport in Christchurch, New Zealand for a 6:00 a.m. flight. Three layovers and 29 hours later, you stagger off the plane in Newark -unsure of what time, day, or season it is. One day later, you’re in Manhattan, and realize that to make it to Phoenicia in time for the race start tomorrow, you need to leave at 3:00 a.m..
After 4 hours of restless sleep, the alarm blares at 2:40 a.m. and you blearily start the drive upstate… Does that sound like ideal pre-race preparation?
Ideal or not, that's precisely the situation I found myself in on the (early) morning of September 29th as I made my way out of Manhattan. I stopped for gas, got the biggest coffee they had, cranked the volume on The Black Key’s album “Thickfreakness”, and drove on through the darkness.
I pulled in behind the Phoenicia pharmacy as the first bus to the start line was loading. I grabbed my gear and hustled to the bus, still in the predawn darkness. As we rumbled up the road to the Fox Hollow trailhead that serves as the staging area, I was surprised to realize my energy was actually quite good and that I was excited to race.
As the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere (summer in January, winter in July), I was coming from of winter, and thus hadn’t toed a starting line for 7 months.
Over the winter I made the decision to fully commit to my running. For the past several seasons of running ultras, I’ve been stuck in limbo between the elite field and the rest of the pack. Always almost on the cusp of breaking through, but never quite reaching that elite level. I was the only one to blame- I had never truly committed to training to reach my potential. After turning 30 this year, I realized that if I didn’t do it now, I likely never would. I sat down and talked it over with my wife, Alli, and she told me that if I wanted to make my dreams of becoming an elite runner come true, she would fully support me.
I reached out to Elizabeth Azze, of Mountain Peak Fitness for help. I had run for the MPF/RNR team for two seasons while living in NYC, but stupidly had never taken advantage of the wealth of knowledge that Elizabeth possesses as a coach.
I facetimed Elizabeth from New Zealand one rainy morning and laid out my frustrations and goals, and my decision to throw myself into training. I figured that if I fully committed but couldn’t make the cut, so be it. I could live with that. What I wouldn’t be able to live with is wondering if I could have made the elites without ever really giving it a shot. Elizabeth listened patiently, and promptly took me on as an athlete.
Cats Tail would be my first race since starting the most focused training I had done since college, so jet lag and sleep deprivation be damned- I was fired up to race!
I caught up with Elizabeth and the rest of the MPF/RNR team at the start line. Mike Siudy was once again manning the ship as RD, and I would be racing alongside Jay Lemos, Scotie Jacobs, Ben Nephew, and Aaron Stredny.
Mike sent off the first wave promptly at 7:30, and we sprinted down the road toward the trail that would take us over seven Catskill peaks, 7,000 feet of vertical gain, and 26.5 miles before we arrived back in Phoenicia.
Aaron, Ben, and I went to the front and started chugging our way up the first climb as the sun started to shine through the trees. We worked together and exchanged some small talk as we ran and power-hiked up Panther Mountain. We stayed together until the descent from Giant Ledge.
I’ve been working on my technical descending lately. While I’m certainly improving, my speed on the steep, rocky, slippery Catskill trails still left a lot to be desired. I was leading Aaron, and offered to let him pass if he wanted to take the lead. He initially declined, but then casually said something along the lines of: “Well, maybe I’ll take it.” Just like that, BAM! He was gone, skipping down the rocks and out of sight. It was too early in the race and too technical for me to risk chasing. I stuck to my own pace and planned to reel him in later on a more runnable section of the course. That obviously didn’t happen. Aaron ran a very strong race, and I never saw him again.
I was still determined and engaged in the race though, and I had four-time champion and course record holder Ben Nephew right on my tail. I tried to focus on covering ground efficiently, while also eating and drinking consistently. Not to mention trying not to fall off a cliff or break an ankle…
I was able to get a small gap on Ben coming into the Winnisook Lake aid station, but we were back together as we started the long climb up Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills. The next long section to the third AS, at the base of Wittenberg Mountain were a roller coaster. I was still feeling strong, and could feel the benefits of the training I had put in over the last three months. (Those 5:45 a.m. hill repeats in the rain were worth it after all!). The ruggedness of the course was starting to catch up with me though. In my gathering fatigue, I had lapsed on my nutrition. I started to feel the first telltale signs of a bonk creeping in. I was lucid enough to recognize it though, and quickly put two GU’s down. A cup of Coke at the aid station was the kick I needed to fully come back to life. I was back in the game!
As the miles remaining ticked by, I knew that I was getting close to the last descent of trail that would lead me to the road into Phoenicia.
Through my fatigue-addled brain the thought occurred “Hey, I’m going to get through this whole race without falling!” No sooner had the thought left my head, when my right toe hooked a rock and WHACK! Down I went. I skidded along the rocky trail on my right side, emitting a groan as I landed. Luckily nothing was damaged but the skin on my elbow and knee (and my pride), and I popped back up. After a few steps I knew I was fine, and tried to get back on the gas.
That little incident aside, I was feeling confident on the last descent. That is until I went straight through a turn and found myself at the outlet of a spring, with no more flags or trail to follow. I stopped and looked around wildly, sure that I must have missed a course marker. The trail just ended.
With no sign of a marker, I retraced my steps back to the main track, but still couldn’t figure out where I had gone wrong. I jogged back and forth, trying to work out where to go next, until the very thing I had been dreading happened: Ben appeared on the trail and took the left turn I had missed down the hill (clearly marked, I then realized) and ran away. I scrambled back to the turn and took up the chase.
I should make it clear that I hold no ill will toward Ben. He is a very strong runner, and we were teammates on the MPF/RNR team for several years. However, I hadn’t ever beaten him, and I was gutted that I had squandered my lead over the course record holder with such a silly blunder. I was in full seek-and-destroy mode as I got back on the course. I knew that if I could make contact before the end of the trail, I had just over a mile of pavement to the finish line. Ben is a strong finisher, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. I caught and passed him just before the trail dropped us onto the road. At that point I had no choice but to bury myself on that stretch of road. I didn’t look back, I just put my head down and drove forward. My calves were cramping and my quads were shot, but I willed myself along.
Looking back at my Garmin data, it wasn’t that fast of a mile (7:21), but it sure felt like I was flying! I came into town and rounded the corner to the finish line with a comfortable lead for second place in 4:53:42.
I was spent from my journey through the rugged Catskill Mountain trails, but I was happy with my effort. Given the circumstances, I had raced well and put myself in a position to compete. It bodes well for the races back in New Zealand that are my true targets for the season.
I took some time to chat with everyone and refuel from the impressive post-race spread (which included proper NY style pizza! New Zealand has a lot of things going for it, pizza is not one of them), before driving back to NYC. My legs ached, but my heart was full from a great day in the mountains surrounded by even greater people.
If you haven’t run this race yet, do yourself a favor and mark it on your calendar for next year. You will not be disappointed!