Thursday, June 5, 2014

Gorges Trails at Cayuga - USATF 50 Mile Trail Race Report

"Life is pain highness, anyone who says differently is selling something."  I am 37 miles into the Cayuga Trails 50 miler,  running a downhill with two other competitors, laughing, and quoting the Princess Bride.  I should have been hurting.  Heck, I probably shouldn't have been able to make it this far - and yet I was laughing, enjoying the company of others, and having an incredible adventure!  It's hard to imagine how I got to this point.

Brian and I signed up for Cayuga Trails 50 early in the year, when it was slated to be held on June 7th.  At three weeks after Massanutten, that seemed aggressive but potentially do-able to recover between the two races.  Then, Cayuga got moved up a week to June 1st and our recovery time was cut to two weeks.  It seemed impossible that we could run a challenging and competitive 50-miler only two weeks after a challenging 100-miler, but we decided to gamble.  If it wasn't such a beautiful course, we likely would have skipped it.  Instead, it became a fun experiment of trying to figure out just how far we could push ourselves. 

It's the waterfall views that make this course incredible.

Because of the short recovery time, I had decided before the race to let go of any goals - not look at my time from last year, not focus on a top 5 or top 10 finish - I didn't want any expectations that might take away from how incredible it would be to simply finish this race!  It was an odd feeling to stand at a starting line and wonder if your body could even cover the distance - I haven't had that feeling in a while, and found it unnerving.  We carpooled to the race with one of my WMDP teammates, Kelsey, who was also racing.  It was her first 50 miler, and her rookie nerves helped calm me down - I just focused on filling her with confidence which in turn filled me with confidence.

Kristina and I, pre-race.
The race went out hot and heavy - an inevitability when you gather so many talented runners.  I had to remind myself to let them go and take it easy - my only way to survive the distance was to be conservative and consistent.  I ran about the first 1/2 mile with Kristina Folcik, who said she wanted to take it out easy - but even she set an early pace that I knew would be suicide to keep, so I let her go.  I ultimately fell into stride with fellow Inov-8 runner Ashley Moyer and we shared the first 12.5 mile 'out' section (the course is a double out-and-back), swapping stories and getting to know each other a bit.  I know she's a super strong athlete and was freaking out to even be running with her - I felt I should have been well behind her!  But, she seems like a smart and confident runner, so while I was itching to run up some of the early climbs, instead I followed her lead and walked when she walked.  I relaxed when, at around 10 miles, a group with 3 women flew by us - it gave me confidence to have Ashley, steady as always, running with me and not giving chase (yet).  This certainly saved my race later on - Ashley's early conservative pace set me up for success.  

Ashley and I sharing early miles - photo by Steven Gorgos

One of the benefits and disadvantages of the double out-and-back course was that we got to see other runners throughout the race.   It was a bit demoralizing to see the lead men, running strong, on their first return trip - they were certainly going faster than last year (or am I going slower?).  The self-talk, which is always a challenge in an ultra, was loud and discouraging at Cayuga - I think in my heart I didn't believe I was recovered enough to finish. Then again, when I will I ever get to see some of these big names during a race that I'm also racing, so I did my best to silence the self-doubt and simply enjoy the experience.

Just past the first turn-around (12.5 miles), a girl that I had met at Bimbler's Bluff 50 last year, Darcy, caught up to me.  We started chatting, and the miles ticked off as we fell into stride with one another.  Darcy is awesome, and was running her first 50 mile race - I told her she picked a challenging, but beautiful first 50 miler.  We kept each other company as the conversation came easy and we both made sure the other didn't miss a fantastic view.  She ultimately became my savior, as her support and company made everything go easily from that point on.

Enjoying some singletrack - photo by Joe Viger.

Before I knew it, we were at the half-way point - 25 miles down.  We had seen the top runners on their return trip, including Kristina powering along in 3rd place and looking strong.  She was the only New England runner in the top 5, so we were both sending her all our speedy vibes.  We had also seen my Inov8 teammates, Yassine and Ben, looking strong and giving chase, and cheered them on.  I took a moment at the start/finish area to really assess my condition - can my body handle another 25 miles?  Is it possible that I could finish this, only 2 weeks after a 100-miler?  When are the wheels going to fall off?!?  The self-talk wasn't great, but at least I had amazing company to keep me honest and motivated.

River Crossing - Photo by Steve Gallow
With Darcy at my side, we started up the initial climb for the second time.  We spent much of the next several miles cheering on the oncoming runners (who were finishing their first 25 mile loop) and the miles went quickly.  I was excited to see that Kelsey was running strong and only a few minutes behind me.  We passed by fellow Inov8 runner Scott at some point, and I used that to buoy my spirits a bit.  Darcy and I were certainly working together and ticking off the miles - chattering about our super supportive husbands as we worked our way up the Lick Brook Falls climb, gabbing about previous trail adventures as we scurried down the Lucifer's Falls stairs, talking about having kids vs. not having kids as we enjoyed a field full of flowers, sharing in our admiration of ultra legends (such as Deb Livingston) as we splashed through puddles and shallow streams.

Ribbons of single track through the lush forest.

By the Underpass aid station (mile 32), the temperature was starting to rise, and I was getting a bit tired.  At the aid station, it broke my heart to see Kristina sitting in a chair - I tried to get her to come with me (which she wasn't ready to do).  I really just wanting to be sure she didn't drop out, but was pleased to see that Cassie Scallon and Kristina's husband Ryan were both taking care of her.

Anyway, I guess that's how I found myself just a few miles later at mile 37.  Darcy and I were cruising a downhill, passing some guy, laughing, and quoting the Princess Bride.  Still now, it is inconceivable how things were going so well, and how I managed to get there.

View from the top of Lucifer's Falls steps was worth the hike.

Just past the second 'turnaround' at Buttermilk Aid Station (mile 37.5), Darcy hit a bit of a tough patch - we were now well past her longest run ever.  But, selfishly I wanted her company, so I yelled at her to catch up and run with me.  She doesn't even know her own strength - she caught up to me and just continued to follow me - running when I ran, even if she was tired, because she was trusting that if I said we could do it, that she could do it.

Last climb out of Buttermilk, with Darcy matching my stride - photo by Steve Gallow
In that last 12.5 miles, we knew exactly what to expect - this would be our fourth pass of the trail.  I made a mental check list of the sections, so we could cross them off as we completed each.  Having Darcy by my side gave me strength and made me focus harder to get her a strong finish.  We kept passing folks, as I mentally checked off the landmarks - make it up the mile+ climb to the top of Buttermilk Falls, check. 

Stairs and waterfalls, a common view on this course.

Next was the mile across the open field and powerline section, which was now baking in the sun, and which Darcy had already said was making her nervous.  I pulled down my sunglasses and I dug deep to set a strong pace across this section, willing it to be over as quickly as possible and hoping to pull Darcy through this section as best I could.  We didn't talk the entire way, just focused on getting across the fields and to the shade of the trees.  Our first words, at the end, was for me to say 'yes, there's the shade'.  We passed a family out hiking just past this section, and I encouraged them to give us high fives - feeling that their enthusiasm was warranted as we finished the last sunny section of the day.  Open field section, check.

Beautiful single track running - photo by Steven Gorgos

Just past 40 miles, I was beginning to tire - my recent 100 mile race (as well as, perhaps, the two mountain running workouts I had enthusiastically done earlier this week) was certainly starting to take its toll.  I wanted to push hard, I wanted to lead Darcy to a strong finish, yet I was fading.  Darcy kept ever so slightly running away from me on the climbs - and I could tell that she was holding back to stay with me.  I encouraged her to go on, and she told me that the strength that she got from running with me was more important than the few minutes she might be sacrificing.  I was touched - to me, that's what ultrarunning is all about.  I was also incredibly impressed - Darcy was running her first 50 miler, and was still running strong after over 40 miles!  Her demonstrated strength and determination was helping me to find my inner strength and determination.

So, I did my best to stay strong for Darcy - in my mind, this was becoming a team effort and I was determined to not let her down.  We got quieter as I tired, it was taking all my focus to hang tough and keep up the aggressive pace.  For the last time, we plunged into the river crossing (check) and were in and out of the Underpass Aid station (check). 

Just past that aid station, we saw the next female ahead of us - and learned that passing her would put us in 5th (and 6th) place.  I was amazed - this was the most competitive ultra I've ever competed in, and I was still recovering from Massanutten, and yet we were within striking distance of a top 5 finish.  I tried to ease us past the girl, yet she latched on to our pace; about a mile later she shot past us.  Oh well - it was probably too good to be true, to think that we could crack the top 5 on a day like this.

Darcy and I working together - photo by Joe Viger

So, back to my check list - the climb up the Stairway to Heaven (Lucifer's Falls) marked the last long climb, and of course it was stairs.  We enjoyed the sweeping view at the top for the last time as I gave myself another mental check off my list.  We rolled through the lush green forest section (check).

As we neared the last shallow river crossing, the #5 female came into view again.  My dorsal fin came up, and I pushed the pace again - determined to make this pass stick.  After about a half mile, I checked to see that Darcy was with me, and that girl was not - mission accomplished.

Lucifer's Falls stairs - don't be fooled, they turn and go up, and turn and go up...

In and out of the last aid station (check) and on one last look back, I saw another female running just behind us.  I hadn't seen her at all today, so that meant that someone was closing harder than us.  I reacted immediately, calling on my pride more than my strength or speed.  I picked it up another notch - determined to hold my pace.  I urged Darcy to stick with me, yet she couldn't match my pace.  She told me to go ahead.  I had a moment of internal battle as I weighed out the desire to finish with her after all these miles that we shared versus the thought of slipping back another spot.  In that moment, I must have slowed a notch, because Darcy yelled up to me to keep a beer cold for her at the finish - and I knew it was ok for me to run my heart out and hold on to 5th place. 

Working hard in the last few miles - photo by Ron Heerkens, Jr.

So, I hammered the last section as best I could.  I have no idea how I had the legs to push this hard at the end, or really to have run as well as I had all day, yet I gave everything I had.  I was thanking my lucky stars that I shared miles with Ashley and Darcy, both of which kept me company and helped me run a smart and well-paced race - clearly I run best when I can share in the company of others and focus on the team effort rather than just my own.  With that thought, I crossed the last field section and went under the finish banner - 9:12, 5th female.  Cayuga Trails 50 Mile, CHECK!

Photo by Joe Viger
Darcy finished quickly behind me, an incredible effort for her first 50 miler!  I immediately hugged her and thanked her for all she helped me accomplish.  I enjoyed the atmosphere at the finish line as I watched Ashley power home for 8th place, Kristina rally to finish 9th place (with a smile on her face, of course), and Kelsey finish strong in her rookie 50-mile effort. 

During the awards, I was called up as the bronze medal in the US Championship - an unbelievable achievement for me.  It shows me that with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, that dreams can come true.  It was an incredible day filled with so many memories.

US Championship podium, with a bronze around my neck

Darcy also wrote up her race report, which is much more eloquently written than mine, but shares much of the same story:

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on a great race and inspiring attitude!