Thursday, June 5, 2014

2014 Cayuga Trails 50 DNF Report

I was a DNF at this years Cayuga Trails 50.  Not finishing a race is never fun.  It is strange to even sit here and write a blog about it, but this blog is intended to document my trail ultrarunning endeavors so it is only natural to account for the bad along with the good.  Even if I did not finish the Cayuga Trails 50, I still had a great race experience and overall great weekend of traveling and hanging out with great people.
Hanging out at Finger Lakes Running & Triathlon Company with some old and new friends.  Photo by Richard Bolt
The Cayuga Trails 50 came onto the scene quickly at the inaugural race last year with the announcement of a good amount of prize money and a slew of sponsors and backers.  Race Director Ian Golden wanted to assemble a contingent of front-runners to make a competitive 50 mile race in Ithaca, NY.  The 2013 version was a showdown with Sage Canaday winning and Matt Flaherty and Jordan McDougal hot on his heals.  I remember when the race was first announced in early 2013 that I wanted to run it - however, I was still trying to get fit from a nagging injury and my focus was to stay injury free for Burning River 100 later in the summer.  And this year my plans were to gain entry into Western States at Ice Age.  So after not having the chance to run Western States, and feeling recovered soon after Ice Age, I contacted Ian to see if I'd be able to join the pack of other top runners for this years Cayuga Trails 50.

Ian does a great job at recruiting top runners for his race.  He provides what we need without going over the top and makes us feel very welcomed in a down-to-earth style that is so fitting for the sport of ultra trail running.  This year Cayuga Trails 50 was the USATF 50 Mile Trail Championship, so it attracted some more media and coverage.  Although this race catered to "elites" more so than other races, the weekend atmosphere still had the community feel that most ultras have.  There was an entire week of events centered around trail running including Animal Athletics workshops and the Trails in Motion Film Festival.  All of this provided a top-notch event!  The race weekend is also the same as the Ithaca Festival, which made for more excitement in the downtown district.  Ithaca is a cool place and reminds me of a little bigger Athens, Ohio (although I would say Athens has a little more flare and style ;) ).

Early Race
Photo by Ron Heerkens Jr.
Giddyup!  Photo by Ron Heerkens Jr.
The race started out what felt like a casual pace.  After a pretty tight pack for the first mile or so, it ended up being a lead pack of 5 with Matt Flaherty, Chris Vargo, Jordan McDougal, Zach Ornelas, and myself.  I knew these were the guys that were going to be in the front all day.  I found myself running off the back of this pack for the better part of the first quarter of the race.  I was trying to get a good feel of the rhythm and try to run my own race.  I sensed that the pace was fast, and indeed it was as we came through Buttermilk Falls Aid Station (12.4 miles) in around 1:30:00, which puts us on a target that is too fast to achieve.  I also began to sense that I was weaker on the steep uphills and steep downhills than the guys in front of me, but I was gaining during the gradual downs and gradual uphills.  So for the entire first part of the race I was falling back, then catching the front pack.
Crossing the early Lick Brook with eventual winner Chris Vargo.  Photo by Ron Heerkens Jr.
The early pack at 7 miles and the largest creek crossing, before the Karnage.  Photo by Joe Viger
Photo by Joe Viger 
Photo by Ron Heerkens Jr.
Photo by Richard Bolt
Soon after the one-fourth mark, I passed Zach and moved into fourth place.  Vargo, Flaherty, and Jordan were within sight the entire next section to the Underpass Aid Station but I never pushed hard to get to them, just made sure to keep them in sight and not let them slip too far in front.  The course is basically two 12.5 mile out and backs so every section is ran four times for the 50 miles.  I was able to see a couple sections of the course the two days leading up to the race so at this point, I was fairly familiar with everything I was encountering.  
Relentless steep hills.
Shortly before Lucifer's Steps around mile 20 I passed Jordan who was stopped on the trail coughing and puking.  He had coughing fits for a while more and ended up dropping out at 25 miles.  As I ran to the base of Lucifer's Steps I caught up to Vargo and Flaherty and was now with the lead group again.  Lucifer's Steps requires hands on knees power hiking for any runner and it was kind of cool battling with Vargo and Flaherty in a true all-out power hike to the top of the stairs.  They power-hiked a bit faster than me and was 20 seconds ahead for the remaining miles into Old Mill AS for the second time at 22 miles.
Coming out of the Buttermilk Falls AS at 12.5 miles.  Photo by Joe Viger 
Photo by Richard Bolt
Top 5 coming out of Buttermilk Falls 12.5 miles in.  Follow @wMichaelOwen
I'm In the Lead?
After Old Mill AS is when things got a bit interesting for me.  I continued to trail Vargo and Flaherty by about 20-30 seconds for the 3 mile section back to the Start/Finish area before the halfway point.  I would see them on straight stretching but when there were turns or hills, I didn't see them.  I knew I was keeping them pretty close and I pushed hard to make sure they did not separate too far.  My goal was to keep them within sight going into the turnaround mark.  Coming into the turnaround area I expected to see them coming back after turning around and I could get a good idea at how far back I was.  However, when I ran into the start/finish area, there were no signs of Vargo and Flaherty.  All of a sudden, all sorts of thoughts went through my head.  "Did I go the wrong way?"  "Did the course split off and follow a different trail back to the finish?"  I was following the pink course markings and knew I came down the exact trail we started, so I explained this to Ian when I came in.  I spent a good 2-3 minutes hesitating and trying to figure out what was going on in the start/finish area before heading back up the trail.  Ultimately I told Ian that I followed the markings and the exact route we started so he said I should be good and would confirm at the next aid station.

Shortly after leaving to begin the second loop, I saw Vargo and Flaherty running toward me and I quickly checked with them and they said they made a wrong turn.  This meant that I had ran the correct route and that I was in first place for the first time all day.  This sort of took me by surprise and a lot of emotions quickly ran through my mind.  I tried to relax and just continue to keep a strong pace.  I was feeling the best I had all day, running some of the steeper uphills that I hiked earlier in the day.  It wasn't until around 30 miles that Vargo caught back up to me.  We ran together for a good 3 miles until the Lick Brook climb, which was the hardest climb of the course.   
Coming into the turnaround mark at 25 miles, not really knowing what just happened.  Photo by Richard Bolt
Photo by Joe Viger
Photo by Ron Heerkens Jr.
In the lead and grab n' go from the Old Mill AS, 28.1 miles.  Follow @wMichaelOwen

Dropping Out
I expected Vargo to reach the top of the Lick Brook climb faster than me, but I didn't expect to feel as bad as I did when I reached the top.  When I finally made it to the top, I looked ahead and Vargo was already out of sight.  I tried to resume a decent pace but it was challenging.  My legs felt incredibly heavy and drained, for the first time all day.  All of a sudden, things started going wrong for my body and mental scope.  At times I could summon up the strength to run hard but it didn't last.  After cresting Lick Brook I ran a 9:30 mile, which I had run in 7:20 earlier in the day.  My Garmin shows that mile 36 was 11:10, which was 7:22 during the same stretch at mile 11.  My mind lost focus, and I began tripping over small roots and rocks that shouldn't be tripped over.  I nearly missed some easy turns in the trail.

I stopped to pee for the first time around mile 35, and it was a dark brown color.  This concerned me as I normally stop earlier in the race.  My mind was weak and I had a hard time convincing myself to keep pushing forward.  When I arrived at the Buttermilk Falls AS at mile 37.5 I was feeling the worst I have ever felt in an ultra.  After 5 minutes of drinking cold drinks, eating salty foods, I sat down, and I was finished.  As much as my wife tried to take care of me, my spirit was pretty low and I wasn't feeling any better.  I was weak.  I pulled the plug because I didn't think I was going to get better and I didn't want to go through another 12.5 miles feeling the way I did.
A slow trot into the Buttermilk Falls Aid Station.  Photo by Ron Heerkens Jr.
Ian trying to encourage and help me get back on track.  Photo by Ron Heerkens Jr. 
Cramming in real food, nothing seemed to help.  Photo by Ron Heerkens Jr.
After deciding to drop out.  Photo by Eric Eagan
What Went Wrong?
Looking back, it is sort of easy to determine what went wrong for me after 33 miles.  For 13 miles, between mile 20 and 33, I pushed hard; first, trying to catch Flaherty and Vargo, then trying to hold my lead.  During this 13 mile stretch I ate hardly anything.  I don't even remember what I ate but it wasn't more than 100 calories.  All the while, it was heating up and getting more humid.  I got in a serious hole with nutrition, water, salt, and electrolytes.  I was able to get by until the Lick Brook Climb completely zapped me.  To make matters worse, I wasn't able to recognize that I needed more fuel after the Lick Brook Climb.  I just kept running and stumbling without taking in anything except for a little water.

This was my 12th ultra, and until this year, eating a lot was never an issue for me.  I used to be able to just eat my way through an ultra.  Lately I don't have an appetite for gels or anything while running.  So even when I was so depleted, I didn't crave or have a desire to eat anything.  This is something that I will need to work on in the future and I will certainly learn from this mistake.

After the DNF, I went back to the start/finish area to await everyone.  Slowly, I began to feel better.  I enjoyed hanging out at the finish line with everyone of the next 6 hours as people finished.  A huge congrats to Chris Vargo for finishing it out.  We went out hard but Flaherty still pushed through to finish third.  One of the more smarter races of the day came from Tristen Williams who finished 2nd and was closing hard on 1st.  Everyone who ran and finished did a great job!  This course is no joke and the steep ups and downs will test your fortitude.

I hope to come back and get a bit of revenge on the course and my nutrition.  This was a great experience and I have no regrets other than not staying on top of nutrition and fueling.  Rookie mistake for someone who has gone through these ultras before!  Next time I'll be more aware of what I need even when my body is not telling me it wants something.  Sometimes you just need to force the gels and calories down.

Overall, it was a great weekend and great racing.  I am at least glad I put up a fight and made the competition interesting for about 33 miles.  Ian puts on a great race and I'd come back to run one of his races any time.  The Virgil Crest 100 is already on my radar!  The entire Finger Lakes Running community is great and they embody the spirit of trail ultra running!

There are no immediate races on my schedule right now - I want to make sure I am fully recovered before I start any more higher mileage weeks.  I hadn't taken a day off since December until after the race so that was a solid 22 weeks of training before any break.  Time for rest and recovery to get ready for some late summer and fall races!

Run Free!
Hanging out after the finish.  The Vargo with his Nike bling.  Photo by Richard Bolt

Chatting with Matt Flaherty.  Photo by Joe Viger

Photo by Joe Viger
Photo by Joe Viger
Photo by Joe Viger


  1. If you decide to come out to the VirgilCrest100 Please be sure to be in touch - We will have a rocking aid station there again and will likely be covering the event for some regional press. Great report - Great meeting you this weekend.

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