Thursday, June 5, 2014

USATF National 50 Mile Trail Championship Race: Cayuga 50 Mile 2014

I had a great build-up season coming into this year’s Cayuga, and this year I was way more fit and confident coming into the race than I had been last year (when I had only been able to run about 40 miles per week between S&O clinic, classes, and full time research for my PhD! I am actually half surprised I gutted it out to the finish on that one). Needless to say, being freed from the imprisonment of PT school has been amazing so far in all aspects of life, training and productivity J Last year I ran a 9:16 (for 5th place) and this year I had lofty goals of coming in under 9 hours. Until RD Ian Golden informed me that an extra 3,000+ft of climbing had been added to the course from last year at packet pick-up the day before! Yikes. I had heard that they were forced to do some rerouting of the course this year due to a trail closure, but now that put the total climbing of the race at over 11,000 ft. Living in the state of Delaware, climbing is certainly not one of my strengths. Maybe I had better reevaluate my time goals? Hah!
At the start. Photo courtesy of Auntie Ann.

I planned to go out conservatively….famous last words hahah. I did for a little while. There were some fasties in this one, both on the men’s and women’s side. I recognized Krissy Moel, who I figured should finish hours ahead of me, and Amy Rusiecki and Kristina Folcik who won this race it last year and some other regionally competitive women, all sponsored athletes. I knew I was more fit than own self last year, but figured on a good day I might be within top 10 with all these women, especially considering this race was now a National Championship race.
In the first few miles I was running outside the top 10 women, with Amy and Ashley Moyer ahead of me and out of sight for a while. The course also starts by running up a long grassy hill, so go figure. Somewhere in these first few miles I started running with two other girls, one girl from Canada named Karen and another named Keila who recognized me from passing her at the Dirty German 50K last year (woops? J). The three of us started chatting and we ran together for actually most of the first loop. Within the next several miles we actually passed Amy an Ashley and a couple other girls who settled back. The pace was a bit quick to be comfortable per say, but I didn’t feel like I was pushing it. Still, I began questioning myself in that I was going out too fast after passing these chicks better than me. But I decided to just go with things and see what would happen. 
Mile 12.5 with a bunch of chicks hot at my heels.

Running with Karen and Keila was fun, although I was probably running a bit quicker than I would have if I were running by myself. Still, I thought the company was nice for a while. Although when Karen voiced her thoughts of “We should all stay together for the whole race!” I had to laugh in my head because I know it’s a nice thought but things never work out that way. She also said this would be her first 50 miler (although at the finish line I learned that she had already done a 125K and couple other longer distances than 50M!).
Keila right behind me on the 1st lap!
The course was harder than I remembered it being last year, with a new section called Lucifers steps that included a few hundred very steep stone steps, like steeper than any step you normally encounter on your daily basis, and next to waterfalls that would have been more beautiful if you didn’t just dread the next 50 stairs that came with each one of them. I was immediately thankful for the couple stadium bleacher workouts I had gotten in before this race and also cursing myself for not getting in more. There were also a couple more really steep climbs, one in particular, which required hands on knees, head down grunting your way up to the top for several minutes (well at least for this Delawarian!) up the rough and muddy switch backs. I might have pulled away a bit on some of the more technical downhill, where they both seemed to be running a bit more cautiously, but we would catch back up with each other. I could tell that the other two, especially Canadian Karen was a strong climber, and towards the end of the first 25 mile loop, Karen started to pull away on some of the climbs and Keila followed her. I hung back and let them drop me, knowing both my limits on the climbs and the earliness of the race. I figured there was no point in trying to race those two girls on the climbs, and if I had a shot at winning against them it would be to hang back and let the miles eat away at them.

Zsuzsanna captured me during a water crossing. Felt mostly good minus squishy wet shoes.

So I came into the close of the first loop by myself in 4:21. Coming back in on the out and back section, I saw the lead woman (Magdalena) who I estimated to be about 40 minutes ahead of me. About ten minutes behind her I saw Krissy Moel and then a few other women, including Karen, who I estimated to be at least 10 minutes ahead of me at this point, and Keila, who was just a few minutes ahead of me and within striking distance. At the turn around I was in 6th place and I felt pretty good, but going back out I saw that Ashley Moyer, Amy and another one of two women were just a couple minutes behind me, so I knew I couldn’t falter on this lap or they would surely catch me. 

Coming into halfway
I started out feeling really good on the stat of the second lap, or at least after we got over than first climb. I had been eating ginger chews all day with the occasional Cliff block shot and gels, with probably about 2-3 Ginger chews per hour and my stomach seemed to be so far so good. (Thank you Ginger People from Trader Joes!!!) Things were definitely starting to heat up though temperature-wise. Within a few miles I had caught up with some guys who had fallen back on their pace a bit and who picked things up again to follow me as a passed. They asked me what my time goals were and I just said to run as even as I could pace-wise to the first lap. One of them said he ran a 4:10 the last lap, which meant he was really falling off the wagon now. Still, that guy stayed with me for at least a few miles. We came to the open field section, now late morning and with full exposure to the blazing sun, this soon became my least favorite part. My mom and my aunt had been doing a good job all day with quick swaps out at the aid stations with fresh fluids, gels and ginger chews, which were my primary fuel today.
I was really happy to see them at the aid station after that field section and Jeff was there too, after finishing his own morning run along the course. By this point my legs were noticing the miles to it really helped to see them all here, and especially at the next few aid stations to come. Somewhere along the next section I passed Kristina Folcik, the winner of last year’s Cayuga, at an aid station and closed my gap on Keila, where ironically, I passed her going up a steep climb where she seemed a little more beat on the second time around. She gave me words of encouragement and I didn’t see her rest of the race. 
My favorite field section, photo courtesy Eric Eagan.

So after passing those two, I was running in 4th place with about a half marathon to go. Even though my crew was giving me ice water now at each aid station to dump on myself, the heat of the day was definitely settling in along with fatigue, and those climbs did not feel good now if they ever did. I could tell that I was slowing a bit, but tried to keep pushing on, both trying to catch Canadian Karen, though I had no idea how far ahead of me she was at this point, and running scared from that pack of chicks I saw chasing me at the halfway point. I came back on the field section with full sunlight exposure and sucked down the rest of my water. I asked a runner running towards me on the out and back how far till the next aid station. He estimated 3 miles. Crap. I was dying of thirst! Plus I needed to take a gel. Not good. My decision? Pick up the pace and get to the next water source, of course! Thankfully it was mostly downhill and I continued to milk the few droplets of water from my bottle in the meantime. Despite being incredibly thirsty during those next few miles and on the verge of bonking from caloric deficit, I sure did blaze some trail for those next few miles. It just started bombing down the beautiful gradual and gently winding downhill single track. I was quickly eating away at the distance to the aid station, aka WATER. And it was actually great fun! I also noticed that even though I felt pretty beat in the miles before, my downhill legs still felt pretty decent. It felt amazing to be feeling this good at around mile 40 of an ultra, and I knew it was not going to last, so I took advantage while it lasted.
Just follow the pink ribbons! Photo courtesy Ron Heerkens Jr.

Before long I heard the people at the aid station, and, to my surprise, I saw Canada just ahead, about a few hundred feet. As I quickly ran through the aid station, only pausing to swap out bottles and chug a cup of fluids before heading back out, I passed Canada Karen and Jeff told me that I had just bridged a 6 minute gap in 5 miles. Before now they hadn’t been telling me how far ahead the girl in front of me was, and when my crew doesn’t say how far ahead the next woman is, that means that she is far enough ahead that they don’t think I will catch her. So I think it was to everyone’s surprise that I actually did in such a short segment!

In and out of the aid station, about to hit some serious climbing.
I started the next section feeling revived from getting in some fluids and calories and empowered after making my last pass, now putting me in 3rd place, but that next section was straight uphill, up Lucifer’s steps again. It sucked. I was tired. I went from hunched over hands on knees to grasping the stone rocks on the side wall, desperately trying to pull and push the weight of my body up those steps as fast as I possibly could. I passed by a lot of pedestrians out for a walk around the water falls and I must have looked like quite the site, soaked in sweat, doubled over and heaving my way up all those steps. And after those steps were over…more steps! Then a hill! All in the full exposure of the midday sun. I felt myself slowing down and I pushed harder, scared that the Canadian climber would catch up to me in my miserly here. I would occasionally glance over my shoulder, down the stairs and hills, sure that I would see her right there, gaining on me then leaving me in her dust as she blew by me. But each time, nothing. So I was encouraged and pushed harder. 
Trying to stay cool!

I was incredibly happy to see that last aid station, signifying that there was just 3.1 miles to go with a net of downhill. I quickly swapped out my bottle and Jeff told me I had just over 30 minutes to run this section if I wanted to come in under 9 hours. I knew I could do it. As long as there were no stairs involved. 

And so it started out going down the trail and all was great. I had fresh ice Gatorade and the climbing had finally stopped. But a few minutes later, I was bewildered when I found myself climbing up more stone steps. I had forgotten about these. Nooooo!!! Still, I drove myself hard up them and harder still up the short rolling hills of trail along the edge of the water falls that followed. I was still able to bomb down hills pretty fast when they came and I was confident that at least this would save me from the Canadian! But now I was racing the clock and I knew it was going to be a close one. I hit more stone stairs and felt like the life was being drained out of me with every sloth-paced step. The sun, the heat, my legs burning and aching more, my head felt light, the energy dwindled…ughhhhh. Finally the steps were over and I was push the pace again as hard as I could along on the rolling hills, praying for that right hand turn leading to the grassy long downhill that signified the finishing stretch of the race. I could feel how close I was getting.

When the turn came I almost missed it. Actually, I did miss it and ran about 10 feet past before shrieking and doing a quick 360 turn-around back to it! Now I knew that the hills were over for sure, and I came in the last couple minutes down that grassy hill, pushing, flying and smiling as I felt the podium finish at my fingertips. I glanced at my watch, saw an 8:55 and knew it would be close, but I had to make it. Then the trail finally opened up into the finishing field section and I ran my way down the finished stretch, crossing the line happier than I’d imagined. The first thing I thought, and the most satisfying thing about today, was just thinking…if I had just raced myself at this time last year, I would have just kicked my own ass! I loved feeling the strength, speed and persistence I had been able to gain in a year and seeing the results today. 
Finish line!
I finished in 8:57:50 and 3rd place in a USATF National Championship race, and apparently just 6 minutes behind Krissy Moel. I had also narrowed a 12 minute gap she had on me at the last aid station to 6 minutes at the finish! Krissy is a great athlete and even though I knew she must have been having an off-day, it was really awesome to even consider being that competitive with her. Canadian Karen ended up finishing in 9:04, so I had even gapped her several minutes more, with all that climbing! 

Overall, I’m very satisfied with my performance on the day and know I can do even better with some more stairs/climbing training. The after parties were also fun and was able to indulge in some good food and drink (aka flower power and finger lakes wine!), got to see some old friends and met some new ones, and I’m walking away $500 richer!

Final results:

Top 10 Women:
  1.  Magdalena Boulet, 8:22 
  2. Kristen Moel, 8:51
  3. Jacqueline Palmer, 8:57
  4. Karen Holland, 9:04
  5. Amy Rusiecki, 9:12  
  6.  Darcy Lucas, 9:13
  7.  Keila Merino, 9:17 
  8.  Ashley Moyer, 9:28 
  9.  Kristina Folcik, 9:30 
  10. Chantal Warrier, 9:34
  In the aftermath of the next day and early into this week following the race…felt a little sore and stiff the first two days, and felt pretty good on an easy run on the third day. It’s actually funny because I know I felt much sorer after this year’s HAT 50K in March, before I had built myself up endurance-wise than I do after this 50 miler that has about three times the elevation gain! My plans for the next few weeks are really to recover from this race and then just try to maintain my current fitness levels before going for the Mason Dixon Longest Day Challenge on June 21st, maybe throwing in a few tune-up workouts in here or there beforehand. I’ve wanted to do the MDLD challenge for about 4 years now, even since moving to Delaware and finding out it existed. It’s 100K on the very tough a beautiful Mason Dixon Trail in Pennsylvania. To officially complete the challenge, you have to complete it between sunrise and sunset on the longest day of the year (or the Saturday closest to it). Only two women have ever successfully completed it. This year I hope to be the 3rd. Bring it!!! 

And after that, maybe a little time off running before starting up the serious Grindstone training:-)
Post race day winery touring with Mom and Auntie Ann.
Jeff's first ever wine touring experience. He had a great time.

Met up with Cassie (injured and unable to race) and met some new friends at the post race Cabin 14 party!
Enjoying some waterfalls eve of race day (before I grew to hate them all with their steep stone stairs!!)