Friday, June 5, 2015

Cayuga 50 Mile 2015: Stairway to a National Championship podium finish


Ithaca is gorges....never heard that one before.
So here I was again, back at Cayuga for the 3rd year in a row! I felt very fit speed-wise, but, coming off of very marathon specific training the entire season leading up to the race, I felt like my performance for a mountainous 50 miler with 12,000 ft of climbing was going to be a total gamble. This year, this one really felt like the odd ball on my race card, but I thought it would be fun to test how I would perform on race day with lower and more intense mileage. Plus the whole weekend camping at the state park and hanging out is pretty awesome.

So, since many people seem to be interested in how I trained, let me debrief you…

What I DID do in training:

·        I ran FAST – usually track intervals once a week.
·        Hard tempos – Sub-7 pace, flat, sometimes treadmill. 40 minutes tops.
·        Long fast runs on the road – Pretty much every weekend leading up to Boston. Ranged from 20-24 miles, averaging 7:30ish pace with a sub-7 pace finish.  
·        Short intense hills – Only did these for the 4 weeks leading up to the race after Boston. Repeats on a 0.3 mile steep one in White clay trails, some treadmill work (ladder repeats of increasing grade), stadium bleacher repeats.
·        I rested. If I went into an intense workout and wasn’t feeling it, I called it, took a day of light cross training, then went for it again a couple days later. It is always very hard for me not to finish something right then and there, but I found when I did this, I always nailed it the second time around.
·        I tapered. Not always good about this. But the thought of running 50 miles at this point when I had not run longer than 5 hours in 8 months scared the crap out of me. So I was making sure I went in well-rested.

What I did NOT do in training:
  •        Back-to-back long runs of any kind – I had always considered these to be the staple of my ultra training. Twenty plus mile long run followed the next day by a 20+ mile long run, usually both on trails. I did NONE of these leading up to Cayuga, at first to make sure I was focused enough on intensity for Boston, and then because I just didn’t have the time afterwards.
  •         Peak training week – This is a week or two about 3-4 weeks out where I usually amp up my mileage leading up to an event before a gradual taper. Nope, didn’t happen this year. I defended my dissertation proposal about 3 weeks out though and that did have my heart rate elevated for prolonged periods of time!
  •         Five-plus hour long runs. Nope. Didn’t happen.
  •         Two-a-days. Did not run 2xs per day very frequently. Maybe 1x per week versus my typical 3xs per week.

In total I was probably running 60-80 miles per week. I am not really sure because I have been really bad with logging mileage this entire season and infrequently wear a GPS watch. Typically I consider myself in good “ultra distance” shape when I am running 100ish miles per week. This race could be interesting!
Annual Finger Lakes road trip with my crew!


I typically do not do much research on the course or stalking of female opponents before a race. I had run the course last year so that was justification enough for my limited research, and I remembered the couple thousand stone stairs. I had read the IRF and someone else’s blog write-up on the “elite” field in the race so knew there were some fasties out there. My ultrarunner groupie friend Maggie always outlines these things in detail to me the days leading up to a race anyways J But knowing who else is going to show up never changes how I run a race, so I usually don’t spend much time researching.

After switching from our termite infested original cabin with my cabin-mate Amanda, from Oregon, I actually had a pretty good night’s sleep the night before with an early 4AM wake-up for the 6AM race start. It was a bit humid but about 60 degrees out, so couldn’t really ask for more ideal running conditions in May on the east coast. After doing some scrambling around for coffee in the morning, about 250 runners lined up at the start and at the sound of the bull horn we were off.
It’s almost comical how fast people take off in this race. I was probably 20 women back in the first mile. Maggie hung back with me and we ascended the first jeep road climb together. We ran up most of it, but pretty conservatively. My plan was to save the last half of my energy for the last 10 miles of the race. After the long gradual climb of about a mile, we turned onto a gravely path next to the water falls and started the first of our stair climbing. The stone steps were slick from the previous night’s rain, but the new Salomons I was wearing to test for Runners World actually had no issues with slipping, unlike many other people around me.
Through the water falls we go!  Lots of cameras on course. Photo credit to them.

After the first aid station, we entered the section of the few hundred steep stone steps descent. It almost hurt just running down these fast. We hit some smooth single track trail on this section and I was content to hang behind some guys in front of me. Especially when we hit the incredibly steep uphill switchback scramble that leaves me doubled over barely crawling at the top every year. There were guys down at the bottom and the top tracking your time on this climb for the KOM/QOM contest. I had no plans of going for that one. My legs were feeling decent but my stomach felt a little iffy for the first couple of hours, adding another reason for me not to push it. I worked on slowly taking in calories through my favorite Gatorade lemonade and gels and sucking on ginger chews. Maggie was also content to hang back with me and it was really nice having a friend to talk to during most of the first lap. It doesn’t happen too often.
Photo by crew photographer Auntie Ann

The loop is a lollipop out and back, so when we saw the lead guys zooming back towards us on the trail, I knew we must be about to enter the “pop” part. I think it was on the way back out of that small loop when there was a long gradual single track downhill, and when I found no one in front of me to yield me, I opened up and let myself speed down it a bit. I lost Maggie here temporarily, but she passed me again after I made a pit stop a mile or so later. After my pit stop my stop my stomach was actually feeling much better and I decided it was safe to pick up the pace just a little. After 20 miles, I finally felt warmed up to start the race!

It was about that time when we hit the steep stone steps climb, just before the last aid station. A few hundred 20 inch uneven stone steps. They seemed never ending. It sucked. I tried not to think about how I had to do them all over again in a few hours. Towards the end of that section, I finally caught back up with Maggie at an aid station, where my mom and aunt were doing an excellent job of switching out the bottles I was carrying in my vesta, and replenishing my gel supply. When we left the aid station, there was 3 miles to the turn around, and a pretty nice section with a good bit of downhill running. I pulled ahead a little bit here, but tried not to let myself get too carried away too soon.

I like taking my time at aid stations...
As I took the last left turn to start the jeep road downhill back to the start/finish, I passed Amanda running back towards me with a small group of guys behind her. I later calculated that she was about 22 minutes ahead of me. A couple minutes later I saw the 2nd woman and then towards the bottom of the hill saw 3rd followed by a few other women. I didn’t wear a GPS and had not looked at my wrist watch all day until now. But when I saw the running clock coming into my second loop, I almost couldn’t believe that I finished the first 25 miles in 4:15. I was fully expecting to come into the first lap in the 4:30’s. Last year I crossed this point in 4:22. And I felt like I took things even more conservative and felt even better than last year at this point. That also meant that almost every one of the 6 women infront of me was on pace to break the former Olympian marathoner Magdalenda’s 8:22 course record from last year. I thought that maybe a couple of them might come in under that time, but there was no way that 6 of them were going to, so I knew I could catch most of them. I was not going to slow down :- )
Through the turn around. Let's do it again!

Feeling better plus seeing my half split gave me a boost and I picked up the pace on the second lap, especially on the descents. With no one in front of me and no real reason to hold back, I started tearing up some downhill around mile 30, legs feeling great. I tried to maintain similar consistent pace and effort on the sustained climbs that I did the first lap. My legs were felt great and I knew hammering hills and bleachers for the past few weeks was paying off right now. Around this point I passed three women in pretty close synchrony, and was not too concerned about them catching me again. Then, soon after, and to my surprise, a course volunteer told me that 2nd place was only a minute in front of me. When I saw her I reeled her in pretty quickly, so was confident that I could maintain my position. She told me that first place was not too far ahead of me and encouraged me to catch her, but based on what I saw at the top of the turn around, she was mistaken. I wasn’t too concerned about catching anyone though. I was very excited to feel this strong at this point in the race and picking my way up to 2nd place was just an added bonus. My new goal was actually to negative split this loop and I knew I was on track to do so.

I clicked through the next several miles pretty smoothly and uneventfully. I was passing lots of guys at this point, a couple of them trying to hang with me for a couple minutes and eventually dropping off. It was nice to be running back towards other runners behind you because they were usually smiling and encouraging. The trail was single track, in most parts, but generally lended itself well for passing without having to bush whack. Things were a little more muddy on this lap, but honestly, the mud was not too bad, especially compared to previous years. Coming into the 2nd to last aid station (this is how I track my mileage) my mom told me that the 1st woman was 14 minutes ahead of me.

I thought I was staying on top of taking in calories, but sometime before the last aid station I realized I had gone about 45 minutes without calories, and realized my fluids were dry. This was right about the same time I hit those few hundred Lucifer stone steps. Bad move. About halfway up those stairs, and for the first time all day, I felt really drained and kind of dizzy. I knew I slowed down substantially, and it was all I could do to keep clawing my way up those stairs. Quite literally, I was grabbing into the stone wall on the side of the stairs and pulling myself up with my arms at times. When I finally got to the top, it took me a couple of minutes to really get into rhythm again. I thought the aid station was coming about 15-20 minutes before it actually did too, which made running dry on water a bit more miserable. But I finally got to it, and the time on my watch was 8 hours flat, so I knew a negative split was probably just out of reach.
Tried to make it, but still a 2.5 minute positive split. Stupid stairs. 
I didn’t dawdle too long there, but I did gulp down some Gatorade and a last gel that almost immediately boosted my energy levels for the last 3 miles. These last miles had some stairs, but mostly descents and downhill. I would like to say I spent the next two miles taking in the beautiful sights of the Finger Lakes and waterfalls, but I was really looking for that final left turn onto the mile of downhill jeep road. When I finally came to the turn and looked at my watch, I was in the 8:20’s and was just ecstatic that I was about to blow my last year time (8:57) out of the water!  
I barreled down the final hill and across the park lawn to finish in 8:33, and 24 minutes faster than my last year time when I considered myself in really good shape, and about 40+ minutes off my time from two years ago on an easier course with less climbing. Also, the added bonuses of 2nd place female in a USATF National Championship race and some cash prize money were also pretty sweet J

50 miles is a long ways to run.
Look who showed up at the finish line!

I was also apparently important enough for Ultra Sports Live to request an on-camera interview with my half-delirious self after the race. But there was no way I was putting down that Flower Power IPA. Check out my awkwardness

What’s next…. Oil Creek 100 mile in October. Yikes! And I thought 50 miles was a long ways to run...