Last year experience in Cayuga was simply amazing.
Even though the race did not go as planned, the overall weekend was pretty nice and I made a mental note to come back this year, to enjoy a flourishing town, spend a weekend away from the City, and compete in a spectacular yet demanding course against the finest runners in the US.
Last year race for me stopped after the first 25 miles, with a sore ankle that I wanted to treat properly before the LUT; however, Cayuga taught me several lessons about my body and its needs while running that stayed latent and undisclosed for a couple of months until the summer of 2013.
Both Cayuga and the LUT became my lowest running points last year, yet they were the most valuable experiences that added incredible value for the rest of the season and brought me to a wonderful experience in UROC and at the NYC marathon.
Probably the people that enlightened me most were Michelle and Fabio. Michelle suggested that something did not go right in my eating/drinking plans for the races. Fabio gave me a similar version when I described him what I did in Lavaredo, and he opened up the world of Dr Noakes.
I will not be thankful enough for Fabio’s recommendation to read the book. Dr Noakes’s Lore of running is probably the best (and biggest) publication about running and it transformed the way I try to connect with my body during a run both in training and in a race.
Sometimes I might take an approach about drinking and or eating that is a bit more extreme than Dr Noakes, especially during training, but the book is worth reading every page. With that said, I have not finished it, so a lot more to learn!
Back to Cayuga, the plan was to come to the race prepared and in good to use the evnet as a tune up for Manitou’s Revenge.
The rough patch I went through in April not only cut down the miles, but it kept me away from long runs leaving me with a not so solid conditions getting into the race.
The field of professional, elites, and local speedy gonzales from the Gorges was packed, and way deeper than last year, with everyone eager to crush it because the race was hosting the USTF 50 Mile National Championship.
The course changed slightly due to and inclement winter and a cold spring that did not allow to re-open certain sections of the stairs along the gorges, but race director Ian Golden did an outstanding job organizing an alternative course maintaining the spectacular views of the waterfalls and the keeping the course challenging through the woods.
During the week leading up to the race I made contact with Matt Flaherty, a great runner that I met for the very first time exactly here in Cayuga a year ago. He was so kind to make some time for me even when we met again in UROC and this time I asked him if we could run a few miles together on Saturday. I think I creeply told him that I would have tatooed his name on my chest, if we met for the run. LOL!
Friday evening we drove to Ithaca and we arrived to the little motel where we stayed in 2013, and we crashed into bed, after a 5 hours drive and a long week of work. Saturday morning we were up and ready early and drove to Treman St. Park where the race starts and where Matt told me to meet him.
When he showed up he had a little surprise for me: other two runners where part of the group: Chris Vargo and Brad Lombardi were staying in Matt’s cabin, so we all went out for a 4 mile jog/run to explore a little the course around the Lick Brook crossing and the base of the steep climb right after that.
It was a great pleasurable experience. Seeing how this tremendous runners prepare a race is incredible. Even more remarkable was enjoying their kindness, their humor and listening to their little stories while we were jogging. I knew I would have seen them at the start and finish line of the race only, but spending half an hour with them prior to the race was very unique. Even more gratifying was the fact that along the course I ran into them and they all said hi and smiled to me, even if they were pounding the ground and focusing on that task.
After the run Michelle and I went to the running company to pick up the Bib and here we ran into Kristina Marie Folcik, last year winner and another great person. She came in with hubby Ryan Welts and she was ready to attack the course. We waiting for the packet pick up to be set up completely and in the meantime also Michelle had the chance to meet Kristina.
It was great to see her and Ryan live every once in a while, because getting all the updates about their impressive running and their adventures on the trails via social media every weekend is nice…but seeing the real deal in person is something else. Ryan did not race, he was only coming to crew Kristina and train for Manitou’s, where I am sure he will get his revenge on the Fruitarian this year.
After bib pick up Michelle and I went for lunch at Moosewood like we did last year, and then went back to the running company to meet Stephen and Tiffany who came up from NY with a bunch of friends. We spent the afternoon at the Cinemapolis for a nice screening of Trails In Motion International Film Festival and then went back to the motel to relax for an hour or so.
The evening was quiet and we had mexican food with Stephen, Tiffany, Lucia and Scott. Michelle was worried I was not having enough food and she kept shoveling french fries, corn chips and salsa my way. Funny. A bunch of other people from the Trail Whip Ass group randomly showed up at the same restaurant and started taking pictures with us at the table. People around the restaurant were looking at us trying to figure out what was going on, but we did not care. During dinner Stephen and I exchanged a few thoughts about the race, the competition, and plans for next day. I told him that realistically with all the good players in the field I would feel accomplished getting into the top 30 finishers.
I enjoy a lot spending time with Stephen. It does not happen often that we meet at a race or for a training run, but when it happens I am happy like a kid because there is something nice to learn from him.
By 10pm after a quick visit to a local coop to buy some food for the next day, Michelle and I were dead in bed. Alarm went off as planned early morning and by approx 5 am we were parking the car and getting ready for the start.
I am not sure if it was the anxiety for running a 50 miler with only and medium/long run of 18 miles on the leg since February, or if it was the atmosphere of the event, but I could not stop going to the woods and get a pit stop. 3 visits before the start were a good sign that the belly was pretty empty, at least I thought so.
At 6 am sharp the race started and conscious of 2013 experiences I went out easy and relax for the first few miles. Runners were blazing by me, lighting up on fire the trail almost. Maybe somebody should be reminded that there is not prize for being at the front at mile 1 or 2, but only at mile 50 in this case.
I jogged the first climb towards Old Mill, and occasionally hiked the steeper portions.
I knew I had a lot to give in the tank, but mile 2 was way too early to press on the gas pedal. I thought I was in a decent position when near me Kristina was making her way through some runners that were already gasping for air after the initial effort.
At the aid station I stayed focused and not losing time or chainging the pace: often when people cheer and encourage runners, the natural reaction is to pick up the pace. I did not want to do this. I wanted to cruise at my speed without outside interferences.
However, I heard a clear “Hey Carlo” from the crowd, and after a few secs for my brain to process the sound, I looked back and say that Ryan Welts was there and spotted me among others. So proud to receive his acknoledgment!
The course started to descend towards the “Underpass” aid station and I picked up the pace just slightly, feeling comfortable and relaxed.
The miles went by quickly and little by little I lined myself behind Magdalena and Katie O’Regan who were in the lead for the woman champ.
I particularly felt very very good along the steep climb after the Lick Brook crossing. I made up most of the gap from a small group of runners in front of me and gained some confidence that the day was turning into something good.
I figured it was a good chance to see how the pros (women) do it, given that Matt, Chris, Mike Owen, etc. were on another league. We sticked together all the way through Buttermilk Falls, even missed a turn and were called (luckly) by a volunteer (or a hicker) back in track and we entered the aid station together. On the way to Buttermilk we saw the lead pack coming back towards us. It was incredible to see how fast they were pushing through the trail. I had the fantasy that the pace might have been too quick for even some of them and they would have dropped later in the race, leaving some nice spots open for us slow midpackers. At the aid station I lost a few seconds getting an extra gel and drinking some sodas to make sure the sugar was going to help me climb the set of stairs that was waiting for us.
The ascent was good, fairly fast yet not too damaging, since we powerhiked or jogged comfortably. While looking at the waterfalls with the sun starting to hit on our backs and temperatures raising I imagined myself dipping into that refreshing stream. Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh…didn’t have time for that.
While following Magdalena and Katie I got a little annoyed by another runner who kept speeding up, passing me, passing Katie and Magdalena, and then dropping back a few hundred feet. I was not sure what this guy was up to, but thankfully he got out of sight after a few miles and we did not have to deal with his presence any more.
This little incident made me think about my interaction the lead woman: we did not talk during the entire journey, we only looked at each other, especially the other two were probably studying each other, while I was just following close. Was I distracting them? Was I interferening? I hope not.
On the way to Underpass The three of us picked up the pace a little bit and in a few miles we closed the gap on two runners ahead. They were running and chatting quite a bit; they also tried to make conversation with Magda, and I think they might have known each other.
I was not in the mood to exchange many words at this point. Along the steep downhill before the aid station I found myself alone, with the other two dudes only a few seconds ahead while Katie and Magdalena holded back a little.
At this point I was not sure what to do. It was too early to push myself, yet people around me where fading after the initial efforts.
At the bottom of the descent the other two runners approached the creek crossing very carefully. I headed straight for the water and had the time to take a quick refreshing dip. At the aid station only one of them took off quickly with me. Looking back at the photos I think his name was Dave James. We stayed together for a couple of miles, and I started to feel the lack of preparation for the long distance. Certain patches were runnable uphills but I did not have the strength to push they way I wanted. I settled for a more quiet effort, and only along the Lucifer Steps I opened up a little gap on him.
From here on I felt ok until the turnaround point, even with a little mishappening that costed me a couple of minutes and some extra mileage: while running downhill towards the finish I missed a left turn while trying to avoid hikers on the trail and found myself a little lost. I had to run back uphill and pick up the trail again to make it to the half point. Coming down towards Old Shelter I also ran into the lead group and surprisingly saw that Matt and Chris were not in the lead anymore. However, they looked strong and fast. I only found out later that they went off course as well, and gave up the lead in favor of Michael Owen.
The race proceeded quietly for me for another 6-7 miles and while I tried to run conservatively I noticed that my intestine was feeling a litle weak. This seems to be a theme lately during races and also during my training. Could it be that I need to take more seriously core strengthening? Or was it the colder/iced water that I got from the aid station that was making my belly feel uneasy? About a mile before the Underpass aid station I ran into Michelle who cheered me up with her usual enthusiasm. I told her quickly about my belly issue and she told me to go for a pit stop. When I reached Underpass I did not lose any time and went straight for the porta potty. I lost about 3-4 minutes between the pitstop and the usual water/soda/gel break, and I thought I lost a spot or two.
I felt much better now, and I could now run without those sudden sharp cramps that I was experiencing in the last half hour I could focus on finishing the race. The legs were getting a little stiff but that is normal after more than 30 miles.
I reached again Buttermilk aid station, this time alone, and with my great surprise I saw Silas Carey getting ready to take off.
Silas is a great reference point for me. I do not know much about him, except the fact that at my first ever trail race in Bear Mountain in 2012 (a half marathon) he crushed everyone else, won the race and came back the following year to repeat himself.
This year I saw him in Bear M again where he tackled the 50k and finished in the podium (I forget if he was 2nd or 3rd overall).
This represented a significant experience: I was now side by side to the runner that claimed the first podium that I witnessed. Was he having a bad day or have I improved a little bit and got closer to these running studs?
Immediately my first thought was to retarget my race goals: I wanted to run harder and finish in front of him. This lasted for about 20 feet, because as soon as I approached the stairs cramps completely stopped me for another 2 minutes.
I could not stretch the hamstrings that the calves were cramping and pulsing, when stretching the quads the hamstrings were screaming in the back. It was a total breakdown. With 13 miles to go and probably one of the worst daily performances in front of the cameras of the photographers along the stairs, I had to calm down and focus on moving slowly and effortlessly to bring home the full 50 miles.
I had to do some hiking and after 20 minutes of struggling I was finally able to lock into a comfortable pace running the flats and the downhill to Underpass. Silas was gone, I could not see him even in the long straight stretches near Sandbank Rd. Then all of a sudden just before the aid station I see two figures moving ahead of me: Silas and another runner were marching together. Not all hope was lost.
We hit the aid station together, and I took off first trying to gain a little gap so I could take it a little easy for a mile or so.
Silas was not in the mood to lose a spot in a national championship, and he followed me closely, passed me after not even a quarter of a mile, and encouraged me tapping my butt and telling me “Let’s go, Buddy”.
I really wished I had the freshness to follow him and even make some conversation at this point. The good thing is that at least I gained a spot and now I had only 7 miles to finish.
I kept moving at all the time, but the Devils Steps put the hurt on me again: I planned on taking a few seconds to stretch before starting the climb, but as soon as I stopped, my legs went ballistic again. Cramps got all the muscles of my legs, hamstrings, calves, shins, quads. It was painful and funny at the same time.
After a few moments of panic I started climbing slowly the stairs, got offered some help from the volunteers and kindly declined. Slowly I made my way to the last aid station, got some cold water from the hose directly on my whole body head to toe and then took off. While turning around the switchbacks exiting the AS I took a glimpse back and saw Magdalena charging into the area. I was probably a minute and a half in front of her and at this point it was a matter of pride: I did not want to lose a spot.
This could open up a bigger discussion about being passed by women in a race, and how generally men feel about this, but I’ll discuss more in the future. The bottom line is that I do not fear being passed by a woman, two, three, or many. If they are better than me, then be it.
This time it was about not being passed by anyone in the last couple of miles of the race. After battling for 48 miles, why would you give up in the last 2?
There was not man, no woman and no animal that could take that spot from me. I stayed focused on running, making sure I was not getting lost again, and that I was paying attention to all the hikers on the course to avoid sudden stops and possibly cramps that could have made me lose more time.
Finally the trail opened up into the green grassy final quarter of a mile and the end was clearly visible; I was invaded by a feeling of joy and accomplishment. I saw Michelle screaming for me just a few meters before the finish line. I felt proud for both of us. We came to Ithaca together and we were going to make it home together after a fantastic weekend.
Completing an ultra is always a joy, but feeling decently competitive even with the lack of specific preparation is even a better reason to celebrate. Finding moments of internal quietness, where my conscious self and my inner self are working together and talking to each other, exploring each other and understanding what each one is made of is probably the main reason that fuels me to push my body and my mind in these events.
Finishing 15th overall in the US Championship would be considered by many a great accomplishment, and I am proud of myself for getting there; but what I walk away from Ithaca with is the ecstasy of engaging in the process of communication with myself and within myself.
Stay tuned for future photos updates on the this post when they will come available from race photographers