2021 Finger Lakes 50’s: 50 Mile Trail Race
Two years ago as part of my build up to my first 100 mile race I put the Finger Lakes 50’s, 50 mile race on my schedule. This year I was traning for my second 100 mile race. This 100 mile race is at the end of July so has the potential to be quite warm.
Planning to train for a potentially hot 100 mile race. I wanted to gain experience running in the heat. Why not put a another ultra on the calendar to serve as training, not just in miles but in potentially similar conditions. I decided to put the50 mile edition of the Finger Lakes 50’s on my calendar once again.
This would kill two birds with one stone. Great training. Similar types of trails. Similar types of potential weather. Also, I wanted redemption for not completing the 50 mile race in 2019.
The Plan And Concerns
It is always wise to look ahead to the race I’m running. Get a sense of what I have gotten myself into. It helps that I have some experience with this event.
Timing and Speed
50 miles is a long distance to cover under any circumstances. However, the first time I ran this race I only ran the 25k and it went well for me. I don’t think I gave the race the respect it deserved on the second time I ran it. My first attempt at the 50 mile distance.
Previously I based my expectations and plant for the race around my previous experience of the 25k course and running different 50k races previously. Now I had the perspective of attempting the 50 mile distance at this race in 2019.
I love the course. It is beautiful. The trails are scenic. There are enough elevation changes to be engaging in that way. But, not too many elevation changes to the degree that the main feature of the course is climbing.
So to my mind the course is set up great for fast runners. And the time cut offs to me reflect that. I am not a fast runner, nor am I particularly slow. At most events I participate in I am a solid mid pack runner.
However, meeting the time cut offs of this race I knew would be a challenge for me. I had to finish a 50k in 7 hours and 45 minutes. Not extremely fast for a 50k itself necessarily, but for me at least pretty fast when I am trying to pace myself for a 50 mile distance.
Then having to be at one of the final aid stations at 10 hours into the race was going to be tough. This aid station is 10 miles into the 16 mile loop that makes up the course. That meant I needed to be to approximately mile 42 within 10 hours.
I am confident in my endurance. Could I grind out 50 miles given enough time? I am pretty sure that I could do that. Can I get to 50 miles in around 12 hours? That is the question that remains to be seen. I was hopeful and confident. But I was also a bit nervous about the time and speed aspect of this race.
I had to have a plan to survive the time cut offs. I didn’t think that just trying to run an evenly paced race throughout the entire 50 miles would get me done with the first two laps in time.
My plan was to start out fast. One challenge of my previous attempt was the bottle neck at the beginning. As a not fast runner I started where I felt I should at the middle of the pack last time. The race proceeds about a quarter mile on a wide dirt road then turns abruptly into the forest and onto single track.
With a big crowd all trying to cram into that small area after having been spread out it created quite a traffic jam. Think a construction zone with one lane close on a busy highway. Then you might get stuck behind some drivers that are comfortable driving at a slower pace than you are. And some runners are only running 50k not 50 miles so are not concerned about time constraints.
I felt like getting stuck in kind of a conga line at the onset of the single track last time made a significant impact and cost me time. I was forced to run slower than I really needed to, especially for the beginning of the race.
This year the goal was start at the front. Go out fast. Get to the single track before most of the pack. Run a little harder than necessary in the beginning to get in a good position so I could run the pace I felt I needed to. Then let all the faster folks pass me as the race marched on.
Planning for Weather
The other aspect of this race that makes it particularly challenging to me is the weather. This race is held in the beginning of July. A pretty hot time of the year here in Upstate, New York.
As a runner and just in general I do not enjoy hot weather. My body does not adapt well to the heat. I sweat a ton in normal running conditions. Add heat to the equations and my sweating increases exponentially.
The heat was my downfall during my first attempt at this 50 mile race. It caused me to have to walk for significant stretches of my second lap on the course. Thus, I could not finish my second lap within the time cut off to start my third lap.
For this year I was focused on strategies to beat the heat.
I planned to wear the lightest clothing I could. This included wearing light weight arm sleeves that were supposed to help in cooling. Wear a light weight loose fighting well ventilated hat. And I also wanted to keep a buff handy if needed.
The next step in the stay cool plan was water and ice. Keep as well hydrated as possible. I had 3 separate hydration bladders pre filled and mixed with my preferred hydration product for hot races. Keeping a hand held waiting in the wings was also part of the plan. The goal of the hand held was not for hydration, but to put plain water in so I could run with it and poor it over myself as needed to keep cool.
They key ingredient to plan keep cool was ice. We bought several bags of ice. They were stored in a cooler and would make ice available tome at any aid station where I needed it. It also allowed me to keep my pre mixed hydration solution nice and cold so I would have refreshing cold fluids to drink.
I was expecting that if it was a hot day I would want as much ice as possible to put under my hat and arm sleeves as well as in my pockets, my buff, and in my hydration pack. All in an effort to keep from overheating.
The critical components to bring all this planning together was my rock start crew person, my wife. She would be at every aid station. And she would be ready with whatever I needed. I could alert her to anything I needed for the next aide station and she would be ready for me.
Race Day Weather
I spent a lot of time fretting over the potential weather conditions for this race. Perhaps an inordinate amount of time. Or perhaps I was just being prudent.
However, the weather forecast for race day could not have been much more to my liking. Forecast was for nice cool temps at the start. Low 60s. Mostly cloudy all day. A high temp in the low 70s and potential rain in the late morning and afternoon.
That was pretty ideal for me personally. Cool temps at the beginning meant I could run hard at the start without risking overheating too early. Rain later in the day meant I would likely have some extra help staying cool from Mother Nature.
Of, course the weather is a fickle thing. Subject to change at the drop of a hat. The weather on race day was not the projected forecast, but pretty close. And it was still much more to my liking than a typical July Summer day in New York.
We arrived ready for the race and it was already raining. The race started in the rain. It wasn’t a hard rain but a pretty consistent drizzle for about the first half of the race.
It was nice and cool at the start and it never got particularly warm. There were a couple of moments where the rain stopped and the sun threatened to shine through the clouds. And I commented to the amazing aid station volunteers, “Sorry but I really hope it doesn’t get sunny. I’m probably the only person here hoping it stays cloudy and even rooting for some more rain near the end of the day.”
After the rain stopped the temperature did creep up slowly. However, it never got warm enough that it felt like the heat was seriously impacting me. I still took measures to stay cool, but not to the degree I thought I would have to.
I love this course. It is beautiful and scenic. My photographs from race day do not do it justice. I need to get out here and spend some time dedicated to photography in this area.
This is a great course. I love the layout and the topography. It is a very runnable 25k loop. It is not completely without elevation change. Nor is it completely smooth like a jeep trail or dirt road.
There aren’t too many areas that force even a runner of my modest means to stop running and start power hiking, especially for a single loop. That all changes once the fatigue of running for 50 miles starts to set in. But in general I am able to keep moving along at a modest trail running pace the majority of the time.
While the course does not necessarily challenge a runner with elevation change it does have technical components. It can be misleading when reading the course description and reading about running through cow pastures. That may lead one to think that the course is flat and without challenges.
However, this course has a lot of roots. It has a fair amount of rocks as well. There are even a couple of tricky descents especially given the typical course conditions.
And do not let the concept of traversing cow pastures allow you to think smooth and easy. Cow pastures present some unique obstacles. Some obvious some less obvious. There are cows. And there is what the cows leave behind. The cow pastures are also not necessarily as smooth and flat as one might think.
Now that is wat to expect of the course in normal conditions.
On race day there were some conditions to take note of.
While I was all for rain on race day I wasn’t really looking forward to rain for days leading up to the race. If there was rain during the race, even if it was all day, impact to the course conditions would be negligible especially in the beginning. Then depending on how hard it rained course conditions would deteriorate over the course of the day, but it would mostly be just wet for the majority of the time.
However, what actually occurred was a pretty rainy week leading up to the day of the race. The trails were essentially water logged right from the start. I would bet that at least half of the course had standing water on the trails. Much of the time as runners we were running either with the current of water running down the trail or against it depending on how the slope of the trails were angled.
In addition to all the water on the course there was mud. More mud than I have encountered on most other course. Especially when you consider running/slogging through mud for 50 miles.
Areas where there were lots of grass were fairly stable, but still quite soft and squishy. Through the woods there isn’t much grass and that is where the most of the course is. So much wet and mud. Some places so deep you can’t tell what you are going to step on or through or how far down your feet will sink before impacting ground solid enough to push off of.
Every lap the course deteriorated more and more. Every runner to pass the same stretch of trail before you impacting the earth weakening the footholds. Making the work harder and harder.
Then add in the impact the enormity of cows walking across where the trails cross their pastures. Think about how the hooves and sheer bulk of these creatures would devastate the landscape I the storms. Muck and mud all the way up the legs.
All the mud forced runners to expend extra energy to propel ourselves forward. In addition the mud created instability that would wear and fatigue muscles in ways one does not normally encounter.
Running The Race
And all of a sudden it is time to put all that worry and anxiety behind me. The race has begun.
Getting out of the gate well was of the utmost importance to me. I mean that in the very literal running from the official word go and the literal start of the race. And I also mean that in the sense of running well for the entire first lap.
It is critical to me being able to finish this race to run this first lap well. I needed to execute the plan for lap one as close to perfect as I can. I need to hit all my marks and make all the time goals I have set for myself.
That meant start fast from the gun. Fast for me anyway. That also completing the first 25k loop in a good time. My fastest time for a 25k loop there was around 3 hours and 15 minutes. My goal was no slower than a 3 hour and 30 minute loop.
My hope was that I would be able to keep that pace for my second loop and be well under the time for cut off. But also realistically expecting my time to slow to some degree. I wanted to build as much of a time buffer as I could on the first lap.
I felt really good physically at the beginning of the race. I set out at a fast pace for me. Even keeping up with the race leader for a minute. Not at all somewhere I should be during a 50 mile race. But this allowed me to get down the road and into the woods and onto the single track fast and with no holdups.
I was also able to run the pace I wanted once on the single track. No conga line to slow me down. I ran pretty hard for a while. Not so hard that I felt like I was exerting myself too much.
I was running a pace that was a little faster than a comfortable pace for me on a trail one. A pace that I certainly could not sustain for the entire race. But the pace felt good and I rolled with it for a while.
Eventually I slowed down to a degree. I found a pace that was comfortable but still moving forward at a speed I liked for the first loop. My legs felt fresh and ready for this.
I was a little nervous about starting out a race fast. It is not how I normally start a race. I generally start out a race relatively slow and then settle into a pace.
Even for a race I am trying to run fast at, I generally end up starting out too slow and having to adjust for a while before I settle into the pace I need for the race. But today it was just get out there and go. So so different.
Once I got out on the trail and It was just running and I could feel how my legs were responding I felt better. I think it felt more comfortable mentally to have the race leaders pull away from me to some extent. That signaled to me that I was indeed doing this right. Not going out excessively fast.
The plan in my head was go out strong. Then just allow myself to fade back into the pack to where I really should be pace wise. Let the fast runners catch me and pass me.
As that started to play out it helped me relax.
One really enjoyable aspect of the beginning stages of the race was sharing time with a fellow runner and talking. I am not someone to start up a conversation with people out on the trails, but I am more than happy to chat if someone initiates a conversation.
So, I got to have an enjoyable conversation while out on the trails. We talked about this race. Our past races. What we were planning to run in the future.
Running and talking helped to settle me that I wasn’t running too hard if I could engage in conversation while running. Clearly not going too fast if I can talk. But I was still going too fast to sustain for the entire race.
As we talked about running I noted that I was probably running too hard to keep up this pace for a lot longer. But it just seemed to be rude if I just all of a sudden slowed down and stopped talking in the middle of our conversation.
Eventually we came to the first climb of the race. This was where I couldn’t even pretend to keep pace with the woman I had been talking to. Even if I wanted to there was no way I was going to push my pace up a climb in the very beginning of this race. If there was anything I’ve learned it is to take it easy on the climbs.
That brought a natural ending to our conversation and I felt perfectly comfortable with my running to that point.
Lap 1 Complete
Overall lap one felt good. I settled into a nice pace and got it done. My hydration and nutrition was right on target.
I completed lap one in well under my goal of 3 hours and 30 minutes at the maximum.
Looking back at my data the only problem I saw was that I ran my first three miles a lot faster than I probably should have. Each of my first three miles were sub 10 minute miles.
Ten minute miles are way too fast for me to be running for such a long race. That was in the beginning when I felt good. One mile at that pace would have been ok. Three not so much. That is where I should have slowed down way earlier. That may have impacted later performance.
I started the second 25k lap with a good time cushion built up from lap two. If I kept my pace from lap one I would be in really good shape going in to lap three. Obviously, pace will slow to some degree over time. Just how much slower I will get is the key.
Lap two felt pretty good from a physical strand point. I had good energy. My legs felt strong. I was able to move at a good pace.
The biggest challenge of lap two was the changing course conditions. By the time I started lap two the 25k runners had started. The course conditions only got worse.
The wear and tear on the trails was magnified. The rain continued to flood the course. The relentless mud eventually began to fatigue my legs more than I had hoped.
Areas that were once fairly runnable were now quite a mess and that only decreased speed and increased energy consumption.
Overall I was able to maintain a reasonable pace and push through the waterlogged muddy trails and keep tiring legs moving.
At the beginning of lap 2, I was in a pretty good head space. I had a solid cushion on the cut off to start loop three. Accomplishing my targets for lap one made lap two easier mentally.
Having the cool damp conditions for the first half of lap two relieved me of one thing to have to worry about and think about. I could really focus just on running. Keep my mind set to moving forward regardless of the trail conditions.
After half way through the second loop fatigue began to set in. I was still moving at a good pace but it was more of a mental challenge to will myself to exert the level of effort needed to maintain a decent pace. With the cut offs for this race I really could not afford to walk at all during the first two laps.
I couldn’t even afford to take much time at aid stations. It had to be a quick refuel and hydrate session. But it always helped me mentally to see my wife at each aid station and hear her cheering for me.
Nearing the end of the second lap. Probably after the last aid station I had some of the lowest moments mentally. I was getting tired. And I could tell I was slowing considerably.
I was still on pace to complete my second lap with enough time to be under the cut off time and continue on to the third and final lap. But my mind started to wonder if that would be a lost cause.
Would I start that third lap only to fail? I was clearly slowing. If my performance continued to deteriorate I might not be able to finish the 50 mile race.
I could choose to stop at the end of lap 2 for a “successful” 50k finish. Or I could press on and risk an official DNF attempting to beat the time cut offs for lap three.
There was a part of me that wanted to stop at 50k. A 50k performance is no small thing. It is a great accomplishment in its own right. I was in training. For me this was really just a training run for my goal 100 mile race. A strong 50k finish would be a good part of my training.
I had to tell myself over and over, “I came here for 50 miles. It is 50 miles or bust.” I did not come here for a 50k finish. I had several 50k distance runs under my belt over the last several years. But I had nothing between 50k and 100 miles. This was my proving ground.
This was where I needed to test myself. There would not be a better time and place to push myself to my limits and go as far as I could go. The course was laid out. All I had to do was follow it. There were aid stations to help me fuel and hydrate. My amazing wife was here to crew me and cheer me. There were amazing volunteers to cheer me and help in any way I needed. If not now, when?
Every mile I ran over the 50k that was tempting me to quit was one more mile of endurance and strength and conditioning I was building up to that 100 mile race. Even if I did not succeed in finishing the full 50 miles every extra step I took got me closer to my overall goal of completing a 100 mile race later in the month.
That was all that was driving me. Dig deep. Don’t give in to doubt. Build yourself stronger.
Lap 2 Complete
All things considered Lap two went well. 50k was in the books. Building towards the future.
Despite the mental and physical struggle at the end of lap two I was having a really good run up to that point. I had my 3rd fastest time for a marathon distance during this race. This seems especially good considering I have run a trail marathon and a trail 50k where the courses are pretty fast and this time is comparable to those times. I also ended up with my second fastest 50k time during this race.
I think that whenever you are running a longer race where you really have to pace yourself and you still have achievements like that it is a really good sign of one’s fitness. To know that I had significantly more running to do, but I was running at a pace that put me close to my best efforts at what were probably shorter overall runs makes me feel really good about this effort to the 50k point.
I finished lap two at the 50k distance around 7 hours and 12 minutes. Well under the time needed to move onto the third and final loop and officially begin my journey to 50 miles.
This is where things really began to get tough. My longest run this year was 42 miles and the last 10 miles of that was basically hiking to close out a 12 hour event. Today there was no time for sustained periods of hiking or walking to allow my legs to recover. I had to meet cut offs and I needed to keep a relatively consistent pace to do it.
Signs of fatigue are becoming increasingly obvious. It is more of a struggle and conscious effort to keep running. Sustaining my pace is a challenge.
I still felt pretty good at the end of lap two. But by the time I reached the first aid station on lap three I was feeling significantly more fatigued. It was good to run into a friend and fellow ultra runner who I spent time running with at my first 100 there. He was manning the aid station and his words of encouragement and getting advice on tactics to keep moving forward really helped me.
Slogging through the mud on the third lap was challenging to say the least. There were times it seemed to make sense to walk because the footing was so slippery and the soil was so loose. But my feet slipped slide and even stuck in the mud too much when trying to slow down to walk through the worst of the mud.
The terrible mud actually forced me to run in the toughest of the trail conditions. When walking more of the foot makes contact with the ground and the time in contact with the ground is longer. The effort required to regain forward momentum seems greater. There is more push off required to move forward. The slick mud made this nearly impossible.
Running, even as slow as I was moving, had the advantage of less of my foot getting into the mud. My feet spent less time in contact with the ground. And since I was at least attempting to run I was leaning forward, my mid and forefoot was mostly impacting the ground instead of my heal, and I had momentum already moving me forward. These factors made it “easier” to run than walk. Even though it forced me to exert more energy and made me more tired I was able to make more progress than with walking.
I could not get much rest on the trails due to the mud. Walking just wasn’t worth it. Walking required almost as much energy but at a slower pace with less results. Maybe that was good.
There were some dirt road sections where I could mix short period of walking in with my running to give my legs some semblance of a break. I think that was helpful.
During this final loop I did start to get warm at times. My wife was always ready for me with ice. We poured ice into the back of my hydration pack with the water bladder. This worked great. Not only did it help keep my water cold so my hydration was more refreshing but it helped keep my body as a whole feeling cooler.
By the end I was putting ice into the pockets of my shorts and letting them melt in my mouth.
At some point during the third lap I think my nutrition was becoming an issue. I had been eating nutrition regularly during the race at the aid stations, but that was mostly watermelon. I was also eating solid food nutrition in the form of some bars I love. But as the race wore on and I needed to hydrate more, my mouth became too dry to be able to easily chew and swallow the solid food. I had to drink too much water with it just to get it down.
I eventually started picking up gels at the aid stations to take out on the trails with me. Whenever I started to fellow physically I could squeeze a gel into my mouth and that would pretty quickly negate whatever adverse effects I was feeling.
Mentally I felt good throughout most of the race. There are always low moments. Moments of self doubt.
Lap three was tough because I was entering territory I had rarely visited. Mileage that I had very little experience with. Knowing that I was in a battle against the clock made everything uncertain. Despite having a baseline level of confidence it is hard to know whether or not I will actually finish the race while out on the course during lap three.
In the first several miles of the loop there is a long smooth downhill section on a dirt road. It was tough to find myself barely able to go at a 12 minute/mile pace on this easy downhill. I could only go faster if I pushed myself, which I did not want to do. It was a downer mentally to feel myself unable to easily coast down this hill at pace I would have expected. If this was all I could do on the easiest part of the course, what was the rest of lap three going to be like.
One of the best mental boosts came completely unexpectedly. Running into a fellow trail runner who you’ve shared hard miles with during an ultra can be very uplifting. It was really cool to have someone I know is an experience ultra distance runner at aid stations to encourage me and give advice on how to keep going and instill confidence that I could make the cut off times.
One of the best feelings of the race was to get to the aid station where the final cut off time was. I arrived at the aid station and all I wanted to know was do I have time to get aid or do I need to just keep moving to avoid being cut off. I had time to get some aid. That was the best news all day.
This meant in all likelihood I would finish
At most races I run I am a solid mid pack runner. This was not going to be the case today. I didn’t really expect it to be given the cut off times and how long I thought it would take me.
But one thing that I didn’t expect was to have the course sweeper catch up to me. I am not sure if it really impacted my mindset in a negative way. But it did one thing for sure. It confirmed that I was going to be the last person on the course. It was literally me against the clock. There was no one else left to beat.
After being caught by the by the sweeper I was just getting worn down mentally and physically. The running time decreased and walking time increased. I was exhausted. My overall pace plummeted.
I began to doubt if I would really finish or end up with a DNF.
Once I made it through the last aid station though I knew one thing. I would get 50 miles done today. I might not get it done fast enough to be given an official finish. I may end up with a DNF officially. But my legs will have taken me the 50 miles. That was the goal. Run 50 miles.
While the uncertainty of getting an official finish weighed on me the other side of the coin, knowing I would get to do the distance I came here for lifted me.
Finish The Race: Congratulations You Are DFL
I did finish the race. I completed 50 miles. My legs carried me the entire way. My wife got me through it.
Getting this accomplishment under my belt feels amazing. I felt better physically than I expected after crossing the finish line. This really helps boost my confidence going into my 100 mile race at the end of the month.
One of the things I love most about running is testing myself. Testing my physical limits. Testing my mental limits. This race was a true test of those things.
The combination of weather and course conditions and time cut offs for the race. All these factors pushed me to my limits.
I am ready and waiting for the next challenge at the end of the month.