Thursday, October 25, 2012

Tussey Mountainback 50 Miler Race Report

"If it's going to happen, I have to earn it."
-my thoughts on DNFing

In the middle of June, during a wine night with some good friends and my running partners, my friend Sonja (fresh off an ultramarathon high, having just completed - and placed- at the North Face 50K) suggested that we all do a race together. There was one particular race that was close to her home in central Pennsylvania near Tussey Mountain and hey, it wasn't until October! What? It's during my birthday weekend, too? Sign me up.

Within a month of trying to plan out the rest of our seasons, I had the gang over to grill out and enjoy a sunny afternoon in my back yard wading in the kiddie pool and taking in some liquid courage. After enough tallboys of Fat Tire, Alex, Sonja, and I each took turns signing up for Tussey mOUTaiNBACK 50 Mile Ultramarathon, and Josh would follow a few days later. 50 miles and 5000+ feet of climbing shouldn't be all that bad. At least that's what I told myself.
Elevation profile = owie.
Let me be honest: after my Ironman in August I wasn't really motivated to train for a fifty mile ultra ultramarathon. Oh, by the way, this was to be my FIRST ultra not as a relay. During September I suffered a few setbacks, the biggest being T-boned by a car while riding my bike to work one morning, sidelining me for more than a few weeks. In the four weeks prior to the accident I'd probably run a grand total of 40 (and that's generous), and I knew my mileage was going to be even weaker in the month following. The prospects of running this ultra was dwindling down to nil as I became more and more demotivated. At first I didn't even want to go - that's too much temptation to run. My hip was bum, my knee wasn't all there, and my fitness was deteriorating at an alarming rate. I began to recover from the accident slowly through the help of my friends at Fast Track Physical Therapy, but I was able to get on the bike and spin to at least keep from returning to couch-rider fitness. Still, a week before the race my decision was to not run the race, but that I'd still go up to support Alex, Josh, and Sonja for the Sunday race. Why risk hurting myself further, right?

We all stayed the night before the race in the warm home where Sonja grew up, which is on a quaint dairy farm nestled in the rolling valley of Williamsburg, Pennsylvania. After a delicious spread of pasta, chicken, veggies, and the tastiest apple birthday cake (with apples grown out back), we quieted down with a bonfire in the corn field to enjoy stars, good company, and a few brews to quell any pre-race nerves.

Now, apparently before you run an ultra you need to do a significant amount of planning. You have support vans to coordinate. Gear to carry. Changes of clothes to accommodate varying weather. Nutrition plan. You've got to know where the aid stations are and how far apart they are. Up to this point I hadn't even looked at the course map. As we sat around the table with maps, gels, bottles, race belts, arm warmers, Garmin watches, etc strewn around, everyone took notice that I was a little quite and unsettled. Yes, I've DNSed (Did Not Start) once before, but that was an easy choice to make (I had reached a wall in the race season and would risk serious injury if I started), and I'd also never DNFed (Did Not Finish) before. But this one felt different. I didn't hurt, I felt fit, but I just hadn't gotten very many miles. Was it worth giving it a go? Listening to the others talk about how under trained they were made me feel slightly better, but they helped me reason that I could strike a balance and just run part of the race - perhaps 10 or 12 miles than drop out at an aid station and jump in the support van. I wasn't comfortable with the concept of starting something I knew I wasn't going to finish. The thought of having DNF by my name under the results made my stomach knot. Swallowing my pride I conceded and said I'd pace with my friends from the start and just enjoy the ride.

At least I brought some clothes.
To continue what I was saying about race prep, you also need the basics: A race kit. For a shorter race like a 5K or even a marathon you can typically get by with just shoes and shorts, a shirt is even optional (for men, at least). I would normally, in this kind of race, wear my trail shoes, some trail shorts that have pockets for nutrition, two hand bottles, and my Adventure Geek singlet/arm warmers, and I'd have plenty of electrolyte drink mixes and gels. Let's see, what do I have in my car: running shorts - SWEET, one bottle, two hand straps for bottles, mountain running shoes AND road shoes, and a North Face tech shirt. Okay, I guess something is better than nothing. I scrounged up a gel and a Honey Stinger waffle from under the seat in my car (thankfully I throw these things into all my bags everywhere else) and borrowed a bottle from Elaine. What I had in my hands was going to have to last me in between aid stations. Plus, I'm not going to run that far anyway - I'll be fine.

The race starts and finishes at Tussey Mountain Ski and Family Fun Center, just south of Boalsburg, PA, about an hour's drive from the Hinish dairy farm where we slept. Four in the morning came awfully early, but surprisingly didn't feel as bad. Who knew going to bed early really worked?

The gang right before the start.
It was dark, chilly, and electric around the race start. Camelbaks, head bands, and arm warmers everywhere. I ran into my friend Michael Wardian, who is the current record holder of the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler (set in 2011, finishing in 5:33... yikes!). He was bundled up in a poofy North face jacket and would be spectating instead of running, sidelined by stress fractures. We talked a few minutes and he wished me luck as I went to go catch up with the gang at the start line. When the horn sounded, you could see the sun just beginning to climb from beneath the valley's horizon.

I took turns running with Alex/Josh and Sonja. We all kind of ran our own pace - quicker when we felt like it, and slower when the gradient forced us to. The whole time I expected my hip to start acting up and begin to pinch, but it didn't. On trees you would see each mile marked in a big blue sign tied (not tacked!) around the trunk. Oh, and how nice the staff were to put bright pink signs up 1/2 mile before every aid station letting you know it was just a stone's throw away. A few steep miles in we came through the first aid station. There we saw Mr. and Ms. Hinish and Elaine with cowbells and snapping pictures. I dropped my jacket, arm warmers, and hat with Elaine and kept moving. Feeling good!

Two of the three lead females were running in front of us, and we watched one pull off to the side - we knew were this was going. Only in ultramarathons can people drop trow on the side of the trail and no one cares even one bit. Never thought I'd see a full moon at 7:45 in the morning. The woodland wetter passed us a few minutes later and apologised, but the consensus (as we noted as universal among endurance athletes), is that if you're offended by that, you need to find another sport. Run on.

Along the way I was chatting with a guy from Charlottesville, VA - Marshall M. He was doing this race to qualify for Western States 100 miler in 2013. What? This is a qualifier? And the last local one of the year. What's the time cut off? 11 hours, you say? Oh boy. That's trouble. Because I know I can do that, even if I walk some. I looked over to Sonja and quietly said, "well, that decides it. I'm running the whole damn thing." I let out a sigh, regretted asking the question to the guy, and moved along. At the next aid station where I was supposed to stop I stopped for a moment to grab some pretzels and Heed and passed by Elaine. "Are you going to keep running?" she asked. "Yep." "How do you feel?" 

I feel great.

The last time we were all together.
The trick is to store food in your cheeks.
That was the last place the four of us were together. From there on out, Josh and Alex pushed a constant pace that was brisk and steady. Stallions, they are. I slowed down on his to conserve my energy and even walked some as I watched Sonja pull away in front of me. I was going to have to be really careful to not overdo it if I was going to last 38 more miles. 

Tussey Mountainback takes place on fire roads (74% dirt, 26% paved) in Rothrock State Forest. Normally when I hear ultramarathon I think of singletrack dirt trails with boulders, roots, and mud, so this was a little precarious when it came to footwear selection. I wore my La Sportiva XCountry mountain running shoes with nice big lugs expecting there to be a fair amount of dirt, some gravel, and generally loose terrain. That wasn't quite the case here. Marble- and golf ball-sized gravel on hard packed dirt. I'm effed. Nearly halfway through the course I could start to feel my knees becoming tender with every step in my shoes with no cushion. Every rock and gravel chunk sent sharp pains into the balls of my feet. I regretted not putting my road shoes into the van to change into.

Miles and miles went by and I'd stop at every aid station to eat and drink plenty to keep up energy. At lower elevations the temperature was fair and I'd work up a bit of sweat, even soaking my shirt, but at the top of every ride it would be cold and sometimes windy. While the shrinkage factor wasn't too high, it wasn't too warm yet, either. My solution was to trade out my shirt for a jacket I had in the van and hope the shirt would be dry by later to change back into. That process helped knock some of the chill off, but it was still tough.
Om nom nom...

A sign with "30" printed on it came and the first thing that popped into my head was "sixty percent." I was just over halfway done with the course and yet somehow still converting numbers into percentages and/or fractions. At mile 32 I yelled out "50K" to the people near me and we all laughed, but our celebration was cut short with the realization that we still had many more Ks to go. Oh, so many Ks. There was a smile on my face - forced, but genuine. I was overjoyed to be there in the forest, kicking rocks and leaves with brisk air keeping me cool, but the subtle aches in my IT bands and throbbing feel damped my enthusiasm as I began to worry if I could actually finish.

The North Face sponsored the 9th aid station at Colyer Lake. There I sat by a table eating "fun-sized" snickers bars, boiled potatoes, and pretzels trying to take in sun rays to dry my shirt and warm up. Suddenly my ass began to chill and sting. My dumb ass was sitting in a pool of water without any clue where it came from. EF! Picking myself up off the ground I dried my bottom with some paper towels and started to move again. Running beside me was a man named Jeff from Pittsburgh wearing a Rev3 visor and spandex shorts and he was moving just a little faster. I said to him, "let's eat this elephant one bite at a time." His mantra was "take it where you can," in this case meaning when you can run, run, but it's okay to walk when you have to. We both walked a lot. He eventually pulled away from me and I was by myself for a while again. I wanted cool spandex, too.

I zoned out for a bit over the next few miles, but came back to reality as a relay runner began to pass me. "Keep it up, Ultra!" Apparently that was the name for anyone not doing a relay. Hello, my name is Ultra. I grumbled a little bit (words are hard) and waved at him. "Want some gummie bears?" Wait, did I just hear him offer me gummie bears? "I would love some gummie bears," I said in a low, monotone, and deliberate voice. "I have yellow ones and white ones left. I hope that's okay," he offered. For a split second I wondered if he'd washed his hands and where he'd been keeping them, but I quickly stopped caring. "These are gummie dinosaurs!" I shouted back, excitedly. "Oh, I guess they are. Sorry for the mix-up!" "No problem, man, dinosaurs have more protein than bears," I reasoned. I looked at the brontosaurus-shaped treats in my hand for a moment before I popped them into my mouth, praying for a sugar surge to keep going and I watched the gummie-dino savior slowly pull away from me. These are the things that happen in the middle of an ultramarathon.

All of the sudden this wall of gravel and dust appeared in front of me. I looked up a two mile climb that forced me into what felt like a walk of death. Jeff was far up ahead already and I shouted up to him, "Who put this damn hill here?" "What hill?" he retorted. Angry at this hill I marched up and up. I could see Jeff glancing back as I alternated between swinging my arms like a madman and resting my hands on my hips. When I caught up to Jeff I was meet with greetings and we laughed at how awful the hill was, and that the race director must have been playing tricks on us by spacing out the mile markers. The beauty of commiseration. Oh, it looks like someone couldn't control their body, there's a landmine. Really? You couldn't find a nice tree on the side to do this behind? Although, I can see how it may be possible to lose control of their mind and bowls 40+ miles into a race. This was tough, but gosh, that's a little gross. There were longer climbs, but this felt horrible. Probably because it was 41 miles into a race. The Ultra Gods, however, saw fit to place an aid station less than a mile from that summit. Cars stretched out along the fire road leading up to the station, and it felt like it took forever to reach it.

At that aid station it was eight miles to the finish. It was both the second-to-last and last aid station on the course, from where you did and out-and-back before descending to the finish. My ankles throbbed, my knees buckled with a stabbing pain, and my quads screamed from being hammered for so long. And my ass hurt. I didn't want to go another step further. It was loud and rowdy with spectators and members of the relay teams. I knew I was very far behind the rest of my friends because the support van wasn't there when I arrived (which I'm glad, as I would have hoped they made it to watch my friends cross the finish line).  Still, my heart sank some - you don't control your emotions too well after expending so much energy. Unable to stand the pain, I sat down by a fence and threw my feet up on one of the rungs. I was sprawled out for five or ten minutes just looking up at the sky. A volunteer fetched me ibuprofen and flat coke and helped me come back to my senses. The stream just on the other side of the fence beckoned me with its cold water and gentle ripples clicking as it flowed. I wanted to sit in it and never leave. It would have been such a treat to curl up in the fetal position in a pool of cold water and perhaps cry a little. I could say there was dirt in my eye. Yeah. That's right.

I was hoisted up by a volunteer named Kevin with tattoo sleeves and given a push start up the first hill which seemed to go on forever. I walked a good amount of it to preserve energy, and that afforded me a chance to say hello to folks who I had run with earlier who were now miles in front of me. At the crest of the climb there was a beautiful sweeping downward road. Yes, the turnaround must be at the bottom. Almost there. Gotta be soon. Why is there an arrow pointing in this new directio...OMG WHY IS THERE ANOTHER HILL HERE?? WHO DID THIS? WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?? My rant was stifled, however, when I looked to my left. There on top of the ridge I was afforded by far the best view of the entire course. The ridge overlooked the valley below and it glowed with deep amber and copper tones and was highlighted with mustard shades of leaves. For a moment there I couldn't feel any pain in my body. Breathtaking.

The turnaround was (wo)manned by three ladies in dresses with large hats. They sang, danced, and cheered. Frankly, it was kind of weird and confusing. There's no way I could have made any sense of that at the time. It wasn't an aid station, but they had some basics. I stopped for a pretzel and held it in my mouth as I poured water in at the same time. They said I could spit if I needed to and that they wouldn't be offended. I explained that I was trying to soak the pretzel so I could swallow it. Eating was hard. Swallowing was hard. I hadn't hit the wall, but some basic functions were a little off. As I left the turnaround something felt different. Shitchyeah, it was another wind! I ran. I felt happy. I shared my enthusiasm with other struggling runners that came by. "Yeah, Ultra," I found myself saying. Admittedly I felt silly calling people that, but still words were hard and that was easy and automatic. Whatever required the lowest level of mental processing was the way I went.

I barreled trough the aid station, stopping for a kiss from Elaine, who drove back out to ring some cow bell at me. I wasn't going to stop. Nope. Oh shit, I stopped. After 45 miles my calf finally cramped. Stopping mid-stride I attempted to stretch it out. Can't lose momentum. Gotta keep moving. I just want to go home. "Got a cramp?" I heard from behind me. Oh yeah. "Want some help?" Oh yeah. So the stranger, who was part of a relay team, came up and pressed and poked into my calf for a few moments until the knot released. Yes, you read that right, some rando on the course came up and gave me a leg massage. Too bad I didn't have any cash for a tip.

The last four miles were downhill. All downhill. And for some reason each mile marker was spaced further apart than any other on the course, or so it seemed. They couldn't come fast enough, despite running at the fastest pace I had been all race. I passed people for the first time in hours. A fear that another hill would appear around every bend stuck in my mind. Fears of falling started to rise. More streams called my name, promising to sooth my burning legs. Where is this finish? When will the scenery look familiar again. Have I seen this leaf before? Didn't I pee there earlier?

The forest opened and I could hear the soft din of spectators. I saw the finish arch then looked out to my left to look for the sun. Yes, still there, hanging in the sky. Secretly, one of my lower goals was to finish before the sun had set. For a few minutes my knees stopped hurting, Nothing did. I ran hard and finished strong. Waiting for me was Elaine, Sonja, Alex, Josh, and Mr. and Mrs. Hinish - all with smiles and cheers for me. The other three had already changed, had warm hoodies on and had food and beer already. I couldn't have been happier to see them. The last time I'd seen a clock was around noon, some five hour into the race. I had no idea what time it was during the day, no idea how long I'd been running at this point, and barely any idea where I was. An official race clock showed 9:14:something as I crossed the finish line - still single digits for hours. My hands rested on my knees and I quietly muttered something under my breath before I swayed and fell to the ground.


Both sensations of hot and cold shocked my body. Elaine helped me up and took me to get some warm clothes on before I was greeted by my friends. A little while later with a some food and electrolyte drinks in me I felt alive again. We watched Sonja get her 4th place USATF medal for her awesome performance of running her first 50 miler in 7:56. Josh and Alex both crossed the line in 7:14, having run the whole race together. I settled for 9:14 and 32nd in the men's division, but at least it came with a Western States Qualifier.

However the biggest thing on my mind was getting to Meyer's Dairy and loading up on chocolate milk before the long drive back to Arlington. A pint or so at the dairy, a pint for the road, and three quarts to enjoy later at home.

Tussey mOUTaiNBACK was unbelievable. The volunteer support was incredible and the course was scenic, challenging, and well marked. It get's at least two of Trevor's thumbs up. Thanks goes to the RD for a well put together race.

A special thank you goes to Mr. and Mrs. Hinish for their hospitality the night before and their incredible support during the race. I enjoyed your food, your welcoming home, and the smiles along the way.

Big thanks to Alex, Josh, and Sonja for the miles together on the course. I appreciate you humouring me.

Josh, Sonja, and Alex
Thank you so much, Elaine, for supporting me along the course, even when I kept running after I was supposed to stop.
Me and Elaine!
Thanks so much for Liz and Scott at Fast Track Physical Therapy for fixing me after the car hit me in September. I didn't think you'd piece me together so fast.

And for those who stopped by for a read, thanks for dropping in. What was your longest race this season? Leave me a note!

Happy trails!



  1. Amazing job Trevor! Sounds like you had a pretty good birthday!

  2. Great job Trevor! And since you asked, my longest run was 100.2 at Western States - but you know that. I hope you get the luck of the first timer in the lottery this year. :-) its the most amazing course anywhere, ever.
    Recommended reading before your next ultra: Relentless Forward Progress.

  3. Great write up and great job, Trevor! I still can't believe you snuck up and did it after telling everyone you were just resting...I'm afraid to see how much you will crush the ultra scene when you are back in real shape! :) -HP

  4. Trevor, thanks for sharing your notes. Bravo, and glad to hear you enjoyed the experience! SYNY. Mike (the RD)

    1. Thanks, Mike. It was a heroic day for many folks, including the volunteers and race staff. Also, a fantastic birthday present for me. I've shared my tale with friends who are looking for a first "50" and hope they will make their way up to Tussey next year. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to a race of that length. I might need to make it back to PA...

    2. Good luck this year, Mike! May the weather gods be kind and keep your racers and
      volunteers smiling!

  5. Trevor,
    Thanks for sharing your race report.
    As I DNSed Tussey this year due to over-training repetitive injuries(this would have been my first 50M) with a very heavy heart, I decided to make the drive up from DC to cheer some of my Team Z mates running their first. It was a great race and very enlightening to cheer. I ended up pacing one of my friends to help her get to the cutoff and that last hill was brutal!! Great job on your time, qualification for Western States!!

    1. Will you be making the return this year to give it another go? I hope your season was more fruitful in 2013!!

  6. Trevor, I just googled what shoes to wear at Tussey 50 miler and your blog came up. Great piece you wrote here, extremely useful for the first timer. I'm from Argentina and this will be my 2nd trail run ever (did Laurel Highlands 50K in June). These off-road ultras a quite a different kind of animal when compared to road ones. I did the Comrades 89K last year and it is my point of comparison. Will let you know how it went this Sunday. Thanks again for your article. Cheers. Guillermo

    1. Guillermo,
      I'm very happy you found this helpful! It's an amazing course, but as you probably heard - no longer has the out and back section. You're no stranger to the ultra scene, as it sounds, so you'll have no problem. Some shoes with rock plates will certainly make your day better, and a slight bit of cushion should help, too. Don't expect and single-track or real dirt - heavy emphasis on fire roads and gravel, as in roads meant for vehicles. Regular road shoes should probably be okay, too, but definitely not flats. I'll be waiting to hear how it went! Happy trails!