Tussey Mountainback 50m (10-25-2015)

Mountainback Logo

“You need some help up this hill?” “Andy, who the f— do you think I am!?!?!?”

The training prior to the Mountainback had been… sketchy, at best. I didn’t feel like I was completely covered from Pine Creek, which surprised me probably more than anything else, and I just wasn’t able to get a full, positive training cycle in prior to my re-taper. Doing the workouts with the PSU Club XC team was very painful, and I went from being near the front of the pack to being pretty dead set in the middle. Mentally, it was difficult to just not be running with the people who I had run with before. Needless to say, I was decently worried about this race.

Seeing as the Mountainback is essentially the only hometown race that I will ever run (assuming that Gary’s dream of RD-ing a loca FATASS [for the goyim {non-ultrarunners} reading this, that means free 50 miler] doesn’t materialize), I really wanted to run well. People from Nittany Valley Running Club and from the local club that I coach were going to be there, and I really wanted to run well for them. I knew that I was just putting extra pressure on myself to run well by thinking about this, but this is always how I approach races. I mean, if I’m not going to try to run well, what’s the point?

So while skipping the boring aspects of pre-check in and whatnot, I arrived at the Tussey Mountain parking lot at about 6, an hour before the race started to check in. Learning my lesson from my groin disaster at Pine Creek, I wore my new Nike half tights and the awesome new bib that Anthym gave me the day before the race. I also wore my Hoka One One Clifton 2s (tried and true road ultra shoe) with my new Amphipod handhelds. After the belt started giving me issues at Pine Creek, I wanted to switch to the handhelds. They were easy to exchange with Gary and his son Jakob (who for some reason WANTED to watch people run slowly for 7 hours), who were crewing me.

Tussey Race Kit

It was a good thing, too that I wore the half tights, since, right on cue, at about 6:45 the early morning mist turned into an uncomfortably cold and dark early morning rain. Knowing that I was not going to shed all of the skin of my inner thigh off, I breathed a sigh of relief that I brought compression shorts and applied some of my economy size container of Wegman’s brand petroleum jelly.

As 6:55, I wished luck to Tom Hanna and Mike Boggs, two sophomores on the team who were just about to run their first ultra, and moved to the start line. The national anthem was played, and then just like that, we started. I started at what I thought was going to be a comfortable pace with another runner. I couldn’t see anyone’s face since it was still so dark, and the only person who brought a light was Eric Senseman, the clear-cut favorite who sprinted out way ahead of us. There was another person in the awkward position of going too fast for us and not fast enough to keep with Senseman.

We moved up the first 5k climb pretty easily. I found that the guy I was running with was named Josh, sponsored by Vespa and probably going to make the USATF 100 mile track national team. I’m always amazed that these really big name dudes want to run races in the middle of Pennsylavnia. But hey, I’ll take being able to run with him through the first few miles.

Once we crested the first hill, it started to get brighter out, and with that sunlight came a huge jump in speed. We started flying down the 8 miles to the first real aid station, but not at a pace that was uncomfortable. We kept talking the entire time, and it looked like we were gaining on the person who went out in between us and Senseman (who was now nowhere to be seen). My legs were still feeling pretty good, and I was looking forward to getting my first refill of water and some Red Bull at the aid station with Gary and Jakob.

We came into the aid station, and I switched out my handheld for the new one, and took a sip out of my Red Bull bottle. This time, instead of trying to pound a can of Red Bull at an aid station, I poured 4 cans into a 32 ounce water bottle, let it get flat over a couple nights and then just take a couple gulps at every aid station. This way, the Red Bull is completely flat and I can get a steady stream of caffeine and simple sugars rather than a rush of both. I took the Red Bull, had a Snickers, and then I was off.

Right after that aid station, Josh and caught up with the guy currently running in second. He had come to grips that nobody was going to catch Senseman, so he started running with us. From previous memory, leg 4 and leg 5 never seemed that hilly, but today, they started to seem hillier and hillier the further we got. By time we got to about mile 18 where the end of leg 5 was and the aid station was at, my legs were feeling pretty heavy. It was becoming increasingly difficult to stay up with Josh and the other guy. At the aid station, I was still able to take a Snickers and some Red Bull, exchange my water bottle, and then I was off.

An advantage of the Mountainback is that the runners run on the same roads that the crew drives. This meant that after the aid stations, Gary and Jakob were able to drive up behind and we were able to talk for a little bit. Starting leg 6 (~1500′ of gain, generally considered to be the toughest leg on the course), I was able to tell Gary how I was feeling. My legs were starting to feel sluggish running up the hills, and my hamstrings were starting to scream on the downhills. He said, with his traditional sage advice, to just start walking the bigger uphills. Since this was a road race, I really didn’t want to, but it was becoming more and more apparent that I was going to have to.

Leg 6

He told me this, and then drove off to the next aid station. With Josh and the other runner slowly pulling further ahead of me, I began to walk the steeper parts of the climb. By the time I got to the top of the climb and the aid station, the other two were far enough ahead of me that I knew they would have to have a breakdown if I were to be able to catch them again. At this point, I thought to myself, “fourth isn’t bad; there’s still a paycheck.” I got into the aid station, took my usual and asked Gary if he knew how far back 5th place was. He wasn’t entirely sure, but we thought about 5 minutes. This acted as  a little punch in the gut and got to me start on the downhill a little faster.

Alas, that was all for naught, as 5th place (now fourth place, and eventual second) came screaming by me. I knew at point that there was no way I was going to catch him, and that I was going to have to work my ass off to get top 5. Top three at this point was a pipe dream. But, it did help me continue to work harder. So I put my head down and started to churn my way to the next aid station.

Legs 7, 8, and 9 were pretty unassuming. Nobody passed me, I didn’t pass anymore, and my legs were starting to feel worse and worse, albeit slower than I expected. The uphills strolls were actually helping my legs more for the downhills than I was used to. I was still maintaining a decent pace with the occasional walking, and I was feeling pretty good about the remaining parts of the course. Nutrition was still pretty good, although at the exchange between leg 9 and leg 10, I switched from water in my handhelds to Gatorade so that I wouldn’t have to eat as much. Additionally, at this aid station, I pounded a Clif Bar; this surprised me that I was able eat something this heavy this late, and is pretty promising for my 100 miler at Kettle in June (still working for getting pacers and crew for this; if you’re interested, let me know).

Leg 10 is that moves you out from Rothrock into the Colyer Lake area, and it was pretty nice to get out of the woods and into a nice little suburban neighborhood. I came onto this aid station, and all of a sudden, saw a bunch of people who I knew. There were some some people from NVRC who I knew of, but didn’t know their names, along with Sayard, a girl I raced (and beat!) in a Tussey Teaser who just managed to get 4th female at the Philadelphia Marathon, and Dr. Janik, a professor in the ChemE department whose kid runs for the youth team that I coach. It was amazing seeing people who I knew, and since I was the first Centre Country runner to come through, I got tons of support. This was the first sense of a “home field advantage” that I’ve ever felt in an ultra, and let me tell you: it was amazing.

I was told, as leaving the aid station at Colyer, that 1st female was about 15 minutes back. While I would have loved to not get passed in the last 10 miles of the race (and, let’s be real: not lose to a girl), there was not really a greater sense of urgency that came with that. I knew that if I closed out properly, I would be able to comfortable get 5th male, which came with a paycheck. The difference in the pain between getting 5th overall and 5th fail was really not worth it to me at that point. I wanted to beat her, but it was not going to be terrible if I couldn’t.

Leg 11

I moved on to leg 11, the only leg on the course that I had never run before. And man, was I in for a rude awakening. I was told that this was the third (and final climb) on the course, but I told myself that it couldn’t be worse than the first climb or leg 6. But as I reflect back on it, it was the hardest climb I’ve ever had. It was rolling hills at the beginning and then just felt like it was uphill FOREVER. I had to walk the vast majority of it. But this leg was where I felt the best home field advantage coming in. Sayard passed me (as part of a relay) and cheered for me, so I ran with her for a bit. A couple other people I knew from NVRC passed me with relays, and I was able to tag along with them. And then, the best of all, were the relay cars that passed me. There were 4 or 5 cars, full of NVRC runners and dads of youth runner who passed me and would cheer. Andy, the coach who I work most closely with, pulled up next to me in a truck with 3 or 4 other dudes, saw that I wasn’t doing well, and asked, “Hey Josh, you need some help up this hill?” What help he was going to provide, I don’t know. But since, of course, I couldn’t look weak to my fellow coach, I screamed back at him, “F— NO, ANDY! WHO THE F— DO YOU THINK I AM!?!?” Andy and the whole car burst into laughter as they sped off and I picked up my pace a bit to get to the top of the hill and show them that, f— no, I didn’t need any help.

I got to the top of the climb, telling myself that it was pretty much over. The last climb was the first climb of the day that I hadn’t recharged from hiking. I knew that my legs were on their last legs (haha), and that I really needed this race to be over soon. I hadn’t eaten a lot for the past 2 or 3 hours, so I grabbed some (a lot) of original Chips Ahoy (I will never understand why people prefer normal Chips Ahoy to the chewy ones. You don’t like normal cookies hard, so why should you eat hard store-bought cookies?! Heathens! Infidels!) and started running off, saying bye to Gary for the last time. I saw even more ChemE professors and NVRC runners on my way out.


I thought that this last downhill was going to be a breeze. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I had to struggle to keep running the entire way down, and when the 1st women inevitably passed me, I started walking the flat sections and running the downhill parts only. More NVRC relays passed me and encouraged me to keep going, which was honestly like the only reason that I kept trying to run hard. Since I had run this section a gazillion times, I knew exactly how far I was from the finish, and I knew that 6th male was nowhere in sight behind me. I was gathering myself until the final turn on the course on Bear Mountain Rd where you can finally start seeing the Tussey Mountain parking lot with the finish right there. I started picking up my pace because, of course, you have to look good when you finish (I still never manage to do that).

My legs were feeling pretty heavy at this point, but I could see everybody at the finish so I did my best imitation of sprinting, made the turn onto the grass, soaked in the cheering, crossed the line and collapsed onto my hands and knees (per usual for me). Gary was there, all my buddies from NVRC were there, and, most importantly, pizza was there. I had like a quarter of a bottle of super hoppy beer that was put into my hand after finishing and like 5 slices of pizza while I struggled to walk around, change clothes, and get text updates from my dad about how the Pats were struggling to beat the Jets at home (don’t worry, TB12 and BB pulled the victory out). I waited there for about an hour an half for Tom and Boggs to finish (they finished hand-in-hand), and then I collected my winners check and struggled home with Gary as my stomach started to flip.

Since I’m over two months out from this race, there’s a couple takeaways from it that time has allowed me to see. One, I definitely was not as good as I thought I was. I thought I had an outside chance of winning it, but I finished just over an hour out of first. I will always come into every race thinking I can win, so this wasn’t really a problem. Two, running in a race where I have people I know cheering me on is a huge plus. It was amazing to see all of those familiar faces during the hardest part of the race. Lastly, I went out too fast and was not able to quite keep myself together like I was at Pine Creek. This was probably a mixture of not being completely recovered from Pine Creek and from just not being in as good of shape as I thought. For this race next year (which is the USATF 50 mile road championship), I probably will NOT be running Pine Creek, and for Kettle, I will have to make sure I go out much slower.

HUGE thank you to Gary and Jakob for putting up with while they crewed. It amazes that people actually say yes when I ask them to crew for me. I wouldn’t even want to crew for myself, much less do it on a Sunday morning in cold wind and mist for 7 hours. You guys rock.


One thought on “Tussey Mountainback 50m (10-25-2015)

  1. Glad you’ve taken a break after this race! Thanks again to Gary and Jakob for doing such a great job crewing you! You are awesome–though obviously a little nutty (something you come by honestly)!


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