Me: “I just have to get through this uphill and I’ll be fine.”
*5 minutes later*
Me: “I just have to get through this downhill and I’ll be fine.”
Per usual, I put all my eggs in the Tussey basket. Just like last year, the Mountainback was selected to be the USATF 50 Mile Road National Championship, making this race awesome because 1) it’s literally 10 miles from my house, and 2) it brings in some awesome competition. This was most certainly my “A” race for the season, so I had some high hopes. Unfortunately, the weather did not want to cooperate.
After coming off of a great training cycle, I had some high expectations coming in to Tussey. Despite some HUGE names coming from across the country to compete, including some of my running idols like David Roche, Chris Raulli, and Fred Joslyn, I thought that if I raced smartly, maybe I could ruffle some feathers and have an awesome performance. So I appropriately tapered for the race, and after a chill Friday and Saturday, I was ready to race.
When I woke up on Sunday, the first thing that I noticed was that it was POURING outside. After some less-than-optimal chafing issues a couple years ago with the rain, I’ve never been one to hope for rain on race day. In addition to the rain, it was also already in the mid-70s by 5am. With Kettle being so hot and humid, I could already tell that Tussey was going to be an adventure with the weather. This sort of race generally goes one of two ways: either I blow up (see: Caumsett 50k) or the field blows up (see: Kettle). Little did I know that both would happen.
We got to the Tussey Mountain Ski Area about 50 minutes before the race started (7am), and it was still pouring and still in the 70s – still not good. Despite this, I went through my normal routine of going to the bathroom (twice) and getting my clothes and my water bottle (Lemon-Lime HEED) ready to go. Cool part of this – I met David Roche in line for the bathroom: super nice guy, and (spoilers) disappointed for him that he had to drop at mile 25 – good luck at TNF San Francisco coming up. My crew and I took our obligatory photo while it was still raining, and after the national anthem through some very light drizzle, we were off.
About 5 minutes into the race, the rain let off and the humidity set in, hard. With the race being fairly early this year (Oct 8) rather than one of the later weekends in October, not only was this before Daylight Savings time changed so it was lighter out, but it was also hotter – still in the 70s. Mid-70s and humid at the start of the race generally spell disaster, and this year seemed like it was going to be no different. By the time I got to the top of the first climb, my entire singlet was already drenched (still didn’t have any nipple chafing – great singlet design, Hammer!).
We crested the first climb, and I was sitting around 10th place – the top 4 had sprinted out front (all of them made the correct turn this year), and 5 through about 15 were spread out a bit behind them. On the way downhill, I talked with a couple people: Theodore Curry (who dropped at some point), and 2012 Olympic marathon trails qualifier, Fred Joslyn, who I ran with at Caumsett and at Ironmaster’s in 2015. We had some nice talks down the hill until Theodore opened up his stride in front of us and Fred started to fall back. I got to Whipple Dam where I quickly exchanged my empty HEED bottle for a full HEED + Monster energy drink bottle and some peanut butter and gel (Hammer raspberry) sandwich squares. I added quite a bit of time on the field throughout the day on these aid station exchanged because of how well-oiled Allie had the crew running – simple water bottle exchange, simple sandwich handoff, quick “I love you” and “thanks,” and I was off.
I rumbled my way through leg 4, running the hills slowly up through about mile 15 where I began to walk some of them. I could tell that I was generally a faster runner but a worse climber than the other people running with me, so as long as I was putting a net-positive gap on the field behind me, I was happy. As I came through the next aid station, I made another quick exchange and was on my way much faster than the people around me.
Leg 5 is a pretty decent net downhill, so I took this time to open my stride a little bit and appreciate the fact that I wasn’t going uphill. Scott Dunlap, a very good masters runner from California came up behind me on the downhill, and we moved through together through the next aid station. At this point, the weather was still pretty hot and VERY muggy, humid, and buggy, so my stomach started to struggle with solid foods. Knowing that the time of eating my sandwiches was probably done, I started to focus on getting in gels and as much HEED as I could. Since the energy drink makes the HEED a little less tolerable, I told my crew that from this point on, I wanted only HEED in my bottle and just a little sip of Monster at each aid station to keep a steady drip of caffeine coming in. (Note – Monster in a see-through water bottle looks pretty revolting; almost like very liquidy mud… or other brown liquids.)
I started up leg 6 (just under 5 miles with 1500 feet of gain) with Scott (after a very timely blast of “Aqualung” by Jethro Tull by my crew). I was either in front or next to him for the whole climb, with him catching up on the medium-steep sections where we ran while I talked and me putting distance between us on the steeper sections where I would hike faster than him and the flatter sections where I could run faster than him – again, as long as I was putting net-positive space on him and the other runner about 50 meters back, I was happy.
As we crested the hill at the end of Leg 6, I was about 25-50 meters in front of Scott, and we had pretty decisively dropped the other runner. I peaked, exchanging my HEED bottle (no sandwiches here), took my swig of Monster, noted that “this is the first year that I haven’t been passed going up leg 6,” and was just prepping to leave, when I was informed that the race took its first casualty. “Two and three dropped – Durango (Anthony Kunkel, eventual winner from Durango, CO) is now in the lead. You’re seventh male.” Very intrigued by this development, I continued forward, knowing that, while I had a lot of the race to go, I was so far in a good position.
I started down leg 7 with Scott coming up behind during the beginning of it. We talked for a bit more about nothing, and by time we hit a small climb at about mile 27, I put some distance between us and was off. I crested the hill and powered down one of the bigger downhills of the course. I came into the aid station feeling decent, knowing that I was still in 7th. My stomach was still not wanting solid foods, but I was still able to put down HEED, and as Tom noted after the race, I did a decent job at front-loading my calories (I know, not what you’re supposed to do, but when your stomach doesn’t want anything, better early than never). We made another exchange, I took my HEED and moved through leg 8 without anything substantial happening.
Coming into the next aid station, I still felt decent – I knew I had 2 climbs left on the day, but at mile 32, the third lowest point on the course, I didn’t feel too bad. HEED started to not taste to good (it was a little difficult since all the water at the aid stations was warm), which was a little worrying, but I felt like the next 18 miles may not be too bad. Boy, was I wrong.
As soon as I started up leg 9, I knew that I was in for a doozie – my quads were done. I hadn’t realized how much that putting time on the people behind me had taken out of my legs. Despite being in a good position (still seventh), I knew that these last 18 miles were going to hurt. I still had about 2000 feet of climbing to go, which meant that I had about 1800 feet of descending to go, both of which are difficult with trashed quads. As I moved up leg 9, I could hear someone behind me. Thinking it was just the first relay, I didn’t give it much thought until I saw the yellow bib on his front and the USATF bib on his back. “Uh-oh,” I told myself. “The field is catching up.” Dimitri passed me with a few pleasantries (including him asking me how much more climbing there was), and he blazed by me on the uphill. Knowing (at least what I thought) that I was in 8th, I knew that as long as I didn’t yield 3 spots, I’d still be in a medalist spot. Unfortunately, I didn’t think this was very likely. I moved through the rest of leg 9 with an alternating run/walk technique through the uphills.
As soon as I came into the aid station, I knew that my crew could tell that I was feeling pretty bad. I definitely didn’t have the upbeat look that I had at the other stations, and I’m sure that I wasn’t as positive with what I was saying. I’m sure Allie knew how bad I was feeling before any words came out of my mouth. Despite this, we made the exchange, I took some Monster, dumped some water on myself, and kept on going.
Leg 10 has never been a leg that has given me troubles in the past, but this year was certainly different. As I power hiked up the hill, I turned around and saw the number 2 masters runner (Mike Ryan) coming up behind me. We chatted for a good while as we were finishing the climb, and I was able to use some of his energy to get to the top of the hill. “I just have to get through this uphill and I’ll be fine” I told myself. We crested the hill and I was able to put some space in between us on the downhill. About a mile and a half from the aid station as you come out of the hills into the neighborhood around Coyler Lake, you hit some rolling hills, and he was able to pass me through these hills (not surprising). As I ran/walked through the hills and into the wind (ugh), I came upon the second-to-last aid station at Coyler, thinking that I had nothing left in the tank to hold on to my now ninth place position.
When I got in, I gave my HEED bottle to my crew since carrying it was giving me no benefit as my stomach couldn’t tolerate to drink from it. I took a couple swigs of my Monster, and got my Gatorade container, since it was cold an a little easier on my stomach than the HEED. Even still, I took a couple swigs and promptly almost vomited – barely anything was sitting in my stomach and my legs were feeling the affects. At this point, I was nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to run at all for the last 9 miles of the course. Even still, I left the aid station as quickly as I could and set off up the dreaded leg 11 climb.
Truth be told, leg 11 wasn’t as bad, comparatively, to what it was in years past. Rather than being the leg that killed me, it was simply the leg that kicked me while I was down. I did my best at running the flats and slight uphills, but other than that, it was an extreme effort to power hike the hills. Some of my friends who were running the relay (Sam Lapp and Matt Pennock, who actually won the whole relay division with just two people) passed me, and I was able to ask Sam and his crewing mate how far back the nearest male was. According to their answer (and I always take these answers with a grain of salt), I was at least 10 minutes ahead of the next dude. I split the difference in between where I thought I was and the actual answer and decided that I was probably less than 5 minutes in front (turns out they were probably right).
As I trudged up leg 11, the first place female (Liz Howard) came up behind me, running strong up the hills (I think I need to rethink my strategy since it always seems like top-5 finishers are running up this hill). I ran with her for a bit before I just couldn’t keep running any more. I moved through the false-finish of the leg, up the VERY steep actual finish of the leg, and then made my way into the last aid station. I got more Gatorade (and again, struggled to keep it down), some Monster, and walked out of the aid station, telling Tom to “walk with me” (thank you Karl Poetzel/Twin Peaks for that saying). As we made our way up the hill at the aid station, I told him to wait for 10 minutes or until the next male runner came through the aid station so that they would be able to tell me how far in front I was. At this point, I still had no idea how much of leg 12 (4 miles, 500 feet of drop) I’d be able to run.
The first part of the leg made me think that I wouldn’t be able to run anything. As soon as I got out of the climb from the aid station, I started to run and immediately got a massive side cramp (I was probably pretty dehydrated). My side was hurting, my quads were hurting, my back was hurting, my shoulders were hurting – I didn’t know if I could finish the race. Knowing how difficult it would be to admit to Allie, the rest of my crew, and everybody I talked to that I wimped out of the race 90% in because I was just feeling a little hurt, I sucked it up, put my arms over my head, and started to run, slowly at first, but then a little faster, down the hill.
Eventually, my crew passed me, and Allie slowed down to tell me that they waited for 10 minutes, saw no dudes (just second female who was about 20 meters behind me), and left. This meant that all I had to do was run, even slowly, through the finish and I would still be in the top 10. It wouldn’t be as good of a time in years past, but with how crappy I felt, I was happy that I only had a downhill to the finish at this point. Second female (Justyna Wilson) came up behind me, and I was able to run with her until the small climb a little less than a mile to the finish, where I had to walk it (ugh) and she sped her way in front of me. But when I started running again, before I knew it, I was passing the bridge to the leg 1 climb on the left, the Galbraith trailhead to the right, the small cabins to the left, and then I could see the start line, telling me that I had less than 200 meters to the finish. I let out a little yell, breathed as deep a sigh of relief as my abs could handle, turned the corner to the finish, and smiled/grimaced my way through the end.
I ran through the finish, gave Allie the biggest hug I could muster (aka I essentially held on to her sides) and collapsed in a chair. During the three times I’ve run Tussey, this was, beyond any doubt, the hardest that I had to work. The heat, in combination with my inability to keep up with my nutrition plan, cost me dearly. I ran a 7:16, 12 minutes slower than last year and 8 minutes slower than two years ago, despite being in much better shape. It was good enough for 8th (Theodore eventually dropped out somewhere around mile 30). I ended up finishing about 15 minutes in front of 9th, so everybody who told me that I had 10 (or more) minutes were very right.
Despite the less-than-ideal time, I’m still pretty happy with how the day turned out. I overcame a pretty big nutritional deficit to finish in the top-10 in one of the most competitive races I’ve run. Granted, I was helped out a little bit by all of the drops in front (and behind) me, but that’s part of the game. I will 100% be back next year, and just hoping that it’s not as hot or as humid. As usual, huge shout out to my crew (especially Allie) – I probably made up minutes on the field with how seamless the aid stations were. Hopefully we can do this next year again.