Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK is a race I have in my heart. When I started to be more serious about running, I did the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK relay with 3 persons. It was back in 2013, after my first marathon. With my team, “The Crazy Yinzers” (entirely composed of non-native US persons) we spend the day on the trails and it was a fantastic experience. Kim, one of the most inspiring running buddy I had so far was part of it and made this day very special.
I always thought it would be really cool to run the whole thing by myself. Last year, I did not feel ready for this and already signed up for EQT 10 miler as a pacer (which was on the same day). Since then, I did a 50 milers (JFK), a 100 milers (Burning River) and a couple of 50K.
So, this year, when registration opened, I took the opportunity and signed up. I wanted to do this, to give a try. Registration is very reasonable if you signed up as an ultra runner without a support vehicle (about $95). If you compare with JFK (about $200), this is a better deal and a better course (more on that later).
Since Burning River 100, I have a strong desire of taking a break from running. Just for few weeks/months. Running every day and continue with long runs during the week end was mentally and physically exhausting. I made some races here and there but running was no longer my top priority. I ran to work every day, doing an average of 50 to 80 miles a week. It fulfills a utility function (commuting), nothing else: I prefer to run to work than driving – it keeps me sane for the day.
Also, the month before the race, I had a lot of work commitments and traveled in Seattle, Ottawa, France and Iowa. For sure, it was possible to train but it is more difficult. As I visited friends and attended conference receptions and dinners, free time was limited as well. The longest runs I had were two back to back 17 miles, mostly on flat roads. Not so bad but definitively not enough when you are training for a 50 miles in the mountains. I tried to train in the elliptical and do other workouts, but it was probably not a good strategy as I injured myself a week before the race.
Also, my diet, usually based on vegetables, non-meat fats (e.g. peanut butter!) and water/coffee was now focused on croissants, butter, crepes, bagels, potato, various deserts with champagne, wine or beer. I gained about 10 pounds total during that period. So, I was definitively not at the top of my fitness level. But after all, this is the best I could do, so, let’s give a try!
I came back in Pennsylvania on Friday night before race week-end. I headed to State College on Saturday afternoon, took my hotel room (I was staying at the Toftrees, the official hotel for the race) and get ready for race day. Since I came back from my travels, I did not eat much, so that I was really hungry when I got there and ate probably enough for three days. Nothing better than brownies with ice cream and couple of beers to rinse your mouth!
Time to go
When going to the race start, I met Mark from North Park Trail Runners (NPTR) in the hotel lobby. He was doing the race with a relay team. Everybody seemed really excited, on my side I was still feeling that the high ABV of the beer I had the night before. When arriving on the race site, I saw Tim from the NPTR group, he was doing his first 50 miles. Also, Monica from North Park Trail Runner and Steel City Road Runners took an early start at 5am. If everything goes as planned, I should pass her sometimes around mile 25/30. It would give me an extra boost.
And then, it was almost 7am: time shut the fuck up and move my ass.
The race is in the mountain but not on trails. All the course is on gravel/dirt roads. Very runnable, not rocky/muddy, it would please runners afraid of single track trails. The course starts with a small elevation, about 800 feet over the first 3 miles. Then, this is rolling hills until mile 20.
For the first 20 miles, I was doing good. In fact, I did not really feel I was running, I was in this mode when you just know you need to go and keep running. In fact, I really enjoyed being outside, breathing fresh air and do not have to worry to be on time for the next meeting/conference/dinner/whatever. I arrived to mile 20 in less than three hours. At that time, I thought it would be possible to finish in less than 8 hours. It would be a PR and a good surprise: after a lack of training and a roller-coaster diet I could carry my fatty butt on 50 miles in less than 8 hours! It was encouraging!
But from mile 20 to mile 25, there is a good climb (1300 ft over 4 miles) and I power-hiked part of it. During that climb, I saw a lady walking up the hill. As Monica told me I would catch her around mile 25, I was wondering if it was her. So, I asked if she took an early start. She barely answered and told me no. Whatever.
Once I was on top of the climb, I started the downhill part and realized something was wrong with my left foot. My Achilles was hurting. Really bad. Running started to be painful. I thought it will pass. Quickly, I realized it will not get any better. And at mile 26, it was clear it will not be possible to continue like this and have to walk for a while. From now, it was bad. ***Really*** bad.
I totally changed my expectations: I ran more than half of the course and there was no way I would drop. There was still 7 hours to finish. It was possible to finish by just walking the rest of the course. So, instead of shooting for a time, I will then make the best of it and just have fun and enjoy the scenery.
I reached the Aid Station at mile 28. Some kids were helping and the lady I passed before was there again (she passed me again when I was walking). She was sitting and seemed in pain. She told me she was sick, did not know what happened. She told the volunteers that she was about to drop. And she dropped. When I left the Aid Station, she was in a really bad shape.
When I finally arrived at the aid station around mile 30, I met John, a really nice runner that was doing his first 50 miles. The dude had a really good pace and just ran 30 miles in about 5 hours. Really good for somebody that never ran more than a marathon before! John and I ran together for a while and it was a real pleasure to meet him. We talked about various stuff to keep our minds busy: Pittsburgh, running, work, our respective lives. I was glad I met him!
I arrived at the next Aid Station. The volunteers told me Monica was 5 minutes away. I passed just after the Aid Station, which gives an extra boost. At that point, it was clear she will finish: she was running since almost 7 hours – so, she had 5 hours to finish 20 miles, which is totally doable by walking fast or alternate light jog and walk. As the pain was growing and I wanted to be done, I did not stick and took off.
About mile 38, Mark from NPTR passed me with his team and their support vehicle: his relay team was doing great and they were approaching the aid station at mile 40. I do not remember exactly how I made it to mile 40. A mile before the Aid Station, John finally came back. Then, there was a sign 1/2 mile until the Aid Station and of course, he suggested: “let’s try to jog there?”. You do not refuse that and this is why running with somebody is helpful: you stop making excuses.
From there, we continued together for a while. But as the pain increased, I let him go. I finished the last miles by combining walking the uphills and running the downhills and eventually crossed the finish line after 9 hours and 8 minutes (32th over 74 runners). Definitively not a record (I finished JFK in 8:58) but I had a ton of fun. And this all what matters.
Once you cross the finish line, you get a medal and can the post-race party. Here, there are food (subway sandwich, barbecue, pizza), beer and (the most important) massage. The pizza is probably the only reason to run the race: the dudes are amazing, the pizzas and made directly on site and are delicious. The beer is also really tasty. All together (massage, pizza and beer), this is probably the best combination to recover from such a race!
After that, I try to walk to my car and come back in Pittsburgh. As my muscles started to be cold again, I started to feel the pin. I evaluated the damages on my leg and realized that it was really bad. I will clearly not be able to run for few days. But who cares? It was a great day, I finished my second 50 miler, had great company. It, it was a fantastic, epic adventure. I loved and embraced every moment and would not change anything if I had to do it again.
Should you do this race?
If you are looking for a good first 50 milers, this might the race you are looking for. Not expensive (not a rip off as JFK), not too difficult and very friendly, this is a great event! There is a very good support, 11 aid stations over 50 miles. An aid station every 4 miles: you can even do the race without a hydration pack!
Compared to my previous experience in ultra(s), I would definitively consider Tussey as a really good event with the same vibes as good ultra races (e.g. Burning River, Oil Creek, Forget the PR). The race fees are affordable and the support on the course is great. You can also put drop bags on the race if you have special needs or do not take any support.
The downside would be the selection of food at the Aid-Station. In ultras, aid stations are usually packed and look like a buffet at Denny’s. At Tussey, the food for ultra-runners is limited to chips, M&M’s, PBJ sandwiches, gels and sometimes potato. But this is not a big deal: you can pack what you needs in drop bags. As long as you are aware of that, this is not an issue. And for such a distance, you can still pack your own food.
Finally, if you have some friends that are doing the relay, this is a great opportunity to spend time together. This is also what makes this race unique: this is rather a big party between ultra and non-ultra runners.
The post-race party is also well organized and friendly – selection of food is great, having massage is definitively a big advantage. From my perspective, in all aspects, this race is better than JFK (and for half the price).
Once I got back in Pittsburgh, I wanted to send a word to the lady that dropped around mile 28. I was hoping nothing serious happened to her. I remembered her bib number, so, I looked up her name. I found out she was Connie Gardner, a three times first finisher and a well-known accomplished ultra-runner (see her wikipedia page). I was shocked that I have even crossed her path and it made me realize that sometimes, you just have a bad day: you have to accept that and move on. I hope she is doing fine.
It is now time for a break for a few weeks. I have some small races around Pittsburgh but nothing serious (see the coming races list). I will continue to run for commuting purposes but I will not train seriously for a while. I might run with NPTR from time to time but nothing more than 30 miles at a time.
The next ultra is Forget the PR in April 2016, a 50K shakeout before going for Hyner50K. Then, it will be time to train for the PA Triple Crown challenge. I already signed up for Hyner 50K and Eastern States 100. But until now, it is time to rest, lose 10 pounds and hibernate in my bed while watching Netflix and reading the pile of books and other comics that are close to my bed.
Thanks to Mike Casper, the race director. He put a very nice event and being part of this running party is a real pleasure! Special kudos for the folks that made the pizza and gave massage at the finish line, it was very nice to have people trying to take care of your injury!
Thanks to all the North Park Trail Runners and Steel City Road Runners folks. Meeting friends during the course is always special and I was happy to be there to see Tim finishing (strong) his first 50 miles race. Finally, thanks to John for running with me during the second part of the race, having a running is the best way to get to the finish! He was there, helped me to push to the finish and finally, helped to make this day very enjoyable!