There’s nothing like FINALLY getting that monkey off your back! For the past 2 years, I have been attempting to run the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler in Boalsburg, PA.
Tussey was slated to be my very first ultra event following a long and “illustrious career” of sub-sub-sub elite marathon running. I trained as anyone would for their first ultra….run about 20 miles during the week and backfill with mega, back-to-back long runs on the weekend for a weekly total of 70-80 mpw. Throwing all my past experience with marathon training and “coaching” out the window, I grabbed this training program by the horns. Unfortunately, it dragged me through the dirt, mud, rocks, and rooty trails. The stress and strain of weekend warrior training was likely too much to bear, seeing as a very low key soccer pick-up game led to injury 1 month prior to game time. This injury wasn’t like any injury I ever had….wait….oh…yeah..never been injured. This was a first! In the end, I toed the line at the base of Tussey Mountain in the Applachians, proceeded up the first few miles of the Tussey 50 Miler (2009), felt a twinge in my foot/ankle, saved-faced for a couple miles (i.e. 31), then dropped from my first ultra attempt.
Following Tussey, my foot/ankle recouped and my ultra ‘career” had begun with a successful year of low key events. With a couple wins and a couple 3rd place finishes under my belt, including a New York State Ultra Championship, I signed up for redemption at Tussey 50 miler, 2010 ed. Now…being an “experienced” ultra-runner, I trained evenly, did my workouts, long-runs, etc. Ready to toe the line against a stellar field for the 2010 USATF National 50 Mile road championships, including Todd Braje (defending champion), Dave James, Howard Nippert, and others, I tapered as anyone should. On Saturday, one week prior to the race, a pain in my ankle appeared. Nervously, I attended to the pain by visiting my podiatrist. Posterior Tibial Tendonitis. I pulled out from Tussey that year, before it even began…but asked Michael Casper to defer my entry until 2011….he obliged.
As the tendonitis in my ankle subsided, I discovered how therapeutic the Montrail Masochist could be. My foot felt at home in this shoe. Slightly different feel than the New Balance MT100s or MT101s. My foot “heeled” although there always seems to be something there, I can pretty much run without any issues. During the 2011 ultra year, I trained a lot and raced even more. Following some low key events like Kent Prizer’s Fat Ass 50K (1st), Febapple Frozen Fifty Mile (1st), HAT 50K (DNF), Ice Age 50M (5th), Laurel Highlands 77M (2nd), and Vermont 100 (35th; see my Vermont blog), I was ready to tackle Tussey for a 3rd time (although really only my 2nd attempt). Opportunistically, the Blues Cruise 50K occurred 3 weeks prior to Tussey, so I signed up hoping to get one last long training run in before Tussey…or so I thought. On Friday, September 30th, walked Evan to the bus stop as I do any other school morning. Like clockwork, we had a catch with a tennis ball while waiting for the bus. I wished him well with a hug and a kiss and walked back with Emma (my daughter) to our house. “Emma…do you think I can reach the garage with this tennis ball?” TOSS! 5 minutes later, standing in the garage, I felt a twinge in my back…WTF??? From a tennis ball?!!! Really? You gotta be kidding me. Well…there goes the Blues Cruise 50K! Race was won in 4:02 or something. A sidenote…this was my training pace around the lake about a month ago for 29 miles. Anyway..to make a long story short, I recouped enough for a busy taper month leading up to Tussey. Usually, I don’t like to taper so long, but better to be well-rested and healthy than side-lined again.
Sunday, October 23rd was as perfect a race morning could be. With temps in the low 30’s and forecasted to reach 60, the weather couldn’t be any better. This was the 3rd year in a row that Tussey served as the National Championship 50 Mile race. With more prize money on the line, a more competitive field was drawn to compete. As usual, Todd Braje would return to try for the 3-peat after defending his championship last year In a course record 5:43. Michael Wardian entered the race fresh off helping Team USA grab a Gold medal at the World 100K championships with a 6h42m performance. In addition to these racing studs, the starting line-up included David James (USATF 100 Mile Trail Champ), Michael Arnstein (Vermont 100 Champ), Jeremy Pade (an up and coming ultra-dude), Mark Godale, Matt Woods, and others. A top five would be tough, a top 10 would require a solid effort. As we lined up at the starting line, I introduced myself to Todd (I’ve been in email contact with him, since he lives in my old stomping grounds of San Diego and we have some mutual friends) and Jeremy Pade. The horn sounded, or someone said go…I wasn’t really paying attention. And we were off.
Heading into Tussey this year, I had a pre-determined race plan and goal finishing time. I always like to set high goals, which aren’t always that realistic. For instance, running under 16 hours at the Vermont 100, my first 100 miler, turned out to be one of those unrealistic goals. However, unrealistic doesn’t mean unachievable. I know what I can achieve and a 6h15min time seemed doable, if everything came together. 6h15min equates to 7:30/mile over a extremely runnable course with only 5000ft of elevation gain. My plan was simple: Mile 1-10 = 70 minutes, Mile 11-20 = 75 minutes, Mile 21-30 = 75 minutes, Mile 31-40 = 75 minutes, Mile 41-50 = 80 minutes (the last 10 miles are the toughest!).
Leg 1 (0-3.2 miles): As we headed off into the darkness, a 6-man pack formed immediately at the front, including the usual suspects: Wardian (#2), Braje (#1), James (#4), Arnstein (#5), Pade (#7), and Finger (#55). I had told myself to run my own race and not get sucked into a stupid pace with the leaders and I stayed true to myself. It wasn’t my fault the pace was slow heading up the first climb of the day. We clicked through mile 1 in 7:30, which included over 200 foot of ascent. But, it was easy. As we continued to climb, Arnstein described his experience at the Spartathlon and Wardian talked about 100K Worlds, the others talked, and Pade and I were silent. Probably, both a little intimidated by the company that we kept, but both trying to produce high caliber performances. The climb went quickly and we would soon summit after 860 feet of climbing in a bit over 3 miles and 23 minutes. We approached the first aid station with the volunteers calling out, “#2, #1, #4, #5, #7, and #55!” You had to be there, it sounded hilarious. I am sure #2, #4, and #5 wondered, ‘who the hell is #55!’
Leg 2 &3 (3.2-11 miles): Immediately after the initial climb, the course descends over the next 7 miles with absolutely no ascent. Being the smart, non-aggressive type, I let the low numbers go. Although I descended quickly averaging 6:45/mile for the next 7 miles, they descended quicker. I imagine their pace hovered around 6:15/mile and they were out of sight after another 4-5 miles. I wasn’t worried. I was sticking to my plan! I was soon joined by Evan Cestari at ~mile 7. I’ve seen Evan’s name in race reports regarding Massanutten and perhaps some other races, but wasn’t that concerned. Don’t get me wrong, Evan is a tough runner over 100 miles, but I didn’t recall any “faster” “shorter” endurance races on his resume. Tussey, being a “road” race plays more into the road marathoners’ hand, and that is what I used to be with a PR of 2:38. Again, not fast, but faster than the average human. We chatted for a bit about 100 milers, mutual acquaintances, etc., and would click through 10 miles in 1:10:30. My race plan was coming together slowly. In the Whipple Dam parking lot, I would meet up with my crew (my wife, two children, and mother-in-law). A quick exchange of the water bottle (containing Endurox) and a chug-a-lug-lug of Ensure and I would be on my way. Although Evan didn’t stop, I quickly reeled him back in within the next 0.25 mile. The aid station only took about 5-10 seconds. Not bad, considering I chugged down 250 calories of Ensure!
Leg 4 (11-17.2 miles): As the race continued, Evan and I stayed together. We were soon passed by Matt Smith and then Mark Godale (#6). No alarms were sounding. Our pace was still strong with a 7:20 average from miles 10-15. The next major hill hit having 359 feet of gain and our pace would slow to 8:51. I made a mental note that Evan tended to fall back on the climbs, but then close back in on the descents and may have even commented to him that that didn’t play into my favor with the last 4 miles being downhill. But, we continued cruising along over the next mile to mile 17 (7:22) and the next aid station. By this time, I had to jump in the job-johnny and let go of some extra weight. A little over a minute had passed. The chill in the morning air had now subsided and 17 miles of ATP consumption started to warm the soul. I dumped my gloves with Andrew McDowell’s wife and headed off..
Leg 5 (17.2 to 21.2 miles): It didn’t take long to reel in Evan. Extremely runnable terrain with a gentle descent makes these miles very tolerable. I picked the pace up (after leaving some weight behind) to a comfortable 7:01 (M18), 6:36 (M19), 7:02 (M20) and 7:12 (M21). After catching back up to Evan, we ran the majority of this leg together. Since I have run this course in training and during that previous injured attempt, I knew the next 2 legs were make-or-break legs. Greeted by my crew, I was happy to refuel with some more Ensure, change of bottle, and a fig newton. I “quickly” headed off after a 44 second “break” ready to tackle the long hill.
Leg 6 (21.2 to 26.5 miles): Keeping a steady, easy pace on leg 6 is the key to making the 2nd half of this race “enjoyable”. Over the next 5.3 miles, the course steadily climbs for 700ft of gain. This isn’t daunting on paper when you do the math of an average 2-3% grade. However, the grade increases gradually from beginning (2%) to end (5%). As we headed out, Evan fell off the pace a bit. I continued to run comfortably up the hill clocking 7:19 (M22), 7:21 (M23), 7:30 (M24), 8:18 (M25), and 7:41 (M26). As I turned the corner toward Penn Roosevelt Park, Evan was nowhere in sight. I would learn later that he had to drop with hamstring? issues. Over the last few miles, the endurox didn’t seem to be working well. I started to feel dehydration set in and slight hints of cramping in my right leg.
Leg 7 (26.5 to 30.5 miles): I quickly deposited my endurox on the ground and had the volunteers fill my bottle with water, hoping this would turn my hydration status around. With only a 5 second stop, I continued onto leg 7 with another nice mile long climb of ~300 ft. The water seemed to be helping with the slight cramping and I continued to push. With the climb, mile 27 had slowed to 8:27, however, I would quickly recover to a 7:14 (M28), 7:16 (M29), and 7:00 (M30). With the accelerating pace, I caught glimpses of a fading David James (probably just doing a training run, anyway). I passed the 2011 USATF 100 Mile champion and immediately saw Matt Smith fading fast. The aid station came quick and my wife and crew were happy to see me in 6th place! Another quick stop in the job-johnny and refueling then I headed back out.
Leg 8 (30.9 to 33.7): Having stopped for the bathroom and aid, I slipped back into 7th, but quickly reeled Matt back in over the next mile (7:15). Leg 8 is easy with a similar amount of descent and ascent. I was cruising along in 6th now, chasing 5th. I soon would see 5th place in the form of Jeremy Pade after a 7:14 (M32) and 6:52 (M33). We headed into the next aid station side-by-side and for some reason, I refueled. Don’t really think I needed it, but for some reason wound up losing 1 minute to Jeremy.
Leg 9 (33.7-36.5): The race to the lake began. I had Jeremy in my sights and gradually closed the gap right at the start of the paved section with a 7:29 (M34) and 7:14 (M35). I surged past Jeremy with a 6:53 (M36) and arrived at the lake quickly, about 2 minutes after Mark Godale (4th). Another quick exchange with my wife and I was off. But, stupid me…I grabbed Endurox.
Leg 10 (36.5 to 41.8 miles): I headed down the road set on catching Godale. Mile 37 went down in 7:37 which included the 23 second refueling. Heading up the next hill felt like slow motion compared to the previous 10 miles which I had covered in a little less than 1h12 min. I glanced back and saw Jeremy a few hundred meters back. Knowing what hills lay ahead, I started running scared. The next few miles, I felt like I was alone, bleeding in the ocean and Jeremy was the hungry shark, ready to gobble me up. I approached the next major climb after averaging 8:17/mile over miles 38-40. Jeremy was gaining and I was doing what I could to ward off the attack. The mile 41 climb loomed in the distance and I struggled with a “power”-hike/jog through a 10:40 mile. I managed to hold him off and put what little distance between us that I could leading up to mile 42 (8:50).
Leg 11 (41.8 to 45.8 miles): Although, I managed to hold Jeremy off on leg 10, the bleeding continued and the shark attack was imminent. After a quick water bottle exchange with my wife, I was off still in 5th place. Leg 11 is the out-n-back leg with an initial 200+ft climb, 300+ft descent, a quick turn-around, and repeat. A few minutes into the climb, Braje (2nd) still looked strong a few minutes ahead of Arnstein (3rd). I had only missed Wardian, who was a ways ahead en route to his amazing course record. Soon after seeing Arnstein, Jeremy attacked on the hill. I fell back about 30 meters, but was able to maintain that distance on the climb. Mark Godale didn’t come into sight until about 3 minutes from the turn around. I closed the gap on Jeremy to the turn-around and tried to focus on the return climb. Jeremy had climbing legs and I didn’t. The gap opened to about 100 meters at the summit, but again on the downhill to Bear Meadows, I closed the gap and we were neck and neck. But, I for some reason, I started to lose focus.
Leg 12 (45.8 to the Finish): Stupidity set in. A neck and neck race for a 5th place finish in the National Championships and I stop for aid with a fairly easy 4.2 mile finishing leg!!! STUPID. I really don’t know what I was thinking. I guess that is where experience pays off! Entering the aid station, I stopped to exchange my water bottle, but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted. Powerade or Water. It felt like an eternity. And perhaps it was, with the finish a “short” distance away. I headed onto leg 12, dazed and confused. The next mile reduced me to a walk, despite only a small incline. Focus…gone! Will I maintain 6th. Andrew McDowell was at least 12 minutes back. I started to push down the long hill over the next 3 miles. Jeremy couldn’t be too far ahead. Mile 48 went by in 7:08, Mile 49 in 7:35. No sign of Jeremy in front and no sign of Andrew behind. I shut it down over the next mile, but probably couldn’t go any faster than 8:30 anyway. I crossed the finish line for a 6th place finish in 6:33+ almost 1 hour behind Michael Wardian in 1st (5:33+). Todd Braje held off Michael Arnstein for 2nd place.
Even though I am happy with my performance, I feel that I could have done much better with different fueling options. The Ensure worked wonderfully, as it usually does. The high calorie content tends to make up for my difficulties in taking gels or any real solid foods during the race. I need to figure out solid fuels in my preparation for Rocky Raccoon, but I might just have to be prepared to go on Ensure, powerade, water, and blocks.
After the race, I had the opportunity to talk for a length of time with Todd Braje and David James. I enjoyed a post-race brew with Andrew McDowell and Keith Straw. And most importantly, I got to share the entire experience with my family and they got to see first-hand how crazy their father really is…AGAIN!