Tuesday, October 22, 2013

New 50-mile PR at the 2013 Tussey MOUnTaiNBACK 50m

Fate steered me to the 2013 Tussey mOUnTaNBACK 50-miler in State College, PA, this year, and I had a blast joining 200+ runners for an epic journey through the autumn colored leaves of the Rothrock State Forest. Thanks to perfect weather, amazing volunteer support, and a great field of competitors, I walked away with a new 50-mile PR and a deep appreciation for Mother Nature's infinite palette.

Tussey has been on my to-do list for years now, luring me with its speedy loop course of dirt roads and praise from runners past who speak fondly of the community behind it. October is a beautiful time of year in Pennsylvania, and tends to make for perfect cool running weather too. Add in that it was once again the USATF 50-Mile Road Championship, this was a course made for a PR, new friends, and of course, great pictures! ;-)

(Rothrock State Forest)
I met Zach Bitter, the defending champion, at the pre-race dinner as he regaled us with the training required to run 5 hours 35 minutes here (do the math - that's crazy fast!). 600-mile training months, weight training, high fat diets...Zach has this race dialed. He had his eyes on Michael Wardian's CR of 5:33, but had competition from JFK winner David Riddle, and Salomon's Matt Flaherty who was having a great season. Connie Gardner was back to defend the Women's title, and the likely competition would come from Boulder, CO's Cassie Scallon who won the Lake Sonoma 50m earlier this year. But instead of sizing up the competition, all the runners were wide-eyed for one of the relay teams called Old Men of The Mountain. This eight-person crew is led by 93-year-old George Etzweiler, who changed his usual tactic of getting the highest average age (general avg ~75 yrs old...unless he has to "cradle rob" and dip into the 60-year-olds) and invited a 10-year-old girl, creating one of the most unique mixes in the race’s history. When I asked George for advice, he said "all my friends who are runners are still running...all my friends who didn't are dead. Just keep at it.". Whoa. In so many ways, this race is a celebration of running and health, perfectly assembled by Race Director Mike Casper.

(Getting ready to start in the dark)
It was a chilly 43 degrees at the 7am start, and the sun just began peeking through the trees as we shot off the starting line. Zach Bitter, Flaherty, Riddle, Joshua Finger (6:11 here last year), and Jason Bryant (2013 50-Mile Trail Masters Champ) soon set a wicked pace up the first 3-mile gradual climb, while I settled into the second pack with Cassie Scallon, triathlete Jason Baer from Vermont, and a few others. Cassie dropped us on the first descent, well on a course record pace, but we could keep her in sight thanks to the long straight stretches of road.

(Fall in Penn, photo courtesy of CDT Photo)
(Sun is coming up...maybe I can get a decent photo now!)
(Hard not to smile when it's so pretty!)
Jason Baer and I soon figured out we are both Internet e-commerce dudes, and the miles went by quickly as we swapped stories and SEO/ad optimization tricks (getting our NERD ON, baby!). In order to spare the runners around us, we also shared the joys of raising two-year-olds and the fun of mixing up triathlon and running goal races. Jason was the better climber for sure, and I was faster on the downhills, so we made a great match.

We caught Cassie around mile 18 on the longest climb of the day, and the three of us stuck together for  most of the next five miles. The sun lit up the gold and red leaves around us, creating a canopy of color. Maybe I'm just too used to the always-green redwoods, but HOLY COW it's pretty here! The pictures just don't do it justice.
(Cassey tops the big climb of the day)
I crossed through the marathon mark in 3:08, and the 50k in 3:50, before I started slowing on the climbs and had to let Cassie and Jason go. David Riddle had a nagging ankle injury and had to drop, as did Jason Bryant who was still nursing a sore back. Between starting in the dark and all these drops, I had no idea where I was placed in the race, so I just focused on staying under an 8 min/mile the best I could. The support cars that would go by every 8-10 minutes were at first a little annoying, but I soon learned it was signaling to me that Joshua Finger was slowing down in front of me, and Matthew Smith was on my tail a mile or so back. Plus they were all super courteous and giving lots of enthusiastic shouts, so I soon looked forward to them coming by.

(Canopy of gold - it was like this for miles)
As I pulled into the aid station at mile 38, I saw Joshua Finger walking with his crew and catching his breath so I sped up to run with him. He said the lead Master was 10 minutes ahead of us, then couldn't stop himself from laughing when I eased up. He soon confessed that we were the first two Masters, and saying the lead was too far ahead was one of his favorite dirty tactics. Too funny! The only reason Josh was 30 minutes behind his usual pace was because he just got over the flu a few weeks back. I confessed that any pace faster than a 6:30 min/mile was flaring up my cracked rib injury, so may the best hobbler win! Josh was gracious with his 4-time knowledge of the course, and did give me a lot of great tips for the final miles. He's really a solid dude.

(Joshua Finger cruising the farmland)
Josh's wife was crewing for him, and he got through the aid station at mile 42 so fast that he gapped me by nearly two minutes by the time I had my bottles refilled and mixed with Vitargo. I kept him in sight, using the downhills to gain ground, and could see him peeking back before hitting the last big climb. He was running the whole climb, so I did too, and blew up within a few hundred yards and had to walk to keep from passing out. At that point, he was out of sight.

(Getting it done!)
I refilled at the last aid station (mile 46) and leaned hard into the last downhill sections. I finally caught sight of Josh...just as he was crossing the finish line. Alas! But a lot of fun to play cat-and-mouse in the final miles. He shook my hand at the finish and pointed to the time clock...6:35:11, a PR by 24 minutes, and good enough for 6th overall and 2nd Master. Couldn't be happier! Well, until he told me there was beer, a stone pizza oven, and a live band just down the hill. ;-) It turned out that he pushed so hard on the last climb that he hobbled through cramps on the last downhill a minute per mile slower than me. Had it been a 51-mile championship, it could have been different!

(There's that finish line! And a new PR!)
Matt Flaherty had crushed the race for the win (5:28, CR), with Zach Bitter also beating the previous course record (5:32) and both were very pleased with their performances. Cassie Scallon had kicked hard for 3rd overall (6:24, CR), absolutely dominating the Women's division, and Jason Baer took 4th (6:31), and Josh Finger taking 5th and the Masters win (6:33). Connie Gardner won the Women's Masters crown (7:46), despite having run a 100-miler last weekend. (all results)

(Cassie Scallon becomes the USATF 50-Mile Road Champion with a blazing course record)
(New 50-Mile National Champion Matt Flaherty wins in a stunning 5:28! Makes it look good with the mustache, too. ;-)  )
As we sipped beer and enjoyed the fabulous food and music, I couldn't stop telling people how amazing the Fall colors were along the whole course. My face was still sore from smiling! A truly fantastic race all around.
(93-year-old George Etzweiler chats with 50-Mile Road Masters Champion Connie Gardner)
(Joshua Finger, Cassie Scallon, and Zach Bitter share some beers and stories)
(Mike Acer had an outstanding 50-mile debut with a sub-9 hour finish)
(Team Rolling Rock gets their green on)
My thanks to RD Mike Casper and his amazing crew and volunteers for putting on a great race, raising tons of cash for the House of Care, and giving me an excuse to see this beautiful part of the world. Highly recommended!

- SD


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Great race report and great PR -- congrats! Have been meaning to get down to PA for either Tussey or Rothrock, and now even more inspired.

      BTW - it's Cassie Scallon, not Scallion. Spell-check be damned! :)

  2. I miss the Eastern fall season - that looks like an unbelievably pretty course this time of year. Congrats on the huge PR! (And thanks for the pictures.)

  3. Good stuff. Love the photos. Congrats on the PR.

  4. Congratulations Scott! Phenomenal race, and less than a month after your Ironman to boot! Very inspiring report and performance. So close to the Master's win. See you on the trails. Sarah


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