I first heard about this race back in 2014 while an undergrad at Penn State. The event had a strange allure about it, and I was awe-struck at the crazy people that chose to run hours through the unforgiving terrain. Fast-forward eight years, I am now one of those crazy people toeing the line.
The Tussey MountainBack race is at a location near and dear to my heart, Rothrock State Forest. Residing on the outskirts of Penn State, I would often come here to hike, bike, or run in college.
We got into the town of State College Friday afternoon after a hectic day of fighting traffic on I-95. However, as a consolation prize, Pennsylvania was in peak leaf-peeping season and provided a getaway from NC’s lingering summer.
The race was on Sunday, and I had a full day to dust off the travel fatigue and take a stroll down memory lane on the PSU campus.
As Sunday rolled around, I set two main goals for this race:
- Run my own race
- Have fun
At the start line, 60 min before the race.
Miles 0 to 3 — Up, up, up
I couldn’t have asked for a better morning for race day. It was overcast, cool weather, and almost no wind.
At 9 am, the race director kicked off the start of the 31.1 miles, and I immediately got to the front with another runner to make the lead pack.
The first three miles ascend the mountain’s gravel backroads. A mile in, the runner next to me began pushing forward. I knew it would be a poor decision to push the pace this early, so I let a gap form. Cresting the mountain around mile 3, the first aid station arrived at the bend.
Miles 4 to 11 — Down, down, down
After passing over the ridge, I began the long and steady descent to Whipple Dam. I could still see the lead runner ahead of me, but even with some faster miles, he was still building a gap. I checked behind to see if there were any runners nearby. No one was in view. I faced the fact that I would largely be in no man’s land during the race.
The miles of downhill took a toll on the quads, but passing the 11th-mile marker, I still had plenty left in the tank. Getting closer to halfway.
Miles 12 to 19 — Maintain
Around mile 12, the hills started creeping back into the picture, which was a rude awakening after the past 90 minutes of descending. Fatigue was building, but at an amount I expected — no warning signs. I focused on keeping my momentum going and staying on top of nutrition.
Miles 20 to 25 — The low point
Around mile 20, the trail took a sharp left, and ahead, I saw the beginning of the switchbacks leading up to the next mountain. Skimming the elevation profile of the race beforehand, I knew this climbing was waiting for me, and I was prepared to put up a fight.
A mile into the climb, the quads were burning. All I wanted to do was stop and lay down in the leaves. I began my pain-management tactic of breaking down the race into bite-size chunks.
“Make it to that massive oak tree.”
“Make it to the hairpin turn.”
“Hold this pace for 2 minutes.”
“Hold this pace for 100 steps.”
I tried to ignore that I still had around 10 miles left to race and was focusing on the little efforts. This was something I learned from my first ultra.
As I got closer to the top of the mountain, I passed several outlooks. I smiled since it reminded me of my second goal at one of my lowest points. Have fun. I smiled, yelled out, “It’s a beautiful day!” and continued trudging up the mountain.
At mile 25, I finally reached the top of the mountain and was so relieved. However, things weren’t over yet.
Miles 26 to 31.1 — Finishing it off
My body was fatigued, and my mind was exhausted, but at least I had a short reprieve along the ridge leading to the last mountain. Only 5 miles and one last climb separated me from the finish.
I muscled through the last several hundred feet of climbing and made it to the top of the last mountain before the final descent.
My hamstrings and quads were tightening up during the final descent, so I adjusted to a short quicker cadence. I thought back almost four hours earlier when I was climbing the mountain I was now descending. I was so happy to be almost done.
Making it to the bottom of the mountain, the last stretch was to the Tussey Mountain Ski Lodge. Ahead, I could see the banner of the starting line and the final turn. I mustered up all I had left in my legs and ran through the finish corral.
I completed the race with a time of 4:12:06 in 2nd place.
I am so grateful to have family and friends there for support. A huge thank you to Hannah, Mr. & Mrs. Riehl, Kate, and Kyle!
It feels incredible to have finished my second ultra-marathon, and now, after a couple of weeks post-race, I’m excited to look ahead to the next challenge — the MST 50 Miler in March 2023!
Race and training details for the running nerds 🤓
I aimed to take in calories every 30 minutes and around 250–300 calories per hour.
For fuel, I alternated between Spring Awesome Sauce packets and Maurten Gels. For fluids, I stuck to one 500 ml bottle having plain water and another 500 ml containing tailwind electrolyte powder (~200 cal.)
I didn’t take any caffeine during the race.
I had no GI issues or bonking, so I would say the fueling strategy was a success!
In the lead-up to the race, I was still worried about my over-use injury from earlier this year, so my training revolved around mostly easy runs with two key workout sessions each week. I avoided two-a-days since I wanted to give my legs more time to recover between runs.
Looking back, I wish I had focused more on ascending strength because this was the area I suffered most from in the race. Since I don’t live near mountains, I still need to find a local alternative for this training.
Out of all the new updates to my training routine, strength and conditioning made the biggest difference. I felt stronger during uptempo workouts, and it helped me avoid any injuries as I started ramping my mileage up.
After every run, I would do a strength routine that focused mainly on the glute and IT band regions. This consisted of side-leg raises, single-leg squats, hamstring raises, clamshells, and kettlebell exercises.
I am planning to keep this up moving forward.