BOALSBURG Pennsylvania, October 20 2013
- Fallback goal: Finish
- Ambitious goal: Don’t be the last finisher
- Dream goal: Finish in under 11 hours
“Nuh-uh, they don’t have races that long!” says co-worker K. when I explain why I’m gimping down the hall. “Oh, I assure you,” I reply, “they do.”
I was undertrained going into the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 miler, as I always am for marathons and ultras. I was a little concerned about the 12 hour time limit, but I had done some research into comparative finishing times at this race versus the BRR 50, and it looked like people who’d run both tended to finish a little faster at Tussey. I’d finished BRR in 11:07, so I figured I should be able to sneak in under the time limit even given my questionable fitness.
The weather is perfect on race day. The day before the weather report had been showing rain all morning for Sunday, but when the sun rose there was nary a drop to be seen, and this condition held throughout the day. The temperature was in the low 40s, maybe even dipping down into the 30s, but it was slated to rise up to maybe 55 or so. I thought I might wear two shirts while running, but just before the gun I ditched the long sleeves and went with just a very thin tech t-shirt. This turned out to be the right decision; I was comfortable most of the day.
Tussey Mountain is a little unusual in that it is both a relay race and an ultra. All of the relay teams and many of the ultra runners had support vehicles, which shared the course with us, each vehicle leapfrogging ahead of its runner to meet them at the next aid station/transition zone. This got annoying very quickly, but mostly was not a big hindrance. The support crews also felt the need to shout encouragement at all the runners, which was nice, but having to acknowledge each “whoo, go ultra!” with a wave or a fist pump or a salute got old in short order. This would go on throughout the race.
As we line up to start I spot a sixty-something-looking Asian lady and I think “as long as you don’t pass me I am good”. Then I see a kind of hippie-looking dude, probably late fifties, pony tail, skinny legs. “I’m beating you for sure.” The Asian lady would pass me at around mile 25, loping along at a steady pace as I suffered through an extended walking spell. It would be ten miles more before the hippie dude was to pass me.
After a brief downhill start, the next three miles were all uphill. At each mile marker I stopped and walked for one minute – this was my new strategy for preserving my legs, which always fail me in the latter half of long races. I felt a little goofy when I was the only one walking 10 minutes into the race, but I found that I didn’t lose any net position to any other runners. When I started back running I would leapfrog all of those who had passed me during the walk breaks. The first mile passed very quickly, and the next two only slightly less so. I had barely broken a sweat when we crested the hill and arrived at AS 1.
An easy four mile downhill. Time to get some cushion in the bank. I do easy mid-eights all the way down. I chat for a while with a couple young men who I think were doing their first ultra, or at least their first 50M. They tell me it looks like I’ve done this before, and ask me about my run/walk strategy. “One minute walk at every mile marker,” I tell them, “but I’ll probably skip it on this downhill.” I run past them and don’t look back. I am on pace to finish in eight hours, but I have no illusions that this will last. The fastest time I will let myself dream about is 10 hours, but I don’t really give this number any credence either.
There is a short out-and-back section to get to AS2. On the way in I get a hand slap from some random guy. On the way back out I spot the two young men I’d chatted with earlier. The rest of this section is not very memorable, just flat and easy. I saw a small snake, long dead and its body driven down level with the surface of the road by passing cars. This made me sad; it seemed so improper, undignified. I wanted to grab the body up and at least fling it off to the side of the road where it could rest a little more peacefully. I wound up just running on.
This was the leg where I’d planned to start doing some extended walking, and I adhered to this plan. I think it was on this leg that I met J., a very nice young woman from Ottawa whom I’d wind up leapfrogging most of the rest of the way. We chatted for a while. I asked her her time goal and she told me she was hoping to use this race as a qualifier for Western States. “So, eleven hours, then?” I asked her, and she nodded, looking a bit startled that I was nerdy enough to know this off the top of my head. I mentioned that at least the cool weather must be comfortable for her, given her origins, but she said it had been a warm year so far, so she was not really acclimated to the cold.
The first wave of relay runners had started an hour behind us, and I had predicted I’d see the first one passing me around mile 15. This turns out to be very close; a guy with the white bib indicating relay teams barrels past me at about mile 15.3.
I don’t remember much at all about this leg. The splits from my watch show that I was keeping a fairly decent pace, even though I was probably continuing my “run one mile, walk one minute” strategy. I think it was somewhere in here, or maybe the previous leg, where the two young men from the early legs pass me. I offer them an encouraging word as they go by. I felt OK pulling into AS 5.
Going into this leg I expected to walk the whole thing, and this is pretty much what I did, aside from a little running near the beginning, and a brief pride-jog into AS 6 at the end. I dropped J. near the beginning of this climb, but she’d catch me before too long. For most of the three miles of this hill I chatted with A., a nice guy who had done some three or four 50 milers, but was here for the first time. He claimed time goals that were similar to mine, but he’d wind up beating me by a little over an hour. When the grade of the hill started to level off he was ready to run before I was, and we wished each other well as he trotted up ahead. “That sucked!” I advise the volunteers when I finally reach the aid station, and we exchange grins.
Most of the scenery so far has been undifferentiated – gravel road with trees lining both sides. Pleasant, but far from spectacular. This changes here in this leg. About midway through the trees open up onto fantastic vistas on either side. A volunteer whom I recognize from some previous aid stations is standing here near her parked car, admiring the view. “This makes it all worthwhile,” I say to her, and she indicates agreement.
I think it’s somewhere early in this leg where U., the lady I’d picked out as an easy mark at the start line, catches me then drops me like a hot squat. I want to try to hang with her, but I have no response. She trots easily ahead and disappears around the next bend.
But somewhere before the vista and the volunteer my legs start to wake up a little. I have a habit of counting steps when I get tired – usually I will count them in bundles of 100, but I don’t keep strict track of how many bundles I’ve notched. It’s just a way to pass the time while dividing the race up into very short segments. During this stretch, though, my focus narrowed down to sets of only four steps. “ONE two THREE four, ONE two THREE four,” over and over and over again. This had an almost hypnotic effect, and I kept up a steady running rhythm without stopping much to walk. Somewhere in this leg we pass the marathon distance and transition into ultra runners.
I am starting to flag. J. catches up to me again and says I must be sick of seeing her. I smile and say she’ll drop me for good before too long. she expresses polite doubt.
The terrain here is not too challenging, but the cumulative distance is. I see a couple woolly caterpillars blundering across the road, and I toss them back off to the side – I don’t mind taking the time now. We pass the 50K distance before we get to the aid station. I am hurting pretty bad. My goals have been tempered – I vacillate between thinking I’ll be lucky to finish and thinking I may be able to eke out 11:30 and maybe avoid DFL. After partaking of the aid station I ask the volunteers how far to AS 9 and they tell me it’s only 2.9 miles. “That’s it? Pfft, hardly worth doing!” I am trying to keep my game face on.
Death march. I am lit up, I am done. Nobody can run 50 miles. I’ll drop at AS 9. No, I have enough cushion that I can easily make the last cutoff at AS 10, but I’ll time out before I get to the finish. Maybe I’ll sit at AS 10 and rest for a while, maybe 30 or 40 minutes. Maybe I won’t want to get up and continue on.
I stop a few times and lean on my knees. I can’t finish this race, I am done. I pluck a few more woolly caterpillars out of harm’s way. I think not all of them are living.
This race has 12 legs and a time limit of 12 hours. One hour per leg, I had thought when planning my strategy. I figured I could probably build a two hour cushion over the first 4 or 5 legs and then try to hold on over the second half. I never got up to two, but I was hovering around 1.25 to 1.5 for a long time. I was still in that range when I staggered into AS 9, but this had been the shortest segment of the whole race. A volunteer calls out “What can we get you?” and I reply “You got an IV and a gurney?” She laughs, heartily and sincerely, and offers me a nurse instead. I later think I should have replied “That doesn’t sound too comfortable, but if that’s all you’ve got I’ll lie down on her,” but I am not that quick-witted even when I haven’t just run 35 miles.
The hippie dude I’d targeted at the start line passes me by while I am trying to snarf some calories and electrolytes. He looks pretty fresh, at least compared to me. He rolls on.
I ask the volunteer to confirm that the cutoff for AS 10 is 10 hours, but she is not sure.
J. drops me for good somewhere early in this leg. We leapfrog for a little bit, she complaining of IT band issues and I of calf cramps, but I also have dead quads and soon I can’t answer when she pulls ahead. This section is mostly downhill, but it is a long, slow slog on my useless, dead legs. In desperation I take a couple of ibuprofen tablets – I’ve never gotten much benefit from them in the past, but I am willing to try anything to reduce the suffering.
The last mile or two comes out on paved road, and there are homes and lawns and fences. The change of scenery gives a sense of progress, and I start to feel marginally better. I meet up with guy who is also complaining of IT band problems, and I offer to swap him mine for a pair of quads, which garners a laugh.
As I hobble into AS 10 there are cheers from the volunteers and the relay teams waiting for their runners to arrive. I do what is becoming my standard trick: I extend my arms low, palms up, and wave them up and down in the universal “come on, let’s hear it!” gesture. Works every time – they cheer louder, and I pump my fists over my head in response. My mood improves another notch. I also realize that the mile markers now start with a “4”. Yet another notch.
A girl in her early teens is manning the aid station. I try to one-up my gurney joke by asking her if she has a coffin I can use, but this falls kind of flat. She offers me a chair instead. Avoiding my premonition I decline. “Thanks, but I have to keep moving.” This AS has Apple Cinnamon Hammer gel and it tastes like the sweetest nectar imaginable. I suck one down and take another for the road.
I am a little over nine hours into the race – I’ve got an hour cushion left on the “one hour per leg” schedule, and I think I’ll need all of it.
“Oh come on!” Most of the aid stations have the elevation chart for the next leg posted on their table, and this is not what I want to see. A hefty 5.3 miles to AS 11, most of it uphill. “Yeah, but then it’s all downhill from there,” a volunteer reminds me, and I head out with a resigned “okayyyyyy”.
The volunteer checking numbers at the front of the aid station directs me back onto the course and says “see if you can catch up to that next guy and give him some encouragement; he looked pretty rough.” I accede to this plan and trot off after the guy. Having a target in my sights improves my mood yet further, and I catch up to the guy in short order. “How you feeling, brother?” “Mumble wumble PAIN,” is all I hear in response. “Uh, well, hang in there buddy!” Lame, but it’s all I can muster.
I am able to do a little running here and there. I catch up to a relay runner and mention that I think she has the worst leg of the race – she gets the nasty uphill and the next runner gets four miles of down and the glory of crossing the finish line. She doesn’t seem to mind. We chat for a while, then she gets up ahead. I catch another relay runner, though, and I give her the same line about drawing the short straw and winding up with leg 11. She says that she mostly does half marathon distance or below, but she got talked into the 2014 Hyner View trail Challenge 25k. “Watch out for the first hill,” I warn her, “it will change your world.”
Something strange happens right about this time. We’re at mile 41 or 42. The upward trend of this leg is interrupted by a brief downhill. Without much hope or expectation, I try my running legs as the road starts to slope down and I find that somehow they’ve risen from the dead. I feel fresh, like I just stepped out the door. Was it the ibuprofen, the cheering crowd at AS 10, the Apple Cinnamon gel? Was it the ego boost from catching the relay runners? The good conversation? The paved road after so much dirt and gravel? I’ll never be able to say for sure, but I felt fantastic. I lean into the hill. “A wise man told me ‘don’t waste the downs’!” I call over my shoulder to the girl I’d been running with, and I am gone.
I know I will finish. Eleven and a half hours seems very doable. I am running even much of the ups, and power-hiking the rest. I catch up to and pass the relay runner I’d chatted with early in the leg. “You’re digging deep, sir!” she calls after me. “Got my fifth wind!” I run on.
There’s a long climb near the end, and I walk all the way up it, trying to save my energy for the final push. My legs are tiring only slightly; I still feel good. I might even beat 11:15. I run into AS 11 determined to just grab some water and go.
I linger a little, grabbing water and some pretzels. My watch reads 10:15! There’s 4.2 miles to go, almost all downhill. Amazingly, the eleven hour goal is back on the table. It’ll take a gutty effort, but this can be done.
The attempt on 11 hours starts inauspiciously as I head the wrong way out of the aid station. I get some 20 yards away before I hear the volunteers calling me back. Oops. Reoriented and chastened, I head out the right way. I see the second relay runner I’d chatted with and call out “See you at Hyner next year!”
Near the top of the brief uphill that starts the leg I catch sight up ahead of Mr. Natural, the hippie dude I thought had dropped me for good. I steadily close the gap on him and catch him shortly before the mile 47 marker. “This is about to be the slowest 5k I’ve ever run,” I tell him, earning a hearty chuckle. “That’s right, man, but we’re getting there!” “Git ‘er done!” is the dopey thing that comes out of my mouth; I am giddy with having a goal, and from the effort required to meet it. “Gettin’ it done!” replies Mr. Natural to Mr. Clean.
Very soon we hit pavement. Two and a half miles or so to go. I can run this all the way in, I have to run this all the way in. The phrase that keeps running through my head is one I hate: “gut check”. But it keeps me focused somehow. Up ahead there is a cluster of three ultra runners that I might catch before the end. Stay under 10 minute miles and this is in the bag.
Two miles of down to go. Less than twenty minutes. I haven’t caught the cluster yet, but the distance is closing. Don’t stop to walk, you may not be able to start again.
One mile left. You can’t walk in the last mile, no matter what. It’s a done deal, I’ll finish under 11. The cluster is just up ahead. I converge on them and a female runner as we reach the last turn back to the finish. The woman is momentarily confused by two conflicting arrows at this turn, but I tell her that one of them is the one we followed at the start this morning. “Hey, you can do another loop if you want,” says one of the cluster runners to general laughter. The cluster and I are moving faster than the woman at this point, but as we pass I encourage her to push and get in under 11 hours. “I don’t need it,” she says. I’m not sure if she means that she has her WS qualifier already, or if she is just not hung up on arbitrary round number goals. She will go on to finish under 11 anyway.
Just ahead I catch up to the two young runners from early in the race. One of them is obviously hurting, stiff-leggedly hobbling down the course. “Been a while since I’ve seen you guys,” I call out, and they allow as how that’s the case.
There’s a short rise at the end, but we can see the banner over the finish line. The cluster pulls ahead and I let them go – I have my goal in hand. There are people lining the finish area, cheering. In the last 50 yards I break into huge, goofy strides, mugging for the crowd, which roars its approval. Then I sprint across the line, finishing in 10:56:20. I have met every one of my goals – including (by 2 seconds!) my standard goal of finishing in less than double the time of the winner – which means I set them too low. I’ll adjust them next time.
“Can I get a fist bump?” One of the cluster is walking over to me, and I offer him a clumsy bro fist. “Man, where did that come from? We thought you were dead!” I didn’t recognize them, but they must have passed me during my death march miles and seen how bad I was struggling.
I meet J. in the food tent. “How’d you do?!?” we ask each other. She finished in something like 10:46, achieving her WS qualifier. She congratulates me on my time and reminds me that I am now WS qualified as well. I tell her that I don’t want to run it, but she seems to think I should give it a try anyway. I will probably put my name into the lottery – there’s usually less than a 10% chance to get in, so I should be pretty safe.
The post-race food was delicious.
Back in my car, I took my time changing my clothes and shoes as the last few finishers straggled in.
It was a pleasant drive back to Manassas.