MICHAEL WARDIAN WON THE RACE WITH
A TIME OF 5:33:46, MORE THAN 16
MINUTES AHEAD OF THE RUNNER-UP, AND
MORE THAN 10 MINUTES FASTER THAN THE
PREVIOUS COURSE RECORD.
STUDIO2PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTO

Wardian Skewers CR at mOUnTaiNBACK;
Gardner Claims Open and Masters Titles at 50-Mile Road Championships;
Hagerstown Quartet Snags Relay Win

BY MIKE CASPER, RD

Rothrock State Forest, PA--Michael Wardian was the picture of relaxation at the pre-race dinner before the 2011 Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK in Central Pennsylvania, held October 23, where top runners would duel for the USA 50-Mile Road Championships. In fact, this was one of the strongest fields of the year for contesting the volatile 50-mile distance.

Wardian, a three-time U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, was USA Track & Field’s Ultra Runner of the Year by the International Association of Ultra Runners. And 2011 had been his best year yet, highlighted by a second place finish at the 100K World Championships in September in the Netherlands.

Three-time 50-mile champion Frank Bozanich, 67, addressed the group and reminded the younger generation of runners that in the 1970s, his own heyday of ultramarathoning, there were no aid stations, no camelbacks, no GPS, no bottled water, no gels.

Todd Braje, defending champion and holder of the course record set last year (5:43:19), acknowledged those who would be embarking on a new adventure the next day. His advice to new and seasoned runners: recognize that ultramarathon performance is a task of problem solving--refining one’s awareness of what works and doesn’t work, so when something goes awry in the thick of it, you can make a correction that keeps you on track. Wise words for anyone.

Also on hand was David James, who last year recorded the third-best time in the history of the event at 5:52:32. This past summer, James had won the USA 100-mile trail title in Ohio. Mike Arnstein was primed for something new. In July, he had won the Vermont 100-Mile Endurance Run and, in August, he placed fourth at the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Race in Colorado.

On race morning the normally cool temps for late October had plummeted to below 40 degrees. As the race’s scenic venue, Rothrock State Forest is a place where local runners revel in the cooler temps during the summer. Today, runners were moving about to ward off the predawn chill.

The word has gotten out over the past few years that Tussey is the race to do, a course to be both celebrated for its beauty and reckoned with for its mind-bending terrain. Blind curves on several of the longer hills give false promise that you’re nearing the crest.

Beginning at the Tussey Mountain ski lodge just south of Boalsburg, PA, within 0.6 mile the course breaks from macadam and winds its way on unpaved fire roads past remote cabins to swing through small state parks, past lakes, vistas, and designated natural areas, making one giant loop before descending back to the start again.

Braje, Wardian, James, Arnstein, Joshua Finger, Jeremy Pade, and others went out together in the near darkness on the initial section, a gradual 3.2-mile climb with switchbacks. After the first crest, the route shifts to downward and rolls to Mile 11 and the first major landmark, Whipple Dam State Park. From here one plunges even deeper into the forest, and near Mile 15 begins the long hill on Beidleheimer Road that can begin to test individual thermostats.

Up to here, the lead group had kept a 6:45 pace. If Braje was here to defend, James was here to see what he could do knowing the course firsthand. And Wardian, on his first foray in Rothrock, was here to test everything.

“I started to pull away a little,” recalls Wardian, “and no one really came with me. I guess they were expecting me to have some trouble later in the race on the hills, but I have been training hard for the hills and was pretty confident that I could keep moving forward at a good clip.”

The course record set by Braje last year, which had rolled five minutes off the 2008 CR posted by Eric Grossman, was no doubt front and center for Wardian as he negotiated the hills.

At Mile 26, Wardian had etched out a three-minute lead over Braje. By Mile 36, the spread was nearly 10 minutes, and Braje was five minutes ahead of Arnstein.

Of the 5,000+ feet of elevation gain, it’s in the last fifth of the course that systems get tested. A stiff half-mile hill at Mile 40 and long climbs on the course’s out-and-back section between Miles 42 and 45 provide a good barometer for how you’re doing. Chad Ricklefs, who posted a 5:53 and the first sub-six hour time on the course in 2004, called the course “relentless.”

Wardian was seemingly oblivious: “I was really moving as the race wore on,” he remembers. “The hills were not a factor. They slowed me down for sure, but not as much as others, I think.”

By Mile 42, Wardian had amassed a lead of 15 minutes over Braje, who was staving off Arnstein but well short of his own record pace.

With the final hills behind him and just four miles to go, Wardian pumped it up, turning in six-minute miles on the last downhill clicks.

The standing CR was blown—by nearly 10 minutes.

As other finishers reached for jackets, Wardian proclaimed, “I’m not cold, I’m fired up!” and called his wife to wish her a happy anniversary.

There was at least one question that had to be asked of Wardian: Did you have anything left?

“I definitely think I could have gone faster, especially if I pushed a little earlier, but not knowing the cause and what was in store for me I was cautious.” And, characteristically, he laid out his personal challenge: “I am hoping in the next year to try and go sub 5:00 for 50 miles, so this was a good start.”

Braje was second, Arnstein third. James dropped, citing plantar fasciitis. Mark Godale took the Masters title.

The women’s race has seen records posted by Nikki Kimball, then Anne Lundbland (a Masters mark that still stands), then Devon Crosby-Helms last year.

This year the women’s race became a contest of Connie Gardner overcoming a busy fall season of considerable efforts and successes that had left her fully expended but pumped. In July, she won the 100-mile trail title, and, in September, she prevailed at the national 24-hour championships.

Gardner had taken second overall in the 50-mile championships and the Masters title here last year. Today, trained more for the 24-hour distance, she still showed her mastery of pacing, lopping more than 20 minutes off her previous posting on the course to take the women’s Open and Masters champion titles.

Megan McGrath took second. Jennifer Herbstritt, in her second turn at this distance and this course, sliced 42 minutes off her 2010 time to take third place.

A record 114 runners completed the ultramarathon.

This day was rife with personal victories, including first ultras by several local runners. Just months after completing a full treatment regimen for cancer, Emily Herring, 21, had run marathons and a 50K, but this was her first 50 miler. What better way to say “vanquished”?

Relay Highlights

In the relay division, 120 teams completed the event, including 20 all-women’s teams, and there were three new category course records. Overall honors went to CVAC Hagerstown, a men’s foursome that covered the route in 5:03:22, notching the fourth fastest Tri/Quad time and seventh fastest overall time on the course.

In the Supra category, nine teams took on the challenge. Matthew Cutts and James Mulski took the overall and men’s title in 6:30:41. Top mixed Open honors went to On the Loose (Jennifer and Travis Tennessen), and Power of Two (Kristie Kaufman and Andrew Maguire) set a mixed Masters course record.

For Tri/Quads, of 31 total teams, there were 15 men’s teams (four of these Masters), nine women’s teams, and seven mixed teams. CVAC Hagerstown took the men’s title. The women’s crown went to Three’s A Charm, who (remember they are a threesome) took 4+ minutes off the T/Q course record. The mixed title went to The More Awesomer, which slivered nearly three minutes off the category’s CR. Men’s Masters honors went to Screamin’ Tardigrades (be sure to Google and take a look at their namesake, some frightful tiny creatures).

In terms of Standard teams, there were 55, including 16 men’s (one Masters), eight women’s (one Masters), and 31 mixed teams. The men’s title went to Clem Dog Millionaires, with 12 Happy Feet snagging the women’s crown and Fifty-Fifty taking home top mixed honors. Grey Hounds and Sole Sisters represented the Masters men and women, respectively.

Among 31 Mega teams, Appalachian Outdoors took top overall and men’s honors. Eight IS Enough got the women’s title, and Speed Sold Separately had apparently purchased just enough, garnering first place in the mixed category by just 29 seconds. Bushido7 took the men’s Masters title, Avocados the mixed Masters title, and JTF 112 the Military title.

In Memoriam

The Draft Challenge Relay, a local draft that has gained popularity for involving runners of all stripes and paces in friendly team competition, had 10 Standard teams participating in this year’s event. Tragically, one of these runners, Ed Thompson, went down during his second leg. Ed suffered a heart attack. He was aided almost immediately by other runners in the vicinity, and minutes later on the on-site EMS staff arrived. Sadly, Ed did not survive.

Because Ed’s presence meant so much to so many, from the other DCR runners to the local Nittany Valley Running Club and the overall community, an outpouring of emotion took the form of group memorial runs, acknowledgements of the singular impact of Ed’s life, and donations to the family’s chosen charity, Omega Psi Phi fraternity. While the grief and loss made this day extremely difficult and its accomplishments bittersweet, we are united in recognizing that Ed died passionately engaged in an activity he truly loved--running. He will be remembered always as honoring this event with his energy, passion, generosity, and fellowship.

Editor's Note: The RG family extends condolences to Ed Thompson's family and friends.