By Mike Casper
BOALSBURG, PA, ROTHROCK STATE FOREST, OCTOBER 11, 2020—Any runner can tell you: you just can’t avoid the hills. The Tussey Mountainback 50 Mile Relay and Ultramarathon developed a modified game plan in consultation with the Bureau of Forestry to have the race happen during the continuing pandemic. It was familiar stuff: masking and distancing; solo ultrarunners, yes, but only single-household family relay teams. Husband-wife duos triumphed. Plus, the Old Men of the Mountains, a team of eight, all 65 or over, all using separate vehicles for distancing, led by their team captain, centenarian George Etzweiler, took part in their 14th straight Mountainback.
Junior and Senior Conquest
The age range was wide, but there was unity in an unfettered zeal for kicking it in the outdoors. That was the story for Etzweiler, from State College, and 15-year-old Kaylee Frederick, from Johnstown.
On his own, George has set world records at the upward spiraling Mt. Washington Road Race. A retired engineering professor from Penn State, George recruits his team aiming for a high average age. This year’s team included four at the decades: 100, 90, 80, and 70. He plots out the elevation gain and distance on each of the course’s 12 segments to estimate the time for each runner’s effort. And George drives his own car.
If youth brings vigor, Frederick evokes the unassuming, matter-of-fact approach of a high school soccer player—which she is—who’s just been dropped off for a changeup workout. Despite two 50Ks and a previous 50 miler under her belt, she knew this course would serve up a dollop of hills.
Etzweiler and Frederick had a chance to chat at Whipple Dam (Mile 11) after George completed his relay leg, four minutes faster than he had expected. Perhaps Frederick took this to heart. She vanquished the rolling 50 miles—and sprinted the final 100 meters.
Savor a Challenge
The men’s ultramarathon race brought out both distance veterans and newbies. Brock Butler, from Chester Springs, had posted 2:25 in last year’s Berlin Marathon and 4th in the 2018 UROC 100K. Matt Vosburgh, from Brooklyn, NY, had won the most recent Can Lake 50M and Ghost Town Trail Challenge, and Paul Jacobs, from Washington, DC, had notched four Ultra wins in the last year. Joshua Finger, from Spring City, PA, had two recent wins of his own and was in for his seventh Mountainback. Mark Puleo, from State College, who posted a 2:44 Boston Marathon in 2017, was in for his first 50 miler.
On the women’s side, Kathleen Cusick, from Indian Harbour Beach, FL, was toeing the line for her eighth Mountainback, including several third place national championship finishes. Miquela Ingalls, from State College, freshly transplanted from stints in Boulder and Pasadena, was ready for a new challenge, her first 50 miler. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, besides a lot.”
Beginning at 7 a.m., five waves dispatched from the start under cool air as the skies lightened. This year’s race took runners in the course’s original counterclockwise direction on 82% unpaved fire roads, with just over a mile of elevation gain in Central Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest.
“Having the advantage of training on the course this summer, I knew generally where I could cruise and where I needed to save for climbing, but it’s always different when you put all of the legs together,” recalled Ingalls. “I absolutely love the first climb up Laurel Run, but probably went too hard on the descent to Whipple Dam [State Park]. My quads were quite unhappy with me pretty much from Mile Eight onwards.” Ingalls ran with David Kennedy for a few miles after Whipple Dam (11 miles). “He really pulled me up a long climb.” Ingalls hiked the 3.5-mile climb from Alan Seeger after Mile 20, home of some of the oldest trees in the region. “I think that was the right call. I needed every bit of energy after the halfway.” Goals do motivate. “I think I hit the 50K at 4:40, so if I had been able to hold on, I was hoping to finish—7:15. That obviously wasn’t in the cards this year.” But good enough for the win.
“With competitors broken up in waves it was impossible to know where I was at relative to everyone else,” recalled Butler, “so I set out to hold a steady effort that would put me somewhere in the low six-hour range. I yo-yo’d with Mark Puleo a bit on the first few ups and downs. He was faster going up and I was faster going down. But by 20 miles I’d separated a bit, probably due to my fast transitions through the rest stops. In hindsight, I was running a bit too fast in the first half of the race. I hit a few downhill miles in 5:40 and that probably took a toll on my legs. The central hill was tough, and I started to feel like I might be in trouble. My time at 25 miles was around 3:02 and I thought that was good because Josh Finger kept telling me “I should be sub-six hours on this course.” Well, maybe that would be true if I’d been training like I did last year when I ran a 2:25 marathon, but this year’s focus was on much shorter races and I’d been running much fewer miles.
Around 30 miles, Butler started feeling lightheaded and felt he may need to walk a bit. “I used the opportunity to take in more calories and fluids. This worked, but the second half of the race was a struggle. I never walked, but my pace dropped significantly. It was a constant battle to just keep moving. I kept telling myself that the difference between running slow and walking was huge and that I might still have a chance of placing well if I could keep running. When I got to the last rest stop [Mile 46], I was told someone from the second wave was gaining on me quickly. So I ignored the burning and cramping in my quads/hips and managed to hold sub-seven minute pace down the hills in the final segment. I had no idea the race with Paul Jacobs in Wave Four was so close. He would have beat me if I had spent a little more time at the rest stops or ran more conservatively in the final miles. Fortunately, the extra effort (and pain!) was worth it.”
Dueling Relay Duos
The relay brought husband and wife teams out for a forest frolic like no other: run six separate times each, logging about 22 or 28 miles each. In training, Torrie Raish, from Bellefonte, ran more miles than husband Adam, “so it seemed like a no-brainer to have me do the longer running,” said Torrie before the race, “but the 22 miles this year have some pretty tough legs. Ultimately, we just decided to split it the same way as last year.”
The team name can be a fun detail. Adam and Torrie’s team was dubbed “Kids for Sale.” Both had run on teams before. “In all cases, our kids have been involved,” said Torrie. “We want to include our kids in as many life experiences as possible, so we will have at least some of our kids along with us! They look forward to cheering us on and watching us suffer.” The Purple Pattersons, from State College, won the grueling Supra relay title, but Kids for Sale was less than 12 minutes behind them.
Memorable Terrain and Community
After the win, Butler reveled in the visuals. “I love the course. Running through the beautiful forests, over the hills, and into the valleys was a great way to spend the day. The gravel was a little hard to get traction on at times on the uphills but I enjoyed the soft surface going down. All the volunteers were awesome, and it was nice that crews for other athletes were so supportive of all athletes. Just great people to be around — such an awesome community.”
Ingalls agreed. “The Tussey course is gorgeous. Fall in Rothrock is a dream, and it was really nice to try a race on wide-open gravel roads. I love single track, but without the roots and rocks, it’s a different type of running and you can focus on form.”
Just being able to race was a huge bonus for many. “I’m really grateful to the race directors and volunteers,” said Ingalls, “for making this race happen in the strangest of years for in-person events. I also feel very fortunate to have such an awesome course in my backyard!”
Frederick appreciated the challenge and camaraderie. “I honestly didn’t have much time to train for this race between school, work, and soccer. I did more mental preparation knowing that it had a 12-hour cap and had a lot of hills. The toughest time for me during the race was miles 20-24 up that hill. That portion took me the longest and I was scared I wasn’t going to finish because of how long it took me. It was like the hill had to end and just kept getting bigger. I did make some great friends. That’s one of my favorite things about running, making such great friends. And it really doesn’t matter who finishes before who, because no matter what time you get, the fact that you’re out there doing it is truly outstanding.”
- Brock Butler, 43, Chester Springs, PA 6:24:45
- Paul Jacobs, 42, Washington, DC 6:26:37
- Matthew Vosburgh, 32, Brooklyn, NY 6:29:22
- Mark Puleo, 24, State College, PA 6:40:30
- David Kennedy, 21, State College, PA 7:05:35
- Joshua Finger, 47, Spring City, PA 7:10:16
- Carl Hill, 20, Arlington, MA 7:20:35
- Samuel Kirk, 38, Newtown Square, PA 7:24:31
- Paul Loomis, 50, Bloomsburg, PA 7:57:05
- Matt Mauclair, 42, Aspinwall, PA 8:01:44
- Miquela Ingalls, 30, State College, PA 7:49:32
- Kathleen Cusick, 45, Indian Harbour Beach, FL 8:01:33
- Jill Roper, 45, Wyomissing, PA 9:13:33
- Victoria Harms, 37, Baltimore, MD 9:16:20
- Kaylee Frederick, 15, Johnstown, PA 9:34:20
- Allison Abbe, 45, Boiling Springs, PA 9:59:18
- Kristen Long, 39, Kennett Square, PA 10:12:16
- Elizabeth Farry, 30, Washington, DC 10:50:20
- Jennifer Duncan, 41, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 10:51:33
- Luana Pesco Koplowitz, 65, Flemington, NJ 10:55:18
Categories: Race Coverage