By Mike Casper
BOALSBURG, PA, OCTOBER 31, 2021—Wacky weather greeted this day—so what else is new? Light rain from before daylight and for the first hours of the race dampened the early going on this 50-mile single loop on mostly unpaved fire roads in Central Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest, though it abated by late morning and some rays of sunlight broke through in the afternoon.
The Ultramarathoner’s Mantra: Staying Power
Charles Remillard’s first foray at the Tussey Mountainback was also his official entry into ultramarathon racing. An Olympic Trials marathoner who has also run the Colorado Trail in 10 days, Denver’s Remillard had just come off an intense training cycle for the marathon. He ran the first half of the race with Tim Mateer, whose friends and brother crewed him. “We hadn’t seen each other in over two years, so it was great to catch up.”
Remillard kept a seven-minute pace and he and Mateer had a 10-minute lead at Mile 20, just before the course’s 3.5-mile climb. “The constant ups and downs in elevation on the course really beat up my legs! I had to walk a good portion of the last uphill (near Mile 45) and I knew I could run the downhills, but I also knew that they were really going to hurt. However, at that point I wanted to win so I knew I was just going to need to suck up the pain on the downhills.” Post-race perspective has great powers. “I initially thought I had no desire to ever do a 50-mile race again; however, I am once again intrigued!”
Having won the ultramarathon race last year, women’s winner Miquela Ingalls knew the lay of the land, but the early rain didn’t help. “Because of being cold and wet, my quads didn’t warm up by the time I reached the top of Laurel Run, and my cold quads really took a beating on the seven-mile descent to Colyer Lake. By the time I was climbing Broad Mountain I thought I may have actually strained my left quad and was worried I’d DNF. Every step on an incline or decline (so, most of the course) felt like a stabbing pain in my left quad and made fast descents impossible.” Ingalls took some ibuprofen at about mile 28 “and this made a world of difference. The cold rain was unfortunate and probably took a toll on all of us in different ways, but it’s just part of the game!”
Second overall and first place military, Carl Hill, a midshipman with Penn State’s Naval ROTC, had run the 2020 ultramarathon race and was clear about the difference racing with others makes. “I ran the first several miles with my friend, Ian Adams. Running that first climb with a friend was outstanding, as Ian (and Laurel Run Road) shook out all of the pre-race jitters with jokes and smiles.”
During the first 11 miles on Laurel Run Road, Hill met seasoned Mountainback ultramarathoner Mike Renz. “I changed my race strategy after he gave me invaluable advice. He recommended for me to walk the steepest parts of the climbs, which saved my legs in the later miles.” Around the course’s 3.5-mile climb near Mile 20, Hill met Nick Bodner, a general contractor and retired from the Army, who also was doing his second Mountainback. “Nick told me some good stories about his time in the service. We shared some good laughs and established a strong atmosphere for the rest of the run.” For his part, Bodner unceremoniously lopped 40 minutes off his own 2020 finishing time.
Hill was ecstatic about the support on the course. “I am very, very, very appreciative of the volunteers who helped me refill my water bottle and gave me all the needed encouragement at every single aid station. Their work is not glamorous, taking care of my wrappers and trash in cold rain. Yet, the race would be impossible without the volunteers. Additionally, the race would have been impossible without my friends. They were at every station and were the reason why the race was so enjoyable.”
Sixteen-year-old soccer player Kaylee Frederick not only ran a strong race, this was a return tour of the 50-mile course after her first go-round last year, a time she eclipsed by 44 minutes. “I knew I was doing well when I got to Leg 6 and felt immensely better than I did last year. Leg 6 was the biggest challenge for me, but this year I thought I knocked it out of the park. The hardest leg for me this year was the shortest leg, Leg 9. I just started to struggle a little, but still felt good. And when I got to the aid station at Mile 35, I knew I could get a sub-9. I had about three hours to do 15 miles and I knew the last four would fly by.” Frederick sprinted the last 100 meters last year, and this year turned on those jets again. “I feel like I went even faster than last year. Something about my brain shuts off all pain when I see the finish line and makes me go as fast as possible, even though just moments before I was in pain.”
The COVID pandemic has left many people with long-haul challenges, including some runners. Kathleen Cusick, who has run the Mountainback 10 times, is one, and she persevered. “I have had health challenges since April that are still a mystery, but my doctors are now thinking it is the long-haul. This is the first race I had done in months, as I literally have to take it day by day. I could not run much at all over the summer, and my legs and lungs still struggle. However, I love Tussey and was prepared to walk the entire thing if necessary! Luckily, this was not the case. The race unfolded well for me; I focused especially hard on keeping my posture up and my lungs open. I swim and do a lot of pushups, but my back was still sore the next day! I did not look at my watch once during the race and was pleasantly surprised when I crossed the finish line to see my time, while far from my best, was also far from my worst. I love this course and took immense pleasure in being able to experience it all again. Running and races were once something I took for granted, and with the health challenges I have learned to be happy and grateful for whatever I can do.”
Last year, the relay division was limited to ultras and single-household family teams due to the pandemic. This year’s modified protocols enabled relay teams of 2-8 runners to take part.
As members of Club Cross Country at nearby Penn State, Sean Farahani’s 5-person relay team, Mountain Mangs, are seasoned runners, but this was their first time doing the Mountainback race.
“We had a really fun time duking it out with the second-place team, ‘Lethal Weapons,’” recalled Farahani. “They were great runners and really challenged us. After the first leg we were neck and neck with those guys. We took a lead over the next few legs, but during the 5th leg, they overtook us. During the 6th leg, Brendan Morgan took the lead back for us, and from there on out we felt strong going into the finish.”
Farahani noted how Ma Nature and logistics can play a role in the relay. “There were at least two legs where our next leg was running straight from the bathroom to grab the baton from the previous leg.”
Just 10 minutes back, Lethal Weapons was second overall and won the military relay division.
Full Psych Adventure Team from Pittsburgh had their own creative experience. “The race went great as a team,” said Sally Sherman. Because they are used to running together as a team, the relay scenario provided motivation to run faster to rejoin their teammates sooner. “Our goal throughout the race was to catch our teammate, Chelsea Cameron, who was doing the 50 miler, therefore started one hour before our relay team. We caught her around Mile 30 and were so happy to see her! From that point forward, the relay runner stayed on course with Chelsea and we were all back together as a team.” Sherman said the best part of racing as Full Psych Adventure Team is cheering for other runners all day. “To be fully psyched is to be encouraging and excited no matter how hard the circumstances. We try to spread that to other teams and athletes everywhere we go. As our last relay racer finished with Chelsea, we stayed out in the dark and cheered in the final racers, even getting to send a teammate out to finish with Abby Lanager as she completed her first 50. She was dressed as Red Riding Hood all day and finished as the Big Bad Wolf. We loved spending the day out there with her so we wanted to be there with her family as she finished.” It’s a small world, too. Sherman said that Lorelei even got to see her 5th grade teacher, who was racing in another relay team. “We loved the views,” Sherman added, “the woods that looked like enchanted forests, and the friendliness of all of the racers, volunteers, and course personnel.”
For Lanager, this first 50 miler was memorable. “I still think about that entire day and cannot believe the challenges I overcame to finish. It was one of the best days, ever! I was just over a week shy of nine months postpartum on race day.” And she was buoyed by the support. “That team was the best group of people that I could have met. If it weren’t for them and my now husband (who was my vehicle support), I don’t know if I could have finished. My family talks about that team every time we gather and the Mountainback comes up! They got to meet everyone at Colyer Lake and the finish line! I’m so grateful for their big, positive spirits!” Lanager changed into the Big Bad Wolf (an appropriate transformation as she prepared to show the course who was boss) at the final aid station.
Siblings Kellie Seaton and Emily Koehle took sisterhood to the bank, racking up the overall women’s relay win as a twosome. And while inspiration can sprout from many sources, witnessing the athletic prowess of a 101-year-old relay runner is unique among them.
“Emily was running Leg 5 at the same time as George Etzweiler, which was very inspirational,” said Seaton. “The best running moment for me was when I reached the flatter section at the top of Leg 6 (about Mile 24). I had been dreading that leg since I didn’t train on any hills, but after taking some nice walking breaks on the steeper section, it was a relief both that it leveled out and that I actually still felt pretty good.”
And then there’s the inspiration of a new baby. “Emily’s husband and daughter were able to meet us at Whipple Dam and Colyer Lake, and seeing a smiley baby was great encouragement, especially towards the end of the race.”
Seaton could aptly market the duo version of the relay. “The course and scenery were great. I definitely recommend the two-person relay experience. There’s just enough transition time to get a little bit of recovery in, and that combined with the different levels of difficulty for each leg, and having a team member waiting for you, make the finish line seem closer than running a solo marathon.”
The mixed relay top honors went to Deep Six Racing, participating for their 13th year. “We have had different people run different years,” said Matt Kisenwether, also a member of the original team, “but the core group is the same.” Kisenwether said the race is a kind of reunion for the team when race day comes around.
Senior Wisdom Personified
In their 15th consecutive year at it, The Old Men of the Mountains, George Etzweiler’s team of stalwart seniors (seven men and one woman, average age 78), negotiated the rollicking 50-miles with smiles and grace. Etzweiler is 101 years young.
Etzweiler’s relay leg this year was “The Breeze,” not a walk in the park, but a 3.4-mile jaunt from Gettis Ridge Road to Alan Seeger Natural Area. Post-race, Etzweiler continues to keep fit, with a fast walk three days a week on Laurel Run Road and a gym workout two days a week.
Supporting Families in Need
This year’s Tussey Mountainback event raised $9,098 in support of CommonFood Centre County. CommonFood is a nonprofit, all-volunteer group whose key mission is to resource underserved and under-employed elderly, single parent families, and low-income families in western Centre County and neighboring areas with nutritious food and related services. For more information about CommonFood Centre County, visit https://www.commonfoodcentrecounty.com/.
The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau is a major sponsor of the Tussey Mountainback. Key sponsors also include KCF Technologies, Rapid Transit Sportswear, Wegmans, Steven Bodner Team of RE/MAX Centre Realty, Subway Restaurants, Appalachian Outdoors, PYP Studio, Tussey Mountain Family Fun Center, East Coast Health & Fitness, and The Sign Stop.
Mark your calendars for 2022: The first Tussey Teaser of 2022 comes on February 5, the Colyer Lake ’Sno Big Deal 10K, for which it is “very, very, very likely” that there will be snow on the unmaintained part of the out-and-back course. Next year’s Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 Mile Relay and Ultramarathon event is set for October 16, 2022. Registration opens Dec. 25, 2021. Just for the hill of it!
Race Results here.
Categories: Race Coverage