Races are rarely magical experiences for me. I spend more time than I should daydreaming about the ones that really appeal to me, for whatever reason, varied as they are in distance and terrain. And, when I get it in my head to attain some golden level of accomplishment-- whether it be a sub-22:00 5k, to break 4 hours in a marathon, finish a 100 miler, or whatever it may be, I generally get it done regardless of the naysayers' feedback or how unrealistic and in some cases-- truly fantastical it is, probably because of the obsessiveness with which I hone in on it. I love running, particularly trail running, and I've been running for a long time. I take most of my races seriously. But, they're rarely perfectly played hands in a deck that often seems to be stacked against me.
I threw in the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler as, literally, an act of desperation. I'd blown up around 70 miles at both Mohican and Burning River over the summer, and knew I wasn't prepared for 100 at Woodstock either and elected to drop down to the 100k. While I'd come out of O24 with a decent showing-- 100k under 14 hours and a total of 85 miles, timed events aren't the big Kahuna in ultra running and don't count as qualifiers for the bigger, more prestigious events. I didn't actually want to run Western States in 2014, but I did want my name in the hat. Every year I didn't get picked, I had one more chance the following year, providing I qualified again. Tussey was going to be my last chance this year, and I only had to beat 11 hours to do it.
I'd trained poorly since I got injured in late April, mostly 40 mile weeks with bouts of exclusive cross-training, but became fixated on a sub-10 hour finish at Tussey. I think, in part, it was my disappointment with having failed to do this at O24 (I reached 50 miles in 10:26 there), but really it was just an awed appreciation for a single-digit finish time. I played out countless scenarios in my head, imagined every possible roadblock and ache and pain, and no matter how I rolled the dice-- it looked feasible, despite the doubt with which I was met when I announced my intention. I might as well have announced my plan to colonize Uranus.
But, the time passed quickly, and before I knew it, the weekend was upon me. I'd spent the preceding week on a strict ketogenic diet, and felt calmer and healthier than I'd been for months. By the time I took off for State College, PA, I was at my lowest weight in 12 months, and felt as ready as I could've hoped to be. I'd booked a room in the scariest hotel within a 40 mile radius where dogs barked from the neighboring rooms, and there were suspicious large stains on the hallway carpet, the scent of mothballs permeating the air, and an eerie flickering light at the end of the corridor. After picking up my race packet, I deadbolted my door and watched really bad Lifetime movies in late hours of the night, shamelessly eating Slim Jims and cashews until my stomach hurt. I woke up at 5am and wondered if I'd made a mistake. It was cold outside, and I was still tired. Choosing 50 miles in the cold over a couple more hours in a warm bed really felt stupid.
Less than two miles into the race, I was trotting behind Burning River race director Joe Jurczyk and fellow local ultrarunner John Delcalzo, and the reality of my unrealistic goal hit home like a bulldozer. We'd been running uphill for at least a mile already, and I could see that the winding dirt road ahead of us was going to continue uphill indefinitely. I couldn't run; I didn't want to run. Countless miles of trail running had pampered me into a "walk the hills" mentality, and my quads had already begun to remind me that I was committing a crime with a staggering 48 miles to go. I'm not sure whether I announced it out loud or not, but I fell back and started walking. "Eleven hours", I began to think. Five minutes later it had turned into "just finish".
Running came in bursts on the way to the first aid station at the 5k mark. Because we continued uphill for the duration of the segment, I connected spells of walking with quick bursts of running, and actually left the aid station not long after the two men. As we began a long descent that continued for about 7-8 miles with just minor hills in between, I took off, blasting several successive 8 minute miles, passing a number of runners including Joe and John. I reached the 10 mile mark in 1:32.
After the third aid station, the course became a constant series of ascents and descents, and my mood became a cartoon-like bubble of "I can't do this" on the uphills to "I've got this" on the downhill portions, radical shifts in spirit that accompanied a relentless pace of running and plowing up, up, and away. John passed me around the half marathon mark, remarking on my already pronounced speed-plow up the hills, "I have a hard time walking in road races". With the massive sweat spots radiating with heat under and in the crooks of my arms and streams of salty sweat running down my temples, I responded staring blankly ahead, "I'm not used to running these hills anymore. I'm tired."
elevation profile of the Tussey Mountainback 50
I'd come up with the ingenious plan of splitting the course into one hour, 5 mile intervals, each point at which I could assess the situation and feed my brain with the necessary pace at which I had to continue to stay within the parameters of my 10 hour limit. I knew, approaching the 20 mile mark that I needed to be under 4 hours, but likely wanted to be within 3.25-3.5 hours considering the obvious slow down that was going to commence during the second half of the race. I arrived in 3:15, tired and concerned. I was hot and exhausted, and still had 30 miles including the 3.5 mile "stairway to the stars" ascent ahead of me. The last time I'd run this far on towpath or fire road was 12 months ago when I ran the pancake flat Towpath Marathon. My feet weren't used to taking this kind of a beating, and I wasn't used to trying to run hills like these ones.
I'd falsely assumed the stairway to the stars began around mile 28, and it wasn't until I was a solid half mile into the climb that I realized this was, in fact, the sixth leg of the race, and I was going to have to continue uphill like this for the next three miles. It felt never ending. I was following a man named Scot who told me he'd recently turned 50 and was training for his first 100 miler in the Outer Banks. Like me, his goal at Tussey was to finish under 10 hours, and after learning that our marathon and previous 50 mile times were similar began urging me to follow him during his periodic attempts to run up the mountain. I followed blindly. At some point near the top, I passed him, and for the next 10-15 miles we continued to leap-frog, occasionally running or walking together depending on elevation gain or loss. I reached the halfway point in 4:22, almost spot-on with my 4:30 target, and began to sync my psyche with the math that was continuing mile by mile, in my head. It was like race magic, a well-tuned machine.
Thirty miles came and went, and then 50k a mile later. I ran when the course was flat or descending, and walked and ran the ascents. I didn't concoct excuses. I didn't take breaks at the aid stations. I didn't feel sorry for myself for being tired or not accustomed to fire roads. I just ran. When the cramping in my legs intensified, I ran to telephone poles or big trees, fence posts or street signs, each time trying to get further than the target I'd chosen. And, I kept looking for the baby blue squares pegged to trees with large black numbers denoting the mile. At 35, I felt hopeless. At 39, I realized my dream was only eleven 14 minute miles away. Each mile I covered in less than 14 minutes was time I could throw in the bank in case the wheels started to go flat. By the time I got to 43 miles, I had nearly 2 hours to finish if I wanted the coveted sub-10.
I'm accustomed to achieving unrealistic goals through torturous overexertion, but not with ease, so what happened next was akin, in hindsight, to sprouting wings. At the afore mentioned Towpath Marathon, for example, I agonized through my final three miles, terrified with every staggered, pained, exhausted step all the way up to the last quarter mile that I wasn't going to eke out a 3:59:59. At Burning River in 2012, it wasn't until mile 99 that reality set in that I was going to finish. Mile 99. After 98.9 miles, I was still somehow questioning the possibility of crossing the finish line. I've had more confidence in alien invasions than I did finishing Burning River. So, instead of hearing I had almost 2 hours to finish 7 miles and taking this as a cue to slow down, I actually began to work harder.
Mile 45 was the pinnacle of the race, in my opinion. It was a grueling, steep climb that sent cars kicking up dirt, gears grinding; and even relay runners with fresh legs were moving so slowly they might as well have been walking. It was, despite the Olympic effort, my slowest mile by far, at over 17 minutes. At the top, the aid station was only about a mile ahead, but it was a struggle to run. With runners' crews zipping by, I felt obligated to try, though, and by the time I got to the aid station, I was not willing to waste time or effort. Up to this point, I'd consumed 1/4 banana, a few 1/2 paper cups of Heed, and a gel. Here I grabbed another 1/4 banana and a swig of something sweet, and took off. The last time I checked my progress was at mile 47, which I reached in 9:05. I literally laughed out loud, running down the pavement, at the realization that I could walk 18 minute miles and still finish under 10 hours. In reality, I averaged 10:40.
It was surreal, approaching the finish line and seeing a time I hadn't even dreamed of running. Because, despite an honest effort to move fast, I was aware I'd been running slow, and I expected, and would have been pleased, to finish around 9:42. Instead, as my eyes focused on the red numbers on the clock ahead of me, the time read 9:37. I'd done it: 9:37:15-- a sub-10 hour finish in a 50 mile race that bragged of more than 5400 ft of elevation gain. I didn't even know how to react.
I finished the Tussey Mountainback/USA Track & Field 50 mile Championship in 9:37:15, finishing 10th in the USATF event and 12th overall
In the aftermath, I learned that my decision to enter as a USATF runner at the last minute (I registered at the expo the night before the race) had paid off; I finished 10th, and I got my Western States qualifier in the last year that 50 mile races count as qualifiers. In the two weeks that have now passed since my "magic race", I've lost interest in racing anything longer than a few miles until spring, and I'm just hoping to squeak by under 4:10 in the marathon I'm running this weekend. If it doesn't happen, I won't be heartbroken. There will always be others, and frankly I could use the break. Having run 17 ultras and 3 marathons over the past 18 months, I'm wasted. But, I feel like I've ended this stretch on a high note. So, cheers to that!
Side note: Congratulations to those mentioned-- John Delcalzo who finished in 9:29, Joe Jurczyk in 10:05, and my running pal on the mountain- Scot Binder who finished in 9:47.