Tussey Mountainback USATF 50 Mile Road Championships: Race Recap

I had Tussey Mountainback (TMB) on the schedule since last spring. Usually I don’t plan this far ahead, but the experience was definitely worth it! The course was beautiful and quite a bit different than the other courses I have raced. TMB hosts the USATF 50 Mile National Road Championships. The roads utilized are mostly gravel fire roads that run through the Tussey Mountains in Rothrock State Forest. The elevation gain is 5,035 feet. Very little of it seemed like rolling hills; long, gradual ascents and descents defined the course, with a few steep climbs and drops throughout. A really nice description of the course can be found on the TMB website.

Switchback on 3mi climb at start

I was very fortunate to have Gary Twoey, a local ultramarathon runner, both help me acclimate and crew for me. He took me to see the entire course the day before the race. It was really nice to get a sense of what lay ahead for me. He also joined me for an easy 7-miler up the first 3.5-mile section and back the day before the race.

The way the race unfolded was really interesting. I started out heading up the first 3.5-mile ascent with Mario Mendoza. We went at a pretty good clip, considering it was uphill. At the top, we began a rather long and gradual descent, and Mario slowly gapped me by the time we reached mile 5. I could see him up ahead on the less winding sections of the course. Right before the aid station at mile 11, Nick Accardo cruised up next to me, which was a bit of a surprise because I didn’t hear him coming. We chatted for a bit and picked up the pace. By the time we had passed the mile 11 aid station, Mario’s gap was about half of what it had been before. I looked at my watch and realized I had been averaging 6:27 per mile through almost 12 miles. This was pretty quick for this course, as Michael Wardian’s course record of 5 hrs, 33 min, and 46 sec, averages out to about 6:40 per mile. So, when Nick pushed on, I let him go.

Leaving an aid station

I could see in the distance that Nick had caught and passed Mario. When I pulled into the next aid station, I was told I was about two minutes back. With my pace still averaging 6:27 per mile, and feeling really comfortable, I was optimistic that I would be able to close the gap at some point. After mile 20 I could see that Mario and Nick were not as far up as they had been. They jostled back and forth a bit as I came closer to them. At mile 25 we had a gradual climb. It was here that I caught back up with Nick. As I passed him, we shared some words of encouragement, but I continued on, slowly separating from Nick. It was at the mile 26 aid station that I caught back up to Mario. It was the first time since mile 5 that we were side by side. He appeared to be struggling a bit, so I pushed on ahead. He did not let me get too far for the next couple miles; I looked back at one of the switchbacks and saw him no more than 30 seconds behind me.

Gravel fireroad along course

I kept a consistent effort, making my pace vary a bit depending on whether I was going up or down. My pace ranged between 6:27 per mile and 6:33 per mile. It seemed like whenever I would get a section of downhill, I could always get the pace back down under 6:30 per mile, and whenever there was a climb it would creep slightly above. Overall, I was feeling optimistic about my pace. My quads were noticeably sore from the hard ground and descents, but they I felt really positive about being able to push through the pain.

By mile 39 I checked my watch and was excited that my average pace was 6:29 per mile. I remembered from Gary’s course tour that around mile 45 or 46 the course became, for the most part, a gradual descent all the way to the finish line. I began to think ahead and told myself that if I could just maintain a steady effort, I would have a good chance at beating Wardian’s course record.

Aid station on second half of course

The next 6 miles turned out to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Miles 40-45 included some of the steeper climbs of the course. My climbing legs faltered a bit and I began to hemorrhage time on the climbs. Miles 40 to 42 felt like they took as long as the entire first 40 miles of the race. I kept telling myself just get to mile 46 and I could glide downhill to the finish. But when I got there, I looked at my watch and realized I would have to average about 6:20 per mile in order to finish under Wardian’s course record. I thought this might be possible... until I met the last uphill section of the course. I had forgotten about this section of maybe 600 meters that made my pace slow enough to put me in a position where I would have to cover miles 48-50 at about 6:00 per mile to break the record. Even with a gradual descent, I didn’t have enough in my legs to quite pull off that pace. I gave it everything I had left, which was good for 5 hrs, 35 min, and 51 sec—and 1st place.

As we all know, hindsight is 20/20. So despite being thrilled with the win, I wondered about whether a more conservative pace at the start would have saved me more time at the end. Or maybe a strategic hit of caffeine would have given me just enough to shave two more minutes off my time?

Who knows! This is the beauty of the sport. With so many miles, there is endless opportunity to learn from what we did before and plan for what we can do differently next time. All in all, I am excited about my experience at Tussey, and I am very satisfied with the results. In short, it was one of thoseraces that makes you look forward to the next one.

Finish Line! Photos by fongstudio2.com.

Products Used

Splits (Finish: 5 hrs, 35 min, 51 sec)