Execution and Vindication – Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 Mile Race Report

Sunday’s Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 Mile race, also serving as the USA 50 Mile Road National Championships, shaped up to be a Midwest battle between me (Bloomington, IN), David Riddle (Cincinnati, OH), and Zach Bitter (Madison, WI) on the men’s side.  (The women’s race was a route by my Salomon teammate Cassie Scallon, who also bested the old course record, won the women’s race by nearly an hour, and finished third overall!)  Both David and Zach are tough runners with plenty of 50 mile experience.  To win this one, I was going to have to have a very good race.  Thinking about strategy in the weeks leading up to the race, the only clear advantage I thought I had was my superior speed at the marathon.  Thus, in theory, running 6:00 pace or so feels easier to me than it does to either of them.  But to make use of this slight advantage, the pace would need to be quick.  Of course there are plenty of risks with choosing to race a 50 mile race hard from the gun, so I was by no means sure I would do so on race day.  In the end, I just went into the race with the vague notion that if I felt good, I would start to push the pace at some point in the first half.

As it turned out, that point was mile 4.  In the pre-dawn light, David, Zach, and I had quickly separated from the field, clicking off mid-seven minute miles up the initial three-mile climb.  But at the top of the climb, David stopped for some Coke, and Zach and I zipped ahead.  From here, there is a long eight-mile descent of varying grade leading to Whipple Dam.  I just ran what pace the hill dictated, trying not to break at all, but also trying not to work very hard.  This was as fast as a 5:22 sixth mile, but more like 5:40s average.  Here, Zach made a conscious decision to let me go, and just like that I was running free and clear five miles into the race. 

At the Whipple Dam aid station (mile 11), I had booked two minutes on Zach and another thirty seconds on David.  Mentally, I broke the race down into five components, one for each major climb and descent.  Segment 2 began at Whipple and contained probably the easiest climb of the day. I was feeling good, so I decided to make use of the lead.  I kept the pressure on, focusing on keeping an honest, but even effort.  This equated to about 6-flats on flat terrain, but more like a 6:15-6:20 average due to the terrain.

My dad drove out to State College with me for the race, and he was crewing for me.  One of the cool things about this road race (even though it feels a lot like a trail race) is that your crew can be at every aid station simply by driving up ahead.  This also allowed my dad to see what my lead was on Zach and David, and report it to me throughout the day.  By mile 20, my lead was up to 4:30 and 5:00 on Zach and David, respectively. 

One of my biggest worries was that I would be weak on the climbing and that these guys would cut into my lead on the climbs.  I would soon find out, as miles 20 to 24 feature the biggest climb of the day, 1300’ or so at a 6+ percent grade.  I worked hard (perhaps a bit too hard), but kept my breathing mostly under control on the way up.  When I found out that I had opened another 2+ minutes on my pursuers, my confidence grew immensely.  I was still feeling good, and the miles were rolling by effortlessly as I hit another long descent.  Mile 25 was reached in 2:39:00, projecting a 5:18:00 finish if I could even split.  This is a very tough thing to do if you’re running a hot pace, but I honestly thought I could, as the first half of the race is net uphill, and the second half is net down.

The race was progressing exactly the way I hoped, and my dad and I were running a tight ship.  We were executing the plan flawlessly.  He had a handheld flask and a bit of food waiting for me at every aid, and I literally did not break stride in the first 35 miles as a result.  I even hit a 5:13 27th mile, flying downhill, letting out a “whoop!” when I saw the split.  Around mile 30, I could feel some fatigue starting to accumulate in my legs, but I wasn’t too worried.  I was pretty confident my quads would hold up on the downhills, because they have yet to give out on me all year.  And neither of the remaining climbs were too intense—I figured I could just gut them out, let momentum carry me downhill, and hopefully end up running in the 5:17-5:19 range. 

The climb from mile 32 to 36 was tough, but not horrible.  The first real signs of trouble came around mile 38.  I was on flat ground, but I was having trouble running faster than 7-minute pace for the few miles leading into the second to last aid station at mile 40.5.  I learned a short time later that I had a 9:00 lead on Zach, and that David had dropped out due to a lingering ankle injury.  Climbing out of the valley from mile 40.5 was tougher yet.  A final time in the five-teens was out the window, but I was still moving at an OK pace.  However, the climb was deceptively long and challenging, and I started to get dizzy and lightheaded.  I was perhaps a bit behind on calories, and all of sudden simply finishing seemed a monumental task.  I put down two Hüma gels (the only ones that I can stomach!) in a hurry, popped my last electrolyte pill, and hoped things would come around.  The last half mile or so of the climb is the steepest, and I was reduced to walking probably 60% of it.  I was just so fatigued that running more than 10-20 seconds at a time required way too much effort.  It was very difficult to stay positive in this section, knowing with near certainty that Zach was decimating my lead.

I crawled into the 45.8 mile aid station.  My dad asked how I was doing.  I grunted.  (I’m pretty sure my grunt conveyed that I wasn’t doing well.)  I drank some Heed, about three cups of water, and tried to eat some chips, as precious seconds ticked by.  As I left the aid station, I heard “it’s all downhill from here!”  I looked ahead, straight into a short uphill section.  Luckily, this was only 200 meters long, and in moments, I truly was bombing downhill to the finish.  I quickly learned that Zach had cut my lead to less than five minutes between mile 40.5 and 45.8.  But my quads were (mostly) intact, I was running 6-flats down the hill, and I knew that barring a disaster, the victory was mine. 

The last four miles still hurt like hell, but the pain was laced with joy and vindication.  Joy in winning my first national title; vindication for my first ultramarathon DNF at the UROC 100k three weeks ago.  Despite much effort to prepare for the many challenges of UROC, that race was pretty much a disaster for me.  It was a tough decision to drop out of that race, but I couldn’t help thinking of the USA 50 Mile Champs three weeks later, knowing that a 13-hour slog to the UROC finish would hurt me at Tussey.  The UROC experience shook my confidence quite a bit, and I started to worry about my fitness and ability to run a fast 50 mile.  I tried my best to think positively, but I was probably more apprehensive and doubtful about this race than just about any other I’ve done.  As a result, I wanted this one pretty badly, and I think the win meant more to me because of this.

Taking a look back at my race, here’s what I take away:  First, I think I can run at least 10 minutes faster on this course.  All it will take is not falling apart the last 12 miles.  So how to do that?  Mainly, through more training miles, more hill strength, and more functional strength and stability.  I’m lacking in all three of those categories right now.  I’ve only averaged 72 miles per week this year, and that needs to be up over 100 mpw to have the muscular endurance that will allow me to hold up better late-race.  I think the big middle climb at Tussey cost my legs on the final climb, so I could use improved strength on hills.  Mostly, this will come due to my new home in hilly Bloomington, Indiana.  I’ve only been there a couple months, and it takes longer for true muscular strength gains (not simply neuromuscular adaptations) to occur.  Finally, I’ve been a bit lax on some strength work that could help me hold form better in the late miles.  Better form means less fatigued muscles, and thus a lower energy unit cost.  These are all positives for the future.  Sunday’s race also gives me some much-needed confidence heading into the JFK 50 Mile in 5 weeks.  This will be my first time racing JFK, and with another month of training, I think I can be pretty competitive there.

Overall, the race was a very good experience, and I would definitely recommend it.  It’s a well-established and well-run race (this being the 14th year) in some gorgeous country.   While it's a road race, the course is probably 98% gravel roads winding through the woods of Rothrock State Park.  There are some stunning views, and the time of year makes it particularly great with the changing leaves.  Despite about ~5500 feet of vertical gain, it’s a pretty fast course.  The post-race party is also fun with great local beer and local bands on tap, free massages, and plenty of free food.  Can’t beat that.  I met a lot of great local folks and other runners, and I'd love to come back again in the future.  Congratulations to everyone who ran, many thanks to the race organization and volunteers for helping to make it a great day, and of course thank you to my sponsors for their continued support!  

 A pair of Team Salomon US Champs!

About to slam down a UGo Bar (or two) for recovery!