Tussey Mountainback 50 miler

State College, Penn
October 11, 2003

By Jaret Seiberg

For the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler, it is best to get the bad news out of the way first. This ultra is run on a mix of dirt and paved roads. It is not a trail run, as the organizers repeatedly warn in the promotional materials.

In fact, the organizers said the course is 37 miles of dirt road and 13 miles of pavement. I would actually alter that slightly to 36 miles of dirt road, 13 miles of pavement and one mile of trail for a section that is allegedly a dirt road but to most would be called a trail.

Yet if you can accept this mix of dirt and paved roads – which should not be a problem given the number of VHTRC’ers who run the Vermont 100 -- then you are in for a ultra treat by doing the Tussey Mountainback 50 miler. This is a gorgeous course, made all the better by the perfect autumn day that 20 ultra runners and about a similar number of relay teams got to enjoy on Saturday, Oct. 11.

I’m surprised so few VHTRC types have discovered this event, which will celebrate its fifth year in 2004. The drive is about 3:15 from the D.C. beltway, which makes it an easy trip.

Tussey is advertised in the Ultra Running calendar, which is where I found the event. I signed up primarily because MMTR weekend for the second year in a row falls on my wife’s birthday. While I missed her birthday last year for MMTR, I figured I’d be pushing it if I left her two years in a row, especially after missing Mother’s Day for the MMT 100 Miler.

So I picked Tussey for an October ultra.

The best way to describe the Tussey is as a 50 mile version of the Vermont 100 miler, minus the $10 million horse farms. The footing is very similar to Vermont and I would strongly urge anyone planning on running Vermont – especially as a first 100 Miler – to try Tussey first so you get a sense of what it means to run on dirt roads for a really long time.

The two biggest differences between Vermont and Tussey – besides 50 miles – are that the dirt roads at Tussey are gray in color while Vermont has brown-colored dirt roads. Also, you pass by only a few houses at Tussey while Vermont takes you past numerous homes as it crosses through the various towns along the route.

An ultra participant also needs to recognize that this is primarily a relay race so there is little aid on trail. At the relay transition zones – there are 11 of them -- organizers have water for the ultra participants. At a few transition zones, they also had Gatorade.

You also can have a drop bag at the transition zones so you can leave food out for yourself. As a relay event, the teams supply their own food from the support vans. In fact, some of the relay teams viewed this more as a chance to picnic than run given the huge spreads they brought.

The ultra participants start at 7 a.m., followed by the slower relay teams at 8 a.m. and the faster ones at 9 a.m. The first relay runner caught me at mile 25 and the second one at mile 32. (All the miles are marked). By mile 40, I was regularly getting passed by relay runners who had the legs to sprint up the hills. All were very friendly and viewed us ultra runners as lunatics.

The worst part of getting caught at mile 25 by the lead relay team – which must have had "Z" in its name because its van had a "Z" on it and all their shirts had a "Z" on them – was that I lost my cheering squad, led by VHTRC’er Larry Ryan. This was a very friendly group that not only cheered when they passed me but always asked if I needed water.

The race is run in the mountains outside of State College, Penn, with the start at a small ski operation. You begin essentially at first light with a four-mile climb, topping out at 2,123 feet. The first mile is paved before you get on the gravel road.

Your reward is about six miles of down hill followed by a flat two miles as you run past a lake. The area by the lake is pavement. You then start the second – and shortest -- of the climb-and-descend sections. The climb is again about four miles, only it is not as steep. You then get a great, gradual four-mile downhill to about mile 20.

Throughout these sections you are running through a forest. The only houses are a few hunting clubs near the start and a few cottages near the lake. There is almost no traffic on the roads, except vehicles associated with the race. The leaves were just starting to change colors and on several occasions I would look around and see nothing but woods and mountain peeks and think that this is why I run ultras. It was some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen on any ultra course.

Soon after mile 20 you get to climb again. This time you climb for eight miles. Large sections are gradual uphills, but you are still climbing and it takes a toll on you no matter what the grade.

At some point during the climb the dirt road becomes paved for no apparent reason. Several runners at the end suspected that some politician must have used that section of the forest road and ordered it paved because it really is a paved road to nowhere. But when you are done you have finished a big chunk of your paved miles.

You get a four or five mile mostly downhill section to recover before encountering the most difficult section of the course, which is from miles 36 to 46. I had been warned of this, but I still had to laugh at one point.

From a transition zone by a lake, you begin more than five miles of climbs. Part of this section is exposed to the sun and it got really hot. Fortunately, the steepest section of the climb was shaded and I rolled into the mile 42 transition zone thinking that I could break 8 hours, especially because the last four miles were downhill.

That was before I met the mile 42 surprise.

From the transition zone, the course goes straight uphill for a mile. This is very steep, perhaps the steepest section on the course. The trail then drops straight down for a half mile, before turning on what I consider to be a trail for a half mile. Turning on that trail was wonderful because the road continues straight down the mountain and I had visions that we were headed to the bottom. (Rumor had it that one of the lead ultra runners missed the turn and actually ran down to the bottom of the mountain. That would really bite.)

After a half mile on the trail, you turn around and back track to the transition zone. From there, you get a short climb before enjoying the final four miles down the mountain to the finish.

The finish line is pretty low key. They have bagels, fruit and water. Most of the relay teams take off shortly after they finish. Also, the large number of Penn State teams means that many relay participants are underage. I did not see a single Mr. Sam in attendance, which shocked me.

I suspect this race will grow in popularity with ultra runners as more and more people participate. The event is a fund raiser and as an ultra runner you don’t get much for your money compared to other events where all the money is spent on the race.

Organizers could probably double the ultra field if they offered even limited food on the course. Still, the drop bags work well. I had four on course, roughly every 10 miles, and found that gave me enough fuel to finish.

At the end, race director Mike Casper said one of the first ultra runners to cross the finish line – the winning time was about 7:25 – said the course is about an hour longer than your JFK time. I’m not sure about that because you never have a section like the 12 miles of AT at Tussey. Yet you climb up and over the mountains at Tussey on multiple occasions which you don’t do at JFK.

So I think your time might be comparable to a bit slower than JFK. It actually might be closer to an MMTR time if Horton’s course were actually 50 miles long. For what it is worth, I finished in about 8:10. (They have not posted official times yet, so I may be a minute or two faster or slower.)

Hopefully more VHTRC’ers will discover this course in the coming years. It is worth doing.

Tussey Mountainback 50 miler Web Site

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