Tussey Mountainback 2004

How to describe 13 hours of footwork in the forest? No single approach can approach "truth", so:

Mountainous Madness


In the top chart, pace is averaged over adjacent intervals to smooth out noise and errors in marker placement. See the table below for raw timing data. The parallel second chart of terrain profile is adapted from [1]. Slowness at miles 26, 31, and 42 correlates with aid station stops to swap socks, treat feet, and eat.

Sylvan Story

12 hours, 57 minutes, 38 seconds --- I survive my first 50 miler, barely, thanks to good luck, vaseline, ibuprofen, and the support of comrade Steve Adams. The fifth annual "Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 Mile Relay and Ultramarathon" [2] takes place in central Pennsylvania across a thickly wooded and rather hilly landscape (understatement!). At 5:05am on 2 October 2004 conditions are warm and humid. Steve and I have a good time during the initial inky hours, thanks to my fluorescent flashlight and the fact that we previewed miles 0 through 11 by driving them the prior evening.

After ~15 miles of walking the uphills and jog-walking the downhills and flats, at a net pace of ~14 minutes/mile, my calves commence cramping badly --- so we march along as briskly as we can manage for the next few dozen miles. At each aid station I swallow as much salty food as I can stomach in hopes of rebalancing electrolytes lost through sweat.

Between miles 30 and 40 Steve develops bad blisters, then severe knee pain --- but he sticks with me in spite of my lectures on quantum mechanics and cosmology, which likely exacerbate the damage. As thunderstorms move in circa mile 42 Steve sends me on ahead. Heavy rains mercifully cool me off. After applying huge gobs of petroleum jelly to my chafed nether regions at mile ~46 I feel strangely frisky --- so I jog the final couple of downhill miles at sub-10 pace, finishing firmly in last place just under the 13 hour mark.

Overall it's a fine experience. The next morning my feet are blistered but I can actually walk down a flight of stairs (albeit gingerly). Alas, several of my drop bags --- including GPS receiver, flashlight, socks, shoes, etc. --- are not yet rematerialized, but I remain optimistic about getting them back eventually.

The Tussey Mountainback event is well-organized, the volunteers uniformly enthusiastic and helpful, the competitors good-spirited, and the scenery superb. Special thanks go to Morgan Windram, local ultrarunner and geography grad student at Penn State, who lets Steve & me stay in her lovely home the night before the event.

Mystic Montage

The morning before the race I turn over two tarot cards:

(Eerily accurate, at first glance ... but of course, the above fragments were picked out post hoc from a wide range of contradictory interpretations ...)

Rambling Recollections

Numbers + Notes

Mile Time Pace Remarks
0100:15:3115:31Steve & I set off in the humid pre-dawn silence at 5:05am, as the last-quarter moon hides behind high clouds; faster race participants try to nap in their cars at the parking lot beside the start/finish line
0200:31:0315:32brisk Volksmarch up steep hills and switchbacks, beside a noisy stream, using a hand-held fluorescent lamp flashlight and dangling a chemoluminiscent glow-stick from my GPS unit's lanyard to ward off passing pickup trucks
0300:47:4216:39the GPS loses lock repeatedly under a thick canopy of trees, as I belatedly come to the realization that I shouldn't be carrying it, or any other excess baggage today
0401:04:2816:46a pause that refreshes near Aid Zone #1, as we retrieve a bottle of Gatorade and handful of Snickers Bars cached behind a tree yesterday evening during our preview drive-by
0501:17:5413:26warm downhill jogs with intervals of walking to cool off, as I drip sweat and try not to trip on the rough gravel forest road surface
0601:29:2411:30more trotting & less walking, while the sky begins to lighten and the oppressive humidity recedes slightly
0701:44:1414:50another pause to recover a bottle of liquid and more candy bars hidden yesterday in a bag behind a telephone pole; here the first volunteers appear to set up the Aid Zone #2 table
0801:55:4811:34jog & walk & sweat & repeat, as a few scattered raindrops fall on our heads and the race officially starts for most of the individual runners
0902:08:1512:27it's definitely dawn now --- time to bag the lights and GPS, in preparation for depositing them in one of my official drop bags for retrieval after the race
1002:20:2712:12we approach Whipple Dam State Park and get some with nice views of the lake
1102:34:4214:15minor crisis: my pre-positioned drop bag is missing! ... perhaps it was thrown away as trash, or perhaps it was stolen the previous evening? --- so we rely on the race's Transition Zone #3 table of food and drink to recharge
1202:49:3914:57we walk up the first of a steep series of hills --- new territory, beyond where our drive-through took us on Friday evening, as the relay teams prepare to begin their race at 9am
1303:03:1413:35more hill climbing ... Steve tells tales of his college days, on fire patrol and working with loggers in the Montana and Oregon wilderness, as we pass areas where many trees have been hewn down
1403:14:5611:42a troublesome challenge emerges: my calves cramp up whenever I try to jog for more than a minute
1503:30:4215:46I'm frustrated and apologetic, but can't handle much running even on the level stretches; coach Steve is kindly tolerant as we revert to mostly walking
1603:45:4815:06still more walking; now the lead runners (who started almost two hours behind us) begin to pass by
1703:56:5711:09an unexpectedly fast mile, with brief intervals of jogging ... the first woman runner blasts by us, going strongly; a second lady goes by but doesn't look as though she's having fun; then friend Morgan Windram zips past and shouts her greetings as we cheer her onward and upward
1804:17:1720:20Zone #4 --- time to refill bottles and swallow salty foods in hopes of restoring electrolyte balance; here is also where I drop off the GPS, fluorescent light, etc., to save weight and free a hand for carrying pretzels and chips
1904:28:1610:59an easy (or anomalously short?) mile
2004:41:2513:09the calves are still cramping; I lick salt crystals off my sourdough pretzels, to no avail
2104:56:2414:59Zone #5, at the Alan Seeger Picnic Area, offering an impressive spread of PBJ sandwiches, fruits, candy, and a variety of drinks under a covered pavillion
2205:10:1013:46climbing alongside and across small streams
2305:23:5713:47brisk walks up the hills
2405:38:5414:57the walks become a bit less brisk
2505:53:5314:59slower still, toiling ever upwards --- or so it feels
2606:24:5331:00Zone #6, at the Penn Roosevelt camping area, with big crowds of folks eager to help ... I change socks for the first time, swap shirts, nosh, chug a cold Coca-Cola, and unwrap a disposable camera --- a kind volunteer snaps pictures of Steve & me in front of the scenic lake
2706:40:4215:49the hills seem suddenly steeper again, and we speculate about which ridge(s) we will be crossing in order to get back to the start/finish line
2806:55:2514:43we hike along, with scarcely any thought of running now
2907:10:2014:55further plodding for the no-longer-dynamic duo, as the day grows warmer
3007:32:2822:08Steve suddenly develops a big blister; we pause at the roadside to lance it and then attempt to cover it with duct tape that doesn't want to stick; each of us takes a couple of ibuprofen tablets
3107:55:2422:56Zone #7 and more blister treatment for Steve, including adhesive bandages and a fresh layer of socks; there's also drink + food, as a gigantic logging truck squeezes past the relay teams' parked cars on the narrow road
3208:11:5216:28the course touches State Road 322 for a few hundred meters and we march nervously along the shoulder as huge tractor-trailer semis swoosh within what seems to be inches of us on their way from State College to Harrisburg
3308:28:0116:09a friendly runner catches up with us, walks for a while, and chats about his experiences before jogging on ahead
3408:46:5218:51Zone #8, a shady spot with refreshments and congeniality from enthusiastic volunteers
3509:02:5916:08the course zig-zags through a housing development of super-sized mini-mansions; we pass manicured lawns and wave at ladies sitting on their rocking chairs on front porches; a tiny dog crosses the road, barks at us, then retreats
3609:19:2316:24not much shade here, and the day is growing still warmer; the forecast of afternoon thunderstorms seems likely to be accurate
3709:38:1819:55Aid Zone #9, on pretty Colyer Lake, where we have to cross some scary-to-look-down-through steel-mesh bridges over feeder streams ... I visit the porta-john and stock up with fresh food & drink
3809:55:1215:54Steve asks me some excellent questions, and I commence explaining the history of the measurement of the speed of light
3910:11:3516:23we discuss cosmology, quantum mechanics, evidence about the early universe, and the "truth" of the laws of nature --- as my feet tingle and chafing begins to bother me under the MCRRC blue-and-orange shorts that I've been wearing since the start of the day
4010:27:5516:20further conversations on the relationship between mathematics and physics and information
4110:46:2018:25Steve's knee becomes increasingly troublesome to him; rumbles of distant thunder are now impossible to dismiss as hallucinations
4211:09:2823:08Zone #10, where I change socks and discover the source of tingling in my feet: large blisters under development on heels and in front ...
4311:26:3817:10more thunder during a steep climb, and Steve's knee worsens further ... so he sends me on alone, and I wonder whether the race course will be closed as storms loom
4411:43:0316:25I get a drink from a helpful volunteer sitting in a camp chair and monitoring the traffic cone turnaround point; a deluge begins in earnest, and at last I feel blissfully cool; I find myself suddenly able to jog without any calf cramps --- hooray! --- though now chafing from my shorts becomes quite painful; lightning is at least 3 miles away, based on the time delay between flash and rumble
4511:59:0215:59rain slows as I reach Zone #11 (which is in the same location as Zone #10); I chat with Steve, grab a handful of petroleum jelly, duck into a porta-potty, and coat my chafed bottom
4612:14:3115:29after a small hill the terrain levels off; rainshowers continue, and hundreds of small frogs magically appear and hop across the road
4712:27:2912:58as the course turns downhill for the final few miles I jog a minute and walk a minute alternately --- and that feels so good that I start to jog continuously, thinking about Eric Clifton's philosophy of ultrarunning; a race official in a pickup truck pulls alongside me and asks how I'm doing ... she has been asked to follow me in to the finish, and does so from a discreet distance behind me
4812:38:1810:49I'm feeling amazingly good! --- blisters have stopped bothering me, chafing seems to have vanished, and so I jog joyfully down the steep hills
4912:47:3709:19the fastest mile of the day --- hoo-ha!
5012:57:3810:01I keep grinning like a fool and running as the course levels off, then climbs to the 50 mile marker; shortly after 6pm I arrive and capture last place among the 33 finishers (there were 40 registered ultra runners, but not all started the race) --- What a day!

(see also HAT Run 2004 (2 Apr 2004), DeadBrainCellTheory (6 Apr 2004), AsIfSoManyMinutes (17 Aug 2004), Eric Clifton (1 Oct 2004), ...)

TopicRunning - TopicPersonalHistory - TopicRecreation - 2004-10-08

(correlates: CrackCreme, Winter Wardrobe, BowelsOfTheEarth, ...)