my kingdom for a trail.

Before this exhausted train of thought clatters another section of rail farther down the track, let me say that Race Director Mike Casper does a masterful job with the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 Mile Relay and Ultramarathon.

The course could not have been marked more clearly and overall race support was fantastic

It is my understanding that there were some changes made to the course this year and I have not run the race before, so I can’t offer any comparisons or contrasts, but I can attest to the fact that the now single loop snakes through a lovely forested swath of Pennsylvania and does so at a jaw-droppingly beautiful time of year, coinciding nicely with peak foliage season.  It well lives up to its “for the hill of it” slogan with more than a mile of total vertical gain spread out over 4 or 5 significant climbs.

Aid stations were plentiful and well-stocked with fluids, fuel and folks.  Good folks.

The official race website was/is chock full of information, including some of the most detailed (and on point) section descriptions I've seen.  E-mails sent in the days just prior to the race keenly pointed out just those items of greatest significance ahead of packet pick-up while providing quick (and functioning) links to any and all other info a runner might want or need before toeing the line.

There is a lot, a whole lot, to love about the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK, but, as life works, we aren’t all smitten by the same pretty face.  In fact, we all seem to have differing and even changing opinions of what constitutes “pretty” and in my current state, I feel like I’m waking up lying next to someone who looked a lot more attractive the night before.

To be less crass, step away from the “morning after” meme and return to my earlier theme, it might be more appropriate to say that I feel like I've been run over by that train from the first paragraph.

I'd signed up for Tussey back in summer after realizing that I was without a qualifying race for the 2014 running of Western States and also without a 100-miler on the calendar to make up for that absence.  I knew little about the race other than that it wasn't far from my Lancaster County home, it was known to be "fast" (I'd need to go sub-11 hours to qualify for WS) and that fact had much to do with it being "all roads" which I took to mean mostly roads.


The race became almost an afterthought once I decided to run the Oil Creek 100 for the second straight year and in the process sneak into the Western States lottery simply by finishing within the 32-hour cutoff time.  It had taken me 28 hours to finish Oil Creek in 2012 but all went well enough and, if anything, I was feeling more fit this year so I returned to Titusville with little concern about the outcome.


And so, after a DNF at Oil Creek, Tussey had again become my one shot at a Squaw Valley starting line come June and the bad back that had led to my short day two weeks earlier had some serious misgivings about the course being "all roads".  Thank goodness that couldn't possibly be true.


Race morning broke briskly with temperatures in the mid-40's with a steady breeze that made it feel much colder.  As the start line at the Tussey Mountain ski resort is literally right next to the parking area, most runners stuck close to their cars until right before race start.  I did, at least, and because of that failed to take part in the usual pre-race mingling that I so enjoy.  I did manage to cross paths with Carli Moua just before the gun went off and we spent the first few hundred yards of the race catching up, each sharing the reasons why we expected to find the day challenging.

After a very brief downhill start, the course gave its first taste of what was to come with a hard right-hand turn off of the pavement onto an incline up a hard-packed fire road.  That climb kept going for nearly 3 miles and included almost 900 feet of up.  It was runnable for sure, but that early in a 50-mile race it left me wondering if actually running it was a good idea, not that that stopped me from doing it.

At some point early in the climb, the sun rose and I was glad to have eschewed a headlamp at the start.  With the light of day, the beauty of the autumnal forest came into focus and with wind no longer a factor, the temperature was absolutely ideal for a day of movement.  Within those first 3 miles we reached the intersection of the Mid-State Trail and I couldn't help but notice that we ignored it and stuck to the fire road.

With the first ascent completed, we reached the first aid station/transition zone (remember, relay comes before ultramarathon in the race name) and not feeling taxed, hungry or thirsty, I rolled right past and headlong into the 7 mile descent that came next.  As advertised, the pace was swift even though that term is relative for those of us in the middle-to-the-back of the pack.  I glanced at my Suunto right around the first hour mark and discovered that I was moving along at sub 9-minute mile pace.  I nearly panicked but a quick check on my breathing, my heart rate and the state of my legs confirmed that I hadn't gotten too carried away.

We'd passed up another trail, the Wildcat Gap Trail, but I was certain that sooner or later we'd get off of the road and then the pace would settle into something closer to what I was used to.


We did leave the fire road behind but, unfortunately, it was for more pavement as we neared and then turned into the parking lot at Whipple Dam State Park.  About a mile before that turn, my back fired off a warning shot that made me wonder what the day would bring.  Though I wouldn't normally do so that early in a race, I asked for Ibuprofen at the aid station, determined to be proactive rather than letting things escalate like I had at Oil Creek.

Pills gulped, apprehensively, I pounded back off onto the pavement.

The fourth leg had another short, steep climb and I did my first walking of the day to try to appease my back and do a systems check.  Other than the back, everything seemed to be holding together and my pace had backed off only slightly with the half marathon mark being reached right at 2 hours.

It really was a lovely morning running within the tunnel of yellows, oranges and reds that clung fleetingly to the trees.  The few breaks in the trees to our left or right showed sweeping views of the valleys below, also cloaked in fall colors.

We descended the road down into the Alan Seeger Natural Area where pines intermixed with the deciduous trees and added some depth and shadows to the landscape.  We were twenty miles into the day and I was really looking forward to getting onto some singletrack and running beneath the forest canopy instead of just to one side of it.  My legs and back couldn't have cared less about the scenery but they were definitely campaigning for a change underfoot.

No dice.

Leaving the transition zone at Alan Seeger, we hung a right onto yet another road and began the longest up of the day.  I'd made up my mind the day before that I would purposely powerhike this section but that pre-planning wouldn't have been necessary.  My legs appreciated the change of pace but my back was unhappy.

Luckily, I fell into stride with Donald Halke II, a name and individual I "knew" through Facebook but had never had the pleasure of actually meeting.  Don has led, continues to lead, an amazing life and has overcome much since suffering a heart attack a few years ago.  I was grateful for his company, his wonderful storytelling and the treasure trove of life experiences that inform the stories he has to tell.  None of that eliminated the pain that I was feeling but it was a really nice distraction and helped 4 miles and 1,300 feet of climbing pass by without feeling as interminably long as I'm sure it would have without Don there.  He pulled away before the crest but had towed me most of the way whether he realized it or not.

Soon thereafter, the halfway point of the race came and went and the wheels we're hanging on, if barely.  Alluring trails seemed to shoot off in every direction, taunting with whispers of their magical contours, varying terrain and cool creek crossings.

But the road went on and on and we runners with it.  Traffic on the road had increased, as the waves of relay team starts that had kicked off an hour after the ultra began had caught up with all but the front running 50-milers which meant that corresponding waves of crew vehicles were migrating from transition zone to transition zone on the same car width-and-a-half fire roads with the runners.  While this never outright hindered progress, it did leave you looking over your shoulder for much of the day and begrudgingly stepping from your preferred lines to make way for automobiles.  Not surprisingly, this became far more bothersome as fatigue increased and pain settled in.  To be fair, that nuisance was somewhat offset by the enthusiasm and moral support that came from the relay runners and support crews.  Each "great job, ultra" that was uttered, and there were many, made me feel guilty for my inner grumbling at the congestion that the relay created.  Still, it took its toll.

I'd knocked back another couple of Ibuprofen when my back and right IT band appeared to be losing steam in unison.  I was hurting and was really surprised to glance at my wrist and learn that a sub-6 hour 50K was in the books.

I knew full well the leaders were either finished or nearing the finish, but, never mistaking me for them, I was pleased to know that the sub-11 hour finish that I'd come seeking was still well within reach, especially with the steepest and longest ascents completed.

We passed up the Mid-State Trail yet again and fire roads gave way to pavement once more.  We weren't going to be getting on any trails.  Tussey really was all roads and I was going to need to get over it and get on with the rest of the race.

To hearken for just a moment back to my opening statements, the race website couldn't have been ANY clearer in mapping out the course section by section and only the blind or the very dense could have had access to that information and still wandered out on the course expecting trails.  I've got pretty good vision, but, man, can I be dense.

We remained on paved roads until the aid station at mile 40 where I was thrilled to see the familiar and welcome face of Marie Garmat.  She'd had success at Oil Creek where I had not and she seemed surprised to see me back at it just two weeks later.  By that point in the race, I too was wondering what in the hell I was doing there, but Marie's encouragement coupled with the comprehension that there were only 10 miles to go shooed me back onto the course with relatively high spirits.  She also hooked me up with a hug and what I hoped would be my final dose of Ibuprofen.

Mercifully, the pavement soon thereafter changed back to fire road, definitely the lesser of two evils that late in the day.  I had certainly given away some time in the middle hours of the day but was still maintaining a roughly 10 hour overall pace.  There were minutes in the bank if I needed them, but I was growing concerned that every last one of them would be spent.

My "run" up the final 3.3 mile climb before the ending descent was slow but steady.  I'm a pretty solid powerhiker and usually do a good job of remaining relatively upright while doing so but lifting my head made my back scream so I just stared at the ground two-and-a-half feet in front of me and trudged, trudged, trudged.  Halfway up I became fixated on the Coke I knew was waiting at the aid station situated at mile 46.  That thought drew me like a tractor beam up over the last steep incline and along the short down slope to the transition zone.

I lifted my hand and smiled weakly at the encouraging claps and cheers being served up to every runner entering the aid station.  My eyes locked with those of the kind woman at the table pouring drinks as I tried to telepathically let her know what I was coming to get.  She grinned and asked me "what I was having" but my eyes had already swept over the table and relayed the bad news.

"You don't have any Coke", I stated more than asked and she looked pained at the proclamation.

"No, I'm sorry, we ran out some time ago," she confirmed.  "But I've made note for next year that we should have more," she offered warmly.

I slumped noticeably.  I noticed.  So did she.

After a brief pause and recognizing the absurdity of my petty distress, I apologized, grabbed a cupful of water and got back to hiking.

There were only 4.2 miles left to the finish and nearly every step was downhill.  With no concern for roots, rocks or uneven ground, this should have been an ideal finish to the race but I was in no shape to take advantage.  I shuffled along for minutes at a time at something nearly resembling a run, but mostly I walked.

All day long, small "camps" and cabins had perched just off the road or nestled farther back in among the trees.  These rustic shelters romantically reminded me of past backpacking and camping trips.  Throughout the morning and afternoon I'd daydreamed in passing about returning with the family to these retreats on less busy days to watch the leaves turn and listen to the birds and squirrels at play.

Whether because I was simply done in or because the Chester County Camp looked to be the place for me, I paused to snap a photograph and nearly retired to the front porch.  I couldn't have been more than 3.5 miles from the start/finish line and Route 322 was just another mile beyond there.  I had my phone with me but couldn't get a signal.  I contemplated typing out a text message to Lindsay, letting her know where I was and telling her to pack the car and bring the kids.  I could leave the message unsent, flag down the next runner who passed and have her or him hit "send" once a cell signal was reached.

It seemed like a reasonable plan, except it would have meant that I had run 47 miles of road and left without my qualifier.  I turned from the structure and continued on my way.

A few hundred yards later, there was an even more picturesque cabin on the other side of the road.  This one.  Maybe this one was the one.

As I shook off that ridiculous temptation a second time, something triggered a final "second" wind and I began moving forward a bit more quickly.  I hurt, for sure, but the end was so close and, frankly, being done for the day was highly motivating.  I wouldn't be sending for the family but I was ready to get back to them.

I passed a few people who'd passed me in the last few miles and felt almost silly to be moving by them at the pace that I was mustering, as though I'd been playing possum (don't get me started on possums) all along.  Of course, if I had been, I wouldn't have waited until 10 hours into the race to break character.

The final descent deposited me back on the short section of road that had led from the start to begin the day and a minute later I'd crossed the line and finished in 10:09:33.

Thank you Hokas...the only thing that didn't hurt after Tussey was my feet and lower legs.

No, it wasn't pretty and I don't believe I'll be back to run the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK a second time, at least not a full 50-mile go 'round.  I'm not getting any faster and am not about to put in the road miles or speedwork necessary to do much improving on that type of course.  Though it was easily my fastest 50-mile time ever, it reaffirmed how fast I am NOT and left me staggered for days afterwards when usually I'm back to near normal two days later.

I had accomplished what I set out to do and that was as close as I was going to get to being king for the day (unless that finish materializes into a drawn ping pong ball come Western States lottery day).

And there were those glimpses of siren song singletrack winding off into the woods.

My kingdom for a trail...once I can walk again.


  1. It appears you were left with the same impression of that race that I have. I don't even recall why I ran it to begin with...but I did. Once.

  2. Great Race Report Leon!! I have run Tussey three times and have knocked off times of 8:31 in 2010, 7:44 in 2012, and 10:54 in 2013. I will probably never run it again. This year really did me in, but I had to "try out" the new course. It is definitely a course that is all roads. And sometimes, there is very little food and drink left at the AS. But, every ultra runner should do it at least once. It gives you a new respect on ultras. - Matt Lindsey

  3. Leon, Great report and you really should work for DCNR's tourism, since you hit all the important spots and turns! I was so very nice to meet you and thank you for the very kind words. I love the course and the people and yet, I love trail too. Hope we both get in to Western States so we can share even more adventures together.-Don Halke