Tussey mOUnTainBACK 50 mile

After crewing and pacing Alan 45 miles at Lean Horse the end of August, I was suprised by how rapidly I recovered. I was sore… but I was not as sore as I deserved to be given that I had not run more than 10 miles at a time… or even in any given week… since February.

Maybe I wasn’t as de-trained as I had led myself to believe?

Maybe it wouldn’t be as difficult to return to my previous level of fitness as I had thought?

If so, then my excuse, “well I’m so out of shape now, it’ll take me months to even be able to finish an ultra again. Why even bother training? What’s would be the point? did not apply to me.

Heck, what a better welcome back to ultrarunning than to pace a friend 45 miles to his first 100 mile finish?

After Lean Horse I intended to start running more regularly again… truly I did. But between increased hours at work, and a couple of presentations at national conferences I had to prepare for, September came and went with me only having run a total of three times. All of these runs were only in the 3 to 5 mile range. Certainly this was no where near enough for me to be able to think of even finishing an ultra.

Tim had been thinking of running his first ultra. He decided to run the Tussey mOUnTainBACK 50 mile in Pennsylvania in October. There was no way I could be ready for it considering as little training as I had done. But then I reconsidered. It would be good to see Tim again. In running Tussey, we could both remember and honor  Chris.

Even if going the entire 50 miles under cut-off without injuring myself would be difficult, there certainly would be no dishonor in trying my best and getting as far as I could.

Tussey mOUnTainBACK 50 mile was also the site of the national 50 mile championships. The organizers promoted joining the USATF so one would be eligible to win awards. Besides the fact that I am a confirmed back-of-the-packer who would have no chance of winning anything (unless they started handing out awards for dead-last place), I also declined to join the USATF on principle.

For years the USATF had seemed to ignore ultramarathon and trail running in favor of road events. Only when ultramarathon and trail running became more popular, did this organization begin to pay them more attention. Many of us ultrarunners run for the experience- not for the competition- for too many years USATF simply hadn’t represented why I and many other ultramarathoners run.

 I understand and respect how others may have opinions differing from my own.  However, I have my reasons. I prefer to not give organizations money in membership fees if they do not represent or advocate for my needs.

Perhaps  if I were faster and more competitive of a runner, I would feel differently? Probably.

Soon after Tussey mOUnTainBACK began, Tim and most of the pack took off. I settled in to my slow-easy, mile-covering, jog-shuffle.

How far could I go? I had no idea.

I knew that it was risky, maybe even stupid, trying to run a 50 mile race with basically no training. The risk of injury was high. I needed to take it easy and pay attention  to the signals my body was giving me.

Rather than looking at this event as a race which I needed to finish, I looked at it as an opportunity to get my mind and heart back to running again.

I had nothing to prove- to myself or to anyone else.

No matter how far I got, it would be a nice jog in the colorful autumn woods of Pennsylvania.

I had another reason to take it easy. In only two weeks, I was signed up to do another ultra: Antelope Island 100k in Utah. Ultra-running buddy Lisa Nicholls  had suggested I come out and run “just the 50k” with her and some friends. She was preparing for a hundred mile ultra at Javelina Jundred in Arizona and was planning on doing Antelope Island as an “easy” taper run/hike shortly before that race.

At first I had turned down Lisa’s offer. I didn’t think I would be able to run another ultra so soon after Tussey mOUnTainBACK. However, as I flew into Salt Lake City to make a connection, I looked over to see Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. I had run there in the past.

I thought, “What the heck, if I can run 45 miles pacing Alan on basically no training, I should be able to do 50k, after all, that’s only 31 miles. An easy jog.”

As was registering on line for Antelope Island, however, I accidentally clicked on the button for the 100k instead of the 50k.

“WHAT the!?!? I don’t want to do the 100k- that’s 62 miles! I only want to do the 50K!!!” But try as I might, I couldn’t “un-click” or change my registration from the 100k to the 50k. Whether I wanted to be or not,  I had registered for Antelope Island 100k!

So here I was, running in a 50 mile race having done only three training runs in seven weeks- all 5 miles or less. Then only two weeks later I would be attempting 62 miles.

What was I thinking?

In addition to the 50 mile ultramarathon, there would also be a relay race. I must admit, my first thought was, “It’s going to be a real pain having all of those pesky relay racers and their crew in the way.”

I have to confess, that I soon felt differently. Tussey mOUnTainBACK was run on forest service roads, not the usual trail ultramarathon done on single-track hiking trails that I usually prefer to do. That meant that the crews of the relay teams could drive ahead to the staging areas to meet their runners. The teams shouted words of encouragement to me, played rockin’ music, and rang cow bells.

One young relay runner said as she passed me, “I want to be just like you when I grow up!”

No , don’t be like me when you grow up…. “ I replied, “…try to be much faster!”

Later in the day, two other runners shouted, “You’re lookin’ good!” 

Really?!” I asked,  “Do you really think I’m lookin’ good?”

They said in unison, “Yes of course you are! You’re lookin’ GREAT!”

Oh well,” I replied,” I’m sure I’ll get over it soon.” That got a chuckle- of course there is always some truth to humor- most of all humor during an ultramarathon.

In the events that I do, most of the time I am alone . I don’t get cheered as I was at this race.

And yet, even as a back-of-the-pack ultrarunner, here I was getted cheered on and encouraged. Some of the relay runners were even telling me that I was their hero.

And you know, I really enjoyed it.

OK, I changed my mind about those relay runners.  It was kind of nice having them and their crew around. They didn’t turn out to be as “pesky” as I expected they would be.

Around mile 20 to 25 my right knee started hurting. It was my iliotibial band. I had suffered ITB injury some years ago, which prevented me from running much for 6 months. The last thing I wanted to do was get sidelined by injury just as I was getting back into running. Plus, I had Antelope Island coming up in only two weeks.

I slowed down and took it easy. I arrived at mile 25 slightly behind cut-off time. The race official said that if I was doing well, he didn’t absolutely have to pull me. It was up to his discretion. I told him that other than my knee, I was feeling good. If I must DNF at a race, I also explained that at least I’d like to go further than a traditional 26.2 mile marathon distance. Call it ultramarathoner pride.

So he let me go.  I thanked him profusely.

I began running on the other side of the road. My knee started feeling better. Sometimes the slight slope of one side of the road is enough to flare ITB; moving to the other side if done soon enough can sometimes fix it.

I sped up a little. At mile 31 I looked at my GPS watch and to my surprise, I saw that I had just run my third fastest 50k time ever- despite having to go slow because of knee pain earlier.  Amazing.

But I also realized that unless I wanted to beat up my body, it was unlikely I would make it to the finish under cut off.

No problem. I was only here for a nice easy training run in this beautiful autumn forest of Pennsylvania. The colors of the leaves were glowing reds, yellows and oranges.


In the Black Hills we have coniferous Ponderosa Pine forest. We get a brief flush of gold from the pockets of Aspen trees but it is nothing like the variety of colors of hardwoods. Having spent many of my younger years in the eastern deciduous woods, the aroma of fallen leaves along this gravel road in Pennsylvania brought back a flood of memories. Of time with Chris and other pleasant times decades in the past.

Then suddenly without warning,  tears began filling my eyes. I tried to brush them away and ignore them.

I’m an experienced ultramarathoner. I only cry during 100 mile races not shorter distances!” I thought, “Why am I crying?!?!”

Then I understood why I was crying.

At every race I had ever run with Chris, he would finish hours ahead of me. He would always wait for me at the finish line. Sometimes he came back out onto the course  and run in those last few hundred yards with me.  I always looked forward to seeing that smile of his.

I had just realized that he’ll never be there waiting for me at a finish line ever again.  I won’t be able to see his smile or hear his words of encouragement. It made me very sad.

More tears fell.

I finally arrived at the 36 mile aid station,  my tears having  dried up. I was feeling good but still past cut off time. The race officials asked if I was aware that it was past cut off and I said that I was.  I explained that I would stop running and drop from the race but only if they insisted I do so. On the other hand, if they’d let me go, I’d have no problem continuing to run further.

Because I was feeling and looking good, they did call in to race central to see if they could allow me go. The answer was negative. Apparently last year they had some runners get lost on the course, make a wrong turn and end up being out after dark. So this year they were not going to be flexible with cut off times.

Ironically, after making me stop,  they had some difficulty finding someone to drive me back to the finish.

OK here’s the deal. I’ve dropped from the race, so here’s my number, ” I joked, ” Don’t you all worry about finding me a ride. I will find a way to get back to the finish on my own. In fact, I think I’ll just jog there- it’s only 14 miles. It won’t be a problem at all…

But they wouldn’t allow me to do it.  So I had to stay and watch the last few relay teams come through.

One of the most frustrating things about being a back-of-the-packer is that often you can be having what you consider to be a good day and yet you can still be forced to stop- all because you happen to run slower than the rest of the pack.

Now I completely understand and I agree with stopping a runner  because they are having  medical issues- no matter what their pace.  Mental status changes, uncontrolled vomiting, dehydration (or overhydration), physical injury, heat exhaustion and hypothermia are all valid reasons to force a runner to stop.

I also undertand why on more isolated remote events, it is necessary to be strict on cut off times from the stand point of safety. Race organizers can simply not take the risk of having to call search and rescue out to find a runner at 2 or 3 AM in the mountains or wilderness.

Finally, from the standpoint of the volunteers, it is unreasonable to expect them to wait for hours and hours for the last straggler or two to come in. The volunteers have already given up so much of their time. There does come a time to say “enough” and for the race to be over.

However, today none of these rationale seemed to apply.

Although I was slow, it was not because I was having a bad day or medical issues. I was slow, but I always am. It was a little annoying to be made to stop, and then be forced to sit there for another 30 minutes and watch the last half-dozen relay teams come through. The cut off times, you see, were only applied to the ultramarathoners and not to the relay racers.

If all of the relay teams had come through- then of course it would have made sense to stop us last few straggling ultrarunners. I’d have no problem with that. The volunteers would have been ready to  pack up. But the volunteers had to be there anyway  until the last of the relay teams came through- why not let me keep going?

As for having to stop me because of the potential for getting lost, that also did not make sense to me. There were still hours of daylight left and this was only a road race. Even if I would not be able to make it the full 50 miles before dark, why not let me make it as far as I could and pull me at the next cut off (mile 42)?

Getting lost in the mountains could be serious. However, if someone got lost on a road race, what’s the worst that would happen? You’d drive out in your car to find them. When we run trail ultras, the potential for getting lost is all part of the experience. That’s why we carry basic survival gear and also flashlight or a head lamp- even in events where one is not expeccting to be out after dark. One can never be too careful.

Of course, back-of-the-packers are no more likely to get lost than those running at the head of the pack. Slower runners have more time to pay attention to our surroundings and to follow the tracks of the pack running ahead of us. Indeed, sometimes it is the front runners who get turned around. They have fewer or no tracks to follow. By going as fast as they do, speed goats might not see a marked turn or side trail they need to take.

At the 3 days in Syllamo multiday stage race in Arkansas in 2010, the runner who got lost and stayed out all night was in fourth place at the time he missed a turn and got off the course.

However,  it’s very bad form to argue with race officials- so I didn’t.

What I did do however is make sure the race officials knew full-well how good I was feeling. Despite being slow, it doesn’t mean I was having a bad day. I was slow because that’s just how I normally am.

I offered to help them pack up their tables and supplies. They told me I didn’t have to, I could just sit down and rest.

I’m not at all tired,” I told them, “after all, I only ran 36 miles today- not 50.”

I just couldnt’ sit there and watch. I’d volunteered at other events, if they weren’t going to let me run anymore, I might as well be of some use and help them out.

Plus I could rub it in…hint, hint, hint… I’m not at all tired because you all made me stop!

They did finally get me back to the finish where I saw Tim. He’d had a great race- it was his first 50 mile ultramarathon and he did it in: 9:11:59. I was proud of him. I know Chris would be proud too.

I have no doubt that had the race officials permitted me, I would have made it the entire 50 miles. I would have finished after the final cut off which means that I would not have gotten a finishers award- but so what? Medals and finisher’s awards are not why I run.

Despite my initial annoyance, in consideration that I had another ultra to run in only two weeks, it was for the best that they made me stop. 36 miles is a good training run. It certainly is nothing to be ashamed of.

Who knows what might have happened with my knee had I continued?

I was pressing my luck by even being out there with minimal training in the first place. What did I expect?

Over the next two weeks, I wondered:  how would I do at Antelope Island?

I would find out soon enough.


7 responses

  1. THis just came up as I was checking my email.
    I am so glad to see you running again! 36 miles, a good training run? It would KILL me.

    I am looking forard to reading how you do at Antelope Island. I believe my friend Jim will be at one of the Aid stations, should he look for you?

    December 4, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    • You are the best. You are always the first to reply to my posts (and I am so very poor at reading/replying to the posts of others. I apologize for that). I appreciate it more that I can find the words to say.

      Indeed, I have absolutely no doubt that you could do 36 miles- or for that matter even one hundred. If you have two legs, a good pair of lungs and you have a heart beating strong in your chest- then you can do it.

      Actually having two legs is optional. I’ve witnessed a bilateral amputee run a 50 mile ultra on those springy prosthetic thingys- and yet they still finished a couple of hours ahead of me and many others.

      If you believe you can do it- then you can do it- its as simple as that. I know that sounds overly simple, overly optimistic, but its true.

      Every one of us puts barriers into our own minds that too often prevents us from achieving whatever greatness we are destined for. I know because I’ve been there. Too often I continue to do it to myself.

      Anyway, 2013 still is far away. But Comrades would be pretty awesome to try, now wouldn’t it?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:18 pm

      • Cheers to you and a very Happy Christmas as well.

        Right now I am up to 3 miles again after Surgery. (the recovery process got a little hampered in there due to a glute strain.) So 36? I’d like to run 36 in one week.

        But it is true that the mind barriers are so much more powerful than the physical ones. Lately I have been thinking about Comrades and wondering “What was I thinking?” but perhaps it’s like my new Physical Therapist says, “Too often we focus solely on the big enormous goal and forget to do all the small things that will make that goal possible, and then the big goal just never happens…”

        Comrades, no matter what happens, is going to be really really neat!

        December 5, 2011 at 3:37 am

  2. Teresa Verburg

    Once again I am inspired by your race report. Too often I am caught up in negativity…’not trained enough, not fast enough, not mentally focused, I have no business being here’. Your positive attitude keeps me inspired to run. So much so, that I am real close to committing to the Big Horn 100 this year. I know the older I get the less chance I will have to attempt an ultra of this caliber. By the way, If you’re looking for a pacing opportunity, I would so much love to have you help me in my quest. I cannot think another runner I would want to assist me more than you….just a thought 🙂

    December 4, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    • You know… I have still been debating whether I should try Bighorn 50 mile in 2012 or whether I should just do the Black Hills- one hundred or another distance- ultramarathon in June 2012…

      I would be honored to crew/pace you at Bighorn. If you are serious, then I will be. If you promise to not give up just because you feel bad or puny- then I will do everything I can to get you to the finish.

      It’s a hundred mile race; how in the heck do you expect to feel like by the end?

      Feeling “like “$h!t” would actually be a significant step up from how us ultramarathoners usually feel. $h!t feels nothing, and yet us ultramarathoners feel everything. We may very well smell like $h!t while running an ultra but in truth we never actually feel like it.

      Anyway, of all of the 21 ultramarathon races I have attempted thus far, Bighorn by far was the most scenic, the most beautiful. If I die and I am fortunate to go to a place such as Heaven (and there is a Heaven, which I think there is), I hope that it will have places something like the Bighorns.

      However, Bighorn is also one of the most rugged courses I have ever run on. The 50 mile course was tough; I have difficulty imagining doing the full hundred. Going UP the first 50 miles and then having to go back DOWN. Hence my willingness to pace you.

      Anyway, I have signed up for Rocky Racoon 100 mile in February so I need to focus on training for that. Its only several weeks away.

      What was I thinking signing up for another hundred?!?!?!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:02 pm

      • Ok so reading this feeling like $hit moment give me pause about all this ultra running thing…..
        You are signed up for a 100 in February! I can not wait for the photos!

        December 26, 2011 at 1:32 pm

  3. Teresa Verburg

    I have been pumped all day thinking of Bighorn 100. I always run solo, as you do, but I know I will need help getting through that one. Asking for help pacing/crewing is difficult since it is not a small favor. I hope to hear about your training and racing Rocky Raccoon. It is coming up soon, but it looks like a great venue. Nothing keeps me motivated more than reading about the suffering of other ultrarunners..LOL. Then I know I’m not alone. By the way, I liked your remark ‘..or just do the Black Hills 100’

    December 5, 2011 at 7:53 pm

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