A few weeks ago my friend Roz messaged to ask if I would like to join her Tussey Mountainback Relay team, “The Late Finishers.” Having had a blast the last two times I’d participated as part of a relay team, of course I said yes.
The team was made up of Roz and her husband Scott, our friend Bill (who will be running the Marine Corps Marathon this weekend, as well), Scott’s sister Deana and her husband Erik, Scott’s dad Dean, Tony, and his wife Chrissy, who served as our sherpa.
You might be wondering about the tutus. Seeing as how it’s October and just about everyone has been touched in some way by breast cancer, it was for breast cancer awareness. Roz purchased two tutus for us to switch off with. The guys were great sports about it and they definitely made us recognizable out on the course.
The course starts and ends at Tussey Mountain. The ultras began at 7 am, along with the team the “Old Men of the Mountain.” The “Old Men of the Mountain” are a group of older gentlemen who all are still running and they’re led by 94 year old George Etzweiler. You have to be 65 to part of their group. The rest of the relay teams go out in waves every half hour until 9:30 am. We were in the last wave.
Scott had the first leg, a little more than 3 miles up the mountain. It gets pretty steep in spots, but I guess the switchbacks help out a bit The transport vehicles head out about 5 minutes before. We park at the transition zone and wait to cheer the runners in and the new runner on to leg #2.
Bill took on leg #2 (4.0 miles), a mostly downhill stretch ending deep in the woods. As you can see, the race is run mainly on gravel fire/logging roads, but some areas are paved. The scenery is beautiful all day.
Deana had leg #3 (3.8 miles), a mostly flat section with a few small rollers that follows the course into Whipple Dam State Park. I had leg #4 (5.6 miles), a new leg for me. It was labeled as difficult, but at first I found it to be quite reasonable. That was until I hit the mile long hill, which immediately rid me of any arrogance I had. I am proud to say I didn’t walk at all, a challenge for such a long and steep hill.
Dean, Scott’s dad had leg #5 (3.4 miles), and Tony took on what is arguably the hardest leg of all, leg #6 (4.1 miles), aka Stairway to the Stars, which begins at the Alan Seeger Natural Area. It has more than 1,300 feet of elevation gain over 4 miles. I did it last year and my left foot fell asleep less than a mile into it and I didn’t get feeling back until I was 1/4 mile from the transition zone. It’s a doozy! Leg #6 was also where we saw our first ultra runner of the day. He’d completed almost a marathon at that point.
Leg #7 is an easy 3.7 miles and Roz took on leg #8, a 4.3 miler. While leg #9 is short, it’s another tough one with plenty of rolling hills. Bill took on leg #10, his second of the day. It’s 5.5 miles with some moderate hills and ends at Colyer Lake.
Deana had leg #11 (5.3 miles), another one of the more challenging legs of the whole course. It’s aptly named “Are we there yet?” and I’m sure most runners, ultras and relayers alike, were asking themselves that very same question. I had the final leg of the course, leg #12, that leaves from the Bear Meadows Natural Area. I had it last year too and it’s a fun one. It’s 4.2 miles almost exclusively downhill. It’s great to come into the finish line cheered on by your team and everyone else waiting there.
We finished 4th in our category out of 11 teams with a time of 7:36:57.83 with an average pace of 9:08/mile. According to Tony, it was a big improvement from their team’s time last year.
Overall it was a really fun day! It’s beautiful scenery, time with friends, and essentially some fun tailgating with pb sandwiches, granola bars, candy, cookies, etc. You never know what all you’re going to have packed in the car. It’s also really inspiring to cheer on the ultras. I’m not sure I’d have 50 miles in me, especially on that particular course. As the race director likes to say, “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
The winner of the ultra on the men’s side was Michael Wardian (40) and he averaged a 6:56/mile pace. He’s planning to run the MCM this weekend and hopes to run sub-2:18. Incredible! The women’s winner was Connie Gardner (50) with a time of 7:27:49. I do have to say, everyone out there was impressive and it was great to get to see some of the ultras cross the finish line with huge smiles.
Hopefully I’ll get to run this again next year. It really is a fun day. It’s not a huge race, but it’s well-organized and has a strong history. It also raises money for local organizations that benefit the community. Each year it’s a different organization. the race attracts runners from all over the country. Run it yourself or find a team of 2, 3, 4, up to 8. I guarantee it’ll be an awesome day!