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Two Tussey Teasers, a book, a birthday, and a challenge

October 14, 2008 - Erik Brown
This is the 2nd installment of my account of the 2008 Tussey Mountainback 50 Mile Ultramarathon, A.K.A. my “mid-life crisis”. If you missed part one, click here.
“Why would you want to do a 50 mile race?” That’s a question I heard quite a few times in the past few months. The short answer is that two "Tussey Teasers", a book, a birthday, and a challenge were to blame. But here is the complete answer.
I’ve never been one to dwell on my age. I wasn’t in a big rush to turn 16 or 21, and it really didn’t bother me when 40 rolled around. But there was something about being 49 with 50 just around the corner. For me, that something was the undeniable fact that I am no longer a young man, and the realization that I’ll never be in the “best shape of my life” again. I know that seems pretty obvious, but for a life-long runner like me who never completely grew up, that was a tough pill to swallow. On top of that, a bad thought starts creeping in: when will I take my last run?
How do you fight that? I knew I wanted some kind of a challenge, but it was far from a snap decision on my part to enter the Mountainback. At first I thought maybe I’d do another regular marathon and try to break four hours. I know, I know, that’s pretty slow. But hey, I’m 50!
Then, in the spring of 2007, I had a chance conversation with Joe Shuta as I was running on the track at Tiger Stadium. Joe is a Spanish teacher for the Altoona Area School District, a public address announcer for football games and track meets at Mansion Park, and the host of Leading Off, a sports talk show on our local ESPN Radio affiliate - WVAM (1430 AM). Joe is the “always challenging trivia question” guy. He is also a very accomplished distance runner.
At that time we were just acquaintances, but I knew Joe had done the Tussey Mountainback because several years prior, Deanna came home from her first Mountainback relay race and said “there was this old guy there who ran the whole 50 miles!” I guess Joe seemed old to Deanna because she is so young… but I digress. Anyway, I had met Joe and had talked to him a little about his experience at Tussey. I was not aware, however, just how long his running resume is and that he is known in some quarters as a “Rothrock War Horse”. At least that’s how Mike Casper, race director for the Tussey Mountainback, captioned a photo (click on photo and scroll down) of Joe finishing a 2007 “Tussey Teaser”. Sorry, digressing again. 
That day at the track I was telling Joe that my family always does the Hollidaysburg YMCA’s July 4th races in downtown Altoona, and he suggested that Deanna and I try some of the “Tussey Teasers”.
What are Tussey Teasers? They are a series of five races organized by Mike Casper and the Nittany Valley Running Club that are run in the Rothrock State Forest on sections of the Tussey Mountainback course from mid-March through the end of June each year. The nice thing about the Teasers is that the scenery is beautiful and four of them are free! Each Teaser race also has a cool name. But beware. The hills in the Rothrock State Forest are longer and steeper than anything I’ve encountered in any of the road races I’ve done. Also, the Teasers have a devious way of making you think that maybe you could run the entire ultra, hence the name Teasers.
Well, Deanna and I thought that the Teasers would make excellent training runs for the 4th of July Races, so we decided to run two of them.
The first was the Beidleheimer Sidewinder 10K in May, 2007 (I told you they had cool names). This race is particularly interesting because instead of the standard age group awards, they apply age and gender adjustments to the finishing times to “level the playing field”. In other words, an older female runner can take the overall first place honor if her actual time minus her age and gender adjustments is faster than every other runner’s adjusted time. Another unique thing about the Beidleheimer Sidewinder 10K is that you park your car at Whipple Dam State Park and ride an old school bus 6.2 miles on a dirt and gravel fire road up into the mountains of the Rothrock State Forest. The race is simply to run back to Whipple Dam. Our results that day were fairly typical. Deanna’s adjusted time was good enough for 2nd place overall in a field of 43 runners and I finished 19th. Afterwards, Deanna and I made a day of it by having a picnic there with her parents.
By now you’re probably wondering, what does any of this have to do with the ultra? Well, something happened during the Sidewinder. Joe Shuta ran it too. Early in the race I passed him and thought the next time I’d see him would be at the finish line. But things didn’t turn out that way. Shortly after I passed him we started up what seemed like a pretty tough hill to me. Halfway up the hill Joe easily passed me back. I spent the rest of the race trying to catch him, but never did. He finished 37 (actual) seconds ahead of me.
The next Teaser we did was the “Treaster Kettle Test-Your-Mettle 10.6 Miler” in June, 2007 (I kid you not). This one starts at Colyer Lake and proceeds 5.3 miles into the Rothrock State Forest to “Bear Meadow”, then turns around and finishes back at Colyer Lake. This is one tough race. We’re talking BIG hills. One in particular is very steep and about three quarters of a mile long. Deanna finished first among the women and 5th overall. I was 12th overall. Guess who was 11th. That’s right, the Rothrock War Horse. This time he led (me) by about 40 yards all the way out to Bear Meadow. I caught him at the turnaround because there was a water table there and he walked long enough to drink a cup of water. I took a drink too, but just dumped it on my face so that I could close the gap. So, there we were running together back to the finish line. I hung on his shoulder and let him set the pace. That worked well for about four miles. Unfortunately, there is a short, but very steep hill about a mile from the finish and Joe dropped me there. Ironically, he finished exactly 37 seconds ahead of me, again.
After the race, Joe and I had some friendly-rival conversation and then he did two things that in retrospect I think were a bit sneaky and specifically intended to hook me into running the Mountainback. First he offered to let me borrow a book: Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes, then he casually ended an e-mail with this thinly disguised challenge, “now, if I can just get you to run 50 miles.”
I didn’t decide right then and there to run an ultra. I still had some soul-searching to do. But I wanted a challenge and now I had it.
By the way, the Teasers were, in fact, excellent training for the July 4th races. I ran a PR 15K in the 2007 race and snagged 2nd place in the 45 - 49 age-group.
If you didn't click on the link above for Dean Karnazes, I suggest you take a few minutes to check it out. Then again, if you do, you might soon find yourself signing up for the Tussey Mountainback!

Next post: Training for the Mountainback (difficult) and getting Deanna on board with the decision (nearly impossible!). Thanks for reading.

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