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Legs 5 through 9 of the Mountainback

January 10, 2009 - Erik Brown
The Tussey Mountainback saga continues…
Leg 5 – Leg 5 is a relatively easy 3.4 miles of downhill and flat running. It was coming up on 10:00 A.M. as I started this leg so the sun was well up in the cloudless sky. Still, there was plenty of shade and the air temperature was very comfortable. I had never run on this part of the course before.
As I mentioned in my last post, the first wave of relay runners had started passing me during Leg 4. That continued during the first mile of Leg 5. The passing support vehicles and faster runners caused me to focus extra attention on the rough footing along the dirt and gravel fire road we were running on.
At about the 19 mile mark, I felt a twinge in my left thigh which gave me a momentary scare. With more than 30 miles still to go, it was way too early to be feeling any significant pain in my legs. I quickly decided that the best thing to do was to pretend it hadn’t happened. It was about this point in the race that I started giving myself the same mini pep talk over and over again. Every 5 or 10 minutes I silently told myself “I feel fine and I’m doing great!” I repeated that 2 or 3 times in my mind to be sure it stuck, and then resumed a kind of right brain / left brain mental approach to the race. By right brain / left brain I mean that while my left brain was doing its best to maintain a steady pace and watch for snakes, rocks, holes, and other hazards to navigation along the way (a little U.S. Coast guard lingo there…), my right brain was taking in as much of the beautiful scenery of the Rothrock State Forest as my left brain would permit.
As I cruised into T.Z. 5, I was feeling upbeat on a couple of levels. With more than 20 miles now covered I was still feeling pretty fresh. My legs were a little stiff, but they were working. Also, as planned, Coach Shuta was waiting there with lunch and some encouraging words.
Legs 6, 7, 8 and 9 - We walked maybe a quarter of a mile while I ate and drank. Then Joe headed for his car while I started running again. Since he had already done more to help me than anyone could have asked, and since we had more or less agreed that he would head for home once I started leg 6, I didn’t expect to see Joe again until several days after the race. But, as he is prone to do, Joe had made his own, different plan and didn’t tell anyone what it was.
My plan was to run the next 16 miles (I had a drop bag waiting for me at T.Z. 7), and meet Deanna (my lovely and gracious) at T.Z. 9 (Colyer Lake), approximately 36.5 miles into the race. From there she would drive our car as a support vehicle for me all the way to the finish line. Deanna had been on the go since about 4:30 A.M. We left the house at about 5:00 A.M. and she had driven me to the starting line. Then, once the race had begun, she drove to the State College junior high school, parked the car, and ran down to Boalsburg and back to get her own run in before chasing and cheering our boys around the State College XC course during the S.C. XC invite that morning. After all of that, she got back in the car and headed for Colyer Lake.
Leg 6 was challenging. At a distance of 5.3 miles, it’s one of the longer stretches of the course. There are some flat sections, but mostly it’s an uphill leg and, with 20 plus miles already under your belt as you begin, it’s tough. During one long uphill portion, I began alternating running with some short, recovery walking. Up until that point, the only walking I had done was through the T.Z.’s. Near the end of Leg 6 you pass the 25 mile mark. Halfway! It gave me a nice psychological lift. But, only a moment later, I didn’t notice a rock protruding from the dirt road. I caught it with my right foot, and nearly did a face plant. It was as if the Mountainback course came to life just long enough to burst my euphoric bubble.
As I headed into T.Z. 6, the official race photographer was there snapping pictures. Don’t ask me to explain it, but I have the goofiest look on my face in the photo he took there. It’s a disappointment to me, because the backdrop for that photo is stunningly beautiful. On the other hand, Deanna can’t look at that picture without laughing so hard that her eyes tear up. She laughs so hard, that I have to laugh too. No, I will not be posting it here, no way.
25.9 miles down. 24.1 still to go.
Leg 7 – The website for the Mountainback is loaded with information including a section with a photo and description of each leg of the course – all written by race director Mike Casper. Mike has also assigned a short descriptive phrase, almost like a name, to each leg. Mike’s name for Leg 7 is “Miles From Nowhere”. That actually sums it up quite well. Leg 7 begins with a difficult uphill climb that is approximately 1 mile long, then levels off for awhile before heading into a stretch of rolling hills.
I don’t remember a whole lot about this 4.9 mile leg except that I passed the 26 mile mark in about 4:42, and guesstimated my (26.2 miles) marathon time at about 4:45. I also remember a short, steep, curvy downhill section that I had to take extra slow because, by this time, my thighs were protesting any / all downhill running.
Eventually, I came to T.Z. 7. My drop bag was waiting there for me which made me happy. I walked as I ate yet another meal of PB& J sandwiches, Power Bar vanilla gel, gummy bears, and water, then started running again. 30.8 miles down. A new distance P.R.! 19.2 miles left to go.
Leg 8 – Leg 8 is a short, easy 2.8 miles. It’s mostly flat with a short downhill section and some small rolling hills. But Leg 8 is my least favorite leg of the entire race (Leg 11 is a close 2nd). Why? Because for a short, scary, two-tenths of a mile, the course runs (against traffic) along the shoulder of U.S Route 322. Fortunately, recent road construction in that area, has improved the width, and footing along that shoulder. Still, it’s more than a little intimidating to run that two-tenths of a mile, on somewhat wobbly legs, with cars and 18-wheelers zipping by at 60 mph. Needless to say, I survived although, I did stop and stand up against the guardrail at one point to wait for a tractor-trailer to go by.
The scene at T.Z. 8 was similar to that at T.Z. 4 – like a PSU tailgate party. It was a bit congested. There were quite a few relay support vehicles parker along the narrow road. I moved through there pretty briskly. I was still “racing” the several ultra runners (in front and behind) who were in relatively close proximity to me. 33.6 miles down. A new distance P.R.! 16.4 miles to go!
Leg 9 – Leg 9 is another short leg – just 2.9 miles. There are a few hills, but they are nothing compared to what you’re in for during Legs 10 and 11, so you don’t mind them much.
I was too tired at this point to feel excitement, but I was looking forward to finally meeting back up with Deanna at Colyer Lake. That anticipation helped me maintain a fairly steady pace. With about a mile to go to T.Z. 9 the course pops out of the Rothrock State Forest for a couple miles through the open area surrounding Colyer Lake. As I came out of the woods, I got a nice surprise – Coach Shuta, waiting with a fresh, cold bottle of water. At that point I realized that he was enjoying my success almost as much as if he were running himself.
It was nice to be out in the open and running a smooth pavement. I could see several runners up ahead and, off in the distance, Colyer Lake.

Deanna spotted me first as I approached T.Z. 9. She was excited, and ran up the road to greet me. In her usual fashion, she started talking faster than I could listen. We ran together for a short distance, then she sprinted ahead to get my next meal-on-the-go ready. 36.5 miles down. 13.5 miles left to go!

In my next post: the final 13.5 miles and the scene at the finish line. I have it written! I'll be posting it on Tuesday, January 13th.

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