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The homestretch

January 13, 2009 - Erik Brown
The Tussey Mountainback homestretch... Finally!
Reaching T.Z. 9 gave me a psychological lift. Deanna’s enthusiasm was contagious, and it helped a lot that I simply didn’t think about what was coming next – arguably the toughest 9.3 mile stretch on the course. On the other hand, I knew that once I covered that distance, I had only 4.2, more or less, “easy’ miles to go to reach the finish line.
Leg 10 - Deanna walked with me while I ate and drank, then she headed for my “support vehicle” to shadow me the rest of the way. Now that Deanna was involved in the effort I was even more motivated. So, while she went to get the car, I pushed myself to get as far up the road as possible before she caught me. When she did, she handed me another bottle of water, then drove ahead to T.Z. 10.
About a mile from Colyer Lake, Leg 10 re-enters the Rothrock State Forest. From there, the next 4 miles are very difficult. We’re talkin’ big, steep hills. As I made my way, the support vehicle for the 5 PM’rs (my father-in-law’s relay team) passed me. Deanna’s parents were in the car and they were concerned that I wasn’t wearing a hat. But there was enough occasional shade, that I really wasn’t having a problem with the sun. They gave me a cheer and drove on up the road.
Shortly after you pass the 40 mile mark, you come to the most challenging hill of Leg 10 and definitely one of the top 5 toughest hills on the entire Mountainback course. This baby is seven-tenths of a mile straight up! Rather than try to run it, I walked as briskly as I could manage all the way to the top. From the crest, it’s a short, easy, and slightly downhill run to the Bear Meadows Natural Area which serves as both T.Z. 10, and T.Z. 11.
As I got closer, I could hear the small crowd of volunteers, relay runners, and drivers that had gathered there. Before long, I was weaving my way through the T.Z. I caught Deanna by surprise. She was talking to her mother and had lost track of the passing time (that’s never happened before, NOT). Fortunately, Deanna is quite speedy when she wants to be. She hustled to the car, got my provisions, and we repeated the walk, eat, and drink, routine – a vanilla Power Bar gel, and two PB&J’s washed down with water, then a bag of gummy bears for the road. 41.8 miles down!
Leg 11 – Leg 11 is only 4 miles, but it’s the toughest leg of the race. At this point, my legs simply couldn’t run on any kind of steep terrain - up or down. Well, Leg 11 is almost entirely up and down. It begins with a tough uphill climb, and then proceeds with a longer downhill stretch before leveling off on a very rocky path to a turnaround. Then, you must do it all in reverse back to T.Z. 10/11. I was reduced to walking up and shuffling down these long steep hills, but so were the other ultra runners I saw as I “ran” the out-and-back leg of the Mountainback.
Leg 11 has one redeeming feature – a magnificent vista across a tree covered valley near the turnaround point. So beautiful, it was worth running the 44 miles it took me to get there, and because you turnaround just beyond it, you get to admire it twice. Once you’ve done that though, you’ve got the last and toughest climb on the entire course.
At this point I began doing some serious number crunching. I still had a very good chance of breaking ten hours but I knew (or thought I knew) it was going to be very close.
It took me forever to get up that last hill. When I finally reached the top I would have been elated if it weren’t for the extreme mental and physical fatigue that was impossible to ignore. Instead I gingerly continued down the other side toward T.Z. 11. Picture Sylvester Stallone making his way back down the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum after his first training run in the original Rocky movie, and you’ve got the right mental image.
About halfway down the hill to T.Z. 11, Deanna was waiting for me. She was excited and started jogging with me, which would have been very nice, except she was darting around like a chipmunk looking for an acorn - on my left, now to the right, behind, in front, now back to the left. Picture Shrek and Donkey now, except that I’m not as affable as an ogre (Yeah, I just referred to my wife as a donkey. Good thing she never reads my blog!). After about 10 seconds of that I let her know I needed a little more space. She zipped ahead to get me one last bottle of water and one last dose of Ibuprofin.
I finally arrived back at T.Z. 11. My in-laws were still there, waiting to cheer me on which was very nice. I was doing my best to keep moving ahead as quickly as possible because I knew (or thought I knew) that I was running only a few precious minutes ahead of the pace I needed to break 10 hours. Then I heard some of the best news I had gotten all day. Deanna’s dad yelled to me, “only 4.2 miles to go!” That was music to my ears because my calculations were based on the mistaken notion that Leg 12 (the final leg) was 4.8 miles long. Woohoo!! 45.8 miles down. Only 4.2 miles left to go!
In retrospect, I should have realized my mistake sooner because I saw mile markers 44 and 45 as I was headed back to Bear Meadow. I remember thinking that the mile markers didn’t jive with my calculations, but it didn’t enter my mind that I was wrong. I guess that would make me a “typical male” which is a good thing in my book.
Leg 12 – As I exited T.Z. 11, there were a lot of vehicles parked on both sides of Bear Meadows Road. With a steady stream of vehicles passing me on their way to the finish line, the first quarter mile of Leg 12 was a bit crowded for my taste. Things got just a little dicey at one point when a “local” vehicle came toward me traveling in the opposite direction of everyone else. Fortunately I got past him before the inevitable traffic snarl occurred behind me.
After a short distance, the vehicle traffic tapered off. Deanna, and then her parents, drove by and gave me one last word of encouragement. From there, it was a relatively easy, mostly downhill, 4 miles to the finish line. I was tired and my legs were very sore, but I was determined to break 10 hours. I’m pleased to report that I ran the entire length of Leg 12 at a steady pace. I was simultaneously enjoying the final minutes of my day in the woods, and anxiously pressing toward the finish line where I could finally stop and rest. It will come as no surprise to the people who know me best that I was checking my watch every minute or two and constantly calculating my ETA to the next mile marker and ultimately the finish line.
With about a mile to go, as I came around a bend in the road, there was a woman walking a large dog. They were coming toward me on my side of the road. Of course I immediately hoped she would steer her dog to the other side so that I wouldn’t have to try to out-maneuver a lunging dog on legs that felt like rubber. Then, a car came up behind her making it unsafe for her to move out of my way. I thought, “oh boy, here we go.” Fortunately, the car passed her before I got there, and she did finally make some extra room for me to plod on by. To her, I’m sure it was a total non-event, but to me it was a close call.
A few more minutes down the road I spotted the first of two bridges that signal you’re near the finish line. I was very close now. In the excitement of the moment I was able to pick up my pace, though I was probably the only person who could have perceived the very slight change in my cadence.
As I made my way through the final half mile I began looking for Deanna since she often will run out to greet me as I finish a race (she always beats me). But since I had shooed her away at the end of Leg 11, she decided to be patient and wait for me near the finish line. Instead, it wasn’t long before I heard, and then spotted Coach Shuta. He was yelling something to me, "You're going to break 10 hours!" I found out later he had been somewhat nervously watching the clock and thinking the same things I was thinking – that it was going to be close on whether I would achieve my goal time. He considered running out to find me and to make sure I didn’t give up, but Deanna told him how I treated her back at Bear Meadow, and he thought better of it.
Anyway, there was Joe cheering me on, then Dean and Sandy (my in-laws), and finally Deanna. As I approached the finish line, there was a smattering of friendly applause and the official race photographer was snapping photos.
Then, just like that, my running day was over - 50 miles in 9 hours, 51 minutes, and 36 seconds. A race volunteer handed me my Tussey Mountainback 50 Mile Ultramarathon finisher’s medal. Deanna guided me to the area where the Centre Volunteers in Medicine were weighing, massaging, and generally helping runners deal with their various aches and pains. Joe handed me a Diet Coke (a ritual we had adopted at the end of training runs) and made sure I did some walking before I sat down. Deanna ran to get me a box of grape juice (Nurse Deanna disagreed with Diet Coke as the beverage of choice at that point).
I reluctantly agreed to a massage because of the severe leg cramps that I’ve experienced after regular marathons. It took a supreme effort just to get myself on and off the table. I think a massage is supposed to feel good, but that one mostly hurt like hell. Maybe the running had something to do with that. Still, it turned out to be the right thing to do. Deanna walked me to the car and drove us home. I was worried about my legs seizing up in the car, but I had only a few moderate cramps during the hour drive to Hollidaysburg. It had been a beautiful day and I had a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
Thanks to Mike Casper and the Nittany Valley Running Club for putting on such a great event. Thanks to Deanna for putting up with the many hours I spent preparing, and for all her help and support on race day. And a special thanks to Joe Shuta who first inspired me to run the Mountainback, and then did so much to prepare me for a successful effort.
Thanks for reading Against The Wind!

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