The thing about running the same ultramarathon course over again is that you know exactly what to expect. There are no questions about what waits around the next bend, the steepness of that next hill, or what that downhill is gonna do to your quads. Oh no, the pain receptors remember the last time- it’s tatooed on them like the Chinese symbol on your back. The other thing about running the same ultramarathon course over again is that, in addition to knowing exactly what to expect, there are also expectations: gotta run it faster, gotta place higher, gotta avoid that mental breakdown at Mile 35. So, on the morning of the 2015 Tussey Mountainback, I sat in the parking lot, watching the rain hit the windshield and trying to tell myself that no matter what happened, I’d be happy that I made it to the start, happy that I finish, happy that I don’t cry at Mile 35. Bullshit. I had a goal and I wanted that goal badly. Yeah, I wanted to win. I never said it out loud. When asked, I’d say, oh, I just want to beat my time from last year. Bullshit. I wanted to obliterate my time from last year. So, I toed the starting line with my hat pulled low and the pain receptors on high alert and waited for that cue to make those legs start moving….and not stop for a long time.
I love the Tussey Mountainback. I love the first climb up Laurel Run Road. The sun is just starting to rise and there’s often mist in the trees. You hit that first hill with the whole race before you- a blank canvas on which to write your experience. There’s always chatter up the hill- what’s your time goal? How many times have you done this? You know about the hill at Mile 20, right? Keeping my breathing in check, I chattered right along and before I knew it, I was first woman up the hill. Well, except for my new buddy, Mike Renz, who was determined to be first female this year after getting passed by 4 of us around Mile 30 last year.
As we headed down the long, glorious descent into Whipple Dam, I met Rita, who would chase me the rest of the race. Turns out she lives in Philadelphia, too! It was her first Mountainback and I told her that no matter what, she needed to look around at Mile 20 in Alan Seeger and take in the beauty. Mike and the others laughed because they thought I was being sarcastic, what with the four mile mountain that begins just past Mile 20. But I was serious. That part of the forest is magical.
Eleven miles in, we come through Whipple Dam, which has a short out and back segment. On the way out, Rita was just behind me and I spotted Connie (who won last year and many other years and is generally a badass) and knew I was gonna be chased. This race doesn’t really start until Mile 26. I headed up the next climb and just told myself to be steady, keep my heart rate down, keep calm, keep drinking, keep eating, keep putting one foot in front of the other. The next 8 miles or so flew by and before I knew it, Alan Seeger Natural Area came into view with its old growth hemlocks, gurgling streams, and mountain laurel thickets. I drank in the moment and headed out. And up. Miles 21-24 head up a monstrous climb to Greenwood firetower. I hit the first steep pitch and decided on a new hill strategy. It’s always a good idea to try something new in the middle of an ultra. Walk 100 steps. Run 200. The counting took my mind off the effort and the breaks kept my heart rate down. I’d been running alone for a while now. I sensed that RIta was not far behind. I envisioned Connie, Anna, and Kathleen (the three awesome women who finished ahead of me last year) stalking me like mountain lionesses.
The grade evened out and Greenwood firetower appeared like a beacon of hope. I knew this would be a turning point in the race. There’s a moderate downhill, a short uphill, and then a seriously steep downhill for the next several miles. Last year, that downhill tore me apart. My quads felt like they’d been pounded with a meat tenderizer and I never recovered. I headed down Kettle Road and was greeted by a treat- there’s a point on that downhill where there’s a break in the trees next to the road and you have an incredible view of the valley below and the next ridge over. This year, fog and clouds broke apart to reveal the golds, reds, and yellows of the changing leaves. I shook my head to resist the urge to just stop and stare. Onward I trudged. I mean, onward I flew! I took the opportunity on the next switchback to look up on the course behind me- no sign of anyone. I didn’t get confident. After each aid station, I’d just wait until the moment that Rita’s support van caught up with me- it was a constant reminder she was still back there. I had no idea where anyone else was in the race. I was no longer scared. I was giving it everything I had- if I got caught, I’d have done my best.
Gradually, the miles ticked by and I got closer and closer to the Death Zone. This is what I call miles 30-35. It’s the place where race dreams go to die. In my previous Tussey Mountainback experiences, this is where I fell apart- both physically and mentally. In 2011, my first ultra experience, I stopped for a good 15 minutes, lay down on the ground and cried while I tried to get my legs to stop seizing. Last year, I fell apart mentally. I didn’t stop, but tears ran down my face out of Penn Roosevelt while I muttered expletives and cursed the gravel below my feet. This year, I knew if I could make it out of the Penn Roosevelt aid station and into Colyer Lake without breaking, I’d be in the clear. I felt awesome. I walked up that first hill after mile 35 and never looked back. I’d never experienced leg 10 like that before! As Colyer Lake came into view, I did some quick calculations in my head (ok, maybe quick is relative. Math becomes difficult when your brain is fighting your quads for glycogen). In disbelief, I realized that all I had to do was hold a 9 minute/mile pace and I’d finish under 7:10. My goal was under 7:30! My race dreams weren’t going to die! I’d survived the Death Zone!
When I came into the Colyer Lake aid station, I started getting excited. Some of the relay runners were catching me and cheering so loud! Rita’s support vehicle was taking longer and longer to catch me after the aid stations (by the way, her family always smiled and gave me a wave as they passed, which completely boosted my spirit).
I wish I could say those last 10 miles flew by in a blur of excitement. I wish I could say I floated over the road on a cloud of joy. This race course is unforgiving. That’s partly why I love it. You can’t let your guard down. You can never just cruise. You have to put in the effort every freaking step of the way. From Colyer Lake, the next 5 miles are tough. At mile 44, there is a brutal climb that would make you walk even on fresh legs. I put my hands on my knees and just pushed up to the top. At the top, I gave myself permission to walk to the third tree on the left (it made sense at the time) and then, damn it Heather, you have to keep running! So I did. I came into Bear Meadows and so many awesome runners were cheering! As an aside, everyone out there on this race course is awesome. Everyone is friendly and cheering and so excited! I fed off the energy, turned around at that aid station and headed out to give that course some hell. I knew there is one more sneaky little hill before the descent to the finish line. I looked at my watch. Holy shit. I’m still on pace to go under 7:10. My quads screamed as I pounded the pavement. I don’t think it was very graceful. I remember thinking, “just get down this freaking hill, Heather. Get down it as fast as you can. Keep moving forward.” Mile 48. Two more. Mile 49. For the love of god, where is that finish line? I realized I had told my friends I hoped to finish by 2:30 in the afternoon. It was barely 2 and I wondered if they’d be there. There’s the turn up Laurel Run Road, where it all began. There’s the stream. There’s the white of the banner for the finish line. Keep moving forward, Heather. There are my friends! Their faces were blurry, but I could hear their shouts of encouragement. I crossed the finish line somewhat in disbelief of the whole thing. I finished in 7:05:53. I won.
I obliterated my time from last year. I was on cloud 9. As the lactic acid coursed through my weary legs, I sent out good thoughts to everyone still running- may they have a good race, may they make it to the finish line. I cheered them in and thought about 2011 when I ran this 50 for the first time and didn’t dare dream about winning. But that’s the whole thing- you have to dare to dream. Today, someone said to me, “I could never run 50 miles.” Yeah, I said that once. “You can,” I said. “You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Over. And Over. And Over. And once you learn that you can do that, then you just do it a little faster.”