The Tussey MOUTnBACK was my first 50-miler. Honestly, I couldn’t have picked a more enjoyable chunk of mountain to spend 7 hours exploring. With the support of the other ultra runners, members of the Nittany Valley Running Club (NVRC), and my slightly obnoxious crew, it flew by.
To start off, one of the perks of going to college only 10 minutes away meant that I had an obnoxiously decorated SUV driven by a crew of my 4 best friends. Not only did they make it more enjoyable, but they kept a smile on my face, managed to keep me somewhat nourished throughout the race, and spread my name to the other runners as “Keen the Machine,” or the girl with the music blaring crew At the start, I bid a "see you in 11 miles” fairwell, and awkwardly stood near the pack of obviously veteraned ultrarunners, some of which I recognized from countless social media forums. As Mike Casper, race director and running-buddy from the area, made his final announcement, I couldn’t wipe the childish grin off of my face. I was relishing in the moment. And then we were off.
The first leg, a 5k with almost 900 feet of climbing, used to be one of my most dreaded hills of the course, but going into this race, I knew that I could hold a decent pace up it pretty easily. I figured this would put me a little behind the top women. At the top of the first leg, I finished a little slower than I had wanted, about 8:40 min/mile pace, but I didn’t see any other women within close proximity and I felt fine, so I didn’t let it affect me. I knew the next two legs, about 8 miles, were all down hill to TZ 3, where I would see my crew for the first time, so I just let myself resort to what felt good, about 7 min/mile pace, passing people and making up for lost ground from the first climb. I pulled into TZ 3 averaging about 7:45 min/mile pace or so, with a giant grin on my face. As a novice, inexperienced ultra runner, most noticeably on the nutrition front, I hadn’t consumed any calories, and would unfortunately refuse them at this TZ as well. Had I known the awful deficit I would face around 32 miles, I would have been eating a couple hundred calories every hour, regardless of my “not hungry” state of mind and stomach.
A couple of the guys I chatted with over the next couple of miles were pretty shocked when I told them that it was my first ultra, and they were extremely helpful with some advice on nutrition and hydration. It was during legs 4 and 5 (miles 11-20) that I realized that I was absolutely in love with the ultra running atmosphere. A good chat is always high in my books, but good chats while running in a 50-mile race, let alone a National Championship race, are insurmountable. I easily hit the 20 mile mark averaging 7:30min/mile pace, finally ate some banana, a GU, and donned my Nathan hydration pack that had a couple GUs for the unnerving climb that lie ahead.
Even though I felt as if I were barely moving up that 1,300 foot monster of a hill-y leg, I passed a lot of people. Then, after meeting with my astonished looking crew and being forced to swallow some coconut oil and honey, I took the next four miles easily until mile thirty, hitting the marathon marker around 3:22, PRing my previous official marathon time by over 10 minutes, woop woop!. I hit mile 30 averaging about 7:45 pace over all, feeling decent, but the point of exhaustion and nutrient depletion was right around the corner.
Coming into the TZ around mile 33, my crew informed me that “I didn’t look too hott,” and boy, did I know it. I was exhausted and running on nothing. The countless miles of ignoring food and water, hit me full in the face, and I found myself starving, but unable to get much food down. I took the next leg pretty slow, trying to walk and eat as much as my stomach and body would allow. Here is where my pace started to drop, which is what I had accounted for going into the race with some speed. During these miles I faced a pretty challenging mental battle, one in which I mistook a tree for a black bear, (my first hallucination of my running career!!!), but I inevitably fought on. I maintained a steady slow, jog, until leg 11, where what were previously easy training hills, became seemingly impossible hills that I unfortunately walked.
Finally, I came to the final leg, one I had ran countless times. Four miles, slightly down hill, all the way to the finish. Piece of CAKE. By this time, the quick relay runners had caught up to me, and I had a lot of fans who had learned my name and were chearing me on. I saw a lot of my NVRC running buddies who were as optimistic and encouraging as always, although slightly surprised to see me sitting in 2nd place, cheering for me as well. I felt great mentally, however my legs were playing a game of their own, and I ran what seemed like the longest four miles of my life. However, crossing the finish line to my best friends and an ever-so- encouraging community of runners, let the pain in my legs and feet vanish. (for the time)..
I cannot put the sense of joy and accomplishment I felt after crossing the finish line into words. However, I know that it is a feeling that I will continue to search for as I progress as a runner. I never imagined placing 2nd in a USA National Championship for my first 50 mile race, and I am excited for what the future holds. Until then I will run on, in search of my very own running place.