BOALSBURG — Zach Bitter and Connie Gardner both had to fight for the USA National 50 Mile Road Championship which was decided at the Tussey Mountainback 50 and Ultramarathon on Sunday.
Last year, Michael Wardian cruised to the victory and obliterated the previous course record by nearly 10 minutes, finishing in 5 hours, 33 minutes, 47 seconds. Bitter had to wait until after the halfway point to take the lead, but came close to Wardian’s record, finishing in 5:35:51. Wardian was unable to compete due to an injury.
“I’ve run six 50-milers before,” said Bitter, “so I knew the pace at the beginning was quick. I was a little more conservative for the first 15 miles or so.”
Bitter doesn’t have an opportunity to train on hills at his home in Wisconsin, so he compensates with strength training and high mileage, typically training about 130-140 miles a week and going up to 190 during peak training. He gets his miles in by getting up at 4 a.m. before his day as a middle school teacher starts, and then running again after work.
While enjoying a post-race burger, Bitter said he enjoyed the Mountainback experience. “I think I’ll probably try to come back," he said. "It would be nice to get under that 5:33 (course record).”
Up next for Bitter is a trail running camp in San Antonio put on by one of his sponsors, Team Red White and Blue, and the JFK 50 Mile on Nov. 17.
Austin Hendrix took second in 5:51:07, and Michael Arnstein was third for the second year in a row, finishing in 5:57:21. Mario Mendoza, a pre-race favorite running his first ultra, dropped out with an injury late in the race.
Andy Mason won the masters championship and finished seventh overall in 6:46:01. Mason hails from Hagerstown, Md., but he has run on Mountainback relay teams four times previously and set the course record for two-person teams in 2008 with Pete Breckenridge.
In his first time running the ultra at the Mountainback, he’s no stranger to ultras, having run 10 previously. “It was a lot easier doing the relay,” he said. “I’m happy to have done it, but maybe next year I’ll go back to the relay.”
A long time friend of race co-founder Steven Bodner, Mason recalled showing up to the first Mountainback post-race party in Bodner’s backyard and getting his introduction to ultra running by meeting Joe Shuta, who turned heads by running all 50 miles solo. Shuta was the only ultra runner that year.
Nick Accardo, from New Orleans, surprised himself by finishing sixth overall in his first ultra. Because New Orleans is so flat, Accardo said, he studied the course map but had no idea what a 600-ft. climb was really like. To compensate for his lack of hill experience, Accardo went out fast in the early and less hilly part of the race and held the lead.
Though he couldn’t hang on, he was pleased with a top-10 finish and a USATF medal for his first ultra attempt. “We don’t have many ultras in Louisiana,” he said. “I found this race on the USATF website.”
In the women’s race, defending champion Connie Gardner of Medina, Oh. had to run hard to get the win. She finally pulled ahead of Traci Falbo in the last 5 miles and got the win in 7:07:42. Falbo finished in 7:09:18.
“She had control of the race the whole way. It was a lot harder this year,” said Gardner.
Riva Johnson was third in 7:29:40.
Former Penn State track and cross country runner Sonja Hinish finished fifth in 7:56:41. Hinish ran her first ultra at the North Face Endurance Run 50K in Washington, D.C. in May. The Mountainback was her first 50-miler.
Hinish, who now lives in Arlington, Va., enjoyed returning to Happy Valley despite the challenging terrain. “The transition zones were very lively,” she said. “The relay teams going by me went crazy and really lifted my spirits. The volunteers were phenomenal. The aid stations were like going through a drive-through window.”
Race director Mike Casper said, “It was exciting to see the men and women duel it out today.”
Local runners and out-of-towners alike praised the course and especially the colorful foliage of Rothrock State Forest. The race begins and ends at Tussey Mountain Ski Area, taking runners on a 50-mile loop of mostly fire roads through the forest.
“Anyone who runs this course is going to say good things about it,” Mason said.