At 7 a.m. Sunday, before the sun has even risen above Tussey Mountain, the first wave of runners will head up Bear Meadows Road to spend the morning in Rothrock State Forest.
They will soon be followed by more athletes, 400-plus in all, some as young as middle-schoolers, some in their 70s and 80s and one who is 97.
For the 18th time, a fall day in central Pennsylvania will host the Tussey Mountainback 50-Mile Relay and Ultramarathon for individuals or relay teams. For the 11th time, the race also serves as the 50-mile road championship race for USA Track and Field.
The first to leave the starting line, in front of Tussey Mountain Family Fun Center, will be the national championship competitors. While local and state runners also will take part, the 50-mile race also draws competitors from as far away as Colorado, Texas and California to run the loop on mostly dirt and gravel roads.
They will be chasing the national championship title and a purse of $5,000 that includes $500 for the top male and female finishers, as well as for the masters division champions and another $500 bonus for breaking the course record.
“We have a lot of elite runners coming in here from around the country,” race organizer Mike Casper said. “It should be a good day.”
Among the top national competitors scheduled to hit the woods Sunday are Anthony Kunkel of Colorado, Mount Holly Springs’ Fred Joslyn and Chris Raulli of New York on the men’s side. Joslyn was the runner-up at the USATF 50K road championships in 2016 and has several marathon wins to his credit, and Raulli won the USATF 50-mile trail championships in June.
Danielle Filipek of Michigan was the women’s winner of the 50-mile trail championship and also is shooting for the double Sunday in a strong women’s field. The list of contenders also includes three-time winner Connie Gardner of Ohio; Justyna Wilson of Bensalem and Anna Zielaski of California who were second and third, respectively, last year; and Elizabeth Howard, a two-time winner of the Leadville 100 Trail Run in her home state of Texas.
In addition to the individual ultramarathoners, relay teams of two to eight runners also will take part. Among the entries is the local team the OId Men of the Mountains, with each of the eight runners senior citizens. They are led by State College’s George Etzweiler, 97, who completed his 12th run up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in June. The retired Penn State professor plans to be running the 4.2-mile sixth leg — of which 3.5 miles is one long, steady uphill climb.
The race annually has a charitable cause as well, with this year’s proceeds supporting the Jana Marie Foundation, which helps empower young people, especially women. Volunteers have been busy setting up the course in recent days and will have aid stations throughout the course for the athletes.
“It’s quite a day,” Casper said, “but it’s so rewarding and so exciting.”