Zach Bitter will return to Boalsburg to defend his national title Sunday at the 14th annual Tussey Mountainback 50 Mile Ultramarathon. Nearly 200 ultramarathon runners are expected for the race, which once again will serve as the USA Track & Field 50 Mile Road Championship, according to race director Mike Casper.
In his win last year, Bitter, of Madison, Wisc., just missed the course record of 5 hours, 33 minutes, 47 seconds set in 2011 by Michael Wardian, by finishing in 5:35:51. If Bitter wins again on Sunday, he is guaranteed a course mark and bonus due to changes in the loop course through Rothrock State Forest.
Whether the change, which adds a significant hill in the middle of the course and removes a section along U.S. Route 322, will slow times remains to be seen. “I have heard from some that the change makes the course tougher, and others have said it should make it faster,” Bitter said. “I guess we will have to wait and see.”
Bitter will face some tough competition in his bid to repeat as Mountainback champion. “I am definitely returning in hopes of winning the event,” he said. “However, I do believe this year’s competition is probably some of the toughest Tussey has seen.”
Two of the top contenders will be familiar to Bitter from May’s Ice Age Trail 50 Miler in Wisconsin, where Dave Riddle took first, Bitter third, and Matt Flaherty fourth.
Riddle, of Cincinnati, placed seventh at the IAU World Trail Championships in Wales over the summer and last year placed fifth at the IAU World 100K Championships in Italy. Riddle, who was the top U.S. finisher at both of those races, burst onto the national scene in 2011, when he set a then-course-record time of 5:40:45 at the prestigious JFK 50 Mile in Maryland, which earned him UltraRunning magazine’s performance of the year.
Flaherty, of Bloomington, Ind., won the American River 50 Miler earlier this year and has an impressive 50-mile personal best of 5:32:25 from his win at Chicago Lakefront in 2011.
Other top contenders Sunday include Scott Hilditch, of Stow, Ohio, a former 4:07 high school miler who won his ultramarathon debut at the Moebius Green Monster Trail 50K in August, and Dave James, of Flagstaff, Ariz., who placed second at the 2010 Tussey Mountainback before winning back-to-back titles at the USATF 100 Mile Trail Championships in 2011-12.
All except Bitter and James will be racing the hilly Mountainback for the first time, and Bitter is coming prepared for the course. “The biggest thing I learned from my race last year was that I needed more hill work for Tussey,” he said. “I think the more aggressive and frequent hill training this year will give me a better shot at closing strong on the final climb and descent.”
Returning women’s champion Connie Gardner of Medina, Oh. will also face some tough competition. Last year, Gardner trailed eventual second-place finisher Traci Falbo for most of the course, finally securing the lead in the last 5 miles and emerging from the forest with the win in 7:07:42.
Cassie Scallon of Boulder, Colo. will make her Mountainback debut on Sunday, but she’s no stranger to 50-milers. Scallon has won several major races, including this year’s Lake Sonoma and Ice Age Trail 50 milers, the 2012 USATF 100K Trail Championships, and the 2011 JFK 50 Mile.
Anna Piskorska, of Blandon, also is a podium contender. She finished 10th at the 2010 IAU 24 Hour World Championships in France, where she was the top American.
Also returning to the Mountainback will be Kathleen Cusick, of Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., who placed fourth last year in 7:53:46.
The ultramarathoners will be joined Sunday by hundreds of relay runners in the Mountainback’s team competition. The Tussey Mountainback got its start in 2000 as a relay race, and became an ultramarathon when Joe Shuta of Altoona decided to run the entire 50-mile course. The USATF championship and International Association of Ultrarunners Silver Label designation have helped the ultra field increase in both size and depth in recent years.
The Mountainback proceeds benefit a different local nonprofit each year. This year’s beneficiary is House of Care, a small personal care home in State College for those who have declining or compromised health and who lack the housing, financial, or family resources to receive the assistance they need with activities of daily living.