Both men’s and women’s event records fell at the Tussey Mountainback 50 Miler on Sunday.
The top finishers were guaranteed course records because of the new course, but the top two men and the top woman finished ahead of the previous records on a course that runners agreed was tougher.
Matt Flaherty of Bloomington, Ind., beat out last year’s winner, Zach Bitter of Madison, Wisc., to get the event record and USA 50 Mile Road National Championship. Flaherty completed the 50-mile loop through Rothrock State Forest in 5 hours, 28 minutes, 11 seconds. Bitter was second in 5:32:22, ahead of his winning time from last year and over a minute faster than the course record set by Michael Wardian in 2011. Dave Riddle of Cincinnati, a top contender, dropped from the race with a foot injury.
Flaherty took the lead early and was running by himself by mile 5. Between miles 40 and 45, though, he struggled.
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“I was even walking a few pitches,” he admitted.
Bitter was gaining on Flaherty, making up four minutes in five miles. Flaherty’s father, who was crewing for him, provided him with updates on his position throughout the race.
“I opened up a nice cushion,” Flaherty said. “It saved me at the end when it got tough.”
Flaherty said he was glad to see USA Track and Field supporting the Mountainback through the national championship and prize money. While many of the high profile ultramarathons emphasize extreme elevation and technical trail running, he said, “they are beautiful races, but not all of us live where we can train like that.”
The Mountainback, he said, “is a little more old school. It’s about running fast.”
Cassie Scallon ran a personal best to take the women’s title, finishing third overall in 6:24:01 and beating Devon Crosby-Helms’ 2010 record of 6:28:44. Scallon, originally from Wisconsin and currently living in Boulder, Colo., said the course had “relentess hills, but it was really beautiful.”
A Penn State senior took second in the women’s race.
Keely Henninger, 21, running her first 50-miler, finished in 7:19:53, edging out last year’s fourth-place finisher, Kathleen Cusick of Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., who finished third in 7:21:14.
“At mile 40, people were telling me I was 8 or 9 minutes ahead,” Henninger said. “The last four miles I didn’t run fast, but I guess it was fast enough.”
“I was just flabbergasted at the records that fell today,” race director Mike Casper said. “Keely coming in second was a surprise, too.”
Connie Gardner, who won the Mountainback women’s title in 2011 and 2012, finished fourth and took the masters championship in 7:42:57. Gardner, 49, of Medina, Ohio, ran the Akron Marathon three weeks ago, followed by a 100-miler a week later, and is gearing up for a 24-hour race next week.
“I was just trying to cruise in and get the masters,” she said.
Penn State alumnus Joshua Finger of Phoenixville was the first men’s masters runner in 6:33:56. Finger had run the Mountainback three times previously, and welcomed the change to the course.
“Taking out the highway section and the out-and-back was nice,” he said.
Bitter agreed that the new course was an improvement, even though it was “definitely tougher.”
Flaherty, who recently moved from Chicago to Bloomington, Ind., where he has more opportunity to train on trails and hills, appreciated the course despite its difficulty.
“It was gorgeous, and had enough variety in terms of up and down,” Flaherty said. “I ran a completely flat race in Chicago. The monotony was tough.”
Yu Zhang of State College was the sixth man and seventh overall in 6:47:11. Matthew Smith of State College was the fourth masters runner, 12th man, and 13th overall in 7:11:24.
Deep Six Racing repeated as the overall relay champion. This year’s team roster was Rick Koubek and Matt Kisenwether of State College and Penn State alumni Greg Lackey, Gianna Guerino, Danielle Cerroni and Brian Beachler.
“We come back every year to run this race,” said Lackey.
The Mountainback, in its 14th year, serves as the USA 50 Mile Road National Championship and brings hundreds of ultramarathoners and relay runners to the Tussey Mountain Ski and Family Fun Center. Each year, the race donates its proceeds to a different charity. 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. Casper said that because fundraising continues after the race is over, a total was not yet available.