Connie Gardner keeps saying this will be her last year.
She does, however, admit she’s said that about running the Tussey Mountainback 50 Mile Relay and Ultramarathon for a few years. It’s just too difficult not to come back, especially when she’s still running with the best — and beating them.
Gardner, of Medina, Ohio, won her third Tussey Mountainback ultramarathon Sunday, a feat she reached just weeks before she turns 51. It was the 15th Tussey Mountainback.
“Every year, I say it’ll be the last time I run it, and then I keep coming back,” Gardner said. “It’s because it’s such a great course, and it’s because of Mike (Casper). He takes such good care of the runners. A lot of race directors want to pocket money and leave runners out there to fend for themselves. He’s not like that. He takes care of us.”
Gardner’s win came after a back-and-forth with other runners throughout the race.
Anna Piskorska, who ran with Gardner on the USA Track and Field team, came in second place for women after several runners traded positions with Gardner throughout the race.
“The whole race it was back and forth between some of us, and I couldn’t be happier,” Piskorska, of Blandon, said.
Piskorska and Gardner congratulated each other after the race.
“I thought you had it, I really thought you had it,” Gardner told Piskorska. “I loved that back and forth. That was so much fun.”
Casper, the race’s director, said it’s an honor to have runners like Gardner and Piskorska compete, especially after he didn’t know if the race would get much attention 15 years ago.
“My friend Steve Bodner and I founded it, because we always ran the trails back here together and thought it would be great to share Rothrock Forest with other runners,” Casper said. “We took a drive one day and mapped it out, but we didn’t know if it’d catch on. Now, people say it’s the highlight of their running each year.”
This year’s event drew about 700 runners; the first race had91 participants.
Casper said this year’s race would raise about $5,000 for the Cancer Survivors’ Association in State College.
The race also features relay teams from two to eight people.
The Italian Stallions, a group of Penn State students in the ROTC program, won the eight-person relay race.
“It was challenging at some points, but we have physical readiness training,” said Christian Donnelly. “We were really prepared with that training.”
The South Philly Striders, a four-person team from a Philadelphia running club, said one of their club’s members, Heather Hoechst, got them to run in the race.
“This was pretty tough,” Karen Lancaster said. “I just ran a marathon in Hartford, Conn., last week, and I don’t think my legs recovered from that. They felt pretty heavy.”
Runners, such as Gary Lackey, came from all over the country to compete.
Lackey, of Bolder, Colo., returned for his seventh consecutive race with five friends he met at Penn State.
They began running together as freshmen. The event gives them a chance to reconnect and enjoy their hobby.
“We were just buddies who wanted to run,” Lackey said. “This has become our race to do together, to rejoin and catch up with each other. It’s better than Christmas. It goes Tussey Mountainback, then Christmas, then our birthdays. That’s how much we love it.”
The group, Raised By Goats, won the 2012 and 2013 six-person relay races and finished fourth this year.
They plan to keep their tradition until they’re finishing with the bottom of the pack.
“We want to go from the fastest team to the slowest team,” Lackey said. “We want to come out here some year and do that and say that’s how long we’ve been doing this.”