Runners from across country ready for Tussey Mountainback

Somebody thought it would be a good idea to go for a 50-mile run through Rothrock State Forest.

Actually, a lot of people think it’s a great idea.

The Tussey Mountainback 50 Mile Relay and Ultramarathon hits the trails of Centre and Huntingdon counties Sunday for the 17th running of the event, which this year also will include the USA 50 Mile Road Championship.

Waves of runners will leave the start line at Tussey Mountain Ski and Family Fun Center beginning at 7 a.m. to trot through the forest on the annual challenge. This year’s event will feature 128 men and women covering the full ultramarathon distance, and 68 teams ranging from two to eight members covering the course as a relay.

Runners from as far away as Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and California, among others, have entered the ultramarathon.

There are a handful of elite runners who are among those set to traverse the entire 50-mile stretch of mostly dirt and gravel roads.

The expected contenders on the men’s side, who figure to be crossing the finish line back at Tussey Mountain just after noon to complete the course in a little over five hours, include Anthony Kunkel of Colorado and Cole Crosby of New York. Race organizer Mike Casper thinks there may be several other unknown contenders, with quite a few first-time entrants.

“It’s beneficial to be a first-timer,” Casper said, “but there are plusses to have course knowledge.”

The men’s field does not include defending champion Mike Senseman.

The women’s field has a number of competitors who figure to be near the top, including 2015 winner Heather Hoechst of New Mexico, who needed 7 hours, 5 minutes to win. Other top runners include Kathleen Cusick of Florida, Jenny Wolfe of Montana, Anne Portlock of Indiana, Connie Gardner of Ohio and Anna Piskorska of Blandon, Pa.

The relay field has a huge variety of runners, from teens to nonagenarians, including groups from Penn State, Juniata and Bucknell.

Leaving the start line at 7 a.m. along with the ultra runners will be the eight-person “The Old Men of the Mountains” team, which includes 96 year-old retired Penn State professor George Etzweiler and seven teammates all over the age of 70.

“They’re like the senior philosophers of the whole thing,” Casper said. “They have so much seasoning in life in general. … Everybody’s in awe of those guys.”

The old men added their first female team member with Paula Jech, 72.

After leaving Tussey Mountain, the course rises and falls with 5,485 feet of elevation changes, twisting down to Whipple Dam and Penn Roosevelt state parks and the Alan Seeger and Bear Meadows natural areas. There are transfer and feeding stations to lend support and assistance, but there also are long stretches of several miles alone in the forest, with only the other competitors for company.

“It’s actually kind of a lonely experience,” Casper said. “Especially for a long distance.”

They are all seeking the satisfaction of surviving the challenge, running up hills and down through mile after mile among the trees, whether they are near the front or flirting with the cutoff time of 7 p.m.

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT