Anthony Kunkel ran a marathon — and then essentially ran another marathon right after that — before the endurance runner smiled and clasped his hands upon reaching the finish line Sunday afternoon.
He sprinted 50 miles on gravel, leaves and pavement — through forests, hills and valleys — on his way to victory at the Tussey Mountainback 50-Mile Relay and Ultramarathon. Several locals tried their hand at the ultramarathon, and many others competed in the relay race.
But none matched the individual feat of Kunkel, who came from Durango, Colo. The 25-year-old finished the 50-Mile Road Championship with a backward cap, no shirt and dried mud clinging to his legs. He let out a big sigh once he finished — but he was chatting with on-lookers and smiling within 30 seconds of his race.
“Can I hug you?” he asked the race organizer, after finishing in 5 hours, 43 minutes, 49 seconds. “I’m disgusting.”
He later added: “This feels pretty wonderful. It feels pretty amazing.”
Kunkel — who routinely runs 100 miles a week — acted as if he just took a short, morning stroll around the block, rather than endure a race that forced several out-of-breath professionals to drop out. Kunkel’s heels were bleeding, but he just shrugged: “I don’t like to wear socks.”
“When I was 6, I wanted to sprint and run around in my underwear,” he added, wearing spandex shorts. “And, now that I’m turning 26, I want to sprint and run around in my underwear.”
Kunkel finished 25 minutes ahead of the runner-up, whose legs shook after crossing the finish line. He hunched over, his hands on his knees, and complained of cramps 50 minutes after his trek had finally ended.
“It’s difficult because of that extra distance,” said the runner-up, Joel Frost-Tift, who hails from California. “In a marathon, usually it’s the last few miles where you’re kind of hitting the wall. The 50-miler, it could be the last 10 or 20.”
Kunkel offered his seat to Frost-Tift and milled around the finish line, congratulating and clapping for the next few runners who conquered the race. During that time, the self-proclaimed “crunchy hippie” acknowledged the 50-mile course that started at Bear Meadows Road and wound around Rothrock State Forest wasn’t always smooth sailing.
Although he attends a Dharma Center three times a week to clear his mind, the race wore on him at points. “Just two more hills,” he’d tell himself. “Just one more hill. ... What’s wrong with me? ... Holy s***, I’m hurting.” But he tried to stay in the present, appreciating the view and taking in the scenery.
The overall female winner, Elizabeth Howard, also shared effusive praise of central Pennsylvania’s fall colors. But, toward the end, she stopped thinking about the reds, browns and greens.
“Oh my God,” said Howard, who finished in 7:07.39. “All I could think about was getting back here and sitting down and having a beer.”
More than 40 competitors participated in the individual ultramarathon, and 51 teams took part in the relay races. The “Los Perdidos” team — which consisted of State College’s Sam Lapp and Matt Pennock — finished first with a time of 5:14.35. More than three dozen of the relay teams boasted at least one county runner, including runner-up Deep Six Racing where State College’s Matthew Kisenwether ran with four other Pennsylvanians and a Coloradoan.
State College’s George Etzweiler, at 97 years old, even took part in the eight-man “The Old Men of the Mountains” team. They may have finished last, in 10:21.49, but there may not have been a team that garnered more respect.
The individual race began at 7 a.m., and the course didn’t close up until 7 p.m. The top local finisher in the individual ultramarathon was State College’s Josh Litofsky, 25, who finished in 7:16.04 for 10th place.
But the Tussey Mountainback proved to be Kunkel’s race. He called the course his “church,” claimed his first-ever national championship and appeared to recover in a matter of minutes.
“I don’t think that any of us are meant to walk,” he said. “I think running is more fun. There’s a reason why it feels good ... and this feels awesome.”