While it was still dark early Sunday morning, 160 runners lined up to compete for the USA Track and Field 50-mile Championship in the Tussey Moutainback 50-mile Relay and Ultramarathon at Rothrock State Forest.
Zach Bitter, of Marinette, Wis., set the pace on the hilly course and finished in first place with a time of 5:35:51.
“It was fun and challenging for sure,” Bitter said after the race. “The downhills hurt the most, and there were really no flat parts.”
Bitter –– who started running ultramarathons just two years ago –– was followed close behind by Austin Hendrix at 5:51:07 and Michael Arnstein at 5:57:21.
Arnstein, of New York City, is a veteran ultra-marathon runner who came in third last year, and said the sport is a never-ending challenge.
“I’ve run a lot of races and it is a battle of the nerves, and a battle of the self,” Arnstein said. “The guys who do well are just damn stubborn and never give in.”
In the women’s race Connie Gardner, of Medina, Ohio, pulled ahead in the last five miles and finished with a winning time of 7:07:42.
Along with the ultramarathon runners were 120 relay race teams, who split up the 50 miles between anywhere from two to eight runners, said Mike Casper, race director.
“The relay allows us to include people who maybe are more recreational runners into the challenge, and get everybody who wants to involved,” Casper said.
This was the 13th running of the Mountainback competition and the eighth time in nine years that it hosted the national championships, Casper said.
George Etzweiler, 92, of State College, led the relay team called “Old Men Of the Mountain” that consisted of men more than 65 years old.
Etzweiler said he started running in 1969 when he was 49 years old and participated in the race for the sixth time.
“I enjoy it because it’s in the woods and over the hills,” he said. “I like to run in the woods more than the road.”
The first relay team to come in at 5:24:43 consisted of former Penn State students Matt Kisenwether, Class of 2010, Greg Lackey, Class of 2011, and Brian Beachler, Class of 2011.
Kisenwether, who ran the last leg of the race, said that the team had been trying to win for five years.
“We get together every year and run this race like a reunion,” Kisenwether said. “And it feels good that we finally won it.”
Next year’s race is scheduled for Oct. 20, 2013, according to the Tussey Mountainback website.