April 19, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Extreme Adventure Starts Here | Town&Gown

8 min read

Happy Valley has long been known as a destination for fun. It’s the place for tailgates and the big game, Arts Festival and 4th Fest, wineries, and food trucks. But the not-so-secret sleeper hit of Centre County is its magical outdoor spaces that combine mountains, valleys, state parks, trails, and open spaces to create the perfect spot for action. Action like extreme sports or, as one local expert calls it, “adventure endurance sports.”

“The outdoor areas around State College are the perfect spot for lifetime adventure and endurance sports for everyone, and that’s key,” says Josh Stapleton, lead organizer of Harvest Fields Bike Trail and Skills Park. “It’s for everyone from X-gamers to stay-at-home moms. It creates opportunities for cross-generational endurance sports that we can do our whole lives—things like kayaking, mountain biking, running the Ironman.”

Making extreme sports, or adventure endurance sports, accessible for everyone was a big reason that Stapleton, an associate research professor at Penn State’s Materials Research Institute, took the lead on creating Harvest Fields Bike Trail and Skills Park, which offers first-in-the-region flow trails for bikers from beginners to expert. In 2023, the project expanded to include a skills park—an inclusive community experience that helps bikers increase their skills and get outside.

“If you go out to Harvest Fields on any given day, you will see everyone from kids on Strider bikes to seniors who are over 70. You’ll see athletes from the Happy Valley women’s cycling team and the Pennsylvania Youth League training there,” he says.

Stapleton came to Happy Valley for grad school and never left. One of the reasons, he says, is the treasure trove of outdoor adventure that is just minutes away.
“It’s the right accessibility,” he says. “You can leave your house and be at a trailhead in fifteen minutes. And it’s the right terrain—there is a very nice peak-to-valley ratio that makes for great endurance sports.”

Beyond just accessibility and terrain, there is one more secret ingredient that Centre County does well, he says: community. “There are some great local groups around us. If you are interested in road riding, State College Cycling. For women: Happy Valley Women’s Cycling. For youth: Centre County Crows. Anytime you can find a guide, that will help you form connections and build skills.”

Ironman 70.3 Pennsylvania Happy Valley

Last July, Happy Valley’s terrain took center stage for Ironman 70.3 Pennsylvania Happy Valley. Athletes swam for 1.2 miles in Foster Joseph Sayers Reservoir at Bald Eagle State Park, biked 56 miles through the rolling hills of Centre and Clinton counties, and then ran 13.1 miles on the Penn State campus—ending with a finish line inside Beaver Stadium.
Race organizer Josh Cone, a State College local who also serves as senior director of healthy living at the YMCA of Centre County, says that Happy Valley’s community and location made the race a truly unique experience for athletes.

“Our community came out in force to support the athletes,” he says. “Amish families gathered by the road to wave and cheer on bikers as they passed by. We even had one athlete who got a flat tire and an Amish neighbor pumped up his tire and helped him get back on the road,” he says.

“The bike course was incredible, especially with the challenge of Mount Hoover’s Ridge in Centre Hall. Then, to finish on campus and see the iconic Penn State things that you wanted to see, and end on the fifty-yard line inside the stadium—it really offered one of the best Ironman experiences in the country.”

Cone said that the first year of the triathlon drew over 3,000 athletes from ten countries. “There is a lot of awesome stuff to show off here,” he says. “I am looking forward to welcoming even more athletes and spectators at this year’s race on June 30, 2024.”

A lifelong athletic trainer, he says he has advice for those just starting out in extreme sports. “Set a goal. Sign up for a run, or start with a relay. Be with other people who encourage you. Find a good network and set goals. Get out there, get active, and be part of a team. Push yourself a little bit.”

“Last year, one of the women who signed up for Ironman got diagnosed with cancer. It was so close to the beginning of the race that she ran the race and then started treatment the next week. On her first day of treatment, she wore her Ironman shirt and medal—ready to kick cancer in the teeth.”

Woodward (Photo courtesy of Woodward)

Tussey Mountainback

Tussey Mountainback is the brainchild of Steve Bodner and Mike Casper. Both had run marathons and long-distance relays and both were captivated by the breathtaking scenery of Rothrock State Forest.

“The thought was—could a distance event be created on the roads of Rothrock that would draw runners? We knew that our region was, and still is, teeming with active athletes (not only runners) who are always game for new adventures and challenges,” Casper says. “We thought it was a cool idea, but we really didn’t know if it would catch on as a racing event.”

During its first year in 2000, ninety-one runners representing sixteen relay teams and one ultramarathoner took part. Today the Mountainback is one of the most popular outdoor events on the regional calendar, drawing both recreational and competitive runners from around the country and from communities across Pennsylvania—and is in the national spotlight as the host location for the USA 50 Mile Road Championships for USA Track & Field. This year’s event will be held on October 25-27 (with free race teasers running through June 23) and will feature three new events: a 100-mile ultramarathon, a half marathon, and a kids’ one-mile race, providing a challenge for virtually everyone, including the youngest generation of enthusiastic runners.

“What’s so mind-boggling is that this place is right in our backyard and so accessible to our local community,” Casper says. He says Mountainback athletes represent “almost everyone you could imagine.”

“The age of runners ranges from nine to 103. Relay teams represent corporations, fitness centers, university departments and clubs, high school athletic teams, and families. We’ve had teams come from West Point and the Virginia Military Institute, and teams of Penn State alumni for whom this race has become a reunion tradition. There is a relay team of sixty-five-and-older senior runners called the Old Men of the Mountains who have run the fifty-mile race seventeen years in a row, led by their unstoppable captain, George Etzweiler, who will turn 104 in March. As eleven-time national champion ultramarathoner Connie Gardner puts it: ‘I can’t stay away from this race!”’

Casper says the reason Happy Valley is such an ideal place for extreme adventure is clear: “This valley has an atmosphere and appetite for adventure, pure and simple. The thriving local business community and university, thrilling and accessible physical environment, and the hundreds of dedicated people who make these events happen are a natural convergence for fun, self-challenge, and community affirmation.”

Rothrock Grit Gravel Grinder

Another extreme race that leans into Centre County’s natural rugged adventureland is Rothrock Grit Gravel Grinder, held on June 1. Started in 2020, the bike race features a challenging yet scenic course that showcases all the beauty of Rothrock.

“I believe this event is vital to Happy Valley because it highlights the natural beauty of our region and provides an opportunity for athletes to challenge themselves while enjoying the great outdoors, comrades, and community we have to offer,” organizer Tanya Campbell says.
“Over the past four years, we’ve had the pleasure of welcoming over three hundred individuals who have signed up for their first Gravel race with us. As someone who belongs to Happy Valley Women’s Cycling team, I can attest to the transformative power of cycling—improved heart health, mental well-being, and confidence building, and the sheer joy of being outside and exploring new places.”

Campbell says that athletes come from across the country to participate in the race. “The course can be quite challenging, with plenty of hills and rough terrain, but that’s what makes it a great test of endurance and skill. In my experience, participants really enjoy the challenge of the race, the camaraderie among fellow cyclists, and the chance to experience the beauty of Rothrock State Forest. Honestly, I feel like once you come out to race, you become part of a unique and special race family. Some of these people only see each other at the races, but there’s a real sense of community that brings everyone together.”

Woodward

No conversation about extreme sport is complete without talking about Woodward PA, a haven for young skateboarders, BMX and scooter riders, and parkour athletes to advance their skills, foster personal growth, and ignite their passion for their sport. Woodward PA offers an unparalleled summer camp experience tailored specifically for skateboarding enthusiasts.

“As a global leader in action sports, Woodward combines its fifty-year legacy in elite gymnastics training and instruction with its intimate understanding and appreciation for these sports’ unique cultures to create the penultimate environment to learn, progress and perform,” Lisa Pham, general manager of Woodward PA, says. “Our renowned facilities span forty-three acres, ensuring that every rider, whether they’re stepping onto a skateboard for the first time or perfecting their latest trick, is propelled to new heights.”

Pham says Woodward attracts top-tier coaches, featuring both legends and rising stars in each of the sports they serve. “From Ryan Sheckler and Lizzie Armanto in skateboarding to Ryan Nyquist in BMX to Will Cashion in scooter to Dom Di Tommaso in parkour, the icons within our sports regularly visit Woodward to contribute to our programming and to inspire future generations of athletes. Our website provides the summer pro schedule, allowing you to choose a week when your idol is present.

“Action sports like skateboarding have long fostered a culture of empowerment, equality, and tolerance,” Pham adds. “Woodward proudly furthers these traditions. It is committed to inclusivity, welcoming anyone passionate about our sports and our culture to our facilities. Specialized programs and events cater to female athletes, inspiring the next generation of skateboarding enthusiasts. Partnerships with female-focused action sports organizations like Bloom BMX, Poseidon Skate, Skate Like a Girl, and Exposure Skate create tailored events at camp.

“More than a training ground, Woodward creates an environment where kids of all ages and stages of development become more comfortable with trying new things,” she says. “They come away with not only sport-specific skills but also life skills like resilience, tenacity, and determination.”

This spring, athletes are pushing themselves to the limit and finding new skills in extreme endurance sports. And if they are doing it here in Happy Valley, they are finding more than adrenaline and new-found skills. They are connecting with the breathtaking beauty of the surrounding trails, waterways, and mountains. They are finding a community to help them reach their goals. Best of all: they are tapping into Happy Valley’s collective “appetite for adventure.” T&G

Cara Aungst writes from Belleville, and can’t wait to volunteer at this summer’s Happy Valley endurance events.

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