Wednesday, July 31, 2019

2019 Never Summer 100k - A Tale Of Two Races

I wasn't going to write this race report. I really wasn't. I had decided my race report writing was self-indulgent blathering about materially selfish endeavors. Then I had another runner ask for a write up. Shortly thereafter, I listened to a podcast where the guest discussed the privilege of being able to visit these places, and the importance of sharing about these places so few of us ever get to experience. In this person's mind, it would be selfish to not share with those who do not or cannot visit. Serendipity. So, now I've written a self-indulgent bit of blathering about my materially selfish endeavor.

I recently completed the Never Summer 100K in Gould, CO. It's a newer race in the remote wilderness of the northern Colorado Front Range. At the pre-race dinner the night before the start, even Coloradans discussed how few of them knew about these mountains before they ran Never Summer. And almost everyone I met had run in a previous year and said the same thing...they had to come back because of who beautiful and special the course was.

The course trail features just about everything one could imagine in a mountain ultra: single track through thick forest, snow fields, alpine ridges (WOW! I need more of these!), alpine lakes, boulder fields, endless creek crossings, mud (and mud and mud and some deeper mud), inclines of what felt like 89 degrees climbed on all fours (probably about 40 degrees), declines equally steep, portions of trail where there was no trail at all, a bit of road, some jeep trails. Oh, and some serious elevation for a lowlander, five crossings well above 11,000 feet. Everything.


The logistics for this race are phenomenal. It's in true wilderness. No hotels anywhere nearby. All available accommodations something short of rustic. Camping is really it. Camping in a tent, a camper, a car or a cabin. Running water...well, there's snow melt flowing in the nearby creeks. But the logistics are phenomenal. The race allows you to book a car camping site at the start line right on Ultrasignup. The drive from Denver International Airport to the Gould Community Center is gorgeous. The race hosted a potluck dinner the night before, a dinner after finishing the race, and a breakfast the morning after the race. We had no food to plan other than a dish to pass at the potluck and a pre-race breakfast. Remote wilderness, but so easy.

I had traveled to this race with one of my training partners, Eddy. Eddy's a hell of an ultramarathon runner, much faster than me. It was also his first mountain ultra. And it was my first high elevation ultra. Georgia Death Race had more elevation to climb and descend, but never crossed 6,000 feet. Neither of us had any idea what to expect from the Never Summer course and elevation. Would we be able to climb? Would we even be able to breath?

Race Number One

Race morning was a bit chaotic. Eddy and I woke up around 4AM, nearly a half hour before our alarms. We had both had the same thought, being so close to the starting line should make getting ready a breeze. We barely made it there. I forgot to brush my teeth. Eddy just made it to the start out of the port-a-potty. A poorly executed start.

It was cold, but not overly cold. A long-sleeve shirt was enough to stay relatively warm in the mass of people at the start line. The sun rose as we waited for the race to head out. The racers were the fittest looking bunch I've seen at an ultra. Before I knew it, we were off.

The first two miles ran along a wide, gravel path with a very gentle incline. It was a great, easy warm up and the pack stayed close together. Late in the second mile, we turned up our first climb of the day, to the top of 7 Utes Mountain. And it was the climb you can't practice in South Florda or really anywhere on the east coast. 3 miles upward, climbing every step, each quarter mile a bit steeper than the last. And a theme for the day would develop.  About half way up, we stopped to remove a layer of clothing as we really heated up from the climbing. The view during that stop gave us our first glimpse of the endless mountain vistas we'd experience all day.

Climbing 7 Utes

Layer stripped, and it was time to start climbing again. The trail was still relatively wide, not a congested conga line up a narrow trail like the beginning of Georgia Death Race. It was hard work, but very comfortable. Near the top of 7 Utes, we encountered snow for the first time. SNOW! I had hoped all along we would have a little snow to really give us that mountain feeling. Then we were above the tree line and on to the 7 Utes summit at 11,478 feet.

7 Utes Summit
And the wind was cold, very cold, above the tree line with no protection. I had left my long sleeve shirt on and felt quite comfortable. Eddy had dropped to a singlet and was clearly a touch uncomfortable. We took a few moments to absorb the beauty of where we were. It was truly incredible. In every direction, rolling hills and craggy peaks and snow covered blocks of granite.

After a few quick photos - I had promised myself to make time for photos while being in this incredible space - we got moving again to not get too cold. And we were off for our first big descent of the day down the other side of 7 Utes. It was steep and frightening and went on and on. These descents are what I feared most. I have yet to find a way to train for these quad crushing downhills in flat Florida. Sure, a treadmill on decline gives some of that stimulus, but it's nothing like a 30 degree decline with rocks and roots and trees to avoid, fear of tripping and face-planting forcing me to put the brakes on. I had no problem climbing up with the locals, a fact all day long. But the downhills were another matter as runner after runner would pass by easily gliding down the descents.

Descending 7 Utes - Absolutely Beautiful Views While Crushing Quads
Off 7 Utes, we had our first relatively mild section of running. Small rollers and a climb or two around the mountainsides with views of the Crags eventually brought us to our first alpine lake, Lake Agnes. During this section of running, Eddy and I agreed we had been working a bit harder than we had hoped and decided to back off a bit. I had come into the race wanting to enjoy the day so long as I finished under 23 hours, the time required for a Western States lottery ticket. We were way under that pace and could tell we'd been putting in quite a bit of effort.

As we dropped down to Lake Agnes, another theme developed...spectators. I had never been at an ultra with an actual number of spectators. But here they were. Dozens of people who were camping around Lake Agnes or had hiked up to find us, cowbell ringing and encouragement and cheering echoing throughout the valley. How very cool. Incredible mountain views and heavy encouragement ringing from every direction. And then the lake came into view...

Lake Agnes - Incredible to think this sits at 10,500 feet
We continued around Lake Agnes for a bit and onto our first scree trail of the day followed by our first snow crossing. I had been looking forward to a snow crossing, but was surprised to find this one on a steep downhill. The two runners in front of me slid down it on their shoes just as if they were wearing skies. I decided to try the same, certain I'd end up on my rump in a moment. To my surprise, I safely found myself at the far end of the snow still on my feet. Off the snow, we headed onto a jeep trail and eventually into the Michigan Ditch aid station.
Heading toward Cameron Pass

I grazed and refilled bottles with VFuel at the aid station waiting for Eddy to arrive, who had fallen a bit back somewhere along the way. Eddy took just a few moments to eat some food, then we were on our way into our second big climb of the day. A roughly 1,500 foot climb brought us into high elevation again at around 11,300 feet.

Then we headed down into our first really significant descent of nearly 3,000 feet and a few miles into Cameron Pass and the Diamond aid station at mile 17.2. Diamond aid station is an important stop, the final aid station before the climb to the high point of the race, North Diamond Peak. Eddy and I took some time here. I gorged on salted avocado quarters and bacon which I would seek out all day, plus some gummi bears and other sugary goodness. We both cleared our shoes of dirt that had accumulated from several small creek crossings. Eddy dug through a drop bag to determine if he had anything he wanted to carry along. Then we headed out knowing what lay ahead was going to be a real doozy, and the most beautiful part of the entire course.

We started out along a bit of dirt road, then spent a short while running down Highway 14 before heading into a broad trail that went up and up and up. During this climb, it was my turn to stop and change out of a layer of clothing due to overheating. Of course, I knew the likelihood was that the wind above treeline might again be cold, but the day had gotten warm. After a couple miles of climbing on this broad trail, we turned onto a narrow bit of single track through dense trees that appeared to go straight up. Every step was a fight and the trail became steeper and steeper, eventually demanding that we zig zag left and right while going uphill to create our own switchbacks. And, through the trees, we could see people appearing no larger than ants way up on an exposed ridge line above to the North Diamond Peak summit, the high point of the race.
My attempt to capture the steepness of this climb
The barely-there trail continued up and out of the tree line. Unbelievably, as we came out of the trees, the trail seemed to disappear entirely and became even steeper! The summit was now visible, but looked a mile away. Step after step, we fought up the steep incline, Eddy dropping to all fours and me leaning heavily on my trekking poles. All around us, other racers fought and huffed and swore as they willed their legs up another step. Slowly, but steadily, the summit got closer. A quick break on a rock outcropping for some nutrition and photos before the final ascent was called for. The scenery was a thing out of this world
Just leaving the tree line

Nutrition up high

Crags and peaks everywhere

Finally, we headed for the summit. We could now see the expressions on the faces of those who had reached the top. The wind was sharp and cold, but the difficult climbing kept us plenty warm. And then, less than 15 feet from the summit, the booming crack of thunder rocked the entire mountain range. The cloud cover hung just feet above the summit which was just feet above our heads. We continued up only to be met by a mountain rescue ranger running off the summit telling us to side hill the summit for our safety. More thunder rumbled and rolled as we worked our way around the summit. I'm certain summiting would have been much easier and quicker than this side shuffle along the edge of an extremely steep mountaintop. But the thunder was more than a touch frightening and we had no desire to defy very forceful orders from the rescue people. We did not get to summit the high point of the entire course at 11,826 feet, but taking on a thunder storm on an exposed ridge line at high elevation seems to make up for those 15 missed feet as far as experiences go.

Having worked our way around North Diamond Peak summit, we encountered a massive alpine ridge line. For what seemed to be miles in front of us lay a completely exposed set of peaks and saddles. And along the entire ridge were runners fading off into the distance. We'd be descending and climbing 3 or 4 of these peaks before we next got to drop out of this high elevation. And the thunder kept cracking the entire way, although the darkest clouds seemed to fall behind us after a bit.
The Ridge Line!

On this ridge line, I also realized that I had cell phone connection. I had been trying to text my wife a Happy Anniversary message all morning, but the message would not send despite some moments of apparent signal. I tried something new up here, a quick FaceTime call. Lo and behold, I was suddenly face to face with my wife and son while hiking across an alpine ridge line at 11,500 feet in utter remote wilderness! A few moments for anniversary wishes, a few more to show my son and daughter the scenery and I was back focused on the task at hand, but with the weight removed of not having been able to reach my wife on our anniversary.

The first of dozens of creek crossings
After this alpine ridge line, we headed off the Never Summer mountains stopping briefly at the Montgomery aid station for more avocado and bacon and then down to 9,500 feet. As we headed back into the tree line, it began to rain. Just a drizzle for now and nicely cooling, as the day was warmer at lower elevation. Then the rain became a bit harder. Finally, the rain turned to sleet and hail and was absolutely freezing. Eddy and I took off. We ran (relatively) hard to stay warm. We kept moving as hard as we could because this rain was cold! For what felt like hours, the freezing rain and hail pelted us. We encountered our first really significant creek crossing with no way to avoid getting knee deep in fresh snow melt water. We were cold. We knew we were cold, but were moving well enough and creating enough heat to cope with it.  And then we arrived at the Ruby Jewel aid station at mail 29.4

The aid station was a scene of carnage. Runners were freezing and not certain how to cope all over the place. Runners in emergency blankets. Runners borrowing clothing from aid station workers. Runners grabbing trash bags or anything else they could find to create makeshift clothing. Runners dropping out, 25 total at this aid station alone, I believe. The volunteers were awesome (true at every aid station), tending to runners, offering hot broth (a life saver!), doing whatever they could to keep runners safe and moving, identifying those who seemed to be in particular trouble and making a challenging situation bearable.

The moment I stopped, I began severely shivering. The long shirt I had removed earlier was soaked, so I quickly put on my thin Salomon jacket instead. Then my gloves, but these were also soaked and only made my hands colder. The jacked helped, but not enough. Fortunately, I had purchased a Rab Xenon X jacket just before the race fearful that it might get very cold at night and had stuffed it in my pack, despite being a bit bulky. It was a lifesaver. I immediately warmed and was able to eat and drink and think straight.

The race directors warned that the upcoming ten miles were some of the most challenging on the course. Particularly remote and rugged trail with a significant climb and no aid for over 10 miles. Eddy and I knew we needed to spend extra time refueling and filling up with liquids here at Ruby Jewel. Eddy had also put on a coat and gloves, and we were fortunate to be warm enough to do what needed to be done at this aid station.

After a good 15 minutes, we headed back out onto the trail. The rain stopped shortly after we left and I was too warm only a few minutes later. And the coat was back off and into the pack. We both hoped for no more rain.

These next 10 miles may have been the most beautiful on the entire course. Single track trail, creek crossings, water falls, valleys with high ridges. The course worked it's way up slowly to our final true high elevation climb, but the steep and aggressive climbs were behind us. We slowly wended our way around various mountainsides consistently gaining elevation. The rain had stopped and the sun shone from time to time. The air was comfortably warm as we met new runners and crossed paths with some we had met earlier. Neither Eddy nor I was in a rush, always resettling on taking it easy.

Kelly Lake Trail

For about four miles we continued up this green lush valley until the entire mountain opened up as we reached the high point of this climb, again well over 11,000 feet. On each side of this open valley were towering peaks and in front and behind us, granite massifs as far as the eye could see. I continued to climb strong, often passing many runners. Par for the course, on short downhill sections I would immediately be passed by those runners again.
A short break on the Kelly Lake trail climb
Eventually, we found ourselves approaching the largest snow field we'd encountered the entire day. We could see runners ahead slowly crossing this snow field, at least the size of a couple football fields. And then, beyond that snow field, Kelly Lake. We had passed several alpine lakes throughout the day, but Kelly Lake was something different. The other lakes were not at nearly this elevation, not above the tree line, not around snow. But here sat Kelly Lake, over two miles in the sky, stretching before us, craggy and rugged mountain peaks on all sides. Just stunning.

We worked our way across the snow field, and discovered that we next had to cross a boulder field for about 100 yards. This might have been fun on another day, without 35 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing in our legs. But on this day, it was a bit torturous, every boulder feeling unstable and legs even more unstable. Slowly we worked across these boulders only to discover other runners 30 yards lower on the boulder field moving very easily. We had missed the easy line and made the job much harder than necessary. Then, as we approached the finish, the first drops of rain began to fall and the sky darkened quickly.

Eddy and I were both concerned. Now we were very high, the wind was very cold, and another rain storm built. This time we were smarter. We quickly stopped and put warmer clothing on and begin moving down the mountain as quickly as we could. The rain picked up as we dropped below the tree line and back into a forest. It poured, a freezing rain again, but we were fortunate to drop elevation quickly and get some help from tree cover. The rain continued for about 15 minutes or so. We dealt with it much better this time and continued on our way.

But the race directors had been correct. This 10 miles went on forever, were extremely rugged, and drained us. Both Eddy and I found ourselves in one of those dark spots that always comes up in an ultra. We were short on calories and short on motivation. But we slowly reached the Clear Lake aid station, which we would visit twice with an out and back up to Clear Lake in between. The report on the race had been that the first 40 miles to Clear Lake aid station were the most difficult, and the 20+ miles thereafter much easier and more runnable. All day, Eddy and I had talked about conserving energy and legs for those final 20 miles. But as we approached Clear Lake, it became clear that we were both suffering. We had survived the elevation without either of us having any severe elevation effects. Both a small headache at different times, but nothing more significant. But the steep downhills and the cumulative climbing had had its toll. Hopefully, the final 20 miles would be easier so we could keep moving decently.

Race Number Two

We approached Clear Lake with a plan to sit down, change socks, regroup and prepare for the easier section of the race. The most difficult of the climbing was done. We wouldn't cross 11,000 feet again. It was time for a reset. Unfortunately, as we arrived at Clear Lake aid station, it was raining again. We decided to not change socks or touch our shoes. Eddy slammed a Red Bull and I ate several salted avocado slices, seriously the best ultra food in the world. Then we headed out for the 2.2 mile climb up to Clear Lake.
Clear Lake...cold, dreary, still impressive

My climbing was still strong and I slowly put a gap on Eddy. I let him know I'd get up to the top of the climb and wait for him there. However, as I reached the top, the rain started again and a cold wind blew in. I decided to continue back down to the aid station, knowing I'd pass Eddy on the way to let him know why I continued.

I moved slowly, really slowly, on the way down. My quads were shot. Somebody, please tell me how to train for trail downhills in Florida! I was about a half mile ahead of Eddy when I passed him on his way up. We spoke momentarily, but both wanted to continue because of the cold. And it was starting to get dark.

Eventually, I reached the aid station and heard something I've never had to worry about at an ultra before...cut-offs. People were discussing the cut-offs at various aid stations and we weren't far off. A new experience for me. We had been taking it easy, but I didn't realize that easy. However, we were now going to get started on the easy part of the course. Smaller climbs, lower elevation, reportedly runnable. Eddy arrived back to the aid station only a few minutes after me, having made up a ton of time on the way down. We got ready to head out into the dropping sun with 8 hours to cover 20 miles for a finish under 23 hours. The cut-off is 24 hours, but a sub 23 hour finish is needed to earn a Western States lottery ticket. It sounded simple and we headed out.

The next 20 miles can be described in one word: mud. Sometimes super slick mud. Other times, knee deep mud. Occasionally, both. Shoe sucking, soul draining mud. Nearly every step of the way for the first 12 miles we dealt with mud. It was slow. It was miserable. It was dark. And it was so muddy. The shoes got heavier. It was not runnable.

During the first 12 miles out of Clear Lake the only item of note other than mud was crossing a high mountain prairie in the dark. As we crossed, we heard loud grunting. It wasn't too close, but it was loud and large. Clearly a moose. We couldn't see it in the dark, but we could hear it snort and grunt evidently unhappy with our presence. And it was frightening. A few miles later, it happened again. This time much closer and much louder and much angrier. This time, I was able to find the moose with my head lamp. Fortunately, it sounded much nearer than it actually was. But this big bull was angry and loud and continued to grunt and warn us to get out of there quickly. There was no incident, but it left both Eddy and me spooked and glad we weren't running alone.

And then, more mud. For miles and miles, we slipped and slid through the mud, looking for any path to avoid even a few steps of it. The aid stations were more frequent now, but it took ages to reach the Canadian aid station and even longer to get from there to Bockman aid station. But we did finally reach Bockman aid station, 8.4 miles from the finish. In Bockman, we were told the mud was over and life would be easier. 23 hours getting closer and closer, hearing the mud was ending was a godsend.

Unfortunately, it wasn't accurate. Sure, the mud was a bit less than previously. And there was a long section on road that was mud free. But probably half of the next 6.2 miles were still covered in slick mud. Also unfortunately, Eddy and I had been speaking less and less as we headed into the night. Not because of frustration with one another, but because we were both in funks and tired. And during a climb in one of these quiet moments, I got out ahead of Eddy. I was on a mission and not paying attention. This was a long, shallow climb. I had put my head down and worked for about 30 minutes without paying attention, passing several other runners along the way. I looked back and saw no headlamps at all. I waited once, and then again later, for a few minutes, but never saw another lamp. Finally, I decided I needed to push on and finish, hoping Eddy had been able to connect with a couple of runners I passed whom we had spent time with earlier.

Over the final four miles, I felt the strongest I had felt for hours. I hiked hard uphill, and ran small sections downhill. I reached the final aid station 2.2 miles from the finish, drank a quick coke cup, and moved on. I tried to run, failed, hiked hard. My headlamp went out, but I refused to stop to change the battery. 23 hours was weighing on my mind (ultra-brain...I had 1.5 hours to go 2.2 flat miles) and I pushed and pushed, using my phone flashlight to light the trail. I saw runners ahead, and then the lights of the finish. I ran the final quarter mile and was done.

22 hours 5 minutes, a good 3-5 hours longer than I anticipated. It had been hard, really very hard. It had been much harder than Georgia Death Race, something I still don't understand.

It had been beautiful, brutal, gorgeous, devastating, and the most remarkable racing experience of my life.

Thank goodness Eddy had been with me. The rain, the mud, the effort, the moose may have been too much for me to deal with alone. Eddy finished about 20 minutes behind me and had connected with some runners we had swapped places with all day, also earning a Western States lottery ticket, his first.

What a race. What a remarkable part of the world. Do this race. Just do it. It's a privilege to get to experience.

Some more photos:

Approaching Kelly Lake

My feet were great despite being wet all day. But I did have one giant blister on the ball of my left foot. I knew it was happening with about 10 miles to go and ignored it, focusing on finishing. That was the right choice.
La Poudre Valley on the drive out
Driving out

Driving out

Driving out

Performed remarkably. Will never be white again.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome, just awesome! Congrats. This will be a lifetime memory.