The Never Summer mountain range in North Central Colorado is appropriately named. Its highest peaks are cloaked with winter’s remaining snow and its lowest points contain damp meadows with numerous creek crossings and nettlesome mosquitoes. Despite winter’s lingering presence, the mountains are abundant with wildflowers, colorful lichen, and stunning lakes. The Never Summer 100k is held in late July, a time of year when thunderstorms are notorious in the Rocky Mountains. Its highest point is Diamond Peak at 11,800 ft. and the race itself averages at around 10,000 ft. The course is extremely technical, as runners negotiate trails composed entirely of ankle twisting rocks, climb over freshly hail-polished boulders, and stumble blindly through narrow meadow trails replete with hidden holes and booby traps. Mix all these ingredients together in one day, and you have the recipe for the perfect mountain ultra; beautiful, dramatic, wet, and very tough.
Going into the Never Summer 100k, I felt very little confidence that I could run this race competitively. Ever since Armstrong Redwoods 50k in May, my right big toe joint was bothering me – not enough to affect my running, but enough to cause concern as to what 64 miles and who-knows-how-many-hours could do to it. My right bunion was screaming either as a result of being crammed into a narrow soccer shoe once a week or maybe it was in cahoots with the toe. Of more concern was my left hip/leg which out of nowhere one morning decided to give me grief and resulted in an immediate inability to straighten it without pain. I hadn’t been sleeping well in months, was exhausted every day, and barely making it through the work day without feeling the need to curl up in the back of my VW bug and take a nap. The list of tasks I needed to complete to apply for grad school was slowly and heavily piling up in the back of my mind. I began to consider the idea that I might have overtraining syndrome, which is, in my opinion, a fancy word that athletes use for stress. My yin was not in balance with my yang. I was not getting enough recovery for all the training and the going-going-going. I wondered if I should stop running overall, but instead I did the best that I could. I scaled back the going-going-going, and did my best to increase the rest and downtime during my day. I tell you all this not to claim a magical success story following a stressful time, but to frame my state of mind the weeks before the race.
My altitude training consisted of spending four days running in the Mammoth mountains two weeks before the race, and arriving in Colorado the weekend before the race. Two nights were spent in Boulder, four nights in Leadville, one night in Walden, and the night before in Gould. In Leadville, I ran three times – all easyish tapering runs, but runs at altitude nonetheless. The first run was 12 easy flat miles around Turquoise Lake and I was breathing hard. The second run was a short 8 miles along the CDT from a nearby trailhead and a fair amount of climbing. Again, I huffed and puffed, and hiked most of the hills. The last run was a quick five mile jaunt down the Mineral Belt Trail in Leadville. I was still breathing hard. This race was going to be a lot harder than I thought.
Yuch asked me if I was excited about the race and my response was “I’m scared”. I knew I could do the distance, but the altitude would put this huffing and puffing sea level girl at a huge disadvantage. My nagging injuries had not gone away, despite my increase in recovery methods. In Colorado, I napped every day, read my book, knit, foam rolled, cooked, and simply enjoyed not sitting at a desk in an office. I decided my goals for this race would be the following: take lots of pictures, have fun, survive, and finish before dark (ETA – 8:30 pm).
Going into a race with low expectations can have its benefits. But it still doesn’t make it easier to go to the bathroom two hours before you’re used to. However, missing your morning bathroom window for an ultra isn’t the end of the world – there will be plenty of opportunities for that along the way! I started out slowly, as planned. On the first climb up 7 Utes at 11,453 ft., my body was forced to a hike. Thankfully, everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing. I pulled away to use the “lady’s room”, despite feeling the furthest away from lady-like. Much better. I continued climbing, even further back in the pack now. Oh well. There was a long way to go, so there was no sense in thinking about pace and place now.
The second major climb and the highest point of the day was Diamond Peak at 11,852 ft. Instead of switching back up the mountain, pink course flags masochistically led us straight up. I chatted with fellow runners as we bonded over this insane climb which had reduced some of us literally to a crawl.
My method consisted of bursts of scrambling up quickly, stopping to catch my breath and rest, and then scrambling up again. It seemed to be working quite well. I took lots of pictures honoring my promise to myself to document the race. At the top it was beautiful. A group of people greeted us and someone offered to take my picture.
And then, we got to reap the rewards of all the climbing and coast along the ridgeline, the most scenic part of the course.
The descents in Never Summer are extremely technical. Many of the trails/roads are covered completely in rocks, which require unconditional focus and a little bit of pretending like you are walking on hot coals. Stepping too long in one place may result in rocks shifting from beneath you and the likelihood of an ankle roll.
Leaving the Diamond Peak aid station, someone told me I was the second place female. As I mentioned previously, I did not feel competitive going into this race. I had been moving at a snail’s pace, and this snail was taking pictures and taking bathroom breaks. The feedback was encouraging. Perhaps if I continued to run smartly, I could pick it up the last 20 miles or so which were much more “runnable” than the earlier parts of the course. Maybe I could be competitive after all.
The next challenge was the climb up to Kelly Lake, which sort of remains a blur to me. Up to this point, the weather had been great – cool and partly cloudy. Now the clouds seemed to take up more and more of the sky and at some point it started raining. I continued to power on, not feeling the need to put on a rain jacket as the rain was light and it was not very cold. The higher I got, the harder the rain fell, and I finally opted to duck under a tree to apply my rain jacket and put away my phone into the safety of a plastic ziplock (the pictures would sadly, end here). I was soaking wet, but not cold. I encountered snow, but this was no stranger to me. I was used to trekking across large fields of snow, most recently in Mammoth. It started to hail when I encountered the boulders – large rocks that we were apparently supposed to maneuver through. Every now and then there’d be a pink ribbon, reminding me that – yes, the trail does indeed go this way! My pace slowed down considerably as a couple of guys shimmied along past me with no problem. At some point I saw a runner down below moving very quickly and I thought “how is that possible??” When he yelled “It’s a trail!” I realized he actually had found a trail below the rocks while here I was messing around on all fours trying not to kill myself. I got myself down to where I saw him, hopped on the trail, and was out of there without looking back.
Departing Kelly Lake and the alpine territory that came with it, the sun began to emerge as I entered a beautiful grove of Aspens. I still had my rain jacket on as I couldn’t be bothered to remove it. I was now entering some kind of flow state that would continue up until I reached the Clear Lake aid station at mile 39.4. I can’t explain it. It just happened. The sun was out, it was humid, and I knew I should be boiling in this heat-trapping rain jacket, but I was cruising and passing runners, maneuvering trail-less meadows loaded with land mines disguised as gopher holes and rocks. I was dancing, sailing, and flying. It was an amazing feeling, while it lasted.
At the Clear Lake aid station, I finally removed my rain jacket. From here I would have a 4.5 mile round trip out and back. Heading out on this stretch, my superhero powers had completely diminished. I nearly hiked the whole 2.2 miles to Clear Lake, which at the time felt so much more than 2.2 miles! Barely a half mile in, leading woman Sabrina Stanley flew by me. I began to wonder if I would see Yuch, or had he already gone by? My legs had nothing left. But just minutes ago I had been sailing! Finally, I saw Yuch and we stopped on the trail to talk. I was glad to hear his ankle, which he had rolled two weeks prior, seemed to be doing okay. It was nice seeing him and talking to him, but at some point I said “I gotta go!” and took off (as much as someone can take off when they are hiking up a hill). On the way back from Clear Lake, I was made aware of the women who were on my tail, the first being Amber, who I had run and chatted with earlier on in the race. I was happy to see her doing so well. She had mentioned she had run this race a couple years back, not done as well as she wanted, and spent some time “puking”. As uplifting it was to see all the runners behind me on the out and back, it also made me extremely aware of how close some women were. If I were to remain in second place, I would need to keep moving.
The bulk of the climbing was over. Time to pick it up. And then, the clouds filled the sky again and shot big pellets of hail repeatedly on to my bare arms and legs. “AHHHHH!!!” I screamed all the way into Canadian Aid Station at mile 50, to find the volunteers and some runners had taken cover under the tents. Spectators along the trail were huddled under their rain jackets. Time to put on my rain jacket again unless I wanted to be beaten into a hail driven pulp. I left Canadian with only 14 more miles to the finish.
These last 14 miles should have been some of the fastest miles of the race, but instead they ended up being painfully slow. My back was killing me and I would run the rest of the race with my hands placed on my hips. The trail was now a river and rivers are made to swim in, not run in. Prior to this trail river, I had been doing my best to avert water and mud on the trails, but the situation was now completely out of my control. I surrendered completely, and splashed my way ahead gaining wonderful particles of mud and cow dung into my shoes. Bring it on, trail river! But slogging through trail rivers is an exhausting act, and I began to tire and would stop and walk. Run, walk, run, walk, swat mosquito, run, walk.
I arrived at Bockman aid station, only 5.7 miles after Canadian, but it seemed like a mud slogging lifetime. I saw my mom and her friend Karla up ahead and I waved. The aid station volunteer explained to me that it was only 6.2 miles with 1,000 ft. of elevation gain to the next aid station and then 2.2 easy miles to the finish. He filled my pack up with water, but the whole process was happening so slowly that I started to get anxious. For all I knew, I was about to get overtaken by the women behind me, and after all I had gone through, I was not ready to give up second place.
The fire road out of Bockman would have been easy, had I not run over 50 miles already. It gradually went uphill, and was definitely runnable, but I was tired. Every time I stopped to walk, I would think about getting passed and I would start running again. I thought about the aid station volunteer, and wondered if this was the 1,000 ft. of gain he was talking about. If so, it really wasn’t too bad. Soon, I came across a massive hill. Aha, I thought. Silly me. That fire road must have been like 10 ft. of gain because here was the rest of it. At some point I was passed by a runner who delivered a message that the third place woman was behind me (no kidding!), but she may have stopped to walk so I probably didn’t have anything to worry about. I couldn’t tell if the message was supposed to reassure me, or scare the bejeebies out of me. I had been running scared for a while, but now I was really scared. I was certain my meadow slog had cost me and now I would lose everything I had worked for. I ran as fast as I could to the finish, which was somewhat possible due to the flat and downhill nature of the trail, and crossed the finish line at 8:18 pm, with a time of 14 hours and 45 minutes. Crouched over with my hands on my knees, I breathed out sighs of relief. I felt like I needed to explain myself. “I was being chased!” But, the third place woman would not arrive to the finish until 37 minutes later.
At the finish, The Gould Community Center was a welcome sight. I entered to find a roaring fire and wet clothing, shoes, and runners strewn across chairs. I changed into warm clothes in the kitchen and placed myself in front of the fire. Yuch brought me hot soup. My stomach was messed up from all the Roctane and Spring Energy, but I was also really hungry from not having eaten anything in a while. Knowing there was no food back at our little Powderhorn cabin, we took vegetarian burgers and soup to go.
Back at our cabin, we took hot showers and tucked ourselves into our beds. Both of our stomachs were a mess, but we were starving so we mustered up the courage to eat our burgers. They were delicious and nourishing. As I lie in bed, wide-eyed and unable to sleep, I listened to the rain and thought of all the runners who were still out there in the dark, splashing through that trail river.