My Never Summer 100K Adventure

It’s been almost two weeks since I finished the Never Summer 100K in Gould, Colo., on July 31, and I’m still struggling to put it into words. I’m constantly asked, “How was the race?” and the best I can respond with is that it was hard and beautiful. While both are true, those words fall woefully short in describing the experience.

Normally I would write a detailed race report, describing each section from aid station to aid station, relating how I felt, what the course was like and my experiences along the trail. But I quickly realized within about 48 hours of finishing that my memory of the experience was not nearly clear enough to provide that kind of detail. The reason, I believe, is that I spent a large majority of this race either gawking at the incredible views or waging a war inside my own mind.

So, let’s start with those views. Wow! I had heard that this course provided some spectacular vistas in the Never Summer Range in north central Colorado, but even photos from previous races didn’t do it justice. For the first 15-20 miles, it was like running trails through my own imagination, as if I had been transported into a landscape that only the deepest, most creative part of my brain could create. Except it was real. Every single view.

We climbed above 11,000 feet three times in the first 14 miles, and each high point was, well, a high point in the race for me. We ran some ridge lines, descended back below treeline, only to climb back above again, each time being greeted by another view that left many runners, myself included, stopping for photos or video.

One of the spectacular views early in the race.

Unfortunately, the biggest climb and highest peak – North Diamond – was taken out of the course the day before the race due to the threat of severe weather on race day. There was a flash flood warning in the area and the safety team that was going to be stationed on North Diamond was called away to respond to any potential flooding. So the combination of having no safety team on the peak and the threat of storms at a time when most runners would be above treeline led the race directors to move the race off North Diamond and trim about 3,500 feet of elevation gain from the race.

(In the end, the severe weather stayed away from both the race course and the area.)

Even without that view, there was still plenty of eye candy to be found on the updated course. The early summit of Seven Utes was incredible in the early daylight hours, and the subsequent singletrack through alpine meadows was the type of stuff I dream of when I think about running on trails. The beauty was enough to keep me occupied for the first 20 or so miles.

Simply put, I was having a blast. I spent a lot of time talking to runners around me, a few who were impressed to find out I was from Scranton and had a connection to The Office (I designed custom newspapers for the show when I worked for The Scranton Times). Trail running and ultramarathons are largely about community, and I met some great people during the race.

Somewhere around mile 30 and the first time coming through the Canadian aid station, my focus started to turn inward. I was feeling good thanks to some mellow, mostly flat and downhill doubletrack leading to the aid station. I could tell my legs were starting to feel tired, but I wasn’t concerned. I knew from Canadian to Clear Lake aid station would be some uphill, but I felt ready to run when I could and hike quickly when needed. I even got a bit of a boost when one of the top men came back into Canadian aid station for the second time as I was leaving the first time. Watching him run as if he had just started was impressive and inspiring.

Unfortunately, the relenting seven-mile climb that started about two miles after Canadian aid station and didn’t end until the shoreline of Clear Lake took a mental toll on me. It wasn’t particularly steep at any point, but it was constantly uphill, and I spent most of that climb in a light to steady cold rain. I was miserable at points, particularly the last mile or so to Clear Lake, so much so that I didn’t really enjoy the misty view at the top.

As I turned and started the descent back toward the Clear Lake and Canadian aid stations, the downhill provided some relief, even though it was just muddy and technical enough that I didn’t feel confident running much of it. However, I was able to hike quickly and was only passed by a couple of runners shortly after leaving Clear Lake. As I crossed paths with other runners still making their way up to Clear Lake, I consistently thought to myself how I was glad I didn’t have that climb still ahead of me.

By the time I returned to Clear Lake aid station, the rain had stopped and my jacket was off again. I contemplated sitting for a minute, but instead I had a couple pieces of quesadilla and set off for Canadian aid station a second time. The smoother doubletrack was a welcome change, but I was feeling pretty worked over both mentally and physically from the last 11-12 miles. Leaving that aid station, I was confident that I would finish, even if it meant hiking every step of the last 20 or so miles. And, that’s pretty much what happened.

I knew the sun would set around the time I got to Canadian aid station the second time, which meant the last 15 or so miles would be spent in the dark. I was prepared with a headlamp and a waist light (thanks, Ben!). For the first time ever in a race, I sat down at Canadian, taking off a shoe to get a small stone out and then eating a cup of ramen to help refuel. After maybe 3-4 minutes in the chair – which was so low to the ground I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get out – I set off into the night to make the nearly six-mile trek to the Bockman aid station, the last full aid station on the course.

After about three-quarters of a mile in an open field, we turned into the woods … or I should say I turned into the woods. I could not see a light ahead of me or behind me. I was alone in the Colorado wilderness in the middle of the night for the first time. To be honest, it wasn’t as unnerving as I had anticipated. Maybe it’s because my focus was on moving as quickly as I could while also staying fueled. My hydration was going well, but I just wasn’t feeling like eating much at that point. Any chewable food just wasn’t appealing, so I was mostly using Gu gels at that point. Thankfully, I had put some Gu Roctane gels with caffeine in my drop bag at Clear Lake, and those gave me a nice boost.

About a mile before reaching the aid station, I came upon a light in the darkness. Another runner had stopped and backtracked because he hadn’t seen a course marking for a bit. I was confident I hadn’t missed a turn, so we headed off in the direction he came from. About a mile later, we could hear the aid station and descended out of an open field to a dirt road leading to the last full-service stop of the race.

I raided another drop bag for all the gels I had packed in there, then took a seat for a few minutes again. I choked down half of a grilled cheese with turkey, struggling to find the stamina to chew. Nevertheless, the calories helped as I felt better when I left the aid station a few minutes later. A few other runners left at about the same time, including the runner I ran into the aid station with. I was able to stay close enough to him to see his light most of the time, catching him on the flats and downhills before dropping back a hundred yards or so on the climbs.

After we crested the final climb of the race with about four miles to go, we came into the last checkpoint at Ranger Lakes about 2.2 miles from the finish. We refilled our water bottles, headed across the road to the final section of trail …, and promptly missed the turn onto that trail. We had been chatting for a good 15 minutes at that point and I guess we were too caught up in conversation to see the turn off the dirt road onto the single track. In any case, we went about three-quarters of a mile before realizing our mistake.

We promptly turned around and headed back, and after a few minutes I thought I saw lights up in front of us crossing our path. As we got closer, though, there was no sign of those lights. Around the area where I saw them, I looked to the right and to my surprise, there stood a baby moose about 20 yards away. It turns out those “lights” I had seen were two pairs of eyes shining in the light of my headlamp. As much as I enjoy most wildlife sightings, this was one I wasn’t going to stop to savor. A moose can be a mean animal and I wasn’t interested in finding out if the mother was nearby, so I kept right on moving, as did the guy with me.

A couple minutes later we came back to the area where the turn was and promptly found it lit up with lights and reflective ribbon. I really have no idea how we missed it, but we did, and it added 1.5 miles and about 20 or so minutes to our adventure. But, I guess it was worth it for the moose sighting.

The final two miles were mostly uneventful. It was mostly flat, wide singletrack that made for a mellow finish. I was hiking as quickly as I could and pulled in front of the other runner. With about a quarter-mile to go, I heard someone coming behind me who sounded like they were sprinting. Turned out it was another runner who I’m not sure I had seen all day who apparently got a shot of adrenaline, so much so that his pacer could barely keep up. They passed me in what seemed like a full sprint about 200 yards from the finish. I was able to coax my legs into a shuffle run at that point, and I crossed the line with an official time of 21 hours, nine minutes and 17 seconds with my watch showing 66.5 miles.

A very unique finisher’s award

I sat for a few moments in a metal folding chair, then moved inside the small building to remove my gear and let the gravity of the race sink in. I must’ve had a blank stare going on because two volunteers as well as some people who were with another runner asked if I was ok and if I needed anything. Other than accepting some chicken noodle soup, I had a comfortable chair and a completed 100K to my credit, so I had everything I needed. I wasn’t sure how I was going to drive 25 minutes to my Airbnb, but other than that, I was fine.

Ultimately, the ride home was fine. I managed a few hours of restless sleep before driving back to the finish to pick up my drop bags and have some breakfast, which was outstanding, by the way. It’s no surprise, as the entire race was well organized. The Gnar Runners know what they’re doing when it comes to putting on trail races, and I hope to run another of their races sometime soon.

I’m happy to finally have a 100K finish under my belt. As they say, the third time is a charm, and after two DNF’s, I’m proud of this one. I feel like I’m capable of a better time, even on a supremely difficult course like Never Summer. But my goal for this race was always to finish. If I had run a solid time, that would’ve been icing on the cake. For now, I’m going to savor this race and not worry about what’s next on my racing calendar. I’ve got a lot of video from the race, so eventually (hopefully soon), I’ll post a video recap, as well. If you’ve gotten this far, I promise this is the end! Thanks for reading!

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