2019 Never Summer 100K

This time when I got one mile down the trail and my Garmin Forerunner GPS buzzed, I knew exactly what the alert was for, and I ignored it. I decided in advance that I wouldn’t look. I knew that I had a long day (and night) of running and hiking ahead of me and the last thing I was going to do was glance at my watch and take the risk of seeing a “negative” Performance Condition. Last month at Manitou’s Revenge Ultra, I took the chance, saw “+5” and my morale was boosted. I came into this past weekend’s race a little nicked up, and dragging. The altitude was also going to take a toll, so I never looked.

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It’s barely been a month since I updated my Toughest Ten and I’m at it again. It had been five years since the prior update, and five years before that, which signals that I did a lot of short (but hard) races, dealt with several injuries, was consumed with work and family; and simply focused on different types of athletic events. I went from version 2.0, to 3.0, so I’ll call this latest update 3.1. I’ll be 47 soon and the fact that I could update it twice in a month is pretty good. I might have to establish a Toughest 20, which means I’m staying fit and still capable of finishing hard races, even as I approach 50.

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I feel pretty good about the two 2019 races that made the list. Neither suited my strengths, but I did them to spend time with Debbie, to explore new trails, and to push my limits. The Never Summer 100K which Debbie and I did this this past weekend, is the latest addition.

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I don’t have as extensive an ultrarunning career as Debbie, but I’ve done enough of them to know that this one was super hard. For me, last month’s Manitou’s Revenge is still the toughest mile for mile trail race I’ve done, but Never Summer is also up there too. Both races are on part with our two White Mountain Hut Traverses (not races) for hardest mountain adventures on two feet. I’ve never done a 100-mile distance race, and this may be the closest I get (never say never), as my body just isn’t very good after 50 kilometers. I have the mental fortitude to go forever, and I could walk the whole way, but running is totally different, and it isn’t as much fun when your legs hurt that bad.

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Just like Manitou’s Revenge, my legs (particularly my quadriceps) were shot after the 30-mile mark. My heart rate declined because I just couldn’t push. The second half of the race became a long frustrating slog because I wanted to run, but couldn’t. I probably could have pushed even harder (it’s all mental, right?) but my legs wouldn’t move any quicker than a 17 minutes per mile shuffle.

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The stats on this race are impressive:

  • Distance: 64.2 Miles with 13,000ft of vertical gain and 13,000ft of descent.
  • Max Elevation: 11,852′
  • Min Elevation: 8,450′
  • Average Elevation: 10,220′
  • Starters: 318
  • Finishers: 219
  • My Time: 22h 17m 01s
  • Debbie’s Time: 20h 58m 25s

Let’s go back for a minute. How did I end up in Gould, Colorado running 64 miles? It’s a long story, but the brief version is that Debbie needed a Western States Endurance Run 2019 lottery qualifier. The race cutoff time was 24 hours, but the WS100 qualifying time was sub-23 hours. An even longer story is why she hasn’t done the WS100 in her 20-year career. Regardless, it’s a bucket list event for her and she wants to keep her name in the lottery. So every year she needs a qualifier. Over the last 10 years, she lost her accumulated “tickets” twice. Once when our daughter Dahlia was born. Once when the qualifying cutoff date was more than a year after finishing qualfiers ULTRA-TRAIL Mt. FUJI, and just days before finishing Hellgate. The more tickets you have, the better chance you have of being picked in the lottery.

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Mercifully, the rules have changed so that 1) you can get a pregnancy deferral and 2) you get a once in a lifetime chance to miss a qualifier and keep all your tickets. Unfortunately, these rules were put in place after she lost her tickets. I am proud to say that for rule number one, we played a small role in the change by advocating with the WS100 Race Director and members of the Board of Directors.

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She wants in, so for now, she has to keep ticking off races on the qualifier list. Last year, she did Ultra-Trail Harricana, which I wrote about despite not being on the trip, a rare miss for me. She made a mad-dash to Quebec with Amy and Brian Rusiecki, and got the job done. She wasn’t chosen in the December lottery, so the entire process started over for 2019. Speaking of ultra lotteries, she also wants to return to the Hardrock Endurance Run, and ideally in a clockwise year (beggars can’t be choosers). She finished the run in 2017, but missed out on the 2018 lottery (for the 2019 race that was recently cancelled due to the extreme snow in southwest Colorado) so it is likely she has to run a Hardrock qualifier in 2020 if her third year of eligibility isn’t extended. The goal would be to get into the 2021 race.

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This ultrarunning game is getting more challenging and I’m not talking about the actual running. None of this explains why I would run this far. I’m usually just the crew guy, doing the driving, hauling gear, filling hydration bladders, mixing energy drinks, changing flat tires, and dealing with all the other race logistics. When our kids are with us, I’m also playing the role of Dad.

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This past weekend, our kids and our rabbits were with Debbie’s parents, which is a treat for everyone involved, but also a lot of work. That meant we could make the trip to Gould without them, and be more flexible with our itinerary. Debbie researched Never Summer (named for one of the two mountain ranges that the race passes over), which was in its 5th year, and realized it was one of the only races that fit our tight schedule and wasn’t sold out. The race has grown rapidly. Ultrarunners are yearning for tougher and tougher adventures. Running 50, 64, 100, or 200 miles just isn’t enough anymore. People want rugged terrain, lots of climbing, and elevation change. 318 runners signed up for the challenge. I was one of them.

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I wanted to do more trail running in 2019 after not running at all in 2018 following my broken leg. I had been yearning for more mountain adventures. I love the intensity of cyclocross, cross-country mountain biking, and sprint triathlon; three disciplines that suit my abilities. However, I’m most happy when deep in the mountains and pushing hard. When Debbie said she was returning to Manitou’s Revenge, I figured, “what the heck,” and registered too. I saw sections of the course when I crewed for her in 2017 and knew that it was a beast. I used another race that I’ve done several times, Traprock 50K, as part of my build-up.

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After I registered for Manitou’s Revenge, I thought, OK, if the kids aren’t coming on the CO trip, then maybe I should run Never Summer with her too. It would be farther than I’ve ever gone on two feet in one shot. I knew that I would have a blast crewing and taking photos, but sometimes it’s nice to see all of the course and get the shots that you can’t get from the aid stations.

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The race was sold out, but I put my name on the wait list figuring I would get in. A few months later I got an alert on my iPhone that said my American Express card had been charged for the cost of the entry fee. That was that. I was on the start list for what would be my longest ever run. Again, things are all relative. When you live with a woman who has done more than 100 ultras you have a different perspective on what is tough and what is really tough.

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So, how did it play out? Everyone wants to know who won. Well, Debbie did. We were even on 2019 ultras at 1-1. She beat me at Traprock after I got lost and ran some extra miles before reuniting with her and then losing on the fast final descent. Our finish times were only 39 seconds apart, which is not much after 6.5 hours. I got her back at Manitou’s, where she had foot and calf injuries that hobbled her.  Same thing, after nearly 16 hours, we were only separated by 21 minutes. We are opposites (I’m strong on the up and she is strong on the down), but evenly matched which is kind of crazy, but good, after 20 years together.

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The entire race was inside State Forest State Park which is a cool name that I enjoyed repeating. We packed our new Big Agnes tent, which is very compact. It fit right in our luggage. Each of us brought a lightweight sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. We spent Friday night and part of Saturday night (after the race) in our tent at the North Michigan Campground which was only three miles from the start/finish line at the Gould Community Center.

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Gould is way off the grid at about 8,900 feet. There was no AT&T phone service so for a few days, we were totally off the grid. The weather on race-day was a real mix, but it would be described as terrible. It dawned cool with partial sunshine, but there were pockets of dark clouds that were foreboding. The first 30 miles are the hardest because they had the most climbing including the vicious ascent of Diamond Peak at 11,852 feet. As we were headed up Diamond Peak the clouds got darker and the thunder started to rumble. By the time I made it to the summit, the wind was whipping and bolts of lightning were flashing in the distance. The descent was very hard for me. I was already knackered from the climb, which took me much longer than expected. Debbie had long since gone ahead of me and I was struggling.

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At the top, I managed to smile for a photo and then donned my jacket for the downhill. The rain started to come and the thunder and lightning were a motivating force to keep moving. There was absolutely no tree cover. The ridge was very exposed and went for several miles. The trail, which is normally not marked, wasn’t hard to follow because it was marked with pink flags. It rained on and off for the next few hours as the storms kept rolling in.

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I was really hurting between miles five and 25, but then from 25 to 40, I felt better. From 25 to 30, there was a break in the t-storm action and the sun came out (at least where I was on the course) for a while. I stripped off my jacket and arm warmers and was feeling better. Then, from 30 to 40, the weather got bad again. For a short period, the sun would come out and warmed up the air, but then another t-storm would roll through. Many of the storms brought hard hitting hail that was cold and irritating. This pattern continued for several hours and I took off my jacket and put it back on several times during this stretch. It was also a period where my stomach was really off. I had massive air bubbles in it which I attribute to the altitude. It wasn’t right from the start and no amount of burping relieved the pressure. It was uncomfortable and I didn’t eat much out of fear that it would come back up in a manner that wouldn’t be enjoyable.

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There were nine aid stations. Clear Lake was used twice because of the out and back. The Gnar Runners published a helpful table on their race page:

Aid Station
Mile
Split
Total
Distance
Aid
Drop Bags
Crew Access
Michigan Ditch
11.4
11.4
Full
No
No
Diamond
5.8
17.2
Full
Yes
Yes
Montgomery
6.0
23.2
Full
No
No
Ruby Jewel
6.2
29.4
Full
Yes
Hike In Only
Clear Lake 1
10.0
39.4
Full
Yes
No
Clear Lake 2
4.5
43.9
Full
Yes
No
Canadian
6.2
50.1
Full
Yes
Hike In Only
Bockman Road
5.7
55.8
Full
Yes
Yes
Ranger Lakes
6.2
62.0
Full
No
Yes
Finish
2.2
64.2
      Yes
Total
64.2

One of the worst storms of the day hit when I was nearing the Ruby Jewel Aid Station. That was the first time I saw that I wasn’t alone in the suffering. The station was full of runners who were cold, many too cold to continue. This was an experienced bunch, but many still appeared to be undressed, lacking the gear for a sudden change in weather. Others were prepared, but the combination of tiredness and being soaked to the bone was too much to handle. I didn’t stay long and pushed on. A huge climb followed the aid station and once again, I was hurting. That 10 mile stretch to Clear Lake 1 was awful. I had lost a lot of ground on the Diamond Peak section and didn’t make much time up at all. The last few miles before Clear Lake seemed like they would never end. It was getting later in the day and the temperature remained low. I kept me jacket on the entire time.

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The out and back to the actual Clear Lake was a 4.5 mile round trip. That’s where I saw Debbie for the first time since she passed me more than 12 hours earlier. I was happy to see her and got a hug and kiss. She was on her way back to the aid station following a 1,300 foot ascent to the lake. I was moving slowly but steadily. It was pretty dark in the woods, but I had left my light in my hydration pack back at the aid station. I had clipped it to my only drop bag. I didn’t take much from my drop bag as I kept my most important gear including arm warmers, gloves, bonnet, and light in my pack all day. I had my hydration belt in my drop bag, so I took that for the 2.5 hour round trip to Clear Lake and back. It was nice to give my back a break. I kept my poles with me, which was smart.

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On the way back, I saw Sophie Speidel, a longtime friend from Virginia. It was also her first time running Never Summer. She was lured west by a former running mate, Marlin Yoder, who had relocated to nearby Loveland. It was great to meet Marlin and his family who came to cheer for them. His daughter, son-in-law, and two grandkids were our neighbors at the campground.

My key gear included: 

  • Altra Lone Peak 3.5 trail running shoes
  • Pearl Izumi gaiters
  • Black Diamond poles
  • Patagonia Capilene shirt
  • 2XU compression shorts
  • Patagonia running shorts
  • CEP compression sleeves
  • Darn Tough socks
  • Outdoor Research Helium jacket
  • Rudy Project sunglasses
  • Patagonia Hat and Gloves
  • Shenipsit Striders Boco trucker hat,
  • one drop bag (dry bag) with spare shoes, socks, gloves, hat, Patagonia Air Shed
  • UltrAspire Zygos hydration vest
  • UltrAspire Synaptic hydration belt
  • UltrAspire Lumen waist light
  • Verge arm warmers
  • Bandana

Seeing Sophie gave me some motivation, but it didn’t last. By the time I made it back to the aid station, it was pouring again. I stopped for about 10 minutes to eat a little, repack my hydration vest, and get situation for the night time portion of the race. The aid station was only three small canopy tents and there wasn’t a square inch of space as they were packed with runners trying to keep dry. I got very wet as I feverishly worked to situate my pack with everything I needed. It was past 8:00 P.M., the sun was down, and I was figuring at least another eight hours on course.

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I finally got moving and it was downhill for a long ways, so I wore everything I had including my shirt, my Airshed, and my OR jacket. I wore my trucker hat on top of beanie and had my hood pulled tight over that. My gloves were soaked through, but I wore them and it helped. I had no idea that I was headed into some of the worst mud that I’ve ever seen. Throughout the day, we had encountered mud and there were many stream crossings, but the section from mile 43.9 to mile 55.8 was absolutely ridiculous. We went through field after field and the soft dirt had turned into a “smoothie.” The trail got very wide because the 175+ runners who had gone through before me had trampled all the vegetation at the edges in an attempt to get some traction. If you didn’t have poles, you were probably miserable. The front runners may have gotten through before the heaviest rain and less traffic meant firmer dirt. But by the time I got there, it was like a slip and slide.

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Other friends at the race included runner Stacey Clark, also a Connecticut resident; and Bogie Dumitrescu, a former New Englander who we have known for many years. He was volunteering this time. It was nice to cross the streams as it provided a moment to rinse off your shoes and poles, as some of the mud was sticking in clumps. However, nearly every stream crossing was followed by a total mud pit on the other side. You were clean for an instant and then up to your shins in mud a moment later.

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It was completely dark during a long wooded section. I hooked up with another runner by the name of Yaroslav Nesenchuk who was a Colorado resident. We didn’t exchange many words during the night, but we shadowed each other and helped motivate each other all the way to the finish. There were times where we were apart for up to 30 minutes at a time, but one of us would slow or an aid station would come, and we would reconnect. At one point, we were separated coming into the Bockman Road aid station and I heard a loud animal noise in front of me. I had my light beam on low to conserve the battery, so when I heard the noise again, I turned it to bright. I was worried about a moose, but I was in the middle of an open field. I couldn’t believe it when my light illuminated this large cow (not a moose but a regular old “milk” cow) only 15 feet in front of me. She wasn’t happy with me, so I gave her some space to pass and she “mooed” again. I scurried by her and never looked back. Other than this fair lady, the only other fauna that I saw all day long were birds, bugs, and chipmunks. I did see a lot of beautiful flora, as the mountain wildflowers were in full bloom.

It was hard to take photos with my iPhone, but I managed some. There were times where I was just too tired to pull it out and fuss with it. My hands were often wet and cold, making it impossible to get my fingerprint reader or passcode to work. Next time, I need to do better because the scenery was spectacular. My food and hydration was pretty simple I went with the same approach as Manitou’s but I wasn’t as comfortable eating because of the gas in my stomach.

I stuck with:

  • Bananas
  • Potatoes and Salt,
  • Pickles
  • Vegan broth
  • Go Macro bars
  • Watermelon
  • Tailwind
  • Water

Our preparation for this race wasn’t as good as Manitou’s. We had a busy month of work and family obligations in between the races. I had a freak calf injury that hurt me for the three weeks prior to the race. Debbie was nursing the foot and calf injury that she aggravated at Manitou’s. We were both going at no better than 80%. We hadn’t planned for this to be an A race because of the altitude, which helped. It allowed us to remain relaxed and focus just on finishing within the WS100 lottery qualifying time. Unlike Hardrock, we didn’t use our Hypoxico altitude tent. We had too many nights where we were gone that would have negated the effects of sleeping in the chamber. It would have just tired us out.

Debbie had one hard fall during the race, on a dirt road descent. She banged up her knees and cut one of them pretty good. I stayed on my feet the whole time. I was cautious and had some close calls, but never hit the deck.

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After the cow episode, I made it to the second to last aid station. Soon after, we hit a long dirt road that seemed to go on forever. That turned to a rugged double track path that pushed this climbing section up another 2,000 feet until we crested before the final descent. On the long road section I was alone for a while until I got passed by some other runners. I was nearly asleep on my feet, winding my way from edge to edge. I had been on course a long time. I would have loved to finish this race in 16 hours and maybe with better preparation and altitude acclimation, I could have, but the reality was I was headed for the 20 hour mark with nine miles to go.

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I trudged on and eventually reconnected with Yaroslav. We reached the last aid station together. Another runner, Stefan Schuster, was with us, and the three of us cover the final few miles together, shuffling on the flat trail to the finish. I wanted to get there ASAP, so I pushed a bit harder, shuffling as fast as I could. I got to the finish and it was the most anti-climactic of my career. One volunteer congratulated me and collected my bib tag. Debbie saw me come in and met me at the line for a congratulatory something. Did she kiss me? Did she hug me? I can’t recall if we embraced or not. We immediately walked to the car, which was parked 100 feet away. We drove straight the campground. She was changed, having finished more than an hour and 20 minutes earlier. I didn’t change at all and just got behind the steering wheel.

Within an hour, we were rough showered and in our sleeping bags. It was about 4:00 A.M. and we ended up sleeping fitfully for about four hours. We awoke and the rain had stopped. We took our time to pack up before making our way back to the community center for the 10:00 A.M. breakfast and awards ceremony. It was great to see all of the runners, including those who finished and those who didn’t. There were many family members and volunteers hanging around too. The Gnar Runners did a fantastic job with the event. They were great volunteers and had wonderful enthusiasm.

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It took some perseverance to get to the finish line but I’m proud of my finisher’s award. I also accumulated enough steps for my team at work to “win the week” in our walking/activity steps competition. They said I can take time off to run an ultra any time I want as long as I accumulate more steps than the competition. For one day, I was a success! Plus, that’s even factoring that my Garmin Forerunner GPS died with more than six miles to go. I’m always amused when I see a Strava post with a description about a GPS malfunction, a battery dying prematurely, or some other malady that prevented an athlete from capturing a full race or workout in all its glory. For once, I was that guy.

Race Results

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