A Day in the Never Summer Mountains

Never Summer 100K

July 25, 2015

Map - FullAt one point in my running past, I thought that I would max out, distance-wise, at 10K. Then, it became a half-marathon. Then, I was waiting for a bus with Alberto Rossi.

“Would you be interested in running a 50 mile race in Steamboat?” Alberto asked.

Several months after that, we both had run our first marathons and our first ultramarathon (Run Rabbit Run). For a few days afterward, I was certain that I would never, ever do that again. Since then, I’ve run 3 more 50 mile ultras. In each one, I had moments of wondering “Why do I do this? This hurts!” After each one, I remember the pain, but emotionally connect much more with the times of enjoyment: being on the trail, seeing remote areas, and running through the finishing chute. I was still waiting for that event where I never once questioned the wisdom of signing up. I thought it might come someday, but I was certain that I would never run farther than 50 miles.

Then, I signed up for the Never Summer 100k on the first day that registration opened. So much for that 50 mile limit. Really, though, as I put it to Kristen, it wasn’t THAT much farther than 50 miles. Besides, as several people later told me, the suffering doesn’t scale; you don’t feel twice as bad at 50 as you do at 25. I wouldn’t feel 25% worse at 62 than I did at 50. She was dubious, to say the least.

Some of the doubt was warranted. This was the inaugural running of this race, though it was organized by the well-established and successful race directors at Gnar Runners in Fort Collins. There was very little information out there about the area, as it’s a fairly low-visitation region. It also had a 24-hour cutoff and a survey of a few of the well-known 100k races in the country showed that this was WAY longer than most: Miwok 100k (15:30 cutoff), Gorge Waterfalls 100k (16:00), Sean O’Brian 100k (16:00), and Waldo 100k (16:00 for regular start). Nothing like picking a rough, mean, remote course for my first 100k!

In its favor: 2 summits, 4 alpine lakes, some tundra, peak wildflower season, and all of it within a few hours from home. Kristen and I had hiked in the Never Summer mountains once, to the Michigan Lakes basin, and I’d been itching to see more of it. Here was a perfect opportunity. I’d also have the best support team around: besides Kristen, I’d get pacing from fellow Rocky Mountain Runners Silke Koester and Alberto, and crewing help from Ryan Smith. I was confident that their energy would be contagious and their ultra experience would be very helpful.

So, get a cup of coffee, because, like the race, this write-up is a long one!


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Sunset light on the Never Summers from our cabin.

On July 24, we drove up Poudre Canyon to Gould, Colorado. We checked in for our lodging at the Powderhorn Cabins, about 2 miles west of the start/finish line. We sat in our screen porch (it was a nice camping cabin!), watching the sunset light on the mountains. They looked big, a long way away, and I would be running around them tomorrow. I was a bit nervous and anxious to find out how I would respond to the challenge.

Map - Sec 1Start to Diamond (18 miles)

The hulking silhouettes of the mountains which had been lit up so nicely last evening loomed ahead of us as we drove the 2 miles to the start. We had picked up a third, Charity Larson, who was also staying at Powderhorn. She didn’t want to have to wake up her husband and young son for the 5:30 AM start, so she got a ride with us. Though, as she pointed out, her tired boy “wouldn’t be her problem that day!” Kristen dropped us off, then was directed half a mile away and had to hurry back to make the start. We checked in and got our numbers; I was “lucky number 7,” as would be told to me all day. Under the start/finish banner, I found other RMRs Adam St. Pierre, Nick Pedatella, David Ponak, Adam Chapman, Josh Arthur, Pete Newton, Ryan, Silke, “Shirtless” Chris Fabian, and of course, the always ready-to-go Kea! We milled around the starting area, discussing the things that ultrarunners always talk about at every starting line: drop bags, packs versus handheld water bottles, poles, crewing, and race plans.

I had a very specific plan for the race today. My goals were to be VERY conservative for the first half (especially through mile 18), never get too dehydrated (a problem of mine), and try to stay as fueled as possible (another big problem of mine). I had set up my timing to finish the race in 19:36. These goals seemed to fit Pete’s strategy well, so we would run at least the early miles together and see how the day went from there.

The standard pre-race announcements followed: course markings, wildlife (“You’ll probably see moose!”), staying hydrated, etc., then a countdown and we were off.

Start

Here we go! Photo by Erin Bibeau Photography.

 

Pete, Chris, and I ran along the gently rolling road, which provided a nice warmup before the ascent of Seven Utes Mountain. Eventually, the forest road tilted uphill a bit more and we slowed to a walk, along with everyone else. Chris, who I knew to be quite quick from our Thursday runs up Mt. Sanitas, wondered if we were crazy for walking so early. It fit my race plan perfectly, however: get through the Diamond aid station feeling as fresh as possible, so mostly hiking uphill instead of running. The pain and suffering would definitely come, so there was no need to rush it along. Chris eventually surged ahead of Pete and me as we continued our run/walk combination to the first water drop at 6.9k (46:41). My plan had been to arrive here at about an hour. Already fast, but I felt good and there had been nothing taxing so far, so I decided to just roll with it.

I was trying something new in this race. In the past, I’ve always carried my water on my back. While comfortable, it tends to lead to rationing. I can’t see how much water I have left and I don’t want to run out, so I don’t drink enough. Besides being the major problem behind my chronically dehydrated state in races, it also leads to me constantly carrying too much weight. Today, I was addressing this by carrying two soft flasks around my waist (in a Naked Running Band, for those interested). It was wonderfully comfortable and convenient; I always knew how much water I had left and could drink more freely. I had already finished a half-liter, so I refilled here.

We turned right, up the hill, which was much steeper and the road surface got quite rough. I pulled out my poles and pushed steadily, calmly, and smoothly up the hill. Soon, we took our first off-road detour. I don’t remember if it was a trail or not, but I do remember a runner barrelling downhill, telling everyone he saw “You’re fine, I went off course!” He was doing it right, returning to the point he went off-course and running what he missed. We merged back onto the road and someone ahead of us turned left, down the hill. A chorus of “This way!”, “Hey, you’re off!”, and “Uphill!” directed him right again. Pete told him that it was probably just wishful thinking, starting downhill already.

I wasn’t as fast a climber as Pete, but he waited for me whenever he stopped to drink and I was never very far behind. We emerged from the forest into the sunlight and vistas and wildflowers increasingly replaced trees as we continued the ridge climb up to Seven Utes.

Made it to the top of Seven Utes Mountain, with North Park in the background.  Photo by Pete Newton.

Made it to the top of Seven Utes Mountain, with North Park in the background. Photo by Pete Newton.

The west side of the Never Summers from the summit of Seven Utes.

The west side of the Never Summers from the summit of Seven Utes.

On the broad, round summit, we stopped for a couple of pictures before starting down a steep off-trail slope of grass and flowers. At the bottom, I stopped to take a picture of people negotiating the slope and they lamented not bringing their cameras.

The steep descent from Seven Utes Mountain.

The steep descent from Seven Utes Mountain.

Arnica, columbine, paintbrush, and clover decorate the slopes of Braddock.

Arnica, columbine, paintbrush, and clover decorate the slopes of Braddock.

Looking from the north ridge of Braddock into the Lake Agnes basin, framed by the Nokhu Crags (left), Static Peak (middle), and Mount Richthofen (right).

Looking from the north ridge of Braddock into the Lake Agnes basin, framed by the Nokhu Crags (left), Static Peak (middle), and Mount Richthofen (right).

We continued around Braddock Mountain on nice singletrack, flanked by confetti-like fields of arnica, columbine, paintbrush, and clover. After going slightly off-course on Braddock’s north ridge, we started ascending a path which is marked as a trail, but felt more like bushwhacking through dense forest. It didn’t last long; up ahead was a clearing and the lake.

The incomparable Lake Agnes, one of the crowning jewels of this course.

The incomparable Lake Agnes, one of the crowning jewels of this course.

Pete posing dramatically at Lake Agnes.

Pete posing dramatically at Lake Agnes.

Lake Agnes is, truly, a spectacular location. Everyone who had the means was stopping to take pictures. I knew that Kristen was planning on being here, but we had been moving so fast that Kristen, Ryan, Silke, and Adam Chapman would arrive about 15 minutes after we left. We ran along the lake shore, down a talus field underneath the Nokhu Crags and to the Michigan Ditch road, a flat and fast dirt road alongside a wooden water diversion pipeline from many decades ago. Our RMR shirts were recognized by a few people who run regularly in Ft. Collins. As we trotted along, we discussed the possibility of setting up some kind of Ft. Collins vs Boulder rotating friendly-competitive race series. Even in the middle of a race, ultrarunners are still planning future runs! At the end of the road, we arrived at the Michigan Ditch aid station (18.6 km, 11.4 mi, 2:37:20) 35 minutes ahead of my goal pace and feeling great!

I filled both water flasks, ate some fruit, put on some sunscreen, and filled my gel flask with half VFuel gel and half water. From the aid station, we pushed uphill, now on the other side of the Nokhu Crags. For me, this was the most difficult climb so far. The surface was very rough and a stream of water wound through the rocks on the trail. Pete was ahead, hiking with Jessica Hamel, who would eventually place third among the women. Once on the ridge, the grade lessened and the views into the Michigan Lakes basin started. This is one of my favorite areas. Everything is so alive and expansive, sitting underneath Static Peak and the Crags.

The beautiful Michigan (or American) Lakes area, taken on a dayhike in 2011.  We saw three moose just off to the left soon after this was taken!

The beautiful Michigan (or American) Lakes area, taken on a hike in 2011. We saw three moose just off to the left soon after this was taken!

We climbed to the lake, meandered across the meadow and down another flowery slope to an old, disused road. Near the bottom, we saw the first hikers of the day starting up to the Michigan Lakes. It was getting a little warm on the sunny road, but soon enough, we climbed up to the highway and crossed over to Diamond aid station (29.3 km, 18 mi, 4:08:26). Kristen and Alberto greeted us and took care of procuring some food and water. I changed socks and shoes (Inov8 to the more stable Mammuts), while Kristen told me about her new friend (a Shiba Inu named Princess Leah) and Pete went through his dropbag and read a note from his girlfriend! I ate some fruit and and was happy to hear that the rest of the RMR party was hanging out at the top of Diamond Peak, waiting for us. With that, Alberto evicted us and we started along the highway en route to the peak.

Diamond to Clear Lake

Map - Sec 2The first part of this segment, 5 miles from Diamond to Montgomery, was what I was particularly worried about in this race. I was concerned that the climb to Diamond Peak, followed by the high altitude ridge, would do my legs in for the rest of the day. I had trained some for the steepness, but it was hard to simulate the placement on the course. I managed to get to mile 18 feeling reasonably fresh, which was important, but this climb still sat like a sphinx blocking my path to the rest of the race.

In a cruel twist, the mile marker on the highway, just as we exited the aid station, read “Mile 62.” 100 kilometers. It served as a reminder to Pete and me that we were only 18 miles in!

We turned off the highway and up Diamond Peak Road. Even though it wasn’t very hot, the sun was intense. Pete was hiking and eating, while I continued my plan of steady progress on the hills. Then… umm… drums?? Really? We both heard drums, so not a hallucination, but definitely odd! After a sharp right turn, we saw ahead the rest of the climb. A line of people snaked towards the summit and it looked very steep. The road changed directions, but the course flags marched straight up through the trail-less trees. Off we go: 1300 feet of gain in 3/4 of a mile!

I was trying to stay consistent and steady on this relentless grade. A guy in a red shirt told me that he helped scout the course and that the steepest part was almost done. Hmm. On my map, this ~40% grade continued, more or less unabated, until it started to round over the summit. At one point, Pete and I did find a trail, climbing up and to the right. Overly hopeful, we took it, then realized we were off course, as the markers had deftly avoided the trail, continuing straight up. Once above the trees, we could see much of the rest of the climb, which still looked very long. But soon we could see people standing on top and watching the slow parade. Then I could see Ryan’s yellow shorts gleaming like a beacon. Then green shirts. Finally, we were nearly there; Silke came out and walked with me the rest of the way, while Josh joked about having Jack to help pull him up. They had come up via the race route and Silke was very excited about this climb: “That’s Transalps steep! I love it!!”

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Yes, it’s steep. Photo by Adam Chapman, looking up toward the summit.

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The final steps of the climb up North Diamond Peak. Photo by Ryan Smith.

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Josh (pulled by Jack) hikes with Pete and Silke hikes with me. Photo by Ryan Smith.

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The RMR contingent hangs out at the summit of North Diamond Peak. Photo by Erin Bibeau Photography.

 

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The drummer at the top! Photo by Adam Chapman.

The final few steps were accompanied by… a drummer!! Someone had hauled his snare drum all the way up here and was tapping out a marching rhythm.

On the summit, everyone not running was vehemently asserting their desire to do this next year. Silke approved while I dealt with some developing hot-spots on my feet: “You’re practicing the Greg Salveson method of foot care [addressing it early], not the Ryan Smith method!” The view was beautiful; not only could we see south along Medicine Bow Ridge to the next aid station, but also almost the entire course!

A memorable quote from the summit: Josh asked “How are the trails?” to which Pete responded “We don’t know, we haven’t been on any yet!”

It was fun hanging around on the summit, but we were sent on our way by Ryan: “Well, boys, you can’t sit around here chatting all day!” Kea helped us get started down the ridge, toward a trail through the tundra that, like a mirage, entirely disappeared once we got closer. At Montgomery Pass, we were cheered by a hiker and her dog. Looking back south, Diamond Peak was still playing host to a line of ant-like people climbing up the steep ridge. A little bit more running and we turned down a road and quickly arrived at the Montgomery aid station (37.9 km, 23.2 mi) at 6:16:06, WAY ahead of my planned arrival of 7:02:00.

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The view south into Rocky Mountain National Park.

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Kea watches as we head out on Medicine Bow Ridge. Photo by Ryan Smith.

I was keeping up with my hydration and fueling pretty well so far, but my stomach was feeling a little off here. I suspected that it was due to the climb and altitude, so I wasn’t too worried when all I felt like eating was a couple pieces of watermelon. I drank some water and refilled my gel flask before we left. Pete stepped off to “visit the forest” while I continued down the road. The consistent running rhythm felt good; the longer I ran, the better I felt. Pete caught up 5 – 10 minutes later and we just had started talking about keeping an eye out for the right turn when we found the junction with the Ruby Trail. We made the turn and were surprised by a disembodied voice: “Good job, runners!” We found the source sitting on a chair in the trees and belonging, I guess, to the course marshall we were told would be stationed here.

The singletrack which descended the hill was pleasant initially, but after a creek crossing, we had to battle for progress. The route wasn’t easy to find or navigate. We went off course a few times, but never for very far and I was glad for the extra set of eyes. We couldn’t really see our feet or the ground much of the time and there was a lot of climbing over fallen trees. That said, however, no one is complaining about running through meadows of waist-high larkspur and lupine!

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The trail was mostly stomped down vegetation. Very hard to see the ground.

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Pete runs through waist-high wildflowers!

We got to Ruby-Jewel Road after about 45 minutes and shortly after, to the Ruby-Jewel aid station (47.7 km, 29.4 mi, 7:50:44), where we were expertly attended to by Kristen, Alberto, and Josh. Fruit, crackers, water, gel, and sunscreen were eaten, filled, or applied. Kristen put a chunk of ice in a cooling bandana and tied it around my neck. There was a hot and dusty 2 mile span between here and the resumption of the singletrack. After hanging around for 17:30 (our longest aid-station stay) and with Alberto trying for several minutes to chase us away, we started up. About 100 feet later, Alberto came running up with my poles, which I had left at the chair. He scolded me for stopping to wait for him: “Keep moving, keep moving! I will catch you!”

Just out of sight of the aid station, we arrived at a small parking area where a couple of SUVs were parked. People were piling into one and they were friendly and very chatty, asking how far we’ve gone and how our day is going. “Have you been up this road before?” one guy asked. When we said no, he told us that we were in for a tough trip. They soon passed us, leaving for us a cloud of dust and dirt. But, it wasn’t long before we saw them again; they and another 4WD had to stop to figure out the best way around an exposed boulder in the rutted-out road. Pete and I showed them how it was done: on foot! They never passed us again.

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The Hidden Valley trail, along the North Fork Canadian River, was a highlight of the course.

Finally, there it was: the singletrack of the Ruby-Jewel Trail! Off the dusty road and, immediately, a gloriously cold creek presented itself! Head, hat, shoulders, arms all got drenched and rinsed of dust. Feeling refreshed and newly energized, we moved on, found the Hidden Valley Trail, and quickly climbed to the crest of a minor ridge. We passed a few people on the short downhill and were moving well. We bottomed out in a wide hanging valley and started a gentle climb along the North Fork Canadian River.

This was one of the most scenic areas of the course. The valley was beautifully green and wildflowers were everywhere. The creek looked almost manicured; about 4 or 5 feet wide, with nicely-spaced rocks adding small cascades. And across the valley, the rock slopes climbed 2000 feet up to the Continental Divide. Pete said it best: “Colorado really is spectacularly beautiful!”

We left the green valley behind as we climbed up to the saddle overlooking Kelly Lake. Rocky and steep, this was much more of a test for our legs than the fairy-tale hanging valley below. When we arrived at the saddle, we both decided that we deserved a bit of a break. There were great views over Kelly Lake, which was a deep, intense blue. On the lake were several small inflatable rafts, each carrying a fisherman. In the distance, a craggy, rocky ridge separated us from Clear Lake, the final alpine lake on our course.

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Kelly Lake! At this point, we are just over halfway done.

Pete lay down and I thought he had fallen asleep. I was content to let him rest a a few minutes while I wandered around taking pictures. A couple who had been in the valley with us came by, gazed at the lake, then picked their way through the talus which marked the start of the descent. Pete roused and we followed them through the rocks. Then, Pete noticed that he was covered in sticky, sugary, goo: his gel flask wasn’t fully closed and had leaked all over (“Goo-gate,” as he called it). Good thing there weren’t a lot of bugs.

After the talus, the descent followed a steep grass and flower slope. At the lakeshore, we found the crew filtering water and working the ham radio. I filled my 750 mL flask with cold lake water. Yum!

The descent from here was mixed. In its favor, it was generally pleasant singletrack through wildflowers without any major steep sections and many cooling, mostly-straightforward creek crossings. It was tainted, however, first by my left IT band starting to grumble, and second by a crash I took, followed by an intense cramp in my right calf. Sometimes, this leads to lingering pain; here, fortunately, after a few minutes, all was well and we continued running down the trail. Near the bottom, just before we met the road, we entered a forest of very old-growth aspens. They were huge and running through them was a treat!

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Pete and I running through the aspen forest near the Clear Lake aid station. Gotta look good for the camera! Photo by Ryan Smith.

We turned sharply right on the road and began catching and passing people again, including the couple who had gone by us above Kelly Lake. Then, ahead, a guy in a green shirt with bright yellow shorts! Ryan said the aid station was just around the corner and he was going to run ahead and get some pictures. We couldn’t look like we were taking it too easy, so we tried to look good while he snapped away from his perch on top of a rock. We arrived at the Clear Lake aid station (64.2 km, 39.5 mi) at 11:12:07, having spent just over 3 hours (3:04) on those 10 miles since Ruby-Jewel.

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Meeting the group at Clear Lake aid station. Photo by Ryan Smith.

Running with Silke – Clear Lake to Canadian Yurt

Map - Sec 3aAt Clear Lake, we picked up two more. Silke (pacing me) and Adam (pacing Pete) were ready to go. In addition to them, Ryan, Josh, and Alberto were all there, helping out, while Kea was trying to get into the bacon they were cooking. Silke warned me that the water at this station tasted funny, so both bottles got a mix of water and VFuel; I really wanted clean, cold water again instead of vaguely sweet stuff, but I didn’t think that funny-tasting water would go down well. I had been doing well on fruit thus far, so I continued with that. Josh said that we only had about 20 miles to go and, somehow, this seemed like a manageable distance. I knew that if I could make it here, I could ride the enthusiasm of those running with me and make it to the finish. For the first time all day, I allowed myself to think about finishing instead of compartmentalizing my day.

First things first, though; an out and back to Clear Lake, which sat 2.25 miles away and 1290 feet up. The four of us started uphill; at first it was steep, but then changed to a gently rolling trail. Pete called out from in front of me that we’d have more uphill on the return than he thought. I was feeling okay on this climb. I was enjoying the extra company, which now made it feel like a regular weekend RMR run. Pete, however, was suffering. The trail turned steeper and he started having stomach trouble. Silke and I stayed with Pete and Adam for a few minutes before he was ready to go on. A little bit further, we came to the lake.

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Clear Lake and its lovely setting. Kelly Lake is just over the ridge to the right.

Set into a bowl of grass and flowers surrounded by steep rocky walls, Clear Lake was a great point for an out-and-back trip. Each lake we visited was uniquely beautiful: Lake Agnes had its mirror smooth surface reflecting the sunrise, deep blue Kelly Lake was looked down on from above, and Clear Lake materialized in a dramatic cirque at the top of a tough, rocky climb. And who did we find? RMR “La Sportiva” Mike Genauer and his wife Katie! They had been camping here, giving out Hello, Kitty! stickers to prove that runners made it to the lake. Their energetic dog Sadie was bouncing around and Mike was wearing a children’s unicorn pool floatie. We rested a few minutes, then began the trip back.

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“Rocks, rocks, rocks!” The rough trail to Clear Lake. Photo by Gnar Runners in 2014.

My knee was really hurting. The rocky trail was just what it didn’t need. Pete and Adam ran on while I walked, slightly discouraged, to try to loosen up. Then, I heard Silke behind me, in a sing-song voice: “Rocks, rocks rocks!” I couldn’t help but smile. This was exactly why I wanted her to run with me at that point. I knew I would be feeling the distance and could be having a rough time. I also knew that later, in the dark, Alberto would be pushing me hard; determination and adrenaline would get me through the finish. Right now, I didn’t want to kill the course. Instead, I needed to love running; I needed to be separate from the knee pain, the tired legs, the exhausted brain, and “be present,” enjoying the scenery, the flowers, the trees, the woods, everything I love about running on trails. Silke accomplishes this perfectly. She approaches running with all the joy of a child in a sandbox and her effervescent energy is completely contagious. She could easily play the part of singularly-focused taskmaster; she’s one of the best runners I know. Now, though, it was her unique joie de vivre for the run that provided the boost I needed. And, as soon as I had negotiated the steepest, rockiest parts of the trail, I started running and felt happy doing it.

We passed lots of people on their was up to the lake; most were in good spirits and said good job or way to go. We saw Charity, who rode with Kristen and me from our cabins to the start more than 12.5 hours ago. It wasn’t long before we caught up with Pete and Adam. They were now hiking and I stopped and walked with them shortly before deciding to move on. We wished them luck and continued running. I felt good and was able to run most or all of the short uphills. We arrived back at the Clear Lake aid station, now at 72.8 km (43.9 mi), at 12:57:49. All of the other RMR had run back down and would be waiting either at the finish or at the Canadian Yurt station 6.5 miles on. Silke grabbed some fruit and a few salted potatoes for me and, while I was eating those, prepared a small bowl of fruit, a couple saltines, and some more potatoes for the trip. Also while I was eating, Pete and Adam arrived and quickly left again (Silke said they “ninja-ed away”).

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The view from the Clear Lake Trail, just downhill from the aid station. Photo by Gnar Runners in 2014.

We started walking down the hill; eating on the move isn’t easy for me and my throat was having a harder time being convinced that solid food, other than fruit, should be allowed passage. It was slow but after about 15 minutes, we were running again. We passed Jeremy Ebel, who was wearing a wig, I think, and a friend on their way up to the Clear Lake station. He said that a couple of RMR were just a few minutes ahead and I resolved that catching them by the next aid station would be a goal of mine. Gotta set your sights on something and friends are as good as anything!

The trail rolled along, rising and falling in small, manageable bits. I was able to run most of it. At Kelly Creek, we both decided that, for some reason, crossing at the trail wasn’t the best plan. We bushwhacked about 20 feet downstream and, while we found a narrow spot to cross, the continuous battle with the thick brush and branches convinced us that this may have been a mistake. Even with my poles for support, I slipped off a rock and ended up standing in the creek. So much for a better crossing spot! Finally, we hacked back uphill, through the brush and got back to the trail.

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After the sharp left turn, the Clear Lake Trail turned into smooth singletrack, rolling up and down and weaving in and out of the forest. Photo by Gnar Runners in 2014.

Then there were the cows. And maybe something else out there, too? A little way past the creek adventure, we both heard a sound that was more vuvuzela (the obnoxious South African horns that blared the whole way through the World Cup) than cow. We weren’t close to an aid station, so probably not an actual horn. Moose? Elk? No, instead, we settled on Sasquatch as the most likely source. It was coming from the trees ahead, so maybe we would meet our mysterious noisy monster! But as we headed into the woods, the sounds always migrated to a new position and were never very close. No Sasquatch sightings… this year.

But the cows. There were a lot of cows out there. We heard them, as well as seeing the evidence of their presence left behind on the trail. At one point, we came to a small fenced-in pasture with a single cow in it. The gate was open and a poorly-hung strand of wire was all that kept her in. As we approached closer, she turned and watched us go by, always facing us. I heard a sound back and to my left and saw Silke about 20 – 30 feet off the trail. I don’t think she likes cows! I mooed at her (the cow) as we went by and we (Silke and I) then had a conversation about how Yves, who now represents our group in France, said that’s all you need to do: look at them and say “Moo!” Maybe all cows moo in French, because this one showed no particular reaction, other than to continue to turn and watch us jog away. A little creepy!

We continued running along and the sun moved lower, eventually filling the forest with a beautiful golden glow. I was enjoying this section and still moving okay, but I was running out of gas. My knee was constantly hurting and my feet were soaking wet from the creek. In my head, I was going to be able to change shoes and socks at the upcoming aid station (more on that in a minute). We were close. We got to a road and saw Pete and Adam! We caught up to them at a small rise in the road and we entered the Canadian Yurt aid station (82.3 km, 51.1 mi, 14:45:58) almost as a group of four again, only one minute apart.

Running with Alberto – Canadian Yurt to the Finish

Map - Sec 3bKristen and Ryan were there, as was Alberto, who was ready to run. As I walked into the aid station with Kristen, I asked her about changing shoes and socks. She said that she thought they were for the next aid station. I remembered later that she was right; we had decided that, based on the pre-race info from the organizers, she should bring them to Bockman (the next aid station) instead. She looked stricken and offered to go back to the car, a 1.2 mile hike away, to get them. My need wasn’t that bad and Alberto told her that it was only 5.5 more miles to the next one. We’d get through just fine! I sat down and, as Alberto got me some food, Silke took off my shoes and socks, dried my feet with her shirt, and put Vaseline all over my feet! Then, Ryan took off his socks and gave them to me. This was all pretty amazing! Alberto started undressing me, literally; he took off my hat, sunglasses, cooling bandana, and jacket, saying “You don’t need this, you don’t need this, this, or this anymore!” I gave my camera and poles to Kristen, as I wouldn’t need them anymore either. I knew what was coming up with Alberto. He grabbed a cup of fruit for the trail and we started out.

I walked a short distance to loosen up and then started jogging. Pete and Adam had left just before us and we caught them quickly; we went by them with Alberto saying “Super-fast runner on your left!” Not sure about that! About 20 minutes in, we turned on our headlamps and followed the route of reflective ribbons and glow-sticks.

The 5.5 miles to the Bockman aid station consisted of a gradual 900 ft climb, then a steeper road and trail descent. I had anticipated hiking nearly the entire distance to the road, but felt pretty good as I was jogging along, so we continued to do a fair bit of running uphill. When I wasn’t running, Alberto handed me the cup of fruit and I ate and hiked (fruit was very easy to get down while walking). The rule was we would run the flats and downhill and hike or run the uphill. We stuck to it pretty well. Alberto pointed out that I was still running uphill after more than 50 miles and reminded me how far we’ve come since our first ultra (“At our first one, we didn’t know anything!!”).

As the forest got more dense, it got dark quickly. Occasionally, even though there hadn’t been any forks in the path, Alberto would run ahead and behind to check on route markings. Then at one point, we came up behind someone hiking in a blanket. Alberto told me that his name was Ted, he was using Alberto’s headlamp, and that he had received oxygen at the aid station. Shortly after that, we met someone hiking in the other direction, who identified herself as a medic and Ted’s wife. Alberto broke off to talk with her, telling me “I’ll catch up. Don’t stop and don’t slow down!” Believe it or not, Ted ended up finishing!

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The Lumberjack Trail. North Diamond Peak is visible just left of center. Nice views if you get them in the light. We passed through in the dark. Photo by Gnar Runners in 2014.

The downhill section on the road was rough for me. My knee had tolerated the uphill, but the downhill was killer. Alberto stayed positive, saying “Easy, relax, just baby steps and let gravity do the work!” We turned left onto the Lumberjack Trail and started the final 1.25 miles to the aid station. This trail was rougher than the road, but the excitement of being within 10 miles of the finish was now pushing me along and we started passing people. Alberto pointed out that these people came through the last aid station 20 – 30 min before me, which was nice to hear. We cruised along, moving well, and finally ran into Bockman (91.1 km, 55.9 mi) at 16:18:03, 1:17:49 after leaving Canadian Yurt. According to the official race splits, I was the 23rd fastest (of 150) for that segment; Alberto is doing his job well!

In the aid station, Kristen put my down jacket around me as soon as I walked into the aid station. She had also brought my shoes and socks! It was a good suggestion to not change shoes at Canadian Yurt; there were enough creek crossings in the last 5.5 miles to make my feet very wet again and Ryan’s socks were fully soaked. She helped me change socks and shoes and now everything was dry. Ahh! I got some broth and a few noodles from the station and Kristen supplemented it with more noodles. I ate some fruit and was working on the noodles when Alberto started trying hard to get me moving; he was getting concerned that my knee would tighten up and be trouble. He was right. I left the aid station in great pain. He kept trying to convince me that after a little walking, a minute of jogging will help it! It took some mental effort, but we started running.

From the aid station to the finish, it was 8.4 miles. Alberto had been counting down from 10 miles out: “The countdown, Ben, it has started! We’re getting closer!” Not long after leaving, I told him that I had no plans to stop at the next aid station, Ranger Lakes, which was only 2.2 from the finish. Of course, he agreed immediately!

He said that we would finish before midnight. “I promised Kristen a same-day finish!” He told me that we were in a good position for that, but that we would have to keep moving well, so that became the overall plan: a finish in 18:30 hours or less.

We turned left onto Grass Creek Road and began a long, gentle climb. My knee was not doing well, and Alberto would point out a tree ahead and say “We will run until that tree. Control your mind! The suffering is all in your head!” We would see a light ahead and Alberto would say “There is your next target! Let’s go!” We passed about 5 people on this climb. When we would hike, I would eat fruit that he had brought along: watermelon, cantaloupe, and grapes. I was suffering, but still moving and he was relentlessly positive.

We arrived at the water drop (96 km, 59.1 mi, 17:10:51) and he suggested that I might try the pineapple-flavored coconut water that Kristen had put into one of my water flasks. As soon as it touched my lips, I knew I was in trouble. I spit it out but my stomach was in revolt at the slightest hint of that much sweetness. Soon after the water drop, I was kneeling on the side of the trail; nothing ever came up, but it was close and there was lots of coughing and hacking. A minute or so later, everything was fine and we continued fighting up the hill.

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Remnants of rough logging roads above the final climb. This was hard in the dark. I had just about had it at this point! Photo by Gnar Runners in 2014.

Grass Creek Road had been smooth and gentle. What came next was the polar opposite. It wasn’t a proper road, nor a proper trail. It was probably a very old and disused road which, in the span of time since its creation, had become covered in a semi-squishy pine-needle mulch. Add in round, roller rocks, stumps, ruts, trunks, branches, and new baby evergreen trees, and tilt it all back to a grade of 14-15%. And then do it in the dark. Looking at the map, this section is so much shorter than Grass Creek Road, but felt much, much longer. Even Alberto, at one point, said: “I agree, Ben, this climb sucks!” My headlamp sent out a “warning flash,” meaning I had about 15 min of full power left before it went into emergency lighting mode. Had I been able to think more clearly, I would have turned the intensity down, but that didn’t happen. It went into emergency mode just after we topped out on the climb, after 15 minutes of eternity on the rough stuff.

Before the trail went downhill, it traversed the hillside on more of this very difficult terrain. I was trying to run, but found myself losing my footing or tripping. I was ready to be done. Just to add a little more insult, I tripped over a stump and my right calf locked up again, this time lingering a bit longer. I didn’t allow myself much walking though; I expected the trail to start downhill anytime. Anytime now… Oh, come on!! “When the f$*# will it go downhill?!” I finally yelled out. “Soon, Ben, soon! We are so close!” came Alberto’s reply. He was now running ahead of me, giving me someone to chase. It was working; we were passing people on this traverse. FINALLY, the terrain tipped down, the road smoothed out, and we were on it: the homestretch.

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The descent to the highway. Less than 3 miles to go! Photo by Gnar Runners in 2014.

With about 2.5 miles left, my headlamp finally died. I had brought my spare battery, but hadn’t actually grabbed it from Kristen at any point. Alberto gave me the one he was running with, which happened to be Ryan’s NAO, which puts out enough light for several people to use. Finally, we saw the lights of the aid station. We ran through Ranger Lakes (101.1 km, 62.8 mi) at 18:01:47 and saw Kristen and Silke. Kristen gave Alberto my old headlamp, which puts out just a weak glow but enough for him to continue running in front of me. It was now 11:35 PM with 2.2 miles left. In my planning, I had budgeted 26 minutes as a goal for this very last section. I’d have to go faster.

Alberto yelled at me to “keep running, don’t slow down!” As we passed the aid station table, where Kristen says they were drinking the beer that they had been offering to runners, Alberto called out to the volunteers: “He’s not stopping, this is number 7, thank you for being out here!” I was directed across the highway, told it was all downhill, and began the last 2.2 miles.

They were tough. At one point, the trail wasn’t going exactly downhill (but probably not uphill) and I told Alberto that they were all liars back there. He told me that it didn’t matter; we just take it and go. The downhill slope wasn’t enough to really allow gravity to pull me along; I had to run. My knee felt like it was about to blow up and Alberto tried to keep up a positive banter from ahead of me as he pushed the pace. These were two very long miles, but we finally turned the corner into the Gould Community Center parking lot. He saw our car and Alberto said “Look who’s here, Ben! She will be very proud of you!”

The finish line was decorated in strands of Christmas lights. I ran toward it and saw Kristen, Ryan, and Silke standing just on the other side. Alberto darted off to the right and I crossed the line at 18:22:59, good enough for 53rd place (197 starters, 147 finishers). It was 11:57 PM. Alberto delivered on his promise!

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Finishing! Photo by Kristen Barthel.

 

The Aftermath

I crossed the line and immediately sat down on the ground and Silke draped a blanket around me. Eventually, we migrated into the Community Center. I was hobbling badly now. We sat down at a table and rehashed parts of the course and race with Chris, Josh, and Adam St. Pierre. Silke brought some hot chocolate while Kristen provided me some ramen. Josh suggested some kind of peanut butter thing, maybe between rice cakes, I don’t really remember. I do remember thinking that wouldn’t end well.

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In the Community Center with Silke and Alberto. Thanks! Photo by Kristen Barthel.

As we were sitting there, Pete and Adam Chapman walked through the door. Pete finished in 18:50:49. And with that, it was time for bed!

The next morning, we received our finisher’s awards: a pine branch engraved with the Never Summer logo. Nick, who had finished third overall, received the unique award of a hatchet with the logo engraved on the wooden handle. We were also given breakfast, as were spectators and crew!

Final Thoughts

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Some of the RMR who ran the race, with our primary doggie mascot! Photo by Kristen Barthel.

I loved this race and this course. Besides being endlessly beautiful, the terrain was so varied. Never were you mired in the forest or stuck on a ridge for countless miles. There was never any time to get tired of any one type of terrain before, as Monty Python would say: “And now, for something completely different.” I felt that the challenge of the distance and climbing (ultimately 104 km and ~14,500 ft of climbing) was made EASIER by the ever-changing variety that we encountered and constant “looking forward” to the next beautiful summit or alpine lake. I was never bored and, even in my darkest moments late in the race, never once questioned the wisdom of signing up. While there were some instances where I was suffering or in pain, I never felt like I didn’t want to be out there.

Really, everything came together right for me. Some of the credit for this goes to learning with each race I’ve done; pacing, hydration, and fueling. This is a sport that, I bet, even seasoned veterans would say that you never really master. There’s always something to learn and I like that.

And there are always plenty of people in RMR from whom to learn! I believe that the majority of my enjoyment of the race is due to the company with which I spent the day. I never once thought that I would run with someone else for every single second of this race. I enjoyed every one of 43 miles that Pete and I ran together; the backcountry views were made more rich by sharing! Then, Silke and Alberto each brought something unique to my race: Silke ensured that I continued to love the running I was doing, in spite of feeling tired and injured, and Alberto convinced me to embrace the suffering, digging deeper and finishing stronger than I would have otherwise. Ryan, Josh, and Adam provided company and support which, especially at the top of Diamond Peak, was immensely appreciated.

I look forward to being out there again next year. Without a doubt, this was a challenging, but fulfilling first 100k! It was rugged. It was remote. It was a true mountain race!

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