The Never Summer 100k Story — July 23, 2016
A few months before I tackled the Never Summer 100 Kilometer Ultra Marathon I met a friend in a coffee shop — figured I’d tell him about my upcoming adventure and maybe get a little encouragement.
Our conversation did not go as expected:
Me: “I’m gonna run an ultra marathon in the Rockies — a 100k.”
Him: "That's crazy. Why?
Me: “I do some of my best thinking and de-stressing when I get away from civilization. Running through the wilderness clears my mind."
Him: “Yeah? Well I do my best thinking in the shower. But I've never had the urge to shower for 18 hours straight. And, I think it's important to mention that there's zero chance I'll be eaten by a mountain lion in my shower."
Me: "More people slip and die in showers than get eaten by mountain lions."
Him: “That's because billions of people shower every day. Statistically, a few of them are bound to die in there. Trust me when I say this: Mountain lions are more dangerous than showers."
Me: "Well I'm planning to run an ultra-marathon and then shower afterwards, so I'm going to live completely on the edge."
Him: "You're an idiot."
For my assault on ultra-running "glory," I chose to race the reputedly terrifying Never Summer 100k in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. After all, at the age of 51, I only have so many grand adventures left — so make them count, I figure.
My friend, Nick Clark, the Never Summer race director, was said to have created one of the most diabolically challenging, yet beautiful 100k ultra marathons in the U.S. Lore had it that the course assaulted every mountain, river crossing, swampy bog, downed tree, and granite boulder-field in the Never Summer Mountain range.
And for desert Nick added four bonus kilometers to the end of the course.
But I was ready for all of it. During the past 4 months I had run thousands of miles in heat, over mountains, and even through bee stings, to ensure that I would be ready for today.
At least that’s how I felt until I walked to the Never Summer 100k start line. There, in the dark, in the cold, huddled together with 300 nervous ultra runners, I stared transfixed at the distant silhouette of the soaring, untamed sawtooth mountain peaks of the Never Summer Range and realized that at some point during the day I was going to be out there alone trying to follow a barely noticeable trail through the wilderness — probably in the dark.
This was serious business.
Suddenly, all I could think about was my impending failure and humiliation -- and getting eaten by a mountain lion.
The last time — the only other time — I had attempted to run a 100 kilometer race — a year before at the Cuyamaca 100k in Southern California — the race nearly killed me. I ran hard and competitively for about 15 miles before a lingering case of Bronchitis made the day something approaching how I presume the conditions are in hell.
And then I got lost.
The ensuing death-march back to the start line took a 4 miserable hours and my successful arrival back at whence I started was made possible solely because Laura, my wife, had been racing in the same race and had caught up to me. She then sacrificed her race to drag my no-longer-functioning person back to the start line.
That day still haunted me as I stood at the start line this morning.
So for today Laura gave me very simple advice. "Run slowly and don't get lost."
I intended to obey.
5:30 a.m.: … and we’re off.
As race starts go, the start lines at Ultra Marathons are quite understated. While big city marathons have countdown clocks and PA announcers, its sometimes hard to know when an ultra has started.
In this case someone might have said "go" to a few guys near the start line.
When the crowd of runners began shoving me in the direction of the mountains, it occurred to me that the race might have started. When I saw a few fast guys sprint off the front, it seemed at least a few people had been alerted to the start of the race.
The rest of us left the start area at a relaxed jog. A long, very gradual uphill fire road, provided what should have been a nice relaxed start to the race.
But just a mile into the race, I found myself working too hard. Gasping, I had a hard time convincing the thin mountain air to enter my lungs, which meant that my legs began to burn, which meant that most of the field ran by like I was the only person not on the airport conveyer belt.
Two miles into the 64 mile race, I took my first walk break.
“I’m going to be running alone in the dark,” I thought despondently.
6:10 a.m. — Mile 4.3, Seven Utes Aid Station, about 62 miles to go.
After refilling a bottle at the aid station and setting out again, the course changed dramatically. What had been a gradual, runnable uphill became a steep, uneven, snaking single track.
"Ugh," I thought. "Nothing like running up a mountain, feeling like garbage 60 miles from the finish line."
Looking for the proverbial port in a storm, I decided to disentangle my trekking poles from the indecipherable bungee strapping system that “secured” the poles to my hydration pack.
Unholstering my poles was a decision not made lightly. Once these poles were released I’d be carrying them for the next 62 miles, and I knew from past experience that there was no way I’d be able to reattach them. After a few hours of running, I would lose the manual dexterity and clearness of mind to stretch, twist, and insert the various stretchy and plastic thingies comprising the complicated “trekking pole attachment system” — a system which has remarkable similarities to those maddening twisted metal puzzles my parents would give me as Christmas stocking stuffers.
Reluctantly, I released the poles.
Immediately, my frustrations and fears vanished. After doing many of my long training runs with trekking poles over the last three months, I had become reliant on them for maintaining a comfortable running rhythm and for helping me handle the extra 10 or so pounds of liquids and gear in my backpack. After a few minutes of using the poles, I felt better. Much better.
As we climbed this first real mountain, the bare granite teeth of what I presumed was Mount Lulu loomed a couple of valleys to the east. The sun was still rising behind this granite mass, creating a spectacular sunrise — though if you allowed your imagination some leeway, the ragged mountain scene looked like the glow emanating from a hideous Halloween pumpkin — like a bottom row of serrated teeth with fire shining through them.
I opted to view it as a beautiful sunrise.
Up we climbed — over Seven Utes Mountain, down into a deep wooded valley, skipping over a rocky single-track descent and back up onto an exposed ridge-line above Lake Agnes, a small lake sitting like a gleaming jewell in a granite-cliff setting. The scenery during he first couple hours was so spectacular and the trails so manageable that running became nearly joyful.
8:00 a.m.: Mile 11.4.
Michigan Ditch Aid Station — 2800 vertical feet of climbing done. 11,200 feet of ascent and 52.6 miles to go.
Interestingly, as a helpful volunteer refilled my hydration pack, I looked at my watch and realized that despite being well back from the front of the race, I was on pace to finish in under 15 hours — about an hour faster than the winning time in my age group the previous year.
Some guy named Todd Nott, a stud from Nebraska had crushed this race in about 16 hours last year. Todd and the other competitive runners were probably 30 minutes ahead of me by now, but, even accounting for what was certain to be a major slowdown as I grew increasingly weary during the day, I was well ahead of the pace necessary to meet the 23 hour cutoff to qualify for entry into the 2017 Western States 100 lottery — another of my humble time goals.
Knowing that I wasn't yet in danger of missing any time cutoffs allowed me to relax. There was no need to rush the day.
Taking time to spin 360 degrees to view the scenery, I whacked a volunteer with my trekking pole — like they do in a Three Stooges routine. I apologized profusely and then headed out of the aid station with one less person rooting for me to finish.
9:45 a.m.: Mile 18.
Diamond Aid Station — 3800 feet of climbing completed. 10,200 feet of climbing and 46 miles to go.
Chugging into the Diamond aid station at a slow trot, poles clicking out a rhythm on a section of paved road, I spotted my Laura on the side of the course. Her pretty smile made me feel about 10% less tired than I was.
“Hi Sugar! How’s it going? She asked. “You need anything? I have your new bottles. I’m parked on the other side of the aid station, so keep running until you see the truck.”
Laura kindly did not mention how far back I was in the pack of runners — because, clearly, I was nearer to the rear than the front. As a seasoned running coach, she knew better than to share negative information with someone who had nearly 50 miles of running ahead of him.
“Sounds great!” I said feigning energy and optimism. “I’m gonna stop in this toilet shack. I’ll meet you at the car.”
The luxury of sitting was not lessened by the aroma of the unpleasant stuff bathing in the blue chemical pool at the bottom of the toilet hole. In ultra running, it's important to learn to appreciate the small things and to ignore the less pleasant things -- otherwise you'd stop running a long way from the finish.
But as my butt attempted to bid adieu to the toilet seat, I didn't appreciate the stiffness I felt in my legs. I was only a quarter of the way through the race and the tough terrain was still ahead.
After reloading my water bottles and hydration pack, I kissed Laura goodbye. From here, the rugged wilderness would swallow us so completely that I wouldn’t see her again until mile 50 -- 32 miles from here.
|I'm totally faking this smile. Mount Lulu (in the background) is done, though.|
I wanted badly to make her proud — to show her that her 51 year-old husband could finish one of the toughest 100k’s in the U.S.
But I was worried.
As I jogged out of the aid station, the next climb loomed.
From mile 18 to mile 21, the course tilts vertically to the top of Diamond Peak. At times, the percentage grade of this climb exceeds 35 degrees at nearly 12,000 feet elevation.
The 3-mile long Diamond Peak climb began mildly on a gravel fire road, a moderately steep road that had most of us mixing light running with hiking. Because a group of us departed the aid station simultaneously, we were a couple dozen runners making the climb together.
I was running near Larry, a joyful, gregarious, super-fit guy in his 60’s. Larry was in high spirits, making jokes and telling stories.
Pulling up alongside me, he asked how I was doing. “I’m OK I guess. A little worried about this climb, but so far so good.”
“Well… you know what they say about racing ultras….” he began.
“I don’t know anything about running ultras,” I confessed, spilling my guts like I was strapped to a chair confessing to a CIA interrogator holding a pair of pliers. “If I finish this thing, it’ll be my first 100k and a major miracle.”
Larry continued, “Well…then, let me give you some advice. A friend of mine Ray Zahab says that 90% of ultra running is mental…” then he paused, like he was considering whether to share the rest of this top secret information with me.
I bit. “So what’s the other 10%?”
“…the other 10%… is MENTAL!”
“Bahhaahaaa!” Larry laughed so loud it was as though his own punch line surprised him.
But you had to appreciate a guy who could entertain a crowd death-marching up a 12,000 foot high mountain.
Unfortunately, the light-hearted part of the race was about to end. What had been a steep hill became steeper. What was light banter turned into labored gasping.
The course markings veered from the trail. In fact, the trail disappeared. We were now hiking through the woods.
No one ran. Many of us were fighting gravity by grabbing trees and bushes, yanking ourselves up the mountain.
When we finally broke out of the woods, a spectacular sight appeared — we could see the top of Diamond Peak. Unfortunately, this giant dome shaped mountain was still far above us — way farther above us than I had imagined.
And plainly, that was where we were heading — because trudging up this giant, incredibly steep slope for the next mile was a line of ant-sized people wearing race numbers.
|The Never Summer Elevation Chart. I should have spent more time studying this before I signed up.|
I was stunned and disheartened. But Larry, who had dropped back a few yards, was still cheerleading and cracking jokes — like today was the greatest day ever.
As I started up the wall that was Diamond Peak, the incline was so steep that when I planted my trekking poles, my arms were fully extended above my head, like a guy surrendering to the enemy — which seemed appropriate.
Against all expectations however, going-steep-uphill suited me. I caught people. One or two of them might have been in my age group.
I wasn’t fast by any measure, but I was managing a steady trudge.
Near the top of the climb, we were greeted by a howling wind and a gaggle of enthusiastic volunteers. The wind whipped the sweat off my body and I shivered badly as I hiked past a guy cheering us and playing music on a boom box.
The music sounded strange — like the pull of the wind was stretching and bending the sound sideways. Ironically, the lyrics to the song on the boom box went: “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.”
I wanted to rock and roll.
At the top, a volunteer directed me to touch a pole or a rock or something that marked my arrival at the summit. At this point, I checked my watch to see what this climb had done to my average pace. The last mile had taken 35 minutes.
At this pace, it would take a person about 36 hours to finish this race. And considering that the finish line was going to be packed up and gone at hour 24, I needed to get to running.
Shivering from the cool wind blasting through my sweat soaked shirt, I turned 90 degrees, spotted a flag in the ground and began trotting downhill towards the next aid station, just a couple miles away.
From a distance this looked like the kind of wide open field you might run with reckless abandon — like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. But if you made one bad foot plant on one of the scattered piles of loose granite, the next body part to strike ground would almost certainly not be a foot.
Cautiously, I ran a zig, zag course downhill. At least five guys passed me on this section, including one guy who was clearly in my age group.
I watched, jealous of their confidence — until one of the runners tripped and bounced downhill for a few seconds before rolling to a painful and bloody stop.
Not one to ignore an omen, I slowed down and got real. Falling here could end my day. And whether I got down this mountain a couple minutes faster or slower wasn’t going to change the fact that we still had over 45 miles to run.
11:35 a.m. Mile 23.2: Montgomery Aid Station. 6600 feet of climbing complete, 7400 feet of climbing and 41 miles to go.
Arriving at the Montgomery Aid Station, my friend, famed ultra-runner, race-director and all-around nice guy, Nick Clark, greeted the survivors of the Diamond Peak adventure. I suspected he may have volunteered for this aid station because he sadistically wanted to witness the PTSD caused by the Diamond Peak death-march/death-plummet — because that’s what I would have done.
Nick spotted me as I stumbled up to the tent. In his clipped English accent, he shouted “Hey Steve! You made it! How’s it going?”
“I’m OK. Still moving,” I said, bending over at the waist from fatigue and resting my palms on my knees. “Who’s the jerk who put that ridiculous mountain in the race? I’d like to give him a piece of my mind,” I said with mock seriousness.
Nick chuckled mischieviously.
“Here, let me fill up your hydration pack.”
Handing Nick the pack, I leaned against my trekking poles for a minute while a legendary ultra-runner refilled my humble hydration bladder.
Nick and I had met years ago on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua. Nick was there to race the Fuego y Agua 100k. I was there to run the 50k with Laura and to make sure she didn’t get lost in the jungle, attacked by monkeys or eaten by pythons — not that I had any survival skills qualifying me for that job.
Laura had known Nick and his wife since 2011, having met them at the Western States 100 miler, one of, if not the preeminent ultra on the planet, where he had finished 3rd in both 2011 and 2012.
In Nicaragua, on a stunningly hot, brutal jungle course that climbed up and into a volcano, Nick had won the 100k race while Laura had finished 2nd in the 50k. Our friendship was cemented when the only two ferries providing transportation from Ometepe Island to mainland Nicaragua collided into each other in a stunning display of give-a-shit seamanship. Both ferries were disabled, stranding all of us on the island for a couple days of boozing and pizza.
I had the distinct impression that Nick had taken some inspiration from the Fuego y Agua course in routing the race I was running today. And if that was true, things weren’t going to get easier.
Unfortunately, being a world class ultra-runner, Nick was highly skilled at the art of filling hydration packs and he returned with my hydration pack before I caught my breath.
“How’s the heat out there?” Nick asked.
“I’m not feeling any heat, Nick. But then I’ve been a little distracted by the giant mountains and the 12,000 feet of elevation. Why? Are people saying that its hot?”
“Yeah, it’s hot out here. People are suffering. Keep drinking. You have a downhill to the Ruby Jewel aid station. Just make sure you fill up your bottles before you leave there. The section after Ruby is going to be hot and technical, and it’s 10 miles to the next aid station after Ruby Jewel.”
“Got it. Thanks Nick.”
He handed me my pack, gave me quick pat on the back and waved goodbye as I headed off down the hill.
“Good luck,” I heard him shout.
Perhaps it was the short break or seeing a familiar, smiling face, but running out of this aid station, my mental state changed for the better. I was emotionally recharged and added “make Nick proud” to my list of reasons why I needed to finish this race.
For the next three miles, dropping from over 11,000 feet to about 9,500 feet in about 30 minutes, I ran like someone who meant business, catching and passing a number of guys who seemed to be feeling the heat.
At the base of the downhill, I caught a couple young guys from Ohio. They were discussing the unfortunate difference between the plentiful oxygen available at the elevation in Ohio and whatever substance it was that they were attempting to inhale in the Never Summer Mountain range.
Apparently, breathing (or rather not-breathing) was becoming an issue for the guys.
With the Ohio guys a few yards behind me, the course veered into an open field. The trail became a waist-high rut with walls of tall grass on either side of the trail. Clearly the race leaders or a highly organized herd of Moose (Mooses? Meece?) had trampled the grass.
“Man,” I heard from behind me. “It’s a good thing we’re not winning this race. I’m not sure how the leader found the course.”
I said, “Yeah, just so you guys know, I can’t see a course flag up ahead, so I I’m just following the trampled grass. For all I know, I’m following Moose tracks into a valley where we will never be found again.”
“Watch your footing.” The bigger guy warned. “I just stepped in a gopher hole.”
“Log!” I shouted, jumping over a tree laying across what I assumed was the trail. From the elevation map, I thought we’d be able to make time on this section, but clearly that wasn’t in the cards.
For the next 2 miles my Ohio pals and I ran, jumped and stumbled along a random collection of fields, narrow trails, stream crossings and log jumps on our way to the Ruby Jewell aid station. But for all the annoyance of having to run nature’s Steeplechase, it was great to have found company and some light conversation to make the time go by.
But it wouldn’t last — the conversation, that is.
1:00 p.m. Mile 29.4 — Ruby Jewell Aid Station. 7200 feet of climbing done, 6800 feet of climbing and 34.6 miles to go.
After running the last couple miles with my new acquaintances, I was alone again. My running compadres were dehydrated, wearing down and decided to spend some quality time at the aid station. The last I saw them, they were relaxing in camp-chairs, being feted like ancient Egyptian royalty by the volunteers.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous. But I finally had some momentum and I needed to make it as far as possible before darkness fell.
And so I headed out onto the stretch of the race course that was reputedly the most rugged and the furthest from civilization. According to the course map, it would be 10 miles before I arrived at the next aid station — which was why I was carrying 2.5 liters of water, a water filter (in case things got grim and I had to drink out of a stream or lake), gummy bears, Bonk Bars, a First Aid kit, a waterproof jacked and assorted other food items. My pack weighed about 15 pounds.
On the bright side, leaving the Ruby Jewell aid station, I had completed more than half of the climbing and was nearly to the half-way point mileage-wise, 7 hours and 30 minutes into the race. I was feeling pretty cocky, despite continuing to trail most of my competitors.
For the next 10 miles the course was littered with once speedy runners, now tip-toeing through muck, crawling awkwardly over downed logs, negotiating slick stepping-stones over rivers and scrambling up steep, crumbly rock cliffs.
I, on the other hand, was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had a knack for the gymnastics required to maneuver over this section of the course. I also had trekking poles.
On a section of narrow, technical, boulder-strewn trail, I passed a couple female competitors. They didn’t have trekking poles and stepped gingerly over and around the boulder-rubble. We said a very quick, “Hello” so that we didn't distract ourselves from the important task of making sure our feet didn’t get stuck in the cracks between the boulders.
Meanwhile, I was like a scrappy mutt scurrying through a garbage dump.
As the trail climbed up a 30-foot high, technical rock-face, I caught a tall guy with an Italian accent who looked to be about my age. He was wearing all black and was covered in ink-blotter-like salt-stains. He said hello and then warned, “You are moving very fast and it is many kilometers to the finish. I will see you again soon.”
From his labored running form, it seemed that he had gone out a bit fast and used up everything but his macho bluster. I doubted that he was going to be picking up the pace any time soon. But then again, there was a chance that at some point I might have to take a forced nap on the side of the trail — and it wouldn’t take a fast runner to pass an unconscious person.
So he was a bit of a jerk, but he might also be right. Funny how it’s possible to be both of those things simultaneously.
After my encounter with Mr. Negativity, the course meandered through a half mile of giant granite boulders. These people-sized boulders seemed, to my addled mind, to be the parents of the smaller melon-sized boulders we had just navigated.
Negotiating these big rocks required the balance of a tightrope walker and the ability to bound from rock to rock — a decidedly slow, treacherous endeavor.
Fortunately, once clear of the boulder field, the trail became a bit less dangerous and dropped downhill, following a river.
Unfortunately, the trail zig-zagged across the river like the snake on the Rod of Asclepius wraps around the winged staff.
Back and forth across the river, we jumped. Using my trekking poles like miniature vaulting poles, I managed to keep my feet dry at river crossing after river crossing for miles.
After a few miles of leap-frogging the river, the trail tried ended suddenly. And I mean really suddenly. I was in mid pole-vault when I noticed that there was no trail on the other side of the river. Landing in a bush, I stood there confused, standing in a bush, spinning in a circle searching for the trail.
After eliminating all of the possibilities, including the possibility that we were expected to fight our way through the jungle for the next few hours, I realized that the trail had simply merged into the river, joining it on its journey down the mountain.
It wasn’t clear whether the river and the trail merged because the trail builders gave up looking for runnable ground at the sides of the river or the river decided that the trail looked like a nice place to flow downhill.
Either way, from here on, you either ran in the river or you fought your way through dense forest on the sides of the river.
And since battling through the forest required a machete (one of the few things I hadn’t thought to pack in my giant backpack), I ran through the river.
With 30 miles of running still ahead, I fought to keep a positive mindset. I was hot, covered in sports drink, sweat and mud, and every couple steps I had to stop to wrestle a stuck trekking pole from the grabby quagmire.
Some adventurous, inventive (or perhaps desperate) trekkers had attempted to use the forrest’s many fallen trees in a creative fashion — laying logs end-to-end in rows of two, building a raised sidewalk of sorts through particularly deep parts of the river. Unfortunately, since the log-sidewalk was laying in a river, the logs were slippery, making running on the logs like trying to run on a wood floor covered in Crisco.
It was infinitely safer to run in the stream and to deal with soggy shoes and socks and the occasional stuck pole.
It was in this trail-in-the-river section that I caught up with a strong female runner. Sandy, I think. She was having knee pain made worse by running downhill on the soggy, technical trail. We spoke a few words of encouragement to each other and I ran by feeling less shitty than she seemed to feel.
Basking in the temporary euphoria of the realization that I hadn’t been passed by anyone for a good few hours and pleased with my seeming imperviousness to injury, I opened my stride and picked up the pace as the race course popped out onto a wide, groomed dirt road leading to the next aid station at mile 39.
I forgot to look where I was going.
While my memory is not bulletproof on each and every detail of the race, of this I am certain: As I rounded a turn in the trail, I lasso’d a shoelace around a protruding stick, and instantly had the following two clear-headed thoughts:
- “Wow, I’m about to land face-first into a pile a branches”; and
- “I wonder how badly this is going to hurt?”
On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate the pain of landing in a pile of sticks at about a 7 out of 10. I imagine that the pain would have been a solid 10 of 10 if I hadn’t been really uncomfortable since sun up. But when you're already in pain and you layer on a new pain, the new pain isn't as painful as it would be if you were able to focus only on that new pain -- if you get my meaning.
Flopping like a rag-doll into the branches, a particularly sharp stick impaled my right knee, like a kid stabbing a marshmallow on a roasting stick.
Dark blood gushed from the hole.
I hoped to plug that leak as soon as I disentangled myself from this mysterious pile of Pick-Up-Sticks. But I was losing a game of Twister to this heap of tenacious branches and it took over a minute to wrestle free and to roll myself awkwardly back onto the trail.
By this time, my right knee was bloody, swollen and throbbing. But the blood-geyser that had sprung from my knee initially had slowed to a trickle, sparing me from having to execute a field-amputation with my tiny Swiss army knife.
“Let it bleed,” I figured. “What’s the worst that can happen. Maybe it’ll clean itself out.”
I pushed myself off my butt with my trekking poles and hobbled down the road. Surprisingly, this clumsy method of locomotion wasn’t substantially slower than the pace I had been running when I launched myself into the branch-pile. I caught a few runners who were hiking slowly and figured that at the very worst, I was no more miserable than them.
4:00 p.m. Mile 39.4 Clear Lake Out-And-Back Aid Station.
9150 feet of climbing complete. 4850 feet of climbing and 25 miles of running to go.
Arriving at the Clear Lake Aid Station, I was scuffed up and filthy. And sore. But it was still daylight. So I celebrated that small victory.
A volunteer grabbed my hydration pack and, noticing the interesting variety of cuts and scratches on various parts of my body, asked me whether I had accidentally fallen into a wood-chipper.
“Nope, but that sounds less painful than finishing this race. Any idea where I can find one?”
He laughed. “No, but I have a horrible climb to offer you. From here, it’s a couple miles straight up to a lake. But then you get to run back to my aid station where I’ll be waiting to make more wisecracks about how crappy you look.”
“Sounds awesome,” I said as my new buddy wrestled me into my hydration pack.
“Hey, can you look take a quick look at my knee? I’m curious whether it looks worse to you than it does to me.” He grabbed a towel, wiped off my knee and said, “looks fine — I mean except for the puncture wound, the bruising and the swelling. How does it feel?
“Not great, but it feels better the more I move it.”
“Then get moving!”
Snatching a fist full of delicious-looking red licorice ropes off the aid station table, I headed up the steep, rocky trail. Determination was the name of the game from this point forward.
Unhappily, the red licorice had been born in a previous century and determination or no, eating the licorice was a losing battle. Defeated by the inedible red rope, I began to feel sorry for myself. Having competed in many long distance endurance races, I understood intellectually that it was normal for emotions pitch irrationally to and fro out of control this late in a race, but the depression was still real. Absurd, but real.
At this point Sandy, my friend with the bum knee, caught me and said energetically, “Hey Steve! I didn’t think we’d see each other again. Are you limping?”
“Yeah, I didn’t want you to suffer alone, so I threw myself headlong into a pile of branches.”
“Well it’s good to see a familiar face. Come on, let’s run together,” she said.
“Ok,” I thought. “If she’s still running with her knee pain, I can run too. Quit being such a crybaby,” I chided myself.
I ran with her for a few minutes, but I couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t my knee that held me back, though. Sandy was a better uphill runner than me, plain and simple.
Fortunately, the stream of runners coming down the trail distracted me from the torture of the climb. This being an out-and-back section of the race, I had a chance to see the runners who were ahead of me.
Based on my informal accounting, there were at least seven women and about 30 men heading in the opposite direction. I also noticed that there were about 5 guys ahead who appeared to be in my age group. And since the out-and-back was only 2 miles up and 2 miles down, there had to be more runners who had already completed the return section of this leg before I even began the climb.
It was a total guess where I was in the field, but I figured I might be in the top 10 of the over 50 year olds — the Grand Masters division. And that wouldn’t be totally embarrassing. There was even a chance that I was now in the top third of the 300 or so people who started the race.
Buoyed by this bit of optimistic guesswork, I hit the turnaround and started running the technical downhill like the race was just starting.
Enjoying the gravity, I forgot about my bloody knee and began to pick off runners one-by-one.
As I ran past Sandy at mile 42 she said “Wow, you look great. Go get ‘em!”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m sure I’ll see you on the next uphill.”
It seemed silly that I was still running after nearly 12 hours.
5:20 p.m. Mile 43.9 — Clear Lake Back Aid Station.
10,450 feet of climbing done, 3550 feet and 20.1 miles of running to go.
“You’re back!” said my friend, the same volunteer who had helped me an hour and twenty minutes ago. “What happened to you? You look like a new man.”
“I like downhill and it likes me. I’d love to hang around and chat, but I need to take advantage of this euphoric feeling for as long as it lasts.”
Blowing through the aid station, I hit a gradual downhill fire-road that seemed to go on forever — and forever at this stage of the race was about 2 miles. I gave thanks to Nick Clark for his generous course routing, and rolled through the next few miles at a pace that wasn’t embarrassing. I could feel the finish line. Twenty miles seemed almost doable and I knew that the most challenging climbs were behind me.
A few rolling short climbs and descents later, I came over a rise into the next aid station and saw Laura standing on the side of the road, cheering like I had just won a medal in the Olympics.
6:41 p.m. Mile 50.1 — Canadian Aid Station.
11,100 feet of climbing done, 2900 feet and 14 miles of running to go.
After 13 hours and 11 minutes of running, I was exhausted. I wanted to sit. Maybe take a nap.
But Laura was full of energy. And her energy infected me. As she filled my hydration pack, she gave me some startling news.
“You’re in 5th. Maybe 4th. I think. The guys ahead of you aren't running great. If you’ve got something left, you could make it on the age group podium.”
“Really?” I said, in disbelief. “How the hell did that happen? I’m not running very fast.”
“A lot of people are walking. The course is taking its toll. If you can run, you’ll catch people.”
“Ok. But I don’t think I can run any harder than I already am or I’ll collapse. I’ll try to keep a steady pace. See you in 5 miles. It should take about an hour, I think.”
“Go get ‘em, Honey,” Laura shouted as I trotted back onto the trail.
“What the heck,” I thought. “I’ve come this far. I might as well try to run to the finish and see if I can catch a couple guys.”
A podium spot seemed out of the question, but a top 5 would be a huge win.
Running, looking at my watch, it was apparent that I wasn’t going to finish in daylight, but finishing in under 17 hours seemed possible if I could average under a 15 minute mile. This made me laugh. “Ha,” I thought. “My mom walks a 15 minute mile around her neighborhood carrying a cup of coffee.”
But I still had a couple mountains to summit and my mom never ran 50 miles before heading out to circumnavigate her neighborhood. If I was going to finish under 17 hours, I would have to give an effort on the uphills and run recklessly hard on the downhills. But knowing that the last 4 miles were downhill or flat made me think it was possible.
After about 4 miles of rolling single track, at mile 54, I caught one of the guys in my age group. He was running, but not quickly. I waited for a slight downhill to make the pass and ran by pretending to be fresh as a daisy.
After I made the pass, I didn’t look back for another mile for fear of betraying a lack of confidence. But when I got to the next aid station and took a peak behind me, he was nowhere to be seen.
I was in 4th, or 3rd. Or thereabouts.
8:06 p.m. Mile 55.8. Bockman Road Aid Station. 12,000 feet of climbing done, 2,000 feet and 8.3 miles to run.
“Hi honey. You look great! You’re running nearly as fast as anyone I’ve seen coming into this aid station,” Laura greeted me.
I was confused by her words and started to babble:
“When you say I’m running nearly as fast as some — are you saying that everyone is faster than me? The way you said it sounded optimistic, but your words seem to contradict that. Maybe you’re saying I’m running nearly as fast as the fastest runners? I’m not sure I understand. I need to know if I have to keep running. It wouldn’t take much for me to be convinced to walk it in.”
“There aren’t many guys running faster than you. And the ones that are running faster looked younger than you.”
“So you’re saying I should keep running.”
Dusk was approaching. Laura handed me a headlamp and a coke as I walked through the aid station.
“You need to get out of here fast. Eat something, but don’t dilly!” (Laura has always thought the phrase “dilly-dally” was unnecessarily long. Fortunately, I speak fluent Laura.)
I said, “I passed a guy in my age group about a mile back. If I don’t explode, I think I can hold him off. How far ahead is the next guy?” I asked, suddenly, inexplicably, committed to chasing a podium spot.
“The guy who I think is winning your age group is really ripped and he’s pretty far ahead, but he didn’t look like he was running super strong and neither did the guy behind him. Give it your best shot. I’ll be waiting for you at the mile 62 aid station and I’ll pace you in for the last two miles.”
“Awesome. Thanks honey. I love you.”
“Be careful running in the dark! Turn on your headlamp.”
She worries about me.
Immediately as I ran out of the aid station, I caught two guys who looked to be in their twenties. They were walking.
“Dude you’re crushing it. Go!” One of them shouted. “Thanks,” I smiled running by.
Five minutes later the young guys passed me back, looking like the twenty-somethings they were and making me feel like the 50 something I was.
The single track rolled through the woods for about a mile and then, with dusk slowly dimming the sunlight, the trail popped out onto a paved road that climbed steadily up a mountain.
And then a guy named Scott ran by me and blasted past the twenty-somethings for good measure.
As rapidly as I had just been passed, it seemed clear that I was slowing down.
In a Herculean effort to stay positive, I tried telling myself that I was doing as well as could be expected — after all, I was still running at mile 58, nearly 30 miles beyond the distance of my longest previous run — I tried to appreciate every step towards the finish line and to keep a smidgen of bounce in my stride.
Still, the headlamps of the guys who had passed me were moving off into the increasingly dark distance until it became impossible to tell if the headlamps were a few hundred yards or half a mile up the road. Whatever the distance, I became determined to keep those headlamps in sight — because when people in the movies find themselves alone in the woods at night, it never ends well.
And then the headlamps disappeared, swallowed by the forest and the darkness.
“That’s it. I’m officially on my own,” I thought. Just me and the scary trees and the occasional glow of what looked like a firefly at the end of pieces of reflective tape that marked the course. But as long as I was on the paved road, it didn’t seem likely that I’d get lost or attacked by a mountain lion.
That’s when the course made a sharp left turn, leaving the paved road and diving onto a dark, narrow single track. This explained how I had lost sight of the guys ahead of me so quickly, they disappeared into the woods. Except they hadn’t. The two young guys hadn’t even entered the woods yet. Standing at the trailhead, the two of them were digging through their packs, looking for food.
“You guys alright?” I asked.
“Yeah. Just need something to eat before we head into the woods up this climb.”
“Good idea,” I said, digging out a leftover piece of fossilized red licorice. “See you on the climb. I’m sure you guys will catch me in a few minutes.”
Gnawing ineffectively on the licorice, I ran onto the trail and spotted a headlamp bouncing along about a quarter mile up the mountain. Now was the time to empty the tank.
The top of this last climb was two miles ahead. And then the course would head downhill for two miles before flattening out for another two miles into the finish. A measly 6 miles separated me from a chair and a cup of delicious lukewarm chicken broth. If I could just get to the top of this climb, I could relax on the downhill, I figured.
Miraculously, a few minutes later, I began gaining on the headlamp up the trail. And a few minutes before the crest of the mountain, I caught him.
The headlamp belonged to the guy who had passed me a couple miles ago. His name was Scott.
“Hey,” Scott said. “I was hoping you’d catch me. It’s really tough to see the trail with just my one headlamp."
He was right. The trail had metastasized from a single track into what looked like an ancient, overgrown wagon trail. There were narrow ankle-breaker ruts on either side of a grassy center island, and it wasn’t any safer on the edges of the dirt road where the uneven footing was hidden by waist-high grasses.
“Yeah, I started getting excited by the idea that we could combine our headlamps, so I picked up the pace when I saw that you weren’t opening the gap,” I said.
Scott and I ran side-by-side, enjoying the camaraderie, sharing the usual chit chat: “What’s your name? Where are you from? How long have you been running?”
If my memory is correct, he said he was from somewhere in Colorado and that he had done a number of 100k’s and 100 milers, but that injuries had slowed him down recently. And somewhere during this conversation we realized that we were both musicians. Drunk with exhaustion, I over-shared that I had been a long-haired drummer in college. Our band, I said, played the “greats” like Motley Crue and John Cougar.
Having dated myself, Scott asked, “What age group are you in?”
“I’m 51,” I said.
“Wow, really? Man, you’re killing it. I thought you were in your thirties.”
“I guess that says something about the effectiveness of your headlamp,” I replied.
“You should be running harder. You might be close to the podium. Let’s do this,” Scott said enthusiastically.
Cresting the top of the mountain, Scott and I picked up the pace and began running recklessly, following the firefly-like course-marking lights hooked on the tree branches.
As the trail flattened out, stagnant pools of water and squishy earth made a return appearance, grabbing at our shoes and soaking our already wet feet as we blundered through the woods through the night. Even the combined strength of our headlamps could not penetrate enough of the darkness to see whether the trail was solid or swamp. So we stopped worrying about it and stormed headlong into the whatever.
Because I was the one potentially running for an age group podium spot, I figured that I should take most of the risks. Pulling a few steps ahead just as the trail began to tilt downhill, I called out warnings when I leaped over a downed tree or when I splashed into a mud puddle.
In turn, Scott stayed as close behind as he could, lending me the glow of his headlamp.
But as I gained confidence on the downhill, I became nearly reckless in my quest to catch whoever was still ahead. Scott wisely opted for the safety of a more conservative pace. And soon, I was alone again in the woods, in the dark, with the dim lonely light from my headlamp ineffectually bouncing to and fro as I hurtled down the mountain.
For the first time, I felt like something, maybe a mountain lion, was watching me from the depths of the forest along the trail. Given the cacophony I was creating crashing through the brush, they’d have to be deaf not to hear me. But since there was nothing I could do about it, I put the thought out of my mind.
I did run a little faster, however.
A mile later, I passed several groups of people on the trail. Most were running timidly or painfully. One guy was puking as he ran. A neat trick.
In the dark, I couldn’t tell whether any of these guys were in my age group, but I wasn’t taking chances.
I did not dilly.
At the bottom of the mountain, the trail crossed a road, meaning that I had arrived at mile 62. This was where Laura and I had planned to meet so that she could pace me to the finish.
But I had a problem. It was impossible to anyone's face because everyone at the aid station was wearing a headlamp. And if you’ve ever stared into a headlamp, you know that the person behind the headlamp is a silhouette. So, not being able to recognize anyone, I decided that Laura would have to find me as I ran by, because it was much easier to see a person from the side or the rear.
I aimed my headlamp away from the volunteers and jogged by at a pace that would allow Laura to identify me. But no one called out.
Worried, I considered slowing down to look for her. But at that very moment I ran up behind a super-fit guy who seemed to fit the description Laura had given me when she described the guy who was leading my age group. I later learned that this was Todd Nott, last year’s age group champion.
From the way Todd looked over his shoulder at me, he knew something was up.
My competitive instincts kicked in and I decided to abandon the love of my life to fend for herself in the deep, dark woods. I put in a lung-searing effort and passed Todd with hard surge, opening a small gap.
With two miles left in the race, I ran so hard that I my body quickly burned through the last of its glycogen reserves. Shivering uncontrollably, my temperature regulation system went haywire. But Todd’s headlamp was bouncing along, not far behind, so giving less effort wasn’t an option.
At every curve in the trail, I tried to sneak a glance to judge the gap between me and Todd. But distance is tough to judge when you’re looking at dots of light in the dark. A super bright headlamp might look closer than it really is. A dim headlamp might look far away, but could be very close. And I had no idea whether Todd’s choice of headlamp-tech was quality or junk, whether his batteries were fresh or waning, and more importantly, I had no idea whether this yoked guy was physically crushed or whether he had one last 6 minute mile in him.
So I ran like the next victim in a horror movie — blundering through the woods in a blind panic, looking over my shoulder and making terrified panting sounds.
“Did I lose him? Is that the sound of someone sprinting up fast from behind?” These and a dozen other pointless thoughts bounced around in my brain as I gave the last mile everything I had.
With the finish line still out of sight, but close enough that I could hear music in the near distance — maybe a quarter mile away — I caught a break. A headlamp appeared along the side of the trail and a vaguely familiar figure seemed to be standing there in sillhouette.
Somehow I knew it was Laura.
Then I heard Laura’s sweet voice say, “Honey! You’re here!!! Way to go!”
Slowing, intending to give her a hug and a kiss, instead I blinded her with my headlamp and banged the bill of my cap into her forehead.
I gave up on romance for the moment and said, in fear, “I have to sprint. A guy is chasing me and I think I may be close to a podium spot.”
“You run ahead then,” Laura said. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be right behind you.”
I gave it everything. I increased my leg turnover and lengthened my stride like Usain Bolt running the 100 meters in the Olympics.
There was no way Laura should have been able to keep pace at this blistering speed. But she was running right beside me, laughing — and she wasn’t working hard. I looked at her incredulously, thinking she had really gotten really fit over the last month.
She looked at me and said, “When you said you were going to sprint, I thought you meant that you were going to run fast.”
“I’m running as fast as I can. This is all I’ve got,” I panted. "By the way, where were you? I was looking for you a couple miles ago."
"I ran down the trail for a ways, but it was dark and scary. Animal eyes staring at me from the woods. So when a runner came through, I latched on and followed him back here."
"So you left me for dead?"
I looked over my shoulder expecting to see Todd coming up from behind.
But no one was in sight. What little speed I had left was enough.
I crossed the finish line in 16 hours and 36 minutes. Todd finished 2 minutes later.
Incredibly, in the cold and dark, a couple dozen people were there cheering at the finish line cheering. Among them was our friend, Nick Clark.
Falling into a chair at the finish line, Laura handed me a cup of chicken soup and Nick came over to say congratulations.
“How are you feeling?” Nick asked.
“My body is in shock and I’m not sure I’ll be able to get out of this chair under my own power, but I’m really happy. I could cry.” I said.
“How’d you do?”
“I don’t know. I ran hard for the last 14 miles and I may have caught a few people. But it was dark out there and I could have been passing people taking their dogs for a walk.”
“Yeah, well, let’s check it out,” he said looking at a printout of the results.
“Kukta, Kukta… . Hey, you’re in the Grand Masters division? Wow, you’re old,” Nick chuckled.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Hey, congratulations! You are the fastest man over 50. Grand Masters Champion. Not bad for your first 100k finish,” he said. And then a pause — “But you were beaten by the first place 50 year-old female. She finished 6 minutes ahead of you.”
I laughed and said, “Man she's tough."
“She’s way tougher than you are for sure,” Nick needled.
Plenty of people were tougher than me. I finished 36th among the men, 39th overall.
Scott finished just a few minutes behind me. And within the next couple hours, the Ohio boys, and Sandy arrived safely.
But the real stud was Larry, the 64 year-old who kept me company up the Diamond Peak climb, the one who said that 90 percent of ultra running is mental and the other 10 percent is mental.
He finished in under 19 hours, faster than a bunch of people half his age.
The man is an inspiration.
He makes me want to keep doing this ultra running thing as long as I'm physically capable, or until I get taken down by a mountain lion or one of those lethal showers.