Never Summer 100K 2019 Race Report

Recently I heard something along the lines of:


'People overestimate what they can do in a year, and underestimate what they can do in five.'

There's definitely truth to that and it speaks to the clear value of perseverance, but in looking at my running goals recently I found myself looking at things differently:



'People overestimate what they can do in a year, and underestimate what they can do in a day.'

I had signed up for several races per year recently and found some mixed results. Some races felt great, others I was a little too burnt out to accomplish my full potential. I started wondering instead, with all my effort focused on one thing, what could I really accomplish in a day?


In running my first ultramarathon, I sought and found the answer to that question.

Don't get me wrong-- getting to the start line of Never Summer was essentially five years in the making. My first half marathon was in 2013 and I have run a good amount since then. While I’m certainly not fast, naturally gifted, or anything like that, I have found something I enjoy doing (especially in the mountains!) and I’m looking to see how far I can take it.


Which led me to the starting line of the Never Summer 100K. Never Summer is a trail ultramarathon that runs through both the Never Summer Wilderness just outside Rocky Mountain National Park and the Medicine Bow Range, all within State Forest State Park. The race covers 64.2 miles of rugged terrain, mostly above 10,000’ of elevation, with a cumulative 13,000 feet of climbing along the way.

Views from the first climb in the race

The race starts at 5:30AM and I hoped to finish within 18 hours and 30 minutes. That would land me at the finish line just before midnight. It was an arbitrary goal, but I did not want to flirt with sleep deprivation on top of all the other challenges posed by running 64 miles and based on the paces I was hitting in training, it seemed possible.

Even still—the prospect of running for 18 hours was daunting to say the least. I’d never done it before. My longest run before the race was less than 8 hours. In fact I can think of like 3 things I have done for 18 consecutive hours.


  1. Be awake
  2. Binge watch The Office (yes Netflix I’M STILL WATCHING)
  3. Play World of Warcraft
Not sure if this run would be considered "healthier" than a day of WoW, but hey, at least I’d get tan.


Crew doge, Lily
And I wouldn’t do this alone. Back in December of 2018, I remember telling my incredible wife Calli (who helped curate my passion for running) that I decided to sign up for this. I’d been on the fence for months and she knew my indecision all too well. Immediately after I told her that I had pulled the trigger, she volunteered to crew for me. She would drive to several aid stations along the course and ensure I was well fed, had my head on straight, and most importantly, provide immeasurable moral support. She would also bring our dog, Lily. I have to say, it's hard to beat the pure excitement that a dog has when she sees her owner running towards her.

I quickly was surprised by the amount of support I would receive. Calli's parents, Frank and Holli, offered to come up and help crew as well. Both of them were accomplished runners and triathletes, each completing impressive times in Iron Man races in Kona. I hoped that some of their talent and ability to endure would wear off on me.
Lily, Frank and Holli

A good friend from work, Steve, also volunteered to help me accomplish my goal by joining me near mile 50 and running the last leg of the race with me. We had run together frequently beforehand and last year we summitted a few challenging 14,000’ mountains. More recently, Steve set his half marathon PR on the tough Horsetooth Half Marathon. Ahead of this race I knew his company would be appreciated, and having him join me near mile 50 brought my spirits back from the dead.

With a ton of support behind me, anxiety set in the week of the race. I found myself distracted at all times by the task that lay before me and had trouble sleeping each night. I put a lot of pressure on myself to finish this race because it had become such a massive milestone for me. I had been training for months and basically obsessing over this thing since the start of the year. And it was finally going to happen, for better or worse.



Surprisingly, my nerves settled dramatically as I was huddled in a crowd of runners while the race director counted down the seconds before we would take off. Months and months of training had culminated in this single effort, and I was going to give it everything I had. I wished I’d had that clarity of mind in the week leading up to it, but I was grateful it arrived when it did. I crossed the start line with a calm conscience and resolve to endure the whole day.
Runners huddled up moments before the start of Never Summer 2019

And so it began. The first few miles of the race were in dawn and led me to the summit of Seven Utes Peak near sunrise. A wide, gentle trail led to steeper terrain near the summit. Clouds above Cameron Pass to the east would hide the sun for most of the morning and provided perfect running conditions. I paused on the summit of Seven Utes to revel in the views before running down the mountain towards Lake Agnes.

Looking west from Seven Utes

I left the summit and was surprised at how crowded the trail still felt at this point in the race. It seemed as though dozens of runners were passing me, while I was passing just as many. The constant shuffling of order made the wilderness feel a little more crowded, though solitude would certainly come later in the day.

I felt strong rounding the shores of Lake Agnes, again pausing to photograph the stunning scenery before me. I had planned to run this section of the course earlier this month, but had to change plans due to the amount of snow still left on the trail from a monstrous winter. It ended up being for the best, as it was invigorating to see this place for the first time during the race.

Lake Agnes calling me to pause for a moment.
Descending from Lake Agnes, a small portion of the trail remained snow covered. Plenty of runners before me had passed through the section and it had turned into a bit of a snowy mudslide. I approached it with the same form as the runners ahead of me—on both feet, sliding down towards the solid ground below. During my slide, I noticed an overhanging rock at my quad level a moment too late. My leg scraped it as I slid past it.

I was 3 miles from the first aid station so I paused briefly to assess the damage. There was a good deal of blood, but I think my shorts had smeared it and made it look a lot worse than it really was. I could still move fine and the pain was negligible, so I decided to run to the Montgomery aid station and address it then.


The next few miles passed quickly and I pulled into the Montgomery aid station where I would see for the first of many times excellent support from the volunteers. A volunteer immediately provided band-aids and triple antibiotics for my right leg and asked if I needed anything else. I thanked her, shook my head, grabbed some pretzels and left towards Michigan Lakes, my next destination.

Michigan Lakes

After Michigan Lakes, I descended towards the Diamond aid station at mile 17. This would be the first point in the day that I would meet with my crew, Calli, Frank and Holli. They planned to drive up that morning from Fort Collins and meet me at the Diamond aid station to refuel me and send me on my way. Ever since the start line, I had a nagging worry that they would have car troubles and not make it up there in time.


That turned out to not be the case as I ran into Diamond and saw Lily pulling against her leash to greet me. It was such a relief to see familiar faces after nearly 4 hours of running. Lily tried to clean my face up a little bit while I stopped. I talked with Calli briefly, who told me that they had arrived a little while ago and I was right on time with what I had told them. They planned to check in at the cabin in between the next aid stations while I was out running.

Lily cleaned up the face
while I cleaned up the leg




I left the aid station towards the next big climb up North Diamond Peak. I had done this section of the course before in a training run, but back then I hit it after an easy 3 mile warm up. Today I had covered nearly 17 miles and 3,000' of climbing and was feeling a bit worse for the wear as I began my ascent.

Nevertheless, I made it to the summit and paused once more to soak in the views. This state is truly outstanding.

Looking back towards terrain covered earlier in the day.

After checking for blisters, I began the jaunt down the tundra-clad ridge of Diamond towards Montgomery Pass. Reaching the pass, I continued briefly before turning west down a logging road. The descent felt great and I entered the Ruby Jewel aid station (nearly 29 miles from the start) in high spirits. I couldn't believe I had run over a marathon already and still felt energetic.

The crew (and doge) at Ruby Jewel aid station, 29 miles in
"Oh and by the way babe," Calli said while helping me swap socks. "I don't want to distract you or anything but we can't find the cabin you booked for us. Do you know where exactly it is?"

Oh crap... Gould is a tiny town and I was lucky to find a place to stay near the start of the race. I had given them an address but not the name, and there was no service at all anywhere near the race.


"I think so, it's called like the Gift Shop cabins or something like that... and it's right off the highway," I told her, hoping that was specific enough. "A really nice old couple runs it, I talked with them on the phone."

I left Ruby Jewel kicking myself. I had built an elaborate spreadsheet with anticipated times for when I would arrive at each aid station, what I would need, with best and worst case times, and I couldn't even get Calli the name of the cabin I had rented for her parents. Hopefully they find it, I thought as I began running again.


Climbing towards Kelly Lake
The high spirits I had entering Ruby Jewel did not last long. Shortly after I left the aid station, a light rain began. I threw on my rain jacket (which was becoming obnoxious to carry anyways) and continued up the road toward a trail that would bring me to Kelly Lake. The rain picked up gradually as the trail steepened before becoming an outright downpour as I trudged up the trail. Thunder roared overhead and I constantly checked the skies for lightning.

I was soaked and had hit a low point in the day. This was my third solid climb and it seemed never ending. I was completely alone and missed the camaraderie that the first few miles of the race offered.

Fortunately, as often happens in Colorado, the weather turned as I topped out at the pass above Kelly Lake. The sun came out and helped dry out my shoes for the first time in 8 hours.

The snowfield between me and Kelly Lake below
However after reaching the saddle, the descent towards Kelly Lake presented another challenge. A sizable snowfield covered the trail, with a wall of boulders on the right side and a precarious slope to the left. Towards the boulders, I quickly found the snow to be a post-holing nightmare after sinking into my knee a few steps after entering it. The snow was better packed further away from the rocks, but I couldn’t go too far and risk slipping down the slope to more boulders below. I took my time, crossing the snow carefully before reaching the other end. Relieved to be back on runnable terrain, my spirits lightened and I made up some time lost on the slow ascent.
Aspen grove on the way to Clear Lake
One of the few (but glorious) times my shoes were dry!

A familiar face greeted me at the Clear Lake aid station. Stephanie, one of my first managers at work, was volunteering there. I was relieved to see a familiar face after having been alone for so long. She helped get me sorted out and on my way to the brief out and back to Clear Lake.


During my climb up to Clear Lake, I couldn't help but think about how amazing my life had been. I felt overcome with emotion for all of the support I had received in this race and elated that I had come this far. Not all of it had been great, and it certainly wasn't over, but I was happy to be where I was and excited that my body was putting up with this.



Clear Lake with more storms brewing above.
 I jogged back down to the Clear Lake aid station and said goodbye to Stephanie. She warned me of mud ahead, but I didn't quite grasp the gravity of it. The first few miles heading towards Canadian aid station at mile 50 were pleasant and the skies had cleared once more.


Excellent trail before some not so excellent trails


Coming in to Canadian
From this point on though, the pictures stopped and the slog began. Solid dirt trails gave way to a uniquely disturbing combination of mud, long grasses and cow poop. Another rain storm came in after 30 minutes or so and while it didn't bring lightning, it soaked the already muddy trails even further. The mud clung to my shoes and grabbed at my feet, threatening to pull me in deeper. I came in to Canadian aid station with an extra 10 lbs of mud caked on my shoes.

It had been nearly seven hours since I had seen Calli and her parents. It was such an immense relief to see them at Canadian. Beautiful as the views were, the highlights of this race were seeing loved ones along the way.

"Did you find the cabin?" I asked Calli right away. She nodded and I let out an audible sigh of relief. I had thought about my mistake a lot while out on the trail.

An added benefit to reaching this aid station was that I could pick up my pacer, Steve, to help get me through to the finish. We donned our headlamps and took off, not bothering to change socks given the flooded conditions.

Me, Calli and Steve at Canadian (with doge)
We ran through fields of grass up to our knees that had flooded with rain and crossed several streams with no log or stone bridges. In the worsening conditions, I found myself struggling to eat anything. That mistake would come back to bite me in the last miles of the race.

Steve and I made it 5.7 miles to the next aid station, Bockman, where I briefly talked with the crew. Calli mentioned she wanted to run the last two miles with me and asked what pace I would be going.


"15 minute miles if I'm lucky babe, I'm struggling."

I was slowing down dramatically and still had trouble eating much. I had a few bites of a pirogi before leaving, but quickly became nauseous thinking about eating any more. 



Headlamps in the dark
Leaving Bockman with some 8 miles standing between me and the finish line, I had some clear signs that things were deteriorating. My inability to eat much food late in the race depleted my energy abruptly, and it was all I could do to hike out of the aid station. Steve kept me on track, but I couldn't manage running more than a few steps. From mile 56 on, I would be hiking this thing out.

Without Steve, I'm not sure how this would have gone. I was in a bad spot. My emotions were swinging dramatically from excitement about being close to the finish to some pretty sheer depression about not being able to run it in and being passed by several runners. Steve helped me balance somewhere in the middle by reminding me of what matters in life, the relationships of those you care about.


In that frame of mind, I was ecstatic to pull into the final aid station and see Calli. She joined us for the last two miles of the race and helped steer me towards positive thoughts. Until she asked a dangerous question.



Where's dad?
"So do you think you'll do another one of these things?"

I felt my brain rear in my head. The thought of another ultra? $%&@ no, I thought. Can't say that to your wife, so instead,


"Well, no," I quickly replied. "Nope, don't think so. But who knows, what's that thing you told me Steve?"

"Oh yeah," Steve said. "I heard something like, 'the one thing that all great mountaineers have in common is short term memory loss'. I have a feeling that applies to ultrarunners as well."


Steve and Calli continued with conversation to keep me focused as my calves, ankles and shins burned beyond imagination. The Christmas lights adorning the finish banner came into view and I rounded in to the Gould Community Center 18 hours and 41 minutes after I had started. I had aimed for midnight and came in a quarter past it. Instead of disappointment for missing my target time, I sat in awe of what had just happened.

My mind was a bit of a jumble and I had trouble getting sentences put together. After sitting down for half an hour, I started feeling some violent chills. Despite the race being over, my crew continued helping and made sure I got to warmth and stabilized before heading back to our cabin for some much needed sleep.


This race was an incredible experience and one of the more memorable days of my life. It toured all that Colorado has to offer with alpine lakes, rocky summits, snow, mud, talus, aspen groves, and so much more. Nick Clark and Brad Bishop are outstanding race directors and their volunteer crew was terrific. Volunteers at every aid station were overly generous and ready to help, stocked with quite literally everything one could need to run this course.

Most importantly, I am eternally grateful to Calli, Steve, Holli and Frank for coming out and helping me accomplish this. It really doesn't feel right to say that I ran the Never Summer 100k, but that we did. Thank you guys so much for everything you did to help me get this done. It bears repeating that the real highlights of the day were the times I came in to see you guys cheering me on.




After all's said and done, I agree with Steve. I think ultrarunners do suffer from short term memory loss, and I'm excited to see what's in store for me next.

Comments

  1. Brandon,
    You are a Beast! I am so proud of you! I get tired just visualizing your 64 mile high altitude trek... having Calli and the rest of your support team. ( Lily included ) was huge... to accomplish in 18 hours is mind boggling. Congratulations on a tremendous accomplishment!

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