Never Summer 100k 2020 Race Report
Leading Up to Race Day
2020 has been a strange year. As effects of the pandemic swept across the country in March, my expectations to toe the start line of any of the 5 races that I signed up to run this year vanished (those races being Crown King Scramble 50K in March, Quad Rock 50 Miler in May, Never Summer 100K in July, Black Squirrel Half Marathon in September and Blue Sky Trail Marathon in October). Sure enough, Crown King rescheduled for a date I could not make and the Quad Rock was tentatively delayed from May to August. Things were looking bleak which was tough to deal with as I had begun training in November of 2019 for these races and had been running more consistently than ever before.
Disappointed as I was, I quickly realized that these races were small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. The spread of COVID-19 continued rapidly and its impacts were impossible to ignore. I’m grateful and fortunate that none of my loved ones have died from or even contracted COVID-19 at the time I’m writing this but it is insane what a different world we live in now vs. a mere few months ago.
In April, without knowing what the future held, I decided to continue with my training despite the bleak outlook. Along with the races I had planned, I hoped this year would be the year I finish climbing the 58 peaks in Colorado higher than 14,000’. I figured fitness would serve me well for that goal even if I wouldn’t be racing.
Some other goals I managed to get done while in race-purgatory included running up a local mountain (Horsetooth Mountain) from my front door, lapping one of my favorite climbs 5 times, and expanding my mountain running experience with climbs of 4 different 14ers.
|Stunning views from Maroon Peak, a long run I squeezed in the week before Never Summer.|
It was to my great surprise that in June, the race directors of the Never Summer 100k (Nick and Brad) communicated that the race would continue on the date originally planned. While grateful that I continued training and could potentially run it, I had reservations about doing so in light of the pandemic. However, in subsequent communication, the directors showed they truly cared about the health and well-being of the local area, runners, and volunteers that make this race possible. You can see a list of the precautions that they took here, but suffice it to say that these measures most certainly made putting on the race more difficult than any year prior. I can’t speak highly enough about Nick and Brad and their organization in putting on a safe race.
And so I shifted gears from focusing on more secondary goals to the behemoth that lay before me, the Never Summer 100k. Having run this race in 2019, I could partially wrap my mind around what I was getting in to. While I knew that finishing was certainly not a guarantee, I had a better idea of what preparations I could do to give me the best shot at reaching the finish line and maybe even quicker than I had last time.
One change I decided to make in this year's effort was to focus on staying below a heart rate threshold early in the race. Last year I went out too fast (said every runner ever), and believe that contributed to me physically imploding late in the race. For reference -- despite finishing 88th out of 319 runners, I had the slowest split in the last 2 miles of the course. I was hobbling.
|Last year’s heart rate data off the watch (which admittedly can be faulty. Regardless, 185 bpm for 45 minutes is just dumb for a race like this). I try not to get bogged down in charts and graphs and things too much because it's always a different story in person but it's hard. I have a degree in data analysis... I can't help it.|
Another focus in this year’s race involved nutrition. Last year I relied heavily on Lara Bars, GUs (energy packets), and sports drinks for calories. Those got old. At mile 55, just looking at a Lara Bar made me want to vomit. I had trouble getting any food down and expect that this played into my lackluster finish. This year I intended to eat as much real food at aid stations as I could. Gnar Runners pride themselves on a wide array of foods, from pierogies to quesadillas, so I planned on stocking up there and only resorting to gels at the end of the race if necessary.
Finally a few changes to the course were made this year. Two aid stations were eliminated to reduce groups forming, crews were limited to 2 people, the course was shortened 3 miles, and waved start times meant not everyone was starting at 5:30AM like years past. This meant increased need for being self-sufficient, a shorter race (61.5 miles instead of 64.2), and waved start times. I would start at 4:10AM, which I saw as a huge advantage. Before I started running, I got into hiking 14ers. To get off the summits before afternoon storms moved in, I would regularly wake up from midnight-4AM. I don’t mind the early hours with a headlamp, however it was hard to stay motivated last year after the sunset as that was new for me. I saw starting an hour and a half earlier as a benefit.
The limit of 2 people to crew was tough as I had planned on having a lot of friends and family out for the weekend. That meant my wife and father in law would be the only ones able to make the trip to Gould, CO. My wife is a stellar crew lead and Frank volunteered to run the last section of the course with me. Grateful as I was to have those two, it would have been nice to see the rest of the family along the way. I'm sure I'll make more poor life choices here before too long that they can come out to witness though.
While I was relatively calm in the week approaching the race, as Calli, Frank and I drove to Gould, my mood changed drastically. Anxiety crept in (noticeably) and I was pretty irritable the night before the race. I was short with answers and couldn’t keep my mind off of what lay ahead. It’s interesting how much your mind will work to talk you out of pushing your limits, and how much you can accomplish if you can live with it and control it. I appreciate Calli and Frank putting up with me that night before the race and helping to put my mind at ease. I actually managed to get a few hours of sleep this year!
The race was broken into waves of 10 runners beginning at 2:55AM until 5:35AM. My start time was 4:10, squarely in the middle of the pack. Calli drove me to the start line, wished me luck and headed back to the cabin for a few more hours of sleep.
|Calli, Lily and I before the start of the race.|
It was a much different feel than any race I’d done before, but as the 10 of us took off from the start line I quickly appreciated the smaller group start. Within a few minutes I was on my own and never felt the pressure to match the pace of those around me. There was still the constant shuffling of order early on in a race like this, as I passed a few runners and was passed by just as many. We all started at different times so I really didn't mind. It felt way less congested than a normal race start.
The light of my headlamp guided me up to the summit of Seven Utes Mountain, the first climb of the race. I had Sirius/Eye in the Sky by the Alan Parsons Project stuck in my head that whole climb. No complaints--there are a lot of worse songs to have stuck in your head on a day like this. In fact it’s worth listening to as you read this, as the tasty guitar licks and soft vocals would weave in and out of my head all day.
|Sunrise on the summit of Seven Utes Peak|
I stashed my headlamp on the summit and continued on the trail. It steeply descends off the east end of the mountain before contouring around an adjacent mountain. I love this section of the course, especially where it passes by the shores of Lake Agnes.
|Lake Agnes, one of the many highlights of this course.|
I reached the first aid station (11 miles in) about 15 minutes slower than I had planned on. I based my expectations on last year's splits, and believed I went out too fast, so I wasn't upset with that. I stocked up on peanut butter pretzels, scarfed down some watermelon and took off for the next section of the course.
Climbing towards Michigan Lakes, my second trip above treeline, darkening clouds caused me to keep an eye to the sky (looking at youuuu, I can read your mind🎵). Rain threatened, but never became more than a drizzle which helped keep me cool. As I rounded into a clearing, I spotted a few moose a couple dozen yards away from me.
I slowed to a walk and looked around for a calf. Before I got much closer, I heard the moose closest to the trail make a deep growl sound. I’m more frightened by moose than most other Colorado animals (including black bears), so I turned around and split off the trail to give them a wide berth. Sure enough, as I came back to the trail I saw a small calf chowing on some grass in the bushes. I continued on my way, grateful for the warning call.
|Along the shores of Michigan Lakes|
The descent towards the Diamond Aid station at mile 17 included a few stream crossings that would properly soak my feet. In past races, I've spent a lot of time checking for blisters and changing socks constantly, but this year I had a better plan going in and tried to keep the same pair of socks throughout the day. This course is consistently wet--there's no point in switching for dry socks 5 times.
This was the first time I'd see Calli and Frank that day. I told them when to expect me at the next aid station and took some food and sunscreen from them. We grabbed a picture and I took off towards the highway.
|Me and the crew at the Diamond aid station.|
Then began the steepest climb of the day up North Diamond Peak. This was where my heartbeat skyrocketed last year as I tried to stay neck and neck with the runners around me. Instead of gauging my pace off of theirs, I switched my watch to display heart rate only and ran until it reached 165. I'd then back off, hike as much as needed and try pushing the pace a bit again.
As I neared the summit, I heard a band playing off to my left. In the cold, rain and wind, these guys hiked a peak to play music during the race. I have so much respect for them and they sounded great. When I passed, they were playing All My Lovin' by The Beatles, which would be stuck in my head for a few hours. Another song that I don't mind rattling around my head!
|Lily found my peanut-butter pretzel pocket!|
|Topping out above treeline looking towards Kelly Lake.|
Descending from Kelly Lake, I felt intermittent pain in my right pinky toe. I thought it was a blister (spoiler alert, it was). I made a note to check it at the next aid station, but then the pain subsided all together. While I forgot about it for the rest of the day, I definitely remembered it the next morning when it hurt like a mother.
After the descent from Kelly Lake, I arrived at the Clearly-Canadian aid station. It was the combination of two different aid stations in the standard course, and from there I would depart for Clear Lake on a 2.4 mile out and back. Knowing the climb gets steep and I'd be gone maybe two hours, I ate a lot of food and left with full pockets for what became the biggest wrinkle in the day.
I was over 40 miles in (with 20 still to go) and climbing into a rainstorm. I donned my rain jacket as temperatures dropped noticeably, wondering what the hell I was doing out there. As I fumbled with the zipper to seal the jacket, I felt a wrinkling in my left pocket. I unzipped that pocket and found a note Calli had written and put in there wishing me well. That couldn't have come at a better time. I'm prone to mood swings when running long distances and I was feeling like utter garbage on that climb. That simple, thoughtful note gave me such a needed mental boost. That surge brought me to the shores of Clear Lake, the top of the last big climb of the day, where volunteers stamped my race bib as proof that I made it to the lake. The rain prevented me from lingering or taking any pictures. Sloppily eating some Peanut M&M's, I began my descent.
As I returned to the Clearly Canadian aid station at mile 44, I knew I needed to keep moving. I find it easy to wallow at aid stations when things aren't going well, but there really was no reason for me to linger. I restocked my water bottles, grabbed some more watermelon and left within 30 seconds. It was an easy mile or two to the Crew Rally Point where I'd meet Calli and Frank for the third time, so I figured I could eat and run that section.
My mood was still abysmal upon seeing them, though their faces definitely lifted my spirits. When I pulled off the course to give them some of my unnecessary gear, Calli asked how I was doing.
“That was rough,” I replied honestly. I hadn’t seen them in over 5 hours, and had finished two more big climbs. The climb into the rain at Clear Lake wore me down and I was worried that my pace would drop off significantly like it did last year. I was still about 25 minutes slower than my time last year, and I wasn't sure I could close that gap (let alone do better). “How much time did I say it’d take me to get to the next aid station? 8 miles, so 2 hours? Okay yeah let’s go with that, doubt I'll get there any sooner.”
Calli dropped an electrolyte tablet in my water bottle, gave me some extra snacks and a fresh pair of socks. I forgot to check my pinky toe for a hot spot, which I'd regret the next day.
“How are the legs feeling?” Frank asked.
“Well," I sighed. "There’s something there. Don't know how much." I didn't know what else to say. They hurt a lot, but I could still pick them up. I felt pessimistic after the last section, but was unsure what the future held. I shrugged and we took a picture before I headed out. The next 8 miles to Bockman would be as good a sign as any of how the race would unfold.
|Crew Rally Point, mile 45, after an all natural shower.|
Within 10 minutes of leaving the Rally Point and heading for Bockman, I emerged from a mental valley and was riding high. My spirit had lightened and I knew I was running this section much faster than I did last year. If I could sustain this pace and effort level, I thought I had a chance at hitting my pace target after all.
My heightened spirits meant a lot this late in the day. This section of the course is notoriously wet, muddy, and ripe with cow turds. For the uninitiated, this can be a major bummer. Last year, I was practically crying as miles of mud sucked at my feet, draining my will to continue.
This time around though, I embraced it. I plowed through sections of mud andwaded across rivers with a smile on my face. At several different points, I happened upon runners who had reached an ugly bog or a stream with no clear way to cross and stay dry. While they and there pacers were stopped, contemplating the best way to proceed, I plunged past them feet first into water and mud alike, laughing at the situation and how messy things got for me.
|A fresh pair of mud socks. They're all the rage.|
After topping out the climb on the way to the Bockman aid station, I came upon a few runners who had stopped and were wondering which way to go. The intersection met back up with a trail we had run on earlier that day, and it looked as though volunteers had accidentally swept flags from that portion of the course thinking it was only needed for the early miles. I had downloaded the GPX file to my phone and was able to send them the right direction. We left hoping others wouldn't be thrown off by that spot.
I paired up with one of the runners who was moving pretty well and made an effort to match his pace. Doing so got me to the last aid station 20 minutes quicker than I had told Frank and Calli. I had made up the time lost while holding back earlier in the day, and was now ahead of schedule.
Coming into the aid station, I saw my crew and told them the good news. I had figured it would take me 3 hours to get to the finish from here when planning this race a week ago, but I told Calli I'd be there 2 hours after leaving Bockman. My high spirits, coupled with the fact that Frank had volunteered to pace me for the last segment, made me confident in that timing.
I have to pause here and note what a beast Frank is. He and Calli hiked about 8 miles throughout the day to reach the aid stations spread throughout the course. After doing all of that, Frank joined me at mile 53 to run the last 8 miles (with over 1,300 feet of climbing). We would embark at 6:50PM and he matched my pace the whole distance. If I am doing even a fraction of that in my 70s, I will be eternally grateful. The man is a legend.
We set off from Bockman towards the final climb of the day. It had been an especially solitary 14 hours with the waved starts spreading out the runners more than ever before and I really appreciated the company. We talked for most of the climb and met up with another runner and pacer along the way. The sun finally made an appearance as we topped out on the climb just before sunset.
“Oh look Brandon, I see the lights at the finish line!” Frank said. Wallowing in the pain cave, I looked up and saw the same. Upon seeing those lights, I stopped thinking about how bad my legs hurt, how long I’d been running and how much I wanted to stop. I stopped thinking at all. Something took control of me. I felt my legs churning faster than they had all day. In a matter of seconds, I was rounding the final turn. I crossed the finish line in an all out sprint fueled by euphoria.
Before I knew it, Calli and Lily were hugging me and getting me seated near the finish line. My heart was pounding and I couldn't believe it was over. I finished in 16 hours and 37 minutes, an hour faster than I had planned on and way quicker than my time last year of 18 hours and 41 minutes. The course change definitely helped bring that down, but I know a big portion of that time came from a better paced race this year. I was (and still am) elated.
After the race, I looked at my pace crossing the finish line. I reached 5:52 min/mile. That feels insane to me. I practically crawled across the finish line last year at a painful 24 min/mile.
I don’t think a person at my ability should be able to move that fast on the mile 62 of a run. Thinking about it rationally, I should have been able to run faster in the flat miles leading to the finish. Say, 9 minute miles vs. the 12 minutes I was averaging. That would lead me to think I paced too conservatively
Sometimes you have to throw rationality out the window though. I was giving it my all out best in the final 2 miles and they were hard as hell. I didn't think I had anything left beyond what I was doing. When I saw the lights at the finish line though something opened up. I can't explain it (and I don't know if I'll be able to replicate it), but it was so fulfilling to finish a race in a sprint that I barely finished last year. I couldn't have done it without a tremendous crew and the support from friends and family at home.
I thought this race might change my mind about trying a 100 miler next year. Last year, it seemed impossible to take another step after reaching the finish line of this race. With the way that this year's finish went, I think with a ultra-conservative pace for the first 70 miles, I have a shot at finishing the granddaddy of ultramarathon distances. That said, Silverheels here I come!
In the more immediate future, I have the Quad Rock 50 miler in two weeks. It was rescheduled from May (when it would have been a perfect tune-up run for this race!) to August 15th. It'll be the closest I've ever raced before, and the first time I've ever raced 2 ultramarathons in a year. I have no idea how it's going to go, and it may be brutal, but I'm excited to find out.