It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
I'd looked lustfully at this race for it's first two years of existence. I love the Never Summer range, or Ni-Chebe-Chii. I have now climbed the vast majority of the peaks there, and enjoyed long and fruitful days on the tundra capped peaks to the south, the loose talus slogs in the central areas, and the solid, fun, and exposed ridge traverses in the north.
When the 2017 race registration opened in December, I was feeling motivated and ready for a try due to the weather. It seemed like the snow came early and frequently this year, and I was stuck inside and feeling it. Against conventional wisdom and the advice of a more experienced friend, I decided to make this my first ultra (and first running race of any kind), and concocted/started following a training plan.
Since I've been hiking for years, part of the training was intuitive for me. I didn't need to pay any attention to learning how much to eat or hydrate. I'd been on multiple 15+ hour days (this one being my biggest ever for time elapsed, distance, and elevation gain). I've started and ended in darkness in the height of summer more times than I can count. Golden.
For me, it was the running part that I needed to focus on. At first, I made the effort to get all the prescribed runs in- two longer days back to back, and three shorter days that might focus on one thing, like speed work. Eventually, I got lazy and decided that sleep was more important, as I am not now and have never been a great sleeper. I focused entirely on the long back to back days.
Early morning on the first climb. If the day sucked, at least it would suck in some spectacularly beautiful scenery.
And I am a peak bagger. I got bored with running the same trails over and over again to get a prescribed distance/elevation gain profile. I did get creative- see Buttonrock Mountain from Hall Ranch. But as summer came and the snow started to melt, I wanted to move up in elevation.
These days were probably not the best training wise, as the pace was too slow due to terrain or elevation, but I was having fun. At times.
Seven Utes summit, looking south.
Thus I found myself toeing the starting line, at the fire near the back of the starting area to keep warm shortly before 5:30 am on July 22nd, 2017. I'd spent the past month and a half questioning why I thought it was a good idea to sign up for an ultra. I felt like training had taken a decided slide downhill into disaster land. But I signed up for it, committed a lot of time, effort, and money training and planning for the race*, and told the people I cared about most I was going to do it.
I made pacing charts and graphs, planned my best hopeful and overly ambitious finishing time, and my hopeful worst pace. I studied the maps and elevation profiles to see what was where. I read all the trip reports I could find.
But as we started, there was one thing that I didn't plan for that quickly became a factor.
Incredible beauty at Lower American Lake. I was definitely suffering at this point and pretty resigned to dropping at Diamond, the next aid station.
The race started and most everyone took off at an easy pace. Yet I started at the end of the line, and found myself working forward. It felt like I passed a ton of people enroute to the summit of Seven Utes Mountain. And I passed a few going down the other side- at least the time at altitude running on tundra/talus with no trail was paying off for this short stretch. Then we hit single track.
It was fine, but kind of frustrating to get stuck behind a line of people. One person in the front would stop or encounter some obstacle and then everyone behind would have to do the same. Though, this was good to pace myself, and I was already deep in with GI issues.
That was the thing I didn't count on. My stomach was feeling unhappy. My breakfast didn't sit well, I could feel every drop of water I drank sloshing around in there. It felt like nothing was going through, and though I knew I needed to eat some solid foot, I couldn't. Thus gels became my friend for the time being.
It was nice to see Dan briefly at Lake Agnes; I hated the run along Michigan Ditch Road immensely. I had a plan to get in and out of each aid station quickly, and almost succeeded at station one until I accidentally shot my water bottle into my mouth and had a fit of coughing.
The climb up to American Lake felt like it took forever and I am not too proud to admit I almost broke down crying at the turn downhill. I tried to run and passed a few people, but got some pretty wicked cramps and slowed down. I passed a few people who then repassed me as some girl decided to come to a dead stop in the middle of the trail at a water crossing. Knowing new shoes and socks were waiting for me at Diamond, I plowed through. As an FYI, it will be impossible to keep your feet dry during this race, so plan on whatever you need to counter that, and don't stop in the middle of the trail for anything.
I think the only thing that kept me going at this point was knowing that I'd see my wife and our newly adopted dog at Diamond. Here is a photo she took of me coming in. I didn't see her and almost ran past.
I told her I didn't feel good already and felt like I was below my pace, she told me to keep going. I changed shoes, socks, and reUltra Glided my feet, as ahead loomed the single biggest and steepest climb of the day.
Going up to Diamond was interesting. The road is a moderate grade at first, and I was taking it easy. People were passing me and I felt like I should be doing better, yet this was all I could muster. It was particularly demotivating to be able to see the peak ahead at times, and the line of people snaking up it.
But I felt better as we got higher, and just settled into my normal pace, moving steadily and pressure breathing. It was so steep at times I was using all fours to head up.
The view to the south. We were just over there.
Finally the grade started to ease, and I could hear the music of the band playing near the summit. You have to actually go touch the summit as part off the course, so don't miss that.
Looking down after the steepest part.
Dan was there to meet me. I told him about my stomach, and he told me to try some ginger ale at the next aid station. Why didn't I think of that? I think I was so focused on the bad feelings, I didn't even try to think of a solution.
We talked for a few minutes before I departed on the beautiful ridge run north.
Again, my not very good for anything training plan worked and I was able to run most of this section through tundra, talus, or trail and feel good. I passed a few people and was passed by no one. It was the first time I would see the running guy this day. No idea who he was, but he'd run a section super quickly, relatively speaking, then stop to eat/do something/walk and get passed by all of the people he'd just jetted by. We overlapped for awhile; I think the last time I saw him was as he was headed up to Clear Lake as I headed down.
Looking back south at some point.
I was quite confused and unhappy when going past Montgomery Pass, as I spied it from afar and thought this was the place we'd cut left to descend to the Montgomery aid station. But alas, some more time and distance on the ridge was in order!
The descent trail cutting west.
This descent was fun. I ran again. Got cramps again and slowed down again. My stomach continued to feel full- I'd only peed once today so far, also not a good sign, but I thought that I was drinking enough.
I downed a few cups of ginger ale at the Montgomery aid station, and hit the descent. I alternated between running and power walking down. As my background is in hiking, I can walk pretty fast if needed. Running guy blazed past me here.
Old jeep road trail.
The section after the descent was trail in the loosest sense only. At times it was more like mashed down foliage through meadows, including water and a huge stretch of mud. At this point I was glad I was a bit back and that someone had already made the way to go.
I made it to Ruby Jewel happy again to see my wife and pup, and a surprise visit with Dan. Feet, feet, feet! I changed out of wet socks again, and rereUltra Glided my feet. Dan told me I should slow down.
I passed a few people on the climb up, and almost missed a turn. I hit a downhill and started jogging but stopped when I came upon someone stopped with someone else who was injured. We got him some Ibuprofen and he headed back to Ruby Jewel, as that was closest to where we were.
Again I got stacked up behind some people, but they were going slower than I wanted so I used them to pace myself. I must've passed running guy in the aid station because he caught up to the group, asked to pass, and proceeded to run uphill for a few minutes before stopping and sitting down to have us all pass him.
Looking back down enroute to Kelly Lake. The view was incredible. And I farted a few times. Which meant that something inside me was working, and digestion was going on. I'd also peed twice since leaving Ruby Jewel. Things were looking up.
Above Kelly Lake. The remaining snow was a nonissue, in fact it may have made a very short stretch easier by filling in some loose talus.
Though I'd planned for this long ten mile stretch without aid, and had water purifying capabilities, I did take water at the water only station here. Thank you volunteers!
And I ate the first solid food of the day! Whoo!
I was power walking the rocky downhill to Clear Lake Road, and passed/hung with two women who were jogging. Score another one for power walking!
I made it to Clear Lake, the site of my only drop bag, and had some watermelon and ginger ale. But this made my stomach turn and I regretted it for awhile. Honestly I was waiting for the bonk. I clearly wasn't eating enough.
The climb up to Clear Lake was miserable. It's single track, rough and loose at that, and you have people going up and coming down the same trail, or trying to. At least one of the people who passed me going down here I passed about ten miles later at Canadian. Score three for power walking!
The lake was beautiful. I had enough of people telling me "nice work" or "good job" as I wasn't here to work and this isn't my job. I was here to have f!@#$%^ fun damn it. Or something. (This briefly took me pack to my very first restaurant job, where I was a busser and told to never ask a diner if they were "done working" on their meal so I could clear the plate. Because they didn't come to us to work, they came to enjoy. Thus, "Are you still enjoying your appetizer/entreé/dessert/whatever.")
I again power walked the downhill, passing several and getting passed by none. I saw running guy for the last time here, happily running uphill as I walked down.
I purchased some cheap bags to use as drop bags at Goodwill a few days prior, and I was happy my selection here was super ugly cartoon characters with neon pink and yellow, as it stood out. My wife told me of the frantic search for a green drop bag at a different aid station in a sea of green bags. My advice: go ugly.
I changed shoes and socks, and shortly after setting out on the downhill, wished I'd used some of their Vaseline to lube my toes as I could feel a hot spot coming on. Funny, I usually carry a small thing of it with me, but decided I wouldn't need it or that it was too much weight or something silly and didn't have it. But I did have some greasy lip balm. Rather than rub it directly on my dirty smelly toe, I used my dirty smelly fingernail to dig out a piece and smear it in place. Ahh, hygenics! Well, I'd already eaten food I dropped in dirt.
Somewhere, as the sun started sinking.
I also had a headlamp in my drop bag at Clear Lake. Looking at paces from 2016, I determined that was the earliest place I would need it even if disaster struck. Disaster had struck, and I was still in daylight.
I was power walking/jogging when I heard someone call my name. Dan! Whoo hoo! Was I happy to see his face. He'd been walking the route backwards from Canadian to find me. Now things were going well. I was pissing and farting all over the place and taking in solid food.
My wife took a photo of us at Canadian, changed socks and lubed feet again.
Well, several photos, as we both apparently lack the ability to make normal faces. I'd been out for almost 15 hours now. Not sure what his excuse is (just kidding Dan!).
It was good to have him along. I extolled the virtues of power walking, doing, as he put it, "some odd shuffly foot thing that's making me have to jog to keep up". How many victories had power walking had by now? Count lost. But to take a look back in seriousness, I was still on pace for a same day finish up until Clear Lake 2, which was a goal. I should've kept a pace chart with me, because I would've made the effort to run the downhills.
I got my only blister of the event here, as I didn't have my shoes tied tight enough and my feet slipped forward, slamming my toes into the front of my shoes.
We made it to Bockman in darkness, just nine more miles to go. We told my wife three hours to the end.
We had been passed shortly after Canadian by two people who we now caught and passed, and didn't see again. Power wa…. ok I'l shut up about it.
The last climb sucked. I was ready to be done. It went from nice jeep road to less nice jeep road to this is a trail kind of. We heard a few cars and saw the headlights below. Almost!
I gave my number as we passed Ranger, the final aid station. I didn't need anything and didn't want to stop. Ironically, it was on this downhill that I actually felt hungry for the first time the entire day.
I was finally persuaded to run when Dan noticed there was someone close behind right near the finish line. It felt like I was flying, but Katie's video shows what looks like an elderly person "jogging". Ha! I was a little slower than I'd hoped, but I'd just finished my first ultra, and a not easy one at that. My time was an entirely reasonable 19:05
At the festive finish.
Maybe those just are our normal faces.
I ate some food on the way back to the cabin we were staying in, took a shower, and hit the hay. As somewhat usual for nights after big efforts, I didn't sleep well or long enough. I guess that was expected.
I skipped the awards breakfast the next day- I didn't know anyone there, and while a race, like the years of hikes detailed here, I didn't do it to get a finisher award. Yes, it's a race against others, but to me it's the race within oneself.
We spent the next day lying around, punctuated with a drive to Walden to get food and cell reception so I could call my family. We stayed at Whistling Elk Ranch in Rand, which was pretty nice. It wasn't inexpensive, but the hotel I'd looked at in Walden was 99/night for a queen room, and here we had an entire cabin with a full kitchen, bath, two bedrooms, etc. So it was worth it to me.
There were tons of hummingbirds on the property, quite difficult to capture in a photo.
And Georgia, the new pup, decided she needed some snuggles. We were both tired.
By the numbers, 289 people entered. I finished in 104th place, in the top 36% of those people. It looks like 226 of the 289 finished, with the last coming in at 23 hours and 49 minutes. Looking at that, I was in the top 46%. Seems not too bad for my first every running race/ultra thingy and for having stomach issues for 40+ miles.
I went through 8 pairs of socks, 4 pairs of shoes, ate 12 gels, 5 packages energy chews, 2 energy bars, 1 Ocho dark chocolate/coconut candy bar, 4 Justin's dark chocolate peanut butter cups, 9 ibuprofen, maybe 6 salt caps? I barely ate anything in the aid stations, a few pieces of watermelon dipped in salt, a handful of chips (which I almost puked up), a few pickle slices, and some ginger ale. I drank a ton of water. I used a 1.5L bladder on my back and a .5L soft bottle up front, my just in case reserve that I only used in the first 11 miles, the longest stretch without aid. I went back and forth on using poles, and did decide to use them up until Ruby Jewel, only to leave them at the cabin. Doh! But if I had remembered, I may have used them for the entire race.
On the final climb in darkness I said to Dan, "This may very well be my first, last, and only ultra." Now I'm sitting here three days later, feeling relatively good, and thinking "Well, I know the course now. Maybe next year I could go back and put in a really good effort." How quickly we forget!
My only objections to the race were that the trails weren't very trail like at times. No big issue to me, as back country travel is something I have plenty of experience with (this day, exactly 4 years prior, comes to mind-12+ hours with no trails at all). But if you're going expecting to run 64 miles on well maintained trails, change your expectations.
I also felt the back half of the trail wasn't as well marked as I liked. I still made all the turns and was able to follow, but there were times when you aren't on a very well defined trail, and can't see any markers. I looked at the ground and saw a bunch of running shoe prints, and guessed that I was still going the correct way. It seemed like the course after Clear Lake focused more on reflectors and LEDs for course marking, which wasn't the most help in daylight. I guess I should be glad I made it that far in daylight!
Thanks to Gnar Runners for an awesome event. Thank you to all of the awesome aid station volunteers. All of you made a difference in my day. Thanks to Dan for pacing/motivation. Thanks to Katie (and Georgia) for crewing. At times, knowing that I'd see you in five miles or whatever was the thing that kept me going. Thanks to Nora for motivation, and congrats on a great race!
Link to my GPX/run map on Caltopo.
2017 Never Summer 100K:
Via my GPS, 66.07 miles with 13079 feet of elevation gain. Strenuous+.
And as for running guy, I found a photo of him showing his bib number. He finished about two hours and twenty minutes after I did. Score again for power wal…ok I'm sure you get it by now. A reasonable pace that can be maintained allllll day will be better than running fast intermittently.
On another note, I lost a friend of mine to breast cancer on July 22, 2010. Every year on or around that date, I try to do something fun in her memory. This race happened to coincide with that date. The scenery was beautiful and expansive, and I was very happy to see my wife and friends out on the trail, but keeping the memory of someone that I loved alive added immeasurably to the experience. So if this race report comes up in future Google searches, and you're out there having a hard time, or if things are going well for you, take a minute to remember someone important to you.
*=so some of those things seem obvious. Once you get to the longest distance training runs, they're pretty much an all day affair. There's the time. And say you're like me and can't mentally do 8 hours of running up and down Mount Sanitas. Caltopo will become your friend as you map different routes to find the distances and elevation profiles you'll need. Money? Well, you can look at the up front costs- the race, accommodations, travel costs. In training, you're going to eat alot more food. And more food out there. And maybe your pack isn't comfortable after 20 miles, and you want a new one. Shoes don't grow on trees, and running the distances you need to hit mean they won't last too long. It adds up.
In loving memory of Liberty Rebekah Dagenais. October 9, 1980- July 22, 2010.
2017 Never Summer 100K.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…