After failing to get selected in either the Western States 100 or Leadville 100 lotteries this year, I looked for a WS100 qualifier that fit my work and family calendar. Never Summer not only fit my schedule and was less than a 4 hour drive from home, but it presented itself as a real kick in the nuts. The organizers describe the race as "a mountain race in the truest sense of the term, with extended periods of high alpine ridge running, two alpine peaks, and five alpine lakes visited along the way." 14,000' of ascent with an equal amount of descent, with 64 miles run at an average elevation of over 10,000'. Last year's average finish time was 19:30 with a 24 hour cutoff (23 hours to get into the WS100 lottery). Plus you get a bonus 2 miles added to your 100k! Sounded like I'd get my money's worth.
It's no secret that watching Julie Moss crawl to the finish in the 1982 Kona Ironman inspired me to find ways to push my physical and mental limits. And although I love a good PR as much as the next guy, I've been searching for my own crawl for over 30 years. Not the literal type, nor the "I gave it everything I had" type. More of the "What will you do when everything has gone South? Will you just roll over and accept defeat? Or will you crawl to the finish?"
Preparation for the race, like most races, never went as well as planned, but I would say it was more than adequate and I had no concerns about completing the race in under 18 hours. In the Spring, I had made plans to run a solo 100 miler up the 14,110' Pikes Peak to see how I would do when there were no cheering fans, no WS100 qualifier, and no belt buckle on the line. But after some "persuading" by my wife and father, I opted to wipe that one off the table. So as Never Summer grew nearer and the reality that this might be my last long race (save getting a WS100 lottery spot), I looked for opportunities to make it more difficult.
First, I asked my family to stay at home. The course is not the most spectator friendly, but I didn't want a pacer waiting for me at the next aid station or knowing my family was patiently huddled at the finish line to give me any incentive to continue on if things got ugly.
Then, I opted to completely shit can my 2 week taper plan, starting with a 28 mile trip up Pike's Peak 11 days before Never Summer, and continuing with a whole lot of hard runs that I had no business partaking in days before an "A" race, including the Manitou Incline 5 days before Game Day. My typical race week diet wasn't even a consideration and I had been operating on only a few hours of sleep per night the entire 2 weeks leading up to race day.
But wait, it gets better. Typically, I am a total nerd when it comes to race planning - course recons, pace charts, hydration/fuel plans, 3 of everything, etc. Although I'd never been to any part of the course and the RD warned "if you think you are on a good trail, then there is a chance that you are not actually on the correct route" in the course description, I decided to save some trees and not print out the course map, elevation profile, aid station info, or pace cards.
I didn't even make accommodations for the event. I drove up late Friday afternoon and slept in the back of my Honda CRV. On race morning, I sat in my car contemplating one last issue for 30 minutes - my drop bags. I had all my fuel, extra socks, shoes, headlamps, batteries, heavier jacket, heavier gloves, beanie, etc, ready and packed in 3 drop bags. I just had to drop them off at the starting line. With less than 10 minutes to start, I said "screw it" and left them all on the floor of the passenger seat. In my race vest, I had a few pouches of Tailwind, my crappiest of the 3 headlamps I brought, a light windbreaker, some light running gloves, and a buff. No contingency plans now. I'd have to deal with any problems out on the course with what I brought.
|One of several alpine lakes along the course|
Early on, I felt great as I worked my way through the back end of the 300 runners. Even with a couple of tough climbs early on, I stuck with my mantra for the first third of any race - "if you don't think you're going to slow, you're probably going to fast". I wasn't refueling or rehydrating at a normal level, but I didn't feel like I was working that hard either.
|1st Climb of The Morning|
|The course was absolutely beautiful, with something different around every corner.|
As good as I felt for the first few hours, signs that things weren't exactly right appeared at the Diamond Aid Station at Mile 18. I asked one of the volunteers what time it was. She said "9:50" and then started laughing and pointed out that I was wearing two watches. Even with the chronometer oversight, I was able to quickly calculate that with almost 1/3 of the race behind me in less than 4 1/2 hours, my sub 18 finish was looking like it would get blown out of the water. And it did....just not the way I had hoped.
|Much of the course wasn't even trail, and many of the descents felt like downhill skiing.|
|Feeling good early on.|
"At Mile 23 and shot. Running muscles don't exist. Gonna hang here for a bit then try to make it to the next aid station"
"Last 6 miles (17-23) were the absolute worst of my life"Malia's response: "I love you. #YFGT". A few texts came in our friend Gina, powering me on. I smiled, then turned the phone off.
|Climbing North Diamond Peak. The first 2 climbs of the morning are in the distance behind me.|
|More downhill skiing|
"At 40 miles. Suffering. Gonna go climb another 1300 feet in 2 miles"
My inbox flooded with more motivating texts from Malia and Gina. I turned the phone off again, put my head down, and kept pushing through. But the physical challenges I had to face during the day would be compounded with the mental challenges the night would bring.
|Yep, this was part of the course. #anklebreakers|
Hypnagogic hallucinations (those hallucinations that occur during that transition from being awake to being asleep) are not rare for me. I've experienced them in and out of ultra racing, but I've never experienced so many for such an extended period. The first of the night began shortly after sunset, while the sky was still light enough that I didn't need a headlamp. I saw a few people hanging something in a tree next to the trail. As I got closer, the people ran off into the woods and I could see that it was a man hanging from a rope by his neck. As I passed by, I realized it was a fallen tree leaning against another. Completely exhausted and the darkness was just beginning to fall...it was going to be one crazy night.
For the most part, I understood what was going on and not many of the hallucinations frightened me. Some were actually quite funny - like the little man made of pink trail marking tape, running beside me down the trail, looking up at me like he wanted to race. Some were funny/scary-ish, like being 50 yards from an aid station and hearing a man scream like a monster in a Halloween haunted house, then watching everyone run out of the aid station in a panic. When I got to the aid station a few seconds later, there were just a few people there sitting quietly in their chairs.
Then there were the lights - sometimes a brilliant white flash would light up the entire forest. Other times I would see red tail lights or white headlights through the forest ahead. I was convinced that it must be an aid station, only to find there were no cars and no roads. Fireflies danced around my head (I think that really happened).
Some people I ran into seemed completely real to me at the time, but now I question their existence. There was the woman running back down the trial past me, with no light. She said "good work, the aid station's up ahead" and disappeared in the darkness behind be. Or the 2 runners sitting criss-cross applesauce in the middle of the trail. When I asked if they were okay, one of them looked up at me and responded nonchalantly "we're all good". I left them to whatever they were doing. Then there was the slow-moving woman I passed dressed like she was going skiing in the dead of winter (I think she was real, too, though a bit overdressed).
|I'm positive this wasn't a hallucination|
Me ears were playing tricks on me, too. I would hear children laughing in the woods to my left, then hear a woman's terrifying scream to my right. I heard an animal stalking me a few yards from the trail and I yelled at it several times. Of course, that may not have been a hallucination.
But the hallucinations weren't the real scary part. My inability to stay awake was. I was alone, walking through the wilderness, along a trail I'd never been on with minimal markings (some sections were marked once every quarter mile), and I was completely exhausted. I started getting to the point were I realized I had no recollection of walking for the past several minutes and didn't know if I missed a turn or not. At one point I went a full hour without seeing another racer. I told myself "Stay awake! Focus! You screw up out here and you are going to die." I decided I would get a quick 30 minute nap at the next aid station to help get me through the night. But when I sat in the chair at the Canadian Aid Station at Mile 50, I began to shake uncontrollably. I thought moving would help warm me up, so I quickly got back on the trail.
I barely managed 30 minutes per mile over the next 2 miles. I was freezing, still shaking, and my hands had gone numb. With 4 miles and possibly 2 hours until the next aid station, I was having a difficult time figuring out how this was going to turn out well. My friend and HURT 100 founder John Salmonson once told me "your mind will try to convince you that you're doing irreversible damage to your body. Don't believe it." As much as I trust John, I had serious concerns about hypothermia and the damage it was going to do to life.
|But maybe this guy was????|
At Mile 52, I came upon another one of the dozens of stream crossings along the course. It was only about 10 yards wide and knee deep, but it was enough. Wading through a snow-fed stream in the middle of the night while on the brink of hypothermia wasn't making my Top 10 Plays list. And as bad as my day had been, I could only see it getting worse. A finish wasn't worth dying for. I turned around and started heading back to Canadian.
But as I walked back, I started having flashbacks of tough times throughout my life where I had to make difficult decisions. One moment slowed down and relived itself in high definition. It was a much younger me, standing outside a door, the #1 Man in the stack, waiting for the door to be breached for my first real-world tactical room entry. Drawing my weapon to eye-level, I took a deep breath. As my thumb moved the fire selector off safe, I told myself "if I'm going home in a body bag, it won't be because I didn't put up a fight". And then that voice again - "there's value in perseverance". So I turned around again.
In hindsight, I'd like to think that the situation wasn't so critical, that my mind really was pulling out all the stops to get me to quit. I don't know. It all seemed pretty real to me. And the next 4 miles weren't any better, but I made it to the Bockman Road Aid Station without freezing to death, getting lost, or being run over by little pink trail tape men. So maybe John was right.
Normally with 8 miles to go in a race, I know I'm going to finish. All I knew at Bockman was that I was going to go on. It was getting late and cutoffs were not far out of sight. But one volunteer gave me a secret weapon - hot coffee.
One small cup of strong black coffee literally turned my night around 180 degrees. I felt wide awake and, even more importantly, my body felt strong for the first time since Mile 18. There was still 1000' of climbing in the last few miles, but I managed to jog almost the entire way to the finish. I even blew through the last aid station at Mile 62 with the confidence that my race would soon be over.
Eventually, after 21 hours and 51 minutes (nearly 9 1/2 hours after the winner), the finish line came into view. As I crossed it, there were no tears of joy like so many other finishes. I had left all my tears in the mountains. There was no triumphant fist pump or victory heel click. I spent every ounce of energy just getting there. And although there was no lava field backdrop, or global media coverage, or world title race on the line (or even an age group award), there was peace. Peace that I had finally found my crawl. Peace that I was finally finished.