Never Summer 100 kilometre race

Where to begin? The lovely name, maybe, Never Summer 100 kilometres. I'm a 'never summer' person, always chasing a winter somewhere, so the race had my name all over it. I knew it was going to be hard and I suspected it was going to be awe inspiringly beautiful. I love a loop course. 

Even though I read the info on the website carefully I was caught unawares by just how difficult and just how beautiful it was. But I had come here for beauty and I had done the training; I kept reminding myself that I had done the training.

Not that I was able to train for the specific demands of this high altitude, midsummer Colorado race in the Australian winter, living at sea level, with a distinct shortage of talus, snow and mountains near my house. Downed trees are unusual at home. Bog dries out. Shade is plentiful. But you prepare as best you can.

In running well over six hundred kilometres in a six week period before I left for the US I had already outdone any previous burst of training in my entire life. In my Colorado four week lead up to the race I ran two half marathons and two trail races (10 km and 9.5 miles) followed by a fifty miler (Leadville Silver Rush) just two weeks before my goal race. During this same period I hiked up eight mountains over fourteen thousand feet, so called fourteeners, and hiked to numerous mountain lakes. I slept as high as I could. I should have been exhausted come race day; I told myself that I wasn't exhausted, I was prepared.

Because I hate getting up early, as ever my major challenge was to get to the race start, 5.30am, feeling at least half human. I left my accommodation decision too late and had to stay twenty something miles from the Gould race start, in Walden, where I think I was lucky to snag a hotel room. I gathered there was plenty of opportunity for camping nearer to the race start and I seriously contemplated either sleeping in my car the night before the race or buying camping gear; I spent a long time at Walmart surveying the sleeping bags and tents and for days I could not make a decision either way. Then I convinced myself that it would be silly to sabotage my race by having a bad night's sleep the night before, and as I have only camped out once this century and not slept all night in a car since 1981, now was not the time for experimenting.

The historic hotel in Walden was lovely, I think, but after getting ticked off by a police officer for doing a U-turn in the main street in front of a 'no U-turn' sign I slunk into my room and spent the remainder of the day trying to take myself out of the nerve-riddled present and into a place of calm. The weather that day was atrocious: wet, thunderstorms and very hot.

I made it to the race start on what looked like the dawning of a beautiful day. I felt calm and hopeful, with just a lingering fear that I would never be able to find my car again (a fear which proved to be justified, as I would find out the next day). 

We set out and did some climbing. People were chatty and in the first half hour I managed to practise some French, German and even English. I ran at a relaxed pace and took the climb to Seven Utes in my stride. The sun was not yet out and it was pleasantly cool. The descent from Seven Utes (what's a Ute?) was rough and I was passed by lots of runners, but instead of getting despondent I was pleased to have some scalps to aim for later on. We rounded a corner and there was Agnes Lake; it was spectacular, a word that came to mind all day long. There was still a little snow to navigate, maybe intended as a reminder of how high we were (around 11,000 feet). Then came the only boring section of the day, a long dirt road seemingly traversing the hillsides for ever.

I spent minimal time at the first aid station and embarked on the jaunt towards American Lakes. How beautiful was the mountain landscape, and the lakes were, as they say, like jewels in the green cloth. 

There was a treat waiting at the second aid station: freshly grilled bacon. I've seen many foods at race aid stations in my time but never bacon. Never even thought of it. It was so delicious I gobbled a whole handful and was endlessly thankful to the volunteers, who I don't think understood that I had never seen this foodstuff during a race; ten hours later on when I encountered another consumable I had not seen before I left the volunteers in no doubt about this fact, but I'll get to that. So I scoffed a lot of bacon and spent the rest of the race trying to get bits of bacon out of my teeth.

The third section offered up the hardest climb of the day. Was I glad I had not read about this on the website. Who wants to have their fun spoilt? After a brief bit of skirting around the mountain, North Diamond Peak, we hit the above tree line mountainside and went straight up. Straight up. No trail, just up. In the extreme distance were what looked like a line of ants, but were actually runners who had achieved the summit. I paced on up, slipping at one point and rotating 360 degrees before regaining my poise. 

This is where I benefitted from hiking all those fourteeners; I held a picture of Mt Quandary in my mind, where the ascent is similarly steep although there is a well defined trail, and went for it. It sounded like there was a party on the summit and I badly wanted to be a part of it. A Coloradan runner complimented me on crushing the mountain, and when we saw each other subsequently she called me the mountain crusher. I'll take that nickname any day.

Beyond the summit there followed a delightful several miles of ridgeline running with fabulous views and easiness underfoot. I could have continued forever but I suspected there were more mountains to climb. Before that were miles of rough ground with a lot of creek crossings and boggy terrain, and another aid station with bacon, but I declined this time as I was still sorting out my teeth from the earlier dose.

I went the wrong way once during this section. The course was well marked; good marking was essential really as there was no defined trail much of the way.  But I managed to cross a creek unnecessarily and I was very lucky that a group of runners saw me do this and yelled out to me that I had gone against the flow of the route markers.

On a day of beautiful lakes, Kelly Lake was the best, in the next section, maybe in part because it was totally unexpected; it just appeared out of nowhere in all its azure blueness. The beauty compensated greatly for the deterioration of underfoot conditions - the trail was by now just talus, and wobbly talus at that. And snow, slippery snow.

Conditions were to return to mountainous as we embarked on the infamous Yurt Trail. I say infamous because the description of this trail was something I remembered very clearly from the race description. I had read that the ten miles could take four hours. By now it was really hot and seemingly no shade.

The climb lived up to its promise, all five miles of it. Light relief came when I spied a runner dressed as Santa Claus ahead of me. I was dying to catch up to him and ask why he felt a need to be dressed this way well out of the Christmas season. Unfortunately he was chatting to a runner who was injured and had decided to turn back when I reached him so I couldn't butt in. Probably a good thing as my question might have been inappropriate. I mean, I wouldn't be making the fashion headlines myself in my calf sleeves and clashing colours. 

At the top was a small campsite with a group of llamas relaxing; I presume they had packed in the gear of their human companions. And then the five mile downhill was most welcome. The field had spread out a lot and I passed much time alone. The whole area had an amazing wilderness feel. For the record I was happy that this section took me way less than four hours. For the last mile there were many crew members and pacers out on the trail, hiking or running in to the trailhead where they would be commencing duties, and it was funny to see a bunch of fresh seeming runners.

I felt I had not been eating enough and decided to remedy this at the next aid station, at the base of the Clear Lake climb. But first a drink. I had been drinking a yellow soft drink all day and I eagerly grabbed a cup at this aid station. Oh my God! What was that? It was revolting, the likes of which I have never tasted. Apparently it was pickle juice. It was just horrible. I told the volunteer what I thought. I'm ashamed to say I asked if they were trying to poison us! She told me that people have asked for it. What kind of people are these? To be fair, I'm not an American and I don't share their love of pickles. I rarely eat those long green things that seem to be as essential to a burger as the bun. Non Australians probably react like this to Vegemite. But Vegemite is tasty. (This aid station was at either end of an out and back section and when I returned there a few hours later that same volunteer carefully directed my hands away from the pickle juice. I hope she has forgiven me for my reaction.) 

I grabbed cookies and started out on the climb up to the lake. This was another section of the course I had not anticipated. The climb was hot, narrow and steep. A big struggle. And a double whammy because I couldn't swallow down the cookies either. Runners were descending as we climbed so the trail was congested, and I felt that the descending runners were unjustifiably cheerful. This was mentally the low point of my day. I grunted as runners said 'good job' and I never reciprocated until I started to descend myself. I soon realised how they managed to be so cheerful. Descending with a fabulous memory in your head is fun. Clear Lake was lovely, when I finally got there after the endless ascent. I asked the volunteers to take my picture by the lake because I need to remember times like this when the going seems really tough but all turns out well.

This was the day's hardest part over. After avoiding the pickle juice I headed out on the descent to the so called Cowtown. I soon found out why this area had that name. The trail traversed the hillsides above meadows and aspen copses filled with cows; cows who were loudly indicating they had recently been separated from their calves. They were almost deafening, and it was quite an eerie experience in the fading daylight. Also there was a lot of waste product on the ground. I use this term because a runner had politely explained to me what a cow pat was! I'm pleased to say I only stepped into one, and almost immediately I had a stream to wade through so my shoe did not stay dirty for long.

The light was almost gone as I came into the fifty mile aid station. I still wasn't eating enough but I couldn't swallow anything solid and they didn't have those usual packets of gels or chews. This isn't a criticism: packets are bad and I can never open them anyway. I scooped the soft stuff off the top of a slice of pumpkin pie. I was keeping up the fluids well. I had been to the bathroom twice in fifteen hours, and I was satisfied with that. (At the Leadville race it had been fourteen hours between visits.) 

I didn't want to travel - I can hardly use the word 'run' - alone in the dark so I latched onto a runner and his pacer who left the aid station at the same time as me. I soon worked out that they were moving quite fast, especially the pacer, who incidentally had done the Leadville race I had just done, but in ten hours to my twelve. I was pleased with myself for keeping up with them on the rough and boggy trail almost seven miles to the next aid station. Mostly at a walk. 

For me this is the biggest challenge of these longer ultras: the walking. The races I do at home rarely involve much walking, and if they do then it's only for ten minutes or so. I find this sustained walking difficult, mainly mentally. The distance passes so slowly. I have to accept the prospect of hours and hours of walking. That's why I did so much hiking when I came to Colorado, to practise for hiking during races. I think it paid off.

After the next aid station we had another long climb. Aren't we there yet? Part of the time I was alone and it was spooky. Sometimes I stopped and waited until other runners caught up to me. I summited this last peak in a big group, which was nice, and the descent was wonderful. It was possible to run most of it. I came into the penultimate aid station, at right on one hundred kilometres, feeling good. And I was actually ahead of the pair of runners with whom I had recently failed to keep up! But they soon passed me. Guys twenty years younger than me, of course they passed me.

I would have blown through this aid station two miles before the finish, as everyone else did, but they had quesadillas. That's one of my favourite foods. I wanted to enter into the spirit of this thing. So I grabbed a wedge, and then two more. I managed, for the first time in about ten hours, to chew and swallow. This was heaven.

I was a new person for the final push. Almost. It still seemed a very long two miles. I swore aloud (honestly, if you need to swear then doing it after midnight in a forest with nobody around is probably not a hanging offence) as the trail went on and on, around bend after  bend and I could not see the finish line. A runner yelled out 'I see it!'. Never have I been so pleased to hear this. Within several heartbeats I was there. It was just past 1am. I have to say it was a bit of an anticlimax as nobody called out names, but at least I had made it, in 19 hours 32 minutes, which was fairly in line with my hopes, bearing in mind that I had expected the course to be easier than it turned out to be.

I hadn't even put on warmer clothes for the final hours of darkness, when the hot summer day turned chilly, so when I finished I was really cold. And I couldn't find my car. I sheepishly asked for help. I told the guy my car was blue. Like, really useful info in the pitch black. 

But we did find it. I know that because I slept in it that night. I got so cold and I was so squashed but I managed to sleep about two hours. I woke up with daybreak (no curtains in that car) and I felt so uncomfortable I had to get up. I wanted to stay around for the awards ceremony at 10 am, and I wanted to know how I had fared in my age group, but I also wanted to get to Denver without falling asleep at the wheel, so I left. A truly remarkable experience.


  1. Santa's name was Steve. It was Never Summer, so... Santa Claus...

  2. Brilliant report. Racing it next year. Did you use poles?


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