by Syd Long
Just below the summit of Diamond Peak the climber below me and I were locked into a pained synchronicity. We’d each take about three steps up the impossibly steep mountainside, deliberately placing our feet into the kicked-out steps. Then we’d lean on our poles and try to breathe through what felt like a clogged straw. It seemed very early in the race to be suffocating. Strong maddening winds whipped around us. Hearing sniffling and sensing distress behind me, I glanced back. “It’s too hard, too hard…,” bemoaned the demoralized man, tears flowing freely down his face. I really did not know how to react, mostly because I was enveloped in my own struggle.
With the trudging exertion I couldn’t keep my respiratory rate under 40 breaths per minute and my heart was pounding way too fast. I felt dizzy and lacking in any clarity. The terrain and the wind forbade taking any kind of break. I stood in an awkward lunge and a drop of bright blood plummeted from my nose and splattered on my shoe. As an ER nurse, I’m no stranger to getting blood on my shoes, but never my own. I foggily pondered this deep thought for a moment before snapping back to the present. I wiped my bleeding nose across my face with the back of my hand, surely making me look even more crazed.
“You need to pull it together dude.” He nodded weakly and I plunged on. I’m not an unkind person but it was the only thing I could think of that I would want someone to tell me. As I reached the summit, I distantly wondered in a detached bemused way what in the world I too was doing there.
It was not the first time I’d wondered just that. My solid-gold friend, Mare, jumped on the trip at the last minute to help crew and pace me. The evening before, she and I piled out of our rental car at packet pick-up. (As a side note: because rental car rates were exorbitant in “high peak” summer season, Mare and I were rolling in the cheapest 2 cylinder Mitsubishi Mirage available in the Denver area. I was convinced it actually ran on AA batteries and decided if the Mirage and I both made it through the mountains it would be absolutely statistic-defying).
After getting my packet and chatting with the race director we sat down and strands of other conversations floated by. I became acutely aware that we were surrounded by dozens of very fit, muscular, impossibly attractive runners sipping on beers and casually bantering about their goals and accomplishments at Hardrock, Leadville and Bighorn, the big mountain races on magazine covers that trail runners everywhere dream about. A deep-seated panic started to flood my system. These were legit mountain runners and I felt woefully under qualified, a mom from Oregon who had run a few ultras. These golden rugged people here had some kind of freakish genetics and were born to do these ridiculous things, even with a hangover.
This kind of self doubt and insecurity took me by surprise as it is not typical. Generally I set my mind on whatever I want to do and I do it with dogged determination. I reminded myself tomorrow would be no different and I was just going to give it my best, regardless of the outcome. I calmed down a little bit and reset.
Signing up for the Never Summer 100k
in Gould, Colorado had seemed like an illogical leap. First of all, it involved summiting the highest mountain of my life so far (Diamond Peak, 11,852 feet), a feat that would be a taxing day hike on its own, not to mention being at mile 20 of a 64 mile race known for its brutal punishing terrain for the entirety of the course. Secondly, I live at sea level in Portland, Oregon and the course average altitude is over 10,000 feet, a level I’ve only been to a handful of times. With the terrain, altitude, and 14,000 feet of elevation gain in 64.2 miles, I was pretty sure that only if things lined up absolutely perfectly would I even have a shot of finishing within minutes of the 24 hour cutoff. Regardless, I was captivated by this race that seemed comically superhuman. I wanted a challenge that would truly push my grit and I had found it.
Mare and I puttered back to our cabin in the Mirage and went to bed in our respective rooms. As I was drifting off, a raking-against-metal sound was incorporated into my twilight sleep. An abrupt growling-snort snapped me back to full consciousness. My mind immediately flashed back to the moment of checking in to the cabin. The weathered, resigned older woman behind the desk had said flatly, “Well, we’ve got the biggest bear that I’ve ever seen prowling around that cabin every day. He’s about the size of a Volkswagen. Maybe bigger.” I stared blankly with delayed comprehension. “You’ll be fine,” she said dubiously, peering at me over her eyeglasses, “just, uh, stay inside.”
Another heavy handed batting against my screen window was accompanied with a snarl-snort. “MARE!” I hissed, “Volkswagen Bear!!!” Mare rushed in and was treated to another growl outside the window. We stared at each other, each of us trying to make a more grotesque silent scream without laughing. We waited…silence. Peering outside with our headlamps it seemed Volkswagen Bear had retreated. I laid back down and fell right to sleep, no energy to worry about larger than life bears.
In the morning we scrambled to the start in a flurry of drop bags and last minute considerations. Before I knew it I was giddily running up into the mountains in a thick group of runners in the pre-dawn, our eyes squinting to see the trail. I was relieved that there were dozens of people running in a pack around me at about the same pace with the same human level of difficulty. We started climbing steadily and the first aid stations clicked off effortlessly. The congested pack of runners naturally started to thin out and we started to focus in. I started to think that I could do this.
The higher altitude had caused some strange pressurizations in my snacks. A packet of honey almond butter became taut with air in my vest pocket then inexplicably exploded on my pack and arm. Not wanting to waste it or be a mess, I tried to scrape it off and eat it while still moving but mixed with sunscreen it was bitter and inedible. I decided to leave it and wash up at the next stream crossing. On a picturesque single track section a while later someone behind me bellowed “BEAR!!” I froze and looked around, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. The person sounding the alarm was also nowhere to be seen and remained silent. I wondered what in the hell the odds were that I would encounter a bear on the exact same day that I was slathered in honey. I took a few cautious steps and kept walking on high alert for any movements.
“Well,” I thought, “the coast seems clear,” and moved on, no sight of the supposed bear. Back on track and running, I descended into Diamond aid station at mile 18 an hour ahead of schedule and feeling solid, ready for the most intense climb up Diamond Peak. When the summit finally crested into view, a group was clustered around the pole taking pictures and celebrating. I wanted to keep moving so made my way to the descent side which can only be described as a free-fall of a rocky vertical face. I looked at it incredulously thinking there must be a different way to descend, but picking out a few runners below I realized that was it. Later a five-time Barkley runner would tell me that section defies anything he’s done at Barkley or Hardrock. I apologized to my quads and planned to deal with the damage later and flung myself into the free fall.
“Runner!!!” I looked up at a man in American flag shorts who I hadn’t realized was a race official. “Everyone has to touch the summit pole!” Dang. I jogged back to the summit for a fancy pole spin before returning to the free-fall.
The subsequent section of high ridge running was certainly the low point of the race for me. I was aware of the majestic beauty and I did my best to channel Kilian and Emelie prancing along with trekking poles in one hand. But I was exhausted from the high alpine sun, the epic climbing and descending, and the relentless wind that threatened to knock me down with each gust. A flicker of a migraine was settling behind my forehead. Finally the course took a turn and descended quite a ways and felt tolerable again.
I hit the Ruby Jewel aid station at mile 29 and hammered a Yerba Mate and a few slices of bacon. I was feeling pretty great again. It was maybe three in the afternoon; the sun was direct and intense. It was 10 miles to the next aid station so I crammed several bottles of water into my pack making it much heavier than I’d like. I ditched my trekking poles to save some weight and powered out of there.
This section involved another immediate brutal climb, eventually back up to over 11,000 feet. Crossing wildflower-dotted meadows and cold mountain streams I had the capacity to appreciate and love what I was doing. I was motivated to keep moving as fast as possible as I was nervous about the course at night. Much of the trails had been cross country and I couldn’t imagine navigating them by headlamp. Also stories abounded of runners getting lost and confused at night, and the race director mentioned that there had been previous issues with the elk eating any kind of course marking almost as soon as it was put up.
I leap-frogged with a couple interesting people, all immediate friends with a unique solidarity bond and it was a nice way to break up the time to hear snippets of their stories. As we gained elevation the foggy high-altitude feeling returned but not as severe as before. We lumbered to the top of a pass together, rewarded by a breathtaking view of Kelly Lake. Finally done with this long climb and ready to descend, I started counting down: five miles to see Mare. Four miles to see Mare. It was still quite hot out and I had not eaten or drank anything since leaving Ruby Jewel, yet I felt fantastic. Feeling almost manic, I decided I had reached an elevated state and transcended the need for water or food. Hitting a rare runnable stretch of single track I poured out all my water for a lighter pack and busted out a glorious 7:30 mile. Catching up with some new friends, we trotted into mile 39 Clear Lake aid station together.
I was exuberant to see Mare and she cheered that I was killing it, considerably well ahead of schedule. I hadn’t eaten anything because my mouth had been so dry that it was hard to swallow. Mare dutifully grabbed quesadillas and bacon slices for me and, always a class act, I sat down in the dirt and proceeded to double-fist the layered delicacies.
I took a furtive glance over to the circle of camp chairs reserved for runners. Each was filled with a cautionary tale: shells of runners in varying stages of zombie-like devolution and consciousness. I recognized many of them who had easily breezed past me earlier in the race like strong, glistening gazelle. Silently wishing them well, I regarded them gravely and knew that I needed to get out of there quickly before anything started shutting down in my own body. I set out on the four mile out and back climb up to an alpine lake. It was fun to see people ahead of and behind me and see how great everyone was doing. I was genuinely surprised at how many people were behind me, probably because my boldest goal had been squeaking in a few minutes before cut-off at the very back of the pack.
I swept back into Clear Lake with clear focus: to get in as many miles as possible before the sun set. “Five minutes, Mare!” I yelled. A new crew of strugglers had settled in the god-forsaken chairs, among them my new friend Kevin. “Kevin!” I screamed. “Put your shoes on!” He smiled and laughed, waving me on. I bolted out of the aid station simultaneously zipping my pack. I’m pretty sure Mare was shocked. The next section was a redemptive downhill clear of rocks and scree. I hammered out more sub-8 minute miles feeling completely alive. Solid Gold Mare sprinted to catch up, throwing out cautions to not overdo it. The trail flattened out into single track and the world’s best sunset commenced. I was keeping up a solid pace when we rounded a bend and came upon a group of about eight runners with serious faces.
“Bear on the trail,” they explained quickly. We peered ahead and a large mother bear was standing squarely on the trail staring at our motley group. High up in an aspen tree was a single adorable cub. I furiously scrubbed at the honey residue on my arm. The runners explained that one of them had initially encountered the bear and she had reared up on hind legs. The runner retreated and had been in a standoff since. The group wanted to bushwhack down the hill and rejoin the trail after getting clear from the bears. We agreed to stand guard and let more runners congregate before following suit. The first group solemnly peeled off and I thought about how Mary Loos and Mike Myers like to pull up a live Bearcam screensaver on the computer in the ER and I strangely wished I could FaceTime them for this moment.
A few more runners trickled in and Mare and I descended into the thick, shin-scratching brush. Not exactly sure of the route, we traversed the best we could. At one point it sounded like the runners up on the trail were shouting at us. I looked up and the mother bear was facing me in a direct line above. I had a pang of feeling incredibly sorry for people who care for and depend on me as I seem to have difficulty with normal-person behavior like reading a book. Also I felt painfully aware that if anything happened to me my six-year-old would have to raise himself, which he would probably choose to do in a barn. I decided it was much more important to keep moving than to figure out what they were yelling. I wanted to give that mama bear all the space in the world.
We clambered back up to where we saw the trail and with renewed energy, started running again, laughing nervously. The sun was setting quickly now. I could not even allow myself to consider the what-ifs, if it was dark, if we had been the first to intercept the bear… In the fading light we turned to a meadow with a large herd of black four-legged animals. It was difficult to make out if they were huge cattle or moose. “What do we even do if a moose charges us?” I wondered aloud. “We don’t need a pace chart, we need a wildlife chart.” We passed the animals uneventfully. Now dark, an unseen howling gibberish emerged from the forest. We debated if it could be a rhesus monkey or hyena. “I don’t know, Mare,” I mused. “It’s basically like a dang safari out here.”
Reaching the next aid station at mile 50 I allowed myself a little longer stop to down some chicken noodles and hot cocoa. I still felt fully charged and determined to pound out the next 14 miles. Mare decided to catch a ride back to the finish from there as her stomach was bothering her. I was and am truly grateful to her for all the kinds of support she provided. Several runners were on course near me and the route was impeccably marked with LED lights putting some of my night-running anxiety at ease.
Powering along a swampy stretch alone singing The Lumineers songs to myself, a SWOOOOOSH right over the top of my head took me by surprise. My headlamp caught an owl with a wingspan comparable to my own now silently pumping away. Completely in awe, I contemplated what an incredible and rare experience that had been when SWOOOOOSH, seemingly the same owl whizzed barely an inch above my head and again pumped away at impressive speed. Now terrified that I was being stalked, I picked up my pace. If I had made a wildlife attack chart would I have even thought to put an owl on it? The good news was that I was fully awake. My legs were tired but overall felt good. I passed several people looking beaten down and exhausted, too tired to really converse. Some of them were knocking their trekking poles together to give warning to bears or other animals and I wished I had hung onto mine. I tried to hang back with these pole-knockers but their hike was too slow and I knew my brightly burning energy had a limitation, so I pressed on.
With about six miles left to go I passed a group of four and caught up to a guy named Sean from San Francisco. We kept an even pace and embarked on the last excruciatingly painful steep climb up a fire road. This last climb felt merciless and for the first time all day I felt an overwhelming nausea. I was starting to decompensate and I struggled to hold onto the fire I had maintained for so long. Trudging up side by side, a flash of a light-colored animal streaked across the trail. It moved so efficiently I could have missed it if I blinked. “Um…that was a huge rabbit?” I asked hopefully. “No…,” replied SF Sean, “that was definitely a cat.” We turned to the woods and sure enough, just a few feet away from us crouched a cat about the size of a kindergartner, its eyes reflecting bright green from our headlamps.
“Yiiiiiiiikes,” I just wanted to cry now. Enough is enough. I thought optimistically about the time I believed I was about to be mauled by a mountain lion while pacing at Mountain Lakes 100 two years ago, but then it turned out that the cat was actually a traffic cone with eye-shaped reflective tape and I was vividly hallucinating. Sigh. No such luck today. I gently knelt down and picked up handfuls of rocks and we shouted at the cat and started moving away. We also yelled warning to the approaching group of four. “Well what kind of cat is it?”, they wanted to know. “I don’t know, a bobcat or mountain lion or something, on your right side, in the trees.” The Colorado runners were unsatisfied with this answer and I couldn’t imagine why it made a difference to them. I simply did not want to tussle with any cat, but they probably have highly detailed wildlife spreadsheets with subtly fluctuating reactions to each species. These Colorado people were completely blowing my mind.
After this, SF Sean and I developed an unspoken agreement to stick together. The finish was just a couple downhill and flat miles away. My stomach felt awful but I was filled with resolve and alternated running and power hiking while still clutching fistfuls of rocks. I thought I would be emotional at the end but I was kind of bewildered. Up to the last step, every shadow was a potential tiger or wooly mammoth about to come charging out.
“Finally!” we cheered seeing the campfire and lights of the finish. Solid Gold Mare was waiting with a jacket and coconut water. I hadn’t had much of a concept of the hour at the end and was shocked to learn my finish time was 20:34, three and a half hours better than my goal, and well below the Western States qualifying cutoff. 30% of the field had dropped.
Hobbling around the Denver airport eating cinnamon rolls, I’m still processing what this means. I am again astounded at how powerful we are and our capacity to break through our perceived limitations. I’m a little embarrassed at my level of self-doubt, but mostly proud of myself for branching out from “safe” races with near-guaranteed outcomes and trying something new. Most of the success I feel is simply from being brave enough to show up at the starting line. There are always excuses.
I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of this experience and seen some of these far-flung wonders. I am also very grateful to my parents for going above and beyond in entertaining and caring for my son for a week so I could go out on a much-needed epic adventure.