The morning I have been anticipating for the past year finally arrives. My alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m., but I am so cognizant of the task ahead that waking up isn’t as painful as it otherwise would be. I lather my feet in body glide, get dressed, brush my teeth, eat a cold potato, drink an iced coffee—all while still in bed. Attempting to eat an entire baked potato at 3:30 a.m. is surprisingly difficult. The morning routine is both banal and absurd. Gess and Maddie get up and drive me from the cabin to the Community Center.
It’s July 25, 2020 in the middle of a global pandemic. I am in Gould, Colorado, standing under a starry sky. It’s 4:55 a.m. I turn my headlamp on and prepare to start the longest run of my life.
The Never Summer 100k starts and ends at the Gould Community Center. Gould is sandwiched in between the northern most part of Rocky Mountain National Park and the State Forest State Park, not far from Wyoming. Most folks have never heard of Gould; its permanent population hovers around 20. There’s no restaurant; no coffee shop—just a dot on the map. The town’s anonymity stands in contrast to the towering mountains looming above.
Because of Covid-19 restrictions, I am limited to one pacer (Gess) and one crew (Maddie). I deem us Team Tropical Divas and get Hawaiian leis to wear when the race gets hard—if you’re going to run a 100k, you might as well make it fun. Besides Hawaiian leis, packing for a 100k is like this: put all the running shit you own into various “drop bags,” to be procured at aid stations throughout the race. I pack four pairs of socks, four shirts, two jackets, two pairs of short, one pair of pants and two pairs of shoes.
The week before, I go to Safeway for all my caloric needs. My shopping cart consists of chips (barbeque and salt and vinegar), birthday cake flavored Oreos, cheese, tortillas, olives, Twix bars, packaged coffee drinks loaded with sugar, and white potatoes. Afraid the grocery clerk will judge me for the contents of my cart, I opt for self-check-out.
Am I nervous? Hell yes! Nervous and excited. Nervous—but about what? On the one hand, finishing. The whole point of registering for this race is the fact that whether I will or can finish is unknown. There is no mystery in the marathon anymore. 50ks – hard, but doable. 50 miler? Na. 64 miles, 13,000 feet of elevation gain, unpredictable weather, rocky trails, ultra-remote? Now we’re talking. One thing I know for certain: if we only set out to achieve goals we are guaranteed to succeed in, we severely limit our capacity for growth, for fun. Life would be like a stagnant puddle collecting a slimy green coating on top. When you put yourself out there for such endeavors, the potential for defeat is only compounded by the potential for success. But in neither scenario do you walk away a failure; and more likely, you’ll experience some combination of both ends of the spectrum.
I am also nervous about starting the race so early in the morning. As trivial as it is compared to the actual race, the agony of waking up so early with the possibility of running for the next 24 hours terrifies me. I know being awake for so long will be a challenge. What else am I nervous about? Not much, except wildlife, thunderstorms, blisters, cold weather, hot weather, accidentally crashing the car on the drive up to Gould, sleeping through my alarm, getting lost, dying. I think that’s about it.
Because of Covid, the race is altered; instead of one mighty start line, we begin the race in waves. My wave, consisting of about 15 other people, has a highly anticlimactic start. All the better. The normal frenzy of a start line, the urge to use the porta-pottie one more time, the national anthem blaring, competitive folks lining up at the front…it’s all too much for me. I prefer it this way. 4:50 a.m. Short speech from race director. I look at the clock: 4:52. My heart pounds. I take deep breaths. 4:55: it is officially time to go, to be off on my journey, tata and farewell and see you back here maybe tonight maybe tomorrow, or maybe not at all.
The first hour or so of the race it is still dark out, and I follow the bobbing headlamps in front of me. The climbing begins as the sun is rising. Within the first few miles I have already summited Seven Utes Mountain. The slog up is only a preview of what is to come…. The descent down is steep, and soon I am passing Lake Agnes. From Lake Agnes the course transitions to a dirt road for a few miles, the only flat, non-technical trail until the last segment of the race. Aid station one. Mile 11 already? More running. I can’t even remember this part of the trail. Aid station two. Mile 17. I am so far ahead of schedule I almost miss Maddie and Gess. Here comes the big climb: North Diamond Peak. The course is perversely marked straight up the mountain. This is where I have home-turf advantage; altitude doesn’t bother me. At the top of North Diamond, there is a brass band ensemble playing Scarlet Begonias. I forgot to ask them if they are there for the occasion of the race, or if this is their regular Saturday morning routine.
Running down North Diamond Peak and along the ridge is the highlight of the run; like traversing the spine of a sleeping green dragon. Descend to the next aid station. Stop to pop a quarter-sized blister forming on my left foot with a safety pin—questionably unsanitary. Luckily, it’s less painful than it is annoying. Down a road into the next aid station. Gess and Maddie are waiting. I’m already at mile 30! Swig some coke—dear God, it tastes delicious. When will I see you guys next? I ask Maddie and Gess as I take off. Mile 45 they tell me—that’s only 15 miles, I think happily as I run from the aid station.
Part II to be continued …..