Friday, July 29, 2016

Limping to the Start, Sprinting to the Finish: 2016 Never Summer 100K

Shin Injury

On Monday, July 18th, I gave up on running the Never Summer 100K.  Eight days before that during a big training weekend I decided to run up the unnamed peak adjacent to Roaring Fork Pass for some extra vert and altitude training.  After all, the Never Summer 100k has more than 13,000 feet of climbing and descending and frequently ventured close to 12,000 feet in elevation.  As I was hopping from rock-to-rock coming down the peak, just as I have so many other times, suddenly the grip on one of my shoes just gave out and my foot slid down the side of a boulder.  I danced and twisted on the edge of several boulders trying desperately to regain control.  Gravity won, and I fell awkwardly, unable to break my fall as my left shin took the full force of the crash.  The pain absolutely took my breath away.  I played years of highly competitive soccer before I became much of a mountain runner, so I am no stranger to shin trauma, but this searing and intense pain was like never before.  “Holy shit did I just break my leg?!” I thought as I sat crumpled in the boulder field.  Eternally optimistic, I decided I must be fine, and I pictured the shin abuse English footballers like Jack Wilshere take from defenders metal tipped studs every game.  “I’ll walk it off of just like those dudes” I thought, and so I did. Two minutes later I was running normal, and twenty miles later I was back to my truck and on my way home.

The boulder field where I fell.  Photo taken on a windy, cold day last fall by Evan Reimondo.

Sure, my shin was bruised that night, but no big deal.  I got up the next morning and ran fifteen miles up above 12,000 feet to the proper summit of Roaring Fork Mountain.  I took the next day off, did some speed work the day after that, and my shin was 100% fine.  That same day, Jenny and I and the kiddos headed down to Boulder, CO for a family reunion of sorts.  In Boulder, Jenny and I joined up with a Salomon running group for a short run in the Flatirons before dinner.  The two mile climb was steep, but the pace was super mellow.  On the way down the trail the bruise on my shin started to hurt.  Just a little tight at first, and then almost throbbing.  In less than two miles, I went from happily running downhill to limping with no apparent trigger.

For the rest of the week in Boulder, I pretty much sat around while everyone else went hiking and Jenny went running.  It was brutal.  I even just sat outside in the cold wind in Rocky Mountain National Park at the Alpine Visitor Center on Trail Ridge Road at 11,800 feet while everyone else went hiking.  I thought things were starting to come around when we got back to Lander, so I went for an easy two-mile run on the aforementioned Monday the 18th.  Still hurt.  I was screwed.  I rested some more, and got some treatment from the always heroic Courtney Hansen at Fremont Therapy.  I even had my 4-year old do some “magic” on my shin by wiggling her fingers over it.  It all seemed to be helping, and I was starting to be able to run without pain, and merely just some tightness.  

After some exceptional training in June and July, I was totally committed to running Never Summer 100K, so I rolled the dice and decided to race.  Here is the actual race report:

Never Summer 100K Race Report 

My ears were ringing at 12:30 AM, four hours before my alarm was going to signal it was time to get ready for the race.  Our youngest daughter, who is almost one, was screaming like I’ve never heard a baby scream before.  It felt like her voice was echoing through my brain.  I’m sure everyone else in the Alpine Campground can attest to that as well.  We had barely got a wink of sleep up to this point, trying to deal with a totally inconsolable baby. Jenny and I were both at the breaking point, so in desperation Jenny took Cora to the car to try and sleep in there.  I guess that kind of worked (bless Jenny’s heart).  I woke up before my alarm at 4:15, and instinctively crawled out of my sleeping bag and started chowing waffles with an absurd amount of chocolate butter. We rallied the kids and with blurry eyes headed to the start.

As the sun was just coming up, the race started and off we went at 5:30 AM at an appropriately fast pace down a flat dirt road.  Might as well, since there wouldn’t be much else flat to run for another 45 miles.  The Never Summer 100K is a newer race, and its gaining popularity very quickly, I’ll let some pictures explain why:

Lake Agnes (Photo: Lee Brown)

Alpine Time (Photo: Lee Brown)

The Crags (Photo: Lee Brown)

Summit of North Diamond with course marker (Photo: Lee Brown)

Steep, off-trail alpine climbs, rocky and rugged dirt roads, a bit of single track, and borderline bushwhacking are how I’d describe the trails of the Never Summer 100K.  There was a combination of all those surfaces in the first 18 miles of the race, and predictably there was a lot of leap frogging in the front of the pack.  I was never outside of the top 3, but the people I was running with seemed to change all the time, which was kind of nice.  We summited 7 Utes Mountain, cruised passed the breathtaking Lake Agnes, and frolicked through fields of wildflowers.  It was early in the race and stunningly beautiful, so I tried to just relax.  But, I was disheartened that my shin hurt from the beginning.  I struggled to run downhills and flats efficiently.  I consider downhill running to be a real strength of mine, and runners caught up with me, or passed me on almost every descent.  On the bright side, uphill running and hiking was virtually pain free, which was great since there was plenty of climbing to do!  Early on I decided to take the calculated risk of pushing extra hard on all the climbs to hopefully make up for my sluggish and awkward descents.

Also predictably, the front pack started to break up at mile 18 after the first crewed aid station.  There was a roughly 2,000 foot climb in 2 miles to the top of North Diamond peak that really put the hurt on some folks.  Myself and two other dudes hiked up to the top as a lone drummer stood on the top of the mountain playing a slow “death march” beat.  It was hilarious blend of contradictions: I was hiking with good company up a nearly 50% grade slope with beautiful sunlit mountains in every direction, yet we were quietly huffing and puffing to the sound of an executioner's drum.  Once at the top, it was straight down another steep, grassy slope for a couple miles of high alpine ridge running.  It was simply wonderful.  It was the kind of running that is so beautiful that it felt sort of effortless.  I was surprised that myself and the other two leaders spread out just a bit here.  The veteran ultra runner, Chris Price, sort of slipped away behind me as I stayed 40 yards or so behind another guy from Salt Lake City.  I made it to the Montgomery aid station just behind the SLC guy, and we both zipped out pretty quickly.  From here it was a very rocky and steep dirt road for a few miles, and the guy ahead of me took it fast, “recklessly fast” I thought as I watched him pull away from me.  I tried to protect my shin, while keeping him in sight, so I just plugged along on the downhill at a moderate pace.

Leaving Lake Agnes (Photo: Erin Bineau Photography)

Parts of the Never Summer 100K course were difficult to follow if you were not paying very close attention.  I thought the course was very well marked IF you were running with your head up.  I noticed some pink course marking flags in the trees on the right side of the dirt road; I slowed down and saw that the course left the road and starts a nearly off trail excursion.  I didn’t see the SLC guy anywhere in sight, and my gut told me he missed the turn.  He had missed a turn earlier in the race, and he was charging so hard down the hill again there is no way he saw this one.  I made a similar mistake last year at Wasatch 100 and felt bad for him.  This next section of the race was maybe the most challenging to run: there was almost no path at all, just pink course flags to follow through tall thick grass and downed logs.  Every now and then the “trail” went into the trees where there was a slightly worn path, but otherwise it was just like following cairns through backcountry.  It was difficult to run through all of the off trail hazards of logs, rocks, branches, holes, etc. while keeping my head up to find the pink flags.  It was very mentally engaging though since there were no opportunities to space out or stare at the scenery here.  Lose focus and you’ll be lost!  The miscalculation I did make through this area was not packing enough food from my last drop bag.  I did not have a resupply of Gu’s and Honey Stinger Waffles for another 13 miles, and I was getting low on calories.  As I approached the Ruby Jewel aid station I was trying to figure out what I was going to eat, which is challenging for me since I have Celiac Disease.  Aid stations are full of stuff that will end my race in a hurry, and I have a policy of not eating anything I’m not 100% sure is safe.  I heard some familiar voices as I ran towards the aid station and I was surprised to see Jenny and the girls there!  She made the couple mile hike in at 9600’ with the girls in the hot afternoon sun.  She was probably working harder than I was all day.  She had extra waffles for me and an extra water bottle too.  It was a critical moment of the race because I did not have enough water storage or calories to make it to my next drop bag, another 10 hot, hard, and high miles away.  I also found out that indeed the SLC guy was nowhere to be found.  I was in first place and wouldn’t really see anyone again for more than 30 miles.

After Ruby Jewel, I didn’t try to push the pace, I just tried to enjoy the day.  The high alpine scenery was awesome, and I enjoyed the wildflowers, a bit of old snow, and watching big clouds rise.  The most “competitive” part of this section was on the steep dirt road climb out of Ruby Jewel.  Almost immediately a jeep with a Duck Dynasty lookin’ family in it passed me on their was up the road.  After breathing in their dust for awhile, it dawned on me that they weren’t moving all that much faster than me.  The race was on: I was going to try and beat that jeep to the top.  My climbing legs felt great all day and I crept up on them quickly, while some teenagers in the back of the jeep looked on with a bit of shock.  They got momentarily stuck on a big boulder and I ran on by. Got ‘em!  We exchanged pleasantries and never saw them again.

After mile 45, I decided it was “go time”.  All the major climbing was done and everything else was mostly runnable and/or downhill, so it was time to get this thing over with.  It was hot and I was tired, but I pushed as hard as I could.  Even though no one had caught up with me since about mile 25 or 26, I knew from the Clear Lake out and back section there was a small pack of runners not too far behind me.  To keep my energy up, I sipped on some VFuel for the first time, and I was pleased with how it tasted and felt in my gut.  After what felt like an eternity, I saw Jenny and the girls one more time at the Bockman Road aid station at mile 55.8 and did everything I could to kick it in to the finish.  I know in hindsight that I was getting a bit jaded at this point, and was tired of pushing so hard without ever seeing anybody.  Obviously you don't want to see anyone when you are leading a race and trying to finish it up.  So, I was quite surprised when I heard soft footsteps behind me right before the last legit climb of the race at mile 59 or so.  I was shocked to turn around and see my buddy Chris Schurk a mere 30 yards behind me.  Chris and I led a big portion of Wasatch 100 last year together until I pulled my hamstring in the second half.  He ended up out-sprinting Travis Macy for the win, and I earned my first 100 miler DNF.  So, Chris was not who I wanted behind me with just a few miles to go, and I’d been wary of him all day.  I must say, Chris is a great dude, and if anyone was going to be beat me I’d be happy to have him be the one to do it, but after leading for so long that was kind of unacceptable to me.

“Holy shit” I said to myself, “don’t panic”.  I just knew I had to get back to my “A” game.  I hiked hard up the last 500 foot climb, and Chris matched me every step of the way, of course.  I could hear him quietly stalking, maybe 10 or 20 yards behind me, ready to pounce, or so I thought.  All that was left of the race was a steep 500 foot decent, and then 2.2 miles of smooth, crushed gravel path.  I’m fortunate to work with a running coach, the legendary Ty Draney from Afton, WY, and I felt pretty confident with the training I’ve logged this year.  I’ve done all sorts of tempo runs, speed work, fast finishes, etc. and I was counting on muscle memory to kick in.  My shin went numb as we started down the descent at full tilt, and I’m sure Chris matched me step for step.  At the bottom of the climb was the last crew spot and a highway crossing before the final 2.2 miles. I saw Jenny and the girls and they obviously knew what was going on, as Jenny was urgently yelling at me. I chucked my water bottle and rain jacket to her and sprinted across the highway.  I glanced at my watch and it was 5:47 P.M.  Inside my head I convinced myself “its just another 2 mile tempo run” over and over.  I thought about my form obsessively: running from the hips and glues, elbows pushing back, knees driving forward, my forefoot pawing on the grippy gravel, and my face completely relaxed.  I imagine about a mile into the “tempo run” I started to get really tired.  I debated whether or not I should look behind me, because that’s like a bad omen, right?  I took a glance on a straight away: no Chris there.  “Bull crap, he must be right there, I’m not slowing down.”  So I kept pushing and pushing, taking a few more glances, focusing on my form, glancing again, pushing harder, looking for the finish.  My shin was completely numb at this point, and probably not in a good way, but I didn’t care. Finally a sense of relief started to creep in as I saw the parking lot before the finish line, and Chris was still not in sight.  As I approached the finish line, I looked at my watch as it just switched to 6:00 P.M.

About to finish with a new course record of 12:29:21

Classic ultra running finish with Chris

After the race it was all high fives and hugs.  That’s such a cool thing about ultra running: you can chat with your competitors all day, race your socks off, and still have a beer at the end.  Chris ended up finishing just over a minute behind me, and was well below the old course record as well.  Another Lander runner, Jeff Mogavero took third place, even though it was his first 100K and he was the youngest finisher at age 22.  Awesome stuff.  I was pretty wrecked all around, but especially my left shin and my right quad (from compensating so much).  It took a long time for me to get my act together and get back to our campsite.  I’m writing this a week out from the race and I still can’t quite walk normal after several physical therapy sessions.  The tendon in my shin is clearly still not happy with me, and the bruise has still not gone away.  Hopefully I can rest up and recover enough to have a strong race at Run Rabbit Run 100 in September.

Also, here's a link to a County 10 article about the race.

Men's Podium with (L to R) Jeff, Chris, and Myself

I want to give a special thank to my wife Jenny for putting up with this racing habit I've developed, and for all of the incredible aid and support.  She's my rock, for real.  I also want to thank Ty Draney for the perfect preparation for this race, and for Courtney Hansen at Fremont Therapy for getting me to the starting line.  Thank you Amanda Taglioli for helping us out at the end of the race, even after running 30-some miles of your own!  I also want to thank all of the other runners, crews, and volunteers for such a great day in the mountains.  Also, thank you to Nick Clark and Gnar Runners for putting on such a smooth event.  Also, a special thank you to all the good folks out there who reached out to encourage or support me in the lead up to the race.  You are all more powerful than you know.

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