San Juan Solstice 50
Lake City, CO
9:38:29, 4th overall
As we followed the snaking highway south along the swollen Gunnison River, Charlie Brown (Brandon’s restless but kind-hearted Chocolate Lab) could hardly contain his excitement. His pleading whines seemed to express our collective awe as the prominent peaks of the northeast San Juans rose from the coniferous hills before us. Despite heavy snowpack elsewhere in Colorado, just a few snowfields linger in these mountains, draped like tattered flags across alpine ridges and emphasized by the high solstice sun.
After locating our weekend residence (thanks Fahren, for hooking us up!), Aaron, Brandon and I laced up our running shoes, eager to jog around town and shake out four hours of road-induced stiffness. It didn’t take long to see Lake City in its entirety. Founded by prospectors during Colorado’s gold rush, it could’ve easily been built by runners: two cafes, three saloons, a bakery, alpine access in every direction — and with 350 friendly locals who welcome the annual influx of runners with open arms, it’s no surprise the San Juan Solstice 50 has become an icon among 50-mile events. The race never fails to draw a full field of fearless ultrarunners, eager to test themselves against rugged ascents, exposed ridges, thin air, and the ever exciting possibility for freakish weather. As I stood atop a nearby hill to survey Lake City from above, I simply knew this would be a memorable weekend.
We spent Friday’s remaining hours readying our drop bags, delivering them to the town armory, then attending the pre-race briefing at 6:30pm, which essentially affirmed what we already knew. Due to dangerously high runoff resulting in unsafe river crossings, we’d run an alternate course this year (mused upon in my pre-race thoughts) designed to be of comparable difficulty both in terms of climbing and elevation. After the quick Q&A session I forwent the free supper, feasting instead upon rice and beans (brought from home) just as I had the night before Jemez.
By 10:30pm I was fast asleep, but by 2:00am I found myself awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, and tense with excitement. After what seemed like an eternity, my 3:15am alarm sounded and I jumped out of bed into my race clothes, then tip-toed down the stairs to prepare a big bowl of stoatmeal for breakfast. Aaron and Brandon soon joined, and we quietly consumed our respective meals.
At 4:00am we stepped out into the dark, deserted street and proceeded to walk the few blocks to town. Not a sound could be heard other than gravel scraping beneath our feet, and the air was calm and remarkably warm. We passed Mean Jean’s Cafe (who apparently forgot they’d promised to open at 4:00am on race day) and proceeded to the Mocha Moose for a quick caffeine fix, after which we made one last stop at the armory to check in.
1. Start to Silvercoin — mile 0 to 11
At the first sign of alpenglow, anxious runners emerged from all directions, assembling in a mass beside the park on Silver Street. At promptly 5:00am, our fearless race director Jerry Gray called us to attention and sent us on our way, thus commencing the 2011 San Juan Solstice 50. The first mile led us south, back through Lake City’s sleepy streets to the edge of town, where we were immediately greeted by the day’s first big climb. I exhaled a huge sigh of relief as my climbing muscles kicked into gear — at last they felt fresh and fully-rested after days of uncertainty. The group distributed rather quickly as many transitioned to a hike, undoubtedly saving strength for the long, arduous climbs ahead.
Up we went, ascending without abandon through towering stands of aspen, their white trunks illuminated by a nearly full moon. I locked pace with the two guys ahead of me, hiking when they hiked, jogging when they jogged, realizing only as we crested the first ridge who they were: Duncan Callahan and Karl Meltzer — two legends of ultrarunning. To those outside the sport, imagine kicking around with Ronaldo and Beckham — yep, that’s what this means to me.
Four miles in we breezed through Vickers Ranch (the first aid station) and reached a clearing with an unobstructed view of San Luis Peak and its companions to the east. Fiery clouds drifted amidst their peaks, foreshadowing the heat to come. For the next three miles we witnessed a sunrise so surreal, I struggled to straddle my focus between the beauty before me and the trail at my feet. As we gained elevation, the air grew noticeably cooler, but fortunately I’d opted to wear long sleeves, hat, and gloves form the start. Over this stretch I snapped a few photos with the camera Steve lent me, but it malfunctioned and I wound up leaving it in my Silvercoin drop bag.
As the trail began to descend through another thick grove of aspens, I slipped into a sort of trance, lost in thought as I subconsciously leaped over logs and ducked beneath branches. Suddenly, lost became a reality as Karl, in the first words I’d heard all morning, proclaimed, “You know, I haven’t seen a flag for a while now; I think we’re off course.” And just like that he did an about-face and proceeded back up the trail whence we came. The rest of us shared a few confused looks, then shrugged, turned, and followed Karl. By the time Karl spotted the flag we’d all missed down a hill across a meadow, a sizable group had amassed and joined the retreat. Like a scene out of Braveheart, dozens of runners simultaneously turned from the existing trail and charged down the hill — back on track.
As we crashed through the trees like a runaway train, we encountered several more poorly-marked junctions where some runners bared left, others bared right — it was true mayhem. At one point, race leader Joe Grant came running up the road headed completely the wrong way. After some additional confusion, a consensus emerged and the horde eventually managed to return to the marked course and make its way to Silvercoin, where by arriving all at once we probably overwhelmed the poor aid station volunteers. So by mile 11, the race had essentially reset itself — the field had been leveled. Yet with nearly 40 miles yet to run, anything could happen.
2. Red Mountain loop — mile 11 to 22
The next 11 miles led us clockwise around Red Mountain, a loop ultimately bringing us back to Silvercoin. This portion consisted of a steep 3000ft climb up a jeep road strewn with loose gravel, followed by a screaming downhill on similar footing. As we ascended, I managed to separate from the pack and again I found myself behind Karl, locking into his pace. My legs felt strong and I diligently sipped my Hammer flasks at regular intervals. Toward the top of the climb, I pulled ahead of Karl and caught Brandon on the ridge. We conversed as we cruised the descent together, much like we had for over 20 miles at the Cheyenne Mountain 50K in April, and I convinced him to let me borrow some of his photos for this writeup (thanks Brandon!).
When we returned to Silvercoin, I made my big, critical mistake of the day. After draining the remainder of my EFS flask (200 cals), I impulsively shoveled down some of the aid station offerings: three orange slices, a PBJ quarter, a turkey/cheese quarter, and a cup of Coke. I probably consumed close to 600 calories in a matter of minutes, then embarked on what would consequently become for me the most uncomfortable stretch of the race.
3. Silvercoin to the Divide — mile 22 to 34
Leaving Silvercoin, the course led us south along a dusty dirt road skirting the eastern edge of Lake San Cristobal, a hot, exposed section rising just a few hundred feet over 10 miles. Despite groans from my now bloated stomach, I resisted any urge to drop the pace being that this was likely to be the most runnable bit I’d encounter all day. I ran with Gunnison local Jesse Rickert for a while, but bailed when I spotted a fortuitously placed outhouse on the lake’s south shore — divine intervention, perhaps?
After the impromptu pit stop, I continued up the road feeling slightly better, but still rather queasy. I again caught Jesse as we reached the end of this long, boring segment, and we started up the Camp Trail together. Before the race, I’d made it a goal of mine to reach this third 3000 ft ascent feeling good — clearly this hadn’t played out as I’d hoped. Instead, as we wound our way up toward the Divide, the altitude began to take its toll and I slowed, which allowed Jesse to pull ahead and put some distance on me.
By the time I shuffled into the Divide aid station (which was relocated ~3 miles further down the road this year due to sloppy conditions), I felt downright drunk. The volunteers (bless their hearts) asked me several questions to which I responded, but have no recollection. I do recall, however, downing two cups of ginger ale, a handful of M&Ms, then grabbing some Fig Newtons before contuing along the muddy Divide trail, more than ready to drop back down to oxygen-rich Slumgullion.
4. Divide to Lake City — mile 34 to 50
The six mile descent from the Divide to Slumgullion marked a serious turning point. During this stretch I transitioned from feeling my absolute worst to my absolute best. As I lost elevation, my wooziness vanished, my stomach (finally) settled, and I picked up the pace. By the time I pulled into the aid station, I felt fresher than I had at 5:00am. Dakota Jones and Scott Jurek crewed me through like the pros they are, filling my handheld bottle, relieving me of the other (as well as my Nathan vest), then getting me back on the trail without delay — and good thing they did, for as I cruised out I could hear cheering that signified Karl’s arrival.
“Well shit,” I thought. “Here I am sitting 4th, feeling good, but with one more (huge) climb ahead and perhaps the world’s most accomplished ultrarunner in hot pursuit. I’m fucked.” What didn’t occur to me was the effective kick-in-the-pants this realization delivered. I buckled down and pushed the climb as hard as I could (which after 42 grueling miles might appear laughable — but I digress). As I reached the ridge and rolled through Vickers Ranch, I politely declined the offer to stay for a beer and proceeded to press the final 3 mile descent back to Lake City.
At no point did my lead on Karl feel comfortable. Instead I envisioned him staring at my scrawny back through a crosshair, then smoothly reaching down to push the “super-duper descent mode” button on his pillowy Hokas. But as I returned to the edge of town and hit the last flat mile, a few glimpses over my shoulder finally convinced me I had 4th place in the bag. I cruised into Lake City and crossed the line in a time of 9:38:29 — mere seconds from my Jemez time, but over (what I felt was) a much more challenging course.
Some final thoughts
It’s been a long report thus far, so I’ll keep this section brief. As previously noted, I definitely feel as though my fueling snafu at Silvercoin (mile 22) was my greatest mistake. While consuming as many calories as possible tends to be a good thing during ultras, it must be done carefully, without crossing the threshold beyond which one’s digestive system reels from the inability to process them all at once. Furthermore, I learned a bit about particular foods my body can tolerate (Fig Newtons: YES — turkey/cheese sandwich: NO). Hydration and salt never posed much of an issue, and I definitely feel as though I could’ve pushed a harder pace (both at Jemez and San Juan). Perhaps at a future 50-miler I’ll gamble and see how long I can keep up with the race leaders. For now, however, I’m content with my conservative approach — I’m building confidence with each successful finish, and accruing priceless experience and wisdom to carry forward.
I enjoyed every bit of my experience at San Juan — and for that I ought to commend the tremendous efforts of race director Jerry Gray and all of his amazing volunteers. I place no blame upon Jerry for the early race confusion — running an alternate course was the right call, and making all the necessary last-minute changes couldn’t have been an easy task. In all honesty, it impresses me that more mistakes weren’t made. Good job, guys — I highly recommend your race to those considering it, and would love to return next year to experience the official course! Also, congrats to everyone who raced this year — especially Joe for his win and Brandon for a stellar 9th place, sub-10 hour performance; way to go!
My focus now turns entirely toward Leadville. Nine weeks remain until I toe the line at 6th and Harrison, and I absolutely can’t wait. Factoring in a week of San Juan recovery and a ~3 week taper, I’m left with 5 weeks (basically the month of July) to train hard and do as much of it at altitude as I possibly can. Other than the Barr Trail Mountain Race and potentially pacing Nick Clark at Hardrock, I have no other obligations. Staying healthy, of course, will be priority number one.
Yes, I’m counting down the days, and as of today there are 59. Tomorrow there’ll be 58, the day after that 57…