June 2011

2011 San Juan Solstice 50

Elevation

Map

San Juan Solstice 50
Lake City, CO
50.7mi, +11900ft
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.

Charlie Brown.

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.

Overlooking Lake City.

A prophetic sign, indeed.

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.

Aaron Marks throws down some race-morning calories.

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.

In pursuit of Duncan and Karl just past Vickers Ranch.

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.

My last shot before the camera ceased working.

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.

"I see it; it's down there!" ... CHAARGE!!! (Credit: Brian Stepanwich)

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!).

Crossing the Red Mountain ridge line with Brandon. (Credit: Brian Stepanwich)

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?

Overlooking Lake San Cristobal from the north.

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.

On the Camp Trail, climbing toward the Divide. The dirt road we ran can be seen far below. (Credit: Brian Stepanwich)

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.

View from the Divide, not far from the aid station. (Credit: Brian Stepanwich)

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.

Successfully finishing my second 50-mile race. (Credit: Joe Grant)

Race emcee Dakota "Young Money" Jones, and Lake City local Jason, who gets to eat as much ice cream from the soda shop as he wants.

Brandon, Aaron, and I enjoying post-race brews and quesadillas. (Credit: Brian Stepanwich)

Ultramarathon king Karl Meltzer and 2011 San Juan Solstice winner Joe Grant, relaxing.

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.

Dinner from the Lake City Soda Shop. The flavor is triple-chocolate-chunk -- probably the best meal I've ever tasted.

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…

2011 Jemez Mountain 50

Elevation

Map

Jemez Mountain 50
Los Alamos, NM
50.3mi, +11200ft
9:38:05, 2nd overall

Yes, it’s a bit belated — but I decided to prioritize unimpeded enjoyment of my vacation last week. But now that I’m back, here’s my Jemez race report.

Fear is a great motivator. As noted in my prerace thoughts, I arrived to Jemez expecting sheer brutality — a punishing test of my wits against unprecedented hardship — a patronizing lesson in humility. But as it turns out, all this negativity may have been my most effective preparation.

In a wrap: I ran a conservative race, focusing on nutrition, adapting to situations as they arose, and frankly holding it together for over nine-and-a-half hours, good enough for second place in my very first 50-mile race. I couldn’t be much happier with the way things went. For the race play-by-play, I’ll break it down into five logical segments.

My eve of race gear check.

1. Start through Guaje Ridge — mile 0 to 10
My watch alarm cut the silence at 3:00am sharp. I hopped from bed into my outfit, then proceeded to prepare and consume my coffee and oatmeal. I’d slept well (even if only for ~5 hours) and after smearing myself with sunscreen, Wendy graciously delivered me to the race start. She would repeat this process an hour later for Jill, who was racing the 50K.

Geronimo, our hotel room guardian. He kindly agreed to let me hit his peace pipe for a banana.

I delivered my drop bags to their respective piles, then stood in place, taking in the bustle of race preparation going on around me. Despite the enormous amount of organization required at a race like this, the RDs had this process perfected, and the mood at the Posse Shack felt strangely relaxed. When the gun sounded at 5:00am, I followed the mass of runners down a dusty dirt road, past some startled horses, and onto the first rocky stretch of single-track. Our headlamps bobbed along in unison, flooding the trail with plenty of light and guiding us through the trees toward the foot of Guaje Ridge.

In front of the Posse Shack, ready to roll.

Nervous early race uncertainty coursed my mind: Am I going too fast? What if I fall apart by mile 20? What if my knee flares up? What if I can’t find my drop bags? I took a deep breath, and settled behind a small pack of five or six runners. At last, Brian Hopton-Jones broke the ice and we proceeded to converse over the next few miles, putting my mind at ease. He seemed like a nice guy — a landscaper from Dallas, not much older than I, and spoke with a neat accent (Irish per’aps?).

As the glow on the eastern horizon intensified, we dropped our lamps at the first aid station and commenced the initial climb up Guaje Ridge. Some elected to walk portions of this, so I inadvertantly pulled ahead to maintain my cadence, giving me a chance to self evaluate thus far. My pre-race meals (beans/rice for dinner, oatmeal for breakfast) were sitting well, and my legs felt fresh and springy — improvements I’ll attribute to lessons in digestion at Salida, and muscle tightness at Cheyenne Mtn.

First light near the top of Guaje Ridge.

I reached Guaje Ridge just as the first rays of morning sun struck the hillside, illuminating the eerie graveyard of burnt trees all around us. It was a beautiful sight… if in an ominous, forboding sort of way. What sort of trials awaited amongst the three major climbs ahead? I couldn’t wait to find out.

2. Caballo Mountain — mile 10-20
The laughably steep descent from Guaje Ridge gave me my first idea of what to expect — just staying on my feet would be a challenge! We dropped into a secluded gulch and followed the lush streambed awhile before making a hard right, thus beginning our first big climb, a surprisingly runnable jaunt to the top of Caballo Mountain and back.

I spent a few minutes taking in the peace and solitude, listening to my own breathing amidst the sheer quiet, dampened by a thick canopy of old growth Ponderosa. But just as I the silence began sinking in, Nick Clark came barrelling down the mountain like a runaway freight train. I barely managed to dart out of his path and emit a quick “Hey Nick” before he vanished into the trees below me. That was the last time I’d see Nick all day.

At the top of Caballo (~10500ft), I was greeted by a handful of volunteers and an incredible view of Pajarito Mtn to the south, home of the local ski slopes as well as big climb number three, which I wouldn’t encounter for another 26 miles or so. I snapped a picture and proceeded to charge back downhill in pursuit of Nick (and ~6 other runners ahead of me). During this descent I found myself running alongside another young guy whose name I later learned to be Loren Wohletz. For the next 10 miles, we would pace each other stride for stride, sharing conversation, and otherwise keeping the other’s mind occupied — a trick that makes the miles simply fly by.

The view of Pajarito Mountain from atop Caballo Mountain.

3. Cerro Grande — mile 20 to 30
As we climbed a smaller (but still respectable) ridge toward Pipeline, Loren (who grew up in Los Alamos) shared his knowledge of the local trails, a deed to which I owe a debt of gratitude. We blazed through Pipeline, then carefully negotiated a ludicrous drop into the mouth of the Valles Caldera. The caldera, an extinct supervolcano, is (in my mind) what makes the Jemez Mountains so unique and impressive. Running across I envisioned myself traversing the mouth of a great giant — crossing his huge, parched tongue, surrounded by a set of well-worn molars.

The drop here is steeper than it appears -- quite literally a butt-slider.

Looking across the caldera -- the road ahead.

At some point Loren eased up to examine a tight quadricep, so I carried on alone, following course flags across the valley floor, off the dirt road, over some lumpy grass, and finally to the foot of our second big climb: Cerro Grande. Unlike Caballo, this climb proved largely unrunnable due to its lack of discernable trail and much steeper grade — not to mention a massive boulder field and the slight onset of fatigue being now close to a marathon into the race. Run or hike however, I vowed to sally forth relentlessly and without pause, doing whatever I needed to maintain continuous progress.

Course flagging marks the "trail" up this hideous talus slope.

The race began to take its toll on some, and I managed to pick up a few positions as I approached the summit. I figured I might be running about fifth place at this point, but hadn’t really paid close attention. From the top of Cerro Grande, the course at last returned to single-track, provideing a long, winding decent through Pajarito Canyon, from 10500ft all the way back to 7000ft.

Self portrait from atop Cerro Grande.

I reached the mile 30 aid station, swapped out some gel flasks from my drop bag, and began a lonely climb to the base of the ski slope. It was here I made a wrong turn leading out to a paved road — a mistake costing me several minutes and adding ~0.3 miles, but one I rectified rather quickly. As the midday heat grew increasingly noticeable, I began taking S-caps at hourly intervals. Even so, my all-gel diet screeched to a halt once my stomach eschewed the thought of another espresso Hammer or vanilla EFS flask. At the chairlift aid station, I drained a small cup of coke and grabbed a PBJ before confronting the inevitable final climb up before me.

Approaching the Pajarito Canyon aid station, shortly before the last big climb.

4. Pajarito Mountain — mile 30 to 40
As I squinted to locate the course flags leading straight up a very steep ski run, any initial thoughts of running Pajarito Mountain were quickly displaced by the absurdity of what lied before me. I tucked my head and charged uphill, rarely lifting my eyes from the dirt at my feet. This was a bitch — an absolute bitch. But again, as with Cerro Grande, I focused on every step, each one a part of the whole — the progress rather than the problem. Before long I stood triumphantly atop Pajarito’s grassy peak, Los Alamos a distant cluster of structures far below and the caldera stretching off into the distance.

Scoping out the ski slope up which I am about to climb.

I didn’t spend too much time relishing this moment, but instead continued along the ridge back toward Pipeline for the second (and final) time. Wendy and Zelda pleasantly surprised me with their presence at Pipeline, so I offloaded my gloves and windshirt (no longer needed) and picked up a “special delivery” (read on).

5. Guaje Ridge (again) to the finish — mile 40 to 50
As I left Pipeline, I knew full well 10 miles still remained, but also that most of these would be downhill. Despite the 40 miles behind me, I felt surprisingly good both in terms of energy and leg strength. As soon as I put the short grunt climb out of Pipeline behind me, I shifted gears and cruised down the trail Guaje-bound, whistling a tune (Rocky Raccoon), and munching on a handful of chocolate chip cookies.

The last little climb out of Pipeline before the long descent back into town.

By now we’d reached the heat of the day and I couldn’t wait to get out of the sun, but the descent seemed to last an eternity, winding ever downward out of the Jemez Mountains back to Los Alamos. When I dropped into Rendija Canyon around mile 47, the toll of my haphazard refueling strategy began to catch up with me. Although aid station offerings had done me well so far, I needed one last shot in the arm to get me to the finish line, so I busted out my “special delivery”…

Mmm... creamy.

Yes, indeed 270 calories of pure fat and sugar was just the stimulus I needed — I swear I could feel the creamy filling soak instantly into my bloodstream. I reigned in this one last glut of energy and surged toward the finish line. Ultimately I crossed the line in 9:38:05, a full hour-and-a-half behind Nick (setting a new course record), but good enough for second — albeit merely a minute ahead of third place finisher Benjamin Dunn, who must’ve been closing on me fast (had we one more mile he would’ve caught me).

Me, Wendy, Zelda, and Jill back at the Posse Shack. Jemez makes you jappy!

Immediately after the race, I drank some coke to ease some queasiness, then began my planned New Mexico style refueling process involving excessive portions of green chile cooked in every imaginable way — the perfect piece de resistance.

Some final thoughts
After Jemez, I spent the next few days relaxing at Jill’s house near Albuquerque, followed by a 4-day river trip in southeast Utah with Matt’s (Wendy’s husband) family. In addition to some forced rest, this gave me some time to reflect on the race and otherwise do some pondering.

What went well?

  • I ran very conservatively (especially early on), feeling strong late in the race as a result. Could I have run harder? Probably. How about a Nick-Clarkian effort? No way. And had I exerted myself more during the first two climbs, I’m almost certain Benjamin Dunn would’ve caught me. In terms of securing second place, I don’t think I could have done much better.
  • While my body eschewed gels beyond mile 33, I still maintained steady caloric intake from aid station offerings. Immediately following the race, I jotted down everything I remember eating: 6oz Hamer gel, 8oz EFS shot, 7 cookies, 2 fig newtons, 10oz coke, 6oz ginger ale, handful of corn chips, 1 mini snickers, 6oz Heed, 8 orange slices, handful of M&Ms (half plain, half peanut), 1/2 PBJ, some ginger candy, 1 Cadbury creme egg. This totals ~2600 cals, or about 270 cals/hr.
  • Despite cool morning temps and midday heat, I never felt dehydrated or hyponatremic. Around mile 15 I took an S-cap, then proceeded to do so hourly throughout the race. The only thing I didn’t really regulate was water intake — I simply drank when my mouth felt dry.
  • My knee never posed an issue, so I’ll assume my stretching regimen is paying off. Also, I managed to stay on my feet all day — no nasty spills or stumbles.

What should I work on?

  • Over stretches of the course exceeding 10000 ft, I definitely felt a subtle, throbbing headache — a sign that I need to incorporate more training at altitude, especially since San Juan and Leadville spend so much time above treeline. Unfortunately the alpine snowpack is still very high, so I’ll have to keep an eye on the melting situation.
  • When using Hammer gel in flasks, do not mix any thicker than a 1:1 ratio, and do not refrigerate them the night before. Trying to suck cold, viscous, chocolately glue through a flask nozzle isn’t easy or fun. I’d estimate I only got ~300 of the 400 cals out of each flask.
  • While my headband protected my ears, my scalp got a nice burn from the hot New Mexico sun.

So as I look ahead to San Juan, I’m not completely sure how I can amend my preparation. I’ll put in some solid mileage as the solstice approaches, and withold any earnest taper until 7 (or fewer) days before the race. As before, my primary focus is Leadville, and the sloppy San Juan trails (and potential course reroute) may make it the suffer-fest I expected Jemez to be.

That said, Jemez is a top-notch event — one I would recommend to anyone considering a challenging 50-mile race. While it’s impossible to plan so far ahead, I would love to return to Jemez next year to see what wisdom and experience can do. For now I better keep my sights set on my near-term goals.

Enjoying a little active recovery around the Fossil Loop (near Jill's house) with Zelda, the sheep in sheepdog's clothing.