2014 San Juan Solstice 50

Lake City, CO
June 21, 2014
8:48:59, 50 miles
2nd (out of 167)

“Legs feeling peppy?” asked Paul as we strode side-by-side up the dirt road, its smooth surface barely illuminated by the dull glow of an imminent solstice sunrise. “Yeah, I think so!” I replied. This was my third trip to Lake City to run the San Juan Solstice 50, and he knew how hard I’d been training.

After three quick miles, we reached the turn up Alpine Gulch—the first of three major climbs—and together we dropped to the first creek crossing. Without hesitation, Paul plunged into its icy current and, with a howl, pulled himself dripping wet onto the opposite bank. I jumped in after him and immediately found myself flailing as the strong flow threatened to drag me downstream. The heavy spring runoff had race organizers planning an alternate route due to high waters, and suddenly I could see why.

The route crossed the stream a dozen times more and at each one Paul slipped further ahead, his huge stride carrying him up and onward at an unmatchable clip. I picked my way cautiously through each icy stream, my legs cold and heavy, and as I gained the ridge and broke from the trees, he was out of sight.

Paul is, after all, my roommate, and though I ran a strong race (second place and 32 minutes quicker than last time), it was the tall, soft-spoken guy who crushed the course and, due to his humble nature, will never brag about it. So I’ll brag for him.

By Williams Creek Campground (mile 17) Paul had ten minutes on me, and by the time I reached the continental divide he had over twenty. By my standards I felt pretty damn good, but clearly Paul did too. Anyone else and I’d be on the hunt, planning my pursuit and strategizing, but in this case I wanted Paul to have a big day. He goes hard and when he’s hot, he’s untouchable, but those who hammer from the get-go are prone to implosion, and Paul had succumbed to an implosion in his previous race. Up on the divide I settled into my groove—no one ahead, no one behind—and simply ran my own race, occasionally wondering how things were unfolding for Paul up ahead.

Many miles on the continental divide. (Photo: David Eitemiller)

Many miles on the continental divide. (Photo: David Eitemiller)

Paul and I met at the Telluride Mountain Run last August where he appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and steamrolled the field, winning by over an hour. Unsure of his future and uncommitted to a life in Fort Collins, I convinced him to give Durango a try, and before long we were signing the lease for a townhome on Durango’s west side just a stone’s throw from the nearest trails.

For the last eight months I’ve gotten to know Paul beyond merely his tall, lanky stature and quiet disposition. He’s extremely smart and thoughtful, often caught foam-rolling his IT band on the living room floor with a book about Lewis and Clark or Genghis Kahn in hand. He’s inspired by landscape, concocting high-country routes with massive summit objectives—single-track be damned. He works incredibly hard, putting in forty-plus hour weeks in the dairy-frozen section of the local natural grocery. He routinely out-cooks, out-eats and out-sleeps me (probably why he easily out-runs me) and is mysteriously unpredictable, vanishing during his off days to knock out huge lines up in the mountains.

One thing I admire most about Paul is his old-school slant. No fancy watches. No Facebook. Shoes and socks with holes? No problem. At San Juan Solstice he charged off the line in a striped, cotton tank-top that he may have scavenged from a thrift shop floor for all I know, his hat reversed and blond locks flapping in the breeze. He gets after it without overthinking it, a “simpler-is-better” approach that I (and perhaps many of us) could benefit from.

After climbing the divide’s final roller, I descended into Slumgullion (mile 40) faster than I ever have. I always love how the air grows noticeably thick during this descent following hours of hypoxia; the throbbing headache subsides and the stomach gets back to work on that bar I ate fifteen miles ago. At the aid station I topped off my water bottle and laughed when my brother-in-law Matt mentioned that Paul rolled through over thirty minutes earlier. “Damn!” I pictured him now, grinding his way up to Vickers (mile 46) through dense stands of lush aspen, perhaps suffering immensely but never relenting or even conceding a hint of discomfort. Even if he had hyponatremia, giardia, gone way off course, and had a bear’s jaw clamped around his ankle I don’t think Paul would complain.

The Vickers climb is always a bit of a slap in the face, no matter how good one feels. While previously it nearly brought me to tears, this time I knew what to expect and stomped the climb proudly. I proceeded almost recklessly down the final descent, over the Gunnison River, up Lake City’s Silver Street and pushed strong through the finish line. But before I could even grab a beer, Paul was there to shake my hand and congratulate me; the Durango boys had swept one-two!

The Ham-boli one two.

The Ham-boli one two. (Photo: SJS50 Staff)

Paul is an incredibly gifted runner. He’s got a hell of an engine and can skitter across technical terrain quicker than most, especially for someone his height. It’s only a matter of time before he lands a sponsorship, and when he does, I’ll feel privileged having gotten to know him beforehand. He has inspired me to look at my own running objectives from a new perspective. Through all the data and stats and numbers and structure that can obfuscate the running experience, Paul reminds me the core reason why I run: it liberates.

And the fact that Paul finished just narrowly missed a sub- 8 hour finish in his longest race to date (third fastest time on the course and 40 minutes ahead of me), well, that’s just a kickass performance worthy of applause.