Saturday, June 19, 2010

San Juan Solstice 50 - Race Report

Time: 10:41
Distance: 50 miles
Effort: Hard!
Body: Good
Weather: Sunny and warm

Synopsis:  I learned a lot. Ran a good race. Made no major mistakes. Finished strong. Exceeded my goals. Had a lot of fun. 

The (very) long version:  About four days out from Saturday's San Juan Solstice 50, I started feeling anxious about the race. A poorly-timed 10-day family/business trip to the East Coast had thrown a wrench into a very solid block of training leading up to my first-ever 50-mile race. For what felt like a crucial week and a half, I was living and training low...sea level low. This just didn't feel like a good race strategy.

I finally got home to Colorado late on the Tuesday before the race. After 10 days of dashing from one air conditioned building to another, I felt off -- a little abnormally fatigued, like I was on the verge of coming down with something.  Before I knew it, it was Thursday and I realized that I'd been so caught up in getting caught up at work, that I'd failed to give much thought to race gear and logistics. I was feeling anxious. Am I ready? Am going to get sick? What shoes should I wear? What's my race plan? What should I pack to eat on the run?

After a very late Thursday night of swirl and anxiety -- something very uncommon for me -- I finally returned to form and decided I'd just let it come...I'd find some flow and just rely on commonsense. There was still some anxiousness about the race, though. I was confident that I could finish the race. No doubt. The question was how much I would suffer.

Just after I signed up for the race back in January, I arbitrarily decided my goal was to finish in the top 25 percent. I don't think I ever told anyone about the goal, other than AJW who, in exchange for some yet-to-be-delivered beer, offered to provide some guidance on training. In fact, most of my friends and co-workers had no idea I was training to run a 50-mile race.

Fast forward to last Friday afternoon. JP, jP, CP and I are driving to Lake City. Just as we pulled into Gunninson I glanced at my mobile phone and saw that I'd started getting a whole bunch of e-mail messages from co-workers sending "good luck" wishes. Uh-oh, someone leaked my race plans. Turned out my boss was the culprit. She sent out a mass e-mail. Now I had a dozen colleagues marveling at my yet-to-be-proven ultrarunner prowess.  My flow was getting a little turbulent.

By the time we rolled into Lake City and unloaded our gear into our rental cabin, the flow was back. Knowing all my co-workers were pulling for me was an incentive...another reason to persevere and leave everything on the trail. Feeling more relaxed, I finally started getting serious about drop bags and gear. After days of vacillating, I decided to run with the Nathan hydration pack, wear the La Sportiva Crosslites shoes and rely on a hell of a lot of PowerBar gels for fuel. My plan was to consume a gel (Strawberry-Banana) every 30 minutes and regularly  pop S-Caps to stay on top of electrolytes.

Soon, the drop bags were finally packed, I had my race number and we were at the race dinner, catching up with Brandon, Todd G. and their families. I never heard the pre-race briefing, but got some sage advice from Todd, which essentially boiled down to "don't blow it in the first 25 miles because you can run the last 25 miles." At last...a race strategy.

The race course elevation profile...three big climbs

Race Day

The alarm went off at 3:45 a.m. I crept quietly around the cabin going about the morning routine while trying not to wake up JP and the kids. Once I was dressed in race gear and had a plate of food and drinks, I snuck outside and sat in the truck and ate, drank and tried not to think about how little sleep I got.

By 4:45 a.m. I was checked in at the race HQ and chatting with Brandon and Todd in between last minute dashes to the bathroom. Finally word was time to line up for the start. Everyone slowly shuffled out of the warm confines of the Lake City armory and over to the main street downtown for the start. Before I knew it, we were off.

Despite the darkness, the early hour and the long day ahead, the pack took off at a relatively quick pace, After a few blocks in town, we hung a right and were cruising up Engineer Pass road. I was feeling good here. The altitude was not a factor, My legs felt fresh. No sign of the "off" feeling I'd had all week, including the day before. I felt solid, like it was going to be a good day.

After 2.7 miles of flat and a bit of a gentle grade here and there, we were directed left off the road and onto singletrack which would lead us up Alpine Gulch to the first aid station. The lower half of Alpine Gulch was no problem - mostly rolling with multiple stream crossings - all of which I managed without so much as getting my feet wet. Through this section I was running with Todd G. and just behind Helen Cospolich. The trail soon turned up and Todd and Helen disappeared as I switched to power hiking. 

About a quarter mile from the Alpine aid station, I started hearing whoops and hollers ahead. After cresting a small rise, there was the aid station, which really was just an opportunity to refill water bottles. I had plenty of Cytomax left, so I hit the split button on my watch (1:36 to Alpine) and jogged straight through the aid station and immediately fell in behind Brandon, whom I hadn't seen -- other than quick glimpses through the trees headed up Alpine -- since he passed me on Engineer Pass Road.  

Alpine to Williams Creek Campground

Brandon explained he'd stepped off trail for a bio break and off we went covering the last few switchbacks before gaining the ridge which we would traverse west before beginning the big descent into the Williams Creek Campground aid station.

After hopping onto a frozen snowbank to momentarily escape the uneven, rock-strewn footing of the ridge line, I found a groove and headed off solo, passing a couple of guys on the way to the saddle far above Williams Creek.

By the time I hit the saddle, it was time for my own bio break. Unfortunately, treeline and the privacy it promised seemed to be an eternity away. Somehow I made it to the trees, took care of business and resumed the descent down to Williams campground. This section was totally runnable, with a forgiving dirt surface and not too many rocks. So, of course, this is the place to trip and fall, 

I'm not sure how it happened. One second I was speeding down a short steep section of dirt, the next second I was hurtling through the air. Fortunately, I had the right combination of speed, incline and surface, all of which led to me going airborne, tucking my right shoulder, hitting the ground and rolling up onto my feet and not losing stride. As I ran, I took stock...a little dirty, a little blood on the right elbow, nothing serious.  After a few stretches through some gorgeous meadows and a little position jockeying with a guy and a woman, I arrived at the aid station and hit the split at 1:34; 3:10.

The aid station was run like a NASCAR pitstop. I showed up at the food/drink table, someone handed me my drop bag and someone else asked for my hydration pack and took my beverage order, In just two minutes or so, I had a full hydration pack, the new collection of gels from my drop bag and a mouth full of pretzels. I was now 15.7 miles into the race.

Williams Creek to Carson

After the whirlwind of the aid station, I took a right out of the campground and began running the two flatish miles to Wager Creek jeep road that would takes us up to the Carson aid station. As I ran, I packed my new stash of gels into my race vest pockets. The climb was only 3.6 miles, but it was steep. I power hiked most of climb, running the gentle portions. I could see two guys up ahead, but they seemed to be slowly pulling away, although I managed to keep them in sight. 

I resisted the desire to run, opting to stick with the conservative first half race strategy. I just focused on keeping up a fast walking pace and remembering to down my prescribed gel every 30 minutes.  

Shortly after being passed by a trio of dusty, smelly motorcycles I pulled into the Carson aid station. Split time was 1:28; 4:38. Once again, I handed over my race vest/hydration pack, grabbed my drop bag and stuffed my face with Coke and pretzels. I sat down (the only time I sat at an aid station), pawed through my drop bag, exhumed my iPod and was soon headed out of the aid station with a freshly-filled pack on my back and an episode of Endurance Planet filling my ears.  

Twenty-two miles down.

Carson to Divide

From Carson, we climbed a bunch more until we intersected with the Colorado Trail. Here I could see a handful of runners ascending a series of switchbacks headed up toward a high ridge. Through this section, I was still power hiking, but managed to pick off a couple of runners.

At last, I gained the high ridge and was able to run again. I switched the iPod over to music and began cruising. I quickly caught a couple more runners just as we were passing a big man-made pile of rocks. Being a rookie on this course, I made a comment about the pile and was informed in a dead-pan way that we were passing the course's high point, the 13,334-foot summit of Coney Peak.

The terrain through here was classic Colorado alpine meadows, with views as far as the eye could see.  The course had a few minor re-routes to go around small snow banks, but other than that, there was some good running through this section.

At one particularly wide open and moderately downhill section, I came across Todd G. who was not having a good day. Seeing him gave me a perfect excuse to slow down, walk for a bit and rest my increasingly weary legs. Todd would have none of it though.  "What are you doing," he asked incredulously. "You're having a good race. Don't stop running!  Go!"

Always one to listen to people smarter than me, I heeded his advice and set off again running down a sweet section of singletrack.  The trail slowly dropped back into the trees and soon the course markers directed runners off the trail and up through a wet meadow. At the top of the meadow was the aid station. 

I jogged into the aid station just as a runner was leaving. (I failed to hit the split button on my watch at this aid station.) I quickly peeled off my hydration pack, handed it over and began downing Coke and noshing pretzels. In about a minute I was ready to go. One problem, though. I still didn't have my pack back. Turned out, the guy that filled it at the Carson aid station had slid the bladder clasp on incorrectly and it was stuck - really stuck.

After another minute or two of trying to muscle the clasp off, I told the guy to forget it. The bladder still was about half full. Surely that was enough to get me the nine, mostly downhill, miles to the next aid station. So off I went.

Thirty-one miles down.

Divide to Slumgullion

After a short descent back through the upper part of the meadow in front of the aid station, the trail climbed through the trees and emerged again in the type of wide-open grassy park terrain we had run through earlier. The trail climbed steadily and then began undulating for the next three miles. Just before beginning the four mile descent down to Slumgullion, I passed a runner in a red shirt who was alternating between walking and running a jeep road section with a nice mix of ups and downs. I also was switching between walking and running through here, but must have had just a  bit more pep.

Soon, the descent into Slumgullion began. By this point, my quads were trashed. The downhills hurt worse than the ups. Much of this jeep road was very steep and rocky, forcing me to walk some downhill stretches and pause now and then to give the quads a short break.

About a mile into the downhill, I was passed by a runner I had last seen somewhere on the Colorado Trail about four miles out of the Carson aid station. He was moving pretty well and soon had a couple hundred yards on me. 

After four or so miles of quad-crushing descent, I finally heard the sounds of an approaching aid station. Then, I came around a small curve, picking my way down a particularly steep, rocky section and there was JP, who was soon joined by CP and jP. I gingerly jogged down to them, gave each a hug. As I hugged her, JP said, "Oh, you don't look good." She was referring to the grimace that had been on my face as I was descending to them. Yep, the quads were really hurting.

Seeing the family caused a wave of emotion to wash over me. Felt really good and probably juiced some much-needed endorphins into the system. JP nudged me back onto the jeep road promising to meet me at the aid station, just 20 yards further downhill.

At the aid station, I again handed over the hydration pack. Same problem. No one could get the clasp off. A strong-looking young guy even pulled on it with everything he had, but could not get the damn thing to slide off. Attempts to use a Buck knife to pry the clasp off also failed.

Thankfully, in addition to the requisite cache of gels and S-Caps, I also had stuck a hand bottle in my drop bag, so I pulled it out, had it filled, told the aid station crew to forget about the bladder and hand back to me the pack. Just then, Elaine, an angel of mercy, remembered she had a water bottle. She grabbed it, filled it, promised me she had no open sores and handed it over. Too cool.  

Meanwhile, while I spent five minutes messing with my gear, the guy that passed me on the descent had already left and the guy I passed at the top of the descent had entered the aid station and was heading out. I uttered a mild expletive and took off just behind the guy, waving and hollering back to the family.

I forgot to hit the split again here. Forty miles down.

Slumgullion to Vickers

From Slumgullion, red shirt guy and I crossed Highway 149 and made our way through a well-marked, but trail-less section of the course that went through an area hammered by mining.  Soon, thankfully, we were jogging across a parking area toward a singletrack trail. The guy in front of me hollered back a question about how high was this ascent. I told him if this was Vickers, it was 1,700 feet up.  With that, he kept jogging and soon had a hundred yards on me.

Meanwhile, it was back to power hiking. Up, up, up I went through an endless aspen grove, surrounded on both side by high green grass. After a mile or two, I passed the guy that had passed me on the descent down to Slumgullion. As I approached, he and his pacer (you could pick up pacers at Slumgullion for the final 10 miles.) stepped off the trail and offered some words of encouragement.  Before too long, the course entered a wide open, steep meadow.  I could see above me a couple of runners, including a Helen Cospolich and the red shirt guy.

I did my best to keep up the steady power hike, but still had to pause once in a while to rest. Near the top of the meadow, I caught Helen. Actually passing her seemed to take 10 minutes. That had to have been the slowest pass I'd ever done. 

Soon, the trail leveled out a bit and entered a coniferous forest and began heading downhill. The quads were not happy about this, but I was determined not to be passed by the two runners I'd reeled in over the last couple of miles.

Finally, the Vickers aid station appeared ahead. I ran in and grabbed a handful of pretzels and handed over my water bottles. As they were being filled, red shirt guy took off. I downed a couple cups of Coke, collected my handhelds and was off on the chase.

I did manged to hit the split here - 5:16 from Carson, 9:55 and 46 miles into the race.

Vickers to Finish

Just four more miles and one hard descent to go. I jogged out of the aid station, keeping my head up looking for glimpses of red ahead. In no time, the runner ahead was out of sight. I figured he was gone, so I switched my focus to keeping ahead of the two runners behind me.

The descent down toward town on the Waterdog Trail was vicious. My quads were killing me, but I was learning an invaluable lesson: so much of pain is mental. All of my body's systems were working fine. I had no serious ligaments damaged, no joints about to break, no torn muscles...just fatigue. Even though the discomfort was severe, I can fight through it.

And fight through it I did. 

At last, the town appeared through the pine trees and got closer and closer with every rock-strewn switchback. Finally, the trail dumped us out on a dirt road. After running around a slight curve in the road, I looked down the long, straight road ahead and caught sight of the red-shirted runner. After a quick mental calculation, I decided he was gone. 

I turned my attention to finishing, and finishing soon. I wanted to be done. My quads were now officially done. The sooner I finished, then sooner I could stop. So I started running. Then, I looked back over my shoulder and saw the runner and his pacer I passed on the ascent to Vickers. Seeing them sent started the adrenaline flowing and I picked up the pace, a lot. And, at that moment, the wind picked up, blowing hard straight into my face.

Right then, I got tunnel vision. I saw only two things. The two red hand-painted SJS course signs and the runner ahead of me in the distance. I could feel the wind howling and my body aching, but I continued running hard. I was not going to get passed.

Next, things began feeling better. I was moving well, probably running about a 7 minute mile pace, maybe a bit quicker. Man, it hurt, but it also felt great. And, I was gaining on the runner ahead. The howling wind was masking the sound of my approaching footsteps. I don't think the runner knew I was coming. I passed the first SJS course sign, then I passed the runner.

He looked over at me and said "good job." I thanked him and kept churning, not daring to look back to see if he was giving chase. I ran through a cul-de-sac, over a pedestrian bridge over the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and into town proper.

The course crossed the highway just ahead, and as I approached, a volunteer indicated the road was clear and waved me across. Things were really hurting now, but I was determined to hold pace, but wasn't sure if I could. The big question now was what street was I on? I knew the finish must be at Third Street and Silver. At the intersection of Silver, I saw the street sign - Fifth Street!  Only two more blocks.

I kept up the pace down Silver and through downtown to the sound of the race announcer and a smattering of applause.

Running down Silver Street approaching the town park and the finish line (Photo: Kim Fuller)

Right as I stepped off the street into the town park, I saw jP and CP standing there at the entrance to the chute of orange cones that led to the banner-covered scaffolding that was the finish line. They were all smiles, cheering and waving. Smiling back, I told them to run it in with me. The three of us crossed the finish line together in 10:41 and in 19th place.

Approaching the finish line with jP and CP

After handing over the tag off my race number, I hugged JP and immediately sought out a spot to collapse. I was wasted...done....nothing else in the tank. I left everything I had on the trails and roads of the course. I had exceed my goal of finishing in the top 25 percent, ending up just a hair, I think, outside of the top 10 percent.

I laid there in the sun soaking up the post-race atmosphere and being well-cared for by JP and the kids. After a bit, I managed to get up and stagger over to the food table to pick up some snacks. Getting up and walking was not easy. 

Relaxing post-race with JP

A short while later, Brandon came through the finish line looking strong and relieved to be done.  Read Brandon's excellent race report. I also finally met Jason Poole, a fellow Evergreen runner, who came in ninth overall at just under 10 hours. Nice work, Jason!

There were some damn fast times this year. Young Dakota Jones came within 13 minutes or so of Matt Carpenter's seemingly unassailable 2004 course record. Ryan Burch also put in a remarkable performance for second place.

The top five finishers' tags from race numbers.

The rest of the evening was spent relaxing back in the cabin and scarfing down pizza at a local Italian joint where we had the opportunity to spend a good chunk of time chatting with Charles Corfield, a brilliant guy and excellent ultrarunner.

Race results here.

The next morning we returned to the town park for the award ceremony. For purposes of full disclosure, I must admit that we drove the four blocks to the park. I just didn't feel like walking. My quads were really pissed off at me.

After the awards for the overall finishers, the color-coded finishers hats were handed out.  I got a blue-brimmed hat for finishing under 11 hours.

As we were leaving the park, I ran into Jaime Yebra, a guy whose blog I follow and who also was running his first 50 mile race. Read Jaime's race report here.

A few other race reports:  Jason Halladay, Brett from South Carolina, Stephen Young, Scott Jaime.

It's three days since the race and I'm still smiling about the experience. I definitely learned a lot and hope to run a few more of races of this length (still no interest in 100 mile races!).  I've been thinking a lot about lessons learned and how I might tweak my training to account for some deficiencies.  But given the Moby Dick length of this race report, I'll save that for a later post.


  1. Hey Jim,
    Great report. You ran a solid and smart race. Let the pain subside and I will ask again about the 100 mile race.

  2. Awesome report Jim!!! Glad to hear your first 50 went so well.

  3. Jim,
    Pleasure to finally meet you Sunday morning. Seriously, outstanding freaking race you ran. I really enjoyed the write up as well and that's a great family pic as you all head to the finish line! Can't imagine there's a better way to finish a race.

  4. Congrats on the first 50 miler, Jim. I remember you passing up on the CD and I never saw you after that - I'm impressed. What else are you planning for the year?

  5. Todd - alright...never say never. Got it.

    Jim - Thanks! Much appreciated.

    Jaime - I can't imagine a better way to finish. Let's get together for some runs this summer.

    Steve - The only things on the calendar are Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon. Was thinking about looking at the Run Rabbit Run 50 in Steamboat.

  6. Great report, great race. Well done man. Look forward to meeting you this weekend.

    And I was cracking up at the four block drive.

  7. Great race and report! Hope you come out for our easy jog in the mountains Saturday night!

  8. Awesome race Jim! This was my first 50 last year so the report brought back lots of memories. I don't know how you kept your feet dry going up Alpine Gulch. Did you just leap over those stream crossings?

  9. Rob -

    The water levels were way down from last year and someone had put logs across the creek at virtually every crossing - not big wide logs...just a couple of small ones. I watched some folks splash right through. I hate running w/ wet feet, so the brief pause to inch across the logs was worth it.

  10. Jim: Great report and run! I'll be driving from Indiana for this year's SJS50. I had a family crew to help me during the Leadville SR50 last year, but I will be alone this year. Do you have any gear/drop bag suggestions for me? Thanks

  11. Shane - thanks for the comment. I used three drop bags - Williams, Carson and Slumgullion. At Williams I just had a sandwich-sized Ziploc crammed w/ gels and some ShotBlocks. I was running w/ a hydration pack, so I just picked up the Ziploc and stashed the gels as I moved (helps minimize aid station stop times).

    At Carson, I had some more gels and my iPod. At Slumgullion, I had the same Ziploc and a handheld bottle (just in case I wanted it...and due to equipment problems, I ended up needing it). We had excellent weather that year. I think I may have stuck a light running jacket and gloves in either the Carson or Williams drop bags...just in case the weather looked bad as we hit the high(est) country (that's the stretch just past Carson).

    If the weather is good this year, I probably would follow the same basic strategy. I prefer a certain type of gels, which is why I had them in my drop bag (ate one approx. every 30 minutes).

    The SJS50 is a spectacular course, and the race is low key and well run. You're going to love it. Hope to run into you there. Drive safe.