Friday, June 24, 2011

San Juan Solstice 50 Race Report

As I marched in the early morning darkness down Highway 149 from our rental house to the start line of the 2011 San Juan Solstice 50, I had no bounce in my step.  It was 4:15 a.m. I wasn't injured or tired, just uninspired.  I had a race to run and just wanted to get it over with.

Running has been like that for me over the last month or so. Training has been a chore, something squeezed in (or not) between way too many other commitments.  I ran twice the two weeks before this race, once for 3.5 miles in San Diego and once for about the same in Washington, D.C.

My running mojo was nowhere in sight and I was standing at the start of arguably the hardest 50-mile trail race in the country.

This year's race, as most know by now, would not be run on the standard course. There still was too much snow up on the Continental Divide and the run-off from the rapidly melting remnants of this year's epic snowpack was creating unsafe river and creek crossings.  Thus, the RD and his race committee came up with a challenging alternative course that kept runners off the snow and out of the water.

2011 San Juan Solstice 50 course profile - 12,799 feet of elevation gain
Start to Vickers Ranch

As the clocked ticked down to 5 a.m., a long line of runners took up position on Silver Street, across from Lake City's town park. In no time, we were off, wheedling our way through town, past darkened houses on empty streets headed toward the Water Dog Trail for the climb to the top of Vickers' Ranch.

A lead group was off the front as we hit the singletrack and I fell in with a conga line of runners alternating between running and speed hiking. Despite my angst, my legs were feeling good and the modest pace up Water Dog proved frustrating. Finally out of the initial rocky switchbacks, the trail opened up a bit and I was able to motor past a few slower runners.

Sunrise from Vickers Ranch.  Photo: Woody A.
Vickers Ranch to Silver Coin

The Vickers' Aid Station at about mile four seemed to appear quickly. I ran through it without stopping, picking up the pace through the undulating terrain of meadows, aspen groves and spruce/lodgepole forests. Finally, we hit the highpoint on Vickers and ran along a ridgeline with a vast meadow spread out below us, the meadow I remembered hiking up at about mile 42 last year.

About 100 yards past the place last year's climb joined the trail I now was on, I noticed a good-sized group of runners running toward me. Turned out, this was the lead group of runners. They had gone off-course and had backtracked to get back to the proper trail.

Heading down Vickers Ranch - me in the black gloves on left. Photo: Shane T.
Soon, everyone had reformed and were cruising down through the meadow back toward the marked course. Once through the meadow, the now serpentine trail wound its way in and out of aspen trees, then back into a coniferous forest before dumping us out on Highway 149, a mile or so below the Slumgullion Aid station, which we would see 30+ miles later.

Once on the highway, the new course took us uphill about 50 meters to some pink flagging on the right. Here, Chris D. from Gunnison and I quickly found ourselves off-course. Next to the flagging was an obvious two-track, which we followed. Mistake. We were supposed to drop down about 10 meters before the two-track. We spent about five minutes poking around trying to find the trail before I finally located it.

Now back on track, we were cruising down some cushion-y ATV roads headed toward the Silver Coin Aid Station. At least we were until we went off course again. Somewhere we just missed a turn (my bad...I was leading).  There were four of us running together now...lost. Three of us decided to head cross-country, generally downhill in hopes of picking up the course again. After a good five minutes of wondering if we were digging ourselves into too big of a hole, we spotted the trail ahead.

Sliver Coin to Silver Coin

Soon, we were entering into the Silver Coin Aid Station. After a quick re-fill, I grabbed my Ziploc bag o' gels from my drop bag and began the climb up Roundtop Mountain. This was the second climb of the day, and it was hard. This was one of those roads that makes you wonder what its builders were thinking...."hey guys, do you dare me to try and build a road up this mountain!?"  It was ridiculously steep in places and rocky the whole way.

A section of the climb up Roundtop Mountain. Photo: Shane T.
I pulled out my iPod, inserted the ear buds and disappeared into my head.

As I marched up the road, I was still feeling apathetic. "Let's just get this done," was running through my head. I didn't care where I was in the standings. No matter that someone had just out-hiked me.

After a particularly steep pitch, where it almost made sense to climb it with all four limbs touching the ground, the top of Roundtop Mountain was in sight. Downhill running awaited.  But first, I went yet again off-course for a bit. After a quick fix, I was back on course and running down a decent-quality road.

The view from the top of Roundtop Mountain. Uncompahgre Peak in the center. Photo: Woody A.
Just then, something changed in my head. I wanted to run...and run hard. "F*** the quads, let's see what happens," I told myself as I started running hard downhill. I was flying, easily at a sub-6 pace, just feeling great. No pain. No discomfort. Running free...with abandon.

In no time, I was back at the Silver Coin Aid Station, grabbing another Ziploc of gels and refilling my hydration pack (and knocking over a toddler on my way out...sorry!).

Silver Coin to Camp Trailhead

Next up were several hot miles on a dirt road along the banks of Lake San Cristobal. I ran steady, but not too fast along this stretch. About two miles out of the Camp Trailhead water stop, JP, jP and CP pulled alongside in the truck. Seeing them put some bounce in my step.

Just past the Williams Creek Campground, the course went left up the Camp Trail and back onto last!  JP let me know I was in 16th place...oops 15th, as I passed a runner just before the trailhead.  After dumping a couple cups of water on my head, I waved goodbye and jogged up the trail into the woods.

The jogging didn't last long as the trail turned up and the slog up to the Divide began. I had some real rough patches through here. The runner I passed just before the water stop was right on my heels, and another was about 100 feet ahead. A few miles in, I pulled over and let my shadow pass me. I was hurting.

Near the top, I started hearing whoops from above. I wondered if the Divide Aid Station was close. Turned out, it was Scott Jurek, running with Dakota Jones, letting out his trademark hollers. As they bounded past, I realized we were close to the top.

Divide to Slumgullion

At last, the Divide Yurt appeared, right around mile 31. Now we were back on the original course. With sublime views of vast meadows and distant peaks around, I continued marching up the trail to a high point on the Divide, still not feeling very good. Downhill ahead, however.

After crossing the highpoint, I began running again down a long doubletrack that seemed to go on forever, as I looked at the route ahead. After rounding a bend a few miles down, I saw the awnings that had to be the Divide Aid Station, which had been moved several miles down at the edge of Rambouillet Park due to muddy conditions.

After a quick refill, I was off running through Rambouillet Park toward the big descent down to the Slumgullion Aid Station at mile 40. I picked off a couple runners through this section. Soon, I was picking my way through the very rocky beginning of the descent down to Slum. Once through that section, I let things fly again. My quads were hurting, to be sure, but I still had the "f*** the quads" mindset, so I kept up a solid pace.

About a mile outside of Slum, a hiker told me and the runner just ahead that we were in the top 10. That didn't feel right, but it added some additional motivation to run hard. A little bit later, RD Jerry Gray appeared in a truck asking if I'd seen the mountain lion. I hadn't, but I sure wanted to.

The Slumgullion Aid Station appeared much quicker this year than last. JP, jP and CP were there to greet me. I cruised into the aid station and was hustled quickly out of there by Jurek and couldn't ask for a better pair of aid station crew members. Both of them had such great energy and had me out of there with an efficiency that would make any NASCAR pit crew proud.

Slumgullion Aid Station with CP. Photo: Tanya A.
Crew support from CP and Dakota Jones (accepting a lovely collection of sticky, empty gel packets). Photo: Tanya A.
Slumgullion to Vickers Ranch

Jurek escorted me across Highway 149 and I sped down to the mining slag heap one must cross. I was feeling great...good energy...solid speed. I started getting some calf cramps right about here, though. At one point, I had to stop as my left calf severely locked up. I looked down at it and it seemed to be permanently flexed...locked.  Finally, it let go and I started running again, afraid that if I stopped, the cramping would start up again.

Next up was the climb back up Vickers Ranch. This 1,600 foot climb really was no problem, just steady hiking. There were several runners in sight behind and in front of me, just close enough behind me to keep me from slacking and just close enough in front to pull me along at a steady clip.

Once at the top of Vickers it was back to running. Everything definitely was hurting now. The legs were tired and on the verge of cramping, but I was quickly learning that one can still run fast when sore and tired.  So, on I went running pretty much everything from the top of Vickers to the Vickers Ranch Aid Station.

Vickers Ranch to Finish

Once again, I refilled and resumed running. I had to stop a few times on some of the steepest stretches to give the quads a brief break.  On one particularly steep stretch, I pulled over to rest and pee and was passed by Chris D. I quickly finished up and gave chase.

He was moving very, very well and it was all I could do to keep him in sight.

At last, we hit the final switchbacks on the Water Dog Trail. With views of Lake City below, I knew the descent was almost over, so I gave it all I had.  Chris now had over a hundred meters on me.

Right at the end of the singletrack, I passed a runner and kept motoring, wondering if I had any hope of catching Chris. As we ran down a long stretch of straight, mostly flat dirt road I focused on running steady and catching Chris.  I was slowly reeling him in. The 100 meters were now 50 meters as we hit the path along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, then crossed the river on a pedestrian bridge.

Soon, we were running down Silver Street.  He was now 25 meters or so ahead, but I wasn't gaining any more. I did a quick check of all the body systems and realized I didn't have enough strength or real estate left to run him down.  I did my best to keep it close as the finish line drew closer and closer.

He beat me by 10 seconds.

Approaching the finish line with CP and jP. (Click for a better view.)

I ended up finishing 14th overall in 10:15:10, running across the finish line with CP and jP who were waiting for me as I ran up Silver Street (such an awesome feeling!).  Ended up as the third masters, behind Karl Metzler and Chris D (and third in the 40-44 age group).

Full results here.


After a quick round of hugs from the family, I laid down on the, collapsed...and didn't move for 15 minutes. I was wasted. My calves, hamstrings and lower back all were cramping.

After pounding water and Heed for a good while, I managed to crawl over to a massage table where a woman from Creede was offering free work. Before I knew it, the shivering started and she ordered me off the table and into the most comfortable lawn chair on the planet. She gave me a bottle of water filled with electrolyte powder and ordered me to drink.  CP brought me soup from the finish area food table.

Thirty minutes later, I was vastly improved and back on the table seeking some relief.

Any relief is good relief.
The body work was great, but didn't do much to ease the intense discomfort I was experiencing in the lower half of my body. I had, indeed, managed to f*** my quads! I could hardly walk.

We hung out for a while, cheering on runners as they finished and catching up with old friends and new, including Woody A. and Brendan T.

I think I found my running mojo at the top of Roundtop Mountain.  Here's to hoping I can hold onto it for a while. I have a date with a mountain down south in another few weeks.


  1. Jim, now that's a strong performance. Well done. Now get that running mojo back and stop knocking over toddlers!

  2. That is a great run. I hope it helps the mojo a bit. Hurdle those toddlers next time!

  3. Nice work man! Hell of a run to do without your "mojo"!

  4. What other sport is there out there where just by the price of entry you can line up with the best, or have them working the aide station you hit? Unreal. I mean that is like Jordan being your ball boy.

  5. F^$#@ing fantastic write up Jim.
    This race is why I knocked out RRR last year.
    Going to be a while before I can come back for it now though - will live vicariously through race reports.

  6. Jaime/Chris - I should have mentioned...the Patagonia-clad toddler was OK, just a bit dirty.

    PG - many thanks. And, great work at Bighorn!

    GZ - I don't think there's another sport like this one, in that regard. Here's to hoping it stays that way for many years to come.

    Jay - you're on quite an adventure down South. So...the Keys 100, eh?

  7. You had a great race, Jim. Perhaps that forced rest was good for you. If not, then I would certainly like to see what you can do with a full cup of mojo!

  8. great report jim -- didn't see it until now. see you at hardrock?

  9. Thanks, Brendan. Won't be at HR, but will be following everyone's adventures online. Eager to hear your perspective post-pacing duties. Have a great time!