Despite the hefty entry fee, I decided to run the San Juan Solstice 50 because I was curious how I would handle a 50 mile race. Based on my Jemez time, I had a good chance of finishing in under 10 hours, which, judging by previous years’ results, would probably put me in the top 10. Then again, my body might give out after 50 kilometers.
The first section follows the smooth dirt road toward Engineer Pass. The pack started out surprisingly fast, and though I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the pace, I figured that 40 other runners couldn’t all be wrong. Besides, if I wanted to finish sub-10, I should try to hang with the other runners likely to do so.
The pace became more reasonable after the turn off the road onto the second section, a single-track trail up Alpine Gulch. I somehow managed to cut myself on the bridge, but didn’t notice for awhile. The stream crossings, so intimidating in previous years, mostly had nice log bridges, though in a show of ultra studliness, many of the other racers ran through the stream anyways. I tried to be a bit too clever on one of the crossings, and instead of keeping my feet dry by hopping from rock to rock, I slipped and fell into the creek, soaking my whole body. Fortunately we were going uphill and it wasn’t too cold.
After leaving the creek, the trail switchbacks up to a ridge just below treeline. The climb is mostly moderate, perfect for a fast walk with some jogging on a few flatter sections. Reaching the aid station, I foolishly assumed that I was at the top of the climb, having failed to carefully read the course description. The course actually turns right and climbs a series of ridges to reach a higher saddle well above treeline. I passed one racer on the climb, and paced off another to the summit and down the first part of a very runnable descent to the second aid station. I eventually left him partway down, as I tried to make the most of the terrain. At the second aid station, the helpful volunteers refilled my bottle while I restocked on Fig Newtons and gulped down a sandwich wedge. Ham, cheese, and mayo isn’t normally my thing, but it tasted great then. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was narrowly in fifth place.
I turned out of the aid station onto a long stretch of flat dirt road with the next runner 100-200 yards behind, where he remained for the entire hour to the next aid station. I did not remember how long this road section was, and as it dragged on, I became increasingly nervous that I had missed some subtle flag or bit of tape. With great relief, I at last reached the flags for the turn onto the next climb, and began power-walking the steep jeep road to Carson. I spoke with my pursuer at the next aid station, then took off up the road toward the long, flat section along the continental divide.
I spotted two runners on the road ahead, and caught the first (the eventual 4th place finisher) shortly after reaching the divide trail. We talked for a few minutes, and he seemed surprised that I wasn’t someone he knew; I guess, not surprisingly, that the community of people crazy enough to run ultras is small and close-knit. The divide trail follows an old road until it reaches the high ridge of the divide, then becomes a faint path along the grassy eastern side of the ridge.
The first part of the divide trail stays close to the ridge, affording views both east toward San Luis peak, and west, over the steep side of the divide, to Uncompahgre and the San Juans. However, the gently rolling terrain was mostly flat enough to run, and rough enough to pay attention to your footing, so there was little time to enjoy the view. Passing the next runner added to the pressure, and I spent the next few hours looking over my shoulder. Unlike in many years, the trail was almost entirely snow-free, and a slight tailwind also increased the pace.
At the next aid station, at a low point in the ridge, I found out that I was currently third, adding some urgency to my effort to stay ahead of the pursuit. There was another long stretch between this aid station and Slumgullion, but at least it was downhill overall. Unfortunately, it also stayed well below the ridge, so the western view was gone, and I could not gauge my progress toward the red cut of Slumgullion Pass. As the CDT joined another jeep road, I thought I saw another runner ahead, but it turned out to just be one of two women out for a run. Slightly disappointed, I plodded on through a gap in the divide, where Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn once again came into view, then tried to gain some time on the mostly-fast descent to the paved Slumgullion Pass road.
While temperatures had been comfortable up to this point, it was uncomfortably warm at Slumgullion, where the town librarian, working at the aid station, recognized me from my time spent using their wireless. From here, the course veered off the road onto some semblance of a path (perhaps an old road cut or a utility right-of-way), which eventually connected with the trail up to the Vickers ranch. I knew this climb gained 1700 vertical feet, and despite some wishful thinking, it took most of the hour it should have. The heat was bearable in the trees, but vicious in the open areas and, higher up, the pastures. Trying to get the last drops out of my water bottle while running along the top, I finally managed to trip on something and face-plant on the trail.
My time was 8:26 at the Vickers aid station, supposedly four mostly-downhill miles from the finish. Thinking that I had a real shot at breaking nine hours, I tried to do something like moving quickly. Unfortunately, the trail was treacherous in many places, and I was tired. Logs I would have jumped earlier in the day I stepped over one leg at a time. Soon after Lake City came into view, I knew I would be over nine hours and, not seeing any pursuers, settled into a steady plod toward the finish. The heat and headwind tempted me to walk the dirt path along the river, but pride and the finish line kept me jogging. I even managed a genuine run for the final 50 meters into the town park.
I am now the proud owner of a red-stitched cap, a fleece pullover, a small painting of a SJS runner, and a ginormous piece of wood with my name carved on it (excellent quick work by the wood-worker!). And I know I can race 50 miles. Given adequate cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, it’s about finding a manageable level of pain and staying at that level essentially “forever.” The biggest problem, and the reason I am loathe to race 100 miles, is a kind of boredom. After four hours spent mostly alone, maintaining a relatively consistent effort and eating and drinking on schedule, the thought of five more hours of the same is discouraging. Fourteen more hours is downright grim.
How do I get faster at these things? Thanks to time spent peak-bagging, my climbing pace (mostly limited by VO2-max) is probably adequate. While other racers seemed to jog more on the climbs, I could usually walk just as fast. I would probably gain the most by improving my technical downhill skill and increasing the pace at which I can jog “forever” on mostly-flat terrain.
Once again, I aimed for roughly 300 calories per hour, though I was not as strict about it as at Jemez for two reasons: First, the aid stations didn’t have gels, and I can’t stand pure Fig Newtons (blessedly available at every aid station) for more than a couple of hours. Second, the stations had ham-and-cheese sandwich wedges, and I found myself craving the salt and fat. I have no idea how many usable calories the sandwich wedges provided. I didn’t seem to have any digestive issues during the race, so I guess what I did was “good enough.”
Temperatures were cool enough up to mile 40 that I was fine with one bottle for the 7-9 miles between aid stations. I was slightly dehydrated by the climb after mile 40, but by then it didn’t matter.
In addition to food and water, I consumed one salt pill every two hours, and 100mg of ibuprofen per hour (twice what the bottle recommends). While I don’t feel like I injured my knees, they were definitely sore from the pounding descents.