The Connection Runners + [running man]

San Juan Solstice 50 Race Report

I’d describe this race in the following manner:

(sorry about the quality, but blame whomever placed it on youtube)

Actually it wasn’t that bad. My pal Rick summed it up pretty well when he said, “I feel like I’ve been through a meat grinder.” When I ended, I was feeling pretty good, but running down those mountains did provide a good quad-trashing.

The other memorable quote from the run was, “PBRs…those are good running beers.” But we’ll come to that later.

I met up with Rick Weismiller, a friend and runner from Denver, at the T-rex parking lot outside of Golden. And we quickly set out. The drive, thankfully, was uneventful and quick. I drove the entire way and wasn’t speeding too much but we made it from the parking lot to Lake City in around 5 to 5 ½ hours, which was much quicker than I thought it would be.

We drove around, looking for the Lake City armory, wondering if there would be guns stored there, and whether or not we’d make it in time for the free pasta dinner. We made it to the dinner with plenty of time to spare, got our swag-bags, devoured some spaghetti, dropped off our drop-bags, and waited for the pre-race conference. The pre-race conference wasn’t all that informative – Jerry Grey, the RD, basically just mentioned several things about the course and said that the weather was perfect and the streams weren’t high, which meant that the river/creek crossing would not be that painful.

After the meeting, we headed out to our campsite that was, so I think, somewhere in Gunnison National Forest and south of Lake San Cristobal. It was a nice little camping area that was completely infested with mosquitoes. Given their ravenous appetites, we didn’t last too long and turned it as soon as it was dark.

The alarm went off at 3:55am. Rick casually said from his tent, “we have another 5 minutes before we have to get up.” Those glorious 5 minutes went by in what seemed to be 1 second. When the alarm began again, Rick said, a bit more enthusiastically, “Let’s do this shit!” I hoped out of my tent and landed in sub-40 degree weather. It was cold, but the cool, crispness of the air made the stars seem brighter than I think I’ve ever seen them before. After stumbling around for a few minutes, I made my way to the car, brushed my teeth, changed into some running clothes, and we were off. We made it to town quickly and I soon found myself milling around with the other runners.

My strategy for this race was to go out somewhat hard. At least for a few miles so that I wouldn’t get trapped behind anyone that was going too slow over creek crossings. I formulated this plan after being far too relaxed at Fruita and getting caught behind several people that really didn’t enjoy running uphill. The countdown began and the gunshot sounded. We were off at a blistering…8 minute/mile pace…?

The lead group really wasn’t going all that fast. Dakota Jones, who eventually won the race with an astoundingly fast 8:13 or something, took off in front of everyone else. Given how hard I thought this race would be, I figured he could take the early lead because the other fast runners’d bring him back into the fray. Apparently that’s not how it played out.

The run out of town was nice – not too fast and not too steep. The race started out on a fire road out, going south. After what seemed to be maybe two to three miles, the field ducked off onto single-track trail called Alpine Gulch. I’m glad that I started toward the front of the pack because I was running with a group of people who were keeping an early race pace that I was really enjoying. I soon found myself in a group of 4 or 5 people who kept trading places. Some would go over the bridges and some would barrel through the river crossings. If I arrived at one of the river crossings and there was a wait for the bridge, I’d just bomb through the river. It was nice and cool, and not nearly high enough to cause any panic.

The first 7 miles to the first aid station were really enjoyable. Up across some streams, then up through a marshy meadow, then up through a forest and past some water that trickled down and across the trail…up and up and up. Soon enough we heard to hooting and hollering that could only mean we had come to the first aid station. I think one of the volunteers manning the aid station was named “Mad Dog,” but maybe I made that up. Either way it seems fitting. Someone asked if I needed a water bottle refilled, and since I had two, I politely declined. At which point I was offered a beer: “PBRs…those are good running beers.”

I grabbed a few fig newtons and headed out. Up and more up. Soon I hit tree line and then I was far above treeline where I could look across the valley into the direction of the rising sun. The view was absolutely stunning. I should have brought my camera, but no camera would have done it justice.

The highest point of this climb was over 13,000, but, man, it felt great. With fresh legs and ample enthusiasm coupled with the amazing views, the altitude was nothing. It was another 5 miles down to Williams Creek and the aid station there. On the way down I met Darcy Africa, who ended up winning the women’s division. We traded places a few times on the way down, but she took off after the hard downhill started to wear on me. I got into the aid station and saw her take off. I’m not sure she even stopped for food! A nice fellow filled my water bottles. I stuffed a few slices of PB&J into my mouth, and took off.

My exit from the Williams Creek aid station was slow. I slowed down, thinking I’d grab a few gels from my drop bag, but I figured I probably wouldn’t miss them too much since I had a pocket full of e-caps. I trudged on. From Williams Creek to the beginning of Wager Gulch was my least favorite section: gravel road. I don’t really mind running on road, but I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as running on trails. When you’re on trails, you think about foot placement and you look and think ahead to where you want to go. When you’re on the road, there’s just a road. It’s just a bit boring. Because I wasn’t feeling it, I trudged along, bleeeaagh (that is the sound that I make which is associated with the feeling I have of running two miles on a gravel road after an inspiring and wonderful run on trails).

Wager Gulch was basically a steep jeep path. I was power-hiking most of this section, figuring that with the amount of mileage left, there wasn’t any reason to be running it. A few people passed me, but that’s ok. They were huffing it, and I was enjoying myself. After 4 miles or so, I

At the Carson Aid station I decided that I was a bit tired of hiking on a jeep path, and when I verbalized my disdain for the never-ending power hike I was cut-short by a “you picked the wrong run to do” retort. I had forgotten ultra-running rule #1: no whining. With my pride stung, and rightfully so, I downed a few cups of coke, ate a few slices of banana, several handfuls of pretzels, and some various other things, and headed up.

The next section, from mile 22 to 31 was brutal and breathtaking. Carson aid station was in the middle of the hike, so at that point I was only half done. The climb tops off at Coney Peak, the highest point on the course, 13,334 (I think), and then continues along the Continental Divide for the next several miles. While the run along the road out of Williams Creek was my least favorite, the section from Carson to Divide aid station was definitely the hardest for me. At the finish, when I was talking with Rick, he said that he felt the same way about this section. This led up to conclude that what was slowing us down during this part was probably just the altitude. I believe that this entire section was over 12,000 ft. It definitely felt like it.

After miles 31, the miles just rolled on by. At the divide aid station, I must have gotten enough to eat, or the combination of getting off the Divide and eating rejuvenated me, because I started feeling great. From 31 to mile 40, there were a few short hills (mountains) to hike, but most of it was running. A long downhill section into the aid station at Slumgullion Pass nearly shot my legs, but I made it there safely. Because the aid station was next to a road, a large crowd (maybe 30 people, which is a big crowd for 80% through an ultra) had gathered, which made the experience a little more exciting. The people there were really helpful and kept asking if I needed anything. Maybe I looked worse than I felt because I kept declining their help, while helping myself. In retrospect, I probably should have just sat down and let them take care of me as they were probably bored and looking for something to do. But I was feeling good, so I didn’t want to sit down for too long. I ate a popsicle and talked with a little girl who was also eating a popsicle. I ate a lime popsicle, she was eating a root beer flavored one. If I had known they had root beer flavor, I would have gone with that. The point is, it got me thinking about beer…only a few more miles.

I thanked the people at the aid station and took off. Rather than going up, which was the theme of the first part of the run, this was all down. After the several mile descent into Slumgullion, my legs were really feeling the burn but I made it down, across a landslide that, apparently, had taken out the trail, and onto a very short section of road. When I started running on the road, I realized that in my root beer flavored popsicle envy I had forgotten to take off my shoes and shake out the rocks. So I promptly stopped on the road, sat down, and shook out the rocks. My feet felt much better after doing that, so I picked the pace up. The trail bottomed out not too long after the short road section, and I began the long hike up to Vicker’s Ranch.

The hike to Vicker’s Ranch had nice and bad parts. First, the trail started in something like a little canyon, so it was hotter than hell. The lower section of the trail was incredibly, which was intensified by the early afternoon heat (this was around 2pm I think). Although it was hot, I soon found my rhythm and was soon bushwhacking my way through high country meadows, marshes, and aspen groves. I passed several people on this section that all reported that they had been wiped out by the heat (and perhaps the previous 40-some-odd miles). The aspen groves provided some much needed respite from the relentless sun and I hiked on and up. The total climb was about 1,700 ft, up to 11,000 ft. Near the top, the wind picked up, which made the meadow hiking very pleasant. I rounded the top and started my descent to Vicker’s Ranch aid station. The run through the Vicker’s property was awesome. It was like an obstacle course of sorts – downed trees, marshy ponds to traipse through, as well as sun-bleached skulls and miscellaneous vertebrae scattered across and around the trail markers (I think they may have been placed there, or the course designed to go close to them for dramatic effect).

I soon rolled into Vicker’s Ranch, which was more like a party than an aid station: people were drinking, bbq-ing, and, for the most part, just hanging out and having a good time. They asked me if I needed any water or filling up and I asked for some water. Given the jubilant nature of the aid station, I repeated what I had heard at the pre-race meeting the night before and inquired whether it was true that they’d give out beer to runners. They were very obliging. I soon had my Miller Lite and was chatting it up with my new friends who were wondering why others weren’t also stopping for beers. After downing my brew, and rejecting many offers of taking more beer with me (including a rather sly suggestion that I just poor another into my water bottle), I left my friends with promises I’d stop by and drink another with them next year.

The remaining 4 miles was mostly downhill, punctuated by a few short climbs. My legs were tired from running downhill and I was at the point of wishing that there was another hill just so I could walk rather than having to run downhill. Alas, the end quickly approached. The trail ended with a few rocky switchbacks and I was soon shuffling my way through Lake City, following what seemed to be a never-ending string of signs saying “SJS 50” with an arrow pointing in some direction.

And then there it was. The end was in sight. I crossed the finish line in 11:07, the longest time of any of the 50’s I’ve ran. Be that as it may, this race was definitely the hardest of all the 50’s that I’ve done. Some claim that this is the ‘mini-hardrock’ and that it is the hardest 50 miler – I don’t know about either of those claims. But I can tell you, this is a wonderful run that has, perhaps, the most spectacular views I have seen during a race.

While my time wasn’t the fastest, it was enough to come in 25th overall, and 2nd in my age group (at this point I would like to thank Bighorn and Western States for enticing all of the talented runners away from this event so that a guy like me could get 2nd). The weather, while hot in some places, probably could not have been better. Rick strolled across the finish line a little after 13 hours, executing his finish in remarkable style – without shoes. He said that his shoes became uncomfortable so that he had taken them off to walk the last part. This worked out rather well for him because the next morning, during the award ceremony, he was provided with a free pair of shoes from Montrail because of his notable finish. Lucky bastard. Wish I had thought of that.

All in all, I cannot laud this race enough: the volunteers were fantastic, the course was not only marked well but also incredibly gorgeous, the aid stations were stocked, and on top of it all I had a blast. I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.

I spent the remainder of the weekend hanging out in Lake City. Rick, silly bastard that he is, jumped on his bike and joined the Tour of Colorado, which happened to be heading through Lake City that morning. While I envy that he gets to spend the next week riding around the mountains, I don't envy his lack of a recovery day. Yesterday I spent a few minutes on the bike to get the blood flowing through them and stretch them out. And today they feel almost like they should. They're not 100%, but I'll be back on the trails in no time. Hopefully I'll see you out there. Happy running!