Monday, June 25, 2012

San Juan Solstice Race Report

After we signed up for the Leadville 100, my buddy Tony and I decided we needed a good 50 mile test for our training. Without much thinking, we signed up for the San Juan Solstice 50. The two primary factors were the difficulty of the race and the location in our schedule (two months to recover). As I analyzed the race, it became apparent that we might be in for a tougher even than we expected. Nonetheless, we were excited for a race with such a stellar reputation among the ultra community. And we both have soft spot for a small town race with a good cause (this one benefits the EMTs of Hindsdale county CO).

Leading up to the race, I did quite a bit of analysis on how to plan our drop bags (three). The race is very remote and you have limited access to crew and aid. In fact, there are two stretches of nearly 10 miles between aid stations. This made planning for aid a little more difficult. After three separate conversations, Tony and I finally decided on our drop bag strategy; it turned out to be a pretty good strategy.

The drive to Lake City was enjoyable and easy. Our families were not with us due to a variety of scheduling issues. They would drive down and meet us at the 40 mile aid station on Saturday (and it was timed perfect). After arriving in town, we picked up our bibs and prepared our drop bags and then headed to dinner and a pre-race meeting. (The dinner was covered under the cost of the race fee.) It seemed like the entire town was at the armory. As we ate and listened to final instructions, we conversed with several runners and met LT100 vets and hopefuls. And, we met a ton of people from Texas. For some reason, Lake City has become a bit of vacation spot for Texans.

Back at our motel, we discussed our goals for the evening. I had decided that we should take it easy and prepared some aid station goal times using previous racer's finish times. While we were on those goal times all day long, it felt anything but easy. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

Race Morning

We set an alarm for 4 am and both immediately popped up to get ready. I managed to eat some Sustained Energy by Hammer and a Bonk Breaker bar for breakfast -- a solid 600 calorie breakfast. It was a little uncomfortable for the first 30 minutes of running, but I was glad I a ate a big breakfast. At 4:30 we left for the town armory to check-in and start the race.

Tony is a photogenic guy, looking like a star ready to take on a big challenge.

Looks like my favorite race shirt is showing it's age -- I think those are grease stains from my Body Glide! Not a flattering picture at all, but the best one of me in the morning.

To Alpine Gulch Aid Station

From the Armory, the race staff led us outside and down the block to the town park. A few minutes later, someone said "go", and we were off. It was dark, but there was just enough light that a headlamp was not necessary. The race begins by leading out of town and onto Engineers Pass Road. The road is dirt and mostly smooth grade, a great warm up. Suddenly, the course takes a hard left onto the Alpine Gulch Trail.

The first five or seven miles of the course are marked with numerous river crossings. The race staff informed us several times not to even bother trying to cross without getting wet because it wasn't possible. That did not stop a handful of individuals from trying. As they tried to tip-toe across rocks and logs to avoid wet feet, they stopped all the traffic behind them. Out of frustration, many of us started just crossing at spots above or below them. This strategy allowed us to pass them, but it was very frustrating and somewhat dangerous to go charging into a creek.

Our "patience" strategy had led Tony and I to near the back of the pack in the early going. We became a little annoyed by a logjam of people from the river crossings all the way to the top of the first climb. Passing people was not a great option because the trail was single track and the effort required was not worth the gain. While we both commented on the slow pace, we also agreed it might be the best thing for us. Our goal time for this section was two hours and we were within five minutes of that time.

Not long before this picture was taken, I was bragging about how hard the climbs in the Grand Canyon were compared to this climb. Of course I was regretting those comments about fifteen minutes later; this was only the beginning of a climb that got tougher and tougher.

This was just a preview of the amazing views we would see as we climbed up the Alpine Gulch.

Alpine Gulch is a limited aid station, meaning they served primarily only fluids. Despite the remote location, the aid station volunteers and the spectators were rocking!

To Williams Creek Aid Station

Leaving Alpine Gulch, I felt great. We had been working hard, but I felt the worst was behind us. And we were treated with unbelievable views the next twenty minutes. Once we got above tree line, things became much harder. Every little climb felt hard -- even little climbs of only a hundred feet or so. And the trails up high were difficult for me to get used to. They were not very well defined trails, almost like little ruts in the road surrounded by clumps of grass and sometimes scree. My inexperience as a trail runner showed big time in this race; I had a difficult time with these conditions and later with steep descents.

After the summit and traversing up high for a mile or two, then a hard down hill ensues to the Williams Creek Aid Station. Again, I did not run this downhill very well at all. I could feel my quads taking a massive pounding when I could have been going so much faster instead of braking.

The aid station was once again lively. We got our first drop bags and had lots to do. Tony changed his wet shoes and socks. We both applied sunscreen, refilled our hydration packs, and grabbed additional food. The sum total of all that work was at least 10 minutes. But, our goal was to be at four hours through Williams Creek and we left the aid station at 3:59, so we remained on track.

Right after we left the first Alpine aid station.

You can see we climbed up over the ridge in the center of the screen. We still weren't done with this initial climb.

You can see from the photo that there was no real trail near the top. The trails above 13,000 feet were primarily just scrambles across prairie-like grass with sections of scree rock mixed in.

The views of the San Juan mountain range in the early morning were just stunning. It was easy to see for tens of miles in all directions.

Still looking and feeling good.

Some runners running high above tree line.

To Carson Aid Station

After leaving Williams Creek, we started hiking up a dirt road road. The road was well kept and easy to power hike. We really felt good at this point. We soon reached the Wagner Gulch jeep road and took a hard left, up hill again. This section was a really pretty climb and reminded me a lot of other climbs I have done, particularly the initial climb in the Lead King Loop race. The heat was starting to become a significant factor at this point and the grade was steepening as we went. 

After four miles of climbing the jeep road, we arrived at the Carson aid station where the volunteers were very spry and helpful. I tried some Coke for the first time in an ultra -- and it was fantastic. So I went back for Mountain Dew. The volunteers helped me refill everything and apply sunscreen to the top of my head. We once again departed the aid station exactly as we had planned (six hours) and feeling great. We knew we faced a 10 mile section with no aid, so we topped off our water bottles (I grabbed a second one from my drop bag) and got going.

A photo of the ghost town of Carson

To Yurt/Divide Aid Station

The good feeling we had leaving Carson lasted about two or three miles. Then we got above tree line and began to struggle as we reached the highest point of the race, Coney Peak (13,400 feet). The panaoramic views were later destroyed by the smoke from a near by wild fire. Despite my complaining of smoke and heat, we actually caught a great day for this event. There are many years of this event where runners get snowed on along the Continental Divide. Anyone that has lived in Colorado long knows that the weather above treeline can get dicey quickly in the afternoon. Poor weather was no factor for us and I did not even pack a jacket. I would much prefer that to snow, rain, sleet, hail or thunderstorms.

I think that is a 14er (Sunshine Peak) in the distance behind us.

A view back at the trail we just climbed from Carson.

The final climb toward Coney Peak, elevation 13,300 feet. Boy is it hard to breath up there!

The trail runs along the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide for six miles before arriving at the next aid station (Yurt). This section of the trail is runnable if you are properly altitude acclimated. It is slightly downhill and somewhat technical (again all that screen and clumpy grass). To make a good time in this race, you'd have to run about half an hour faster than we did along this section. We were both struggling with the altitude and had several near falls. The last few miles were a good downhill section below tree line and we managed to pound it out fairly hard. When we arrived at the aid station, it had been nearly three hours and ten miles, since our last aid. We made this a full aid station stop and refilled our hydration packs entirely.  (There was no drop bag, so we had to carry our electrolyte mix). We remained exactly on target for our race prediction (nine hours).

To Slumgullion Aid Station

The map of the course is somewhat deceiving because it looks downhill. But leaving the Yurt aid station you climb roughly 500 feet in the next two miles. It was not a significant climb, and we managed to power-hike it pretty well, but it was a real mental downer. And the course was really just not very pretty anymore. It ran along a jeep road in an open meadow and we were surrounded by smoke. This section felt a lot like sections of Leadville to me -- desolate, dry, and hot. After a few miles of power hiking, the course finally turned downhill and we were able to start pounding out some decent miles toward the next aid station.

While we remained on time at each aid station, it seemed like my Garmin was out of sync with the aid stations mileages. Yurt is supposed to be the 31 mile aid station, yet Garmin said it was nearly 32 mile when we arrived. It was difficult to predict how much longer we had until we got to see our families at Slumgullion.  But we were highly motivated to get there and see them. I had left Johanna with instructions on how to get there and figured we would arrive at 11 hours (4 pm). Just before my Garmin hit 40 miles, we saw our kids down the trail waiting for us. (My Garmin wasn't wrong after all, we were on time and mileage). It was such a huge boost, particularly for Tony as his kids have never seen him run an ultra.

The kids met us at Slumgullion and lifted our spirits big time. Poor Dylan had flip-flops (in the background) and had no chance to keep up on that trail. I was shooting video all day, and I finally turned the camera over to Savannah after this aid station.

Seeing your family after 11 hours of running is such an uplifting experience.

Drinking my first energy drink in an ultra while attempting to remove the rocks from my shoes. The amazing aid station volunteers even had a cup and ice for my warm Bing Energy drink (it had been in my drop bag all day).

Tony decided to eat a popsicle at this last "full" aidstation. He was running as strong as he looked in this photo.

To Finish

We left Slumgullion on a major high and once again remained exactly on track for our fourteen hour finish. The first mile was a continuation of our last downhill segment and we were flying. Then out of now where we were off trail. There was literally no where to go. It turns out we missed a left hand turn about a hundred yards uphill from where we were. We were pounding down so hard that we literally just jumped over the course marker and missed it! Fortunately it wasn't a big deal. Now we were scrambling through a section of trail that almost seemed made up. And soon we were running along the road toward Vickers Ranch.

We had one big climb to go -- Vickers Ranch.  It is less than two thousand feet, but it is very late in the race. Tony had been talking about it all day and I kept telling him to leave it alone. Boy was he right to be so paranoid about that climb. We started climbing up the Vickers property and I immediately started crashing hard. At first I would stop every quarter mile or so to lean on a tree. But it continued to get worse. I kept pushing my electrolyte beverage and Tony and I were taking an S!cap every half hour, so I don't think it was dehydration. I was falling apart.

Soon I could barely move at all. Every couple of hundred feet I would stop. And I was throwing a tantrum and complaining about everything that bothered me -- the bugs on the ranch, the climb, the heat, the smoke, etc.. What bothered me most was that I could not understand how I let myself get this wrecked. I spend countless hours preparing and studying how to prevent this situation from happening. But, there I was sitting on a log on the side of the trail just wishing my race was over. Tony tried every combination of motivation he could find. And I am grateful he stayed with me. The forty-third mile took me just shy of forty minutes to complete. 

Mercifully, we started going downhill and I could at least walk a manageable twenty minute pace. I felt good enough to start eating and drinking  more aggressively. And I took an extra S!Cap or two. I finally decided that I was going to eat until I was either sick, rallied, or both. First, I finished my handheld of Perpetuem. Then I drank a lot of my hydration pack. All the while I felt better and we started moving at closer to a fifteen minute pace. We found a runner that was struggling and started doing some math together; we decided that we could finish the race if we averaged a twenty minute pace for the remaining miles. Finally, a guy that I recognized from the armory the day before -- he had been wearing a Leadville Silver Rush shirt -- passed us and I decided that was enough. I took my last gel out of my pocket and told Tony I was going for broke. Within a few minutes I was able to run/walk segments and move pretty good.

There is one final aid station on the Vickers Ranch that is advertised as minimal/fluids only. I once again drank some soda. As the Mountain Dew was going down, I noticed that the aid station had gin! Whoa. Thirty minutes ago that might have sounded appealing -- too appealing. Fortunately I was feeling good now and just wanted to get done. The crazy thing was the we remained almost on pace after all that struggle, perhaps five or seven minutes behind. After a brief stop, we started running and power hiking and I continued to feel better and better. The last few miles of the course is severely downhill. And once again, my limited downhill skills made this section tougher than it needed to be. We managed to run at an eleven minute pace, but probably could have managed better if we had more experience. Nonetheless, I could tell from my Garmin that we were going to make our goal of fourteen hours.

The goal of fourteen hours was not a huge race goal of any significance, but really just a goal to be done so we could spend time with our families. Finishing at 9pm and then crashing -- as I had done in the Grand Canyon -- did not seem particularly appealing to me. I really wanted to have an easy day of running and then a good dinner and some celebration with family and friends. I got all of that except for the "easy day".

True to the tradition of a small town race, my kids got to run the last little bit of the race with me. I look as rough as I felt.

Tony and I at the finish line. He had an amazing day and should feel very confident that a smart race will yield a buckle at this year's LT100. He is a tough runner and seems to have really gotten a hold of his biggest challenge -- hydration.

I am not sure how to explain the expression on my face other than to say that I was tired and sore.

After the race, we sat in the Gunnison River to soak our aching muscles and joints. My poor feet are very bruised and swollen. I probably should have picked better shoes (Montrail Masochist?). The Hokas were a vogue pick among the crowd.

After our river soak, we went back to our respective cabins to shower. Soon after we met for dinner at the Packer (after Alfred Packer) grill and ate some burgers with our family. The grill was located right along the finishing stretch of the course and there were a few runners trying to finish ahead of the cutoff. As we ate our dinner at one of the few "hopping" places in town, it was fun to see some other runners and hang with our families. We ended the night by drinking a special beer I had brought for us to share. It was a fitting way to finish a great day with a good friend.

The Awards Ceremony

They do not hand out medals when you finish this event. Instead, they have a breakfast and ceremony the following morning. All of our families were allowed to participate in the breakfast and they recognized every runner from the race. Finishers were given visors -- the color of the visor indicates your finishing time/category.

One of the unique things at the ceremony is the fact they recognize the volunteers associated with this event by raffling off gifts for them. A few of the runners even graciously donated their raffle prizes to go to a volunteer. This whole event is first class and done exclusively with the intent of helping the EMTs. The race director is an EMT himself. The only event I have done that compares to the giving nature of this one is the Lead King Loop.

They also have a fun contest for the ugliest feet. The winner gets a gift certificate for a pair of Teva sandals. Despite the prodding by my family, I chose not to enter into the competition.

Lessons Learned

The primary lessons from this race were of altitude struggle, downhill running, and some poor nutrition choices. Altitude and downhill running are things I may never master because I don't get up to the high country enough. But I can improve my nutrition plan. As for what will change, I think a couple of simple tweaks will help:

Stop using Clip 2 and stay with either Roctane Drink and/or Accelerade. There are many more calories in the latter two options. In fact, had Roctane been my primary drink, I would have consumed an additional 900 calories over the course of the run.

I think I may need to lean on gels a bit more when it is hot or I'm at high altitude (for me, probably above 11,500 or 12,000). I only did 2 or 3 gels all day long! The last one was at about mile 45 as I threw up a "hail mary" to feel better. I will mix in more solid food when it is cooler or during long stops (aid stations).

I knew this event (primarily because of altitude) would be tough. I do think this re-affirmed the fact that 25 hours at LT100 is a stretch goal. It is possible, but it will take a good day with a lot things working in my favor, particularly if I am not spot on with nutrition.

The good news was that I bonked and I figured out how to rally, so I have that lesson going for me. Learning to overcome a bonk could be a critical part of a 100 miler.

Final Stats

  • 49.6 miles run
  • 13 hours and 53 minutes
  • 12,800 feet of elevation gain
  • 15 miles above 12,000 feet
  • Avg HR 135
  • Maximum Elevation 13,336 feet

What I Ate
  • 9 servings (three hydration bladders) of Clip 2 (1395 cals)
  • 2 hand held of Roctane Brew (500 cals)
  • 3 Bonk Breaker Bars (1000 cals)
  • 3 Gels (300 cals)
  • 2 Hammer Bars (450 cals)
  • Misc (Soda/Energy Drinks/Heed) - (300 cals)
Total of about 3750 calories.  I am guessing this was about 1250 calories too few -- hence the bonk!


  1. AJ,
    Great race report that I'll be reading several times over again before my attempt at it here in a few weeks. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Mike - I sure hope you guys get to run the traditional course! I loved Lake City and the whole experience, but I had a really mediocre day that day. It is a tough race, particularly if you aren't altitude acclimated.


    1. Yeah last update I've read they guesstimated 60/40 chance of running the traditional course. I'm crossing my fingers! With all the weather we've had it's been a challenge to get up in altitude for any good training and I'm sure it'll be a long day for me. :)