Saturday, June 22, 2013

San Juan Solstice 50 Mile Run Race Report - Lake City, Colorado

14:59:49, 140th place

49.75 miles, 12,856 vertical ascent.  Low point 8,671 ft, high point 13,224ft

Wow.  What a day, what a race and what an experience.  This will be a tough post to keep short as I feel like I could go on for hours.  I'll try and break it into sections to give a sense of the build up, race and experience.

Race Prep.

All had been going well.  Long runs, decent miles etc.  Certainly enough to be ready for the day given how I have seen others prepare for this.  I was a little apprehensive about how much I suffered up high in the Mt. Evans race so wasn't sure how a big day with this much altitude was going to affect me.  More on that later.  Confidence level was high.  After dropping from the 50mile to the 25mile at Collegiate Peaks I was really motivated and pretty much nothing was going to stop me this time round.  The race itself has a reputation as one if not the hardest 50milers in the country (along with Zane Grey) but it is such an aesthetically pleasing course.  One big circuit in the San Juan's is about as good as it gets.

The Race

The biggest risk of not finishing actually came from wildfires in the area.  It was touch and go whether the course would be changed or cancelled completely.  Everyone was anxiously waiting for the RD to get back from a helicopter ride to assess the course and give us the thumbs up or down.  Fortunately it was a go and I got what sleep I could at the campsite before the early rise and half mile walk down to the start.  Before the race I was disappointed that Wendy couldn't join me on this one, but with the starting elevation too high for her pregnancy, it meant that it was going to be a solo trip.  In the end, I think it turned out to be a good idea as I would have only spent the day worrying about them as like most of these types of events, crewing for someone is a very long day and in some ways harder than racing.

As with all my prep I knew every inch of the course from the map and had been studying it for weeks.  I had the aid stations memorized, Trent's Elevation Tat on my arm and a really good sense of what to expect.

The Start

After a nice couple of easy miles on the dirt road of the Alpine Loop, we quickly headed off into the trees for the first 4000ft ascent up Alpine gulch.  I knew there would be a lot of water crossings and after trying to stay dry for the first few it was going to be much easier and faster just to take the plunge and get icy cold and dry off throughout the morning.  Besides, trying to balance on logs while being surprised by sexy pin-up cards being stuck in the middle of the crossing was pretty difficult.  The guys at the first aid station certainly had a sense of humor when it came to marking the course on the way up!  The first aid station comes near the top of the climb at around 8 miles.  Before I even got there I knew it was going to be a hard day.  I was already struggling, with slow hiking, a nauseous stomach, dizzy spells and just massive lethargy.  It was like my body had shifted down into first gear and was stuck there.  It would turn out that it was stuck there all day.

There is only so much you can do when you find yourself moving slowly up hill, needing to pause lots and rest on your poles.  I was trying to not let myself get too down as I secretly hoped that a slow start like this might be just what would help the most in the end.  After all, I kept telling myself that this was all about finishing and not performance.

Above treeline on the first climb

Within 10 miles you are already near 13,000ft and the views are outstanding.  One of the biggest draws of completing this race was how Wendy and I fell in love with the San Juans after visiting last year.  They are majestic, wild and full of great trails.  It's like a hybrid landscape of The Lake District and the Alps thrown together.  The scenery really keeps you going and the traverse along the alpine tundra to the first real descent was trail running at it's finest.  It was incredible to look out to the horizon and see the distant continental divide and know that you would be up there later in the day.  A quick scan of clouds also looked good so far.  I was really hoping that it wouldn't get electric later on.

Looking back near the top of the first climb

Endless views
The descent to Williams Creek Campground was fun and I took it nice and controlled to save the quads. Once through the aid station we were on to a short 2.5mi road section that headed up to the Wager Jeep road.  My running groove was coming back and I felt good again until we hit the 4x4 route that would take us up through the old mining town of Carson and on to the divide.  The slow pace plod returned and it was all I could do to hike the whole way up to the 25 mile mark.  Two 4,000ft climbs in a row mean that  you do about 75% of the climbing in the first 25 miles of this race which means it feels very slow going.  Getting on the divide is as incredible as ever with views in all directions.  I got a nice surprise by getting caught by my friend Jen who was having a great day and promptly had to leave me as I couldn't handle her pace.

Looking back on the trail we had come on

The Divide

It was on this stretch that I met Kevin who was having a similar day and a good partner for the next 9 mile stretch on the divide.  Another first timer at the race meant that we were able to relate with each other to what we had gotten ourselves into and swap a few stories of the race so far.  The view of the fire from up here was insane with the whole horizon starting to be covered in billowing smoke.  Fortunately the winds were keeping it away from us and we had fairly clear air, unlike last year when another fire made it hard for folks to breathe. Most people are nervous on this section as it's so exposed.  They have good reason to be, as if a storm rolls in there is so little shelter, and in previous years there have been a few sketchy moments with bad weather. The race organizers suggest getting off the ridge immediately if lightning strikes.  The problem is, heading down to the valley on the west is almost impossible in places due to cliffs and if you strike out east then you have a huge amount of ground to cover before you can get to tree line in a lot of places.  Luckily for us the weather held with only a moderate wind keeping us company.

Kevin 'on fire'
By this time I just wanted to start descending.  I was feeling pretty out of it and knew that it was either an acclimation problem I was dealing with or just a freaky bad day in the mountains.  Either way, when I have had this experience before, I usually feel a lot better coming down a few thousand feet.  After passing the Yurt aid station (great location!) and then starting the descent to Slumgullion at Mile 40 the legs started to finally cooperate and I was able to run a good solid 10 mile stretch.  I even loved the rocky loose descent to Slum as I could feel my lungs starting to operate better and dipping below 10,000ft was such a relief.  I enjoyed the popsicles at Slum and took a good break to refuel for the final section over Vickers Ranch.  Kevin was coming out through the other side of a bad patch and was now looking strong as we headed off onto the early slopes.

Slumming it in Slumgullion - last point to bail

Near the top of Vickers Ranch.  Lake San Cristobal in the distance.
Vickers to Finish

For me the same feelings started to surface again as soon as we headed up hill.  I told Kevin to go ahead and that I'd see him at the finish.  I hate nothing more than to hold someone back as everyone has their own rhythm that works for them, and different speeds when it comes to climbing, descending and on the flats. About 2 miles from the road I came across a lady that was sitting down on the trail.  Unable to move more than a few steps at at time, she had just totally hit empty.  She was considering trying to make her way back down to the road, but didn't know if she could find a ride and if that would even be worth it.  Through the tears and confusion she was in a pretty bad state and after a bit of cajoling I managed to get her topped off with some fluids, glucose tabs and food.  I convinced her that it was only a few hundred feet to the top of the climb before we would have a nice stretch that would lead us back down toward Lake City.  I thought if she could get on a descent that it would encourage her enough to try and make it to the finish.  We also had another aid station at half way so if we could just get her refueled it would be really helpful.

After taking rest breaks after every few steps, things gradually started to improve.  We started swapping stories about races, how she was thinking about going back to Leadville for the 2nd time and how she was so surprised at the toughness of this race.  It felt a little odd to be helping an experienced ultra runner out on my first 50 miler but it came at a good time for me.  I'd long lost the desire for a fast finishing time and was just enjoying the day and soaking it all in.  Her husband and son were going to be waiting at the end and we were both getting choked up thinking of her family being at the finish to greet her.  I imagined what that would be like with our own son one day getting to see Mum or Dad finishing a big event and how special it would be to have them there.

The next hour or two became more enjoyable until the never ending descent into town.  The run into Lake City with the light fading and hearing the announcers calling names a few blocks away was an evening to remember.  What's more, we even managed to scrape in under the 15hr mark to top it all off!

Done!  Thanks Kevin for the Choc milk recovery drink!

On Reflection

There was so much good to come out of this race.  It felt much more like a journey than a race and it really makes me question the need to perform in each race.  There is a time and a place to just enjoy the day and celebrate with fellow runners that are all moving toward a common goal of finishing the distance and crossing that line.  It also gave me such a great chance to think about the months and years to come and how are lives will be changing with the arrival of our little one.  As it turns out it would be exactly 3 months to the day.

I'd highly recommend the event to anyone looking for a stout challenge.  The terrain is mountainous but I didn't find it technical at all.  If you are used to hiking and running in the hills you should be fine with the terrain.  The big concern for folks should be their ability to operate well up high all day.  This is an issue that continues to plague me.  I've started to do some research and talk to some folks that seem to be 'non-responders' when it comes to working well up high.   I don't think I'll turn my back on the high races just yet but certainly need a different approach and one that can't involve staying up high 3 weeks before race day just to get acclimated.

Great job to everyone that finished this year's edition.  Particularly Jen, Meghan and Neeraj who all had great stories to tell afterward.

Bonus note:  Before arriving I promised myself that upon leaving I would stop by Lake City Bakery after remembering how good their pies were last year.  Just as I was about to walk to the car from the breakfast celebration the following morning my name was called as the last raffle winner.  Guess what the prize was? Pie never tasted so good!  I could get used to running for pie.

No comments:

Post a Comment