Wednesday, June 22, 2011

San Juan Solstice 50 Report

One of the things I've come to appreciate about running in an ultra is the wide range of raw emotions, tapping of all your senses, and physical exertion you experience in a short period of time.  Over the span of a few hours I can go from pure elation to despair and back again.  As I've said before, it makes me feel alive.

The San Juan Solstice 50 was one of the those races.  The location in Lake City surrounded by majestic peaks makes the elation part come easy.  But fifty miles of traversing those mountains lets the roller-coaster of emotions run wild.

Due to the snowpack, we were running a new, "alternate" course that featured four huge climbs instead of three.  They didn't go as high as they do on the standard course, but the total elevation gain was the same.

I finished in 11:48 and felt I could have done much better.  I had several preventable problems which easily cost me an hour.  The hindsight thing (especially when the clock's not ticking) always allows for clear thinking.  I've debriefed enough to know where I screwed up and now I move on with a few more lessons learned and a bucket filled with amazing memories of a race like none other.

The "alternate" course

Brownie set a good pace heading up the 1st climb.

Still going up and up Vickers.

Good morning San Juan's!

There was a lot of hootin' and hollerin' when runners began flying down this section.

What you see here is the beginning of the end!
At this point, I saw runners heading down the meadow, but couldn't see the trail they were on.  I kept following the people in front of me and we shot straight past the turn, over some logs, and into the woods.  We were running fast and it was fun to let loose after the slog to the top.  In just over a mile, we all stopped since no one had seen a marker in that time.  There was quick agreement that the trail had to be correct and there was no way could have missed a turn.  So we kept bombing down the hill.  Stupid.  Another mile or so and we hit an unmarked intersection.  We all came to our senses and began the hike of shame back up until we got back on course.  Instead of explaining what happened next, you can read what the RD had to say about our excursion here (I think his account is a little off b/c we weren't the lead group of runners and Karl Meltzer wasn't with us).

Red = the course.  Green = going a tad off course.
The RD parked his truck at an intersection a little over a mile from where we got off course.  He asked his granddaughter to hold the gang of twelve there until he had a chance to run up a hill and scout out the best way for us to get back on course.  We probably waited there 5-7 minutes.  When he returned, he authorized the "diversion".  We crawled under a fence, ran about a half mile down a dirt road and then reached the drainage gully.  The next 3/4 of a mile were slow and treacherous.  The gully was not a trail.  It was narrow with steep walls and filled with running water, rocks, sticks, logs, gravel, and mud.  People were slipping and sliding all over the place and both hands needed to be free. I started thinking the RD lost his marbles sending us down this thing.  Adrenaline was flowing and helped make the effort to get through this stretch tolerable.

When we finally reached the road and the Silver Coin aid station, I had such relief knowing I was back in the race. That was quickly replaced by the realization that I didn't recognize any of the people that were running around me.  Here's where I pretty much botched up my race.  From the aid station, I began a ridiculous 3000' climb up Roundtop Mountain.  I had this overwhelming desire to catch back up to the people I had been around "pre-diversion", so I power hiked this climb hard...really hard.  I probably passed about 35-40 people.  Once again the adrenaline was masking the energy that was getting sucked out of me.

A little gift from my time in the drainage gully.
On the hike up Roundtop, a lady asked me what happened to my ear.  I touch it and got my fingers covered in blood.  I vaguely remember a branch scraping my head as I descended the gully.  When I got back to the Silver Coin aid station (mile 22), Tanya asked if I wanted her to wipe it off and clean me up.  Nope.  If there's anything my girls are going to remember about this race, it's that I refused to have the blood removed just so I could look tough out there!  Hey, I figured that I worked hard for that badge and deserved to wear it all day! At mile 40 they asked me again if they could clean it off.  No way.  They still think it's so silly that I wanted to wear the blood to the end as a battle scar.  I know, you do too.

Here are a few more shots from our lap up and around Roundtop Mountain.

If you run SJS, know the hiking component is huge.

Red Mountain

Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, and Uncompahgre Peaks (L to R)

The highpoint on Roundtop Mtn before heading back down.

Lake San Cristobal and the beginning of my "Road to Winfield" training run.
The road around the lake and up to the Camp Trail trailhead was a six mile slow and steady climb.  The scenery was spectacular, but you'd barely noticed through all the dust.  Cars were flying by one after another kicking up clouds of dust that made breathing a new challenge.  My effort thus far in the race was finally catching up to me.  On a section of the course that I should have made quick work of, I struggled bad.  All the while, dread for the upcoming 3000' climb (#3 on the day) was looming.  It was also at this point that I switched to a Perpetuem fuel plan.  One 270 calorie bottle + one gel per hour was the plan.  It wasn't enough, or it didn't work.  It kept me just short of a full bonk for about three hours before I finally abandoned it and went back to all gels.

Lots of running through this.  Not too shabby.
The climb up the Camp Trail to the Continental Divide was by far the low point of the day.  I was spent and not fueling well to compensate.  I got passed by a few people and couldn't seem to shake the funk.  About halfway up, I did what I haven't done before in a race.  I sat down.  I found this perfect log in the shade and took a load off for about 3-4 minutes.  I enjoyed the rest only until the realization set in that I had 19 miles to go and wasn't getting any closer to the finish line.  While that thought got me moving, it was another five miles up and over the Divide before I crawled out of my dire straits.

Reaching treeline.

On the Divide.

Time for some downhill.  Life started getting good here.  Real good.
After hitting the Divide aid station, the downhill fun began.  This five mile stretch was my best of the day.  I broke free from the negativity that had built up over a few hours and I was running free.  It's just so crazy to have a swing like that.

Cruising into the Slumgullion Aid Station (Mile 40) while being chased by a member of  Team C.R.U.D.

Taking some last stretch advice from a legend.  Funny that I can't remember a thing he said.

I wish my good vibes carried me through the final 10 mile stretch back up and over Vickers Ranch, but that pesky 1600' climb (#4) zapped it from me.  I was back to "one foot in front of the other" hiking at a mediocre pace.  The end was near and I knew I was getting close, so the descent from Vickers was another bright spot on the day.  They radio in your name when you're about a half mile away, so you really get a cool shout out as you enter Town Park.

SJS has the BEST finish line scene of any race I've done.

Nine weeks until Leadville and I can't say this race provided much encouragement towards excelling there.  But nine weeks is also a long time to focus and prepare.

On the flip side, SJS once again taught me there is so much more to defining success in a race than by the time on the clock.  My favorite memory from the day was coming upon a guy who was struggling bad around mile 39.  He was walking downhill in a very stiff manner.  I was in the middle of my awesome patch and was flying up from behind.  I slowed down and asked how his was doing.  He replied, "not good.  I'm gonna drop at the aid station."  My immediate response was, "NO!  You can't do that.  The aid station is a half mile away and then it's only 10 more miles from there.  You have too much time left to drop and you've worked so hard to get this far.  You can totally do this."  He just stared at me.  I wished him the best and kept running.  Well, about 30 minutes after I crossed the finish line, guess who came running down into the park.  I was so happy, not because anything I said, but because I got to witness the power of the human spirit overcoming adversity to dig deep and persevere.  It's one thing when you do it yourself, but there's something so incredibly inspiring when you see someone else go through it.  This is one of the many reason why I love to run.

Sometimes I ask the question, "Why race?"  I know others ask it too, when in reality we can just go run on the trails and enjoy a similar running experience without the stress of racing.  Once again, I was reminded of the power of community when we all come together at a race like SJS.  Thanks to Jim P, Aaron M, Brenden T, Leila, Becca, Troy H (and so many others I can't remember) for connecting with me at some point.  At our campground, I got to meet Dave Philipps (2nd place) and Jesse Rickert (3rd place)....yeah, I was hanging with the big guns!  All our kids played together as hard as we ran and it was fun to sit back and watch.

A big thanks goes out to Tanya & the girls.  Tanya will be my crew chief at Leadville and we got to practice our aid station routine during SJS.  She was flawless.  She had me in and out of there so fast and didn't let me forget anything.  That's huge!  Megan endured seven mosquito bites to the head waiting for me at Silver Coin and Zoe spent an hour digging a boulder out of the ground with a small stick while she waited patiently at Slumgullion.  I'm grateful for all the sacrifices my family makes to see me through to the finish line!


  1. They say that if you double your finish at SJS it's a decent indicator of Pb finish time. Even with a tough race, that puts you sub-24 and not too shabby! Way to get it done man.

  2. Great job making the best out of a tough day. Those are some of the best memories. If it was easy all the time, it would be boring!

  3. So great to hang w/ you, Tanya and the girls post-race. I agree w/ you that the SJS finish just has the greatest vibe. It ain't raucous, but it's sublime for its simplicity, small-town vibe and supportive atmosphere. A lot of folks got off course at the top of Vickers. I was lucky that I hit the top of Vickers right at the right moment. I had gone about 100 yards off-course and was brought back when the Metzler group had returned to the course. A couple of us were laughing about catching the leader group. Good times all around.

  4. A sub-24 finish would be awesome, but it won't come easy for me. As Chris says, if it was easy, it would be a boring challenge! Thanks guys!

    Jim - I'm still in awe of what you did down there. You motivate me to want to become a better runner. I'm still kicking myself a bit for going that far off course. I should have realized I didn't come back out to the meadow where I saw all the other runners. Oh well.

  5. Woody, fantastic job down there. Seriously says a lot about battling thru those low points. Lake City and the San Juans are a special place and so glad you enjoyed them.

  6. Thanks Jaime. I still remember you getting me all excited about SJS on that night run last November! Yeah, I seem to be getting a lot practice this year battling through low points.

  7. Great report, great pix and great to hear what you learned. Love this comment: "Once again, I was reminded of the power of community when we all come together at a race like SJS." Exactly ... if that were not there, I'd the appeal of racing would be much less.

    Well done.

  8. Great job Woody and nice pics! Definitely putting this race on my "to do" list. Loved the story of the guy at mile 39. I'm sure you got in his head and helped him make the decision to continue. Good luck at Leadville!

  9. Thanks Steve! Hey, did I see you ran Jemez last month? From what I've heard that is every bit as tough as San Juan (if not more). I was up in Leadville last weekend and the reality of the race started sinking in. It was a great feeling!

    GZ - So true!