Friday, June 28, 2013

2013 San Juan Solstice 50 Mile Run

Had a wonderful time at this challenging event.  I highly recommend it for anyone that loves mountains and spectacular vistas.  The race takes place in the San Juan Mountains around Lake City, Colorado.  The funds raised benefit the Hillsdale County volunteer EMTs and they have been organizing this small event for many years.  (previously called Lake City 50).   I first heard about the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile Run from a fellow runner at last year's Silver Rush 50 miler in Leadville, CO.   He had DNF'd at this race earlier in the Summer and was trying to redeem himself. He described the race in such glowing terms and how hard it was that I was intrigued.   In the winter, some Facebook friends from the Tejas Trail Group page were talking about the registration that was coming up.  I also heard that the race sold out in a few minutes on the first day of registration.  So, on Jan 15, at 0700, I was ready on the computer and registered for the race and it filled in 8 minutes! (the limit is 200 runners)  The challenging aspects of this race include the altitude, the race starts at 8,761 feet and peaks out at 13,334 feet with a total elevation gain and lost of 12,856 feet.  In addition, the weather in some years can include snow and sleet or extreme heat. I will describe my experience with this race in 2013 for any future participants and to share the experience. 

Getting there
I left El Paso Friday morning of the race for the 578 mile drive to the race.  My goal was to arrive at 6 pm for the pre-race dinner and packet pickup which was over at 0700 pm.  On the way, I started to notice a huge plume of smoke from the fire that was raging at the Rio Grande National Forest.  Smoke and fire were more visible and I was stopped by a road closure on the outskirts of South Fork, Colorado which had to be evacuated due to the fire threat.  I was informed that I would have to detour via Gunnison which meant that I would be late to the packet pick up.  They had sent notice that if were not there by 7 pm they would give your slot to people on the waiting list.  Fortunately, I was able to contact the Armory and let them know that I was running late due to the fire detour. 

Smoke with sun setting in background, Not actual Fire 

Packet Pickup and Pre Race  
I arrived at the Lake City Armoury shortly after 7 pm and got my packet and bib number (46), plus got to leave my 3 drop bags which I had packed ahead of time.  I missed the dinner and the pre-race briefing as a result of my late arrival.  At that point there were people registering for the race who were either on the waiting list or were able to register late as there were fewer than 200 runners.  The bottom line is that if you don't register initially, there is a good chance you can get in later as so many registered people don't make it.  (by the way they do not give refunds, they say its for a good cause, which it is)  I checked in at the Matterhorn Inn which was a block away from the Armoury and  went to grab some dinner at a local Saloon on the city's main street. I was in bed by 930 pm. 

Race Morning
The race starts at 0500, so I had set the alarm for 0400.  Unfortunately, I woke up around 0200 and could not fall back asleep, typical for me.  Walked down to the armoury where all the athletes were gathering.  The temperature was 41F and I was wearing a long sleeve shirt on top of a short sleeve. We all had to register again on race morning and I nervously waited as we were finally instructed to walk to the nearby street where the race would begin.  I had a small headlamp, but many racers had no light as the sun rises early this time of year. 


Lake City to Alpine Gulch Aid Station (approx. 7.5 miles, 3000 feet elevation gain)
We ran through city streets for a short bit then up Engineer pass road for a total of about 2.7 miles.  The pace was pretty quick, but I was determined to go slow which placed me towards the end of the pack.  We turn Left off the road on the trail, Alpine Gulch trail, and immediately cross a bridge.  After this we were on single tract trail with numerous stream crossings.  At first, I managed to cross using the 2 large tree logs that were positioned across the streams.  This required some balancing skills which I had not anticipated would be necessary.  I kept my feet dry except a couple of times when I slipped off the logs.  Since I was towards the back of the pack, I was not slowed too much, but I know if you are in front and want to go fast, the best strategy is to cross over the water. This section is not very steep, although it is uphill the entire way.  I walked the steeper sections and ran as much as I could the flats or less steep sections.  All the aid has to be carried up to this point, so it is a limited aid station.  I filled my hand carried water bottle and had another water bottle on my waist strap.  I ate a Cliff bar up there and took a quick bathroom break.

Alpine Gulch to Williams Creek Aid Station (approx 8.2 miles, first climb up to 13,000 feet)
As we left the aid station, we continued to climb and crossed over tree line and for the first time got to see the incredible, breathtaking views that this race has to offer. I felt so privileged to be able to behold this beauty as I first encountered this initial section of the course.  As far as the trail, by this point it became more rocky and we did some running along the ridges of the mountains.  After arriving at the 10 mile point, we started a fairly steep descent to the next aid station.  As we descended, the temperature started to rise and I had consumed both my bottles of water.  I made the mistake of stuffing my empty hand held under my shirt thinking it would be secure, later to discover that it had slipped out without me knowing it.  I arrived at Williams Creek with only one 20 oz water carrier.   In my first drop bag, I had a dry pair of shoes and socks which I changed into.  A aid station volunteer refilled my water bottle and brought me fruit.  Her name was Annette and she stayed with me the entire time I spent getting stuff for me to eat and drink. Luckily, before I ran off, Jim who I had briefly talked to on the trail, had found and picked up my hand held and gave it back to me.  I was very grateful, and I feel he may have saved my race as the next stretch, I would not have survived with just one 20 oz bottle.

Saddle on the way up to the Continental Divide

Williams Creek to Carson Aid Station (approximately 6.3 miles, 3000 feet elevation gain) 
Out of Williams Creek, we travelled up a county road that was not paved but smooth for 2.5 miles. The grade of the road is not severe for this initial section, but then we turned right up a steep Jeep road for the next section.  The heat was really starting to get to me, and I struggled to keep a good power hiking pace.  I was taking gels (GU), Endurolyte (salt tablets), and drinking all the water I had.  The air was clearly thinner as we climbed, but at least it was a few degrees cooler as we made it up to higher elevation.  We were still below tree line but there was not a lot of shade in this section.  I arrived at Carson Aid Station (mile 22) at approximately Noon. Here, I had another drop bag with my Salomon hydration pack which I filled with water (3 litres) plus the hand held and the other bottle strapped to the waist. I  was able to sit in the shade for a while and prepare mentally for the next section, the hardest of the race.

Carson Ghost Town

Carson to Divide Aid Station (approximately 9 miles, to highest elevation of 13,334 feet)
Shortly after leaving the aid station, we came across the Carson ghost town, which sits on the Continental Divide at an elevation of 12,000 feet.  An old mining town which reached its peak during the late 1800s and early 1900's was abandoned due to extreme winters.  After getting above tree-line, we continued on a jeep trail up to a single tract with switchbacks to the highest point of the race which peaks out at 13,334 feet.  It was at that point I felt a very slight headache, but no nausea.  I was glad to start climbing down from that altitude.  For the next 5-6 miles, the trail follows the Continental Divide with a lot of rock and in some sections not much of a trail.  I was able to jog some of these sections along the divide which were flat or downhill, but walked the up hills.  This is the part of the course which in the afternoons can be more difficult with snow, sleet, and lightening.  This year, we had cloudless skies for the most part and a lot of wind.  The nearby fire could be seen in the distance, but thankfully the smoke was blowing to the East. The average altitude for this section was 12,000 feet, and I was up there for the better part of 2 hours.  I knew that altitude sickness is more likely with dehydration, so I drank as much water with S-caps as I could along the GU  gels.

At 13,400 feet along the Continental Divide 
The next aid station is along the Divide (mile 31)  and is next to a Yurt in a meadow, and it is below tree line.  I was happy to be there at 3 pm. I now had 3 hours to get to the next aid station at mile 40 which had a 6 pm cutoff.
t was being slowed by the fact that 3 weeks earlier, he had completed the Bryce Canyon 100 mile run.  The trails starts to go up hill again, back to 12,000 feet before coming down again. I could keep up pretty well on the uphills but found myself being dropped on the down hills.  The last section was downhill, and I managed to stay behind Jim until we reached the last drop bag at Slumgullion which is Mile 40.  It was 5:30 pm; this meant I had 3 and a half hours to finish prior to the 16 hour cut-off.

Slumgullion to Vickers Ranch Aid Station (5.4 miles 1,700 feet climb back to 11,000 feet)
I knew this would be a hard section from reading all the blogs and it certainly lived up to the hype.  The trail was straight up at a pretty aggressive grade with the hottest part of the day little wind. For the first time, I had to stop and sit a couple of times on tree logs and catch my breath.  I took Gel, S caps, and water but my energy was sapped in this section.  Despite my seemingly slow pace, I managed to catch up to some runners that were going even slower than I was. I reached the top of the climb to Vicker's and started to run again on the downhill.  I made a quick stop to get some fruit but did not sit down.

Vicker's Ranch to Lake City Finish  (4.6 miles)
I tried to run as I could on this, the last section which is mostly downhill.  I was doing OK, except there were some rocky sections.  Finally, I could see the city below and knew I was close except there are switchbacks that seem to take forever. Once in the town, we run along the river and across a bridge.  In the town, we go through several endless city blocks and arrive at the town square where we started.  The announce my name and I crossed the finish line in a time of 15:33:33.  I was elated and exhausted as I sat to take in the whole day that had passed.
Looking at the results, I was 161 out of 169 finishers.  The number of starters was around 200. The race was won by Dakota Jones who set a course record at 7:35:03, a record which had been held by the legendary Matt Carpenter in 2004, and he beat it by 22 minutes.

Awards Ceremony
The next AM, the race organizers had an excellent breakfast and on the lawn we watched as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Male and Female finishers were recognized.  Each received a custom made painting with their likeness drawn in during the afternoon and night after the race finish.

 Post Script
In summary, the event was very well organized, the course is challenging and specially beautiful.  I would highly recommend this race for anyone looking for a unique challenge. I can't imagine what it would be like to race this course with inclement weather, I may just have to find out if I can get in next year. Thanks for reading.