San Juan Solstice 50

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Runners nearing the top of the first big climb past the Alpine Gulch aid station. That’s Centennial UN 13,811 at the top of the hill. Click to enlarge.

Probably my biggest single goal for the summer was to run my first 50 mile trail race. Well it didn’t take long (three days into the summer to be exact) to fulfill that goal at the San Juan Solstice 50 in Lake City. Though a complete whirlwind, it was one heck of a day out there.

After securing a spot in the lottery in January I began ramping up the miles and vert throughout the winter and into spring ski season. Then it was on to the Dirty 30 in early-June, which is perfectly placed in the calendar as a “training race” being exactly three weeks ahead of the San Juan Solstice. A few more big days in the hills after the Dirty 30, including a run of the Barr Trail on Pikes Peak (which somehow was my first time up that route), and I finally felt “ready” to give the SJS a go.

Anna-Lisa and our friend Sarah dropped me off at the starting line just before sunrise on June 24th. Thanks to Sarah we were able to rent out a cabin 25 minutes southwest of Lake City along the Alpine Loop. It made for a perfect base of operations for the weekend and was a sweet destination in and of itself. My only regret from the weekend was that we didn’t get to spend more time there.

The SJ Solstice circles Lake City in a massive counter-clockwise loop, racking up 50 miles and 12,800 ft of elevation gain along the way. Click to enlarge.

Starting up the Henson Road for a few miles, the course turns south and crosses several creeks before climbing to nearly 13,000 ft up Alpine Gulch. This section went quickly and was actually pretty surreal, specifically with regards to all the crossings. Each one comes in such close succession to the previous one, most people’s feet are completely numb by the time they clear them all and start climbing in earnest (mine included).

After a big climb in the trees and a short stop at the Alpine Gulch aid station to apply sunscreen, it was into the morning sun in the high-alpine with million dollar views in every direction.

Alpine Gulch aid station. These guys hauled the entire aid station in on their backs (including what appeared to be about 50 gallons of water) the night before and camped out just inside treeline.

Nearing the high point of the first climb. The course skirts underneath the two unnamed centennial peaks east of Redcloud before dropping 4,500 ft back down to Williams Campground.

Preview of the route still to come. That’s Wager Gulch on the right, Coney Benchmark the high point, and the route heading left across the Continental Divide. Click to enlarge.

Running behind Allen Hadley down to Williams. He had just turned 60 years old and was running the SJS for around the 18th(?) time. He’s done it a lot…

Down at Williams. That’s me under the tent in blue, changing into a pair of dry shoes.

With the first leg of the course under my belt I was feeling good and looking forward to the next challenge – another 4,500 ft ascent up the Wager Gulch road to the summit of 13er Coney Benchmark. This is where most of us began to feel the heat for the first time. It turned out to be a pretty hot day for late-June standards and those who didn’t stay on top of their hydration were in for a tough second-half.

Above the ghost town of Carson nearing Coney Benchmark with Sunshine and Redcloud in back. Click to enlarge.

Coney Benchmark summit looking back on what we’d already done (the route between Alpine Gulch and Carson aid stations is marked). Click to enlarge.

The top of Coney BM marks the halfway point of the course mileage-wise and the 70% mark with regards to elevation gain. From here the course takes on a different character as it traverses out across the Continental Divide for roughly 17 miles before dropping down to Slumgullion Pass. Although there isn’t much gain and drop along this section, I found it to be slow going because of the altitude and general fatigue at that point in the race. The 9 miles between Carson and the Divide aid stations seemed to go on forever – probably 3 times I came around a corner expecting to see the yurt only to realize it must be on the far side of yet another big rise out in the distance.

On the Divide. From here the route continues all the way around  the right side of Lake San Cristobal, which can be seen in the distance.

Finally at the yurt, I refilled the bladder and grabbed a bite of mac n’ cheese, which was the only solid food I ate all day. The liquid diet of gels and Tailwind worked out pretty well, particularly with the heat. I never ran into any stomach issues.

Then it was down to another 9 mile stretch between the Divide aid station and Slumgullion. You get some nice views of Uncompahgre through here.

I coasted into Slumgullion at mile 40 sometime around 3pm and was happy to see Anna-Lisa and Sarah there waiting for me. They had spent the day getting a solid run in themselves up the Camp Trail to the Divide aid station yurt and back down to town. Nice work gals!

At this point my knee was bugging me a little but being so close to the end, I knew I would finish. Especially because I now had Sarah pacing me for the final 10 miles between Slumgullion and town. I always figured pacers must make a big difference in the latter stages of a race but I had no idea just how much of a difference until I experienced it myself. Suffice it to say I wouldn’t have completed the race nearly as strongly had Sarah not been along.

Ascending through dense aspen forests on the south side of the Vickers Ranch. This section is private but the owner’s open it up for this race every year, allowing racers and pacers to pass through. Photo by Sarah.

Sarah and I made quick work of the final 1,800 ft climb, passing numerous people along the way. Despite being the hottest time of day, I was feeling great and even got a second wind at the exact right time. I really feel like the key to these long races is starting out slow enough that you have something left in the tank during the final stages of the day, which is bound to be the toughest part both mentally and physically.

Final push through Vickers. Photo by Sarah.

At mile 46 we came upon the last aid station where instead of water I was offered gin and tonic. I took a big swig without questioning it and then we peeled out of there, excited to get down into town. The final descent was steep, long, and punishing, but at that point it didn’t really seem to matter. Maybe the hardest part of the entire day for me was the final flat mile through town as I kept looking for the finish line around every corner and it never seemed to come. Eventually though it did come, along with a big cheer and cup of ice water from Anna-Lisa who had driven the car around from Slumgullion to meet us at the finish line.

I finished in 12:04:14 (full results can be seen here), which I felt great about given it was my first go at a course anywhere near this tough. I’d like to return and break 12 hours though, as I’m pretty confident I could have shaved 4 min off somewhere throughout the day.

Me, Anna-Lisa, and Sarah in town.

After hanging around at the finish for awhile and getting a nice dinner at the Lake City Cafe, it was back to our secluded cabin for a nice, early evening.

The next morning we packed up and headed back into Lake City for the awards ceremony and breakfast provided by the Lake City EMTs, for whom the SJS 50 is a fundraiser benefit. Last but not least we stopped off at the Blue Mesa Reservoir on the way home for a dunk in the water, capping off a great weekend in the San Juans.

View from the deck of the cabin the next morning. Such an awesome spot.

This year’s sub 11 hour finishers at the awards ceremony on Sunday.

All in all I’m so grateful to have been able to run this thing. It was the biggest day I’ve had in the mountains to date, and it always feels fulfilling to push boundaries and succeed, especially with awesome support from friends and family. Anna-Lisa and Sarah, thanks so much for sharing in the experience with me and helping me along the way!

And special thanks to Honey Stinger, who makes the only energy gels on the market I actually enjoy, and to Swiftwick Socks, whose amazing product allowed for a blister-free 12 hour day out there.

A few final notes/observations:

  • This race is exceptionally well done. From the aid station volunteers, EMTs, pre-race briefings, course markings, awards ceremony, etc, everyone involved is invested in making this event as smooth and as fun as possible.
  • I was amazed to see how the entire town of Lake City comes out to participate in this event. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the single biggest weekend in Lake City all year for businesses and general activity around town.
  • Despite what the website may indicate, the course is very well marked even in the last 10 miles. I never had any routefinding issues.
  • The website states there are 7 creek crossings. There are really more like 9 or 10.
  • The post-race awards ceremony and breakfast are really cool. Every runner is acknowledged and there are tons of awards and prizes that are given out. I’m really glad we stayed the night and attended on Sunday morning.
  • That’s all I got. Cheers!

10 thoughts on “San Juan Solstice 50

  1. TJ Conners

    Hey Ben – that looks like a real effort – congratulations on even finishing and 12 hours is amazing to me. By “crossing” I assume you mean creek crossings (cannot imagine running 50 miles with wet feet) and by “pacing”, I assume Sarah ran with you the last 10 miles or so – that had to be a real pick me up to have her along. I especially liked the gin and tonic mini break. Anyway, less than 12 hours next year seems like a great goal. FAJA

    Reply
    1. Ben Post author

      Hey Dad! Yes, creek crossings, first thing in the morning of all possible times during the race. Most runners change into a different pair of shoes around mile 15. And yes, Sarah ran with me the final 10 miles, which made an enormous difference mentally speaking. We’ll see about next year 🙂

      Stay safe on the lake out there in NJ. Love you!

      Reply
  2. Jennifer

    Congrats Ben on your first 50! I think we met and hung out at the finish (my husband ran). SJS is a great weekend!

    Reply
    1. Ben Post author

      Hi Jennifer, thanks so much. It was nice to meet you guys down there. Have a great rest of your summer!

      Reply
  3. Floyd

    Congrats on a big accomplishment and meeting your summer goal! Looks like you have plenty of support which can’t be understated. How’d the gin sit for those last 10 miles?

    Reply
    1. Ben Post author

      Thanks Scot. Yes, the support definitely goes a long way. I like to think the gin loosened everything up for the last big descent into town 🙂

      We should get something on the books for the summer. RMNP last year was a fun time…

      Reply

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