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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!