Monday, June 23, 2014

San Juan Solstice 50 Race Report

Is there a better way to spend the summer solstice than playing all day long in the mountains?

I think not.

At the risk of assuming knowledge, here's a quick primer on the San Juan Solstice 50 (formerly the Lake City 50) that happened last Saturday:
 - 50-mile loop course through remote terrain, starting and ending in the town of Lake City
 - 12,856 feet of vertical ascent
 - Low point of 8,671 feet
 - High point of 13,334 feet
 - 16-hour cutoff
 - Sometimes called "Mini Hardrock"
 - Course profile:

San Juan Solstice fills up months in advance, literally within minutes of online registration openingso, on the recommendation of my friend Annie who'd run this one in the past and thought I'd enjoy it, I registered months ago without really doing my research. (These "moments of optimistic impulse," particularly in relation to ultrarunning, are not out of character for me.) Sign up now, ask questions later.

My first inkling of what I'd signed up for came at the Sageburner 50K in Gunnison a couple months ago, when a racer from Lake City mentioned that the snowpack there was unusually high this year and that he wasn't sure the original course would be runnable by mid June.

Somehow, this possibility hadn't really crossed my mind. There's still snow above 11,000 feet on the trail out my back door right now, so I'm not sure why I thought there wouldn't be snow at 13,000 feet in mid-June somewhere else in Colorado, but somehow that just didn't click. Sure enough, then came the pre-race emails from Race Director Jerry Gray, saying we might need to run a modified course at lower elevation to avoid the obscenely high creek crossings and deep snowfields plaguing the true SJS 50 course last month. He'd monitor the snow melt and let us know.

It wasn't until six days before the race that we got final word: things were still crazy up there, but the snow was melting fast, so we'd run the original course, creek crossings and snowfields and all.

Hmm. For the first time since I'd registered, I read the race website more carefully and learned all sorts of interesting things: in fact, there'd be roughly a dozen icy, knee- to waist-deep creek crossings in the first few miles. There'd be bushwhacking and scree-field surfing and post holing and glissading and all sorts of other verbs that, in years past, I'd considered only vaguely related to trail running.

A few of the images that can be found on the San Juan Solstice 50 race website.
Furthermore, there are pieces of advice on the race website like, "If it goes electric, get off the ridge!" and "It is a very wise idea to buy a CORSAR [Colorado Search and Rescue] card ... that will help pay for your rescue."

Also, this running-at-13,000-feet thing. In my head, beforehand, I think I was all, "Oh yeah, I live at altitude in the mountains in Colorado; I'm pretty much made of red blood cells now, so no problem."


Turns out, 13,000 feet is still a heck of a lot higher than 7,000 feet. The lowest point (metaphorically) for me on Saturday came shortly after the highest point (literally) in the race, the 13,334-foot Coney Peak. At this point, mile 24ish, we'd already done the bulk of the race's major climbing and now faced roughly 13 more miles of staying above 11,000 feet. As one of the race's more Colorado-appropriate mottos goes: "Get high, stay high."

High did not feel so good to me, though. Not one bit. In fact, aside from the glorious views and the nice folks I met along the way, very little about the first 30 miles felt good to me.

Let's begin with the creek crossings, which were every bit as icy and raging as promised. The first couple of them were excitingall "Whoo, we're splashing through a creek, it's the summer solstice, isn't this awesome?!"but then, as my legs got progressively more numb with each crossing, the novelty wore off. The crossings got deeper and more harrowing. Some had logs or ropes to hold on to, but the deepest one of all (which, I was told later, nearly swept away at least one or two smaller-bodied runners) had nothing at all to assist with a safe crossing, save the kindly, patiently extended hands of the runners in front of and behind me, including my wonderful friend Annie.

By the time all the creek crossings were over, my legs felt like popsiclesstiff and frozen. My heart (and I mean this in a physical sense) also felt very cold, like it couldn't pump oxygen fast enough to the rest of my body. I was sluggish until we made it through the first major aid station, popped out above tree line and the sun began peeking through the morning clouds, bathing us with its rays.

Here, it was evident who was a San Juan vet and who was a starstruck newb. Falling into the latter category, I was brimming over with oohs and ahhs and the occasional disbelieving, ecstatic profanity as every switchback took us higher, and snow-capped peaks rose up around us like castles in the sky.

From the beginning, my stomach had been grumpy and I felt a bit dizzy, but otherwise, I was doing all right. The first downhill was a huge boonoff I went, unleashed, and to my tremendous delight, the first runner I flew by called out after me, "Wow, wow! Like a GAZELLE!"

Day. Made.

I would have liked to have stopped to tell him that I like to think of the gazelle as my spirit animal, and that, in 2012, I named one of my personal projects for the new year "The Gazelle Project," which had everything to do with devoting my life more wholly to the sport of trail running.

One of the things that struck me most about running the Leadville Trail 100 last year was how grumpy and even antagonistic some runners were toward one another, including several who made nasty comments to me as I passed them on downhills. (My favorite: a sarcastic, "Nice work trashing your quads!")

The runners at San Juan couldn't have been more different. In my experience, even those of us suffering deep in our individual pain caves throughout the day were still kind and decent to one another. (Thankfully, like nearly every other trail race I've ever run ... )

When I made it to the top of Coney Peak, a fellow runner who was stopped at the summit asked me if I wouldn't mind stuffing his jacket away in his pack for him. I was more than happy to do so, then I asked if he wouldn't mind taking a photo of me at the summit with my camera. Unless one of my parents reminds me of some long-forgotten adventure when I was a wee one, it's the highest elevation I've ever been in my life.

As the runner was snapping a shot of me, another runner (if my admittedly fuzzy memory of the moment serves me right, it was Lucky, the owner of the Raven's Rest hostel in Lake City) approached the summit and said brightly, "Oh, are you two together? Do you want me to take a picture of you both?"

What a gentleman, even as the first runner and I laughed and shook our heads.

On the way up to Coney, I'd leapfrogged with two of my friends, accomplished runners and fellow Pacific-Northwesterner-for-a-while-turned-Coloradoans, Ben (well, Steve's friend whom I've co-opted, who now lives in Telluride) and Annie (OK, Annie's a Colorado native originally, but she did a solid stint working in Olympic National Park before moving back to the homeland near Aspen.) Annie's husband, Jeason, also a former Northwesterner, was much further up in the pack, getting in a solid training run before Hardrock next month.

Ben leads the way.
Annie, trekking poles up, in her perpetual great mood.
Annie and Ben kept me in good spirits on the climbs, as did the runners around usseasoned SJS 50 vets like the indomitable Roger Jensen with his epic beard and tie-dye shorts and 11-time SJS 50 finisher Annette Fortune, as well as a handful of newbies like myself. At some point on the second climb, the man who'd called me a gazelle caught up to me again, and we fell into stepBill and I continued to chat away about writing and editing and goodness knows what else for several miles. So many good, friendly people; much as I love my solo runs and adventures in the backcountry, the trail-running community has always been, first and foremost, what I love about this sport.

Then along came the stretch on the Continental Divide. Following a heck of a lot of climbing, it offered a huge section of runnable, net-downhill (albeit very rolling), relatively non-technical terrain. I was psyched and feeling pretty good for the first time all day.

Then, out of nowhere, after a steep descent through scree, a wave of intense nausea overtook me.

I guess there was a "trail" in there somewhere for getting down.
All of the sudden, I was on my hands and knees, dry retching onto the tundra. Fortunately there was enough space between me and the next runner that no one had to witness this display, which lasted about one minute in total. After about a dozen dry heaves and a mild panic attack about my body rebelling so violently and so unexpectedly, I calmed myself, ate a blueberry rice cake (thank you, FeedZone Portables cookbook), sipped some water and Acli-mate, got up and started running again. Just like that, I felt better.

Some further gratitudes: there were no lightning storms on Saturday. This was my worst fear going into a race like this that takes place so much above tree line. The skies went dark for a moment in the early afternoon and it rain/snow/hailed on me for approximately 20 seconds, but that was really it as far as inclement weather; by the time I'd yanked my jacket out from the bungee on my pack and pulled it on, the "storm" was already over. The rest of the day, we lucked out with intermittent sun and generally cool, overcast skies.

Remember in my last blog entry, last week, when I wrote about how I'd be happy if I never had to post-hole another day in my life? Hahaha.
Steve and Carmel, the hero crew team responsible for seeing me and Ben through our respective races, greeted me at the 40-mile mark at Slumgullion aid station with big smiles and a plate of salted avocado and bananas. Pacers are allowed for the final stretch, so Steve jumped in to run the last 10 miles with me. I was already feeling (relatively) like a million bucks at this pointdry socks and shoes, no more nausea, no more getting above 11,200 feet, and feeling in the home stretchbut it was especially terrific to have Steve's company for the final 1,700-foot climb and descent through Vickers Ranch and back into town.

Like a bat out of hell, I went crashing out of Slumgullion, so utterly stoked by how strong I felt at that point that I blasted right past a flagged turn in the course. (Sound familiar?) Go figure; it wouldn't be a real race if I hadn't gotten lost at some point or another, despite the course being perfectly well marked the whole way. I fortunately dead-ended at a creek almost immediately, realized I'd missed a turn, ran back up to the turnoff and got back on course.

The last 10 miles were nothing but fun. No, really. Just as had been my hope for this race, I felt strong and properly trained and, above all, joyful. I cruised hard on the technical descent back toward town, and was delighted to cross the finish line in 13:15ish (still not sure my exact time), at least an hour or two faster than I was expecting.

Last year, I ran just two trail racesthe Transvulcania 83K in Spain's Canary Islands, and Colorado's own Leadville Trail 100. On a personal level already discussed at length here in my blog, both races kicked my ass; it was my hope that this year I could finally experience feeling good at the finish line of a race again, rather than just destroyed.

Happily, mission accomplished.

On a more general level, Leadville and Transvulcania were each special and amazing in their own ways. Ultimately, though, with 1,000ish runners apiece and massive fanfare (or as "massive" as fanfare gets in the ultrarunning world, ala balloon arches, sound systems, media coverage, etc), neither race in its modern rendition has much in common with the low-key, laid-back races that made me fall in love with this sport in the first place. (To name a few, my first volunteer gig at Ben Holmes' PsychoPsummer 50K, my first trail race at James Varner's Orcas Island 25/50K, and my first ultra at Bruce Cyra, Kevin and Claudine Kim-Murphy's Vashon Ultra 50K.)

I was happy not to see a speck of litter, not even a lone GU gel tab, anywhere on the SJS course. In my experience, runners were friendly to one another, cheering each other on all day long, offering helping hands at the creek crossings, stopping to check in with those pulled over in pain or exhaustion on the side of the trail.

The aid stations were unbelievably dialed, filled with some of the most wonderful volunteers I've ever met; my drop bags were delivered without asking, my bottle/hydration pack refilled to my specifications in a matter of seconds. With 200+ runners on course, I usually had company if I wanted it, though toward the end, Steve and I also enjoyed some glorious miles entirely on our own, so spread apart had we racers become.

All the race proceeds went to benefit the Lake City Volunteer EMTs.

Bravo to all the folks who made this race happenthe RD, volunteers, runners, crews, sweepers, Lake City locals and morefor putting on such a wonderful, challenging event in some of the world's most beautiful mountains. I feel blessed to have been a part of it all.

Our base camp for the weekend: Wupperman Campground overlooking Lake San Cristobal,  just a few miles outside of Lake City proper.
Sucker for swag: Finisher's cap, age-group award dog tags, plus a sweet cutting board from the Lake City general store and a bottle of Syrah donated by Elkhorn Liquors that I scored in the post-race raffle.

Nothing but gratitude for another glorious day in the mountains.


  1. Nice job Yitka! I've heard that course is really tough, but I'm hoping to do it next year. Good on you for doing so well especially with all the snow. I'm hoping I'll still feel good at the finish line of Run Rabbit 50 in Sept, but so far my eating/drinking habits haven't been very dialed.. Your photos are beautiful!! Congrats again :)

  2. Thank you for your report. I just signed up for this as my first Ultra and I'm trying to gather as much intel as possible.

    1. You're welcome! Congrats on signing up for your first ultra and I hope you have an amazing time. :) This is one of the most beautiful races I've ever run. My best advice is to do everything you can to spend some time (running, camping, whatever) up above 11,000 feet in the weeks leading up to the race. It's hard to do that early in the season, but your body will thank you if you can!

  3. Great race report. I appreciate the information. I've not made it past the second aid station (yet), so good to know what I have to look forward to.