San Juan Solstice 50M Race Report

It’s hard to put into words the energy, exhaustion, and experience of a 50 mile journey across the mountains. The effort seems almost as daunting as running the race itself! Thankfully, I’ve got an long,  sunny and beautiful afternoon by a lake shore with a gorgeous mountain view to sort out my thoughts and reflect on the San Juan Solstice 50M race.

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To begin with, the synchronicity of the Summer Solstice and the Super Moon was sure to bring about some strong celestial forces on race day. Unfortunately, a third powerful natural phenomenon was also making itself known – the West Fork Fire. We could see its enormous nuclear -explosion-like plume of smoke rising over the mountains just east of Lake City.

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Scary, intimidating and shocking. Especially when we heard that the neighboring towns of South Fork and Creede had been evacuated.  Would the race even go on? We were on stand-by for more information and prepared ourselves for the news that the course would be shortened, altered or canceled if the winds changed and blew the smoke or worse… the flames…in our direction.

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In the early morning darkness on Saturday, we heard that the race was on. The winds were low and continued to blow the smoke away from us. At 5 AM we set off. The first few steps of a race are always so exhilarating. The adrenaline is pumping – you’re excited to finally be on your way yet nervous about all of the unknowns ahead of you.

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[photo by Danielle]

The first big climb of the day, 4500′ up Alpine Gulch, started off gently, winding back and forth over a creek a few dozen times.

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The narrow trail and creek crossings forced a conservative starting pace. I tried not to waste too much energy getting annoyed at the traffic jam on the bridges ahead of me or accelerating off trail to squeeze past other runners. We had miles and miles yet to go. Patience.

Within a few miles and several thousand feet of climbing, we broke above treeline. The trail led us up even higher and then along a gorgeous open ridge that reminded me of the Kepler Track in New Zealand. I so wished I had a camera with me on the run! The views all around were breathtaking – figuratively and literally because we were now hitting an altitude of 13,000ft above sea level! We were hardly 10 miles into the race and the course was already the most beautiful race course I’d ever experienced! It was hard to imagine that the next 40 miles would be even higher, harder and more beautiful.

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[Photo from SJS website]

The descent into the first major aid station, Williams Creek Campground, dropped 4000′ in 5 miles. I finally overtook a couple of women that I’d been leap frogging with the whole way up the first climb. When I heard the roars of the aid station my sneaking suspicion that I might be in the lead was confirmed. The adrenaline spike gave me an extra boost but also ensured that I pretty much forgot to get any sensible food at the aid station. I picked up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a few fig newtons. I hate PB and fig newtons are too hard to eat while I run. Needless to say I held them in my hand for the next 2.5 miles to the start of the Carson climb. Eventually I just shoved the disgusting and soggy newtons into my pocket. I would pay for this later.

Next up, the Carsons climb from hell. I was so thankful to turn off the 2 mile gently uphill trending dirt road only to face a soul crushing ascent on a rough, steep, rocky, endless ATV track. I felt like I could hardly muster a walk, let alone a power hiking pace. A few guys caught up to me. And then a familiar face, my friend Neeraj. I was happy to see him. Together we huffed and puffed up to the next aid station at mile 22.

I was so thankful that I had slapped on one of the ElevationTat temporary tattoos of the race course. I referenced it through out the day, eyeing the peaks and valleys. I had a print off of the race course map and elevation profile in my pocket but sometimes pulling it out can seem like too much effort. The tattoo on the inside of my forearm was so helpful, especially coming up to the Carsons aid station as it reminded me that we were only half way up the climb at this point.

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I dumped my headlamp and jacket into my dropbag at the Carsons aid station. Refilled the water bottle that I had on my waist belt (and that had been empty until now) and my handheld bottle, grabbed a handful of bananas and took off to finish the biggest climb of the course which would lead us up to the Continental Divide at 13,300′ above sea level. I noticed a couple of women coming into the aid station as I left it. I knew that I needed to either find a second wind or I was going to lose the lead. Maybe all the dead brain cells from the lack of oxygen were numbing the pain, but as soon as we broke above treeline I started to feel stronger and was able to kick back into a running pace. I started cruising. I started catching people and passing them. I looked back on the final switch back to the highest point on the course and saw a light blue shirt not too far behind me that looked like it could be the 2nd place woman. This was my now-or-never moment. I found another gear and started booking it. The harder I ran, the stronger I felt. I saw runners far ahead along the beautiful open ridges and caught up to them. Across talus rocks and delicate high alpine flowers with 360 degree mountain views, I felt like I was flying.

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[Photo by Mike Grady]
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[Photo from SJS website]
I hit The Divide aid station (at 50 kilometers or 31 miles) alone, refilled only one of my bottles and continued along and up another 500′ ascent before the big descent to the Slumgullion aid station 9 miles away. I continued alone cruising on the open run-able track until it turned into a sharp rocky descent through aspen groves which, thankfully, provided some much needed shade from the blazing sun.

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[Photo by Danielle]
Coming into the Slumgullion aid station my quads were starting to feel the effects of the pounding descent, the heat and calorie-deficit (those soggy fig newtons sitting in my pocket were doing me no good there).

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[Photo by Danielle]
Shortly after leaving the aid station, in a stretch of downhill, both of my quads spasmed and brought me to a halt. As I hobbled along trying to control the cramping, Petra McDowell (the 2007 winner) came up behind me and passed me effortlessly. There was nothing I could do to put up a fight. I kept her within sight for a mile up the final 2,000′ climb but with every step my quads threatened to knock me down again. This was not only a physical battle but a mental one too. Having led for a full marathon distance I was gutted to have lost it and I was afraid I’d lose the podium completely if I couldn’t compose myself soon. I was disillusioned and discouraged yet also completely fired up and determined to hold on to 2nd place. I pushed my hands on my quads to massage the muscles and power up the final climb. I chugged an entire bottle full of water and took my last s-caps at the Vickers aid station.

Now it was time to descend 2,000′ in 2 miles… OUCH! I turned my mind off and powered down the hill as fast as I could go. I heard footsteps coming behind me, managed a quick glimpse over my shoulder and saw a skirt running towards me. I could not believe it! I was going to have to put up one helluva fight here. She must have seen me accelerate because she yelled down to me not to worry, she was only a pacer trying to catch up with her runner! Whew! What a relief! But also a reminder that the race isn’t over until it’s over. I took advantage of the final adrenaline spike to help carry down the rest of the steep descent into town far below.

An endless, agonizingly flat mile across town to the finish line and I was done. 2nd place secured. 10 hours 36 minutes, about 9 minutes faster than my goal time (but about 15 minutes slower than what I think I could have managed had I not unraveled in the final 9 miles). Could have, would have, should have. I was completely delighted and proud to have finished in 2nd place in the highest and hardest 50 miler in the country. Petra McDowell is a phenomenal and veteran ultra runner. And Emily Judd, 3rd place, pushed me harder than I could have pushed myself during that final stretch. What a privilege to have shared the race course with these strong women.

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[Left to Right: me (2nd), Emily (3rd), Petra (1st)]
Top 3 women on the results board:

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I was relieved to see Ryan at the finish looking like he hadn’t raced at all since he had finished long enough ago to have already had a rest, a shower, and clean civilian clothes! Somehow, miraculously, his party platter of injuries (foot, hamstring, IT band, knee…) kept quiet. He finished in 7th place amongst an insanely competitive men’s field.

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He ran a solid 35 mile stretch all the way to the finish with local runner, Chris Dickey. Upon approaching the finish line they decided that the only fair way to bring the race to a close would be to give the crowd a good ol’fashioned sprint finish! On a predetermined countdown they sprinted the final 20 meters. Had it been me and another fellow female runner I would have suggested we hold hands and settle for a tie. Boys will be boys though. Dickey pipped Ryan to the post by a stride. 9:33:41 and 9:33:42. Rarely in ultras do seconds count. But it didn’t really matter as both had achieved their goal of top 10 under 10.

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A little while later Neeraj crossed the finish line with his biggest fan:

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And our friend Mike had an amazing day, finishing his first 50 miler looking strong and happy!

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The culture of this event is unrivaled and part of what makes the sport of ultrarunning so special. The entire community participated and supported the event, and in return, the event celebrated and supported the community. The race raised money for the local fire department, which given the wildfire crises affecting the local area, is pretty darn important. It also brought 200 runners and their entourages to the small and adorable town of Lake City and showcased the best of the San Juan Mountains. The community manned the aid stations, set up the pre-race dinner and morning-after breakfast and donated awards and raffle prizes to the runners.

An to top it all off, the top 3 finishers received a personalized painting by local artist Russ Brown!

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[Left to Right: 2nd place men’s and women’s painting & 1st place men’s and women’s painting]

Here is the actual scene from the race course on which the 2nd place painting is based!

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[Photo from SJS website]
The top 3 men (Dakota Jones’ 1st place ‘freak-of-nature’ write up for iRunFar, 2nd place Jason Schlarb, and 3rd place male Josh Arthur’s race report) at the morning-after awards ceremony and breakfast:

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Mike & the 13-14 hour ‘Survivor’ category get their finisher awards:

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Ryan & the 9-10 hour ‘Mutant’ category:

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Top 3 women (minus Petra who overslept!) all in the ‘Cannibal’ category:

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Here we all are, looking clean and recovered from yesterday’s battle.

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Survivor (white), Cannibal (red) and Mutant (blue) finishers’ visors:

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My heart goes out to all of those local folks who were or are being affected by the West Fork Fire. And my thanks to all of the firefighters working hard to keep people safe.

Congratulations to everyone who managed to finish within the 16 hour time limit, a few minutes beyond or a few miles short. This is a beast of a course that’s as rewarding as it is challenging and as beautiful as it is masochistic. We’ll be back next year!

Aid StationTotal MileageRyan's total timeSilke's total timeTime difference
1. Alpine Gulch71:261:380:12
2. Williams Creek15.72:533:160:23
3. Carson21.54:134:430:30
4. Divide316:246:570:33
5. Slumgullion407:448:220:38
6. Vickers46.58:539:480:55
7. Finish509:3310:361:03

Full results and Ryan’s race on Strava.

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