San Juan Solstice 2018

This was my first time running an Ultra race for a second time so this race report might take a slightly different shape than others. Here is my recap of 2017 when I suffered through most of the middle the section: San Juan Solstice 2017.

What I loved

  • I still love everything about Lake City. The town and the surrounding mountains were as wonderful as I remembered. I would love to make this race an annual trip, even if it means dragging my family all the way to Durango and then up to Lake City. There’s just something special about Lake City. The place, the people, the air at 8,700 feet, and knowing that I’m going to get my ass kicked every year, no matter the training or fitness. Fifty milers are hard, mountain fifties are harder, mountain fifties at altitude are even harder, and mountain fifties at altitude in the small towns of Colorado are special. My skin is tingling just thinking about next years suffer-fest.
  • With my second crack at the SJS50, I was eager to benchmark my training and really measure the return on all the climbing I did this year. I was genuinely excited to see if all the 4am wake ups, long drives to the mountains, sore quads for days, and missed time with the family would result in a different outcome. And I really wasn’t prepared to suffer through another 14 hour death march, only to discover the training made zero difference in the results. Thankfully the training paid off! Crossing the finish line nearly 2 hours faster than last year brought on a wave of emotion. I was happy, I was relieved, but I was mostly excited that the process is working and bigger things are ahead.
  • The SJS50 course is still nearly perfect. I love the diversity in each of the distinct sections and I love the challenges that you can only get when high in the mountains. I want to recount some of the things I noticed this year compared to last. For a brief recap, there are three big climbs (two above 13k feet), stream crossings, stunning views, single track, jeep road, and even some snow. I’ll break down a few of these things with some contrast to last year.
    • The stream crossings are brutal are manageable.  Unfortunately most of SW Colorado was in a severe drought. They also received far less snow this past winter compared to historical averages. This meant the stream crossings were shin high opposed to thigh high. You could probably tip toe across some of the crossings if willing to take your time and selectively cross. I always pound through the water without any care. But it was nice to not have my thighs frozen a few miles into the race. Instead, my feet got wet and a little cold but all very tolerable.
    • The first climb is fun felt harder than I remembered. I traveled a day earlier to help improve altitude adjustment but this proved little value. Last year was my first 50 so I think some of the excitement carried me through the first 15 miles. This year though, the initial climb felt longer and harder. My legs were working harder, my lungs were working harder, and I generally felt slow. Thankfully most of this was in my head and my time was a few minutes faster through the first 15 miles compared to last year. Maybe the lack of sleep led to a sluggish day or maybe it was mind games to ensure I didn’t start out too fast. But there’s quite a bit of trail before that first climb and for some reason I was anxious to start climbing earlier. Next year I’ll be more patient.
    • The second climb is undoubtedly hard. It’s long and punishing but I was prepared this year. I did much of this section on my own last year and was thankful to share this year’s climb up to the Carson aid station with another runner (turns out last year’s SJS was his first 50 and he’s also training for his first 100). My general strategy was to not burn through my matches and leave enough in the tank to navigate the stretch along the continental divide, rip the second descent, and hopefully have enough gas in the tank to push the last 10 miles. My new friend and I worked through the climb to Carson rather swiftly and almost effortlessly, shuffling every so often but otherwise hiking at a modest pace. I was surprised how quickly the Carson aid station came but knew the section ahead, mostly above 12k, is where the course really starts to separate people.
    • The divide and jeep road (miles 22-40) is where I fell apart last year. The altitude just crushed me (migraine, dizziness, fatigue). I started to show signs of altitude sickness again this year but the extra attention to hydration and layers of sunscreen made a huge difference. I continued my conservative pace even on the runnable sections to ensure I didn’t burn out. It was nice to get some revenge on this section. Running along the divide was as hard as I remembered. Lots of ups and downs at or around 12k feet, high winds with some gusts testing my will, and amazing views for miles in every direction. The jeep road leading back towards Lake City was a lot more enjoyable when actually running. This section felt fast even with some occasional walking. My only advice to those reading this post is to layer on the sunscreen.
    • The third and final climb is crushing and it certainly got the best of me this year. I finally reached the top of Vicker’s Ranch (~mile 43) but had little energy to push the final miles to the finish. I settled into a walk/run pace and went through all the normal late Ultra self talks of never running again. I really enjoyed this section last year but realize it was 2 hours later in the day and the time of day made a huge difference. Different light, different temps, and generally less enjoyable physically given I pushed the earlier sections faster than last year. In hindsight I wish I would have taken a few more minutes at the prior aid station and wish I would have pushed up the climb to Vicker’s Ranch a bit more at my pace. I was so excited to be on a 12h pace that I ripped in and out of that last full aid station. I should have sat down for a minute just to breathe and chat with my wife for more than 30 seconds. As for that final climb, I conservatively stayed behind another runner and his pacer thinking I’d leave energy for the final miles. I’m not fast but am typically able to navigate climbs quickly even if power walking (short legs?).

What I learned

  • More mountains, maybe more strength training. In December of last year I ran a near 30 mile trail (The Wild Oak Trail) with roughly 8k feet of climbing. I had read about The Wild Oak Trail and thought it would a good way to end 2017. Little did I anticipate it would become my training partner for the next six months. I immediately set down a training path focused on climbing. I ran The Wild Oak Trail 1-2x per month during my high mileage weeks. I also ran a tough 50 miler with close to 9k feet of climbing in early March as a part of my San Juan Training. And when the weather got nasty or I couldn’t drive all the way to Staunton, I’d visit my friend’s cabin near Front Royal to run up a back down his 2.75 mile jeep road driveway. In late May I did 30 miles of just this in the pouring rain (perfectly normal, right?). Focusing on the climbing is a lot more time consuming (drive time + run time + recovery time) but is a large contributor to this year’s success. I’m excited to continue this approach and hopefully add some night loops to the TWOT. But a lot of the runners I met ran less miles than me and surprisingly did similar or less climbing than me. And most of these folks live in the mountains! I plan to reincorporate strength sessions (ugh, a gym) to improve some of that late race fatigue. If anything, I’ll look even sexier in my European swimsuit.
  • Altitude is still a real asshole. I traveled a day earlier but it really doesn’t matter. I still suffered just less. I’d love to spend a month in Colorado leading into this race and see how I perform if properly adjusted. Not sure that will even be enough or make that much of a difference but I can’t escape the thought.
  • Ultras are hard. I’m envious of the people that run these races then get up the next morning and run some more. My body has not quite reached that level. I felt very good about my fitness and diet leading into this race. I put in the mileage, the climbing, the hill repeats, the track workouts, and everything in between. At the end of the day, it’s a long race and lots of things factor into a successful day. I’m quite proud of my 12h 20m finish but that came with a lot of adversity.
  • I will run 100. I put a lot of emphasis on this race. Part redemption from last year, part validation that I’m an ultra runner (this distinction is stupid), and part validation that I can run something longer than 50. This is why I haven’t seen most of my friends in six months, haven’t had alcohol in 18 months, and am way too comfortable pooping in the woods. I really really wanted and still want to prove these things to myself. I have a 100 miler planned for the fall and planned to use this race as a reason to never run again or go all in. I’m definitely all in and stupidly excited to put my body through hell. All for a jar of jam.