Ever since I went to my first Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the San Juan Mountains have had a hold on me that I can’t shake. They are so beautiful, so intimidating, so inviting. I have been hooked ever since. I badly want to run Hardrock one day, but the lottery gods have not been kind to me thus far (maybe I need to hang out with John Sharp more). Lucky for me there is a 50 mile race that some refer to as “Baby Hardrock”. The Lake City 50, now known as the San Juan Solstice 50, is arguably the toughest 50 mile race in the U.S. (Zane Grey being the other). Since I had signed up for Zane Grey earlier in the year, I set my sights on doing San Juan as well. I set my alarm early on the day registration opened, knowing the race usually fills within an hour. Luckily for me, I was able to secure a slot early, assuring me of running in my favorite mountains in late June.
I knew the steep climbs would be an issue in the race, but I was more concerned with the altitude, the low point being 8,671’ (in town) and a high of 13,334’. The race boasts nearly 13,000’ of climbing and the same in descent, meaning my quads would take a beating. Having rented a house in Ouray for a couple months, I had the chance to adjust to the higher elevation and also to venture into the high country (climbing three 14ers) since there was virtually no snow in the area. I hoped my 2+ weeks of living at 7700’ would give me an advantage over my other Texas friends who were running the race with me. After making the 3 hour drive to Lake City from Ouray, I picked up my packet (noticing that everyone there looked really fit and in shape) and met fellow Texans John Sharp, Mike Sawyer, and Jaime Garcia for a beer at the local saloon (yes, a saloon). Soon I was back at the cabin and in bed, hoping to catch a few hours of sleep before the 5AM start.
(Course Profile on Back of Shirt)
I awoke to cool (but not cold) weather and clear skies. It was still dark, but we were told it should be light enough by the start to not need a headlamp. This was good, because I really didn’t want to carry a headlamp only to turn it off after 20 minutes and be stuck carrying it for 15 miles. Having been warned that the first aid station would only fill one bottle per runner (all the aid had to be hiked into this station, which was a 3,000’ climb from town), I decided to carry my Ultimate Direction pack in addition to 2 handheld bottles filled with Carbo Pro. I would have more Carbo Pro waiting for me at mile 15 (Williams Creek) and mile 21 (Carson). After that, I would rely on whatever food was at the aid stations, plus a few snacks I would bring along. I wished John and Jaime luck and lined up next to Mike Sawyer, who was trying out a new pack (same Ultimate Direction Wasp I use) and was having trouble getting it adjusted comfortably. Not a minute after we started the race, I looked over and noticed that Mike’s pack was unzipped, most likely the cause of his discomfort. We stopped so I could zip him up and then laughed because we were now officially DFL. The first 2-3 miles were run on an easy jeep road that climbed ever so slightly, allowing us to ease into things and let our legs warm up by jogging. It also allowed runners to spread out a bit and get “in position” for the big climb that would come once we turned onto the trail. After 10-15 minutes, Mike slowed to catch his breath (coming from close to sea level is tougher than it sounds), and I continued on. After almost 30 minutes of jogging up the road, we hit the turnoff for the Alpine Gulch trail, which would take us up…and up…and further up.
The race director had warned us that, although the stream crossing would not be as high as previous years (this year had been very dry), we would almost certainly get our feet wet in the early section of the race, noting that it would be easier just to wade across than try to balance on the potentially icy logs that might be available. We came to the first crossing, and I scurried across the logs with no problem, managing to stay dry. Same thing at the next crossing. Maybe I would stay dry today after all. As soon as we came to the 3rd crossing, I knew my luck had run out. The previous 2 had nice wide logs that were a couple feet above the stream. The crossing I was currently faced with had several skinny (think a couple inches wide at best) logs that hovered 3-4 feet above the ice cold water. Unless your name was Mary Lou Retton, you were going to have difficulty balancing on this thing. So, I splashed through the creek, which was cold but felt quite good. Now that my feet were wet, I didn’t hesitate at any of the other crossings, choosing to bypass the skinny logs and wade across. This section of trail was really nice singletrack, which forced us to form a long line as we climbed the steep slope. I felt really good, and badly wanted to pass people, but I kept reminding myself that there was plenty of race left and that I would have many opportunities to pass if I continued to feel good. I was encouraged that my legs felt great and my breathing wasn’t labored at all. I guess the 2+ weeks I had spent at altitude was paying off. 7 miles after race started, we arrived at the Alpine Gulch aid station, where I topped off my one allotted bottle and headed out.
(Early Climb Towards Alpine Gulch)
(Looking Down From Where We Began)
Soon we were above treeline, and this is where the real beauty began. 360 degree views of huge mountain peaks, blue sky as far as the eye could see. This is why I love running in the mountains. I remarked how beautiful this was to the guy in front of me, who replied, “yeah, this is Sound of Music kind of stuff”. We continued to climb up. At times we left the trail and headed up to a new trail, marked only by an occasional race flag. We would continue along the ridge, then up to a new ridge. It was a very new experience for me, but one I was enjoying. Because of the early spring in the San Juans, the wildflowers were already out, coloring the mountainside and providing the perfect backdrop. Soon we topped out at the high point on the course, then began the first of several quad crushing descents, this one taking us below timberline and into the first major aid station of the day, Williams Creek, at mile 15.7.
(Runners Look Like Ants Running to the Ridge)
(No Trail, Just Go Up)
(Some Early Ridge Running)
I arrived at Williams Creek in just over 4 hours, pleased that I had felt pretty good up to this point and had still made decent time. I knew I would slow down, but I was happy with my race so far. I quickly ditched my UD pack for a waist pack that held 2 bottles of Carbo Pro and some other items, plus 2 additional handhelds (4 total) of Carbo Pro. As I was leaving Williams Creek, I saw a familiar face up ahead. John Sharp had left just seconds before I did, meaning I was either running way too fast early on or he was struggling. After a few minutes I caught up to him, learning that the altitude was wreaking havoc on his breathing. Making these climbs is tough enough with good lungs, but doing so on limited breathing is nearly impossible. I wished John luck and pressed on ahead. The next section was yet another climb, this one on a jeep road up past the ghost town of Carson (where we would have an aid station) and eventually onto the Continental Divide. I was excited to see the Divide, if not overly thrilled about the climb needed to get there. I usually do well on jeep roads, as they are generally easier to climb than a steep, narrow stretch of singletrack. This jeep road was way worse than I expected. Rutted, rocky, steep, and hot!!! I realize I will get no sympathy from those who ran Pedernales, but it was really hot that weekend in Colorado. mid to upper 80’s feel toasty when you are above 10,000’. This road felt like it would never end. I was thirsty, but all I had was Carbo Pro. Although it is generally tasteless, I couldn’t seem to make myself drink it. I sipped pitifully on my bottles, not wanting to drink it but knowing I was on the road to dehydration. I would walk a few minutes and then stop in the shade for a brief moment. This continued for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, I saw volunteers at the Carson aid station, where I knew I could drink plain water and try to re-group. As soon as I got there, a really nice volunteer asked if I was Brian. It took me by surprise a bit, but I replied yes, and he told me he knew me from Liza and a class she had taught. I sat down and let Fritz fill my bottles and get me a slice of watermelon. We chatted for a bit as I drank, and then I grabbed a few items from the aid station table and set out on my way (we still had 1500’-2000’ left to climb before we hit the Divide.
(Climbing Out of Carson Aid Station - Heading to the Saddle on the Left)
(Looking Back Down on the Trail That Led To the Divide)
This next section was supposed to be a tough one because it would be 9+ miles before we hit the next aid station, and we would be running along the Continental Divide at close to 13,000’ for much of it. Dreading the remaining climb, I managed to push on as visions of the Divide danced in my head. Not too far past the aid station I noticed another runner sitting in the shade. At first I thought he was using an inhaler (I had just used mine as well), but as I got closer I realized he was inhaling something entirely different. As I passed by, he commented that it helped settle his stomach. Only in Colorado J Up and up I went. Somewhere just below the Divide, I started to feel nauseous. It came on suddenly, but I knew the feeling all too well. I pulled of to the side of the trail and emptied what little food and fluid I had managed to take in at Carson. Now I was right back where I had been earlier. Sure, I felt better, but I was on the verge of dehydration and had insufficient calories in my system. Nothing to do but keep going. When I finally reached the Divide, all my worries about calories went away. For a moment I just stood there in awe of the beauty laid out before me. The views were limitless in all directions. I could see nearby 14ers, far away peaks, and beauty beyond description. To say the trail on the Divide was a bit sketchy would be an understatement. My reward for having climbed up past 13,000’ again was a rugged, tundra-like atmosphere. There were sections where no trail existed, and I found myself scanning the ground for rock cairns or flagging. I ran over grass, rocks, and wildflowers. Where trails did exist, they were often rugged and lined with rocks. This continued for the next 5+ miles, during which time smoke from nearby fires (they are everywhere in CO right now) blew in, casting an eerie haze over the mountains. I never felt like the smoke bothered me, but many runners complained about it, and I heard ash was falling on people at the last aid station. It’s a sad situation. Along the way I stopped and got sick again. I also ran into 2 ladies I had seen at Zane Grey. One had been on the verge of dropping out as she was out of water in the heat of the day, 3+ miles from the next aid station. I had given her one of my bottles, and she remembered me and thanked me. Another woman had run Bighorn (yes, the 100) the weekend before. Wow! She was training for the Rocky Mountain Slam (Bighorn, Hardrock, Leadville, Wasatch, Bear). Just when you feel like you might be doing something remarkable and somewhat impressive, you meet someone like that to bring you back down to earth. We began to descend, and I hoped the aid station was nearby, as I was getting thirsty (I had tried to ration my water) and knew I needed some solid food. This stretch seemed to go on forever, but once we descended through the trees and emerged in a meadow, I could see a few cars and knew we were at the Divide aid station, 31 miles (and nearly 10 hours) into the race. I was happy to find out they had soup here, and I quickly downed 2 cups, washing it down with a bottle of water and some Mountain Dew. I thanked the volunteers (they were fantastic all day) and was on my way.
(Running Along the Continental Divide)
(Sometimes the Trail on the Divide Looked Like This)
(And Sometimes Like This)
(Smoky Haze Rolling In)
The next section was again a 9 mile stretch without aid, but this time there would be a good bit of downhill, so I wasn’t as concerned. I settled into a nice power hike (I trained under the master, Chris Russell) and was soon feeling much better. I decided it was time to break out my secret weapon, my iPod. As soon as my music was on, I started feeling better and began to run again, slowly at first but then a little quicker. I started passing people and putting distance on them. After a few miles of this, the real downhill began (we would drop almost 4,000’ to the last “big” aid station at Slumgullion Pass). The trail/road down was not an easy one, as it was rocky and uneven, but it was still faster than climbing. I had a time in my mind in which I thought I would reach Slumgullion, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the aid station appear before me a good 10 minutes earlier than I expected. I again downed some soup and Mountain Dew, dropped my waist pack, and headed out with 2 fresh bottles of water.
(The Descent Into Slumgullion)
I knew I had one last climb to tackle, but this one would be an “easier” one, only taking me up 1700’. Because the last section was on provide property (Vickers Ranch), we had a good bit of bushwhacking and off trail maneuvering just to get onto the trail at the property. Once there, we climbed up through aspen groves that were stunning. I had felt decent coming out of Slum, but just as quickly I got that all too familiar feeling in my stomach and pulled to the side to do my business. Afterwards, I felt much better but knew I was yet again digging myself a caloric hole. I still managed to pass several people on this section, finally cresting the hill and finding the last aid station at mile 46. I filled a bottle with water and another halfway with Mountain Dew and took off. I had enjoyed 99% of this race, but I was ready to be done!
(The Climb Up Vickers)
I continued my walk/run, eventually settling into a nice rhythm as I ran downhill through the trees. About 2 miles from the finish, I passed a guy who would stay with me the rest of the race. When I ran, he ran. When I walked, he walked too. This was actually good for me as it probably forced me to run a bit more than I normally would have. The last few miles were fairly uneventful. We hit the streets of Lake City and wound our way towards the park, where many people had stayed to cheer runners on. I crossed the line in 14:52, not quite what I had hoped but still a decent time.
(Approaching the Finish)
Overall I was pleased with my race, though obviously not with my stomach issues. The course is by far the most scenic I have ever run. My legs felt pretty good for most of the day, except when I lacked energy due to nutritional issues. Altitude never seemed to be an issue, or if it was it wasn’t debilitating. Whatever the case, I got to spend a day in the middle of the San Juan Mountains, which is darn near perfect in my book.