After a winter of mostly recovering from a rough time at TNF50 in December, I was eagerly browsing the Trail Runner Magazine Race Calendar and UltraSignup, looking for what would be my first Colorado race. I came across a 50 miler that looked promising – San Juan Solstice, a high altitude race through the San Juan mountains. “Sounds great!” I thought to myself, not paying any consideration to the fact that the majority of the race was above 10,000 feet in altitude and I was still acclimatizing to Boulder at half that elevation. Still, I entered the lottery with optimism and eventually received an email stating that I had gotten in! 🙌
Now it was time to start training. In Boulder, there is no shortage of mountains to run. Being so early in the season, I couldn’t get out into the high country at all until May. I made due with the peaks in my backyard, trying to get up to 8000 feet as often as possible. In May I got out a couple times to 11,500 feet, but that was all of the altitude training I would have going into this. My basic strategy for this race was to hike the first half as easy as possible, and push it after the divide, around mile 40.
Coming out of taper I felt great. I had seen Ginna at Boulder Acupsort a couple of times during my taper and felt like my legs were fresher than ever going into a race. My spirits were high, as Nick, Hannah and I rolled into Lake City the day before the race. This was also my first time using a vest and drop bags in a race, and I felt then (and now afterwards) that I had done a pretty good job preparing exactly what I would need (putting socks in each bag was one of the best decisions of my life). After eating some awesome spiralized sweet potato with avocado and a salmon salad (made the night before by my wonderful, supportive wife, Emily, who couldn’t be there due to a schedule conflict) I eased into bed. Although I felt great, I think the excitement of the race kept me up. I think I got about 4 hours of sleep before the alarm rang at 3:30 am. Nick, Hannah and I shuffled around and got ready, then headed to the start. Nick was running the race as well and Hannah was crewing us.
I popped into the San Juan Coffee company, which was open at 4am race day, for a last minute espresso shot, then got into formation at the start. As we were walking there, Nick said he was going to try to stay at the front to be ahead of traffic at the many river crossings in the first couple of miles. I thought this was a good strategy and took off with the front of the pack, only to find out a minute later that we all took a wrong turn and had to turn around and run a faster pace to get back to the front. This did get me ahead of the crowds, but altered my overall plan of taking it easy at the start. It wouldn’t be the last time I deviated from this plan though.
Up through the canyons and woods, crossing river after river, we made our way up 10 miles to almost 13,000 feet above sea level. This was the first time I had ever experienced anything above 11,500 ft and I was feeling it. I was still doing pretty good physically and mentally on this climb and after cresting the high point, I felt good to be going down. I tried not to bomb down too hard, at only 11 miles into the race, but even when I tried to keep pace with people going slower downhill, they would insist I go ahead. I ended up running faster than I had planned on early in, but by the time I got to the second aid station at mile 15.7, I still felt great. Hannah was waiting there and quickly got me everything I needed. I changed socks (1st of 3 times) refueled and hydrated, chatted with Jason Schlarb for a second and took off on the fire road to the next climb up to the divide.
The Second Climb
After two miles of relatively flat dirt road, the course abruptly started climbing up a jeep road. In the next 7 miles we would go from 9,300 to 13,300 feet. This climb was hard, and I was starting to wish I had brought trekking poles. At the aid at mile 21.5 I grabbed my biggest drop bag, changed my socks again (the river crossings never ended,) fueled, hydrated, and picked up a 3rd bottle of water to take on the 9.5 mile trip to the next aid, on the Continental Divide.
After a hard climb for 7 miles, there was 10+ miles on the divide above 12,000 feet to be covered. Being my first time above 11,500 feet, I found myself nearly unable to do more than a fast hike at that elevation, and even that was stunted when I started having painful stomach cramps that wouldn’t allow me to push the pace at all, even on the downhills. I stopped at the high point, ~13,300 feet, to regroup, take in the view and snap some pics. I got my morale back up and pressed on.
We followed the Colorado Trail on the divide, which, thankfully, only had a few spots of snow throughout it. There were storms brewing to the right and I knew I needed to keep moving, in case they got any closer. The nearest tree line looked to be about 10 miles away and I didn’t want to have to try to escape any lightning. My stomach cramps were still debilitating and I had a very urgent need to poop now. 💩 Being on the exposed divide, it took me a while to find a good spot to take care of business, but eventually I found a little 20 foot nook on the other side of the ridge, where I squatted in the snow, while it thundered nearby, rained a little and there was a marmot who seemed bothered by my presence. I took care of that as quickly as possible, went back down to where I had left the trail and moved forward. The cramps were still there, but much less intense. I made my way to the next aid at mile 31, drank some ginger ale, which eased the cramps away, and headed down once again, gaining speed as the altitude got lower and I had slightly more oxygen to utilize.
At mile 40, I again met Hannah, who got me what I needed, helped me get some body glide on my soaked feet (as I changed socks for the 3rd and last time) and made sure I got out of that aid station in a timely manner. I felt great, mentally, at this point. I was deep in the pain cave on the way down from the divide, but my mood was better than any other point in the day. I ran out of the aid station and down through the next mile or so.
In the course description, the first hill in the Vickers segment, climbing 1,700 feet up to 11,000 feet, is referred to as a doozy; they weren’t kidding! Up through thick brush in an aspen forest, connecting trails, jeep tracks, and some spots that barely look like trail, this was the hardest part for me. On tired legs, the uphill was a slow slog. I just didn’t have any more uphill gears. I did the ultra shuffle up to the aid at mile 46.5. There, I was feeling a little nausea and didn’t want to eat anything. I drank some more ginger ale and forced down a brownie. This aid station is on private land and they were a fun bunch of volunteers. They tried offering me an open can of Miller High Life, but at this point the thought of semi-warm, cheap, American beer made my already sick stomach feel even worse. I procured a Tums from one of the volunteers and headed out for the final 3.5 miles. I was walking at this point until the trail started going downhill again. I knew this was the final stretch and made the decision to run the rest of the course. My mantra became, “pain is the price of going fast.” Although, “fast” was very relative at that point. I got into a pace that hurt just enough to be able run, but to also still have the focus to pay attention to the multitude of loose rock and scree on the final descent. I ran a slow grind down to the bottom, where the last mile was a series of dirt roads, through Lake City, to the finish. Being back down at a “lower” altitude and on flat, packed dirt, I was able to easily run into the finish, feeling like I still had some legs left as I crossed the finish line at 14:24:08.
This race was one of challenges and beauty, a day of wet feet and climbing into the sky. Overall, I am pleased with my ability to keep a positive mindset throughout the race. By not letting my mood get low, I was able to dig deep when I had to. I could definitely benefit from dialing in my uphill efficiency during training, getting some trekking poles and getting in some more high altitude training. I’m happy that I made it through this amazing and tough course, with its sweeping views and outstanding volunteers.
I want to thank everyone who made this day possible, from the organizers and volunteers, to the people crewing and cheering us on.
Special thanks to:
Emily Sacco, my amazing wife, who supports all of my efforts and always keeps me grounded.
Nick Combs, who showed me how to train in Boulder, lets me bum rides to the trails all the time, and ran this thing 1:30 faster than me, which kept me pushing forward the whole time.
Nick Sala, who got me into ultras, keeps me motivated, and lets me destroy his shoes.
Hannah LaBerteaux, who jumped in to crew for me out of her own kindness, a valuable asset in this race.
Ryan Lassen, who gave me a floor to crash on this weekend and is always supportive.
Cat Bradley, who brought me pizza at the finish – arguably the most important job all day.