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San Juan Solstice 50 mile endurance run - Lake City, CO - June 16, 2007

Quick Details:
    Date: June 16, 2007
    What: 50 mile endurance run in the San Juan Mountains
    Where: Lake City, CO
    Weather: 40-80F, sunny to cloudy, clear to intense lightning
    Distance: 50 miles
    Elevation gain: over 12,000'
    Technical Difficulty: Grade IV, Class 2
    Physical Difficulty:9 out of 10
    Time: DNF at mile 28
    Calories burned:
    Map: Click Here for Map
    Photo Gallery: Click Here for Photos.

The San Juan Solstice 50 mile endurance run. This was my #1 goal for 2007. All of my training since September 2006 was geared specifically towards completing this race. This run takes place in the San Juan mountains around beautiful Lake City, Colorado. There is over 12,000' of elevation gain and more than 15 miles of the race takes place above treeline... it's basically a mini-version of the Hardrock 100. On January 1, 2007 I registered for the San Juan Solstice run, along with my friends Terry Gebhardt, Eric Lee, Peter Sanders, and Alan Smith. The race has become very popular and it sold out in 3 days.

Two weeks before the race my friends Wayne and Yancy came out for a week long visit. I apparently picked up a nasty respiratory bug from one of them and started to come down with something on Saturday June 9. All three of us were sick that morning and opted not to climb Mt Elbert. They flew out the following day and my condition deteriorated through the following week. I did one short run up Green Mountain on Tuesday and felt like utter crap, but I did climb ok, so I had some hope that I was over the hump and improving.

Susan, Michael and I packed for the race Wednesday night and Thursday morning and we headed out around 11am. A quick sideways glance at the map and I picked what looked like a decent route to Lake City. In hindsight it wasn't so great and added about 3 hours to our trip! It was a beautiful drive though! We arrived in Lake City and quickly found a really nice campsite at the Williams Creek Campground, along the Cinnamon Pass road. This campground was the site of the 15.7 mile aid station, so the location was perfect. We made some pasta, set up the tent and got ready for bed. As the sun set, I saw a moose foraging near williams Creek. Michael did really well in the tent... we read him some stories and he went right to sleep.

Michael and Chris checking out a train near Paonia, CO

The next day, we drove to all the points where the course crosses a road so I could at least familiarize myself with the lay of the land and Susan could learn how to get to the aid stations. We then went into Lake City and spent a nice liesurely afternoon at the city park. Michael loved playing on the playground equipment! Peter and Eric arrived around 3pm. Terry, Alan, Tamara, and Wendy arrived shortly after. We all picked up our packets and enjoyed the great pre-race dinner that the race organization provided. After dinner we headed back to the cabin that the rest of them had rented. We had a few beers and relaxed on the deck. Around 9pm, Susan, Michael and I went back to our campsite and headed to bed. I set several alarms for 3:30AM.

Relaxing in the park.

The alarms weren't needed because I awoke at 3:18am, ready to go! After quickly changing, eating, and hacking up the contents of my lungs (not a good sign!) I drove into Lake City and met the others. We all went to the check-in and waited for the race to start. At 4:55am the RD herded us out into the road and sent us on our way, into the cool dark morning!

Alan, Eric, Chris, Peter, and Terry at the start of the San Juan Solstice

Eric took off like a bat out of hell, with Alan not far behind. Peter (as he always does) promised to start slow and run with Terry and I. After about a mile he started complaining about all the people passing us, so he took off. This first 2.5 mile stretch of gravel road was a very mellow climb up the Henson Creek drainage. This SHOULD have been an easy warm up, but it wasn't. Terry and I ran a very mellow 10-11 min/mi pace, but my heart rate was pegged at 86% of max! I just couldn't breathe with this respiratory infection... I knew by mile 2 that at best this was going to be a very long painful day, and at worst that I'd be dropping at some point.

After 2.5 miles we made a left turn off the road and onto the Alpine Gulch trail. The infamous Alpine Gulch trail: umpteen water crossing during the 4500' climb to 13000'. The first water crossing came quickly, and it as COLD! And DEEP! Wow, what a wake up call!! My feet and lower legs would go completely numb, slowly warm up, only to go numb at the next crossing!

Typical Alpine Gulch stream crossing! (Tom Masterson from Boulder in the blue jacket)

I was really suffering to keep up with Terry by this point so I told him to go on and don't wait for me. As the trail steepened, I just kept getting slower and slower and slower. It was impossible to catch my breath. After what seemed like an eternity I finally arrived at the Alpine Aid Station at mile 8 or 9. From here we continued climbing above treeline across the saddle to the west of Grassy Mountain. The scenery was absolutely beautiful! I was absolutely suffering like a dog! By this point I planned to just drop at Williams Creek and call it a day.

View from high on the course

The trail climbed and dropped for a bit through the high alpine tundra, then took a left turn and dropped very steeply all the way to Williams Creek. I passed Scott Jurek on the way down (he was headed up, doing a training run for Hardrock). This section was nice because I could actually run here (since I didn't have to breathe too hard) and I had been training for the downhills.

I finally reached the Williams Creek aid station to the cheers of family, friends, and complete strangers. The people who run ultras and support ultras are the nicest folks on the planet! Tamara and Wendy got me settled into my chair. Michael came over to offer me a stuffed dog and a water bottle!! This was the absolute highlight of my day! Susan helped get food and drinks and gently encouraged me to just call it a day. I changed my shoes and sat for a bit, debating whether to continue or end the pain right here and now. I'm fairly stubborn, so I decided to continue. My plan was to see how the climb to Carson went and bail somewhere at that point. I shuffled out of the campground and hit the Cinnamon Pass road at something near an all-out crawl.

Michael giving me some water at the Williams Creek Aid Station

After a couple of miles of relatively easy road the course took an abrupt left turn and the suffering began again in earnest. This was another 4000+ foot climb that would drop us onto the Continental Divide. This was also my utter low point. I can normally maintain a pretty comfortable 2000-2500 feet per hour climbing pace, but on this climb I was absolutely dying to try to maintain 600 feet per hour. At this pace I was pretty sure I wouldn't make the cutoff at the Carson Aid Station. After an hour or so I finally sat down on a rock to take a breather. I noticed 5 or 6 other runners coming up the trail and my intention was to let them pass and then turn around and drop. Fortunately (or unfortunately!) for me, the last runner, Nancy, decided to stop and encourage me on. I slowly got up and joined her. She kept a good steady pace and kept me going... we arrived at Carson with more than an hour to spare (which really surprised me!). I stopped and ate quite a bit here and Nancy continued on. I decided after a few minutes to continue. I do well at high altitude and I figured the major climbing was over... so I could probably make it to the Slumgullion aid station by the 6pm cut off.

The trail continues to climb above the Carson townsite.
The course gains the divide and traverse left across the mountains.

The climbing isn't over at Carson! It's another 2000' up to the divide. This climb hurt, but I was starting to feel a bit better (but hack and cough a bit more, oddly enough). I wasn't getting passed any more, but this could be because there weren't very many people left to pass me! I turned off the jeep road onto the CDT and finished the final climb to the divide. I could see Nancy in the distance and I was slowly catching up to her. Later I would find out she could tell exactly where I was by my hacking and coughing! This stretch of the course was amazing, but I was starting to get a little concerned by the clouds building. I tried to pick up the pace and make it to the Divide aid station before things got nasty. The bailout options from here were pretty grim too: backtrack 7 miles to get below treeline, drop off the divide to the right (southeast) and wind up a LONG way from nowhere, or continue on. There were cliff bands preventing an easy retreat to the left (northwest). I caught up to Nancy near the summit of an unnamed point on the divide.

Ominous weather approaching the divide

About the same time I caught Nancy, the weather really started to let loose! I cut off the course to the right, aiming for a gully that looked to provide a bit of shelter. We were stopped about 200' below the summit by a very steep snowfield, so we hunkered down at the edge of the snow and rock and waited out the malestrom. The lightning kept getting closer: an 8-count away, a 7-count, 5-count (1 mile), 1-count (1/5th of a mile), 1-count, and then a HUGE instantaneous strike and thunder! This one was probably less than 100 yards away! WAY too close for comfort! Nancy told me she was done with this race and wasn't ready to die today! I agreed and we discussed that we both knew CPR in case the other was struck by lightning. After a few more tense minutes, the storm cell moved on a bit and we made a bee line for the saddle below us. I'm pretty comfortable on steep snow so I took a direct traverse to the bottom of the snow (bypassing the ropes the race had set up). Nancy climbed back up and traversed over to the top of the ropes, so she could use them to assist on her descent. While waiting for her, a couple of guys passed me.

I said "Holy shit, that was scary wasn't it!?!?".

One guy kinda looked at me funny and said "oh, we were prepared, we've got jackets and gloves".

WTF??? It's not like a 3oz nylon shell is a faraday cage!! Some people are completely and utterly clueless! They trudged on down the trail like lemmings, into the storm.

Nancy joined me soon and I told her I was bailing off the divide to the north and she was welcome to join me if she wanted too. It didn't take her long to agree and we dropped very steeply off the divide, headed for the Cinnamon Pass road, 5000 feet below us. This bushwhack was very steep, trail less, and unknown. We bypassed and climbed through a couple of small cliff bands and generally trended down the drainage and slightly left, headed for some visible lakes in the valley at the bottom. After what seemed like a very long time we finally popped out onto what appeared to be an old ski run. We descended into someone's backyard and finally out to the road. We trudged 2 miles back to the Williams Creek campground and borrowed the host's phone to call the sheriff (to notify him we were safe and accounted for) then to call Susan for a ride. We DNF'd at mile 28 and bushwhacked another (I think) 9 miles out. Our San Juan Solstice was officially over.

As a side note: Susan had been waiting for me at the 40 mile point at the Slumgullion Aid Station. As the cut-off approached and the storm intensified, she became more and more concerned about my well-being. A race radio then crackled that there were 5 runners missing and unaccounted for on the divide... and the first number they read off was mine! Susan became very concerned, but luckily my call to her (for the ride) occurred about 5 minutes later.

Dense forest... approaching the bottom of our bushwhack out.

The rest of our crew had very successful races and all beat their goal times! Eric blazed into the finish in under 12 hours. Wow!

The four studs! Alan, Eric, Terry, and Peter at the finish!

I was very surprised to learn the next morning that Nancy and I were the only runners to abandon in the lightning storm. This was pretty disturbing to me. I consider myself a fairly experienced mountaineer... I get out a lot and climb 50-70 mountains a year. This was, by far, the most intense storm I've been caught in, and the only thing I wanted to do was get out of it! I don't know if most of the runners just didn't realize the severity of the storm or didn't have the navigation skills to drop of the divide and successfully bushwhack back to a road. One of the race officials said we were the only ones who made the right decision that day. Luckily, no one was injured or killed, so it all worked out well in the end. Nancy was awesome, and I'm very glad she coaxed me off that rock! It turned out to be good for both of us, I think!

At the post-race awards ceremony on Sunday.

All-in-all it was a good race and I have no regrets about attempting it, as I believe I was very physically prepared to complete it. Susan, Michael, and I got to spend our first weekend camping trip together, which was awesome! I met a great new friend in Nancy! On January 1st 2008, I'll be in front of the computer registering for the 2008 edition of the San Juan Solstice 50 mile endurance run!


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