I had made a conscious decision that I would not fret over how much training I was going to have for the race because we had been out-of-town every other week the last month before the race, so I would get whatever running I could before the race. Race day came by quickly and I was soon sitting down in the race briefing hearing about how many river creeks we were going to be crossing and how much snow was still left. San Juan Solstice is a race I will remember for a long time. A few of us Texans would be traversing the course, namely Steven Moore, Jaime Garcia and myself. All of them faster than I am. Lety and I made the road trip to Lake City, a whopping 1000 miles from Round Rock, TX, and endurance event itself. I quickly realized that a 13 hr finish was not possible given my current training, however, I’m happy with my result and we enjoyed our time in the mountains. Went from thinking I was not going to finish under the race cutoff to running down the last 5 miles. In the end I finished with a time of 15:26:42, this race report does not do the race justice, you need to run this race to understand why.
I didn’t really have anxiety issues like in previous races, must have been because I didn’t have high expectations. Last minute check list before starting:
Tailwind in my bottles: check, Trail toes: check, headlight: check, I started with trekking poles tied up to the pack and because we were promised snow I tucked the spikes at the bottom of my pack as well. I ended up only using the trekking poles going up Carson road but “quickly” disposed of them. Made the last-minute decision of starting with the Salomon Fellcross and I didn’t regret it, with the wetness of the first section comes the mud and the FellCross are an ideal shoe for these conditions. I would switch to the trusty Pearl Izumi’s when I arrived at Carson.
The race has 12k feet of elevation gain and the highest point at 13, 334 ft (4064m), it is made up of 3 main climbs which makes it easy logistically to set up drop bags and nutrition. There were several altitude symptoms that were present during my race: the first of course were my legs did not respond at all on the climbs, my hands swelled a bit on the second climb but quickly went back to normal as I descended, and a light headache. Nothing to worry about but just to note. As far as hydration and energy goes, I mostly consumed Tailwind which seemed to suffice when I combined with other aid station food.
The first few miles up Engineer Pass are on a jeep road that, to my surprise, went pretty smooth. Nothing like running at 5 in the morning next to a raging river, at least class 4 if not 5 in my opinion. Before long we were crossing over the Alpine Gulch trail bridge pictured below. We had scouted this section the day before but didn’t actually make it across the bridge mainly because I was too fixated on the river and its power.
The next section leading up to the aid station was a beautiful single track that zig zagged along the river multiple times. We were promised 7 creek crossings but my numb feet counted more than that, at least 2 of them were thigh deep high. None of them were wide enough to need a rope, except one, but a couple of them were strong enough to drag you a few feet down. I remember someone saying the day before that my feet would be numb all the way up to the aid station but I didn’t think it was that bad, they were wet, yes, but not numb, at least not the entire way ;). I was actually pretty happy to be crossing the creeks and not having slowed down a whole lot. The first 7 miles take you to the first aid station where a group of volunteers were cheering and helping, this was not a fully stocked aid station but had enough to get you energized. Made it to this aid station apparently with 25 minutes to spare before cutoff but didn’t think any of it, had never had issues with cutoffs before so I didn’t pay much attention. Always a first time I guess. Getting to this aid station I realized how much I couldn’t run uphill, in fact I didn’t run up hill at all, I wouldn’t say I hiked either and it was much like that the rest of the race. Had a little talk with the legs but they were nowhere to be found today, they probably were in shock :).
We would climb some more before we got our first view of the mountains and starting the descend to Williams Creek, lots of fun in this section before we got to the aid station, we ran through the ridges and snow, some post holing was done previously by the race crew but there was still more to be done. Jaime passed me here at some point and gave me a proper welcome to the mountains shout out. At Williams Creek I would see Lety for the first time today and switched some gear here before continuing.
Going up again for our longest climb of the day. Started going up Carson road with trekking poles I had borrowed from Joe, they didn’t seem to make much difference and since I was carrying a water bottle, it took a couple of tries to get the drinking synchronized. If I had to pick a part of the course I didn’t like, this would be it. Much of this section is on a jeep road that goes up way up. You know this climb is the real deal when there are signs that suggest a 4 wheel drive vehicle should be navigating the road. Again I wasn’t moving, I was crawling, slower than crawling, made it up to Carson aid station and switched my shoes and socks, put some more trail toes, grabbed some food, left the trekking poles and resumed the hike up. A lot of folks going up, hiking and enjoying the breathtaking views of the San Juans, a few folks along the trail were not looking too good, I probably wasn’t looking good either but at least I didn’t feel bad.
As a fellow runner said as we were hiking up: “onwards and upwards”. Met a runner by the name of Ulrich who had done the race a whopping 14 times and was working on his 15 finish. We ran through the Contintental Divide where we got the best views of the day, 360 degree views of beautiful rocky Colorado mountains, ran through several sections of snow and deep post holing, knee-deep, mind you. At some point we also got some light snow. I got really lucky that the weather was perfect and didn’t have to worry about thunder storms or heavy snowfall as had been the case in previous years. We would reach the next aid station where I think a few of us cursed when we realized we need to go up before we could sit down. Fully stocked aid station, lots of energy, lots of food, volunteers going out of their way to help us, all was good.
It was 3:20PM and I needed to be at the next aid station by 6PM or I’d be in trouble. From the Continental Divide to Slumgullion there were 9 miles, surely I could run 9 miles in under 3 hours, the way things has gone all day that seemed like quite a challenge.
Fortunately I had legs for some downhill running, along this section I met yet another runner by the name of Markus who had finished Hardrock and Spartathlon. A fairly accomplished bad ass in my opinion :) I ran with him until Slumgullion where we made it on time before the cutoff with about 30 minutes to spare. I would see Lety for the last time before the finish line here, she had a full VIP section waiting, whew that was energizing. Had a coke, half an avocado, bottles refilled, some more tailwind and I was running again.
The last section starts off going downhill and was very deceiving. At some point before starting the last climb it goes on the highway where I start thinking, did I miss a turn? a few hundred meters later we hop back on the trail and start our shortest long climb of the day. Nope, legs are still not there, again very deceiving section, with trees that trick you into thinking you had reached the top but really are just false summits. When we finally reach the end of the trees, we turn left and yes we continue to go up, 2.4 miles worth in this section. I remember this section clearly because I was excited to get to the top and be closer to the finish line. We would turn left, head up a little more, turn right, head up a little more and finally turn left to start descending. This last section of the course I run, in a “run like the wind” kind of way, I eventually start catching up and passing folks, I skip the last aid station and continue running all the way into town, there is about half a mile worth of road running to reach the finish line, we cross over the river through a bridge where I’m told I won’t have to get my feet wet anymore, yay for that!, although I’m pretty sure this time I would have gotten more than my feet wet given the bridge went over Henson Creek. I cross the bridge and before long I’m on the finish line chute. Nothing like having your wife meet you at the finish line.
What a great day in the mountains, the race course is marked extremely well, the volunteers are top-notch and this place is pretty awesome and not a desert :). Thanks to Lety for putting up with me 30+ hours of road trip, 15+ hours of hanging out in the woods and supporting my incessant running. Thanks to my parents for watching over our kids.