2008 San Juan Solstice; Pushing One's Limits

The "Warmup"

After a sub-par race at the Spring Desert Ultra in Fruita(thanks to a 6.5h 2nd 25miles) I decided that I needed to prove to myself that my feeling of being in much better shape than last year was not a mirage. A last minute entry of the Laramie Double Marathon found me camped out in Vedauwoo on Saturday night awaiting the 6am start the following morning. I'd packed up a small drop bag for the turn around aid station and set out all my clothing for the next day. Pete Stevenson would be joining me for the full double, while Kristen Alvarez and Chris Fisher would run the single marathon.

The morning was brisk and windy, but sleeves and gloves were enough. The starting gun sounded bright and early and we were off, a few doublers and a bunch of marathoners/half marathoners. The course starts downhill, which is always dangerous for those aiming at starting slow. The course is fairly flat as an ultra, 3600ft of gain loss for the entire 52.4miles, rolling through the hills of the Wyoming plateau just outside of Vedauwoo. I stayed very consistent my first lap, finishing in a marathon PR of 4:05(my first official marathon actually). After a quick change I jogged off onto the course for my final out and back, soon passing Pete and Chris as they climbed back to the start line. The third half marathon went fairly well, 5min slower, but still moving well. Once I turned around though a nasty headwind hit me smack in the jaw and my strength began to waver. It didn't help that the "aid stations" were no more than a jug of water and a box of nuitragrain bars/cookies, forcing me to survive solely on GU the entire day. My legs were still moving alright, but the strength just wasn't there to push hard, so I slowly jogged up the slight incline toward the final aid station and the start. Just after the final aid station I hear someone tromping up behind me, it was Pete, who was still moving pretty good up the hill. We chatted for a brief moment before he took off up the final 4miles of dirt road. While I had lost about 40min on the second lap I was still quite happy with my overall performance, an 8:53 finish in 4th place overall, a new marathon and 50mile PR (50 by over 1.5h). This was the type of strength I had been searching for, but not found, at Fruita. To boot this had been piled on to a full week of training with no taper and my legs still felt alright.

On to Lake City

Finally the week of July 16th arrived, a million things to do, but only 3.5days of work to cram them in to. Thursday came and I was running in circles like a chicken with my head cutoff, for me getting ready to leave for a long trip is more stressful than just work. I finally just gave up where I was, threw what I had into my car, dropped off my new rental paperwork and booked it out of town to meet Mike and Charles in Louisville. On the road, ahhh, I could finally relax as my week long vacation had begun, but in the back of my mind sat that little bit of angst about the impending 50miler that loomed ahead. After cramming as much gear into my car as we could Charles, Michael, and I set off for the Angel of Shavano CG where we'd bed down for the night. I was very glad to be getting out of town, putting my mind at ease at last. We arrived at the CG an hour or so before sunset, ate a massive feast, and enjoyed some nice evening colors over my "swamp" as Mike dubbed it (in reality a beaver pond and some nearby stagnant pools).

Angel of Shavano CG Sunset over the beaver pond Unnamed Pk at sunrise

As usual I was up early, milling about with my camera, looking for some nice sunrise shots over the beaver ponds (above). The sun rose warm and energizing that morning, and I immediately started the pre-race feast. Charles wife Amy had made us blueberry muffins for breakfast, Mike and I happily ate the buttery goodness. Soon after we headed off to Lake City to settle in and scout the first part of Alpine Gulch (which had reports "epic" creek crossings). We arrived in town just before midday, it was warm, sunny, and most importantly there was no sign of thunderclouds. We headed up the Alpine jeep road toward Alpine Gulch to see for ourselves how epic the crossings the following day were going to be. The river was moving at a pretty good clip, though we didn't find the crossings too bad. We went through the first three, all roped, between calf and knee deep, but very cold. We felt much better knowing what the river's looked like, and that we could pretty easily cross them, despite some cold wet feet.

Mike at the first river crossing Mike at the third river crossing Group outside the cabins

Back in town our entire group began to filter in, 14+ "Special Idiots" from all over the front range(+New York). The pre-race dinner was the standard feast of pasta, salad, and bread, quite tasty. We all headed back to pack up drop bags and organize gear for the following day. The San Juan Solstice is a fairly remote course, and there are only 2 crew accessible points, the rest are ATV/hike in, thus drop bags are key for many runners. After depositing our bags in the armory it was beers and bed for our predawn start on Saturday(5am).

Race Day

3:50am My alarmed blared and I rolled over with a groan. Kari, Mike, and Pete had been up for some time already (Kari already having coffee), I'm usually the last one to wake up for early starts. I had slept in my race clothing so the first order of business was to eat my daily poptarts and juice, breakfast of champs! Then on to sunscreen, finish dressing/gearing up, and suddenly it was 4:40am, time to head “downtown”. Some of jogged, others walked down to the start line, it was still dark, but a nearly full moon lit up our path quite well and sunrise was not far off.
5:00am The gun went off and the group surged forward, some taking off at a brisk pace up the dirt road, others(Charles and Mike Priddy) walking nice and easy. I took off right in the middle of the pack, chatting with Karla and Fritjof as we headed up the dirt road toward Alpine Gulch. It only took 25min to cover the road section, but here I needed to take a bathroom break, damn it, thought I had cleared myself out. The trail immediately turns to rocky narrow single track in Alpine Gulch, making passing hard. There was already a backup at the first creek crossing when I arrived, having scouted the crossing the day before I was able to barrel through, promptly passing 3 people and moving up in line. Crossing #2 no line, but #3 and #4 dropped me back another 5-10min while I waited for others ahead to cross. After crossing #4 there is a break from the water, Fritjof and I used this to pass another 5-6 runners on the gentle uphill. The last 3 crossings were easy and went without incident, finally arriving at avalanche debris. Being very comfortable on snow I passed several more people up the snow and continued to power hike up the switchbacks. The sun was finally lighting up the peaks behind us as we neared the saddle that would extract us from Alpine Gulch.

Group at the start line(Photo by Chris Gerber) Runner at crossing #3 Avalanche crossing

6:53am Finally the cheers of the valiant Alpine Gulch aid station who hiked in ALL the food and water for the runners (including Guinness, how'd I miss that). Damn, 1:53 already, that's slower than last year's time, better push and make up some ground. I refilled my water and was headed up the slopes of Grassy Mt for the final bit of the climb. This is where the views really open up and the true beauty of this race comes into play. I consistently passed others who had gone out too hard, finally running into Mike Poland, who admitted to starting a bit fast, so he was going to take it easy down to Williams. At last we crested a ridgeline and the terrain turned into rolling hills with a massive descent looming ahead. I snapped a few pictures on the ridge before opening up the pace for a blistering 3500ft descent to Williams Creek below.

Lori Cooper ascending Grassy Mt Runners on the ridge Start of a blistering descent

8:18am After bombing downhill and passing another half dozen runners I make the turn through the brush down to the Williams Creek aid station, good, I'd made up the 10min I'd lost earlier. I arrived at the AS to throngs of cheering workers, crews, and families, an uplifting sight. I sat down in a chair and a woman came over with my drop bag, pulled out my shoes, handed me my extra food and asked what else I needed. Service with a smile, what great volunteers! After a quick change of shoes, socks, shirt, picking up some new food and water I was back on the road to Carson, climb #2 for the day. I was still feeling strong, much stronger than last year, so I ran the entire flat portion of the road, then settled back in to my power hiking stride for the steep Carson Rd. Up, up, up, it was starting to warm as we climbed up the road so I started to take in more fluids/electrolytes. I picked off a few more runners on the hike up, still feeling strong, and before I knew it I was at the Carson AS, man this took a lot longer last year!
9:40am I arrived at the Carson AS and was greeted by a wonderful group of lovely young ladies (really had to push myself to leave that one). I was finally on a faster pace than the previous year, dropping another 10min on this section of the climb. I dropped my hand bottle and garbage here, picked up my Nathan pack, a few slices of fruit and was immediately back on the road, knowing I still had a long climb ahead of me, with Coney Pk looming above. As I powered up Carson Rd toward the divide I began to slow, not the altitude again, I had felt great two weeks ago on Pikes, wtf. I continued at a decent clip, but began to slip back a few places. Finally as we neared the summit the pitch lessened and I began to speed up again, cresting out at the rock cairn on 13334ft Coney Pk, the high point of the course. Runner Sarah Evans was kind enough to snap a pic for me...Horray, downhill!!! I jogged across the tundra, again power walking the uphills, feeling alright and making decent time across the divide. There were patches of soft snow up high, but the mud was the real nuisance, filling our shoes and threatening to rip them off our feet at times. The weather was spectacular today, a few clouds, light breeze, and NO STORMS!! I finally climbed a small bump and began the short but steep descent into the trees and to the Divide AS. Right after I dropped it I looked back and saw Fritjof, since I'd been fighting a cramp for a few minutes he caught up quickly. He said his IT band felt horrid downhill, but uphill felt great, so he'd passed a ton of people on the divide. We jogged down to the AS together, a true oasis in the sky, supplying needed food and water. Fritjof took off ahead as I had started having trouble catching my breath on the flats and uphills, little did I know this would keep getting worse...

Looking down from the Carson saddle Me atop Coney Pk Divide AS

1235pm I had just left the Divide AS and was trying to jog uphill, but just couldn't get any O2 in, so I was forced to power walk. My legs still felt fine, I just couldn't catch my breath, initially I assumed this was due to the thinner air at 12K. As I jogged across the plateau I was still struggling, though I figured when I reached the downhill in a mile or so I'd feel better, not so. Even as I jogged down the first hill I was still struggling with my breathing, this is when I noticed I couldn't take a deep breath, something wasn't right. I was forced to power walk the flats now, as I could only suck enough wind to run downhill. As I started down the jeep road to Slum I was breathing pretty hard just to keep my normal 9min/mile pace, something I can normally do with ease. As I descended the breathing did not get any easier, realizing this I resorted to breathing at near hyperventilation speed and pushing myself as hard as I could downhill since my legs were strong enough to handle it. I was going to push as hard as I could if it meant passing out in the process. I bombed my way in to Slum still ahead of last year's time, but long ago giving up my target time.
2:10pm I was all alone at Slum, watching the two runners ahead of me take off when I arrived. Kristen Alvarez, who'd been pulled earlier, was there to help me dump my Nathan pack and grab my hand bottle, additional fuel, and mp3 player. Out of principle I usually don't run with an mp3 player, but today I needed all the distractions I could find to get through this last 10miles. I took off at full speed down the "trail" toward the Vickers Ranch. The connector trail is no more than a series of use trails through the woods that parallels the road, keeping you off the pavement. I reached the entrance to the Vickers Ranch, took one look up the steep aspen lined trail and knew the next 5miles to the aid station were gonna hurt. I set out at a brisk power walk up the hill utilizing the full lung capacity I had remaining. I started out hiking at a good clip, but as the trail entered the upper aspen forest it steepened and I could no longer hold the pace for more than 50 steps before stopping to hyperventilate and regain my equilibrium. This continued all the way up the climb, through the lush fields of aspen, iris, and large open meadows, which normally would have been very relaxing if not for the current circumstances. I pushed a slow painful jog through the rolling flats atop Vickers, happily taking breaks to snap some photos of Uncompaghre and our cattle skull trail markers.

View from atop Vickers Follow the cattle skulls Lake City FAR below

3:47pm I rounded a familiar corner and saw the Vickers family cheering and yelling, LAST AID STATION!!!! I quickly filled my bottle and took off for the waterdog trail. As the trail began to descend I turned my mp3 player to Disturbed and opened up the pace as much as I could without passing out, often cranking out 8min/miles, still barely able to breath. I soon came across a few other runners slowly making their way downhill, said hello and pushed off as fast as my legs would fly. Down, down, down, the trail popped out of the aspens and into sparse pines. The footing wasn't great, but this is what I thrive on, rocky steep descents. I passed a few more runners near the bottom of the switchbacks before shooting out onto the road, now for the hellish last mile. Flat running along the road, my legs were still strong enough, but my breathing had gotten worse and I was struggling to jog. I received some very encouraging words from another runner who looked to be hurting just as much as I(different pain), and decided I could go anaerobic for the last 1/4mile, as long as I didn't pass out I'd make the finish. So breathing like a fat man chasing an ice cream truck I bolt across the bridge toward downtown Lake City and the finish. I lunged across the finish and immediately keeled over gasping for breath, I'd finished! 11:28:09, not what I was initially hoping for, but I was happy that I'd still PRed despite the day's adversity, in a respectable time no less. Kristen, Peter, and Fritjof congratulated me and helped me get settled in. It had been a tough day, but I feel good that I'd pushed as hard as I could, even if it wasn't my best physical performance. In retrospect pushing to my respiratory limit the last 18miles may have exacerbated my respiratory distress (some sort of unknown lung inflammation, never before experienced). Our group of "Special Idiots" had a very strong showing that day, with honorary idiot Andrew Skurka taking 4th overall in 9:42, his first 50! Other times below...
22 Fritjof Fagerlund 11:19:08
27 Eric Lee 11:28:09
47 Matt Miller 12:36:23
50 Pete Stevenson 12:40:38
62 Mike Priddy 13:25:06
76 Kari Fraser 14:02:21
77 Chris Gerber 14:02:21
81 Alan Smith 14:14:57
85 Charles Danforth 14:22:10
92 Tom Masterson 14:45:47
93 Chip Tilden 14:47:34
108 Alex May 15:31:19

It had been a wonderful day, a great run, and a spectacular group. In all 130 of the 164 runners finished in the 16:15 cutoff, nearly 80%, stellar job for a very tough course. Nate McDowell had won for the second time in 9:19:26. By Charles's rules that was at least an eight beer run.
See additional photos by Me, Chris Gerber, and Charles Danforth.

Peter, Ryan, Kristen and Andy at the finish The ghostly Danforth sprinting in Special Idiots and friends(Photo from Chris Gerber)