Sunday, June 20, 2010

San Juan Solstice 50

John and I ran the SJS 50-mile race yesterday as a good tune-up for Hardrock. It lived up to its billing as "Baby Hardrock" - lots of climbing, beautiful views, high altitude, and one tough race. The scenery was incredible, but sadly I had too much else to focus on to take pictures.

The race started with a run (or in my case, run/walk) up the road toward Engineer Pass, and it was chilly but my Too Cool arm warmers worked perfectly. We climbed for several miles on a trail next to and over (and over and over) the creek in Alpine Gulch. Luckily, the creek was lower than normal this year and the crossings didn't need to be roped. We were warned not to trust the logs across the water because they may be slippery, but John managed to keep from getting his feet wet (or from falling in when he did slip on a log) the whole way up. I just plowed in and dealt with frigid toes for a while.

I wasn't sure how the altitude would affect me, so I tried not to go out too fast. I got into a rhythm that fit with the folks around me, and we all climbed toward the first aid station. At one switchback we suddenly got a view to the south and a gorgeous sunrise over snowy peaks. Awesome. I did a lot of smiling those first couple of hours.

The guys at the aid station were really helpful with filling water bottles (even though they had to have been pretty cold themselves). Leaving there, next was a traverse/switchback trail up to a saddle. The trail was pretty narrow on the steep slope, so there wasn't much passing going on. I patiently followed a woman who walked a bit slower than me. She would start running, which allowed me to speed-walk at my normal pace. Then she walked and I'd catch up to her again. I did some pretty good speed-walking the whole race, and it helped keep my breathing and heart rate under control even though the course hits 13,000 ft a couple of times.

More amazing views! The morning light made it even more incredible. One guy remarked that this was his favorite part of the course, and I have to agree. We saw a giant scree slope down the other side, reminding me of Ajax above Telluride. Several times I was glad to be trail running instead of adventure racing. Or riding a bike.

After a high point I barrelled down a short drop and left a group of runners behind. The next couple of traverses were on an even more narrow trail that slowed me briefly. Then a long downhill, ah! But as I started down, I needed to find a tree to step behind - finally found one, much better, now I can run again. Some of the trail was rather dusty, so every time I caught up to someone I'd work to pass them so I didn't have to breathe the dust for very long.

On the way down, one guy looked at me and asked if I was the "lady from Leadville" - what? I told him I had run Leadville last year. He seemed to think that my photo is on the cover of the race booklet this year. I couldn't answer that, as I haven't seen it. But it sure made me curious. If anyone has a copy, let me know if it's me!

I managed a third serving of Spiz partway down the descent, which worked out because it took a while to get down to the Williams aid station. A woman there was really helpful with filling my water bottles and handing me my drop bag. I drank my Ensure, a cup of Coke, and a cup of Mountain Dew, and I was ready to go.

There was a bit of dirt road heading toward the next turn-off, and I ran/walked it. Several guys ran past, and everyone (all day long, actually) was friendly and supportive. Lyle from Austin said he had never felt this bad this early in a race, and yet he was moving ahead pretty fast. I was mostly just curious about how this next big climb would feel.

The road started steeply uphill, so I focused on using my trekking poles and setting a sustainable pace. I seemed to be doing OK compared to some of the people around who were suffering a bit. Well, except a woman wearing white who came walking past me, having a conversation with a guy like they were just out for a stroll. I was saving my breath and no way could I have kept up.

The back of my left heel was developing a hot spot, which seemed odd, but my shoes had been wet for a while. I tried tightening the laces to slow down any rubbing. Normally I don't need to mess with my feet, but I had dry socks in my next drop bag so I decided I better work on this potential problem. I sat in a chair at the Carson aid station, stripped off my shoes and socks, added a blister block to the left heel, and put on the dry socks. A woman helped fill my bottles while I was doing all this, but it still took a few minutes. At least I had plenty of time before the cutoff time, so I wasn't too worried.

I followed a line of runners on the road above Carson, aiming for a saddle on the ridge. I was thinking I needed to stop to pee, then I realized upon looking up that I had better do it soon. I found the very last possible tree to step behind - good catch! I wouldn't see another large bit of vegetation for many miles.

At the top of the saddle the southwest wind started whipping even more than it already had been. That, plus the cooler temps at high altitude, made for a mostly-pleasant hike on top of the Continental Divide. Much of the time we even had a tailwind. Score! I checked the sky to the southwest, and it was completely clear and blue. Good news for an afternoon up high. The scenery continued to amaze, and I had various flashbacks from the GTA and the French Alps.

I had never run that far (perhaps 14+ miles?) staying at 11,000 to 13,000 feet the whole time. Once I topped out at the high point, it wasn't so much of a trail for a while, more picking your way across tundra and rocks. I ran when I could, eased into the uphills, and watched runners on trails far ahead. It was very cool being able to see a lot of the course ahead of me.

A couple of times the course markers routed us around snowfields. Once we had to turn straight up, cross a bunch of rocks, and then turn straight down, all to avoid a small section of snow. In fact, it was easy to miss the flags in here, and a couple guys right before and after me took the direct route. Others found the flags and followed them like I did, even though it would have been faster across the snow.

After another local maximum, I followed a guy picking his way down a steep "trail" amid the rocks. We heard something come bouncing down the hill nearby, and it turned out to be an old plastic water jug that apparently had been buried all winter and was just now turned loose into the wind. Weird! I thought about carrying it to the next aid station, but wasn't sure how far that might be, so I left it by the trail.

It turned out to be quite a ways to the next aid station, further than I expected. I was getting a bit anxious as the trail started through a bunch of willows and then down into the woods. I had so enjoyed seeing the trail stretch out ahead of me, I guess I didn't like trying to guess where we might be going next. I passed a couple people down the final drop, including the woman in white (I was quite surprised to see her again). Finally the aid station appeared in the next field, yay!

The folks at the Divide aid station were great. They seemed to know exactly what people needed and how to help. I refilled bottles and grabbed some watermelon, yum. I've recently learned that watermelon doesn't fall into the category of "solid foods my stomach can't handle while running", which is great.

Heading out, the flags went in an unexpected direction, although they DIDN'T go up and over the next hill so I really wasn't complaining. I was just wondering where the heck we were going. The trail turned into a dirt road, still wandering around the fields of the Continental Divide and following the Colorado Trail. Finally I decided I needed to just let the course come to me and to stop trying to figure it out and continually not know what was next. That calmed me down and I could think about other things and just zone out for a while.

I followed a couple guys who were moving well, and it was nice to see them finally top out at the top of a saddle and disappear. Yay, finally the downhill I had been waiting for! The high altitude had gone pretty well, now it was time to descend.

I ran down the road, bouncing off rocks (or at least my shoes were, luckily not any other part of me). I could tell when I had gotten to lower elevations when it started to get warm and I could really breathe again. Yay for oxygen! I passed the two guys, hi guys! My downhill rhythm was working well, and it was great running through aspen forests.

At the bottom I found the Slumgullion (or "Slum"!) aid station and my last drop bag. I had plenty of time to get to the finish that was 10 miles away, awesome. I hurried to pull everything extraneous out of my pack and stuff it into the drop bag, got some more watermelon, and headed out for the final climb. I had been hoping I would still be able to climb well at the end, and the test was now.

After another short descent, the trail turned straight uphill. I was just glad to be in the shade of the trees for the first half of the climb. I figured it would take about an hour to get to the top, and it was time to test out the climbing legs. Happily, they responded decently well. This was a really nice change from the last 2 mountain races (Leadville and Jemez) when I ended up totally suffering up the hills in the second half. All 3 races involved altitude and some form of heat, although it wasn't nearly as hot above Lake City. I had also focused on staying hydrated this time, so that probably helped.

I still couldn't go uphill as fast as other runners around me, so I got passed by several people, but it wasn't a surprise nor was it demoralizing. Right at the one-hour mark I reached the woods at the top, sweet! I had seen a figure in white in the field below me and wondered if it might be the same woman from twice earlier. We still had a few miles to go, so I ran the downhills and flats the best I could.

When I stopped to drink my last Spiz, the woman (the same one, indeed) ran by me. I followed on the undulating terrain, and each little hill started getting more difficult. Apparently I had given it all I had left on that last climb! Well, that worked out then. One last water crossing, over a bog in the middle of a field (ugh, finishing with wet shoes again). I caught glimpses of the woman a minute or two ahead of me. I figured either I would catch her on the downhill or I wouldn't, no sense in worrying about it.

The last aid station came into view and I walked right through, ready to finish. The woman was now running with a guy in a red hat, and it felt like I was making up a bit of ground. And then they completely disappeared. The downhill started for real, excellent. I enjoyed the trail through the woods, passing a couple of guys here and there, bombing down the hill trying to "be like Joe" but knowing that I could never descend as well as Coach Prusaitis.

The woman was out of sight, so apparently she can run downhill. Great, I can stop thinking about her! The trail dropped down, down, allowing quick glimpses of town here and there. Finally it popped out on the road. I made my way through town, following some walkers and trying to run when I could. I didn't have much motivation to sprint this last section! I had beaten my estimate of "14 to 16 hours", there were no women near me, and I was just ready to get to the finish without killing myself over it.

After a couple of turns, a bridge over the river, and a couple more blocks, there was the finish in the park. Only 13:35 or so, and I was done! It felt great to stretch out on the soft grass in the park. Amazingly, I had beaten my time from the Jemez 50-miler by over an hour, and just about every moment of the day felt easier doing it. This acclimation thing really works.

John started fast and ended up having a few issues, but he finished just fine in a bit over 12 hours. Neither of us is too sore today, but we're both happy to be sitting down :)

Next up: Going to Silverton the long way (via Durango for a couple days), then the start of Hardrock trail marking. Looking forward to more time in the San Juans!
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