Saturday, June 21, 2014

San Juan Solstice 50

My wife and I got to the Lake City, CO area on the Tuesday prior to race day, just to try and get as acclimatized as we could. Living in Jackson, MS does nothing for the ability to breath in the high alpine air. Although my preparation for this race included amassing 20,000+ feet of vertical climbing in my final week of the taper, I still knew that climbing legs would only get me so far…climbing lungs would be priceless!

View from the CD
Tuesday morning we went for a brief jog around lake San Cristobal. The views were absolutely stunning. The mountains that create the Continental Divide were visible, along with Sunshine Peak and Redcloud Peak. Despite the awesome scenery, as we made our way up a little incline, we were both taken back by the lack of air, and were immediately relegated to some serious huffing and puffing.

Wednesday morning, we set out for the Redcloud/Sunshine Peak double. Seeing as both of these 14’ers are attached, bagging them both in the same climb seemed like the right thing to do. Climbing came a bit easier on this venture, and we soon found ourselves across several snow fields, ready to ascend the saddle up to the peak. As my vision rose to capture the summit, I couldn’t help but notice that the icy precipitation that had been falling during the hike was picking up, and as I turned my gaze back, I could no longer see Handies Peak…the storm clouds had enveloped it, and were coming our way. I made the decision to call the ascent off, and we headed back down the trail. I was thankful to have been guided by the caretaking tendency I have towards my wife. If I had been solo, I would have pushed on upwards, probably ending up in a sketchy predicament. No worries though…our hike was beautiful, and we got in some good acclimatizing.

Thursday morning I decided to make the 4000+ foot climb up Wager Gulch, past the ghost town of Carson, and up to the Continental Divide. This was the second of two 4000+ ft climbs that were involved in the actual race. Bev decided to mosey around Lake City, so I was off on this excursion solo. The jeep road consistently climbed up, in some places pretty steep, for about 5 miles. As I got towards top, the views were freaking incredible, with the colors and beauty of the mountains being accentuated by my lack of ever seeing the San Juans. I followed the trail up to where it intersects with the CD, and it was all I could do to not keep going! Alas, the real reason for my arrival in Colorado was two days away…so back down I went!
Soon enough it was race day! 

The way up Wager Gulch
The race starts at 5am in the town of Lake City. Following a quick few miles up Engineer Pass Rd, the course hangs a left, and proceeds to cross over the cascading creek that runs down from the top of Alpine Gulch. The first of these crossings was raging pretty well, and up to about mid-thigh…a bad place for a slip-and-fall. I managed to navigate the numerous crossings with no issues, and settled into the grind up the 4000+ ft climb towards the top. The long congo line up this first climb was cool with me, as I managed into a pace that was comfortable for me. No frustrations here being in a line of folks…I was right where I belonged! A few brave souls “jogged” past, but I wanted none of that. The aid station came before the top of the climb, and I topped my bottle off, and continued on. Soon we were above the trees, and the views were spectacular. The just-risen sun was coming through the clouds, painting the landscape. I couldn’t help but be reminded of how really small I was, how insignificant this race really was in the perspective of such creation. But God has given me a special affinity to make meaning out of times like this, and, topping out the climb, I was ready to find that purpose.

The decent towards Williams Creek was fast, and business-like. I passed the few people that had “jogged” by me on the way up Alpine, and hit the aid station at the base, mile 15.7, in 3:31. I re-upped my fluid, took on some calories via sandwiches, and hit the brief period of road that would lead me to Wager Gulch, the climb I had done on Thursday. I was psyched, as this was the part of the course I was familiar with, and I knew that, despite the severity of the pitch, I could manage this climb well, as long as I stayed on top of my nutrition. I managed to pass several people on my way up to the highest point on the course (13,334ft), stopping only briefly at the Carson aid station, in 4:58, to fill my bottles.

Approaching the CD
At the top of the climb, the course hangs a left onto the Colorado trail. From here, I spied mountains I thought I would never see in my lifetime, much less have the opportunity to run on them. This part of the course stays above the trees in the thin air, running along the Divide, for the next 10+ miles. This is where the course began to get me. Along with the slower pace due to my elevated heart rate (which I was feeling thumping in my arms), there was terrain that this southern boy ain’t used to running on. Talus fields angled almost straight down, post-holing through snow fields, moments of glissading downhill (not on purpose)…this was something. I did my best to manage my emotions, and not allow the course to get me.

Finally, I arrived at the aid station at mile 31, in 7:35. My legs were kinda feeling like crap, and I was overall feeling the fatigue. My calorie consumption had not been nearly as high as it needed to be, as I was feeling pretty nauseous. I filled up my bottles, tried to eat some sandwiches, spit ‘em out, tried to eat some cookies, spit ‘em out, and decided I needed to do all I could to get down to a manageable altitude so maybe I could hold down some food. The next 4-5 miles were rough for me, as I felt weaker and weaker, and it was getting harder and harder to maintain a wogging pace (wog = walk + jog). If the terrain angled downwards, I tried to roll with the momentum, sometimes more successful than others.

But I began to notice that the trees were becoming more plentiful. The trail soon began to pitch pretty dramatically downhill, and it was time to roll onwards to the Slumgullion aid station at mile 40. I came into this station hauling, loving the newly-found air I could breathe, and totally re-energized with the finish 10 miles away. I was able to re-up my calories with success at the aid station, and managed to throw down some sandwiches and cookies, and left with a popcicle.
San Juan Selfie

The other exciting bit of info was that I rolled into this aid station at around 9:13 race time. I though I might have a chance to crack 12 hours!

So off I went. But Vickers Ranch just about did me in. Leaving the aid station I had high hopes. I felt better, and was psyched to have a goal time to shoot for. On the first footing of the last climb, all bets were off. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t climb, I couldn’t eat…I was toasted, in the middle of a full-fledged bonk somewhere on Vickers Ranch. The website had warned me of this climb, but I figured it would just be like gravy on mashed potatoes. But instead, here I was, struggling to get to that last aid station, and the nearly 3.5 miles of downhill to the finish. What was I gonna do? I dug through my bag, looking for something…anything! And I stumbled upon a packet of Fuel-100 electro bytes. I had bought these in Leadville on the way to Lake City, not really knowing what they were, or if I would use them. In my depleted, zombie-like state, I opened up the package, dumped all of the contents into my mouth, and chewed on the sweet/salty cookie bits, chasing them down with the last of my fluid…and suddenly, I was back! Whatever these cookie-pellets were, they did the trick! I finished up the last of the climb, hit a bit of downhill pitch, and arrived at the final aid station. I was in at about 10:50 race time.

Now it was time to suffer. I knew I could get in under 12 hours…but could I get in under 11:40? I hit the downhill pitch hard, with confidence in my footfall, feeling the discomfort searing through my legs. The technical, rocky terrain made hammering it that much more of a chore on these weary legs, but if I could just hold on…if I could just suffer well…maybe even 11:30…

"Cannibal" Cap!
I could now see Lake City, just off the side of this mountain. I continued to hammer, and made it to the exit of the trail, onto the asphalt of the city roads. Signs pointed me in the right direction, and at this point, looking at my watch wasn’t gonna help…I was either gonna get in under 11:30, or I wasn’t. I made it to the last left turn, now on to the city park, which I could now hear the announcer saying my name, and where I was from…”John Brower….from Jackson, Mississippi?! That’s a pretty fast time for someone from Mississippi…how was it out there, John?” I remember giving a sideways glance, a sigh, and then crossing the finish…now time to check the watch: 11:28:42. Not bad for a flatlander.

What a course, and what a trip! This was my first experience running in the Rocky Mountains, and the San Juan range did not disappoint! I hope that I will never forget the views I saw, but I do hope to see many more of them. I think my wife and I have decided that we will make Lake City our new summer vacation destination. But hey, God-willing, we will be back in the area next July, toeing that line for Hardrock! VAMOS!!!!

Gear Used:                                                                      
Shoes: Hoka OneOne Stinson Trail
Socks: Drymax Trail
Pack: Nathan HPL
Shirt: Patagonia Sleeveless (Race team edition)
Shorts : Patagonia (Race team edition)
Armwarmers: Patagonia
Hydration: Camelback insulated bottles

Thanks to Rock/Creek for always hooking me up with the freshest gear!
HUGE thanks to Fuel-100 Electro-bytes for making a product that saved me out there!!!
As always, thanks to my lovely wife for always encouraging me to be better!

1 comment:

  1. Nice race report. Yes, I'm jealous. Sounds like you're getting your money's worth out of that incline trainer. Best of luck in getting into Hardrock.