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San Juan Solstice Race Report || 8 years later, 31 minutes faster

When I turned off the gravel road onto the Alpine Gulch Trail (mi 2.3), I was in seventh place and my heart rate was unsustainable, in the low-150’s. In the lower reaches of this first 4,000-foot climb, three other racers (Frank Pipp, Owen Bradley, and Chris Marcinek) caught up to me, and Frank and Chris went by easily. At the Alpine Aid (mi 7.5), I was already three minutes off my goal pace, which would be a bad trajectory if it continued.

The negativity set in, as it seems to do at the start of every ultra. I’m not young enough, trained enough, lean enough, or tough enough. I quickly lost confidence that history will repeat itself and that most of these guys won’t come back to me in later miles.

Thankfully, I could partially offset my mood with the scenery. Just beyond Alpine, the course emerges from the trees and begins to straddle a 12,000-foot ridgeline. In the morning light I could see Uncompahgre Peak, a 14’er, to the north; and the Continental Divide, here a flat-ish ridge at 13,000+ feet, across the Lake Fork to the south. No doubt, the San Juan Mountains are the gem of the Colorado Rockies.

The Divide, looking west from below Coney Summit, from my 2006 Colorado Trail thru-hike.

The Divide, looking west from below Coney Summit, from my 2006 Colorado Trail thru-hike.

The Divide

The 4,000-foot descent to Williams Aid (mi 16) will destroy quads if they are not trained for it. I felt that mine were, and passed Frank and Chris before the bottom. Amanda reported that I was in 6th, which was one place ahead of my expectation. I soon learned why — as I was pulling out of the aid, one of the lead runners (unknown) was running in the reverse direction after missing a turn. Better him than me, but I nonetheless felt bad for him.

In every ultra there seems to a point at which racers settle in and begin to run at a more sustainable effort. At SJC50, it’s Williams. Beyond it, I jogged down the gravel road at 8-minute pace and then power-hiked 3,800 vertical feet to Coney Summit (elev 13,200). This behavior would have lost me places during the Alpine Gulch ascent, but now I was outpacing the racers around me. Just before Coney I caught and passed Jessee Rickart, who would hold onto sixth place.

The 15-mile stretch between Coney and Slumgullion Aid (mi 40) is mostly run-able if your legs aren’t already destroyed and if your body can function in the oxygen-deprived air. In the 2008 race I paid the price for starting off harder than I should have: I was unable to run gentle inclines, and barely able to keep it moving on the flats. This time it was different, and I was able to catch and pass Jon Brown at the Divide Aid. He’d hold onto his spot, too, for fifth place.

From Strava Fly-By’s. Travis Macy (pink line, at the top) pulled away from me steadily, while Chris Price (turquoise, second from top) started to come back to me. Behind me (black horizontal line), notice how many racers lose an increasing amount of time as the race progresses, an indication that they started too hard and faded.

Vickers Ranch

When I pulled into the Slumgullion Aid, I was told that I was about 15 minutes back from the last guy, Chris Price. It sounded like more of an approximation, however, and Strava Fly-By put the time at about 28 minutes. Without any indication from Amanda or aid volunteers that Chris was imploding, sneaking onto the podium seemed fanciful.

I instead shifted my focus to breaking 9:15, which was the goal time that I’d identified based on my performances relative to past finishers. For example, based on our respective Run Rabbit times, I have run 12 to 17 percent slower than Jason Schlarb. A 9:15 split is 14 percent slower than his PR at SJS50, so it seems reasonable. I also looked at ITRA scores for past finishers, and compared those scores to my own. They were consistent with a 9:15 finish plus/minus. Plus, I had run 9:42 in 2008, and I figured I was better prepared for this race (in terms of fitness and experience) even though at 27 years-old I was probably closer to my peak physical prime.

After losing three minutes on the original climb to this 9:15 pace (which was a proportional pace to the average of Schlarb’s 2013 race and Brendan Trimboli’s 2014 race, based on their Strava data), I lost another two minutes through the high point at Coney Summit. I was on pace through Divide Aid, and had gained back a minute to Slumgullion Aid, to put me four minutes behind with ten miles remaining.

Up the final 1,600-foot climb into the Vickers Ranch I was moving well, at about 50 vertical feet per minute, about as fast as I had all day. No surprise — when hiking, my legs seem to have infinite go power. I gained about 2 minutes during the climb, and continued to push on the rollers and through the Vickers Aid.

Finish

In the final four miles, the course bombs into town, dropping 750 vertical feet per mile for about 2.5 consecutive miles. My quads hurt but I was able to run this fairly fast, motivated by that 9:15 split. Through the city streets I was keeping sub-7 pace, even when it became clear that I had time to spare.

The SJS50 finish is one of the most authentic scenes in ultra running. You run three blocks through downtown, past century-old Victorians and businesses built by and for miners. As you enter the city park, the announcer calls out your name, which earns a big applause from your lovely wife, earlier finishers, and unrelated family and friends who are soaking up a beautiful Colorado afternoon while awaiting their own runners.

My only regret of this race? Waiting eight years to return.

A quintessential Colorado ultra finish line scene.

One Response to San Juan Solstice Race Report || 8 years later, 31 minutes faster

  1. Peter July 1, 2016 at 2:58 pm #

    Frank Pip.There is a name I haven’t heard since bike racing days. He was a crusher. Makes you a crusher 2x. Nice work.

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