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'Cause its a Bitter Sweet Symphony That's Life (and Ultrarunning)

Friday June 17, 2011

     I took the day off from work to head down to LAKE CITY, CO for the SAN JUAN SOLSTICE 50 MILE RUN. Joining me would be a friend, Fahren, who serendipitously had connections to a house in Lake City, and two other relative newbies to ultrarunning like myself- Brendan Trimboli and Aaron Marks (both doing the Leadville 100 in August). The four of us, Fahren's cocker spaniel/maltese name Izzi, and my lab Charlie Brown loaded (just barely) into my car and we headed off just before 9 am.

     A little over 4 hours later, we arrived in LAKE CITY-a town sans stoplights that is home to a whopping 300 residents. With uneven wooden sidewalks, a soda shop, and places like the RESTLESS SPIRITS SALOON, it seems our road trip had carried us not only across counties, but back a century or two as well. Once we found the house, which was a mere 4 blocks from the start/finish line, we squeezed in a quick little run to shake off the post car-ride stiffness and get a feel for the town. Little time was wasted after returning before the three of us got down to business and began methodically redistributing running paraphernalia (gels, jackets, gloves, extra socks...you get the picture) into our drop bags. We then cruised into town on the stylish special edition beer bikes that we found at the house (the most coveted being a sweet New Belgium Cruiser) to drop the bags at the Armory, find something to eat, and attend the pre-race briefing. With a couple hours to kill before the meeting, we mosied into the PACKER SALOON/CANNIBAL GRILL (named in reference to the gruesome story of Alfred Packer) and enjoyed some adult beverages with a side of sunshine in the beer garden. This worked wonders at calming most of my pre-race jitters and was absolute bliss!


     After an hour or so, we made our way to the Armory where Jerry Gray, the race director, gave everyone a rundown of the route and race conditions. Because of record snowfall, there was an alternate course this year that Jerry assured us would be "as tough, or tougher" than the traditional course. For the most part, the meeting was pretty standard as far as those things go but I did recognize a lot of familiar Springs folk (Paul, Harsha, JT, Brooks, John, Wes, David, and others) as well as world famous mugs like SCOTT JUREK and KARL MELTZER. While Hollywood is home to movie stars, Nashville the place for country music singers, it seems Colorado is the mecca for great ultrarunners! After getting a bite, we cruised on back to the house and Brendan and Aaron, who are a bit more connected with some big names in the ultra world, invited Montrail sponsored Dakota Jones (who nearly broke Matt Carpenter's course record last year at age 19) along to share our abode. Dakota would be volunteering at San Juan this year and is running the Hardrock 100M in 3 weeks. After a couple hours of chatting about running (go figure), we all retired for the night, hoping to get at least a couple quality hours of shut-eye before the big day.


Saturday June 18, 2011

     Its 3 am. Do you know where your children are? Well if your children ran the SAN JUAN SOLSTICE, they were probably down in the kitchen scarfing down a quick breakfast, preparing water bottles and gels, and pinning on race numbers. At least that's what we were doing anyway. Once our rituals were completed, we ambled into town in the darkness to one of the coffee shops that opened their door at 4 am to accomodate the runners. Brendan and Aaron sipped their joe as we made small talk with other runners and enjoyed the 80's music playing inside the MOCHA MOOSE COFFEE HOUSE. Just as we stood up to leave, we received an omen in the form of The Verve's BITTER SWEET SYMPHONY playing over the radio. During the talk of running the night before, Brendan had specifically mentioned this song as one he listens to almost exclusively before big races. Talk about coincidence!

     Finally, after one last rendezvous at the Armory to check in, a mass of 184 runners began to toe the line on Silver Street. And at 5 am, with the only one word of caution to "keep it down for the locals," Jerry the race director sent the mass of crazies on our way. 

     The first stretch through town was flat and the pace was quicker than I would have expected for a 50 mile race. In less than a mile though, we hit the water dog trail and what would be the first of four big climbs during the day. Much to my surprise, a large number of runners were starting to walk at this point. I'd heard hiking the ascents was common practice among many ultrarunners but I was resistant, at least at this point in the race. At 3.5 miles we hit the first mini aid station where a small group had camped the night before and still had a fire blazing. It wasn't long after this when the first debacle of the day occurred. While not in the lead pack, I was comfortably following the single track in a chase group as we entered an aspen grove. Something wasn't right though when I saw Karl Meltzer leading the other rabbits head on in our direction. "Markers? Markers?" Apparently the orange trail markers were suddenly nowhere to be seen and we were forced to retrace our steps. Leaving the aspen grove, we realized our mistake and located the next orange marker, just as another trailing group saw us coming. A bit of chaos ensued as middle of the packers were suddenly leading the race and the elite guys were forced to maneuver their way to the front again.


      The same scenario occurred again shortly after which left many disheartened. 50 miles was already a long race without two route-finding setbacks in the first 10 miles. After arrivng at the 11.5 mile Silver Coin aid station, we began the second big climb of the day and the natural order of running prowess was once again restored. During the climb to Round Top Mountain at 12,000 ft on the Silver Coin trail, I finally acquiesced to the hiking strategy in an attempt to conserve energy for the remainder of the day. The reward at the top of the climb was a sweet section of ridge running that offered the best views of the day. Around this time, Brendan, who was in the Karl Meltzer pack at the beginning of the race, had caught up to me and offered to cruise alongside the next couple miles on the descent back to Silver Coin. While the downhill pace was relatively pedestrian, as we rapidly left the elevation behind, I began to fear for the integrity of my quads.  After making it back to Silver Coin, now the 3rd aid station, I filled one handheld with perpetuem, one with water, restocked my gel supply, and chomped down on a Snickers mini for good measure. Brendan and another runner had a 30 second jump on me that I knew I could easily close since the next long stretch was a relatively flat road section around Lake San Cristobal.



     2 minutes from the aid station, however, my world was falling apart. It started with bilateral hamstring cramps that migrated to my adductors and jumped to my biceps. Then my feet and quads started cramping and I knew, with the speed with which my condition had deteriorated, that I was going to be in a world of hurt. While boning up on ultramarathon strategy, I had read about the "SUCK" when suffering is at its peak and all hope seems lost. Interestingly, if you can find a way to push through, the experience of many is that this is a fleeting period followed by a second wind and resurgence of energy. Going into the race, I fully expected to experience a "SUCK" of some sort and told myself I'd push on. In the midst of this "SUCK" however, pure determination was not something I was convinced could ameliorate a full body cramp with over 25 miles to go. Desperate to continue moving forward, I resorted to alternative modes of locomotion like skipping and an awkward little side shuffle but found I couldn't do anything for more than a minute or two before seizing up again. I swallowed the last of the contents of my water bottles and was starting to plan my hitchhike back to the start. Luckily, a savior in the form of a little white pill was handed to me by Duncan Callahan, the two time Leadville 100m champ, who just happen to pass me when I needed it most. The pill, an S!CAP, was the perfect solution to my apparent electrolyte clusterfuck. Within 45 minutes I was able to slowly ease out of the painful trudging I'd been reduced to and could resume a pace that more closely approximated running.

     As I reached the next aid station, the two volunteers asked what I needed. "SALT!" was my answer and the guys brought out a container not unlike the Morton in my kitchen. "Take some of this." I held out my hand and a generous amount of the white crystals were poured. "Chase it with this." Like a mega Tequila shot without the tequila or lime, I downed the deliciousness which, in light of my apparent hyponatremia, never tasted so good.

     At this point, I was caught by another runner, Mike, who I learned hailed from Palmer Lake. I was grateful for the company on the next climb up Camp Trail, the longest of the day. Mike and I took turns leading, running when possible, hiking when not. We wound through more aspen groves, skirted a ginourmous boulder field, and finally made our way above tree line. Just as we reached a yurt near the Continental Divide, Brooks Williams, another accomplished Springs runner had just made our duo a trio. It was a fleeting ensemble however as Brooks, looking strong and steady, shouted "it's not time to get excited but we could make it in under 10 hours" as he motored on. This, at mile 34ish was the first time I had concerned myself with time since the beginning of the race. Though I'd never run 50 miles in my life and I told myself my number one goal was to finish, I had also toyed with the thought of finishing under 10 hours. Doing so meant I would earn the "Mutant Award" and get the coveted a blue visor (ooooh, aaahhhhh)! With this in mind, I continued plodding along until I reached the next aid station at mile 34 around the 7.5 hour mark. After pounding another couple handfuls of salt, I began to doubt whether a sub 10 performance was doable. There was still one nasty descent, a solid climb, and a yet another relatively technical descent back to town. At this point though, moving forward was the only thing I could do, sub 10 or not.



     After a mile or so of rolling hills, I hit the most painful descent of the day. At this point Mike was feeling good and he flew ahead with another runner, Troy, who was also looking frighteningly strong. My quads just couldn't take the pounding at this point and I dropped behind to walk some of the steepest descents. Down, down, down I went until I came across a couple of hikers shouting words of encouragement that the 40 mile Slumgullion aid station was not far now. Arriving at the oasis with an hour and 45 minutes left before my self-imposed hourglass emptied, hope was restored and I now felt I had a fighting chance. Dakota helped fill my water bottles and feed what at this point was a salt addiction and I was off again. After nearly eight and a half hours of running, I finally felt I was racing. My strategy was to run the remaining flats and downhills and, rather than deliberating over which uphill sections to run, I'd just power hike the big climb as fast as I could. The plan paid off as halfway up the climb I reunited with Mike again. Upwards I charged with sharpened resolve and an energized spirit, passing Troy right as we intersected the Water Dog trail. Troy soon returned the favor and disappeared again but I was satisfied with the effort and my progress during this last stretch. With about 30 minutes to go, I hit the last aid station at 46.5 miles, swallowed yet another palm of salt, and kept running just as Mike came cruising in. There was only a bit more level running before the final descent to the finish. And although the suffering I endured during the last descent was fresh in my mind, I somehow I felt much fresher this go around. So fresh in fact, that a feeling of complacency set in until I heard Mike, once again, right on my heels. 

     With Lake City in sight now, I glanced at my watch and discovered I had just 10 minutes to get off this trail and navigate the stretch through town. It was gut check time and I broke into a sprint (or at least as much of a sprint as I could muster). I felt STRONG. The strongest I'd felt all day and I refused to face the dissapointment of at 10:00:01 finish. Running through town I spotted Troy, who had proven to be a strong downhill runner, 50 yards ahead. Passing him now would be inconsequential, but I would absolutely use him as a target to squeeze every last bit of speed out of my legs. I never would have expected to feel "good" at mile 50 but as I crossed the grassy finish line in Town Park, the welcoming of "9:58:53" on the clock was undoubtedly euphoric. SUCCESS!


     I really couldn't have asked for a better first 50M than the San Juan Solstice. Lake City was exceptional, the race director and volunteers were incredibly accommodating and supportive, and the course was satisfyingly challenging. I also can't really say I wish anything had gone differently as the greatest challenges (losing the trail twice, flirting with hyponatremia, feeling reluctant to hike the initial ascents) were great lessons that I'll apply to future races. With that said, I'm thrilled with my ability to recover from nearly dropping in the middle of the race, how strong I felt during the last miles, and my finishing time and place. The experience, part bitter, mostly sweet, means I'll definitely be back for more.




(More pics of the weekend here)

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Comment by Brad Poppele on June 24, 2011 at 3:53pm
Nice race report. Congrats on finishing your first 50 miler. Many more to come I'm sure.
Comment by Brandon Stapanowich on June 23, 2011 at 7:41pm

Thanks Alexis and Amy! Looking forward to the next reunion at the Summer Roundup!

Comment by Alexis Smith on June 23, 2011 at 4:23pm

Thanks for sharing this.  You really dug in when you needed to, and did an incredible job. Your smile says it all.


Comment by Amy (Arcuri) Perez on June 23, 2011 at 9:57am
Chills and tears!  AWESOME job...truly an inspiration!

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