The mountains are big here! Driving south along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, treeless, rocky peaks loomed large. They towered over the town of Lake City, a small mountain hamlet of about 350 people that plays host to what is widely recognized as the hardest and most beautiful 50 mile race in the country.
Six months prior, I was sitting at my computer at 6:55 in the morning, ensuring that everything was in place for registration. I made my account the night before, had everything else ready to enter as fast as possible, and now just sat hitting refresh. The race actually begin at 7 AM on January 15th. I was done in 5 minutes. “Confirmed entrant,” said the page. Six minutes later, the race’s 200-person limit had been met; it sold out in 11 minutes.
And now we were driving into Lake City, looking at the mountains that I had only visualized on the map. Elevation lines had been so effortlessly crossed on a topographic map. Standing at the bottom looking up is something else entirely. And then there was the unmappable, like wind, sun, exposure, and temperature. But here, probably our biggest unmappable challenge would be the water.
A heavy snow year created some monster snowfields that nearly prevented us from running the regular route. Widespread melting in the couple of weeks before the race let us do the loop for which this race is known, but also made Alpine Creek flow fast and high, as told to us in the prerace meeting:
Master of Ceremonies (addressing Race Director): “Are there any ropes?”
MC: “Any crossing aides or watchers?”
MC (addressing crowd): “Okay! You’re in an ultra!”
There would be several crossings in the first mile of trail. Andrew, who was to pace me through the last 10 miles, said that he came away from this meeting feeling slightly nervous, like it was the last team meeting before the state track meet. Butterflies all around.
The Start to Williams Creek Aid Station
The morning came early and loudly. We had rented out the entire hostel; everyone was there for one reason only, so there wasn’t any need to quietly sneak around in the dark. Alberto’s blender started around 4:15, final decisions on poles, shoes, headlamps, and packs were made, and the final check-in was done by 4:45. Standing outside the Lake City Soda Shop just before 5 AM, the anxious excitement and expectation of imminent suffering was humming, resonating through the crowd of runners, crew, and spectators. Then, all of a sudden, we were running! No countdown, no horn or gun, just a surging foward and a quiet cheer.
Ryan Lassen and I ran together for most the first couple of miles, which followed a gently-climbing road toward Engineer Pass. Then, a left turn onto the trail and things got real. Silke Koester and Cassie Scallon had planted themselves at the first creek crossing, where they collected my headlamp and, like spectators at the Roman Colosseum, watched the carnage ensue.
If we weren’t awake before, this did it. SO COLD! In seconds, both feet were numb. The current threatened to sweep out my feet each time I lifted them for a step and the turbulence made seeing where I was going to place my foot impossible. It was all by feel, which was particularly hard when your feet are numb! Supposedly, six more crossings like this followed, although it felt like far more. I fell in one (not the last one, unfortunately), unable to place my foot securly before it was pushed downstream. Now I was cold and wet beyond just my legs, but at least my new watch can be confirmed to be waterproof! A couple crossings had logs, but we were cautioned against using them, as they could be iced over. One crossing did have a rope, but the rest were step, balance, step, balance, repeat. Since the grade was low and the trail mostly soft forest dirt, it was still possible to jog on frozen feet and I was feeling pretty good when I got to the trail junction 2/3 the distance to the first aid station. I stopped here, got out my hiking poles, and prepared for the attack on the first big climb of the day.
It was going to be all up from here for a while; still 2000 feet to the aid station, then another 1100 feet to the top. The climb was beautiful and lush along a babbling brook. I had decided beforehand that I was going to take it easy here. During this section, I was passed by Andy Blatecky and John Knotts as they pushed up. We chatted shortly and then parted, wishing each other luck. In fact, a lot of other people were passing me, too. My legs were already feeling burned out and my feet were still wet and numb; I was slowing down dramatically. My heart rate was not really high, but I felt terrible. I stopped to take off my jacket, get some water (problem: my first drink of the day) and mentally reset. How would I get the rest of this race done? I hiked on another few minutes and heard the energy of the aid station, which gave me a bit of a boost. I arrived at Alpine at 1:48:35 and was greeted by concern: “Are you feeling okay?” Dehydrated, for sure. I had a long drink and a banana at the aid station and resolved to try to drink more during the day.
Turning south from the aid station, along the ridge, the views opened up and cleared the cobwebs. The sunlight was hitting us for the first time and my mood lifted immediately. Red Mountain dominated the view to the north as we approached some snowfields into which some steps had been cut (it would have been a long, fast slide if you slipped). Eventually, the trail gained the saddle on the west ridge of Grassy Mountain, turned right, slowly gained another 300 vertical feet and the climb finally topped out at 12,860 feet.
The altitude was definitely a factor. Everything was harder here. It was easy on the way up to simply blame fatigue on the climb, but now, even flat areas were more difficult than usual. Here and there, the trail disappeared entirely. Where the tundra took over, running became very difficult on the uneven, often steep surface. I said sorry to the tundra; these plants were going to be suffering for years from all the trampling.
Enjoying some pineapple at Williams Creek, but only after changing shoes and socks. Photo by Chiara Babolin.
After a bit of rolling, the descent began in earnest. As promised by the map, it was a long descent. Going down I’m normally reasonably strong, but I still felt off. My feet, particularly my left foot, were STILL tingly, even though it had been nearly 3 hours since the last creek crossing. Was something more serious wrong? I used to have compartment syndrome, but that had gone away entirely after starting trail running. I hoped this would not be a lingering issue. And then, another creek crossing! The first few steps were only six inches deep, but then I plunged up to my thigh and scraped my leg on a hidden branch or rock. I finally arrived at Williams Creek (3:42:40), slightly bloodied from my scrape (though Kristen said not as bad as many others!) and very hungry. I was greeted by Kristen’s cowbell; such a happy sound!
Williams Creek to Slumgullion
Kristen sometimes points out that she comes fully loaded to these events, but I never need anything from her. Here, though, she had a can of pineapple and the best treasure of them all: dry shoes and socks! I changed out of my Inov8 Trailroc 255 and into my favorite long distance shoes, the Montrail Mountain Masochist II. I moved my custom insoles over, which were, of course, soaking, but what could I do? I hadn’t trained without the insoles and wasn’t about to try it now. I changed socks, which had done an amazing job protecting my feet, which I inspected and found no blisters or any other injury. Having changed out of the wet and eating some pineapple, my numbness went away and my spirits lifted. This event could be conquered after all! It’s amazing what a smiling face (three, actually, between Kristen, Jessica Oldham, and Chiara Babolin) and a good aid station can do! After some watermelon and orange slices, I headed off, confident about tackling the rest to come.
This next section would require confidence going in. The upcoming climb, after a short road section, would put everyone to the test. This was the climb that I was dreading in the upper reaches of Alpine Gulch. It would last 6.5 miles and climb 4000 feet to a breathless 13,317 feet of elevation at the top of Coney Peak, the highest point on the Colorado Trail and the halfway through the race. Nearly a marathon in length, this section would have us staying for 2.5 miles above 13,000 feet and nearly 10 miles in the treeless realm above 12,000 feet, much of it on an exposed ridge; everyone would be trying to move fast, stay hydrated, take in calories, keep an eye out for lightning, and maintain enough physical and mental energy for the final climb after Slumgullion. Facing this, there was no place for self-doubt.
Bite-size pieces. First, tackle the road and make it to the Carson aid station. The road was easy, but felt very long. A few of us were speculating that it was like a walk down the hallway to the principal’s office (of course, no one among us admitted to have ever visited the principal’s office); you know the punishment is coming and you just wish to hurry it along and not drag it out. But we had to drag it out on the road, long enough that we were beginning to wonder if we’d missed the turn. But then, up ahead, there it was: the road to Carson. As Gerry Roach would say: “The introduction is over.”
The rough forest road to Carson, known as Wager Gulch Road, has to be among the worst forest roads in existence. In its steeper sections, it is full of round, loose rocks that move underfoot. And there were many steep sections, particularly at the bottom. We climbed quickly out of the valley and separated, each to his own climbing pace. Mine was slow again, trying to conserve energy. I didn’t want to feel terrible near the top like the last climb. The four climbing miles to Carson were a tough grind and I arrived at the aid station at 5:37:25. I didn’t feel like death, so that was something!
I’d never tried noodle soup in either training or a race, so it could have been a big mistake, but I wanted something beyond fruit. So, Cup-O-Soup it was! And it was amazing! Soup, bananas, watermelon, and oranges. I felt good leaving this station for the nearly 10 mile trek to Divide.
Halfway through the climb. First task: gain the Continental Divide ridge, then on to Coney Peak. I was moving well; I passed two people, one of whom was telling some joke involving death row inmates and another group was chatting excitedly about gardening. I fell in behind someone wearing a Raven’s Rest shirt. Our hostel! It was the owner, Lucky, who does this race every year. The chatter died down in the thin air as we all powerhiked over the Divide at 12,370, turned left, and saw the flanks of Coney. With no trees to block the view, nearly the entire climb was visible and it looked daunting. I forced myself to focus short-term: to the next turn, to the point where the Continental Divide Trail and the Colorado Trail diverged, to where they merged again, and finally the summit.
It didn’t feel quite like the victory I felt it should have been; I was at the highpoint and halfway done with the distance, but the effort to that point felt like much more than 25 miles. To be fair, there had been around 9,600 feet of vertical gain, more climbing than most complete 50 mile races. Those are 25 hard miles! I stopped for a drink and a couple of photos.
View from Coney Peak. Red Mountain is visible towards the right. Grassy Mountain is just to its left, and just left of that is the saddle and ridge where I was 5 hours previously.
The climbing and altitude were taking a toll. Instead of trying to force the issue of food and water, I decided to gain some distance between the effort of the climb and try again in half an hour. So on I rolled, walking more than I had wanted but less than my body wanted. I had some water here, some food there, but never really making up the deficits in either. Everyone was suffering. Occasionally, we navigated through rocky tundra when snowfields forced the route off-trail, including one particularly steep section straight down the ridge. Then, thankfully, a longer descent, a bit of a rhythm, and TREES! We were back in the trees! Someone near me said that he had never in his life been so happy to see forest again! Less than a mile to the aid station, less than half, and then I could see it… high up… on the side of a grassy hill. Ugh. It was a painful, demoralizing 100 foot hill; people were stopping to rest all around me. I reached the station at 8:54:53, almost 10 miles from Carson and 3 hours of suffering, but at least it was through spectacularly beautiful scenery.
Departing Divide, we went back down the hill and I felt okay. More soup and some salty mashed potatoes had done the trick. It would be 8.5 miles to the Slumgullion aid station, but at least it was mostly downhill. But first, it was above the trees again on a 500 foot climb on a good trail back up to the ridge. It had rained/snowed a bit at the aid station, but was clearing and I was moving pretty well, certainly better than before. On and on… and on and on and on. We hit 12,000, then the ridge, and it was done; at least we weren’t climbing to the radio towers on top of 71 Mountain ahead. The road turned right and started dropping, then rolling. I was running a good bit, happy to be leaving the endless, infernal ridge at last. I was feeling anxious to get this section over with. I wanted some company. I started passing people who were in worse shape than I; when asked if they needed anything, they just smiled wearily and said things like “a beer!” or “the finish line.” On the long, rough 4WD road towards Slumgullion, I talked with a guy with a big bushy beard. This was his “redemption” run; he had barely made the cutoffs the previous year and was very proud of his performance today. His assessment was that this race was the second hardest in Colorado, behind the Hardrock 100. Certainly the hardest 50 in North America. Whether it is or not, it’s quite an accomplishment. His energy was infectious and I could hear the aid station cheering up ahead. With Kristen’s cowbell and cheering, I arrived at Slumgullion weary and tired at 10:53:00.
Slumgullion to Finish
Kristen and Andrew met me, with Andrew looking ready for his pacing duties. The soup that did so well earlier wasn’t a winner here. I drank some coconut water and had some watermelon. But what really saved the day? ICE! I could now have ice water! None of the other stations I inquired at had ice, but they did here. Kristen dumped out my old water and put in a liter of water and plenty of ice, then Andrew and I headed out. We dropped about 500 feet before climbing through Vickers Ranch. Just before turning uphill, on a small section of Hwy 149, we heard a honk and saw Kristen cheering behind us on her drive to the finish line!
I looked at my watch at the base of the climb: 2.1 miles of climbing left. The countdown began as we wound through a beautiful aspen forest. I stopped a few times for water (now much easier to drink since it was cold!) and once for bug repellent. Andrew kept up a running chatter which helped my energy level and took some focus away from the strain. But it was still a climb, particularly a steep open meadow near the top. But we were doing okay. We passed the beardy fellow from the descent to Slumgullion; his pacer was grinning from ear to ear, clearly enjoying herself. We made a right turn at the top of the meadow, one last little bit, and it was all (generally) downhill from there! Things were definitely looking brighter. It’s amazing how getting the last climb out of the way makes everything better!
My ElevationTat (a temporary tattoo with the elevation profile on it) showed the aid station at mile 46.4, still 3.5 miles away. I didn’t remember it being that far from my map, but I wasn’t able to really remember, so I trusted it. We jogged and shuffled through open meadows with views of towering mountain walls. At one point, I looked up and saw the radio towers on 71 Mountain, then the point in the ridge where we finally dropped down. It looked like a VERY long way away. And so high! I was happy to be down, in the forest, surrounded by irises, gentians, and tall grasses instead of tundra and rocks. And then, surprise! There was the aid station, about 1.5 miles early! At 12:48:11, I was greeted by “Gin and tonic?” I politely declined the gin and tonic and had some watermelon instead. While drinking a Coke and someone asked: “Would you like some Jack Daniel’s in that?” Okay, sure, why not? So, Andrew and I each had a Jack and Coke at mile 45. This was a fun aid station and they gave a boistrous whooping when I told Andrew that it was time to finish this race.
My day had changed. The approach of the end of the race often does it, but a good pacer, energetic spectators, and enough water (finally) and food certainly contributes. I felt like a new person. A little bit of rolling through the forest and then what might have been the most beautiful scenic setting of the day (which is saying something in this race) caused me to stop. The fatigue and the pain melted away in that moment with the realization that I get to do this and spend an entire day in places like this! And for that, I consider myself fortunate. One doesn’t have to go through 46.5 miles of hard work to get views like this, but it was made more special by the feeling that I had earned this view as a reward for the toil. I’ve never done trail running for the racing. I do it for things like this!
The last 3.5 miles were by far the fastest of the day. Some sections were loose shale, but my legs felt new and fresh. The last mile was flat and through town. The fatigue came back now that I didn’t get gravity’s help. I had told Andrew to set a pace of about 10:30 – 11:00 per mile, but we were running sub-10:00 for first kilometer. Once over a bridge (4.5 blocks to go), Andrew kicked it up a notch. With 2 blocks to go, he started playing the part of the drill sergeant, pushing ever harder. Last block… and there’s the park… the finish chute… a high-five from Alberto… and done!
Andrew is telling me that slowing down is not an option at this point. Photo by Kristen Barthel.
The best pacer and crew in the business! Thanks!
13:44:48. It was a long, brutal day out there! Alberto helped pull the tag off my bib as I sat under the finish banner, then moved to lay in the grass. Andrew and Kristen quickly came over to join the recovery. I ate some tomato-basil soup (chose that over the pizza) and chatted with Cassie about wildflowers on the trail. I was feeling okay; I wasn’t cold, didn’t have any joint pain (unlike Andrew!) and wasn’t a mass of taut rubber bands. The course had hurt, but I was now more accustomed to the load. We slowly wandered back to the hostel (all of about 150 feet from the finish area) then headed off to dinner, where everyone spent the time rehashing all the gory details of their days racing, pacing, and crewing.
While sitting at dinner, we could hear the crowd was assembled in the park, waiting for the last few runners to beat the 16 hour cutoff. The cheering for each finisher sounded as if that runner was the winner. In a sense, they were; they had conquered the course, slayed the dragons, and lived to fight another day. When the winner of a race spends more than 8 hours on the course, and the median time is 13:22:50, everyone has a different race experience. Everyone ran the same hills and crossed the same creeks, but no one had the same experience. Everyone had different points of success and despair and no one had the same 50 miles. Everyone was the winner of their own personal race and the assembled group in the park made sure every runner was made to feel that win.
For me, the exceptional thing about this race was this community. Lake City puts on an amazing race! Every finisher is individually acknowledged and applauded at the breakfast/awards ceremony, where they are presented with their finisher’s award. No one is left out, including families, spectators, and crew, who get to partake in the community-hosted pot luck breakfast free of charge. No one runs an ultra alone, and this racing community gets that. This race, and its organizers, should be commended for a first-class event.
And speaking of community, this is the first ultra in which I’ve been part of a larger team. The Rocky Mountain Runners is the kind of all-inclusive group that makes anyone feel at home and part of something. There are no qualifying standards, no tiers of Team A and Team B; it’s just a group of people drawn together by their love of running trails and sharing that experience with anyone else who loves running. We rented out the entire hostel but had one bed left; the night before the race, it went to an 80ish year-old Leadville man who sat in the yard chatting excited about ultrarunning. He has never run an ultramarathon in his life, but arrived in Lake City because he loves being around the races, the runners, and the spectacle, and holds more in his head than you thought any one person could know about this sport. He was welcomed without question. This is a group where the term “pissing contest” could only ever be used to define a comparison of who would be better hydrated for an upcoming race. The finish line for the San Juan Solstice held not just the promise of rest, but also the camaraderie of a group of friends bonded by shared suffering and an inexplicable love for that suffering. I have been made a much better runner by my association with the Rocky Mountain Runners!
My time put me squarely into the “Survivor” white hat category. Of the 216 entrants and 167 finishers, I placed 94th overall. I’m happy with the performance and surviving this course. Right after the race, I told Ryan Lassen that I wasn’t sure if I would be doing it next year. Who am I kidding?! Of course I’m planning on doing it next year! Changes in hydration, calorie intake, and altitude training are in order (assuming that we don’t have another record-setting snow year). So, come 6:55 AM on January 15th, 2015, I’ll once again be starting the race by sitting in front of my computer, hitting Refresh.