I can be a mental basket case during races, I just can’t keep my head in the game for long periods of time. Sometimes I’ll have ten seconds of some terrible pop song stuck in my head for hours on end. Or maybe I’ll start composing a race report mid-race: “my downfall began when I stubbed my toe at mile 33”. The worst is when I can’t stop thinking about how much running is left, or when I can’t believe how far away the next hill looks, or how one person just passed me and my race is definitely over and I’m going to drop at the next aid station. I’m too often stuck in my head full of Antagonistic Andys and none of them will shut up. All of these are terrible things my brain does that keeps me from focusing on the only thing you’re supposed to think about during long races: the present moment.
My goal race for the year was San Juan Solstice. I’d had a few rough tries at the race in years past, once finishing despite some painful headaches caused by altitude sickness, and once dropping due to a hip/IT band injury that ended up knocking me out of the rest of the summer. I just had to come back and have a good go at this special race. So I focused and was building up really well through a winter full of nordic skiing and a spring with lots of great running. Everything was right on track.
But then at the end of April I had a bad cough for a few days and following that I was unable to run for more than 20 minutes without stopping and gasping for air. Things improved slightly when I started using an Albuterol inhaler (was my childhood asthma reappearing after ten dormant years?) but I still dropped out of the Jemez 50k, unsure of what would happen if I kept pushing my lungs. I struggled through the re-scheduled Quad Rock 25 and considered not starting San Juan. How could I get through 50 miles in the high mountains when I could barely make it through 25 on the hills of the front range?
On the flip side, how could I not go to Lake City and give it a go? It’s such a beautiful race organized by wonderful volunteers and so many of my friends would be there. I decided to head down and start the race, prepared for it to take much longer than I wanted, especially since my training had been a game of jog-jog-wheeze for the last two months. On Friday afternoon I ducked out of work and drove south determined to take it as easy as necessary to get around the course. To assist in the new goal of moving slowly enough that I could breathe the whole time, I brought my poles along for their first ever race experience. The one thing I was really hoping for was that my breathing problems were being primarily affected by pollen in Boulder, and that the thin, clear mountain air might actually be easier for me to breathe.
Showing up to a race with low expectations is liberating. I’ve never been less nervous before any race at any distance, from 100 meters to 100 miles, I’d ever run. After a good night’s sleep at the Raven’s Rest Hostel I got up and started getting ready, unsure how the day would pan out. I should also mention that I purposefully left my watch at home. I couldn’t allow my nefarious brain access to timing information that would only be used against me. Instead, I would run as fast or as slow as I had to, take gels when I thought I should, and do everything in my power to get back to the park in Lake City.
The early miles up the dirt road were a good chance to relax and remind myself to take in the sights and sounds of the course. We turned off of the dirt road to head up the Alpine Gulch trail and pretty quickly came across the first stream crossing. I whipped out my poles and made my way across the raging water. Everyone around me wanted to run much more of the slight grade than I did so I let them go. It was a weird feeling, watching people I usually run with leave me behind, but I knew that I had to keep my effort level low up this 4500’ climb. The stream crossings got much trickier and deeper but despite the frozen legs I was enjoying the day. At one point I grabbed a gel and the next people who passed me, Becca and Carrie, were going a pace that felt reasonable to me. It was nice to keep up with friendly people rather than just being passed all the time. Maybe this day wouldn’t last forever.
I topped out the climb with Becca and Carrie and was shocked that I was within sight of David, with whom I got to enjoy the entirety of the frozen Jemez 50 last year. He’s a 14 time finisher of San Juan Solstice, is a very smart racer, and given how well he usually does I figured he’d be long gone at this point. I caught him on the downhill and told him that my secret strategy didn’t involve passing him so early. His secret strategy was to jump into the woods for a second and let me slip by so that he would have someone to chase later on. Coming into the Williams aid station was a blast as I knew a few people and they cheered and helped me fill water and find my drop bag (Thanks Judy!). I left and immediately made use of the one toilet on course. My digestive system knew it was that time of day even if I didn’t have the watch to confirm it.
The flat dirt road leading out of the aid station soon turned left to begin the interminable climb up the Carson road to the Continental Divide. For the first time my breathing felt labored and my stomach felt queasy so I backed it way off. Again, I watched people scream past me as I strolled along, content to be enjoying the fine day. David caught back up and had no trouble disappearing into the distance although I reached the aid station while he was changing shoes. I dumped some dirt out from my own shoes and drank some ginger ale before continuing up the climb, finally keeping pace with those around me. Even when you accept that everything is going to take a long time, this climb takes forever. I made it to the top of the course in a group of five, including Braz who I first met at the top of the second climb of Telluride Mountain Run last year. Our group was moving well and everyone was super nice although I think they thought I was a grump as I wasn’t saying much. To be honest, I couldn’t believe that I was doing alright. Here I was at 13200’ and able to breathe better than I had been at 5200’ in Boulder. Maybe I could start to throw some race-paced effort at the day after all!
As we slid down the first large snowfield I felt really solid and led the group for the first time. It was actually the first time all day that I took some initiative in terms of setting pace and I loved it. We were rolling up and down the deceptive climbs and soft snowfields along the divide and were catching people all the time. At one point I watched Braz run up a hill and away from us at an impressive pace, and on the next downhill I decided to keep him in shouting distance. He was really moving well both up and down and just by watching him I kept myself running more than I would have on my own. I finally caught up to him thanks to some solid downhill legs and he was unsurprised that we continued to leap-frog. Immediately after I went by him I heard him start dry-heaving and that was the beginning of a tough last 20 miles for him. The Divide aid station was a welcome sight and I grabbed my ginger ale and some watermelon (the solidest food I can eat during a race) before quickly heading out. Leaving the aid station brings the third serious climb along the divide and I was actually running parts of it. As the road flattened and started slowly creeping downhill I just kept powering along, totally focused on continuing to run.
In fact, it was around this time that I realized that one thing I was doing right was the best thing to be doing right: All day I was focused on being in the moment and listening to my body. Doing this kept me positive throughout the race. It may have been the lack of expectations, the absence of time information, or that I started at an appropriately easy pace. Whatever it was, it was great, and I just had to keep doing it. Also, as long as I’ve broken the race narrative, I might as well tell you that the poles worked wonders for hiking and running alike. I won’t use them at every race but I also won’t be as quick to dismiss their use; without them I definitely would have been slower.
This was the first time at San Juan that I was able to run down the hill into Slumgullion, and I had a blast. My legs were strong, my energy was high, and I was about to see a bunch of friends at another aid station. My mental state allowed me to hear someone say “a bit more than one mile to the aid” and my first thought was “hey, that doesn’t sound so far” rather than “miles are the longest of all the units”. I was enjoying being exactly where I was almost as much as I was hurting from the distance and effort expended thus far.
At the aid station Kristine and Amaya (David’s wife and daughter) helped cool me off with water on my neck as I had a popsicle and my standard ginger ale. I then set off down the trail in search of David who had left the aid 15 minutes ahead and it sounded like he didn’t feel like charging the last 10 miles. I thought that if I could extend myself a little more I’d be able to catch him before the finish, a goal which would have sounded outlandish at the start of the day. I came past Carrie and Becca, who I also thought I’d never see again, as they were trying to figure out if they had missed a turn. We found the turn and dealt with the weirdo pseudo-trail side-hilling dirt-scrambly section before jumping onto the road (and keeping Karl from heading across the road and into not-the-trail-land) for a short stretch. The initial bits of the final climb were hot and exposed but I didn’t care. I was on fire and charging up the hill. As we reached the upper meadows I saw someone ahead of me and decided that I was going to catch them. But then the upper meadows would not end. I started looking behind me and realized that the group of people I had left so abruptly at the start of the climb were beginning to come back at me. Three people (Carrie and Karl were two) came past me in or just after the Vickers aid station but I was sure that I could catch them on the downhill into town, until I actually tried running down the hill. My legs were toast and my “running” had turned pretty embarrassing. My goal at the end of the race became the same as my goal at the beginning, make it to the finish line with a smile on my face.
The final downhill took far too long and I was so happy to make it into town. As I walked up a slight incline I turned around and saw someone just 200 yard behind me, ruining my plan to casually jog through town. I came through the finish line in 11:41 totally exhausted and happy to be done. This wasn’t the time I was hoping for two months earlier but it was far better than I had feared if the race was anything like Jemez or Quad Rock. All in all, it was an excellent race. I stayed super positive and performed as well as I could have on the day and with the training I’d had.
The post-race atmosphere at San Juan is incredible. The race finishes in a park and everyone hangs out sharing stories from the day, getting massages (during which I was oh so cramp-ful), eating food, and cheering in the rest of the finishers. I was ecstatic to procure three of the most important things in life: pizza, beer, and ice cream. The atmosphere around the finish is great and two things really step it a up a notch: all of the local finishers get huge cheers as they complete the race, and the people who complete the course after the time cut-off are cheered for louder than anyone else.
The course this year was pretty tough with high stream crossings, soft snow-fields, mud and standing water everywhere, and it was really hot during the middle of the day. I’m so proud of all of my friends who were able to find their way back to Lake City. Now I just have to answer two questions before my next race: How can I spend more time breathing while running (which would allow me to spend more time running while breathing)? and How can I be sure to keep the Antagonistic Andys at bay? I’ll let you know what I figure out.