San Juan Solstice Ultramarathon

Lake City, Colorado

50 miles, 12,000' + elevation gain

June 17, 2007

Dave Svilar, 165 other miserable racers


Besides the fact that I hadn't specifically trained for this race I was quite optimistic.  A top 10 finish wasn't likely, but I did think I could have an enjoyable race and finish strong.  After our trip in the desert (Narrows, Pine Creek, Subway) we arrived in Lake City, Colorado the afternoon previous to the race in order to get some last minute acclimatization.  During my year of unemployment and self-pity I had read a self-help book that claimed true winners in life set goals so high as to be nearly unattainable.  The book was so convincing that, for a moment, I harbored illusions that I too could be a winner.  During this moment I signed up for the world's toughest 50 mile footrace.  So tough, that a prerequisite for this brutal punishment was the completion of other ultramarathons.  Never having run anything close to even a marathon it took some convincing, but the race director eventually acquiesced to my otherwise outstanding resume of long excursions on foot.

So, why the optimism?  The race itself covered 50 miles - starting at 8,600' climbing to 13,500', back down to 9,000', back up to 13,500', down to 9,600', and finally up and over an 11,600' pass and back to town.  Adding to the difficulty was multiple icy stream crossings, thick mud, snow, and as I was to find out, dangerous weather.  The optimism had nothing to do with good training or that the course might be easier than expected, rather it was based on the fact that nothing was wrong.  Speaking for myself, there are rare occasions where my body feels perfect - no soreness, runny nose, jock itch.  At these times life is more vibrant and clear and I feel like a guy who could, well, run 50 miles. 

After a pre-race spaghetti feed my fellow participants returned to the comfort of their hotel rooms where they enjoyed things like running water and soft beds.  Meanwhile Jill and I had no intentions of paying for lodging.  Ten minutes outside of town we found a free campground (I think) where I made the first in a series of blunders that was to mark the next 24 hours.  Instead of securing the cooler that was packed with my food for the upcoming race I lazily tossed it on top of a picnic table adjacent to the truck.  After less than 2 hours sleep I awoke at midnight to scuffling sounds.  "Not a mouse," I thought, "too big.  Not a raccoon.  Too big for that too."  Then it donned on me, the sounds were that of a bear digging through my cooler.  I banged on the side of the truck and flashed my headlamp which quickly scared the bear back into the bushes.

Jill was unaware of the situation unfolding in our campsite.  "Jill, don't worry, nothing is wrong.  But there is a bear going through our cooler."  Her eyes became the size of saucer plates, but no sound came out of her mouth.  By the time her breathing returned to a normal rate the bear was back in the cooler and was joined by a friend.  The second bear passed so close to the back of the open tailgate of the Toyota that we could hear him breathing through his nose.  I scared them away again.  The bears retreated to the bushes on the edge of the campsite, and as I went to collect what remained of my race food I could see - eerily - the bear's eyes reflecting in the beam of my headlamp as they intently watched me clean up the cooler.

By this time Jill had reached a state of near panic.  While relocating and bear proofing our new site Jill screamed "Oh my God!  Tell me that's not a bear."  In her panicked state Jill had mistaken an old man taking his weiner dog for a midnight walk as a bear.  This would have ordinarily been funny except that I had to run a brutal race the next morning and...  the Toyota had a flat.  Ordinarily one of life's small inconveniences except that my jack didn't work and the race started at 5:00 am in town - 10 miles away.  Fortunately, all our commotion had awoken the rest of the campground and before long a sweet old man sleepily wandered into our new campsite.  "Obviously, this young couple is new to camping and could use a hand," I pictured him thinking.  The old man, who's kindness will never be forgotten, offered to give us a ride into town at 4:45 am and then come back, fix our flat and feed Jill breakfast.

Sleep did not come after our encounter and I found myself at the starting line, in the dark feeling surprisingly fresh.  It would be difficult to blame my wretched performance in the race on a sleepless night - too many other things went wrong.  I glided with seeming ease to treeline and beyond.  The sun's early rays on the green meadows of the San Juan Mountains was truly breathtaking.  One could certainly argue that my breath may have also been taken by the lack of oxygen that is typical of air at 13,500 feet.  Even when I'm just hiking I always get a surge of energy and enthusiasm when breaking treeline.  I had made the first big climb and found that the hardest part was just holding back, not pushing too hard too early.

What goes up must go down.  The trail back down to the first rest stop was a steep 4,500' feet.  Somewhere around the halfway point I became nauseated.  Reflecting back, the only reasonable explanation was motion sickness.  Looking down at the trail ahead while shaking violently from the descent was just like trying to read while on the treadmill - a pursuit that would have me puking in 5 minutes.  After reading "UltraMarathon Man" by Dean Karnizas (or something like that) where he recommended eating pizzas or whatever else might taste good while running I had set aside pounds of cookies and other sugary delights which I planned to gorge upon during the course of the race.  Upon arriving at the bottom - aid station #1 - Jill pulled out my rations, but as a result of the nausea could barely put down even one Oreo.

For the next 13 miles the nausea continued.  So did the unrelenting nature of the course.  The course followed a jeep road over 4,000' up to the continental divide.  Along the way I passed aid station #2 where my bag of goodies awaited, but I was still too sick to partake.  Only people who's bodies experience traumatic deficiencies - diabetics, cancer patients, trail runners - are told that the best thing for them is sugar.  So, here I was supposed to be pounding all the sugar I could take, but instead finding difficulty choking down even one Oreo.  This lack of intake led to a caloric deficit that was almost too much to overcome in the last 10 miles of the race.  Upon reaching the continental divide the course peaks again near 14,000 feet and this time stays high for several miles across the divide.

While moving along the divide the misery of the last 15 miles of sickness gave way to a new concern - the weather.  Training may not have been my strongpoint for this race, but I still do manage to spend a lot of time outside in the mountains which has allowed me to develop a keen eye for weather.  Every Colorado June day starts clear and becomes cloudy.  What varies is HOW cloudy.  After my nausea passed I began to pick up the pace passing other participants and actually catching back up with those who I had been running with before.  Each person I passed seemed to be almost completely unaware that the skies were threatening.  Just before reaching aid station #3 and mile 31, the skies opened.  I gladly took cover at the aid station and with my newfound appetite gorged everything in sight.  By this time lightning was forking along the divide and rain was dumping in torrents - the worst thunder storm I'd seen all year.

What was truly unforgettable about this scene wasn't nature's violent display, but how human nature reacted to such obvious signs to STOP racing.  While I did what seemed to be clearly prudent - wait out the storm - other participants passed through the aid station and continued out in the storm completely exposed to the storm.  I couldn't believe it.  When I questioned their decision I receive answers like, "What are the odds of actually being struck by lightning?"  Or, "I don't think I could start again if I stop now."

By the time one hour had passed I started seeing unfamiliar faces.  Finally, one man, while chomping an Oreo remarked, "The lightning is horrible.  No way am I going back out there."  This created an instant bond between the two of us.  We laid in a yurt next to the aid station for the next hour waiting out the remainder of the storm.  During this time I learned that my new lightning-savvy companion was cautious for a reason.  Several years ago he had been struck by lightning while climbing the east face of Longs Peak earning himself the nickname "Sparky."

Meanwhile racers streamed in and out of the aid station.  While most were vaguely aware of the extremely dangerous conditions others were not as keen about dodging lightning bolts during their run across the divide.  One hysterical woman entered the yurt where I was waiting barely able to compose herself.  Her trekking/running poles had been sparking with electricity and her long wet hair standing on end. 

By this time I was no longer interested in finishing the race.  Everyone had passed me while I waited at the aid station for two hours and I wasn't even sure my legs would start again after such a long break.  I told the aid station volunteer that I would just take a DNF (Did Not Finish).  His reply wasn't as understanding as I would have liked, "I don't care what you do.  Still have to make it down yourself.  I ain't givin' you a ride."  Those inspiring words were all I needed.  If I have to run 10 miles back down to civilization I might as well run the final 19 miles of the race I thought.  So, once the storm had passed, and two hours after arriving the aid station "Sparky" and I resumed the race.

It was immediately obvious that, for all intents and purposes, my legs no longer functioned properly.  Luckily it was either flat or downhill to the final aid station at mile 40.  As slow as I was moving "Sparky" was even slower, so with the intent of finishing the race on time I left him.  My lovely girlfriend was waiting patiently at the aid station ready to pace me for the final 10 miles.  "Pacing" would be an overstatement.  Even though this was the easiest segment of the race (only 2,000' of gain and 3,000' of loss) I was trashed.  By the time we arrived back in Lake City Jill was motivating me in ways that I never anticipated.  "You're doing good Davey!"  Obviously I'm not, I feel terrible.  Quit telling me how great I'm doing.  "Try to run one block, then walk the next two."  The caloric deficit, lack of training, and long wait-out of the storm had extracted their tolls.  Still, with just over one hour to go before the race ended - exactly 14 hours and 58 minutes after I started - I crossed the finish line. 

My reward for all this misery was another night sleeping on the wood bed in the back of the truck in the bear infested campground.  During the 15 hours I was "racing" Jill had befriended everyone watching the race.  By the time I finished,  the entire establishment of Lake City had heard the now infamous bear story.  Jill had clearly enjoyed herself and more importantly, had made new friends who had offered me their hotel room shower.  This was clearly preferable to my original plan to bathe in the river.  I can't specifically remember too many individual showers I've taken - they seem to quickly fade from memory - but this is one I may never forget.  We eventually retired back to the campground.  After all that had occurred during the previous 24 hours the bear would have started to eat me before I awoke!   

While other race participants were satisfied with a standing start I wanted to get off fast.  Until I realized....
I was actually in the back of the pack.  This is the 5:00am start on main street in Lake City.  Photos by Jill


Dropping down from the first big ascent.  A mile later I would get motion sickness that stayed with me for almost 15 miles.  Photo by Blake Wood


Tasty scenery.  Meanwhile the trail drops steeply back down to the valley.  Photo by Blake Wood


Shoes were muddy or just sopping wet all day.  Photo by Blake Wood


Aid Station #1:  Trying to look like I'm having fun while trying NOT to vomit watermelon.


Snowfields along the continental divide.  More importantly, ominous cumulonimbus clouds develop overhead.  Photo by Blake Wood


- written November 2008

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