Monday, June 29, 2015

San Juan Solstice Race Report

If you went for a run with me during the weeks leading up to this race you probably heard me whine about how terrified I was to do the hardest 50 miler in the country. I probably tried to guilt you into pacing me. You probably heard me make some self-deprecating comment about how I wasn't sure if I could finish it. And as annoying as I can only imagine I was, I didn't see how it was possible to run the toughest race of my life without any pacers or any crew.

Let me back up. The San Juan Solstice is a 50 mile race that has 12,000 feet of elevation gain and about half of those miles are above tree line. In my experience, if trees can't grow there than my body doesn't function up there either. Despite (and because of) all of this, the race is pretty popular and they implemented a lottery system to select runners. Cory and I both got lucky and there was no way one of us was going to forfeit our spot to crew the other. I secured a pacer right away, a friend who had run the race before. I decided to check in with Jessica a month before the race to make sure everything was still good and it turns out she had the date wrong. No hard feelings Jess! I scrambled to round up another friend and everyone turned out to be busy, injured, or running their own race somewhere else. I was going to have to do this alone.

The week leading up to the race I started to get sick: sore throat, sneezy, sinus pressure. After taking every herbal remedy on the planet and getting 9 hours of sleep a night I was ready to write it off as allergies. We made the long drive (6.5 hours due to construction!) to Lake City and pulled in to the Elkhorn RV resort. Let me tell you, these are the nicest people ever! Floyd, a former marathoner, had made a spot for us even though the campground was full. The most hospitable host I've ever met. He owns this place because he loves his community and can't wait to share it with others. Cleanest campground bathrooms I've ever seen and he made coffee for us at 4am!

First glimpse of the San Juans

The view from our tent

After packet pickup, we made pasta at our camp site. I had forgotten to pack salt so we wandered over to our neighbors to ask for a pinch. They told us to take a seat and we got the run down of the course from Chris Dickey with Jesse Rickert occasionally chiming in. They had brought the whole crew: grandparents, kids, dogs. It was so refreshing to see people including their whole family in the race experience. Chris was pretty humble so we didn't realize how fast these guys were until Cory checked results from the previous years; we had gotten advice and salt from some pretty speedy veterans.

I had a bad headache so we went to sleep before the sun set and before we knew it, it was 3:45am. Time to get ready. We walked over to the start, saw some friends, and suddenly it was 5am. The course follows a dirt road before turning off to some single track that has a ton of raging creek crossings. There was a lot of hype about these crossings because we had so much late season snow and rain this year. The first one was unroped and nearly knocked me off my feet. At another crossing a girl pulled on the rope and knocked me off balance, somehow the rope got stuck on my vest and was pulling me into the water, it took all my strength to lift myself out. At the next crossing I got wrapped around a log. Fortunately I had only gotten soaked to just above the waist. At each crossing my feet became numb and I was unable to run.

Finally we rose out of the creek bed and began the ascent to Alpine Gulch. The creek crossings had shocked us all into silence and no one had said a word to each other. I didn't feel like I was racing I just felt like I was surviving. Finally at the the aid station we were greeted with the sun and I started to feel my feet again. My one goal from here on out was to finish the race without puking. I had no time goals or any aspirations to beat anyone. I simply wanted to master my stomach. As we neared treeline for the first time, I heard a friendly voice behind me say, "There's another Pearl Izumi runner." I turned around to see John Lacroix, a guy I had never met but had heard a lot about.

Finally past the major creek crossings

Just after the first aid station

Near the top of the first climb

Tiny people dotting the ridge

John and I pretty much spent the next 25 miles together give or take and his company was exactly what I needed for the toughest part of the course. As we crested the first climb John kept teasing this guy saying he needed a picture of his ass for his ass calendar and telling him that it is now "ok to be gay." I felt compelled to explain that John was straight and has been married for a long time. After that, the guy, Donovan from Atlanta, fell in stride with us and rounded out our trio. John dubbed him Peaches.

The most beautiful part of the day

John and Peaches heading down the mountain

I realized on the first descent that I hadn't felt sick yet. Yippy! That was short lived. On the steep, jostling downhill to William's Creek, my stomach turned. This section also had a good bit of mud and as I was jumping through a boggy section, my shoe got sucked off. Think fire swamp from the Princess Bride. My shoe appeared to be gone. I dug my hand through the Giardia-laden sludge with no luck. We started stabbing around with my trekking poles and finally the hot pink heel tab appeared. Everyone continued on while I took a few minutes to try to make room for my foot in the mud shoe.

When I reached Williams Creek I felt pretty shitty but the crowd boosted my morale. All day I found that this race has the nicest volunteers I have ever met. And I am not exaggerating one bit. Because Cory had come through and used our drop bag, they had put it in the used pile. A young girl helped me find it, and told me that the guy who used it was doing really well. I wanted to give her the biggest hug for giving me the news! I was so excited that I left without my trekking poles and had to go back to get them. 

After Williams Creek at mile 15 or so, there is a flat road section. I should have made good time but I couldn't run and keep my food down. Fortunately some guys walked with me for a while but when I started my first round of dry heaving, they pressed ahead. When I reached the start of the next big climb to Carson, about 6 ATVs jumped ahead of me on the dirt road. Choking down dust and trying not to vomit, I decided now would be a good time to listen to music. At this point I thought John and Peaches were still ahead of me and that I would be alone the rest of the day. My music didn't help, I felt like sitting down for a good ol' cry. Just about then, Peaches came from behind me. Apparently he and John had taken longer at the aid. Soon John caught us too and the conversation was exactly what I needed to take my mind off the climb.

Me and Peaches... It looks flat but it wasn't
Photo by John Lacroix

Somehow we made it to Carson where I made a decision that almost screwed up my entire race. I filled my bottle with more Tailwind and left the aid station without grabbing any gels from my drop bag. For some reason, in my altitude-addled memory, I thought my next drop bag was at the Divide Aid station in 9 miles. I didn't even take stock of what I had, I just filled my bottles and pushed on. As we neared the Continental Divide, there were dark clouds looming on the ridge. Going into this race my biggest fear was that I would get altitude sickness on the ridge and be forced to stumble along in a thunderstorm.

Climbing out of Carson with clouds looming on the ridge

Waterfalls foreshadow the snowfields to come

Little runners climbing out of Carson

Getting nervous that these clouds appeared out of nowhere

So damn tired
Photo by Wesley Cropp

Finally on the CDT/CT near the summit
Photo by John Lacroix

We got to the summit and I had managed to keep my calories down. I knew I wouldn't be able to manage anything more than occasional sips of Tailwind. After the summit, we hit our first snow field. From that point on I felt like a baby deer taking it's first steps. I got a pounding headache, became very dizzy, and felt like I had no control over my own two feet. I was using my trekking poles like crutches. Peaches fell behind and Wesley Cropp joined our group. John started telling me a story and it was all I could do to stay within earshot. He persistently offered me what he called a "Redline Pill" which was a caffeine capsule that he thought would clear my head. At that point I was desperate. I knew the only thing that would help my headache was getting below tree line. 

We had made it through the snow fields and began stomping through frozen slush puddles. It was miserable. It started to thunder and my core temperature dropped. My feet were again numb and it appeared that my worst fears were coming true. I was reduced to crawling along the ridge on the verge of tears, my head hammering with the altitude, thunder looming over head, water bottles empty, no sign of the aid station. And then it started to snow. Not a lot, but just enough to make me feel broken. I didn't think there was any way I could finish this thing. We were just over half way done.

I finally made it down to some willows and was walking the downhill. So many people passed me. I was so thirsty and it had been so long since I had put down any calories, I thought there was no way I was coming back from this bonk. I remembered that my drop bag was not actually at the next aid station but figured they would have some other gels. Much more dry-heaving ensued but I was determined not to puke. We tromped through some more mud and there was a lot of swearing. I wanted to drop but I knew there was no good way down from the Divide Aid Station. I would have to walk 4 miles and then hitch hike to town.

After what felt like an eternity, the Divide Aid Station was finally in sight. I tried not to think about how only 31 miles had destroyed me so much. As I stumbled in looking like death, a volunteer told me that Cory had badly sprained his ankle and had dropped out. I was crushed. Did he need my help? Should I head back to town to take care of him? She said he was in good spirits and couldn't wait to come back next year and I knew he was just saying that to be nice. I knew that regardless of any circumstance if he took his first ultra-marathon DNF he was going to be beating himself up about it. I was also dismayed to find out there were no gels. I was so low on energy and all I had were two gels and an almond butter packet to make it the next 9 miles to Slumgullion.

John was leaving the aid station at about this time and offered me some Honey Stinger gels. They taste so good but they always make me throw up and, again, my one goal was to not throw up. I was a stubborn bitch at this aid station despite the nicest people working there and when I told John I didn't want his gels he told me, "Well fuck you," in the nicest way possible and left. That was the last time I'd see him all race. I walked out of the Divide aid station at 3pm doing some simple math. I had 3 hours to walk the next 9 miles of mostly runnable down hill otherwise I would miss the cut off. I kind of wanted to miss the cut off because I wanted to be done so badly. I decided if I walked the whole way, made it in time, and didn't feel any worse, I would try to finish.

The next section was nothing to be proud of. I hated every minute. We were still above 11,000 feet and my head was still pounding and my stomach still revolting. The views had turned to mesas instead of peaks and I could feel the sun burning my skin. Many people passed me and I thought for sure the sweeper was going to come by and tell me I was done. I started brainstorming how I would break the news on Facebook. "The Linfield family was stymied by the San Juan mountains. Cory escaped with a nearly broken ankle and I have no excuse except for the fact that I am a weak baby." That's when I snapped out of it. It hadn't been a perfect day but it could have been a lot worse. I had NO EXCUSE to quit. After 5 miles of walking I hit tree line and tried to eat my almond butter packet. Half of it ended up on my face, my hair, my hands, and my shorts. But after that I decided to run walk the next 3-4 miles into Slumgullion.

Finally out of the thundersnow

The road from hell leading out of the Divide aid station

After 5 miles of walking we were headed back below tree line

Somewhere in those miles I decided I was going to finish the race. It was too painful to quit. I figured if I finished, I would get my finishers hat and I would never have to run it again. I could come back and pace Cory or volunteer and I wouldn't feel like I had any unfinished business with the course. I started passing people and just before Slum, I caught up with Patrick, a guy who had encouraged me on the Divide. He said he was going to quit and that he wasn't having fun anymore. I told him that he didn't want to be the guy who quits 10 miles from the finish and that finishing a 50-miler is work. When we got to the aid station he saw his family and I saw Cory! Cory was hobbling around in an ankle brace and wasn't much help but getting a hug from him and hearing that he was proud of me was all I needed to fuel me to the finish. 

I had 3 hours and 45 minutes to make it the last 10 miles. I know that sounds easy, but those 10 miles involved another 2,000 feet of climbing and my old meta-tarsal injury was acting up. Every step felt like my foot was breaking and that my shin muscle was pulling away from the bone. I put my music back on and started to pick people off. Now that the rest of the course was below 11,000 feet I could start eating again and honestly I thought this section through Vickers Ranch was the most beautiful part of the course. The dense Aspen groves and sweeping views reminded me of the MAS 50, my first 50 miler.

Near the top of the last big climb... we could still hear thunder in the distance

Eventually I got my first view of town but it was still a long way off. I hadn't given much thought to the last descent but it was awful. 2,000 feet of descent in 2 miles hurts like a motherf!@#$% after doing what we had just done. It was slippery and loose and I kept falling. Again I thought of my spirit animal for the day, an uncoordinated baby deer. When it was finally over and I hit the dirt road leading to town a guy told me that there was only 1 mile left. I was nervous that he was lying and I didn't want to get my hopes up because if I got to the finish line in 15 minutes I would break 15 hours.

The most painful 10 minutes of my life ensued and I crossed the finish line in 14:56. We stuck around to cheer people on for the last hour and watched a few heart breakers cross the line after the 16 hour cutoff. I felt nothing but gratitude to all of the people that made the day possible. Even after the race volunteers kept taking care of us. I attained my goal of finishing without puking!

We woke up the next morning feeling broken and hobbled over to the awards ceremony and breakfast. My eyes were more hungry than my stomach would allow. I got my finishers hat and was surprised to win 3rd place in my age group. I got to reconnect with my friend Sadie who pulled out a 2nd place finish after taking a year and a half off from racing. That girl doesn't even know how fast she is or at least she is too humble to admit it.

What? Me? Award? Slowest runner award?

So about that plate of food that I couldn't eat. I brought it back to the car and set it on the hood while we loaded everything up. Confession: We drove a few miles before I realized that I hadn't grabbed the plate of food! I'm sorry Lake City! You were so nice to me and I littered! I will be back to volunteer and make up for it. But I don't think I can bring myself to run this race again. I am totally broken today and can hardly move but it was a race I will never forget!

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