[Editor’s Note: Dakota Jones won the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile last weekend in a course-record time of 7:35:03. The old, 2004 course record of 7:59 was held by Matt Carpenter.]
Since becoming a race director, I have become highly attuned to the fine details of race management. One of the principles by which I am trying to structure the Telluride Mountain Run is that of “ease-of-use,” or efficiency for the runners. In other words, I would much prefer to do a lot of work ahead of time so that the runners don’t have to do any work besides run. Because of that, and because I’m 22, I am now forming opinions about aspects of racing and races that, while actually ambiguous, I manage to convince myself are black and white. Take last weekend for example.
The San Juan Solstice 50 Mile is a race in Lake City, Colorado. Lake City is in the San Juan Mountains in the southwestern portion of the state, and sits at an elevation of more than 8,700 feet. Mountains rise in all directions, and to the west they even top 14,000 feet. Lots of trails and dirt roads crisscross the mountains, and the San Juan Solstice utilizes a series of these in its loop around the town. In so doing, the race makes three major climbs. The first one rises to more than 12,000 feet, while the second rises even higher, topping out at 13,300 feet on the Continental Divide. From there, the race remains on the divide for nearly nine miles, rolling along at high altitude before dropping back into the trees at about mile 36. From miles 40 to 43, the race climbs 2,000 feet more before dropping back into Lake City and the finish. As far as Colorado mountain runs go, this is about as good as it gets (unless you’re running the Telluride Mountain Run, of course).
When I ran the race three years ago, I was 19 and just learning how to run ultras. I still had the innocent, newbie psych that had me signing up and volunteering for every race and pacing duty I could find. These days, of course, I’m a jaded curmudgeon hardly willing to crew my friends–I spend much of my spare time lounging in my front yard in a stained tank top yelling at passing children–but back then I couldn’t get enough mountain running. That’s why I spent most of that May and early June in the La Sal Mountains above Moab, Utah training for the San Juan Solstice. At the time, it was my fourth 50-mile race, and I had earlier that year both won a 50-mile race and dropped out of another. Nevertheless, I went into San Juan hoping for a good result.
I was fortunate and had my best day of racing to that point. At the 40-mile aid station, I ran through without even stopping, only throwing my pack and grabbing a water bottle from my crew, and as I left, I looked at my watch. 6:40. I knew the course record was 7:59, and I also knew that in most circumstances I could run 10 miles in 1:20. But the San Juan Solstice is not normal circumstances, and I ended up finishing about 14 minutes shy of the record, in 8:13. Still, I was so close to the record that I wanted to return ever since.
Two years of running the Hardrock 100 prevented me from returning. But this year my plans are different, and I knew I’d be able to fit SJS back into my schedule. My training went well, the weather was good, acclimation seemed to work fine; all my preparations came together as well as I could have hoped. The only glitch was the fires. At the time of writing, the West Fork Complex Fire has bloomed to more than 70,000 acres and is 0% contained. That fire is an amalgamation of three separate fires in the Wolf Creek and south San Juan area that have combined to create one of the most powerful fires in recent history. And it’s just a few miles south of Lake City.
The night before the race, the road south to Creede and South Fork was closed, and everyone was expecting the town of South Fork to burn completely. In the evening, a tremendous, billowing cloud of smoke ballooned beyond the Continental Divide, looking like a volcanic eruption and reaching far into the stratosphere. Looking at such a powerful natural phenomenon, I worried about smoke on the course, and then wondered how we could even consider luxuries like a 50-mile race when entire counties were on fire just a few miles away. But the race was a go. And I couldn’t tear myself away.
Getting back to the point of the article, as a race director, I want to make everything as easy as possible for my runners. The two most crucial aspects of this are course marking and aid-station transitions. The San Juan Solstice course was marked extremely well. The aid stations, too, were well stocked and competently run. The one drawback of the race was this: each person had a bar code on their bib number, and at each aid station this bar code was supposed to be scanned. Unfortunately, the scanner/bar-code system was not very efficient, and usually required several seconds of patiently looking at the clouds while the frantic volunteer desperately tried to register one’s time. This wasn’t exactly conducive to a record-attempt mindset. And as I said before, no matter how ambiguous the situation may actually be, I lately find myself holding black and white opinions. This bar-code thing was one of those times.
What I’m trying to say is I may have run through several aid stations without giving them the time to scan my bar code. Oops.
I was in a bit of a hurry, okay? The day started out with a 4,500-foot climb with Jason Schlarb and Josh Arthur, us chatting a bit as we climbed into the sunrise. On the way down the other side, we stayed together without talking much, and came through the 15-mile aid all together. I was hoping that maybe the bar code could be scanned from a distance as I ran past, but I didn’t really stop to check. They didn’t sound very happy as I disappeared into the distance. Schlarb’s crew was still asleep, so Josh and I got ahead, but by the second climb, I managed to pull ahead. But Josh and Schlarb are powerful runners, and I was forever looking over my shoulder for their approach.
The race went well for me. My legs felt heavy at the beginning, but by the second climb, I found that they had the strength needed to run and hike at the pace I wanted. I found a threshold of effort that allowed me to push Matt Carpenter’s splits without disadvantaging myself for the late miles of the race. Everything just came together.
The 40-mile aid station is at the base of a big hill. Runners cruise down the hill, through the aid, across a road, and continue downhill on the other side. By this point I knew I was ahead of CR pace and feeling good. I wanted to continue moving. Like three years before, I came through the aid at 50 miles per hour, threw my vest pack, grabbed a water bottle, and continued down the hill. The aid was packed with people, and lots of people were screaming my name, including, perhaps, the race director… who may have wanted me to stop and officially check in.
Aaron Marks paced me for 11 minutes after that aid station. As we ran down a brief open stretch, I glanced back, “They sounded a little upset.” Aaron agreed, and I think he was afraid of being in dangerous company, because he soon bailed on pacing me and went back to the aid station to have a beer. I hiked hard up the final climb and then ran through the meadows and aspen groves that comprise the final 10 miles. By the time I dropped back into town, I had the record secured and was escorted through town by my mom and aunt, both cheering wildly.
After the finish, the race director walked over, a stern look on his face. We talked for a while, and he told me how displeased he was with my lack of respect for his processes. He said he was seriously considering disqualifying me, because I had blatantly ignored the stated rules. I had no adequate response for him besides “I’m sorry” and “You are right.” But he seemed to appreciate my honesty. In the end, he let me remain the winner, even though he probably should have disqualified me as a matter of principle. When we parted ways, we were friends again.
The takeaway? As much as I have been inspired by the European style of mountain racing, low-key Colorado races like San Juan Solstice have a special cachet that sets them apart. At a high-profile international event, I would surely have been disqualified. But in Lake City, respect matters more than rules, and that is based on a personal connection between runners and organizers. If we can incorporate that kind of value system into our race, then we’ll be far better off than if we could amass loads of prize money or sponsorships. Most people don’t know about the San Juan Solstice 50, but there’s a lot of good in this race that we could all learn from. Still, a little civil disobedience may be a good thing at times.
That said, if anybody so much as thinks about breaking the TMR rules, we’ll force you to wear compression socks and Hokas. The whole race.