For the past 6 months, I've been running with this race particularly in mind. Strangely, it was my primary goal for this year because of the huge challenge I knew I'd be facing when race day finally arrived. I ended up running the 50-miler in Fruita in April just to make sure I could at least cover that distance, even though that was a considerably easier course. After Fruita, injury and racing the Arizona Trail on the mountain bike kept me away from running for almost month straight, but I came back with a focused 3-week block of some solid training in the mountains, running/hiking what turned out to be the probably the best possible training for San Juan.
The 5am start, and the few miles after that, people were very, very quiet. I think everyone was more than a little scared of what we were about to face
All this paid off, and I finished the race this past Saturday almost an hour faster than my ambitious goal, and despite the course being even tougher than I anticipated, I was still having fun 25-30 miles, running along the Colorado Trail at close to 13,000'. On the first climb, I found myself in the company of some veterans who were all shooting for a sub-12-hour finish (my goal was 12.5 hours), and these guys were quite excited with how quickly we were to the top. I hoped to keep these guys in sight until the end.
After the 4,000' descent back to the river, I downed 700 calories at the second aid station and headed out with Doug, one of the guys shooting for a sub-12 hour time. We ended up running together for the next 33 miles until he dropped me after we got back into town at the very end. Together we were able to keep each other moving steadily, cruising quickly through aid stations without wasting any time, and as the mental and physical struggles late in the race set in, the sporadic conversation was invaluable. I'm sure I would have found myself sitting along the trail on the final climb more than once had I been alone.
Following Gilles in the early-morning sun
The second climb up to the continental divide was almost entirely hiking for all but the strongest runners. Half way up, we popped out of the woods at the third aid station and could see runners, far, far above us on the ridgeline. But the top was in sight, and as we eventually crested the ridge, the San Juan Mountains stretched out all around us in the clearest possible air. The weather was perfect, views to die for, and we had already climbed close to 10,000', meaning the worst was behind us. Sort of.
The final 2,000' climb through beautiful aspen groves and meadows was pretty brutal, making my hamstrings scream with every step. They were approaching the point where they could barely put out enough power to lift my body up the steep slope, but within an hour of leaving the aid station at 40 miles, we were at the top and beginning to descent gradually. Some clumsy math calculations led me to conclude that we simply had to cover 8 miles at 20 min/mile to finish in under 12 hours. Doug really loved this part of the course, despite the pain of 45 miles in the legs. I agree that it was pretty beautiful, but I would have enjoyed under different circumstances. My head was unfortunately more focused on my sore, wet feet, tired leg muscles, and trying to not roll an ankle on the many rocks.
"Yaaarrgh!" Doug exclaimed a while later as we were winding through some soggy meadows. Then he sped up!
"What?" I replied after a few seconds. "Oh! Yeah!" I saw some Jeeps and ATVs through the trees. The final aid station at 47 miles! That meant we only had an incredibly steep 2.5 mile descent back to town. I stopped, drank a couple cups of Coke, disappointed the awesome volunteers that I couldn't eat any of their food, and ran off after Doug. The volunteers cheered us on heartily, and we soon began the plunge back into the valley. Before too long, glimpses of houses and streets below filtered through the trees as we pounded our way down the rocky track.
Entering town, we could see a runner and pacer up ahead, and after a few blocks, another runner and pacer emerged from the woods behind us. Doug wasn't going to get passed without a fight, so he slowly pulled away from me, and the runner behind passed me in an impressive charge, dropping his pacer in the process. I had no fight in me, and my glutes were on the verge of cramping, so I plodded in, finishing just shy of 11 hours and 36 minutes. Looking back, I can't see where I could have taken off more than a total of a minute or two, which means I ran as well as I could possibly have hoped. I'm pretty proud of that. I also managed 3rd in my age class and 37th overall to boot, both of which were very unexpected.
Not bad for a mountain biker, eh?