Existentialist Crisis 2015, aka San Juan Solstice 50 Race Report

P1160385“It’s a waste to chase the pipe dream of a magical tiny theory that allows us to make quick and detailed calculations about the future. We can’t predict and we can’t control. To accept this can be a source of liberation and inner peace. We’re part of the unfolding world, surfing the chaotic waves.”
—Rudy Rucker

What is it about running ultras that’s so darn compelling?

What follows here is not necessarily an original thought, but more the product of a conversation with my training buddy, Ben, on our drive back to Telluride after last weekend’s San Juan Solstice 50 … I do think the reason I’m ultimately drawn to this sport is the same reason I sometimes curse it so vehemently in the heat of the moment: it’s a jigsaw puzzle that refuses to be solved.

I can’t look away from it, no matter how many battle wounds—literal and figurative—I accrue in the process. As a part of the “Millennial generation” that the media so loves to rag on for being spoiled rotten with praise and trophies and everybody-is-a-winner messaging, I have to admit: I’m drawn to experiences in life that tell my ego no.

I’m pretty sure I could have started this race report with the exact same sentence with which I began my last race report, nearly seven months ago: “Last weekend, I re-learned a lesson I’ve already been taught many, many times, but somehow keep forgetting: the key to satisfaction is low expectations.”

I managed to forget that lesson yet again and headed into last weekend—my second year running the San Juan Solstice 50—with sky-high expectations for myself. Given that I moved to 8,750 feet last December and, since getting into this August’s Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, have been training my butt off this year, I felt more prepared than ever.

P1160387Last year, I ran this race in 13:14. This year, I thought a sub-12-hour finish could be in the cards for me. Though we got hammered with far more late-season snow this year than last, I knew roughly what to expect of the course. Somehow though, I forgot this lesson, too: running at 12-13,000 feet is still a different animal from running at 9-10,000 feet, which is primarily the elevation I’ve been training at all spring. Honestly, I have no idea how people come from sea level and run races like this one or Leadville or Hardrock; even after several years of living at altitude in the mountains of western Colorado, my body just plum shuts down above 11,000 feet.


The exact same place I got nauseous last year …

Other than the altitude and hot temperatures inspiring some dizziness and nausea in me throughout the second half of the day, I had a decent race. The San Juan scenery, as always, did not disappoint. My body felt stronger than ever on the climbs and descents; my nutrition game was dialed; my gear was dialed. I felt more confident in the waist-deep river crossings this year than I did last year, and spent the first half of the race on easy but efficient cruise control.

P1160383Due to late-season snow melt this year, the course was far wetter and muddier than last year—so I took a few spills here and there in the muck and snowfields. I appreciate a good wipeout, though—it gets me laughing. Without laughter, I was just a bag of negative thoughts while shuffle-running up there on the Continental Divide, feeling nauseous and wondering (again!) why the heck I keep signing up for these suffer fests.


Perhaps it’s the stunning scenery?

Another Colorado runner—with whom I ran sizable stretches of the Bear 100 last year—and I ran in the final five miles or so together. We weren’t fast, but we were steady and chatty and had a great time swapping stories until the very end. We crossed the finish line simultaneously in 13:39.


This is what 50-mile feet look like.

I thought that my experience at Pinhoti last year might have quenched my thirst for “the perfect race.” Instead, it seems, it just stoked the fire. A taste of triumph, however personal that triumph may be, only begets the desire for more. And yet, and yet … this sport tells me no. It tells me, try again.

True triumph lies not in those rare instances in which greatness chances upon us through a nexus of hard work, perseverance and dumb, wonderful luck—but in learning to fail better in the far more frequent instances in which greatness eludes us.

My running, my life—they are forever works in progress.

No doubt, we live in a comfort-driven and safety-oriented society. Ultrarunning is an antidote to that—one that reminds us that while a ship is always safe at the shore, that’s not what it’s built for. (Or so said Albert Einstein.)


Smart people take time to recover after big races. Silly ones do this three days later. What can I say? I’m a sucker for mountains.