Up and Away for the Day
What distinguishes the San Juan Solstice 50, plus a chat with Clare Gallagher
Before you read this week’s post, which is mostly a race report, I encourage you to read last week’s if you missed it. It’s the story of a young doctor whose life dreams—including running ultras and starting a family—were interrupted by a year of aggressive cancer treatment. Sheena ran her comeback race with me last Saturday and resolutely made it 40 miles before missing cutoffs due to numerous stops to deal with gastrointestinal issues. She told me afterward, “I’m great! I’m pumped to have completed the 40!” Her husband posted a heartfelt Instagram post that shows Sheena rocking the route. I’m grateful to her for sharing her story. Because of her, I kept the mantra “this is easy” in my head during the race, even when it was anything but, because it seemed easy relative to what she has been through.
Looking ahead, the monthly online meetup for paid subscribers will be Sunday afternoon, July 10, and I hope to have Sheena join as a guest. If you’d like access to bonus content and a monthly Zoom, please consider subscribing at the supporter level.
Around Mile 23 of the San Juan Solstice 50-mile race last Saturday, which took place in the mountains south of Lake City and east of Silverton, the route transitioned from a rocky old mining road to a ribbon of singletrack that cut through alpine tundra laced with tiny wildflowers. The other runners and I kept marching up, up, up to an elevation of 13,000 feet—no running possible at this slope and altitude—and our bodies relative to the mountains looked as tiny as fleas on an elephant. It’s safe to speak for others and conclude we all felt awe-struck by the enormity of the San Juan Mountains encircling us as we traversed the Continental Divide Trail.
On the ridge, an unexpected sense of quiet calm prevailed. No wind, no rain. My labored breathing cut the silence. I had packed a rain jacket, a wool long-sleeve top, a poncho, and even put rain pants in a drop bag in case of severe weather. The day prior, and the next day, delivered downpours with hail and lightning. I had feared forked lightning would chase us off the ridge. But we raced during a window of relatively clear sky, and it felt like a gift. Only a few tame clouds produced a tiny bit of snow pellets called graupel that floated down like confetti.
This is one reason we run and climb mountains, I thought to myself. To get to the top of the world and escape the people and problems below. To feel high and humbled.
I took none of the scenic photos in this post; they’re borrowed here with permission. I kept my phone off and tucked deep in my pack, not wanting to fuss with it or turn it on and hear bleeps of notifications. I needed to unplug after the day prior.
On Friday, as Morgan and I drove to the charming town of Lake City, the beauty of fresh-green pastures and hillsides contrasted with an assault of bad news. Giant campaign signs for Lauren Boebert and Tina Peters lined fences, next to defiant Trump flags, around Montrose. The radio broadcast the breaking news of Roe being overturned, which I had expected, and yet, it gutted me, as someone who has held the hand of another woman to comfort her as I witnessed her abortion following difficult and emotional circumstances. I had felt deep gratitude for being able to accompany her to a safe, clean, supportive, and legal clinic. What now for women like her?
Meanwhile, Morgan juggled phone calls related to efforts to develop the open space next to us, which could threaten the water, wildlife, viewshed, and peace around us. Then, my phone started blowing up with messages from friends confused because someone had created a bogus copycat Instagram account in my name and image, and had sent follow requests to all my friends. In at least one case, the hacker targeted one of my friends by changing the email associated with her account—thus locking her out—and then solicited a friend of hers for money. The whole thing left me feeling angry, stressed, and vulnerable.
So many things felt threatening and threatened as I approached Saturday’s race. But the two 4000-foot climbs and vistas carried me away for the day.
The San Juan Solstice 50, first held in 1995, is overshadowed by the Western States 100 held the same Saturday each year. While totally different, San Juan Solstice is arguably as special in its own way. It remains old fashioned and homespun. The race doesn’t electronically track runners—everything is done by paper, and volunteers check runners in and out of aid stations—and the course map on the outmoded website is a low-res PDF. Runners who expect races to feature timing mats, GPX files to load onto their phones, drones, livestreaming, and other features of today’s tech-savvy ultras may be disappointed, or like me, charmed.
We runners instead were treated to some of the best-run aid stations I’ve ever experienced, with gallons of homemade soups and other home-cooked fare.
Afterward, I asked Clare Gallagher, who finished a close runner-up in the race, to articulate what makes the event remarkable. Clare, who lives in Boulder, has won the 2019 Western States 100, the 2016 Leadville 100, and earlier this year won the highly competitive Black Canyon 100K.
“The San Juan Solstice 50 is a world-class mountain course. There aren’t that many races in the world that have these long, sustained climbs that are over 4000 feet per climb. You really only see it in big mountain ranges like the Rockies or Dolomites or Alps, so having that in our backyard in Colorado is pretty special,” she said.
“But what makes the San Juan Solstice so different than UTMB or Lavaredo is the altitude. Getting up on the Divide—you top out at over 13,000 feet—everyone is feeling it. You are so, so high up, and in the middle of a 50-mile race. It was one of the more unique race experiences I’ve had. This race is truly special; I can’t recommend it enough.”
Of the 247 runners who started, 201 finished; 46 dropped or missed cutoffs. One of my clients was among those who finished but is counted as a DNF because she came in after the 16-hour cutoff due to altitude-induced nausea. “Brutal” is a word she and others used to describe it, along with “beautiful.”
Peaking for the High Lonesome 100
I entered this race mainly as a peak training run for the July 22 High Lonesome 100. It certainly was good practice, as the terrain and altitude are similar. But was it a confidence builder? That’s harder to say.
Once again, I was solidly mid-pack (especially if you count those who dropped or finished late). I did fine. I did not chase cutoffs as I had feared I might, nor did I fall apart, as I did when I ran this once before in 2018. That year, on the final climb through an aspen and cottonwood forest with pollen flying like cotton snowflakes, I had significant respiratory issues that made me stop approximately every quarter mile so I could sit on a log, put my head between my legs, and calm my raspy elevated breathing.
But, this year, I felt trashed toward the end, so inevitably I’m wondering, how can I double this effort for High Lonesome in three weeks? (I know I can, it’s just so daunting to contemplate.) My left knee ached and twinged in the final 15 or so miles, especially downhill. As usual, my lower back and whole posterior chain of muscles stiffened up, so I became clumsy and struggled to lift my feet.
Around mile 42, on the final tough climb through the woods, Hardrock legend Billy Simpson caught up to me. He’s 67 but doesn’t look or run like it. I kept pulling ahead on the uphill, but once we reached the top and headed down toward town, Billy accelerated with a strong run that I could not emulate. I was gliding and shuffling, barely jogging. I have a frustratingly hard time picking up my feet and lifting my knees once that stiffness and fatigue make my backside achy and tense. I have been working on improving downhill running during long runs, but to no avail.
Billy finished 15 minutes ahead of me. I slogged down the mountain, hit the side streets of Lake City, and willed my legs to run on the flat side streets. I was able to run most of the way to the finish, but succumbed to a couple of short walking breaks in the final two miles.
At the end, I felt elated from the effort, and proud that I finished in 14 hours, 18 minutes. I bettered my 2018 time by about 10 minutes. I didn’t suck so bad after all! It’s funny how four years ago, I thought I should break 13 hours at this event and was disappointed to finish over 14. This time, I doubted I could break 15 hours, so the 14:18 feels like a victory. It goes to show how expectations shape our response and outcome.
The race organizers hosted a gathering the next morning with a deluxe complimentary breakfast buffet and an awards ceremony (another nice touch, bringing people together like that in the town park). I learned that I had won my age group, whoo-hoo!
But here’s the kicker: Only four women over 50 started the race, and only two of us finished. No women ran in older age categories. At 53, I was the oldest woman to cross the finish line. The men’s field, by contrast, had two dozen entrants over 50. I’m not sure how this makes me feel. Old, but also determined. We hear a lot about how women are underrepresented in ultrarunning. Older women, even more so! I am grateful for the silver-haired women in their late 50s and early 60s who run better than I—women like Tina Ure, Suzanna Bon, Meghan Canfield, Sophie Spiedel—who are my role models. I hope I can do the same for younger female ultrarunners in a decade.
More from Clare
For being a small, lower-profile, old-school race, the San Juan Solstice 50 attracts some top-level runners, especially those who use it as training for a mountain 100-miler later in the summer. Last year, for example, Courtney Dauwalter bypassed Western States to run SJS50 instead as training for Hardrock, and she set a female course record in 9:11.
This year, three top female ultrarunners—Clare Gallagher, Hillary Allen, and Sandi Nypaver—raced SJS50. Surprisingly, a lesser-known woman who’s only been racing ultras a couple of years ended up winning with the second-fastest time ever. Hannah Osowski of Colorado Springs won in 9:15, just four minutes behind Courtney’s record time.
Clare was hot on Hannah’s heels, and the two leapfrogged and had a supercharged race in the final 10 miles. Hannah finished only 24 seconds ahead of Clare!
I asked Clare about the race afterwards. She is someone I’ve admired as an environmental activist as well as an ultrarunner. (Check out her site for more info.)
“Racing Hannah was fantastic,” Clare said. “She passed me right on the Divide [the middle miles of the route], and to be honest, I almost felt a little drunk and I was really feeling the altitude, and she was running so well and so strong. I was like, man, this girl is taking it—but the fact I was able to keep the gap small made the race so, so fun. So when I got to mile 40, I assumed she would’ve had a big gap on me at that point, and she was only two or three minutes ahead. Racing hard for 10 miles was so fun, especially because she’s a total delight.”
In the post below: Clare on the right, Hannah in the middle, and third-place female finisher Hillary Allen on the left.
I asked Clare what’s next for her, and she replied that she’s training for the Leadville 100, which is her “A” goal. “I’m very excited to have these Colorado races right in my back yard and to try hard. The first time I raced Leadville was 2016, and it started my ultrarunning career, so it’s kind of this sweet return six years later.
“Professionally, I’m making a big transition. I’m starting grad school in the fall, getting a PhD in marine biology and marine protection at CU Boulder. I’ll still run and race and be affiliated with Patagonia, La Sportiva, and Petzl, but it feels wild to be racing the 100-miler that dictated the last six years of my life on August 20, and then on August 22 I’ll be starting grad school.”
Finally, I asked about her Instagram account. I was surprised to see she has zero posts, meaning she has pretty much cut ties with social media. Feeling burned by the scammer who impersonated my account on Friday, I asked about her decision to get off Instagram since I’m toying with the idea.
“My decision to stop using most social media, especially Instagram, was in part due to a desire to be a more active community member. I think I got into a trap of thinking if I was talking about something online, then that meant I was doing something about it. Personally, taking the time out of my day that I used to spend on Instagram has allowed me to be more present, and to read more about what’s happening in my own town.
“Am I more effective? I couldn’t tell you the answer to that. Am I more happy? 100 percent. It was totally a mental drain and totally unnecessary for me, so I feel lucky that my sponsors are supportive of me not being as active online. I recommend it to anyone who’s on the fence about it. It’s really freeing.”
Well, that’s something I’ll definitely consider.
Meanwhile, if you get a follow request from “me” (the scamming impersonator) who misspells my handle “sarahrunning” with three or four n’s, as in the screenshot below, don’t follow it! Delete and report it instead.
Colorado Mountain Running & Living is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
GD, are you kidding me! Trolls....anyway..thanks for the writing. At least whoever is behind that nonsense cant fake your eloquent words. BTW, on the job I worked the system to get your book on the shelves at my local REI. Boom! I put a little shout out photo at the end of my post on Substack for ya as evidence of my coup.
Congrats on a strong finish. One of my claims to fame is a first place in my age group at NF 50 DC (before they discontinued the series) when all of the others in my age category at the time DNF'd. At 60 I keep hoping each time I "race" to gain more credibility and add to my ultra pedigree in that way...it never seems to work unless the fast guys go to Boston, sleep in, or travel to other showcase events...oh well...its the middle (or more likely) or back of the pack which
is fine by me. Wheeee....Good stuff the Real SLS (kidding).
Sarah, once again u nailed your race story. Your writing makes the images come alive. I like the reference to feeling like a flea on an elephant when surrounded by the epic San Juan's. Remember as kids that was our stomping grounds. #fullcircle !