“It’s everything you could expect from Hinsdale County”
by Than Acuff
With ultra-running on a meteoric rise throughout the world and everyone, it seems, chomping at the bit to put on some Hoka One One shoes and run forever, races like the Leadville 100 and the Hard Rock 100 have blown up in terms of interest and entry. Somehow though, the San Juan Solstice 50 out of Lake City, Colo. is one of the classic ultra races that is just far enough out of the spotlight to retain its initial intent—just a bunch of people getting together to go for a run, a long, hard run.
“It’s a really cool event,” says Dustin Simoens. “The race organizer even tells everyone during the pre-race meeting, ‘If you like this race, don’t tell your friends.’ Which is weird for a race director to say.”
Simoens is a huge fan of the San Juan Solstice 50, having run in the race three times and finished on the podium all three, including winning last year’s race and taking third at the race this year on Saturday, June 24.
The course is notoriously tough, 50 miles long, reaching an altitude of 13,344 feet with a lot of it along the Continental Divide. And that’s just the basic statistics.
“It’s rugged country,” says Simoens. “Firm slick snow in the morning, post-holing through snow in the afternoon. Downed trees everywhere that you have to crawl over, creek crossings, places where there’s no trail and rough trail where you feel like you could roll your ankle with every step. It’s everything you could expect from Hinsdale County. I love it.”
Runners head out of downtown Lake City at 5 a.m. and spend the first seven or so miles climbing, complete with seven creek crossings. Some years the creeks are running waist-deep; the other years they are at least knee-deep. Either way, runners are soaked from the waist down with 43 miles still to run.
Simoens came into the race this year the defending champion but admits his “training” had not been as solid as usual.
“I haven’t been doing as much running as I have in the past,” says Simoens. “The snow stuck around longer so the higher trails were still covered in snow and so I’ve been doing more snowboarding than running.”
Simoens did have a race earlier in May, the Collegiate Peaks 25-miler, to get his feet under him, only to suffer at the trials and tribulations of trail running.
“I crashed early in the race, took a wrong turn and ran an extra five miles and it was hot,” says Simoens. “I got my butt kicked.”
Given that and the amount of running replaced by snowboarding this spring, Simoens’ expectations were somewhat reserved heading into the race this year.
“I just really didn’t want to go out and blow up because that can happen really easily in this race,” says Simoens. “In that respect I did a pretty good job.”
Ultimately, Simoens found himself up front with two other runners, Luke Jay and Carlos Rubial, who Simoens knows from college, and the three traded turns up front for the first 25 miles.
“We were kind of taking turns in front and helping each other out,” says Simoens. “It wasn’t super competitive until the end.”
At around mile 35, Jay and Rubial made their move on a long technical descent, building an initial gap on Simoens.
“My coordination was all off at that point and I just couldn’t stay with them,” says Simoens.
With 15 miles to go in the race, there’s a chance to make up that gap as runners can break, but Simoens knows both Jay and Rubial and knew that outcome to be rather unlikely.
“There’s always a chance that can happen but Luke is an older and wiser runner and he passed me one year like I was standing still,” explains Simoens. “Carlos is just tougher than nails, toughest guy I probably know. I knew I could get that gap back but I didn’t think it was likely.”
As if the first 40 miles aren’t tough enough, the final 10 miles include a 1,700-foot climb through Vickers’ Ranch topping out at 11,000 feet in altitude, a lot of which is out in the open. Furthermore, the sections in the trees typically involve additional tree hopping and trail finding.
“It’s hot and you start out down low and the climb is out in an open field,” says Simoens. “Every single year it just punches you in the face.”
Simoens never did manage to reel the two leaders in and finished third in a time of 9:24:31, an hour off his winning time last year. He attributes the slower time, in part, to his milking the last vestiges of the snowpack.
“When life gives you snow, you gotta go snowboarding,” says Simoens. “I still have three podium finishes and I can’t complain about that.”
He also has three hand-painted awards for his three podiums, something he sees as way more memorable than a new pair of shoes or an envelope of cash.
“They’re the coolest thing I’ve ever received at a race,” says Simoens. “It’s way more meaningful.”
In addition to the random assortment of local races, Simoens has his sights set on the Wasatch 100 in Utah in September and he sees the San Juan Solstice as good a place as any to start training.
“It was a serious wake up call,” says Simoens. “When I went out snowboarding two weeks ago there were a lot of sun cups so it’s time to hang it up and start running more.”