You’re not going to make the cutoff.
Seven seemingly harmless words when standing alone but put in the context of the San Juan Solstice 50 mile trail run (SJS50), these are seven words you never want to hear.
This weekend I had the humbling honor to pace my friend Tara in her first 50 mile trail running race. Of course she chose one of the hardest 50 mile races in North America. The San Juan Solstice runs over the San Juan Mountains outside of Lake City, Colorado. The race reaches 13,000 feet twice and remains at 12,000 feet for the middle 12 miles, making it a high altitude challenged run. Approximately 250 people start and approximately 180 finish.
One year ago, Tara came to a ChiRunning workshop I was teaching in Telluride. She had a new baby and was recovering from three knee surgeries and wanted to learn how to run. I remember suggesting she run 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week for practice. That was challenging. Now, she’s running 50 miles!
The SJS50 has 5 aid stations all with strictly enforced cutoff times. Tara made all the cutoffs with about 45 minutes to spare. The 5th aid station sits at mile 40 and runners have the option to have a pacer run with them for the final 10 miles. The pacer’s job is to keep spirits high, navigate for the runner (who is likely losing it at this point), be sure they don’t get lost, provide great company and as the name implies, pace the runner for a finishing time.
As this was Tara’s first 50 mile challenge, her goal was to just make the cutoff. I realized just how important that goal was to her the night before at dinner. I knew it would be my job to get her to that finish line by 9pm.
Tara arrived at aid station #5 at 5:15pm. This meant we had 3 hours and 45 minutes to cover 10 miles. Exhausted, nauseous and simply worn out, she took some time to sit and rest at this aid station. Every runner knows how important it is to eat and hydrate. You simply can’t go on without the fuel. However, sometimes it’s virtually impossible to get anything in. Every runner also knows they’re basically screwed if they reach this point. Tara was there. I watched her try to eat the littlest bit of food and gag it right back up. Fluid and food in; fluid and food out. Literally. She did her best and in the end, we just packed up and took off. The time was 5:45pm.
As we navigated the trail, I tried to have her focus on something other than running 50 miles and our conversation led to her telling me about her childbirth experience with her two sons. The story was told between dry heaving as she hobbled down the trail.
We had a 1700 foot climb for 5 miles and then a steep 5 miles downhill into Lake City for the finish. After misplacing my GPS watch for this pacing assignment, I was forced to use an app on my phone and I was a little freaked out when it said we had covered 1 mile in 1 hour. I turned off the phone app and decided it must not be working correctly. We continued to trudge along, Tara dry heaving every few steps. The app was correct.
I knew she wanted this race. I knew the cutoff was important. I knew we had to move faster or we would not make it.
Meanwhile, it was a beautiful evening on the Summer solstice, hiking through forests of giant Aspen trees, pine trees and open meadows. I was coming up with some very strange philosophical things to say to keep Tara’s spirits high which I pictured us laughing about later. Tara’s breathing was very labored on the climb. I just couldn’t push her to go faster or harder. She was doing the best she could. I know her well enough to know she’s not going to give up and as long as she’s not dead, she’ll keep moving. She will not quit. I remained just ahead of her and felt like I was pulling her with a leash.
A couple girls went by and I asked if they knew the mileage. “We are within a mile to the next aid station.” I was elated. I knew there was a final aid station at mile 46.5 which meant we had just 3+ miles to the finish. It was 7:30pm and for the first time, I felt truly hopeful that we would make that cutoff. I explained to Tara what this meant. We had to do at least a 20 minute mile and a 15 minute mile would be better with a 10 minute mile being the best. It was possible. “How much do you want this?” I asked. She replied with a few grunts. She was still moving so I took that to mean she wanted it. We had a few other runners around us and the cheerleader in me took over and got excited. The faces looking back at me told me they wanted to kill me. However, they continued to follow me like little ducklings.
Tara was pushing as hard as she could and moving as fast as she could. As we moved along the trail, geographically it looked like we were a very long way from Lake City at the base of the mountain. I honestly knew there had to be more than the 1 mile I figured we had left at this point. Yet, I started telling everyone we had just 1 mile. We could do this but we have to move. With a cranky hamstring, Tara was lucky to be walking much less running a 10 minute mile. It was 8:50. We had 10 minutes and Lake City was a long way below.
A woman ahead of us who was familiar with the course stopped and spoke to me quietly as Tara remained behind on the leash. She said, “I have to let you know, we have at least 2.5 more miles to Lake City.” Shit! I thanked her and turned towards Tara and said the seven worst words I could ever say to her.
“You’re not going to make the cutoff.”
She collapsed in defeat. I held her by the shoulders, cried with her, lifted her back up and said, “Let it go. Look how far you’ve come. Screw the cutoff. You’re going to finish this and we’re going to get off this mountain.” I felt helpless. I felt like I failed her. I put on my big girl pants, looked her in the eyes and said, “Let’s get this done.”
We slowly moved forward. Having heard all the emotions, the woman ahead of us stopped again and spoke to Tara. She said, “I have to tell you a story. I’ve done 90 Ultra Marathons and this is the first one I’m not making the final cutoff time.” We walked with her the rest of the way down. Her name was Gail but she’ll always be “Trail Angel” to us.
It began to get dark and fortunately we packed headlamps even though we thought we’d never need them because we would be done by 9. Our friend Mary hiked up to meet us and the 4 of us walked to Lake City together. The mood lifted as we succumbed to the cutoff time. We arrived at the finish line at 9:50pm. Tara and Gail ran for 16 hours and 50 minutes. We had a huge cheering upon our arrival. We so appreciated the SJS50 support crew, the people of Lake City and our friends and family for being there at the finish.
Races have cutoff times for the safety of runners and support crew. We understand them but certainly don’t like them at the end. Tara could’ve been put in a truck and pulled from the race at mile 15, 25 or 40 had she not made those cutoffs but she wasn’t. Her final result time says “DNF” which stands for Did Not Finish. The irony of this is that she did finish. I commend her for signing up, showing up, taking the journey and finishing. Like childbirth, she just may do this a second time. Way to go my friend.