San Juan Solstice 50 Mile Trail Run

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.


Is there anything more daunting than joining a group running class? Step 1: sign up. Step 2: show up. Step 3: Get to work. Step 4: Stick with it. Step 5: Reach your goals

Last spring, I offered a 20 week training program for runners to train throughout the summer for various running goals. Forty-one people signed up. Forty-one people showed up the first day – scared. All of them reached their goals.

While I coach runners of all levels, I have to admit my favorite is the beginner runner. The one who can’t run a mile. The one who has no idea what they are capable of. The one who doesn’t believe in themselves. The one who is scared of taking the first step. I was once there myself. When I started running, I didn’t have a coach. I didn’t have a clue. I just went out and ran. I couldn’t run a mile. I thought I would die. I didn’t believe in myself. I just wanted to be healthy and happy. Eventually running brought me those things and so much more.

In a town with barely 3000 residents where attendance for these types of classes is generally low, I was astonished and flattered how many people were interested.

If you live you in Telluride, you know about this little running race called the Imogene Pass Run. It taunts you. The 13,114 foot summit looms over you. It’s a “bucket list” item. People stare at it every day and wonder what it would be like to conquer the grueling 17 mile foot race which begins in the town of Ouray and finishes in Telluride after climbing over a mountainous pass. When asked why people do this race, the common answer is, as Sir Edmond Hilary said about climbing Everest, “Because it’s there.”

Needless to say, in the 4 years I’ve been training runners in Telluride, about 80% of my business comes from those with the goal to run the Imogene. This year was no different.

Training began on April 29 and ran through September 9. The idea was to have a cohesive group start together, progress together and finish together. Runners met once each week for group training class (hill repeats, intervals, time trials, etc) and followed a schedule I provided them for the rest of the week.

Of the 41 runners who originally signed up, about 35 consistently attended class and 30 finished the Imogene Pass Run, many of them together, as new friends. Others finished marathons, 50K trail runs, Half Marathons or simply came for the exercise, new friends and coffee after class. No matter what their goal, this class helped them achieve it and made them believe in themselves and realize just how much potential they had.

“The class was such a joy. I learned so much more than I ever thought about myself and others and what great strong spirits we all have.” Melissa Ramponi

The first day of class was a very cold spring morning. People showed up in cotton t-shirts, down coats, winter hats and dusty, worn out shoes obviously dug from the depths of their closets. We huddled inside Telluride Boot Doctors, a local sports store where classes meet. Fear was weighing heavy in the room like a lack of oxygen at high altitude. The pale, ashen color on most people’s faces told me they were scared. I really felt for them. I knew the feeling. I later learned just how many people considered not showing up to the first class. They were so nervous they thought they would throw up in front of everyone.

The first day is simply an assessment for me to see what I am working with for the next 20 weeks. The assignment was to run an “Out & Back” run where they ran for 10 minutes, turned around and ran 10 minutes back to the gym. Many people were runners with a slight base under their belt. Others barely ran 3 minutes before they had to stop, walk and catch their breath. All of them trudged their way down the bike path for 10 minutes; run, walk, jog, walk, crawl, cry, hyperventilate. I zigzagged my way through the crowd on my baby blue colored cruiser bike with the front basket full of water bottles, down coats and winter hats no longer needed on this physical journey. I checked in, asked how people were doing and told them they looked great and I was so proud of them for signing up and coming to class. I checked out technique, base fitness levels and knew I had my work cut out for me. I was so excited.

We returned to the store and the pale, ashen colored faces were now beet red. Sweat was pouring out of their pores, despite the cold, crisp morning. Tears were hiding behind dark sunglasses. Oh dear, I don’t mean to make you cry. I’ve shed many tears myself. It’s okay.

Consistency is key. That is the first thing I’ll teach you. While the workouts get harder, nothing is as hard as that first day. Stick with the schedule, come to class and it will only get easier. “This class did not disappoint! Its emphasis on injury free training techniques made getting back in shape for race goals not only feasible, but actually enjoyable. I can assure you, that if you follow Jill’s training schedule you will attain your goals.” Tom Conner.

The summer weeks carried on. We met each Wednesday morning at 7:15 and 9:15am. After the fear of the first class had dissipated, anxious, eager runners showed up like it was church. We spent the first few weeks going over technique and building a strong aerobic base. The next thing I’ll teach you is that you can never run too slowly in the warm up or the first few weeks of a running program. They practiced technique, they ran slow and they got strong. Next was hill work (building strength). They raced up and down hills (not hard to come by in Telluride). We met at the top of the ski mountain (accessed via free gondola) to train at 11,000 feet; up and down hills. They did speed work. “I absolutely loved this class! I don’t like interval training, but Jill had me do it and I am a stronger runner.” Tracey Kurek. They learned how to breathe at 9000 feet. They learned what shoes to wear (Altra Zero Drop!!!) www.altrarunning.com. They became winners.

September 9th, 5:30am.

Imogene Race day: The Boot Doctors van is parked in front of the San Miguel County Courthouse ready to pick us up for the Imogene Pass Run in Ouray. The remainder of our group met us at the start line. They are not alone. I help calm their nerves. It’s a beautiful morning. The gun goes off. I run with them about 5 miles up, up, up the steep, rocky terrain out of Ouray. I reach the first aid station at Lower Camp Bird and cheer them through. The altitude is already getting to me and they have 12 more miles to go. I trust they are well trained. I run down to Ouray, drive back to Telluride and cheer everyone through the finish line.

This year, the overall fastest times for the Imogene Pass Run were 2 hours 25 minutes (male) and 2 hours 41 minutes (female) which I have a hard time conceiving as I can’t run that fast on a downhill highway much less battling uphill, altitude and loose, rocky downhill. The finishing times for our training group were 3 hours 33 minutes to 6 hours 30 minutes with the majority finishing between 4 and 5 hours. But, what’s in a time? After all, they finished. Each and every runner who trained with me reached their goal. They did it! And with a smile on their face. (In truth, I had to remind many of them to smile as they crossed the finish line.)

The girl who almost skipped that first class due to extreme nerves and nausea also almost bailed on the Imogene. I encouraged her to “just do it!” “Thank you Jill! Your class was invaluable and I’m grateful for your encouragement to run this race – it was a very cool experience.” Sharon Pack.

The girl with tears behind her dark sunglasses on that first day, not only finished the Imogene, but finished with the largest grin on her face. I had the pleasure of running across the finish line holding her hand high in the air. She is strong. She is beautiful. She followed the schedule and did everything I told her to do from what to eat, what to wear and which backpack to buy. She continues to run and has signed up for a Half Marathon in October. She will reach for the Marathon next fall.

To watch runners struggle to run 3 minutes on the first day of class, then watch them run over 5 hours, cover 17 miles while reaching an altitude of 13,000 feet is absolutely amazing. This is why I love what I do; in the service of those who love what I do. Thank you to the following most amazing, inspiration students who love what I do.