Why take on a ultra-distance race in some of the most rugged mountains in Colorado? Some are motivated simply to overcome the barrier of running 50 miles in a day. Others might be doing it to run fast, place among the top finishers or even go for the win. For some, myself included, the adventurous journey is the motivating force.

While I roam this earth, I want to experience as many of the world’s spectacular places with my own engine as much as I possibly can. There are a handful of ultra trail races that speak to this passion, and the San Juan Solstice 50-miler (SJS), which is run on the first Saturday after the year’s longest day, has always loomed large for me.

The SJS sends runners on a huge counterclockwise loop out of the quaint and remote historic mining town of Lake City. The rigors of the race are on par with its beauty. The journey takes you through some of the most spectacular high mountains in the lower 48, with a course profile that entails 13,000 feet of elevation gain. Hazards to be prepared for range from hypothermia and lightning strikes, to heat exhaustion and altitude sickness.

I attempted the San Juan Solstice back in 2003. Then a neophyte mountain runner, there were flaws in my training and race strategy that resulted in a bonk of epic proportions and, ultimately, a DNF. Over the past 14 years, I learned continuously from long days in the mountains and kept the challenge of the SJS close to my heart. A year ago, I decided it was time to do it again—and do it right this time around.

Trading Running Shoes For Ski Boots

For mountain runners, training methodologies vary based on the individual and his or her goals relative to the unique challenges of a given course. Having already completed an easier 50-mile race in Moab, Utah, the previous fall, I knew that I could go the distance, so I decided to prepare for the brutal altitude and climbing of the SJS by building a training program that emphasized higher volumes of uphill ski touring and lower volumes of actual running.

As a former collegiate middle-distance track athlete, I have sound running fundamentals—and can still dig deep when it counts—but I thrive most on lower-mileage training, and now in my 40s, I must be careful about the amount of pounding that I absorb. Living in Western Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, a zone with outstanding snow and high altitude mountain access, I opted to embrace on-snow training through alpine ski touring, and hoped it would pay off in late June.

At least 300 percent more expensive than an average running kit, the cost of a ski touring setup can be daunting, usually in the range of $1,500 for skis, bindings, boots and poles. But as more ski resorts encourage uphill travel on designated trails—sometimes even for free—this gear can be the ticket to increased fitness and a lot of fun outdoors.

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How does alpine touring (AT) work? In a nutshell, you need lighter downhill skis mounted with hybrid bindings that allow your heels to detach for hiking uphill, and to clip in for the descent. AT boots are also much lighter than standard alpine ski boots, and offer a walk-mode for extra mobility. Just as important are climbing skins for the ascent. These are nylon or mohair “grip strips” that are smooth in one direction and textured in the other to keep you from sliding backwards.

Reaping the reward of training. Dropping in on prime spring snow high in the Elk Mountains after a 4,000-foot ascent. Photo: Trish Franco

Does alpine touring entail a significant learning curve? Absolutely. Gear snafus are virtually guaranteed and your transitions will feel like a total junk show. And when you clicked into your bindings and ready to ski, results may vary depending upon your level of skiing experience. But the silver lining is that you get to figure it all out on groomed runs within the relatively safe boundaries of a ski resort, and you are sure to encounter a support group of other enduro fiends during your early mornings on the hill. Plus if you love skinning (what it’s called when you go uphill with skins on your skis), many resorts host increasingly popular ski mountaineering races, like Aspen’s Power of Four.

What are the primary training benefits of alpine touring?  Quite simply, skinning a few times a week for 45 minutes to several hours at a pop builds a big aerobic base with minimal impact. It also strengthens key muscles, including hamstrings, glutes and piriformis, that can become sore, weak and injured from high volume running. Last winter I realized these benefits by skinning 3-5 times per week, averaging 3,000 vertical feet of ascent per workout.

For my go-to longer winter workout, I start from the base of Aspen Highlands ski area, ascend 4,000 feet to the top of Highland Bowl (pictured below), then ski with burning legs 2,000 feet down ungroomed expert terrain to the lift. After riding the lift for a bit of recovery, I hike the bowl once more, then ski down the mountain for beer and pizza at the base.

Like ants marching, skiers hike the ridgeline leading to the top of Highland Bowl. Photo: Michelle Smith

Quality Runs

I emerged from a winter of skinning feeling motivated, healthy, and arguably in my best ever aerobic condition. In April and May, it was time to start running, and make it count. To achieve just enough volume, I ran 3-4 times weekly with most runs between 6 and 9 miles, and one of those runs being tempo style for efficiency on flat or rolling dirt farm roads. Relative to the 4.5 mph pace that I hoped to sustain for an 11-hour finish on race day, a 60-minute run at 8.8 mph provided an effective speed workout for the SJS.

Hard trails runs were naturally a key component. Between May and early June, I did four runs that ranged from 14 to 20 miles, or 2.5 to 4 hours, with an average elevation gain of 3,000 feet each. I focused on sustainable pacing at a moderate heart rate and optimization of layering, hydration and fueling systems.

Although my time on skis decreased throughout the spring as resorts closed and the snowline crept higher, I still prioritized getting into the mountains once per week for longer and higher spring backcountry ski adventures. Beyond their intrinsic reward, I look back on these adventures, which delivered an average vertical gain of 4,000’ and 10 miles roundtrip, as the lynchpin of my SJS training. (Public service message: If you venture beyond the resorts, check yourself and get educated. Backcountry skiing can be treacherous and requires thorough avalanche safety training and experience, skilled partners, good conditions and the right gear.)

A scene from a summer training run to the top of Mt. Huron (14, 009 feet). Photo: Courtesy of Jason Smith

Race Day

The spectacular drive into Lake City the day before the race began an incredible mountain experience as the ultrarunning community—from grizzled veterans to wide-eyed first-timers—came together to celebrate an annual classic. The weather would be on the hot side of perfect, but otherwise it was a fabulous setting and shaping up to be an amazing day.

If you approach a race like SJS too amped up, you risk being pummeled by ups and downs, both of the course, and the wild oscillations of your own body and mind. Mental resilience is key during the early stages to keep you going efficiently. After a glorious alpine sunrise at the crest of the first climb, I was mentally prepared to be OK with losing—then regaining—all of that elevation, and more, during a tortuously hot 8-mile climb past the Carson ghost town and onto the spectacular Continental Divide on the Colorado Trail.

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My primary objectives were to enjoy a special day and finish proficiently in 11-12 hours. I came in just a shade over 12 hours, but though I identified several ways to improve for the future, I couldn’t be happier. I know that I was well prepared when I made it through a trying day in a tough environment with no issues or injuries beyond a single puking episode one hour post-finish in the ditch next to our campsite.

My son, Kilian, giving me a pat on the back as I puked into a ditch not long after the finish. Photo: Michelle Smith