Well they’re out there a-having fun, in that warm California sun.
– Henry Glover/Morris Levy
I’m a runner. I live in the East Bay. I’ve run races all over the Bay Area – street and trail, flat and hilly, hot and cold, individual and relay – with one glaring hole in my racing resume: I’d never run a race on Mount Diablo. Since I live in the East Bay, I’ve logged a few training miles in Diablo’s (lack of) shadow, including one forgettable effort that began as an uphill jog in 99°F weather and ended in an overheated string of profanities less than 3 miles up the hill later. But like an all-star closer in baseball, or a starting cornerback in football, or maybe more appropriately a frontal lobotomy patient, compulsive runners have a short memory for failure. So when Brazen Racing announced their Diablo Trails Challenge on April 21, I quickly discounted my previous crash-and-burn efforts. I’d finally have my shot at Diablo, and what better group to hitch a ride with than Brazen (more on them later)? As I lounged in the comfort of my climate-controlled living room, well fed and fully hydrated (always the best time to make hardcore racing decisions), I decided that after 30 half marathons and 4 full marathons, I’d skip the triple-dog dare and go right for the throat… Diablo would be my first 50K.
As further motivation, proceeds from the Diablo Trails Challenge would benefit Save Mount Diablo, an organization working “to preserve, defend and restore the land on and around Mount Diablo”. I was going to step up, fill out my East Bay racing resume and save Mount Diablo in one fell swoop! April 21 couldn’t get here soon enough…
But finally, it did. I was joined at the start line in Round Valley Regional Preserve by two Long Beach veterans of the SoCal ultramarathon scene – my brother Chuck and his partner-in-grime Laura – along with 124 other 50K’ers looking far more ultra-ready than I felt. Race day was a month later than the previous year’s Challenge, presumably to avoid the suboptimal windy, wet and generally sloppy conditions that had marred that event. Unfortunately, the Bay Area was experiencing one of its characteristically unseasonal heat spikes that weekend, meaning this year’s race would be a stark contrast to 2011, with sunny skies and temperatures starting in the low 70s before ramping up to the low 90s by mid-afternoon. Game time was set for 8:00am, a later-than-usual start that, for the first time I could remember, had me wishing for an earlier start time. It was gonna be, to use hometown East Bay jargon, a hella hot day for a foot race.
So at that point I focused my expectations into a single, hopefully manageable goal: FINISH. Screw my virtuous ambition to save Mount Diablo, clearly it could take care of itself… the more pressing question was, who was going to save ME?
We donned our race bibs, wrapped up our pre-race prep, and as always I psyched myself up with the memory of all the miles I’d logged and with one all-important reminder: trust your training. Meanwhile, Laura struck up a conversation with one well-caffeinated racer who took the opportunity to gush (no pun intended) about his new hydration pack and its unparalleled functional genius. As the race director shared some last-second instructions and thoughts on the day ahead, I finally turned my attention to my own hydration pack. Biting and sucking frenetically on the line like an amateur vampire, I desperately tried to get the water flowing… a pre-race oversight caused by my not having used the pack in at least a year. As I began to envision worst-case scenarios involving my parched corpse and a giddy pack of turkey vultures, my water line finally started to flow, and seconds later…
We were off! The three of us started comfortably near the back of the pack, and I spent the first few minutes slowly passing other runners… with only 31 miles to go, it was time to make my move! Glancing down at my feet to monitor my footfalls, I noticed the sweat already dripping on my shoetops, the first clear indication that this day would be an education in hydration regulation. Fortunately, the first 3.5 miles were relatively flat and provided a relaxed opportunity to stretch my legs before the first extended hill kicked in.
Typically I try my darnedest to maintain a minimal jogging pace on hills, regardless of the grade. I’d much rather keep moving at a slow-but-punishing jog than stop to walk, because for me the only thing tougher than going… is stopping. And then starting again. In this case I set up the hill at a slow jog, a pace I maintained for roughly 2/3 of the way up the hill, unlike my compadres nearly all of whom had (smartly) chosen to walk uphill. I only stopped pumping my arms to propel myself forward once I realized that my legs had physically stopped turning over… I’d slowed to a hiking pace without even realizing it.
Finally I crested the first hill triumphantly and jogged along comfortably for the next couple of miles. We passed a variety of cattle gates along the course, each posing its own distinct challenge… one gate would push open, the next would pull, one required lifting a latch, while another involved reaching over the gate to find the latch semi-hidden on the other side. I could see how a cow might get confused. Each gate became its own challenge to try to open quickly, to avoid embarrassing myself by letting another runner catch up to me while I fumbled clumsily to figure out the latch. Around mile 6, a fellow runner told me he’d already seen somebody give up on one gate and simply vault the low fence.
After the first extended uphill, the subsequent downhill carried me into the first aid station at Morgan Territory Road, mile 8.2. After a barely-there stop to throw back a Dixie cup of water (agh! warm Sprite, last time I’ll make that mistake), I left the aid station and immediately headed straight up the second hill. This one involved a significant proportion of brisk hiking, until finally I reached the zenith of the course at 2340ft. From there it was downhill (for the most part) to the second aid station at Old Finley Road, mile 15.6. There I saw Katie (always a sight for seared eyes!), who quickly traded me for a second bottle of liquified Cytomax-and-Roctane, helped me refill my hydration pack, handed me a Ziploc sandwich bag full of ice, and saw me on my way. I balanced the Ziploc bag on top of my head and held it in place by pulling my cap down tightly. Goofy looking? Probably so, but it stayed in place nicely without leaking, and I would have gladly run with a singing dancing penguin on my head if it would have cooled me down. A couple of minutes later, I passed Chuck heading in the other direction toward the aid station, and I readied myself psychologically for another steep, extended uphill climb.
The extended climb from around mile 16 to mile 19 was excruciating… I chose one 12-letter word here, rather than three more appropriate 4-letter ones. Hard to know exactly where I bonked on that hill, but around mile 18 I felt myself starting to overheat. And I knew from experience (summers spent running in Texas) that as soon as I overheated that first time, I would more quickly overheat a second time, and at that point my day would be over. DNF… the three dirtiest letters in a runner’s vocab. So I ratcheted up my water and Cytomax intake (which was already much higher than usual) and slowed to a slightly unstable hiking pace, until Chuck jogged up alongside me shortly after mile 20. Though he looked to be holding together fine, he joined me at my torrid ~18:00/mile walking pace. In the meantime, he tried to cheer me up/assess my chances of survival with a steady stream of one-liners. Sadly, I was so focused on holding it together until we got to the aid station that I could barely crack a smile. Cows standing on the side of the course cheering on two vegetarian runners strikes me as pretty funny now, sitting comfortably in front of my laptop, but laughter really isn’t the best medicine when your body’s threatening a code red on you. I look at the Brazen photos of us taken on that segment of the course, a smile on my face and my arms seemingly pumping away, and I appreciate more than ever that a picture really is worth a thousand words… in this case mostly lies and profanities.
Finally! we reached the third aid station at Horseshoe, just before mile 23. I felt reasonably healthy as we pulled in, but as we stood around resting, drinking more water and refilling our hydration packs, I started to feel a bit unsteady. Katie then caught up to us (an angel here on Diablo? am I hallucinating?), Chuck continued on his way, and I sat for a few minutes trying to cool down. One of the County Search and Rescue crew members eyed me suspiciously as I stood up and asked if I was doing ok. I assured her I was fine, while at the same time trying to convince myself that I really was ok to continue… I had short-lived thoughts of ending my day right there and heading back to the car with Katie. That’s when I met… the icy sponge. And that sumabitch saved my race… I saturated my head and clothes with icy water and instantly felt more alert, energetic and ready to continue… basically, everything those commercials for 5-Hour Energy promise you. So roughly 20 minutes after pulling into the Horseshoe aid station, I again rallied behind my all-consuming goal of finishing the race, told Katie I’d see her at the finish, and headed down the next hill…. knowing that worst-case scenario, the next aid station (and hopefully the next icy sponge) awaited only 5+ miles away.
I felt relatively strong and even regained my rhythm to some extent in the next 2-3 miles, which were largely downhill. At that point the trail was solid rock to the left, solid rock to the right and what seemed like solid rock underfoot, all of it acting like a natural magnifying glass that focused the sun’s rays down on me. And maybe my sun-soaked brain was daydreaming, or maybe I fell into too comfortable a rhythm, but I dragged my feet just enough to slam my toe into an unyielding rock or root or petrified skull of some former Diablo 50Ker, causing me to lose all balance and pitch forward on to the trail. My entire life flashed before my eyes! Ok so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but losing control of my body was a momentarily scary feeling. Fortunately I was able to use my forward momentum to land on my side, roll once and bounce back up again. Looking back on it, I probably made more progress during that stop, drop, and roll than I would have by staying on my feet. But I got lucky, escaping with a bruised elbow and minor scratches on my leg… it could have been much worse. And my body must have been unfazed after everything I’d already put it through, because it didn’t even bother to respond with the expected adrenaline surge. So much for feedback between mind and body; apparently each was now on its own.
With a full marathon behind me, I reached the final extended uphill surge just before mile 27. And if the first few were bad (and they were), this uphill climb was the most punishing yet. Forget running or even jogging, I was doubting my ability to hike to the top at that point. I also realized that, due to the one-two punch of heat and exertion, I’d been taking quick shallow breaths rather than long, deep breaths throughout the race… as soon as I started taking deeper breaths, I realized my kidneys were sore. So I stopped in a patch of much-needed shade for about 5 minutes to rehydrate heavily and then pushed forward, staring at my shoetops for several more minutes before finally reaching the top. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so relieved to reach the top of a hill (Pikes Peak notwithstanding; I’m not counting a 14er as a hill). And it says a lot about the speed of the race at that point that as slowly as I was moving, and even with a 5-minute dead stop thrown in, I’d somehow managed to pass more runners than had passed me since the Horseshoe aid station. The world around me was moving in slow motion, but at the same time my sluggishness provided an opportunity to appreciate the ultra-green beauty of Diablo and the surrounding countryside. So the timing of the race was actually fortuitous in one regard, because as one Brazen crew member told me after the race… “We got lucky on the date, in 2 months this will all be brown.” Perhaps a bit of Schadenfreude in his choice of the term “lucky”, but he had a point.
As I picked up my pace a bit and jogged along the top of the hill, a female runner (race organizer? volunteer? other? I couldn’t tell) passed me going the other way and assured me that I had “only one-and-three-quarters miles to the next aid station”. I glanced at my Garmin, which read 27.5 miles. HUH? The next aid station (Burma) was shown on our race map at 28 miles even, so I was hope-hope-hoping her sense of distance was skewed… an extra mile+ would have been even more taxing psychologically than physically at that point. Fortunately I pulled into Burma at mile 28.4 (so was she that off, or was she just screwing with us?), where I recovered my strength for the next 10 minutes while chugging cold water and struggling to stomach one bite of melty warm banana (my first food of any kind since breakfast). After thoroughly dousing and revitalizing myself with the icy sponge one last time (and assuring the race volunteers that I was going to be dreaming about that sponge for days), I rallied my final energy reserves and headed down the final hill toward the home stretch.
Life became relatively easy those final 3 miles, and I was able to maintain a regular jogging pace for the most part. Though as I descended back down the mountain along the fully exposed single-track trail, the hot air got even more stifling and uncomfortable to breathe, until finally I reached the shaded part of the trail that led directly into Castle Rock. Having run this part of the trail before, I knew what to expect, and the race finished with 9 or 10 ankle-deep (and refreshingly cold! ‘cuz I had no intention of tiptoeing across rocks) creek crossings in the final 2 miles. In the final half-mile I picked up the pace ever-so-slightly and passed a fellow racer whose facial expressions told the tale of his exhaustion… by then I was determined to enter the finish line chute alone, hear my name announced over the PA system, and have that brief moment all to myself. I saw Chuck first, standing on the right side of the trail roughly 50 yards from the finish line, then I saw Katie standing in front of the finish line with camera poised as I broke from the shade and into the sunlight one last time, crossing the finish line and ending the longest day of my running life with an intense mix of relief and exhilaration in 7 hours, 39 minutes and 51 seconds.
Race over! ending as the longer ones frequently do: with an in-the-moment string of exhaustion-fueled promises never, ever, never to do something THAT stupid to myself ever again.
Chuck beat me to the finish in 7:11:36 with his (questionable) sense of humor still intact, a kick-ass performance under those conditions. But considering he’d barely been out on Diablo for 7 hours, how tired could he really be? While waiting for Laura to finish, Chuck walked back up the trail where he ended up guiding incoming finishers around an agitated rattlesnake coiled up on the side of the trail. Not to be denied, Laura finally crossed the finish line in 10:16:40, still looking and (so she claimed) feeling good.
I spent the 2 hours after I finished and before Laura arrived basking in my Diablo afterglow, trying to get comfortable with my sore kidneys, and listening in on fellow racers as they swapped stories and reflected on their day. But so much for the conventional running wisdom of refueling within 30 minutes of a race… I desperately wanted to take advantage of the impressive post-race banquet, but my GI tract limited me to several pieces of pineapple and watermelon. Couldn’t even stomach a handful of M&Ms, my innards were a defiant lot.
I thanked the members of the County Search & Rescue team as they sat by their tent watchfully eyeing each runner who crossed the finish line. One of them gestured toward a nearby bench and invited me to sit and recover in front of the icy sponge’s post-race sibling, a giant humidifier-like setup comprising a large barrel of water-with-hose hooked up to a fan that sprayed cold mist. I was surprised to find only one other runner (a highly appreciative DNFer icing his knees) seated in front of the fan… the Search and Rescue power-mister was hands-down the underappreciated star of the Diablo after party. Pure genius.
That night, after struggling to finish half a slice of Zachary’s pizza for dinner, I hit the bed plenty tired though not exhausted, with sore kidneys and a still noticeably elevated body temperature. And as I lay there mentally and physically putting the day’s accomplishment to rest, I was already looking forward to the next step in my training…
I think I’ll take tomorrow off.
• My past 3 races have yielded 3 PRs at different distances: the Honda L.A. Marathon (3:37:53), the Oakland Half Marathon (1:34:02), and now the Diablo Trails Challenge 50K in 7:39:51. Hey Chuck, how many AREC points does that get me?
• How ironic (in the Webster’s-approved, non-Alanis sense of the word), after nearly 8 hours of sun exposure in 80+°F heat, that thanks to the modern miracle of SPF 55 sun-block, I crossed the finish line still pale and vitamin D-deficient.
• The course was a nifty diversity of different terrain: well-maintained dirt trail; rutted ground that looked as though a herd of mustangs had trampled the mud before letting it dry and harden again under the Diablo sun… this made for the toughest footing of the day; fire road; loose rocks and gravel; asphalt, as we briefly dodged traffic and crossed South Gate Road; hard packed dirt with large rock outcroppings (one of which still has part of my big toe stuck to it); soft forest detritus; grassy single-track trail just wide enough to put one foot in front of the other; and finally a paved and nicely maintained walking trail with several creek crossings. Plus a bonus waterfall on the side of the trail somewhere after mile 23 (Chuck saw it too, so I wasn’t hallucinating). And them’s just the terrain I remember…
• For me, the worst part of a course like Diablo isn’t necessarily the sustained uphills, it’s the many short-lived smaller hills that deceptively show up as tiny, easy-to-overlook blips on the elevation profile of the course. So many times during the race I’d crest one hill, find myself on a relatively level part of the trail and rally just enough energy to start jogging again… only to look up and see another uphill jag looming immediately ahead that quashed any thoughts I had of regaining momentum.
SHOES: After some hesitation, I decided to wear my Merrell Road Gloves for the 50K, despite never having run farther than 17 miles in them. And choose wisely I did, because throughout the race my feet were probably the happiest part of my body. The shoes felt great, responded well on all the varied terrain, and I appreciated the much-improved ground feel relative to my old Asics GT-2150s, which had been my go-to trail running shoes for previous Brazen races as well as the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2010. My footing was relaxed and confident (my graceful kiss-the-dirt moment notwithstanding), and the combination of the Road Gloves and my Injinji toesocks kept my feet amazingly blister-free… though I’m glad the water crossings all came at the end of the race.
PRODUCTION: Sam, Jasmin and all the folks at Brazen Racing deserve huge applause for their organization and execution of not just the Diablo Trails Challenge, but all Brazen events. I’ve run trail races organized by other local companies, and the Brazen crew is hands-down the best at what they do here in the Bay Area… that is, organizing memorable races on challenging courses in awesome (and often underappreciated) locales. I’ve now run 6 of their races including the Diablo Trails Challenge, and their attention to detail is unsurpassed. They do an exemplary job of ensuring that the most important race details (course markings, postrace munchies, the coolest medals and t-shirts) are handled flawlessly, while preserving the low-key, just-me-and-nature feel that is the ethos of trail running. On this day in particular, the Brazen crew as well as all their incredibly friendly, bend-over-backwards-helpful volunteers at every aid station stood around in the uncomfortable heat for over 10 hours just to take care of a bunch of masochists, and not once did I hear anything but positivity and encouragement (at least not from the voices outside my head). Can’t wait for Brazen’s Wildcat Canyon half on May 19… last year’s Wildcat was one of my favorite races of 2011.
April 21, 2012
31.4 miles from Round Valley Regional Preserve to Castle Rock Park in Walnut Creek, CA (State 1 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 7:39:51, 14:39/mile
Finish place: 47/109 overall, 11/22 in the M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny, 71°F starting, ~90°F high
Elevation change (according to my Garmin Forerunner 305): 8,578ft ascent, 8,440ft descent
127 runners crossed the start line, 108 crossed the finish