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September 6th, 2003 – Mt. Diablo 50k

June 5, 2009

12:14 PM, Sunday, September 7th

It’s rather odd, upon reaching about 5,000 feet in my flight back to Chicago (connecting in Dallas) to look out the starboard side window where I’m seated and see Mt. Diablo way off in the distance (about 60 nautical miles) and thinking – wow, I ran up to the top of that yesterday. Twice.  But it definitely wasn’t easy…

The trip out was pretty uneventful – flights arrived and left on time and I’m beginning to feel like I know DFW like the back of my hand.  Truly.  This did allow me to grab a quick lunch before heading west (no meals on either flight – grrr.)

But we touched down in Sacramento early, and after a quick wait for the rental car trolley, I find my name in lights on the Hertz board and I’m off, driving the relatively hectic three to five lane traffic that is California.  The route takes me south to Sacramento, west past Davis, then south on I680, over the east bay (well, the connecting toll isthmus that connects the east bay to Pablo Bay), and into Concorde/Clayton California (two small towns nestled in the foothills of Mt. Diablo; I never noticed a line of demarcation.

I settle in early, call a couple o’ folks to let them know I’m in alright, grab dinner next door at Mountain Mike’s Pizza where I order a half-pitcher of Fat Tire – of course, it’s more like a LARGE pitcher of fat tire – but hey, it’s just a 50K, so I should be able to enjoy, right?

Six thirty AM dawns not really so early (my body still has it pegged as 8:30 – what’s the opposite of Jet Lag? jetsurfeit?), and I quickly get dressed and head for the race, a mere four miles from my hotel (it’s the closest I’ve ever stayed to an ultra – BUT, it also takes nearly the longest to get to – it’s great that I’m early, because the line to get into the park is amazingly long – they tried to combine packet pickup with paying to enter the park, which did not work.  And, unlike 5ks and 10ks where such oversights by race directors is generally directed elsewhere, the RD raised his hand, said basically “OK, we should not have done that, and I’m sorry.”  A classy act – and I can always wait a few minutes – it’s not like you become an ultrarunner with a lack of patience.

On the way to the start, I’m thinking, there really aren’t that many fires in California – I saw a couple on my way over, and I can see one fire out my window as I type this – looks to be east of Foresthill, prime running area, mile 61 (I think) in the Western States race.  The fire danger is only moderate, but a series of lightning strikes over the last week have put a couple of moderate sized fires ablaze in the Sierras.  They look somewhat contained from the air. The peaks of Yosemite are way off to our right – nestled in the Sierra, they don’t look too high, given the rise of this plateau.  More impressive are the numerous tree-studded canyons – it’s a rough topography by any measurement.

The Mt. Diablo trail runs are really three runs altogether – there’s an 8K, a 25K (one loop) and a 50K (two loops). There are a lot of local high school students up for the 8K (a great training run), a good number of people up for the 25K, and, oh, a dozen of us or so it seems for the 50K.  There are a lot of 25K runners, though, and I find myself swapping stories with numerous 25K runners after the countdown to the start begins.

There are even a large number of people from Illinois – it appears one of Illinois’ hash houses came out (Hashing is a cult of running that I won’t get into here!)  They pass me on the way up, and I find myself running with a 25K’er named Jim for a good portion of the run up to the top of the mountain and back.  Jim’s coming back from knee surgery, but he eventually outpaces me on the downhills (hard to train for long downhill runs in Illinois), and I complete the first loop in 3:15 pretty easily (despite rolling my ankle and letting out a string of obscenities at mile 13 or so.)  Later a good number of people commented on how their marathon time and their 25K time were pretty close…

I’m relatively shocked when I pull into the start/finish at the end of loop one to see two other 50kers (a guy named Grant and his wife, Laura), plus a friend of theirs, Jim – so we are able to head off together for the first few miles of loop 2.  Here I’ll actually begin talking about the trail…

The loops are 15.5 miles, and start at an elevation of just over 500 feet.  The course is relatively flat for the first couple of miles, then gains like 1700 feet over the next three miles to reach the ridge, where it puts you at the one and only aid station on the course at about mile 5 or so.  From there, you descend single track as you traverse the western slopes of Mt. Diablo before switchbacking up the south side (and across several roads) to get to the top at 3849′.  The view from the top (where there’s an observation deck you have to climb and circle a traffic cone at the far end) is outstanding – you can’t quite see the San Francisco Bay thanks to the hills around Oakland, but what you can see is tremendous in all directions.  A good mix of light clouds breaking over the ridges (very coolly at the first real saddle, I might add) made the view a great study in composition on the first loop.

From the apex, you run back through some odd single track that looks more like a colouir between scrubbrush than normal singletrack (making meeting people quite interesting!) You reach the aid station again, and start the descent down the same fire road you came up – only after about a mile, you take a road to the right, a very, very steep fire road that only took me 8 minutes to get up the first time, but ten the second time (walking both times mind you).  After attaining a saddle between Diablo and Eagle peaks, you hit more single track, a very twisty, rocky affair (where I twisted my ankle the first time) before leveling off on some more runnable singletrack.  Laura had heard me swearing after I twisted my ankle, and had assumed it was Jim (for those that don’t know, I really don’t swear that much, but I’m glad Kath’s mom wasn’t around for this one!  I’d thought I’d ruined my race… but after a mile or two, the pangs stopped, and I was able to run again).

Grant, Jim, Laura and I head out with a light jog for the first two miles or so.  Jim is cramping pretty badly, unfortunately, and he drops off the pace and, presumably, heads back – I’d guess it would’ve taken him a good fifteen minutes and quite a bit of salt and water before coming close to normal.  Grant – a geologist, mentions that Jim’s been having a hard time on this one, and was a bit surprised to see him start the second loop.  We’re making pretty decent time, but the heat and the day’s workout start to get to me – I start to feel a bit nauseous in the direct sunlight and constant climb, and drop off into the shade for a couple minute’s rest to regroup, bidding Grant and Laura farewell.  I grab a salt pill, some hammer gel, and more water and keep heading up.  I finally reach the aid station in an hour and forty minutes – compared to my 1:10 for the first loop!

I ask the aid station volunteer, Jim (yes, another Jim, three altogether!) what happens if I drop out there, as I’m feeling pretty spent.  He says that I can either walk back out the way I came, or wait several hours while he finished up. I down some coke, oranges, conquest sports drink, M&Ms, and some bananas, mull things over, and press on.  I’m not moving very fast, though.  Climbing hasn’t really bothered me – I’m worried about nausea as I start running downhill, though.  However, I’m belching a bit by the time I see Grant and Laura on their way down (only about fifteen minutes ahead of me, I figure). I reach the top, slog around the cone, pause briefly to take a look at my surroundings, and press on, meeting one runner right behind me, and several others who are pushing their way up the mountain. I start feeling better, as the views and lighter cardiac output help me remember that the views all around are why I do these things (as well as finding my limits – which this definitely is helping to do, despite the short distance!)

I make it back to the aid station without being passed, but take several minutes to recuperate, and even help out the guy right on my tail (I needed a rest, and Jim had to answer nature, so I didn’t lose anything by helping him out).  I’m off again before too long, and I even find myself running at a decent clip for awhile.  Reaching the foot of the big climb up to the pass, I figure it’ll take me about twelve minutes to walk, but it only takes me ten.

I’ve just topped out of the climb up to the saddle when I run into another ultrarunner heading my way – a sweep!  He asks if I’m OK, since I’m walking at that point on a relatively flat stretch (just recuperating after the climb).  He then keeps running down the way I came – a nice guy, one of several Western States finishers I run into on the day.  I can’t help but be jealous that he has these types of trails and fireroads to train on…

After the climb, I’m on the single track (carefully, given the number of ankle turners), and I’m jogging the last two miles back to the finish.  I pull in just under eight hours (7:58 officially) and comisserate with several fellow runners.  This is billed as one of the toughest 50Ks, and I’d have to say it definitely is.  I would say that Baldy’s Peak, Quicksilver, Tahoe Rim Trail, and Whiskeytown are the toughest 50Ks around, and I’m glad to have finished this one! This one was tougher than Tahoe, but I’m guessing it’s easier than Baldy Peaks, which has much more severe climbs and descents. 

I grab a lot of chicken soup and some soda and get rehydrated and resalted before driving back to the hotel.  I have a few minor twinges but no real cramps to speak of.  I think on the way out, I finally read something that explains why there are people like me doing these types of runs – a french alpinist was asked why he does the climbs that he does, and he replied, “It’s kinda like fun, only different.”  That it is. – Jason

PS:  Next run is November 11th in Montana – the LeGrizz 50 miler!

Mt. Diablo website:

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