“And if you hold on tight to what you think is your thing -
You may find you're missing all the rest ...
See you and me have a better time than most can dream of -
Have it better than the best, so can pull on through
Whatever tears at us, whatever holds us down,
And if nothing can be done, we'll make the best of what's around.”
- Dave Matthews Band, “Best of What’s Around” (video after post)
At some point, I’ll have to scale back on these endurance races.
Not because my body can’t handle them, but because they take too darn long to report on afterwards. It seems like the longer the event, the more I’m compelled to write – which results in ridiculously bloated posts like a 3000-word Wildflower recap, or a 3-act drama from last summer's Vineman.
That Vineman event took only 11 hours – but at Diablo last Saturday, I was on the course for almost 12 hours. So my challenge for this post is to keep the race report shorter, even though the event was longer. I can’t say that I’m optimistic, but we’ll just see how this goes.
As usual, there’s a backstory before we get to the actual race – which I’ll keep as brief as possible. If you’d rather skip straight to the race, just scroll down until you start seeing pictures. You won’t hurt my feelings. Otherwise, top off your drink and settle in for a long one.
My Diablo preview featured lyrics from Metallica’s “Frantic”, which described to some degree how I felt in the days leading up to the run. It also fit in nicely with my typical M.O. of listening to high-octane music in advance of major races.
Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to realize that this approach probably wasn’t the best mindset to have before an all-day event. So when I was combing through the CD drawer for some driving music, I reached past Metallica’s St. Anger, and grabbed the DMB’s Live at Red Rocks collection instead.
In concert, the Dave Matthews Band plays in whatever manner the spirit takes them. They establish familiar rhythms, then take off on whatever grooves feel comfortable, extending them far past their customary boundaries. Before you know it, a 4-minute single may evolve into a 15-minute jam that seems almost effortless. It was that kind of irreverence that I wanted to channel on Mount Diablo.
I knew going into the race that I needed a different psychological tactic than I usually employ. Normally, I hold on tight to what I think is my thing: my competitive drive, especially as it pertains to my race time and my relative standing overall. But I also knew that if I tried that at Diablo, I’d find that I was missing all the rest – all of the reasons I was doing the run in the first place, and all of the ways to find enjoyment in what some might consider difficult circumstances – as I’ll explain more once this report is all over.
So this time around, I was committed to try something unusual, but it still seemed more complicated than that. I didn’t want to give an all-out race effort, but I also didn’t want to disregard this as just a training day to get through on my way to Western States this summer. I wanted to appreciate this step of the journey for what it really was: the journey itself.
However, I didn’t quite trust myself to let those competitive instincts go, so I enforced one final rule: whenever I felt the urge to reel somebody in, make certain split times, or strain to keep up with somebody else’s pace, I had to stop and take a picture of something. It was the only way I could think of to force myself to slow down and savor the moment.
I took almost 100 pictures on race day.
Before you click away: no, I won’t make you sit through all of them – but I’m incorporating some of them to emphasize certain details of my Diablo experience. This is the type of photo essay I hope to assemble for Western States this summer – so just think of this as a tune-up race report for the big one 11 weeks from now.
Race directors Wendell and Sarah at the start of the race. One of Wendell’s first announcements on the bullhorn was, “This run requires some effort”, which might go down as one of the greatest understatements I’ve ever heard. But by this point, he probably wasn’t going to talk any of us out of it.
The first 8 miles are a nearly continuous climb to the summit, traversing a rocky ridgeline en route. It’s gorgeous, but there are a lot of bottlenecks as marathon runners and 50M runners are all crowded onto the same skinny trail.
For very long stretches of those first miles, here’s the view you enjoy: single-file runners in close proximity on narrow single-track surrounded by dense foliage. It’s definitely not the most scenic stretch of the race. It’s also in situations like this that you discover many ultrarunners have, um ... how should I say this politely? Some odor issues.
Finally, almost an hour into the race, the course hits some nice wide fire roads, which enables runners to spread out – and allows us all some breaths of fresh air again. We need all we can get, because we’re still climbing to the summit.
This is the main summit trail, which we would travel twice by the end of the day. I wasn’t certain what this white stuff all over the hillside was – but since this trail is called the Juniper Trail, and since Juniper Campground sits at the base of the climb, I took a wild guess that it must be some type of juniper.
Even after you reach the summit, your climbing isn’t finished, as the official course requires you to walk up the stairs to the observation deck. They don’t want the course to seem too easy, you know.
The trip up the steps is definitely worth it, though – because the views from the top are awesome.
Heading down from the summit is almost 5 miles of continuous descent, which sounds like it would be fun. And with the exception of the 4 miles of it that were so steep that I felt like my kneecaps were exploding, I would agree – it was a lot of fun. I also found a lot of pretty flowers to look at.
So I’m sitting at the side of the trail snapping pictures of some poppies, and guess who comes barreling down the hill past me? It’s Rick!
He and I ran in close proximity for the next 7 or 8 miles, which was kind of a good news/bad news thing for me. On the one hand, he’s a great guy, and I enjoyed talking and sharing the day with him as we rolled along. On the other, he and I usually finish very close to each other in the standings – and when he caught me this early in the race, I knew that I’d probably finish far behind him on this day.
I can’t honestly say that it bothered me ... but I did seem to be taking a TON of pictures during those miles with Rick.
We went through some very pretty areas in miles 15-20, some of which reminded me of Monterey County. By this time, it was mid-morning, and I could start to feel the heat of the day pressing down upon the open sections of trail.
Rick and I came into the next aid station (North Gate) together, where I was apparently having some salt issues. It was very shortly after this picture that I wished Rick well, and told him to have a great race ... and then I took about 10 more pictures.
I did a lot of walking to the Rock City aid station that marked the halfway point of the race, and got passed by a lot of people on the way. On the plus side, I got some beautiful shots of the scenery.
Leaving Rock City, the course consists of a 6-mile out and back (12.5 total), moderately rolling section of trail. I had snapped out of my funk by this point, but my mind started doing funny things. For example ...
Take a look at the peak in the distance here. We came over that hill to get here. And at mile 28, knowing that by the end of the day I still had to go up and over it another time, that hilltop just seemed incredibly far away. Even looking through the zoom lens of my Nikon didn’t make it appear any closer. Also ...
See those rocks? Do they kind of look like faces to you? And do those faces seem to be laughing? At mile 33, that’s exactly what I was seeing in the hillside.
Returning to Rock City at mile 37 was one of the highlights of my day, in that I got to meet 21st Century Mom for the first time. She had started her volunteer shift at the aid station, and was incredibly friendly and encouraging. She kept trying to convince me that I looked a lot better than I felt, but I didn’t quite believe her.
Immediately after this picture was taken, she and I turned to each other – almost simultaneously – and said the exact same thing: “It happened.” Bloggers are so weird sometimes.
Continuing away from Rock City started the second ascent of Mount Diablo. By this time, the heat was becoming a major factor, and the trail was almost completely exposed. But just as I was second-guessing my ability to stay focused all the way up, I saw this ...
A local Boy Scout troop was coming down the fire road after hiking to the Juniper Campground, which was a strangely reassuring sight for me. I mean ... none of those Scouts (or Scoutmasters, for that matter) looked like they’d ever be mistaken for ultrarunners. I figured that if they all made it up the hill, perhaps the climb wasn’t as demoralizing as I was making it out to be.
Eventually, I made it to the top again, and even talked some stranger into taking this picture – which actually turned out a lot cooler than I imagined. Sometimes you get lucky like that.
The remaining 8 miles were mostly downhill – but as I’ve explained, “downhill” doesn’t equate to “easy” on this course. Much of the trail was like this: narrow, slippery, technical, across rocky footing that started to chew my legs up after an hour or so. In fact ...
Less than 4 miles from the finish, my legs were hurting so bad that I had to sit down on this rock to let them recover somewhat. I was only here for a few minutes before another runner walked past me ... and I started snapping pictures like crazy.
Eventually, I got my legs back under me, and gradually made my way through the final miles. Once the footing became smoother, I started to feel strong again, and started catching up to the guy who had passed me – but not before I took a picture of this pretty tree for good measure.
I ultimately passed him, and several minutes later I cruised to the finish, feeling very smooth and strong as I crossed the line. In fact, it took me about 20 minutes to remember that I hadn’t taken a picture of the finish line yet (explaining the time discrepancy in the photo).
By this time, the sky was growing dark, the temperature was cooling down, and I honestly felt like I could have gone out and done some more mileage if I had to. I had paced the run well, and restrained myself to the point where I didn’t completely self-destruct from the force of my own effort.
In other words, I had done exactly what I set out to do.
Ultrarunners will tell you all day long that success in the sport is more dependent on mental willpower than physical stamina, and on some level, I’ve always understood this to be true. What I hadn’t really done until Diablo is put that notion into practice.
It’s easy to look at a rugged 50-mile run with 13,000 feet of climbing on the hottest day of the year and fixate on all of the negative elements. In fact, that’s probably what normal people do. But true ultrarunners have somehow – either by natural predisposition or by practiced reinforcement – instead learned to see the same scenario as the best of what’s around.
For the most part, being able to spend an entire day running around on a mountain is a better time than most can dream of. Especially considering that most of these challenges take place in the most beautiful locations in the world, it’s a privilege to merely participate. There are countless people who would love to have the time, determination, ability, and resources to do the same. Truthfully, we have it better than the best - and I think that’s precisely how we pull on through.
Whatever tears at us, whatever holds us down or batters our bodies or bruises our spirit – those are the things we actively seek, if for no other reason than because we hope to be fortunate enough to find them. And when that is our mindset, all those hours on the trail aren’t primarily about trying to tick away the miles as quickly as possible (although make no mistake, I'll always prefer to go faster. I may be Zen, but I'm not a masochist.) Rather, they are about simply enjoying each mile as it comes, and realizing that - as I wrote in the last post - each and every step of the journey is the journey.
It seems like such a simple lesson - it's too bad I had to wrestle the devil to learn it.
Dave Matthews Band, "Best of What's Around" (click to play):