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April 14, 2008

Diablo 50M Race Report

“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.

About 10 seconds into the race, the trail makes a very noticeable turn in the direction of "up". The hills don’t exactly sneak up on you on this course.

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):


21stCenturyMom 4/14/08, 10:34 PM  

Did you say bloggers are weird? If by weird you mean awesome then you, sir, are correct!

You looked great out there - really. And you took great photos and you are an inspiration, for sure.

rick 4/14/08, 11:26 PM  

I can only imagine what the WS100 report will look like but I'm sure it will be interesting. Haha 100 pictures, so that's how you did it. Like taking a breath and counting to 10 before continuing. Wendell is hilarious and he gets so serious at the start of races, you can't talk to him but they came up with a monster course. So that's what I look like barreling down the trail. Nice, I could be skinnier.

Anyway it was good running and catching up with you. You made your plan and executed it. I was definitely drawing deep from the mental bank at the end of the day and the last two miles back to the finish seemed to take forever. Unlike you I didn't feel like I could have gone on for more after that. I did feel much better after a coke though. Those last 8 miles downhill were brutal. I wish they put up an aid station somewhere in there.

Good job on the run.

Bullet 4/15/08, 6:23 AM  

Great report and nice Pics. What salt issues? Ha! The gray shirt tells no lies!

Backofpack 4/15/08, 7:57 AM  

Wow, what a beautiful place! You got some great pictures. That was a good plan - and you finished feeling good, so it worked! Congrats!

21stCenturyMom 4/15/08, 8:14 AM  

I'm sure you've done this math already but it occurred to me last night that if you hold yourself back and take lots of pictures at WS-100 so that you feel good at the half you are likely to get that under 24hr belt buckle. That has to be a confidence booster.

olga 4/15/08, 9:11 AM  

Aww, Donald ran with camera and took a tin of pictures...yeah, I can't wait for WS! Man, I absolutely loved your last 3 paragraphs, they are so true and so ring the bell! I think you should paste them somewhere for me, or email them to me separetely, please, and I'll save it. Between you and Rick, I want to sign up for this next year!

robb 4/15/08, 10:16 AM  

Great race report!

Echoing another comment, what were your "salt issues"?

And great seeing the photo of Wendell and Sarah... They do a great job!

Wingman 4/15/08, 11:06 AM  

Looks like the pre-race practice turned out to be genius! Great race report - and climbing stairs as part of the race route is just plain mean.

I 100% agree, the journey is always more rewarding and fulfilling than the destination.

Lesser is More 4/15/08, 11:25 AM  

Great report! Let the pictures do the talking. It really gives and idea of the journey.

Thomas 4/15/08, 11:41 AM  

3000 words race reports are too long? Damn! My Connemara race report was almost 3500 words, and that was for only 39 miles.

Why does nobody tell me that sort of things!!!!

Loved your report, btw.

angie's pink fuzzy 4/15/08, 12:30 PM  

what an awesome goal and report. and gorgeous photos!

Anne 4/15/08, 2:01 PM  

Your race reports just keep getting better and better. I love the almost comic tone to this one with the manic picture-taking that almost belies the heroic effort involved in finishing under such punishing conditions. You really nailed the ultra runner too -- right down to the odor.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) 4/15/08, 3:40 PM  

Wow, you did it (held back and still ran a sub-12)! And I will feel less guilty not bringing my camera in the future. I think you're in great shape (and mental mindset) for States.

Formulaic 4/15/08, 4:34 PM  

Great job on the race. Way to find the positve!

You'll be in great shape for the WS 100.

Great pics and RR

Rainmaker 4/15/08, 8:26 PM  

Great race report! I loved all the photos. And I liked your strategy of taking them whenever you mentally wanted to 'move on up'.

Perhaps for Western States ya do one photo per mile. If not the most text, then you can certainly take the cake for the biggest post in size (megabytes). :)


kelly 4/15/08, 9:58 PM  

Great job at Diablo. That is one tough course. I do believe that you will be ready for anything WS hands you! Good luck with your training. Nice blog, too.

RunBubbaRun 4/16/08, 5:21 AM  

Great job out there, always smiles in the pictures.

Looked like a beautiful course.

Great race report and the last paragraphs are so true sometimes..

Rest up..

triguyjt 4/16/08, 5:29 AM  

you, sir had the devil in a head lock in that wrestling match...

loved the report "it happened"

the photo of you at the top was classic...you gotta put that one on the wall in your office. it looks like you are taking a break from jogging around heaven...wow

i was impressed that you took so many photos....
western states should be chock full of images.....
not only are you an excellent wordsmith, you can snap some real nice shots too.
thanks for the report...

stronger 4/16/08, 7:42 AM  

I used to love riding up Mt. Diablo when the hills are green and the wind sweeps the tall grass....ahhh. I should have put two and two together that Diablo 50 was the same Diablo. Nice run Big D.

T Clarke 4/16/08, 8:59 AM  

Donald - Let's see the memoir from a professional! I didn't see this tag on your blog, yet.

Great race at Diablo!

1) Write your own six word memoir

2) Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you want

3) Link to the person that tagged you in your post, and to the original post if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere

4) Tag at least five more blogs with links

5) Leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!

Deene 4/16/08, 11:32 AM  

thanks for sharing. congrats and good job on wrestling the devil. you're right the journey is half the fun of getting there.

Zach 4/16/08, 3:28 PM  

Sounds like you had a great time out there - good pictures too!

That was quite the salt ring you had going on your shirt there.

Addy 4/16/08, 6:05 PM  

Sounds like a wonderful time out there! That was my first trail marathon last year and your post brought back lots of very fond memories. I hope you'll be bringing the camera to WS :)

Congratulations on running a smart and good race out there on diablo!

jen 4/17/08, 1:01 PM  

Congrats Donald! Way to pace yourself and stick to your non-competitive strategy. You are awesome. Great work out there!! :) Great pictures too, look forward to the WS Photo Essay.

Annette 4/17/08, 2:06 PM  

Whew! Long race. . . or was it just the report. (I'm kidding!) ;) The pictures were great - I can't believe you remembered to keep taking them. I probably would've taken one at the beginning and that would've been it. Nice running! I'm impressed with you ultra-runners!

Rahn,  4/17/08, 4:38 PM  

Great report!
I also agree, your last few paragraphs were very well written.

craig 4/17/08, 8:14 PM  

If this is an example of what your WS report is going to be like I am so looking forward to it. Thanks for taking me along.

Speed Racer 4/18/08, 10:33 AM  

I've been lurking around your place many times, and it seems like every time I do a search, your blog is the first to come up. You are such an entertaining writer! And I loved the pictures, although they made my heart ache for California. (I did a bunch of PCTR races while I was there, they're great!)

How is it that ultrarunners write these beautiful blogs about how great the experience was, and they never seem to mention how much it hurts?! It seems like you didn't suffer so much as a blister in 50 miles, and you look fresh as a daisy in the pictures! Solid race. Great job!

momo 4/19/08, 12:46 PM  

somehow you have the ability to take a race like diablo, put words to pictures, and make it ALMOST seem normal.

it looks like a beautiful day out there, your plan seemed to work flawlessly, which has to be a big confidence boost going into ws. and, although it might take me a few days to get through it, i'm really looking forward to that race report.

and 21cm is too cute, isn't she?? :-)

Gretchen 4/20/08, 10:56 PM  

Very well said Donald. I am clearly going to have to add your blog to my favorites list.
Hey, I'm in one of your photos! Well, my butt is anyway, in front of the red shorts guy, at the part where you're talking about how ultra runners smell bad. Hmm, should I be offended? Well, maybe if I was red shorts guy.
I think the photo montage was the cornerstone of a well executed race plan. Plus good pictures really bring a blog to life. You are definitely building expectations for your WS report here. :)
Great job out there!

Spokane Al 4/21/08, 11:11 AM  

Your words used to describe the magnificant race are almost enticing enough for some of the rest of us to give it a try. Then, of course, I sit back down and consider the difficulty I have in avoiding the cracks in the pavement to keep from falling, and know that your words are enough for me.

My Life & Running 5/14/08, 1:29 PM  

Wow Donald, what a race and what an experience you had. All of my late congratulations to you.

I'll admit I got a bit teary at the inspiration of your last paragraph... "Best of What's Around" has been one of my life-theme-songs for a few years now & it's interesting to see how you've applied it to your running and race. You've definitely mastered the "seeing things from a better side than most can dream."

Again, congrats on an amazing accomplishment.

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