"Everybody get dangerous, everybody get dangerous ... Boo-ya!”
- Weezer, “Everybody Get Dangerous” (video after post)
I guess if you’re entering a race named after the devil, there’s bound to be a bit of danger involved.
This year, it seemed like harbingers of doom were lurking around every corner and upon every hillside of the Diablo 50. Ultimately, I managed to fight through all of them and finish the race, but in some ways I’m still not sure how I did it.
The most clear and present danger that faced all the runners was the heat, which was oppressive from the very start. I knew it was a bad omen when I walked out to my car in San Francisco at 5:30 AM wearing a sweatshirt and shorts, and thought to myself, “Gosh, I feel pretty warm – I must be overdressed.” From there, it only got worse, with reports of 95 degrees from various locations on the mountain during the day.
There’s much more to say, of course … but there are also a ton of pictures to go through – so that’s the way I’ll tell the rest of the story.
View from the start line. Both the 50-mile race and the marathon were sold out, which brings up an interesting point: chances are, if you host an event that’s guaranteed to make people suffer, there’s no shortage of masochistic, obsessive-compulsive idiots who will pay money for it. Who says there aren’t any recession-proof business models anymore?
On one of the first climbs of the day, I got an early glimpse of some folks I’d see more of later on: fellow bloggers Gretchen and Rick, plus a dude (in the red shirt) by the name of Graham Cooper. You may know him better as the winner of the 2006 Western States 100. What was a guy like that doing so far back in the pack? Read on.
The first hour is spent climbing a narrow single track trail to the top of Eagle Peak – which is an impressive 2000’ climb, but only serves as a warm-up hill during the first 8-mile push to the Mt Diablo summit.
The girl in the tank top is Gretchen, with whom I shared a few minutes of the first climb. She and I first met each other last year in classic boy-meets-girl fashion: boy takes a picture of girl’s rear end, boy posts picture to his website, girl writes to boy and says “That was me!” It’s the kind of thing that happens every day, right?
We kept in touch by e-mail, and this year I finally got to meet her, um, face to face, so to speak. She’s extremely friendly, plus a great writer and runner to boot – it’s no wonder we get along. (And no, I’m not linking to her picture from last year … but it’s still in my race report on the right sidebar if any perverts out there want to search for it.)
Incidentally, the guy next to Gretchen is a newbie ultrarunner who took part in the following conversation with us …
Gretchen: How’s your training going for Western States?
Me: Pretty good, I think – I’m right where I want to be.
New guy: What’s Western States?
It sounds crazy, but I found his question kind of refreshing. It’s nice to know that the whole world doesn’t revolve around the WS100, like it often seems to at this time of year. Then again, by this time next spring, that guy may be as crazy as the rest of us. Insanity is contagious in this sport.
Eventually we reached the summit for the first time – but of course, even when you’re at the top, you’re not done climbing …
… because you still have to climb the stairs to the top.
As you’d expect, the views from the top are killer. San Francisco is visible here in the background at right-center.
I happened to reach the observation tower at the same time as Rick, so we exchanged pictures. There used to be a time when I could keep up with Rick, but not anymore – he’s simply too fast. So even though I bid him farewell for the day, I was still feeling pretty good about things – but keep in mind that the race was less than one-fifth over.
Descending from the summit, there’s a tricky balance you have to strike between enjoying the breathtaking vistas, but not straying too far off the narrow trail that hugs the side of the hill. One misstep through here could ruin your whole day.
Here’s all you really need to know about Diablo: it’s tempting to look at the course profile and think, “Sure, it has a lot of uphill, but you can make up the time going down.” Then you get to trails like this, which drop precipitously downward for several miles at a time, and you feel your quads blowing up with every step. In other words, the uphills are brutal, but the downhills can be even worse. Welcome to Diablo.
Another shot of the first descent from the summit, where you can see the trail continuing to wind downward in the distance. What you can’t see are the thousand or so black flies that decided to swarm me right as I took this picture. They would prove to be a problem for the entire day; in some places, it felt like we were running through a hailstorm – except, of course, that real hail isn’t nearly as disgusting as being pelted with hundreds of little bugs. But maybe that’s just me.
You know how when you’re on a roller coaster, and you’re cresting the first big hill, and the track is so steep that you can’t even see it below your cart? That’s what this fire road is like. The first hill you see here plunges downward faster than you can say California Screamin'. Have I made my point about the downhills yet?
I eventually made my way into a very pretty 5-mile loop, just as the heat of the day was taking a stranglehold on the race. There’s an aid station tent at the beginning and end of this loop; after the race, one of the RDs (Sarah) told me that the temperature in the shade of the tent was 90 degrees.
Have I mentioned before that I like cows? Even though they're off in the distance (under the tree - click to enlarge), you know they'd have to be part of the race report. These guys were smart enough to seek out the little bit of shade that was available – but not all the hoofed creatures were quite so lucky …
I can only guess this is the “Let’s ride our horses on the hottest day of the year” club. Maybe this isn’t a big deal for the horses – but with the amount of sweating I was doing in struggling with the heat, I kind of felt sorry for them. Of course, they weren’t the ones paying money to do this – so who’s the bigger fool?
Rock City is always a welcome sight, as it roughly marks the halfway point of the race. The trouble is, it always much farther away than it seems. From this point on the fire road, you think, “Hey – there’s Rock City! I must be getting close!” And then 30 minutes later, you wonder why in the heck you don’t seem to be getting any closer.
Normally, this rock would be covered with climbers and picnickers enjoying a sunny afternoon. When it’s 95 degrees outside, not so much.
Leaving the Rock City aid station begins a 6-mile out and back (12 miles total) stretch which is a nice place to regain your legs. The trail starts out shady, smooth, and gently downhill. Of course, you’ll have to come all the way back up these trails on the return trip – but that’s a detail you try to ignore on the long descent.
And since this is Diablo, just as you’re getting comfortable, another huge hill is always just up the trail.
The turnaround point is somewhere down underneath those trees. Remember those roller coaster downhills? They’re not limited to the first half of the race. Also by this point, the shade has vanished, and the heat was becoming overbearing.
In fact, even the snakes were seeking out some shade. If you’re keeping track at home, thus far we have a devil mountain with murderous climbs, infernal heat, swarming pests, and now serpents. Good times!
I first met these two guys early in the race: That’s Graham Cooper on the left, and Erik Skaden on the right. Last year, they did this race as a training run, and were co-winners while barely breaking a sweat. This year, they happened to do a 200-mile bike ride on the day before Diablo. At the mile 31 aid station, they were at least considerate enough to look tired for the rest of us – but by the end of the day, they would end up passing all but a few runners.
Many years ago, after watching Jack Nicklaus dominate the 1965 Masters, golfer Bobby Jones remarked that “Nicklaus is playing a game with which I’m not familiar.” That’s how I feel about these two: they’re doing a kind of training with which I’m not familiar. If one of these guys wins Western States this June, come look at this picture to see where the foundation was laid.
(On a related note, I totally respect those guys … but they’re completely screwing up the sympathy meter for the rest of us. I was going to start this post with some remark about having dead legs from a regular training week – but when I heard about the 200 mile bike ride, I didn’t even bother. Basically, none of us can complain with a straight face anymore. This is a bad development for me.)
After returning to Rock City, we begin a long, grueling climb towards the second summit trip of the day. I had been gradually slowing up to here, and on this climb, the wheels completely fell off. I was feeling lightheaded, and could barely muster enough energy to maintain forward progress, nevermind actually trying to jog any of it. I was totally and absolutely drained – and there were still 13 miles to go.
By the time I made it to the Juniper aid station at mile 40, I felt like a dead man walking. This was the first time I have ever contemplated dropping from a race, and the notion was only dispelled by a simple calculation that it might take me just as long to wait for a ride as it would to simply walk myself down the dang mountain.
Finally, I reached the summit for the second time, where a tourist volunteered to take my picture. Since the shot is only from the waist up, you can’t see my legs quivering below. That’s probably a good thing.
Here’s more Diablo charm for you: the last 8 miles are unsupported, and billed as a downhill segment. But see that little hill below? We have to go up and over it as part of the “downhill”” portion. However, as I indicated before, uphill or downhill really didn’t matter at this point – the final miles were going to be painful any way you approached them.
I tried to distract myself with taking in the views for my final trip of the day, and was even able to break into a minor shuffle on the single track descent. I wouldn’t even call it running – my average pace was over 15 min/mile going downhill – but I was making steady progress to the finish, and I knew I’d ultimately get there.
One last look back at the summit on my way down. You know how former Alcatraz prisoners would sometimes return to San Francisco and stare across the bay for hours on end, contemplating their experience there? Seeing the Diablo tower one last time reminded me of that story. I was definitely in a weary state of mind.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been more happy to see a finish line as I was at the end of this race. Wendell (the other RD) was there to shake my hand, and I immediately sought out the nearest picnic table to collapse onto. It was a very long time before I had the strength to get off the table and walk around.
Rick had already been there for an hour, and he hung around long enough to take one more picture. I’m not keeping up with him in races anymore, but as you can tell, I’m much faster than him when it comes to putting away a slice of pizza. So there.
In the aftermath of this race, I wasn’t sure how to feel about my performance. On one hand, I ran a few minutes faster than last year, on what felt like an even warmer day, when a lot of other runners turned in slower than usual times. On the other, I crashed harder than almost any other time I can remember, and that’s an experience I’d rather not go through ever again.
What I keep coming back to is the lesson I learned at this race a year ago: that ultras are meant to hurt. They’re meant to batter your body and break your spirit and test to see if you can keep going when there’s no rational justification for doing so. There might be a bit of danger in doing so, but it’s generally not life-threatening or otherwise catastrophic – consequently, it’s the kind of danger that everyone can appreciate.
At Diablo, things got a little more dangerous than I had bargained for - but in the long run, that’s what makes it a truly memorable race.
I’ve been digging up some strange videos lately – first it was the Spanish language Metallica concert clip, and now this one featuring the introductory song lyrics. It’s some random dude’s home mash-up of action movies, but it actually goes very well with the music. If Weezer ever makes an official video for this song, I’ll post it here – but in the meantime, enjoy this very cool homemade version.
Weezer, “Everybody Get Dangerous” (click to play)