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April 21, 2009

Diablo 50M 2009 Race Report

"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.

Before I could go downhill, there was still about a mile and a half to the summit … which took me almost 40 minutes. I think I jogged about 10 steps of it. The trail seemed pretty merciless at this stage.

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)


Billy Burger 4/21/09, 6:53 PM  

Holy crap, those are some beautiful pictures. I love Sarah and Wendell's races (doing Skyline this Sunday as a matter of fact) and this one certainly sounds great too. Um, save for the running 50 miles part.

Great job out there and thanks for the write up. On my list for next year!

Dan 4/21/09, 7:21 PM  

Race reports are always so much better with pictures and yours are just perfect. I especially liked the "ICY" sign at the entrance to the observation tower in the first summit shot. You wish!

Victoria 4/21/09, 7:57 PM  

I am so head-over-heels for Diablo right now, and your pictures only cemented my total infatuation for the mountain. Congratulations on finishing a rough, rough course-- while I definitely am coming back to actually RUN Diablo, the 50 is a painful course and you ran really well. Great report/pics.

Jo Lynn 4/21/09, 8:43 PM  

What a nice report. Man, I forgot about the flies when I posted mine! And I didn't see ANY cows. Grrrr. You did great. Thanks for the nice writing. ;)

craig 4/21/09, 10:58 PM  

Thanks Donald for the generosity in taking and sharing the pictures of this race. I'm impressed that you managed to smile at the second summit. What kind of snake do we have there? And I'm wondering if there is a story behind the braclet you are wearing in the pizza shot.

Rick Gaston 4/22/09, 12:18 AM  

DB, I didn't have the heart to tell you at the time but that was my second slice of pizza and I can't believe that Skaden and Cooper had a nice sit down lunch at he Juniper aid station and still caught me a half mile from the finish with their "double century" legs. If I could have bowed down as they passed I would have but instead I just shouted "you guys are amazing!". Well all kidding aside, that was a rough day. I'm glad to see you made it home safely after that post race burrito. I was worried it'd put you to sleep on the way home. I haven't experienced another race where some of the downhills were as unpalatable as the uphills, unbelievable. I don't even know why I'm still surprised, I was there last year! The mind's ability to make you forget the bad stuff is truly amazing. It was good hanging out and running with you. Thanks for the pictures and I wish you the best on the rest of your training for Western States. By the way good decision not to drop at Juniper. Brian W. dropped there last year and they didn't get him down until 9PM.

I will end with what Leslie (sunshine girl) left on my comment box: "...I feel like I've been on a 3 day drinking bender, complete with bar brawl."

Gretchen 4/22/09, 12:42 AM  

I was about to get all excited that you posted a picture of me in a race, running in front of Graham Cooper! Then you had to ruin it by telling everyone how to find the picture of my butt. Great. ;)
I was also amused by your mention of the Western States exchange. I had a very similar transcript of the conversation in my race report (I've since edited it out) complete with the statement that "I found the question refreshing." Great minds, and all that I guess...
Anyhow, I'm glad to see you persevered. You are a tough and talented runner.
And it really was a pleasure getting to meet you in person. I definitely plan on being at States in some form or an other, so I'll have my eye out for you...let me know if you need crew or anything.
I've finished writing my report, but I still have to do the big photo sort, and it's well past my bed time, so hopefully you'll see a blog post from me in the morning.

Drs. Cynthia and David 4/22/09, 12:48 AM  

Great job and race report. It was my first attempt at the Devil, and clearly I needed more training or heat adaptation or something! I missed the cutoff second time at Rock City, just as my energies were returning - now I'll never rest until I finish this thing!

The heat was amazing and unwelcome, but I loved all the ups and downs, even as they sapped my energies. You captured the experience very well, except for the actual pain, which is of course starting to fade already!


Bruce 4/22/09, 3:48 AM  

Thats looks like some adventure, and those downhills sound pretty wicked. Great photos too.

Dave 4/22/09, 6:05 AM  

Donald, great report, great pics. I understand thinking to yourself and questioning why am I doing such crazy antics that cause me to suffer beyond what I really intended. My guess, in a couple of weeks you forget that intense suffering and say to yourself...if I do this or that I can do better next year. It's the cross us endurance guys carry around with us. My motto is to never say I will never do something again while I am in the flames of torment...or in this case the flames of Diablo's Hell.


Annette 4/22/09, 8:53 AM  

The course looks beautifully brutal! Great scenery/location, but nasty hills! I'm wondering how you managed to look so fresh in your photos. Impressive! Great job - running even a short distance in those temps can do a person in. Way to survive it. :)

21stCenturyMom 4/22/09, 9:15 AM  

Great report. Oh how I love the mountain. I like it best on my bike but I've run a trail or 2 and they are so beautiful - if you only run 6 or 10 miles. Can't say as I've run to the top of the mountain or that I ever will - I'll leave that to you nutty ultra people.

Pete 4/22/09, 9:18 AM  

Your race and your race report both do that great mountain justice, Donald. Thanks for sharing.

olga 4/22/09, 10:09 AM  

Oh, man, that was beautifully written! I love suffer-fest stories the best! After all, I am a master at those:) The boy "What's WS?" is hilarious and yes, a good reminder not everybody (read - almost nobody) really knows about stinking crazy thing we do. What ARE they doing? Photos are gorgeous, I gotta get my ass to this course and share the misery. Right now I am just going into "forgotten" misery of ZG and hike my "over 15min/mile" downhills and 30min/mile uphills with a smile, and yeah, take lots of pictures!
Glad you're feeling good about the race. This is THE most important part in any training - and in any life.

runningcommentaries 4/22/09, 1:09 PM  

What a great race report-- it was so, so hot this weekend. I'm impressed you got through it, but it's going to make you so tough for States. I've biked Diablo and cannot imagine running up (or down) the summit.

And wow, Skaden and Cooper make me want to bow to their greatness. That is insane. Looking forward to seeing all 3 of you at Auburn High!

Alisa 4/22/09, 3:22 PM  

Wow, what awesome photos! I've only hiked Diablo, I can't imagine running it!

You are an inspiration.

stronger 4/22/09, 3:37 PM  

Ouch. I can recall some of those blazing hot days just reading your report. I think I broke a sweat. I'll take it on a 50-60 degree day. But only around 10miles worth. Awesome work.

Backofpack 4/22/09, 5:29 PM  

Wow, those views are something! Great report (as usual) Donald. I still say it was some of the best prep for WS you could give yourself. You didn't mention Leslie - did you get to meet her?

Oz Runner 4/23/09, 4:33 AM  

excellent race report and great pics too...sounds like a fun, though challenging race....love the pic of the cows in the shade, they seem to be the only smart ones...

Sunshine Girl 4/23/09, 8:21 PM  

Yes, Michelle. I was Donald's Diablo Stalker. Bwaaa-ha-ha!

That was some kind of sick fun out there, I think I already have post race amnesia and am already excited to do it all again! It was great to meet you!

Rainmaker 4/23/09, 10:04 PM  

1) There's nothing worse than walking out the door on race morning and feeling the heat...before the sun rises.

2) For the record, I went back and looked at the 2008 report, and the photographic-quality-level of said women's rear wasn't what I was expecting. Clearly you've improved your picture-taking skills since then.

3) Seems like you attract much of the livestock...horses, cows, sheep...and apparently a sketchy snake.

4) Completely whacky about those two runners having this be a casual training race. Of course, everything's relative I guess.

5) Nicely done on the pizza. I'll be honest - those kidna skills are where it counts.

Seriously though - huge congrats - 50 miles in those kinda conditions would kill most of us. Plus, I'd end up vowing to never run again. Awesome job!

Sarah Lavender Smith 4/24/09, 1:44 PM  

Great report and a pleasure to discover your blog. I like you how you presented the report through captions to your excellent photo. Great job! I've run Diablo a few times but not the 50M. My blog if you're interested: www.sarahlavendersmith.com/blog

Danni 4/25/09, 6:05 AM  

I love your report -- very funny! Congrats on running a very impressive Diablo!!! I'm amazed by you "finishing in the light" folks ;)

sara 4/26/09, 2:46 PM  

congrats on the race and i loved the pictures. i've hiked up Diablo before and was cursing every step ... can't imagine running up that thing. glad you enjoyed the race and survived the heat!

jen 4/26/09, 8:58 PM  

Congratulations! Those pictures are so beautiful - makes me miss CA! The heat sounds miserable but you ran a very strong race. Great job out there!

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) 5/1/09, 2:25 AM  

Awesome report, Donald, and way to gut out your last 13 miles. I think I'll know where to go to steal some some awesome photos for a possible future Diablo race report-- thanks in advance!

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