A Day on Mt. Diablo
Back in February, I picked out the Mt. Diablo Marathon as a training run en route to my attempt at the TRT100. I figured it would be about the right distance for my training at this point, and I knew it was a challenging course. I needed work on my downhill running, and Diablo clearly offered the opportunity. My goals going into the race were to get in a solid day of training, and give myself that motivational boost I always get from immersing myself in a crowd of other runners. Although there were some adventures along the way, I can happily report that I survived a solid training run!
I spent Friday night at a friend’s house about 20 minutes from the starting line. Although I wasn’t particularly nervous about the race, I had put in a full week of mileage already, and I knew the predicted 90 degree temps for the day could make things, well...unpredictable. I spent most of the night checking the time on my watch instead of sleeping. Finally at 5:30 I arose, donned shorts and a tank top for the first time in probably 7 months, and slathered myself with sunscreen. I ate my bagel and banana in the car, and headed off to the nearest Starbucks for a much needed venti coffee. Say what you want about Starbucks, but at least they’re open at 6:00 am, and their coffee is strong.
My caffeine needs getting satiated, I sat at a stoplight at a deserted intersection, confident that I should arrive at the start about a half hour before the race began. I was looking forward to the day, and as I gingerly sipped my coffee in an attempt to avoid burning my tongue, the light turned yellow.
Wait. Yellow? Huh??
Since lights don’t generally turn from yellow to green, I stepped on the gas to get through the intersection quickly. Had I really been sitting stopped at a green light? I shook my head and took another swig of coffee. I reasoned that the caffeine had not hit my bloodstream yet. Unfortunately, the oversight turned out to be more of an omen for the rest of my day.
I arrived at the start with just enough time to check in, gear-up and hit the bathroom before heading to the starting line. There was a good sized crowd gathered, and I didn’t have much time for socializing since Wendell was already giving pre-race instructions. I positioned myself somewhere in the middle, knowing that I didn’t want to go out too fast, but also recognizing that many of the runners were going 50 miles and would undoubtedly be starting at an even slower pace than myself. When Wendell asked if this was anyone’s first marathon or 50 miler, several folks actually raised their hands. I was blown away that anyone would choose this as a first attempt at either distance. I sincerely hoped all of those first timers would have a good day.
As we set off into the shadow of the mountain, the trail immediately began to climb. The first thing I noticed was the plentiful amount of oxygen available at this altitude. I had no trouble with a slow steady jog up the hill, and soon found myself on single track in a long train of runners.
The trail wound up to the spine of a ridge that I immediately dubbed the devil's backbone. We were thrust into the bright morning sunshine which still only whispered of the day's impending heat. A line of runners was strung out before me on the ridge like popcorn on a Christmas tree. The lush green of spring covered the hillside, and it was painted here and there with a colorful palette of wildflowers. As I cruised along the backbone, I attempted to absorb the stunning vistas and watch my footing at the same time: a serious but worthwhile challenge! As we moved through some short, loose bits of downhill, I suddenly found my feet in the air and my butt smacking down hard on the dirt. I discovered the advantage to handheld water bottles is that they protect your palms in a fall, but the disadvantage is that using them to brace my fall caused me to squirt GU2O all over my legs. Ick! I quickly assessed the damage at zero, brushed myself off and kept going.
The fact that we were well into the race at this point and still climbing didn’t worry me too much. I knew the course climbed all the way to the summit, headed down the other side, and then promptly returned to the summit before heading back down towards the start/finish area. In short: we would either be ascending or descending all day. At times, flowering shrubs croweded the narrow trail, and the air was thick with their intoxicating perfume. In spite of the hot day, this was clearly the best time of year to be on Diablo.
I soon found myself at the 3800 foot summit of Mt. Diablo, which required climbing all the way to the top of the observation deck. I paused for a moment to take in the view and re-pay some oxygen debt. Although still early, the day was a bit hazy, and I had trouble identifying any significant landmarks. I knew that deep blue sea was out there somewhere, but the coastline was hidden safely under a curtain of fog. With a satisfied smile I skipped down the steps two at a time beginning the long descent to the marathon turnaround point.
Dodging the oncoming traffic, I took a left turn clearly marked with a stripped ribbon. At this point the 50 mile course and the marathon course were still following the same trail. Based on my one previous experience at a PCTR event, I had decided to give the course map a good study the night before. This is not because the courses are poorly marked; in fact they are quite thoroughly and clearly marked. I am just aware that when there are multiple distances being run at the same time, and the course is routed through various intersections or aid stations more than once, I get easily confused. When I ran the Muir Beach trail run, I managed to stay on course mostly by questioning the volunteers at every aid station about where to go next. Fortunately for me, they all knew the course well. I remembered though that following my own color of ribbon, among the myriad of other colored ribbons, had required paying close attention, something which is challenging for me when I get tired.
Unfortunately, in spite of doing my route-studying homework, I still wasn’t sure exactly where I was on the course. The map in my mind had turned into a confusing jumble of pink and yellow arrows smeared across a zebra of contour lines. That zebra was currently galloping away through the grass towards the ocean.
And so it seems inevitable that I arrived at the Juniper Oak aid station to hear a volunteer say, “Uh oh, we have a marathon runner.”
“What?” I asked, already knowing exactly what that comment must mean.
After volunteers informed me I had made a wrong turn, I immediately commenced with a small bout of swearing. My sincere apologies to the aid station workers and any runners who may have been offended by my initial reaction! My mind was imaging that I would now have to finish a 40+ mile day or drop out, and I was bummed. Fortunately Sarah, one of the RD’s, was there and told me I had just missed a turn about a mile back where the marathon and 50 mile courses split. This meant that I had only added two miles to my marathon, which was actually a considerable relief. I refilled my bottles with water, and said to the volunteer helping me, “Well, I came here for a training run, so now I’m just getting some bonus miles!”
I headed back the way I had come in acceptance of my fate, and happily noted that it was easy downhill going this direction. I recalled that I had seen a runner with a number heading down when I had still been running towards the aid station, and realized that I probably wasn’t the only one to make a wrong turn. I wondered then, why that returning marathoner hadn’t warned me of my mistake, instead of letting me run all the way to the aid station to find out. The devil take the hindmost, eh? I vowed to check the race number of the runners coming towards me incase any of them were mistaken marathoners that I could help out. As I neared the intersection where the courses split, I saw a couple of men with marathon numbers coming towards me running with some 50 mile runners. “The marathon course goes this way,” I called, pointing in the direction of the other turn. They agreed with me, but continued the way they were headed. I shrugged, thinking maybe they had upgraded at the start to the 50 mile race. Anyway, I had done my duty.
Now happily back on track, I headed down the trail towards the marathon turn around. There were a few stretches of steep downhill, and I found myself taking them at almost a walk, cautiously stepping through loose gravel, trying to avoid landing on my butt again. Eventually I saw another runner coming towards me. Was this the marathon leader headed back? To be honest, this guy did not look like an elite runner, and I had definitely seen one or two fast runners on the list of entrants. I was wondering if anyone had dropped out, when the truth dawned on me with a slow sinking feeling. Those men who had ignored my directions earlier were the marathon leaders!
I felt like a complete idiot. They had ignored my directions because of course they had already run this part of the course. Although I was immensely relieved they had ignored me, I still felt like I had nearly caused a serious disaster and I felt terrible. From now on, I promised myself, I would never give directions unless I had complete and intimate knowledge of the course. I was beginning to understand why the other marathoner who had gone the wrong way hadn’t said anything to me.
As I neared the aid station, I began to see more runners coming towards me. I was still feeling like a jerk for giving misinformation to the lead runners, but just kept reminding myself that they had been too smart to listen to me, so no harm done. I saw the women who had been right in front of me and right behind me earlier, and realized that I had been in second place when I had gone the wrong way. I decided it was probably better this way, since I would have undoubtedly started racing and getting competitive if I though I had a shot at finishing in the top 3. With no such opportunity now, I simply continued on toward the aid station.
After reaching the turn around, I noticed that somehow I was miraculously in 10th place. I attributed this mostly to the fact that there were something like 12 women entered in the race. It would be a long climb back to the summit, and I settled in for the ascent with a steady hiking pace. Although my heart rate was high, I knew I could continue the pace for a long time. I was going up a particularly steep section when I noticed a runner coming the other way had stopped.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he breathed, “just a cramp.” I offered him a Salt Stick Cap, which he gladly accepted. I was pleased they turned out to be useful, since I had been carrying them all day but hadn’t taken any. I also marveled at how ultrarunners will happily swallow a pill produced by a stranger from a little ziplock baggie full of unlabeled white pills. Seems pretty sketchy when you think about it, doesn’t it? ;)
Back at the junction where I had made my wrong turn, I crossed paths with a confused marathon runner.
“Where do I go?” He asked desperately. I was terrified of giving him directions. I interviewed him thoroughly.
“You’re running the marathon?” I inquired.
“Have you run the out and back section yet?”
“Okay,” I was pretty confident now, "you go this way until the turnaround. Then when you get back to this intersection, you go that way."
We parted ways, and I felt a little better. Perhaps, I thought, if I could help more people in this race than I harm, I can neutralize the bad karma I have surely incurred. In a series of changing promises to myself, I now vowed to become a do-gooder trail fairy for the rest of the day. To be honest, picking up the few GU wrappers I found on the trail did make me feel better, and I wondered why I hadn’t been doing that from the outset anyway.
At about this time, a man I had been chatting with earlier came up behind me. We were still hiking, and his pace moved him slowly by me. As he moved ahead, he let slip the admonishment “Don’t chick me” through his labored breathing. I managed a good natured laugh in response. I knew he was a nice guy, and that he didn’t mean anything rude by the comment, but the following paragraphs were already forming in my mind as I hiked.
I have planned at various times to write an entire blog post on this topic, but have been somewhat unsure of exactly how to tackle it appropriately. Well, here goes. What it comes down to for me is this:
The use of the word chick as a verb has got to stop.
When it comes to ultra running I think this word is frequently employed because maybe the playing field for men and women is just a bit closer to level than it is in other sports. I just don’t think the men who use it understand how it makes them sound. Yes, I know most of the men who lament “I got chicked!” are nice guys who probably don’t actually mind getting beaten by women in a race. In fact, sometimes I think guys really believe this is some way of showing respect to those fast women who almost always beat them. In most ultras, the elite women are faster than over 90% of the men’s field. (That’s just my estimate, not an exact figure.) Should all those men really feel bad about themselves? When talented women like Bev-Anderson Abbs, who took 3rd overall in the 50 mile race at Diablo, come in ahead of you, can you really feel bad about it? No. And I know that most, if not all, of those men do not feel bad about it. So why comment on it at all?
I don’t let my students get away with using that phrase, just like I don’t let them get away with using “retarded” or “gay” as a slur. If you don’t understand why this term can be rude, or even offensive, let me put it in another context. When someone says “you got chicked,” this is what I see:
Two 10-year-old boys are on the playground. One just took second in the playground races at recess. The winner was a girl. The boy laughs and points at his friend, crying in a sing-song voice, “You got beat by a girr-rel! You got beat by a girr-rel!”
No kidding guys, this is what you sound like. A 10-year-old. And how do you think the girl in that scenario feels? The loud and clear message is that it is shameful to be slower than a girl. So even if you think I’m just some uptight feminist chick, could you please do me a favor? Don’t pass this phrase on to the next generation. Please don’t say it in front of your sons, or even worse, your daughters. Don’t say it in front of anyone else’s sons or daughters for that matter. Don’t tell them that being a girl is anything to be ashamed of.
So enough of that diatribe, back to the race. After reaching the summit for the second time that day, I was pleased to discover that I only had 8 miles to go. I knew a good portion of the 8 miles would be downhill, and I was looking forward to an easy descent to the finish line. Unfortunately those 8 miles confirmed something I already knew: down hills are not my strength. I cruised when I could through the mellow stretches, but whenever it got steep and sketchy, I found myself slowly picking my way through the mess. Eventually my knees and quads were starting to feel it and I wondered just how far I was from the finish. I was running with a few other people at that point, and one guy had a GPS. He informed us that we still had 5 miles to go. It was clearly going to take me longer than I thought to finish this thing.
I kept reminding myself to eat, and shoved down a few clif blox here and there. I always stop eating when I get near the finish, but at the pace I was going, the finish wasn’t going to come as soon as I’d like.
Heading down some singletrack switchbacks, I suddenly tripped. I had some pretty good momentum going and I did not want to fall. I almost caught myself with my next step, then my next, and once again. With each near miss I seemed to gain speed and finally I was airborne and heading for the bushes. The whole experience seemed to take forever, and my brain went like this: “Oh shit, I’m gonna crash. Oh, maybe not! Damn! Wait, maybe not! Shit! Yup, I’m flying through the air, this is not good. Oh God, is that poison oak? Crap. It doesn’t look like it, but I’m not sure. Turn your head! Don’t get it on your face!!” Then my actual voice went like this, “Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!” CRASH!
Fortunately for me I landed in the bushes and dirt, not on any rocks. I got up, but this time it took me a little longer to assess the damage. First of all I was mortified at my own screaming, and checked to make sure there were no other runners around. There weren’t. Hmm, I thought shakily, maybe that’s why it’s embarrassing to get beaten by a girl. I sound like a frigging idiot. Maybe we should just change the phrase to “don’t Gretchen me,” because I can see how that might be embarrassing.
I confirmed the absence of poison oak from the vicinity and started a tentative jog. My left arm was on fire, but I didn’t really see any wounds. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself and shuffled along down the hill. When I came to a creek crossing, I gratefully stopped to soak my bandana and wash the dirt from my legs. I discovered two bloody knees, a bloody elbow and slightly bloody shoulder. None of it was very severe, and I felt much better after cleaning off.
Nearing the finish now, I spotted a young coyote trotting gracefully through the grass. It was beautiful, and I smiled. It’s natural athleticism provided a stark contrast to the way I felt at that moment. I was clearly a stranger in it’s home.
A few minutes later I gratefully crossed the finish line.
When I had made my final climb to the top of the observation deck in the race, I had considered running an additional 2 miles after the race was over. I’d run 28, and I thought I might as well bring it up to an even 30 for the day. After my fall, I’d scrapped the plan in a bout of self pity. Now I gave it another thought. I sipped an ice cold coke, and was about to refill my bottles for the 2 mile jaunt, when I spotted a creek in the shade near the finish line. Hmm, I could run 2 more miles, or I could drink this coke while sitting in that creek and soaking my legs. I decided that 2 miles was not going to make or break my chances at TRT. The icy water was the perfect tonic for my tired legs.
After changing and donning my flip flops, I headed back to the shade for pizza. I enjoyed chatting with some other women that I'd met on the course, but I was somehow missing that post race glow. I finally checked the results to see that I had finished 4th woman. I couldn’t believe it. How had I managed that? Sarah even gave me props, saying I had run really well considering the extra 2 miles. My finish time was 6:30, and I felt okay about it since I had initially estimated it would be 6 hours. The results also showed my pace, which was an agonizingly slow 15 minutes per mile. Now I’m sorry, but that is just slow. Then I noticed that the first place woman came in at 6:03. I started thinking how I might have finished if I hadn’t made a wrong turn. Then I realized I had been going faster than 15 minute pace because I actually ran 28 miles not 26. So what did that mean? I’ll tell you what it means: The math is irrelevant. I finished in 6:30 and took 4th woman, and I think I can feel pretty good about that. As my husband said when I told him about my day, “I guess that’s all part of it, isn’t it?” And he is exactly right.
It will not be surprising to you to hear that the 15 minute drive to the freeway took me 45 minutes. Yes, I got lost. I was just cruising along on a street that should have gone straight to the freeway, when I noticed that the name of the street had changed. How did that happen? I consulted the map. Maybe the map was wrong. I kept going. Finally I decided my best recourse was to turn around. As I was headed back I crossed a street that I recognized from the incorrect map. After several turns, I followed a sign that said “freeway” into a mall parking lot. Huh? Where was the freeway? Clearly my map sucked. After another 10 minutes of frustration I was finally on the freeway heading home.
The next day I still felt pretty crummy. Could my electrolytes really be that far out of whack? I consumed food and fluids all day, with no improvement. It finally dawned on me that I was sick. (The sore throat tipped me off!) Maybe this could account for my lack of attentiveness to my surroundings on race day. So as luck would have it my plan of training through this race didn’t completely work out. I took two unplanned days off after the race in an attempt to recover from the mystery ailment. Unfortunately it’s still lingering, but I did manage to get close to my mileage goal for this week.
Thanks so much to Sarah and Wendell and all the volunteers for being out there on a hot day and doing such a great job. I really appreciate the opportunity that these races provide. Congratulations to all the runners in the marathon and the 50 mile race, and especially to the “first timers.” You guys rock!
Unfortunately I am withough my camera at the moment, so for some real race-day photos and great reports on the 50 mile event check out: