Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Return to Diablo

Week number three in my “race every weekend in April” extravaganza brought me back to that hot, hellish, yet beautiful mountain known as Diablo. In thinking about why this race has gotten so popular, (both the marathon and 50 miler sold out this year) I concluded that it must be the challenging course, beautiful scenery and strong sense of camaraderie present at this race. Whatever the reason, it seems to draw a good percentage of the ultra-runners in Northern California (and beyond!) When I scanned the list of entrants a week before the race, I was excited to see many familiar names. I think it was the pleasure of these friendships, and new ones made on the trail, that made this year at Diablo special.

The weekend began when Prudence and I piled in my trus
ty Forester and headed down the hill from Tahoe on Saturday morning. Even in Truckee it was hot, and I had to change into shorts to be comfortable for the drive. This did not bode well for the next day’s temperatures at Diablo! We planned to stay at a hostel in Marin—still a bit of a drive from the starting line, but beautiful, affordable, and with an abundance of trails on which to spend Saturday afternoon.

On the drive down we planned the future of trail running in Tahoe. (Ask Prudence about her future RD duties!) We got pretty excited about ideas for some upcoming adventures, and soon enough we were in Marin, where it was about 20 degrees cooler.

As planned, our late afternoon run on the Coastal Trail through the Marin Headlands was a perfect answer to the stiffness of the long drive. I made the mistake of letting Prudence take the lead, and was reminded of one of the things that makes her such a wicked fast runner: she’s a killer on the downhills! Even though she was taking it easy, I still couldn’t keep up with her down those hills. Fortunately for me the terrain was rolling, and I enjoyed a fun game of pushing the uphills to close the gap that would inevitably re-open on the next downhill. We spent the rest of the afternoon stretching out, and cooking dinner in the vast kitchen of the hostel.

The first challenge of the weekend came at 5:00 am Sunday morning when we discovered that someone had parked their car and blocked us into the parking lot. We freaked, naturally. We had no way to get back into the hostel, nor any knowledge of whose car it was even if we could. Desperate, I finally set off a car alarm. That awoke a rather grumpy hosteller, who grudgingly stumbled out into the dark to move his car. We had no sympathy for him, but we were relieved nonetheless. We were running late, but we knew we would make it. Disaster averted!

We eventually parked the car at the Mitchell Canyon trailhead at 6:40. We had both been hoping to arrive by 6:15, not only to keep things feeling relaxed, but also to socialize with friends we might not get to see once the race started. Instead, we found ourselves rushing to check-in and get to the start on time.

As the crowed of runners headed toward the start, I heard someone call my name. I was excited to see Leslie, and to finally meet Keith.

“Your race report from Diablo last year is what convinced me to come this year!” Keith declared.

“Oh God!” I was slightly mortified. “You actually read that comedy of errors?” We laughed and enjoyed a shared enthusiasm for the potential of the day ahead.

Leslie and Keith

The race began, and we set off up the hill into the light of the rising sun. The trail turned to single track and the colorful ribbon of runners wrapped smoothly up and around the lush hillside. The air was still comfortable, but a warm breeze whispered of the torrid day to come.

Early miles of uphill single-track (photo courtesy of Sean Stephenson)

We had to limit ourselves to the pace of the runners ahead, and I was content with this. We ran some of the hill, but walked much of the steeper sections. I felt like I was moving at the right pace, and enjoyed the company of other runners. As I pulled out my camera for a photo, I noticed not only the runner in front of me doing the same, but several runners ahead Rick Gaston was also going for the photo-op. I couldn’t resist the urge to heckle such a display of paparazzi! (I hope you know it was just me teasing, Rick!)

During the week preceding this race, I had been learning to play “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” on the guitar. I’m here to tell you that nothing gets a so
ng stuck in your head like learning to play it on the guitar. Even with an easy song such as this, by the time I have it dialed, I’ve played it so many times that I don’t ever want to hear it again. Even worse—with this particular song I don’t know the words all that well, thus I found myself plodding up the slopes singing in my head, “I walk a lonely road, the only one that I have ever known. Don’t know where it goes, but it’s only me and I walk alone.” Then all I can recall after that is the part that goes, “I walk alone I walk alone, I walk alone I walk alone.” Sort of an inauspicious refrain to loop through one’s brain on a long, hot trail run. Fortunately, it did not turn out to be an omen of any sort.

We moved off the single track and on to the dirt roa
d, and this allowed a pleasant amount of socializing as runners variously passed one another and grouped up. I ran a bit with Scott from Sacramento, who was running his first trail marathon, and exchanged speculations with others about whether today would be as hot as last year’s race.

I heard my name posed as a question, as a tall runner came up beside me. It was a familiar face, but one that I had yet to meet in person.

“Donald!” I declared in delight, as he smiled his affirmation. I have been an admirer of Donald’s blog for some time now, and it was one of the bigger disappointments of my rushed morning that I had been forced to cross “find Donald and say hi” off my pre-race checklist. This serendipitous trail meeting however, more than made up for it. I resisted the urge to greet him with a hug on the run, visualizing the trip-and-crash into the dirt that it would inevitably cause. (I thought that might leave a bad first impression.) We shared a few minutes running together, exchanging training and racing tales, before his faster pace moved him ahead up the hill.

Donald and Rick--still fresh and full of smiles! (photo courtesy of Sean Stephenson)

About this time I met a couple from Calgary, running the 50 mile event.

“So,” I hesitated, “This is going to sound kind of dumb. I mean, I don’t really think that everyone in Canada knows each other or anything, but do you guys know Leslie?”

“Oh yeah! She only lives about 45 minutes away.” came the response. (Whew, they didn’t think I was stupid for asking!) “Anyway,” the woman went on, “I think wherever Leslie goes, she immediately gets to know everyone within a 5 mile radius.” And we all proceeded to espouse the various brilliant aspects of Leslie—her friendliness, adventurous spirit, awesome blog, etc. Yeah, we think she’s pretty darn cool.

By this time, people had sorted themselves into their various positions and paces on the trail, and I found that I was still running with the guy who had been in front of me the entire way up the initial single-track. This guy turned out to be Sean Stephenson, and we would share our entire day at Diablo together. I walked plenty, yes, but I did not walk alone.

The buffet at Juniper (photo courtesy of Sean Stepehnson)

After the first aid station at Juniper Campground, I found a faucet under which to soak my head. It was heaven! I made use of this technique numerous times throughout the day to keep cool.

Donald makes his way down from the summit as I head up.

I hit the summit feeling good, and on the way back down all the nearby runners were full of enthusiasm.

Trip #1 to the top!

“Wow, everyone’s mood just skyrocketed!” one runner observed.

Kiera, from Laguna Nigel, was running the 50, and I think she alone contributed about 80 percent of the surrounding energy. She was so positive and friendly! That kind of thing is just contagious, and we all enjoyed picking our way down the trail together.

After the 50 milers made their turn off, it was just Sean and me again. We took a lot of time for pictures and exchanging tidbits of our lives. This was Sean’s second trail marathon (his first was this same race last year) and he was considering making the foray into the world of ultras. I assured him that this race was probably harder than most 50K’s out there.

Views, flowers and endless down hills.

Sean had spent time as a teacher in the Ukraine, and we exchanged philosophies on education until a missing trail marker forced us to focus on more immediate issues. Several other folks were running in circles at this junction, unsure of where to go, when finally someone who knew the course well arrived and led us forward with a very confident, “It’s this way!” We obediently chased after him, a pack of lemmings down the precipice.

"Ooh, ooh! It went this way! Follow me!"

Somewhere on the approach to Rock City the pack of three lead men came by in the opposite direction. Shortly thereafter, Prudence came bouncing up the trail looking strong. We cheered her briefly, then made bets about whether she’d take the overall win. I certainly didn’t bet against her!

We blew through the Rock City aid station without stopping since we knew we’d be back there in a mile and a half. We made the turn around for the marathon runners, and refueled back at the aid station. I was still feeling good, which was fortunate since we were about to start the long climb to the summit for the second time that day. By this time Sean and I had reached an unspoken agreement to run together, and this fact dawned on me when I automatically checked for his presence before departing the aid station. Water? Check! GU? Check! Sean? Check! And we were off!

Last year I finished the marathon in about 6:30 and Sean had finished in about 6:20. We were both hoping for about a 6 hour finish this year, and I began to check my watch to see if we would be close. I told him I thought we would need a minimum of 90 minutes for that last 8 miles from the summit to the finish line. As soon as I said it, I realized that I was almost certainly underestimating the time it would take. (I was.)

The day sizzled on, and we kept a steady hike up the sun-drenched slopes. The intermittent shade provided little respite, as it was packed with swarms of gnats that were only too happy to fly into any bodily orifice available. Yuck! Still, it was great to have someone with whom to share a laugh over the irony.

Upon reaching the summit for the second time, my spirit soared, but my stomach wasn’t quite as happy. The idea of forcing down any more GU’s was
just unpleasant, but I persisted in sucking them down in spite of the fact that the only flavor available was chocolate. Ugh! I purposefully slammed a quantity of water and coke at the aid station, knowing that 8 miles in this heat was a long way to go with only two small water bottles. Almost as an afterthought, I popped two salt caps, and I’m quite certain that was the key to improving the state of my stomach. Twenty minutes later it felt 100% better.

Trip # 2 to the top

I recalled this last stretch of the race as being by far the worst. I guess that’s true with any marathon, but Diablo reserves a special hell for those who hit the wall. It’s 8 miles of technical downhill, with just a bit of uphill thrown in for fun. After a day full of pounding the quads, we had to negotiate some downhill switchbacks so steep and loose that we were forced into a treacherous and careful walk. I had checked my watch at the summit and saw that we had only 85 minutes left if we wanted to finish in 6 hours. I knew it was a lost cause, and I happily forgot about looking at my watch from that point on. We would run what we would run.

At some point it became clear that Sean was falling behind, and I kept pausing to make sure I could hear his footsteps in the distance. I forced some clif blox on him, and inquired about his water supply. He said he still had a little, but I didn't totally believe him. His footsteps became more and more distant, and eventually I couldn’t hear him at all. Suddenly, in this barren heat, I felt quite alone. “I walk alone, I walk alone…(Ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ahaa…)” I contemplated my choices. I knew Sean wouldn’t begrudge me the need to finish at whatever pace was comfortable for me. However, I’d already had a brilliant workout, and a beautiful, fun day, and much of that was due to the shared experience of having a running partner. It just didn’t seem worth giving that up in order to finish 10-20 minutes faster. When I reached the creek at the bottom, I decided to take my time soaking my head in the icy water and make my way to the finish with Sean.

It's worth noting that this kind of thing generally goes against my nature. I love running with others, but when it comes to racing, I'm a competitor. I can't help it. I like setting goals and pushing myself to achieve them. I suppose since I already felt at peace with the fact that I certainly wasn't going to run 6 hours that day, it was easier that I would have thought to let go of the competitive mindset.

We meandered down the trail, which had now become smoother and less technical, and I have to admit, it was somewhat refreshing not to be in a hurry. We startled a small flock of wild turkeys, (which was very startling to me!) and tried to catch a snapshot of a coyote as it loped across the grass. I wondered if this was the same coyote that I had spotted at this point in the trail last year. I felt like he had come out just to say hello.

A loquacious turky bolts into the bushes.

Somewhere close behind, Sean called out, “You are really wonderful!” I smiled, and knew I had made the right call in not blazing down to the finishline solo. I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t absolutely light up when told, quite sincerely—especially at the end of a long, difficult trail run—that she is wonderful.

We were all smiles as we crossed the finish line, and per usual, I immediately donned my flip flops and headed to the food table. I got the recap from Prudence on her race: She finished fifth overall and first female, in spite of some frustrations with getting lost numerous times. The three of us sat with our feet soaking in the creek and happily sucked down pizza and coke, as runners continued to finish.

Although this was only my second Diablo, I think this race has earned a special place in my heart. Maybe it’s a bit of one of those twisted, love-hate relationships—the kind where you keep returning to the boyfriend who has treated you badly at times, but you can’t help it because there are also so many wonderful things about him, and you've shared so many poignant experiences. Last year’s race was an epic adventure for me. This year was equally tough and even more rewarding, but in a much different way. I accomplished a few big things, namely finishing a tough course. I also managed not to get lost (unlike last year) and had a more social day on the trails than I can recall in recent years. I happily left my ipod in my pocket all day.

Prudence and I prepare to head home after a long day.

Thanks to everyone out there who made this day so awesome: the volunteers, Sarah and Wendell, and most especially to all the awesome runners sharing the trail with their upbeat attitudes!


  1. I am jealous. This new life of mine leaves me with no far-away races and visiting places, not to mention with no training. I live through stories like yours. Thanks, Gretchen!

  2. Sounds like you had a great day out there, Gretchen. That's a tough course and it was really hot that day!

  3. Oh, and, I know what you mean about getting that song stuck in your head. Rocky has been practicing that same song on the piano from a YouTube movie!

  4. Hi Gretchen!

    Great to meet you in person...even for the brief 'hello' at the start and in passing on the trail! It is so cool to come to far away races and know others! (Even if it has only been electronically til now).

    Excellent Race report! and love the ending...!

    See you up here for a visit some time?

    It snowed on our to ski tour!


  5. Wait ... you play guitar? And you know Green Day songs? That's information I should know. I could have easily given you all the lyrics you were missing.

    Excellent report as usual. It was great to finally talk with you in person, and thanks for including the pics as well. I can echo what you said about Sean - he seemed pretty cool during the few minutes Rick and I spent with him. I can see how you guys fed off of each other during the race. Very cool move by you to wait up for him on the last descent - that would have been a very tough call for me as well.

    I'm not quite ready to say that I'll come back to this race every year, but that's probably because I'm still not recovered (physically or emotionally) from this one. But be sure to let me know if you RD any races up in Tahoe - that sounds like something I could put on the calendar. Until then, I hope our paths cross again at another trail run sometime soon.

  6. Sounds like another great day on the trails. You're really ripping it up! Always nice to share it with someone. Congrats on a successful run

  7. Awww I knew you were just teasing! I love that pic of Donald and I, we look so happy to be out on the trail. I'm glad someone took a picture before the beat down really got going. I like even better that picture of you and Sean, it's like you guys already finished the race! Well Gretchen, what teamwork, what fun you guys had out there and I agree with you, those last 8-miles are the hardest. They get two thumbs up from my quads. Good deal on not getting lost, I got that monkey off my back too. Well hey it was great seeing and running with you again. Till next time.

  8. Gorgeous pictures Gretchen, and I always greatly enjoy your race recaps! :)

  9. I agree - great pictures. Thanks for the report. Hope to see you in Carson City this weekend -

  10. Love the summit photo, and tooooo funny that you ran into the Leslie fan club! You ran into Doone and Tim Watson, who are very awesome folks and really talented runners. Doone got semi-lost and still kicked my butt out there! It looks like you had a super-fun day. I love those days on the trail!