Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Hot and Steep Diablo 50-miler

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of joining 200 ultrarunners for the hot and hilly Mount Diablo 50-miler/Marathon near Clayton, CA put on by Pacific Coast Trail Runs (PCTR). I gleefully signed up for this race thinking “steep and hot…a good early checkpoint for my Western States training”, only to grow more and more concerned as the guaranteed-to-be-deadly day imminently appeared on the calendar. My head was swimming all week long with reasons not to do this race - I’m no good with heat, a terrible climber, and my last race at the Diablo 50k pretty much scarred me for life. But we all know the secret to getting over these preconceptions – sign up for an epic race that stretches your boundaries, give the day everything you have, and you may just free yourself of these self-imposed limitations. I will see your 50k, El Diablo, and raise you to a 50-miler. ;-)

(Ray Sanchez and Jasper at the start)

The day was warming up quickly as we gathered for the 7am start. Defending champion and course record holder Jasper Halekas was here, although he was “just running the marathon” today to give a leg injury some rest. This marathon was no casual affair, however – it took all the steepest up’s and down’s of this course and crammed them into the Cliff Notes version of “how to shred your quads”. I give any marathon finisher ultra credit just for having the cojones to toe the line on this one. When Wendell Doman asked “who is running their first marathon” and some hands went up, the sound of jaws hitting the ground was audible. It’s like doing two marathons! I wished many well, including Kate and Keturah Morejohn, as we all saddled up for our assault on the mountain. My goal for today was to run a controlled race (where I felt in control the whole time) and try to beat the sun in 12 hours. I put on my new super-ventilated Sugoi Xposure S/S shirt, strapped on my Nathan harness full of gels and Nuun’s, grabbed the two biggest water bottles I could find, and made my way to the start.

There I met a newly-coiffed Bev Abbs (defending champion and course record holder herself) warming up next to Alan Abbs, as well as Western States/Quicksilver winner Graham Cooper, Erik Skaden (who just got 2nd at the AR50 last Saturday in 5:57), Paul Sweeney, Beth Vitalis, and Caren Spore (who also ran the AR50). The elites were flanked by some known speedsters as well, including a newly-coiffed Sean Lang (these guys are getting streamlined!), John Fors, Hawaii’s Jeff Huff, Rick Gaston, Gretchen Brugman (tackling the marathon), and the ever-present Ray Sanchez (who did AR50 last week as well, natch). Jasper whispered “some course records will fall today” just as Wendell sounded the horn and sent us up the first steep section.

(Heading up the shady trail)

(The morning sun lights up the ridge)

The shadows of Mount Diablo kept us cool for the first three miles as we climbed our way onto the ridge. These early hours are perfect running conditions – high 50’s, slight breeze, no sun – and we made good use of it to scatter up the hill. I ran for a bit with Brian Hartley, who had come down from Spokane, WA, to clock his first 50-miler (which he would do in a respectable 13 hours) and was all smiles. As we crested the first peak as the sun warmed hills full of California poppies and sage, drawing out fresh Spring aromas. Jasper, Graham, Erik and the Abbs were already distant colored specs on the hill, running the whole way.

(Brian Hartley enjoying his first 50m)

(Cruising the single track)

I made good use of the rolling single track to pick up a few places and caught up to Mark Jackson from Melbourne, FL. We ran and walked together up to the Juniper Creek aid station (mile 5), and it was a pleasure to get to know him. Mark had actually run his first ultra in Baghdad when stationed there (pretty much by himself), and had tackled a few tough 50-milers out east before trying his hand at “one of these Western ultras”. He told me to pass on my thanks to all you bloggers out there who gave him some ultra-respite from his time in Baghdad and Afghanistan! We soon found ourselves through the steep stuff to Juniper Station, and Kevin Swisher and the top notch volunteers filled our water bottles with ice and water and sent us up 2 more miles to the peak.

(Mark Jackson tames the steep climbs)

(More great single track)

(Up, up, up to the top!)

There is no hiding the sun from the top of Mt. Diablo, and it soon began cooking the stoney trails to a hearty, warm dust. I said a quick hi to Sean Lang, and paced along with Caren Spore and Pierre. Caren was in her “power gear”, slowing for no hill, and Pierre and I would pass her on the flats only to get passed by her on the next climb. Bev and Alan Abbs came back on the return, a solid four minutes ahead of us, and flew down the backstretch. Jasper was soon to follow, as was Graham Cooper and Erik Skaden who were chatting away like a couple of backpackers. Caren led us to the top, where we said a quick “hooray!”, and we headed back down to Juniper along a different route.

(Caren lets out a hooray before heading back down)

By the time I hit Juniper the second time (mile 10.2), the heat was officially becoming a factor. Although it was still in the high 60’s, the breeze had now turned warm and was pulling up hot air from the hillside. I drank as much as I could, and refilled with water and ice to keep my hands cool. I put my handkerchief on my head mullet style (short in front, long in back, aka, the Tennessee Tophat) to keep the sun off my neck and ears. I caught up to Brian Wyatt, who let me know that all of these trails connected to other East Bay parks, allowing for some long 30-40 mile training runs on the weekends for him and his training partners. We hit the long downhills of Burma Road, and Brian (a fantastic descender) warned me about a steep section near the end, then dropped me like a sack of potatoes. ;-)

(Brian Wyatt makes his way down Burma Road)

The views were pleasantly distracting on the descent, and we could see all the way to the ocean. Hawks rode the thermals on the ridge ahead, which I was learning meant that I could expect heat on the other side. I hit the hill that Brian warned me about, and he wasn’t kidding – you almost couldn’t get down it at all. I zig-zagged down to save my feet and quads, and rolled up to the North Gate aid station (mile 14). The volunteers were super fast, and let me know I had a five mile loop before seeing them again. So far, I was feeling really good.

(Garret Christensen heads into the 5-mile loop)

The five mile loop was a fun mix of trails – some fire roads, some climbs, and a stretch of single track along a creek that was well-shaded. The locals were all out walking, and they flashed friendly smiles as we ran by. One of the great things about a 50-miler is that you get to see a LOT of the park, including areas you may not usually see. This lush creek area was showing me that there is certainly a lot more to Diablo Park than a big mountain.

(Wonderful shady single track on the loop)

I caught up with Brian Wyatt on the way back, and we chatted some, ran silent for some, and in general traded off the lead as we made our way back on the loop. We passed a few runners and a few passed us, everyone choosing their own pace. I was pleased to see everyone saving their energy this early in the race, for it would be easy for us to start surging.

(Leslie Gerein from Banff, Canada, making friends along the trail)

(More smiling faces at the bottom of Diablo)

I took a long stop at the North Gate aid station (mile 19) to get plenty of food and water, remembering that this next stretch looked like a hot one on the map. It was near lunch time, so I opted for some PB&J to keep my stomach “full” (I can’t do the gel thing for too long). I did a halfway point inventory, and found I had been sticking faithfully to one gel/Jelly Belly packet every 30 minutes, and about 44 oz/hour of water (half with a Nuun tablet). So far, so good!

I hit the trail with John Fors, who was really running strong. He let me know we were in 5th place or something like that, and we each gave each other that look of “hmmm…this usually means we are going way too fast”. But John was looking super-strong, particularly on the uphills. We speculated about whether this was a body form thing – my long legs made it easier on the flats and downhills to get speed (I swear I run like a giraffe), but his shorter, muscular build made it easy for him to keep a strong pace up the hills. Then again, he could just be a better climber and me a faster runner. But philosophizing passed the time.

We got a glimpse of a coyote hunting for lunch as we drew closer to Rock City. He posed a couple of times for us, but I was so in awe of him being within hugging distance that I didn’t get a pic until he ran off. Still, to be within a few dozen yards gave us that thrill of being a part of nature and kept us smiling through the next few miles.

(A coyote pauses his play to watch us go by)

The last hike into Rock City was a doozy, and John gapped me quickly. The heat was now in the low 80’s, and sweat was dripping off of everything and creating chafe spots I didn’t even know existed (note to self – there’s no such thing as too much Vaseline). But I had some lube to use, adjusted my gear as I ran, and made my way into the Rock City aid station (mile 25). Stay in control! Rock City looked like another great day hike area (which I never would have seen), and the volunteers were having a great time. They loaded me up for an out-and-back stretch of 12 miles (six each way) to Finley Road.

(Rock City up ahead!)

I saw the hawks flying above over the next two ridges, and each one brought a heat wave that slowed me down a bit. I was walking the uphills for sure now, and dipping my handkerchief any chance I had. Don’t panic, it’s just the heat, I told myself. But it felt like the afternoon sun was finding it’s way to me at every turn.

(Hawks riding the thermals means the heat is a-comin')

Luckily some company showed up, as Caren Spore (now with her pacer, Peter) came charging by, still in the same power gear. I got to ask Peter a few questions about the Vespa supplement, and he offered to have one waiting for me back at Rock City. Great!

(Caren and Peter pass me up)

The last descent was the hottest, so I jumped ahead of Caren and Peter to get down quickly. Soon, Graham Cooper and Erik Skaden came back the other way, still chatting like a couple of teenagers. Bev Abbs was less than a minute behind, with Alan just a few steps behind her. When I hit the aid station to find John Fors, we were both amazed to be in the top 8. I saw that look in his eye and knew he was about to go for broke and try to run a breakout race. Will Gotthardt, Ryan Commons, and the other volunteers loaded us up at Finley Road (mile 32) and sent us back. You could see where we needed to go – all the way back up to the top!

I charged fast to get out of the heat, and just about diggered into the poison oak-filled hillside. My ankle twisted in a bit as I got back on course, but it didn’t feel like much, so I just kept pressing on. Caren and Peter soon caught me, as did a few others that were charging up the hills. John, you better get going!

After a mile, my right foot started to cramp. I tried to shake it off and take in a bit more water, but it kept seizing. I pulled off the trail to loosen up my shoe, and found out that my right foot was pretty swollen. It didn’t hurt, but it looked like fresh loaf of bread coming out of the pan. I shuffled on it for a while, loosened it some more, then found it was okay as long as I didn’t push hard on the steep up/down. I took a couple of ibuprofen with another big slug of water in hopes to get the swelling down. Stay in control, Scott, nothing to worry about.

As if the ultra angels heard my call, I was soon greeted by the smiling faces of the other 50-milers heading out to the turnaround. Nothing quite lifts your spirits like the well-earned smiles of the ultra family, as Chihping Fu, Paul Charteris, Catra Corbett, Chet Fairbank, Marco Denson, Mike and Karyn Hoffman, Donald Buraglio, and many others exchanged high fives and smiles. Everyone looked so good on this hot day. I was really impressed! Before I knew it, me and my elephant foot had made it back to Rock City (mile 39).

Actually, the swollen foot wasn’t nearly as bad now. My shoe fit about a full size too small, rather than the Wonder bread factor it was a few miles back. I slammed the Vespa, drank a half can of Coke, filled the water bottles, and donned some sunglasses for the long exposed hike to the top. Lastly, I exchanged my handkerchief for a golf towel (holds more water), dramatically increasing the dork factor.

(The California poppies were everywhere on the hill this year)

The next four miles was a blur of dizzy hiking as I slowly made my way up the hill. No trees, no shade, and plenty of sun made it feel much hotter than the mid-80's my watch was reporting. The marathoners had to do this part too, and I imagine it was a breaking point for many. Looking to the distant top was instantly demoralizing, so instead I went heads down and threw on some tunes (Vampire Weekend, ILS, and some great African music). Jon Burg went cruising by, letting me know “some Asian guy was asking how far to catch me”. Who could that be? OMG, it was Rick Gaston and he was coming for me! I looked back but didn’t see him, but I know that guy can close the deal .With renewed energy, I slogged up to Juniper (mile 42) and sat down for a sixty second dinner of PB&J and Pringles. With newly filled water bottles, I headed to the top again.

(At the top, round two - minus the dork factor golf towel which was in my hand)

Near the top, I ran into…Rick Gaston?!? He had taken a wrong turn, and was now going to make THREE trips to the top. He just smiled and said “well, I was out for a good long run anyway”. Man, that guy is tough!

(Circling around to Olympus)

The summit came quickly the second time, and the shadows were already descending. I had enough water and food, so I just kept going. I made my way around to Olympus on the crazy single track (note – there is no “making up time” on this last section). The heat was still crazy, and I ran out of water within the first four miles. But I felt hydrated and the Vespa was kicking in, so I just chugged along the last few miles to the finish. The smell of pizza brought me over the last hill, where I finished in 11:04, good enough for 12th place.

As Keturah Morejohn and Sean Lang helped me catch up on food and water, I learned that Graham Cooper and Erik Skaden had won the race finishing together in 9:19:16. Bev Abbs finished in third (9:24), taking over 10 minutes off her course record. The other finishing ladies were shaking their heads wondering how the heck she keeps getting faster! Alan Abbs, Charles Hofacker, and Beth Vitalis had all finished under 10 hours, and John Fors clocked a breakthrough time of 10:40 for 9th (see all results). Jasper set a new course record in the marathon (4:16), with Jody Waters from Ashland, OR winning the Women’s division (6:03). Kate and Keturah Morejohn marched to an impressive finish, and Keturah won the Women's 20-and-under division! Despite the heat, everyone was running very well.

(Chillin' at the finish, iPhone photo courtesy of Keturah Morejohn)

I sipped Coke and scrolled through my pictures – what a day! I had seen so much, met some great people, and managed to keep my cool through heat and swelling to finish an hour ahead of my goal. Mount Diablo gave me a solid challenge today, but I felt good about my controlled race. It's a huge boost of spirits for the States training! My thanks to Wendell, Sarah, and Aaron for putting on a great race, and the many volunteers who made it a perfect day.

Next up – Boston Marathon!


  1. Terrific race & report, as looked particularly strong coming in to Finley Road, sorry to read of the injury that occurred just thereafter, hope it's healed up quick.

    Always good to see you.

    Best of luck at Boston.

    Will G.

  2. It was a great day! As a visitor,I enjoyed the challenging course, gorgeous scenery and great people! And when you ripped by I thought... "Who is that dorky-fast guy?? He's going pretty fast, for a dork!"

    Thanks to all for a fun day!

    Leslie of Banff

  3. Fun times(easy to say 5 days after)! Great race, and if I see you at the pubs in Boston, I will buy you a round for sure!


  4. Scott
    It was fun running with you. This is a Great race course. The new single track section to the 31M turn around was much better than the fire road used a couple of years ago.

    See you in Squaw in June.

  5. Great job Scott! All these epic stories make me wish I could have run the race. I found your discussion with John Fors interesting as I have always assumed that it is my short, muscular legs that make me a better downhiller (and lousy uphiller). Maybe I just have no excuse to improve my uphill pace!

    Congrats on an excellent race and report.

  6. Scott,

    Great report and great pictures, as always. Great training run for States. Erik Skaden was saying he thought the 50 should be advertised as the best WS training run out there...


  7. Scott solid day on that Devil of a course. Sounds like your WS training is right on course. Keep healthily.

    BTW what did you think of the Vespa tonic?

  8. Great job (especially with the heat and the twist-cramp) and illustrated report. The one time I got close to a coyote while running, I scared it off by the velcro rip of my camera case, so great shot. Yo, we both (I last year, you this year) got triple-chicked by the same talented trio of Abbs, Vitalis and Spore. Sorry I missed this year's party. You are in great shape for the bigger party in June.

  9. Will - thanks for volunteering! You were awesome, per usual.

    Leslie - Great to have you down the for the race!

    Sean - you just keep getting faster, my man. You'll have to wait for me at Boston. ;-)

    John - I think you are faster than ever these days. You are going to rock States for sure!

    Jasper - Congrats on the course record! I hope your knee is doing better.

    Squirrel - I'm becoming a big fan of the Vespa supplement. I still can't quite figure out how it works, but my energy level stays constant. Peter said to take one every 2-3 hours during a competition (every 4-5 hours for training).

    Thanks for stopping by, everybody!


  10. Haha, Rats, Jon Burg told on me. Scott it was great running with you. I'm bummed I wasn't able to follow after mile 39 due to getting lost and all that. As always great pictures and a thorough report. Seems like your training for WS is coming along nicely. Have fun at Boston. This was my first time running this race and I am in awe of how great and difficult the course is. Much gratitude to Wendell, Sarah and Aaron.

  11. Hey Scott

    Great to see you out there and another really impressive run! I got a giggle seeing you in sunglasses and big floppy hat. I assumed that with your trail running celebrity status you were going incognito on this one to avoid throngs of groupies following you on the trails.

    As for the Vespa, I am a big believer that the stuff works. I used 6 packets out there on Saturday (for 108 calories total) and took in a maximum of about 1,500 additional calories all day. For a 190 lb. guy, at that distance and effort I should have burned about 6000 calories. I felt fine all day.

    Avoid the temptation to ridicule Heartbreak Hill :-)

    Cheers, Paul

  12. I wouldn't have guessed that you were having any difficulty when I saw you - you looked very strong! Congrats on a very solid race, and thanks for another great report. You're going to do awesome at WS.

    But first, have fun at Boston!

  13. Great race and report. Love the pics! What kind of camera do you use? I need to start taking pics on my runs/races.

    It's been a while since I visited your blog. Congrats for getting into WS100! It sounds like you are going to be well prepared. Stay healthy and keep training like you are and you will do well. I love that course. I hope to be back again in the next year or two.

  14. great report and pics. After doing Mt Diablo, the Devil's Thumb will be a piece of cake for you. good luck in Boston. The volunteers were awesome.

    Marco Denson

  15. Great report Scott, and an outstanding day of running. you passed me coming in from Finley as I was going out. I was just in front of Paul C., I said hello, but I don't know if I've ever introduced myself. I'll have to do that proper sometime.

    I run the WS canyons all the time, and I would say Diablo is a comparable challence, maybe more so. There isn't much on the WS course that is as steep as some of the Diablo sections. Ouch!

    Maybe I should get myself a golf towel. ;)

  16. I'm curious about the vespa supplement...what is it? Fluid, tablets? I'm always looking for new things to try. Is it available to us "mere mortals?"


  17. Kathy -

    Vespa is a liquid supplement of amino acids that "encourages the muscles to metabolize fat thus conserving & stabilizing glycogen levels". It is comprised primarily of an extract made from wasp digestive enzymes. I'm fairly new to it, but have been impressed with the way it smooths out the energy levels throughout the day. Paul was the one who got me to try it.

    You can buy it online here at ZombieRunner. Be sure to enter the TRBLOG coupon code for an additional 10% off!

    Tim - Check out this interview for info on the cameras I use. I'm open for suggestions if you find a better one!

    Derek - Good to see you out there! Let's be sure to meet in person the next race we're both at.

  18. Thanks Scott!


  19. It was great running with you for a few miles before our paths separated and you continued on to 50 miles. I admire you and all the finishers of the 50 miles. What a long day in the heat! In case you look for my name in the marathon finishers, you won't find it: I had my first DNF at Mt Diablo! I had a great run and was feeling good. But after 5h15 and 3/4 of a mile before the finish (I was in 7th position then), things started to get blurry and I just collapsed. I was dehydrated (1 bottle was not enough for the last 8 miles without aid stations despite having taken plenty of fluids at the summit) and I did not take enough salt. Good learning... the hard way. I don't think I lost conscience but I cannot remember anything of a 15 minutes period (scary!). A couple of volunteers maintaining the trail saw me zigzagging, falling and then saying unintelligent things to my wife on my cell phone. They were great and called for help. A big thank you to Jeff (and Peter) who came to help me after finishing 7th and 6th. After some salt and cold drinks, I made it back to the finish area in the ranger's car (an unusual way to finish a marathon...). What a day!

  20. Look at you rocking the old school Ultimate Direction bottle there at the finish!

  21. I must get out to the US to run some hills soon... The ultra community in the US seems to be a beautiful thing.

    Come and run some of our trails in the UK sometime Scott!

  22. Scott- GREAT run- it was hot and steep- I am not a good heat runner, either. I tried Vespa on this run, after reading about it on your last blog- it seemed to help.
    Have a good run in boston- it will seem mild to you, I think- Keturah and I are rootin for you!


  23. Great report Scott, sorry I missed you at the start. Thanks for giving such big props to the marathon runners, but even though we did the same hills, you endured much worse heat. (I finished well before the hottest part of the day.) I can only imagine what a challenge the 50 mile course was! It's funny to see that others (besides myself) made wrong turns too and had to take the attitude--Hey, it's just bonus miles! Well, that's part of the adventure.
    BTW I hope your swanky new shirt worked well, because really, it's just not as cool as the Death Ride shirt. ;)
    Have fun at Boston. I can't wait to hear about it! Also, I hope your ankle is healing well!

  24. As always amazing race report... you really should be a writer!
    Good luck today in Boston... am tracking you from their website... pretty exciting, love technology!

  25. Fan-freaking-tastic! Sounds like a brilliant day! Looking forward to seeing you at QS in a few weeks! I am coming to do the 50miler :) Perhaps we can repeat last year plus 19 miles....Yeah!


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