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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge 50K

Special Thanks to Brazen Racing!!

"Who trained for this heat?" I rhetorically quizzed the volunteer at aid station #3 as he reached to pull a water bottle from my hydration belt.  He tugged but couldn't pull it free, so I helped him with that one and then passed out the remaining 3 bottles to other eager volunteers.  "Water or sports drink?"  "Sports drink," I gasp between gulps of warm Coke, Mountain Dew, and water arrayed on a folding table in little Dixie cups.  Each cup is brilliantly sized to slug down in one easy motion.  "What place am I in?"  "We can check that for you...Well it looks like you are #7 - and #5 and #6 are still here," and she points across the table at 2 runners.  I snapped the bottles into place, grabbed a handful of Fig Newtons, expressed my gratitude then bolted down the first stretch of familiar trail in 20 miles.  Well, I bolted in a rather weary sort of bolt.

Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge 50K (31 miles) - 7000' of Elevation gain
This map and elevation profile was relocated from my office wall to the front door, 4 days before the race.

After weeks of unsettled, rainy, cool weather, the weekend of the Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge 50K was as audaciously hot as a Bay Area April could offer.  Weeks of training in the cold driving rain and slick mud provided me with a comparable misery factor, but absolutely no preparation for the blast that staggered us on race day.  Having seen the heat coming, I spent Thursday and Friday wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt while working out in the sun and driving with the heat on in my truck.  Highs on Thursday and Friday were predicted to be in the low 80's, but the days ended closer to 90.  When Saturday was slated for the high 80's, we knew it would be trouble.

My parents were in town from South Carolina with the dual goal of vacationing and seeing my 8-year-old daughter perform at her 2nd piano recital.  The fact that they would be around to help with race day logistics was an added bonus for me - especially since her piano teacher had chosen 4:00 pm on race day for that recital.  No amount of lobbying on my part was likely to change the schedule of 20 other families, so with 2 months warning, I accelerated my training - with attending the piano recital as my new goal.  More precisely, my goal was to finish in 6 hours - optimistic but not completely unrealistic.  Compared to finish times of years past - a 6 hour finish would put me in the top 20 - if not the top 10.

And here was the plan...

The race would start at 8:00 am; I would run for 6 hours and finish at 2:00 pm; I would clean up, eat, and my dad would drive me the 45 minutes to the semi-formal piano recital with time to spare.

Meanwhile my wife would leave the house at 1:00 pm sharp after our 2-year-old daughter finished her nap; she and my dad would separately drive the 35 minutes to the finish line; I would finish at 2:00 pm and kiss her both in jubilation and salutation as she drove my daughters and mother off to a final pre-recital practice session; Dad and I would follow along later as noted above.

That was a good plan...

And so I trained hard with the understanding that a delay of more than 30 minutes would leave me crossing the finish line into the arms of - my dad (not terrible, but not exactly the same).  Furthermore, I could easily miss the recital, or worse yet show up gloriously muddy and soaked with sweat to endure the condescending glares of 3 consecutive generations of women dressed up for a piano recital - if my race went badly.

15 minutes till start time - 70 degrees and rising

The first 8.2 miles went by fast - maybe too fast.  The race organizers had cautioned us to go out slow, but I somehow doubt that any of them were risking ostracism by 3 consecutive generations of women dressed up for a piano recital - like I was.  The first aid station at mile 8.2 was just beyond the hardest climb of the day.  I had walked / run up the majority of the climb slowly working my way past other racers till I knew I was fairly near the front.  The guys who took the lead early stayed away all day, and the 1st place runner broke his own course record at 4 hours 51 minutes.  They weren't my concern; I was going to run my own race and had to remind myself of that frequently as I encountered others.

A minor crisis was realized half-way to aid station #2, when I found I had dropped 1 of the 4, 8oz. bottles attached to my belt.  I actually stopped running to grasp the full meaning of this.  Going back was impossible, but moving forward through the rising heat with diminished capacity was frightening.  I breathed a prayer and kept running.

The second half of this segment was a long rolling descent through lush green hills with views of Mt. Diablo towering in the west.  A fellow racer pointed out the poppies on a distant hillside at one point and cheerily noted, "There's a trail that runs right through there!"  I was briefly reminded of at least one reason why we do this - the scenery from these perspectives is nothing short of stunning.  Running downhill brought relief to my lungs and kept my body temperature low, but my toes and quadriceps were taking a beating I would pay for over the following week.

I arrived at aid station #2 out of water but not dehydrated.  And, in my joy at covering half the journey, I forgot I was missing a bottle.  I chatted briefly with one of the volunteers as I began handing over empties. "Oh, this must belong to you," broke in a lady filling one bottle.  I looked over and stared dumbly at my 4th bottle which had somehow outrun me to the this remote corner of the Diablo foothills.  They had no recollection of who had dropped it off, but there it sat.  All I could say was "Thank you, God."

In spite of the fact that the steepest and highest hills were behind me, the hardest part was yet to come.  I checked my time only once all day and that was at this aid station, the halfway point.... Exactly 3 hours.  Stink. This was a little difficult to accept.  I knew I was fading, and was hoping to have reached halfway between 2:30 and 2:45 into the race.  I now had no buffer, and I was fading!  My hopes of reaching the finish line and seeing my wife and daughters died there.  I ran on with determination, but the objective had fundamentally changed - just don't quit.

127 racers started the day, and only 109 finished the race; the last finishing around 6:00pm, 10 hours on the trails.  The heat decimated the field.  Runners who had blazed past me miles back, were slowly reeled back in and complained of cramps as I staggered by.  By mile 20, no one was running up the hills.  This was amazing to me.  No one.  Anyone I could see in the distance ahead, anyone I would run with, anyone gaining on me - walked up every hill.  The flats and descents were manageable and I made fair time in spite of the array of blisters developing on my toes, but if the trail tipped up more than a few degrees I was forced to walk.  And, each time I was forced to a walk, I saw another kid climb behind the piano and play their song.

The longest stretch for me was between aid stations 2 and 3.  Much of that section was completely exposed to the sun and the breeze seemed to have shifted from cool out of the west, to warm out of the south.  I began setting short goals and forcing myself to run to a point in the trail, or alternating 20 steps walking with 20 steps running to keep me moving up the grades.  I drained all 4 bottles and praised God for his kindness as the last one went dry.  About 1 mile after the last bottle I began seeing hikers and it finally dawned on me that I was approaching civilization.  Aid station #3 was alongside Mt. Diablo's South Gate Rd., and I could hear the cars.

This is where they told me I was in 7th place.  Now I recognize 2 possibilities - 1) They were inaccurate in stating that I was in 7th place, or, 2) I was not counting the runners passing me very well as I covered the final 8 miles.  However, no matter, finding I was in the top 10 motivated me to put on steam.  I was also approaching familiar trails and a long sustained descent.  I had another mile of rolling climbing before I would start a descent that would trip me all the way down to the canyon in which we would eventually finish.  Eventually.  But, like skateboarders on a half pipe, the course took us back up the far side of the canyon for a punishing 500' climb before sending us screaming down again in the general direction of the finish line.  A final 2 - 3 miles of gradual descent splashed us across a meandering creek nearly a dozen times before we emerged into Castle Rock Park.

I left aid station #3 in high spirits and soon passed another runner.  Voices behind me spurred me faster yet as I realized there was a large group of runners gaining on me.  The descent was painful yet manageable, but truly, familiarity breeds contempt.  These are trails that I typically bomb down effortlessly on my bike.  Running them now with little breeze, and pain from the waist down tempted me toward despair, and the abrupt rebound at the bottom of the canyon nearly finished me off.  I was caught by a handful of runners there, and though we were all now walking up the far side - they were walking faster than I was.  After 200' of climbing I was flagging fast.  Coming to a complete stop beneath the shade of kind, old oak tree, I looked back to see the 2 runners from the aid station, "#5" and "#6", coming up behind.  "You ok?" called out the one with the hydration vest. "I just need to slow down for a while," I replied.  He caught me and asked if I had any water, and I told him no, just the sport mix.  He pulled a water bottle from his vest and said that he was a mobile aid station, instructing me to pour it on my head.  I obeyed.  He said he was a pacer for his friend, who had now come up beside us.  Hydration Vest wasn't actually in the race, he explained, but was signed up to pace his friend.  I expressed my gratitude and they walked on.  I walked on too, though they slowly gapped me.

Our path veered to undulate along a single track as we neared the top.  A rivulet crossed our path and I saw one of the runners stop to dump a hat-full of water on his head before jogging on.  Reaching the same spot, I planted my blistered feet in a pool then scooped hat-fulls of heaven onto my own head.

Hydration Vest at aid station #4 

The final aid station was at the top of that hill and 3.5 miles from the finish.  The lady that had been gaining on me up the hill, left the aid station before I did.  I had been chicked.  I followed her down the hill incapable of gaining on her.  Upon reaching the canyon trail and the cool creek crossings, my pace picked up, but so did hers. She ran ahead of me for a quarter mile before passing Hydration Vest who was limping.

I caught him too and he told me his calves were cramping.  I thought that strange, especially when he began jogging beside me and broached the topic of us getting chicked.  He didn't think it was acceptable, and asked my opinion.  "It's basically up to her," I replied.  "If she keeps up that pace, she can have it."  We ran a hundred yards or so and he said, "You just keep up with me. What good am I as a pacer if I don't have anyone to pace?"  I groaned and picked up my pace.  ...And we caught her.  ...And we caught the next runner - who happened, ironically, to be her husband.  And then I ran the last mile faster than I imagined possible - because I had passed those 2 and there was no way on God's green earth they were taking me back.  Hydration Vest pulled ahead of me and caught the next runner.  I ran faster too, over the final bump, around a bend and down into the last stretch.  I expected to see the finish line from there, but a bend in the road left me seeing nothing but more trail.  I kept running.  On the verge of implosion I saw the edge of the finishing arch, and then the full line came into view.

At nearly 2:00 my family had arrived at the finish line.  Having parked in a remote lot and ridden a shuttle to the finish line, they had arrived later than hoped.  With the recital looming as an immovable object in the day's schedule, my wife soon realized that their stay at the finish line would be short.  My young pianist began to cry, disappointed that she would be unable to see Daddy cross the finish line.  My dad offered to go back for the car, since Mom - unable to walk far - was not going to be walking back in the absence of the elusive shuttle.  Dad retrieved the car and was actually allowed to drive to within 100' of the finish line for Mom's sake.  Before driving off, they walked to the finish line to take one last look.

As I reached the final stretch I heard the music and the loud speaker announcing the name and number of the runner preceding me.  People were lining the sides of the trail shouting and clapping.  I heard my race number and my name, but then it all quickly faded into nothing but white noise.  Standing on the finish line was my little pianist with huge tears rolling down her cheeks.  "Daddy!"

Finishing a 31-mile race with 7000' of elevation gain in 15th place (6:29) is wonderful.  But, getting hugs and kisses from your favorite people on earth and seeing the gleam of approval in their eyes is nothing short of spectacular.  The only thing that even came close in comparison was the garden hose shower I took 10 minutes later.

I believe that Hydration Vest was the answer to the prayers of my family.  We had prayed openly that the day's events would work out favorably at both venues.  Our kind Heavenly Father saw fit to delay Hydration Vest twice, so that he would be there when I needed him.  I believe this with all my heart.

All of the kids in the recital played wonderfully and reflected very well on their teacher.  However, only one of them played her 3 pieces flawlessly.  She was 8, and made her daddy very proud.

So as I see it.....maybe next time I'm cramping I should look around to see who I'm being slowed down to help.

Thanks to all of the great volunteer photographers for some of the pictures above.