Grueling only begins to describe the Diablo Trails Challenge I participated in yesterday, running my first 50K (measured out at 31.7 miles). Even spending time on Mt Diablo running 18 miles of the 31.7 mile course I was not prepared for the challenge that lay ahead of me. I knew it would be tough and I hoped I was mentally prepared to go the distance. For me, finishing was winning.
Never having run this sort of a distance combined with all the hills, I really didn’t know what to expect for a finishing time. My running partner, Otto and I discussed this in the lead up to the race and settled on 8 hours. Probably a bit aggressive a finishing time for me. Realistically, I knew 8:30 to 9:00 hours was going to be more inline with my training and abilities. As I made my way over the miles of trails, my finishing time was irrelevant. Finishing the challenge was the goal.
Ask me in 2011 if I thought I would be running, let along running a 50K and the answer would have been an emphatic, “Hell no!” It’s been an amazing journey following a plant based lifestyle to help heal my body, improve my health and get into shape. This is a challenge I could not have done 44 pounds ago. I had nearly 9 hours thinking on why I wanted to run this race and never came up with an answer that satisfied me.
This was an adventure, a challenge to prove to myself I could accomplish something extraordinary. After missing out on my first marathon last December due to shoulder surgery there was something intriguing about running Mt. Diablo. This would also prove a testament to myself of just how far I have come in improving my health.
As for the race…it was slated for a 7am start from Round Valley Regional Preserve, an area I knew well and run quite often. Some hilarity ensued moments after I arrived at Castle Rock Park (the finish line) in Walnut Creek. Otto and I had been messaging each other to meet in the parking lot up for the 45 minute bus ride back to the starting line.
It was just past 5am and still very dark and I saw a guy standing near his car. He looked like Otto and I went over and started talking to him. Moments later his brother walked up with information pertaining the buses arriving in 30 minutes. We hopped back in his car to stay warm. We all start talking about the course and our training and suddenly I get a message from Otto, “I’m walking towards the park.” I chuckle and it hits me, “You’re not Otto, are you?” He looks at me after I explained I was to meet another friend here. “No man, I’m Larry and this is my brother.” A few minutes later I was out of the car, walking towards Otto as we finally met up to wait for the bus.
The start of the race was delayed, as Brazen Racing didn’t have bibs at the starting line for runners who didn’t pick them up prior to Saturday. Worse there were no safety pins. The race started about 10 minutes late and as the gun sounded we were off. Otto and I ran together for about half a mile and then he took off ahead, I would never catch him but would pass him as he was coming out of aid station number 2 (at mile 15.6), bumping knuckles, exchanging words and we each went our separate way.
It’s difficult to put into perspective the difficulty of the course, as looking at a profile doesn’t do Mt. Diablo justice. At mile 3.75 the fun of the first climb began. It was challenging, but being fresh I knew this would be the easiest climb of the race. Knowing that, it didn’t help as the pace was slowed to a walk for the next 2.25 miles. At the summit, the pace quickened as it was all downhill to the first aid station at mile 8.2. At this point I still felt good, taking on water having a few pieces of banana. I skipped the processed foods and sugary drinks opting for my Larabars and Medjool dates I brought with me for the long haul across Mt. Diablo.
Out of the aid station was the second big climb, 1000 feet in 1.6 miles. It was during this climb I got a sense of just how long and challenging this course was. I had studied the mountain for a few months and had a good idea what to expect, but just when you thought the trail would flatten out around the next turn you are jolted back to reality that the trail still continued up. At the top of the hill it was a feeling of relief and excitement to look out over Mt. Diablo State Park, it was an awe inspiring view! I had picked up a second wind just passing the 2:45 mark (mile 10.2). Two hills down…but two remained.
This was probably the easiest part of the run, as I ran across the crest of the hills looking west over the East Bay. I put together some of my best times over the next 6 miles or so averaging 11-12 minutes per mile. Not great, but it was a comfortable pace, knowing I would only be half way home by the time I reached the second aid station.
The trails were rough, lots of rain weeks before the race, the movement of cows and horses as well as weather and wind blown crevices marred the course. Rarely did your foot get a flat landing zone. There were some single tracking trails that measured no more than 12 inches wide with green grass rising some 5 feet high, as the wind blew over it. Overall the terrain was quite diverse on Diablo from hard packed trails to sand and loose rocks.
Things were looking up as I spotted the intersection of the trail that would lead to the second aid station. I continually looked at my watch, but I am not sure why. I still had a helluva long way to go and I kept telling myself, “time doesn’t matter.” At the bottom of the trail I passed Otto coming the opposite direction out of the aid station, he was looking good, seemed to be strong, but did complain of some cramping issues. We exchanged a few words and that was the last I saw of Otto until the finish line.
This was probably the most crucial aid station and I spent more time than I needed. I ate well, shoving handful of quartered potatoes in my mouth. I was surprised to see potatoes available and they tasted so damn good! In hopes of avoiding cramps I also had bananas and took a salt tablet before hitting the port-a-potty, getting my Camelbak loaded with more water and going back to the course.
The first three quarters of a mile were easy, but the fire road turned into single tracking that led to the worst climb yet. It was a series of steep climbs and short descents over the next 4 miles. During this portion of the race I started to get delirious and didn’t feel right. I felt light headed and was getting very tired, the narrow trail combined with the canopy of trees overhead didn’t help. I remember just wanting to get this climb over with. Once I broke from the trees I seemed to get that third wind and felt better, tired but had lost that delirious feel.
At this point I picked up another runner named Esmail and we ran together to the next checkpoint. All the volunteers were outstanding! It was a sense of relief, as they helped get the hydration pack off my back and refill it for me, offering a sponge of cool water to clean the weathered and sweat soaked head. I continue to chow down on potatoes and bananas and took another salt tablet, just for good measure. It was about this point when I realized I would finish this race. Just 8 miles from the finish it was 5 miles to the final checkpoint and then a 3 mile dash (okay, walk and sometimes run) to the finish. I continued to tell myself it was two short races to complete.
Unfortunately Diablo wasn’t going to make it easy on me. I knew I had one final climb and I dreaded this climb when I did it previously on a 20 mile training run. With about 4.9 miles remaining in the race that last climb began for the next 1.2 miles rising 636 feet. It wasn’t the biggest or baddest on the course, but it was the final one and being as tired as I was it was more than challenging. I continued on, walking much of the trail until I hit the peak, which turned into another single tracking trail measuring about 12 inches wide with towering grass that ended at the fourth and final aid station at the top of a short rise.
I hydrated, ate some potatoes and popped a few more bananas and took one final salt tablet. I felt great at this point knowing the rest of the course was essentially downhill the rest of the way. At this point I was fatigued, legs were sore, quads were burning, I continued to feel a twinge in my right calf and my toes were tender from contacting the front of my Salomon shoes. I had to use some caution right out of the aid station as the next mile was downhill. While my body wanted to go faster, I just could not muster the energy and feared a leg would give out or I was misstep and end up injuring myself, so I took is easy coming down, which led to a 2 mile trail that concluded at the finish line.
For the last 2 miles I picked up another runner named Roger and we walked/ran the last 2 miles together. I was trying to conserve what little energy I had left for the final hoorah, running down the chute to the Brazen arch, which was the finish line. One final runner passed us about half a mile out and I decided to leave Roger and finish my first 50K. Rounding the last turn what I had trained and worked so hard for came into view. The finish line! I heard the announcer call out “Stephen from Oakley finishing in a time of 8:53:33!” as I crossed the timing mat. The best part seeing Otto and Brian standing at the finish line taking pictures and cheering me it. It made the entire experience worth it.
Crossing the finish line and even now as I write up my experience I still can’t believe I accomplished a 50K (31.7 miles as Brazen measured the course). The entire adventure was amazing. I was able to push my body to limits I never knew I had. It makes me wonder, what else I could accomplish?
I first explored running a 50K last November while recuperating from my shoulder surgery. I knew I would not make the marathon in Sacramento and didn’t want to wait until the following year to run my first marathon. The Diablo Trails Challenge intrigued me and it was literally in my backyard. I started surfing the Internet looking for training programs. Starting my marathon training I purchased No Meat Athlete‘s Marathon Road Map Training Program (Price $37). I started reading more and found an article titled on Competitor.com, Going Longer: How To Train For Your First 50K, best of all, it was free! Inside the article was a 16 week training program, so I combined the training programs and made my own 22 week program to prepare my 50K.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t follow it as closely as I should have. In fact after the first 6 weeks I nearly forgot about my training program. I knew the April 19th date was rapidly approaching but I was not running as much as I should have. In January I ran 90 miles, followed by 28 miles in February and only 6.12 miles on March 4, which would be my final run before the start of the 50K. So was I really prepared? Hell no, I am sure if I partially followed my training plan I could have knocked off 30 minutes on my time.
As life goes, I got busy starting in February with Little League, which took up a considerable amount of time, more than I remember last year. I had obligations to my wife as well as work around the house that is never ending. Work seemed to be never ending, picking up overtime hours and spending part of 2 days a week working in my son’s class and managing PTA duties. I am sure these could be seen as excuses, but I was setting my priorities. In my mind I knew I could run 31 miles, as finishing is winning.
I mentioned before I fueled my run on Medjool dates, I trained with these for my half marathon last year and continue to use them now on longer runs. They are easy to carry, easy to eat and give you quick energy. For the 50K I brought 22 dates with me, the plan was to eat one date every 2 miles. I also brought 3 Larabars with me to use as a mini meal between aid stations. To supplement even further I had 3 sleeves of CLIF Shot Bloks. Not my first or second choice for fuel, as they contain ingredients I don’t want to eat. Yet these still agree with my body when running.
I also carried a 70 ounce hydration pack by Camelbak, which I filled with water. I don’t believe I ever drank more than half of the water based on the level required to top off the hydration pack at the checkpoints. Even at the checkpoints I stuck with water and did not try the sports drinks or other sugary drinks being offered.
The last part of my preparation, my nipples. Laugh if you must, but after 13.1 miles during my first half marathon I came home with raw nipples from my shirt continually rubbing while I ran. Talk about sore! For the 50K, my wife came through the night before with breast pedals! I shaved my chest and affixed these pads over my nipples and they stuck with me until the end of the race. It was a relief NOT to cross the finish line hold my chest, wincing in pain.
Thanks to Otto for joining my on this adventure, he was a beast out there finishing in 8:14:42, much closer to our 8 hour goal. Huge props to Brian for hanging around the finish line after he finished his half marathon waiting for Otto and I to finish. Big thanks to my wife and son letting me chase this goal, as well as friends who supported me. Also thanks to the Julie Marie and all the folks in the group Protective Diet Living on Facebook, without a lifestyle change this 50K would never have been possible. Now it’s time to look forward to a new, bigger goal.