Getting up at 5am to participate in a trail run up a mountain sounds like an insane idea for some. With my recent dabbling in trail running and having signed up for a big trail race in November, some sort of training run was due this weekend anyway. So why not make it a bit more exciting and sign up for the half marathon distance at the Diablo Trail Run, organized by Coastal Trail Runs.
Was eating half of a 14-inch pizza, my dinner on the day before, considered proper carb-loading? I was about to find out as my friend Jürgen, and I headed from the South Bay up north in the dark on 680 to Walnut Creek and eventually Clayton. A hint of orange was glowing on the horizon when we got to the Mitchell Canyon entrance of Mount Diablo State Park a bit more than an hour later.
While we took care of registration, a handful of other participants were trying to stay warm in this 55-degree weather. The crowd consisted of people with slender physiques in running outfits with tech t-shirts but additional accessories like fuel belts, running vests, and backpacks. Especially the people who had signed up for the longer distances (marathon and 50k) and rightfully anticipated spending between five and ten hours on the trails and fire roads.
Close to 8am, the roughly 150 participants who had signed up huddled at the beginning of Mitchell Canyon Fire Road, right next to the ranger station and parking lot. The announcer reviewed organizational details and, most importantly, which ribbon colors to follow for each distance. I wasn’t paying close attention and hoped I would figure it out along the way. All the way to the top, I foolishly thought, how hard can it be to navigate?
Soon after, we were sent off along the wide fire road, the field reasonably close together. That would change quickly. After a modest climb along the road for about 2 miles in the shade of pine and oak trees, the actual scaling of Mount Diablo began, and the uphill would not subside (more or less) for the remaining 4.7 miles to the summit at 3,849ft. With grades ranging between 10% and a whopping 28%, I quickly realized I was not in good enough shape to run continuously on those climbs. The pain radiating from my calves forced me to walk certain sections early on, enjoy the views and catch my breath.
While 150 participants sound a lot, stretching them out over five events and their respective distances, I found myself alone on the trail fairly quickly, hoping for some respite in the terrain, which was mostly a futile undertaking. Marked by orange and pink ribbons, periodically dangling from tree branches and shrubs, I made my way up Mitchell Canyon Fire Road and almost missed the right turn onto Deer Flat Road, which, after a total of 4.8 miles, brought me to the top of Moses Rock Ridge.
Treeless and dominated by grassland, it provided unobstructed views towards Walnut Creek, Orinda, and Berkeley in the distance. The panorama brought distraction from the exhaustion, and the slight breeze on the ridge helped to cool down. A metal gate marked the entrance to Juniper Campground, and the long-awaited aid station was finally in sight. “How far is it from here to the summit?” I babbled, possibly unintelligibly. “It’s about another mile and change,” one of the friendly volunteers responded. What seemed like a neglectable distance would be one of the longest miles I had ever run.
Soon I would find myself on the switchbacks of the rocky and steep Juniper Trail. Half running, half walking, a moonscape-like area opened up before me around one of the corners with blackened bushes, seemingly scorched by fire. At this point, the fastest people were already coming down from the top, rushing passed me as I was still negotiating my ascent. After a quick crossing of Summit Road, I was back on the steep trail with the summit in sight. Or so I thought.
In fact, it was only an extensive arrangement of antennas and satellite dishes adjacent to what looked like a big parking lot, with parts of it under construction. The ribbons asked the runners to cross the lot and then head up the remaining vertical rise to the summit. A runner in the 50k event caught up to me, and together, we crossed the parking lot on the summit, tapped in at the visitor center, and, with no time to linger, headed back down.
Halfway through and the hard part done, I hoped to make up for some lost time from the ascent, but the rocky trail made a speedy descent a risky endeavor. I refueled briefly at the aid station and followed the same way down that I had come up, along wide fire roads. Back on smoother footing, I tried to “let it fly” downhill and let gravity do most of the work. While not as strenuous as the uphill, keeping up the speed and not tripping over any rocks or unevenness in the dirt road simultaneously was still challenging.
About halfway down the descent, I caught up with another half-marathoner. Twenty-something, with short brown hair, in a blue tech t-shirt and minimalistic running shoes, it was only his second trail running event. “I just got bored of road races,” he proclaimed as we ran side by side. Needing to be more careful on the downhill in his thin-cushioned footwear, I passed him. I continued downwards to eventually reach mile 11 and the flatter sections of Mitchell Canyon Fire Road. The last 2 miles, in much warmer conditions and temperatures close to 80F, felt much longer and more tedious than at the beginning of the run.
Finally, after close to 2.5 hours, the parking lot and finish area came into sight, and with a sigh of relief, I crossed the line where Jürgen, who had finished a good ten minutes ahead of me, was already waiting. We quenched our thirst with electrolyte drinks at the finish area and devoured some snacks. While neither of us scored any top-3 age group spots, we were still proud that we had completed this hell of a run.