by Peter Holleran
"Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it."
Not that it is easy (or even possible) to become bored with the 200+ miles of trails on Mt. Tamalpais, a convenient and challenging alternative is Mt. Diablo, the Bay Area’s second highest mountain (3849’) with the greatest runnable vertical rise. From the northern Mitchell Canyon trailhead to the summit via Mitchell Canyon Fireroad, Deer Flat Fireroad, and Juniper Trail is approximately 3300’ over 7.25 miles. By contrast, Old Railroad Grade and Plankwalk trail to the top of Mt. Tamalpais climbs 2351’ over the same distance making Diablo almost 50% steeper and higher. Pacific Trail Runs holds 8K, 25K, 50K, 50M and100M races there several times a year. The 25K goes to the summit and back down. The companion 50K repeats the loop for a total of 8900’ of ascending AND descending. Both races use the longer Summit Trail instead of Juniper Trail between Juniper Campground and the summit, and veer right onto Meridian Ridge Fire Road at Deer Flat connecting to Back Creek Trail on the way down, adding about one thousand feet of climbing - with a significant amount of it on the descent. (The day I ran the 50k I misplaced my glasses and didn’t read the course description and took Juniper Trail instead of Summit by mistake thereby cutting a half mile off my ascent. I wondered where everyone had gone and how I had passed so many people in such a short time.) I prefer the Juniper route as it is more shady. The grueling 50M and 100M runs explore virtually every area on the mountain. Spring and fall months are recommended because the East Bay interior gets very warm in the summer, and Pacific Trail Runs are somewhat, shall I say, sparse with their placement of aid stations (ie., one at the bottom and one mid-mountain, but none at the top, which can be a real drag on a second trip up). There is a fountain next to the summit building, however, so training runs can successfully be done with just one water bottle when it is reasonably cool.
Mitchell Canyon Fire Road starts out relatively flat for two miles, the first part which can be muddy in winter, especially when tracked up by horses. It then begins a steep climb to Deer Flat that is a serious test of stamina. The towering canyon walls are imposing. Mountain bikers have a hard time in this section and are almost always passed, which is an ego-boost for the runner. At a T-junction (3.8 miles) continue right on Deer Flat Fire Road which climbs moderately then very steeply up to Moses Rock Ridge where the valley to the west of Mt. Diablo becomes visible. Turn around and take an awe-inspiring look down Mitchell Canyon before continuing straight on the fire road to Juniper Campground. For racers, the Summit Trail begins just to the right through the picnic area. To reach Juniper Trail continue on the paved road through the campground for a hundred yards or so until just before South Gate Road and look in the woods on your left for the trail sign. Juniper climbs steeply through the trees before reaching a rocky open area. There is even a brief downhill. It rises steeply again before exiting at the lower summit parking area and radar station. Run through the lot and start up the road towards the summit. Look for the sign for Summit Trail on the LEFT and take it 1/4 mile to the top. (Summit Trail on the right goes down; it is here where racers come up from Juniper Campground). The water fountain and observatory is straight ahead. Take a few minutes to enjoy the view which park literature boasts encompasses more land area (200 miles in each direction) than anywhere on earth except Mt. Kilimanjaro, with possible sighting of Mt. Whitney to the south and Mt. Lassen to the north. Half-Dome in Yosemite can be seen 150 miles to the east. It is even claimed that through refraction of the atmosphere you may catch a reflected image of Mt. Shasta 250 miles to the north. Most of the time, however, haze reduces this world class view to 30-40 miles or less. Nevertheless the views down the surrounding slopes and canyons are impressive. Mt. Diablo is a big mountain with a more rugged feel than Tamalpais. The best time to go for the view is after a cleansing winter storm. In the fall Tarantulas are often found crawling along the road, and in late afternoon I have heard packs of coyotes howling in the brush off the trail. (Apparently others have, too. Dean Ottat tells of facing down coyotes on Mt. Diablo in his book, The Runner and the Path: An Athlete's Quest for Meaning in Postmodern Corporate America, 2003, Breakaway Books).
The downhill trip is a hoot and potential quad-buster. Terminal velocity is easily attained, if you can handle it.
In some years a Mt. Diablo Challenge is held. Runners, road and mountain bikers compete against each other. The winner is usually a runner due to his ability to take a shorter route to the summit.
In September of 2002 I entered the Pacific Trail Runs 50K race, which uses the same course and begins at the same time as the 25K. What is nice about this is that you can begin the 50K but quit after 25K and still get a time and shirt for 25K, which was the smart thing to do the day I was there! Driving through Clayton early in the morning the temperature was only in the upper 50’s, but as the sun begin its climb I felt like I would later be entering what in Lawrence of Arabia was described as “the anvil”. Indeed, this race was to be my first last-place finish, but not for want of effort. The initial run to the top was comfortable, but after the first half of the race it had gotten significantly warmer, perhaps now in the 80’s. Sixty runners had the sense to call it quits after 25K. Fourteen intrepid souls (myself included) headed out for more fun. After a half-mile I had the strong feeling the second half wasn’t going to be all that much fun after all, but I had paid $40 for 50k and wanted my money’s worth. Not expecting or having any real experience in the heat, however, I grossly miscalculated my fluid and electrolyte requirements. The second trip to the top, therefore, took 3 hours compared to just 1:35 for the first. Once up there I sat down to check a blister on my foot and my left hip flexor began to jerk uncontrollably. This was a new experience for me. I found the automatic twitching amusing and was reminded of a demented lab experiment where a frog’s leg is hooked up to an electric current to demonstrate how the nervous system works. Fortunately when I stood up it would stop, so after a couple of gu’s and some water I prepared to start back down. Several exhausted bikers who rode up to the summit were chatting while refilling their camelbacks. When told that we had run up the mountain they were impressed but that it was our second trip up was beyond their comprehension.
Anxious to finish and get this thing over with I began descending Summit Trail, but soon weird things began to happen. I felt sick when standing, and then dizzy when squatting down. Time seemed to slow and I wanted to just lay down and rest, but sensed that doing so under a hot sun would be akin to falling asleep in a snow storm with hypothermia. In other words I had to keep moving. A runner gave me encouragement and salt pills and I eventually reached the Juniper aid station. The (paid) helpers had gone home (not good) and there were only a few crumbs of food left, but I had a hard time getting anything down anyway. The gatorade was gone, too. I took some more salt pills and drank two cups of water, but it didn’t help much. The next mile was mostly downhill and I managed to get through it without too much trouble, but the INSULTing climb on Meridian Ridge Fire Road was depressing and became a death march. If I could only reach the top I felt I would be all right as there would then be just 20 minutes of mostly downhill running, but once there the nausea and dizziness started again, this time accompanied by fits of unproductive retching. It didn’t seem like it would stop, and there was no one anywhere near and no more runners coming along behind me. I HAD to get down. Stupid me, I didn’t even bring a hat, and the sun was blazing.
The tricky technical downhill on Back Creek Trail, so easy the first time around, was now a bone jarring and traumatic ordeal. The 20 minute trip took a full 55 minutes. Finally, while crossing the rolling open grassland section in the final half-mile, I came to a dead stop. There wasn’t much further to go, but I had run out of gas and this time really just wanted to lay down right there in the sun, but I tried to fight off that fatal impulse. I had the panicky feeling that if I did so things would keep deteriorating and I might never get up, but instead become sun-baked road kill. I am sure the buzzards were already circling, and with each step my body seemed to be shutting down. Even so, a part of me observed it all with bemused detachment. Just then an elderly Japanese man hiking with an umbrella came up behind me, took my arm and said, “are you O.K.?, are you having a heart attack?”! With a last remaining ounce of composure I quipped, “I don’t know, I’ve never had one (heh heh).” I don’t think he caught the joke. Although close to passing out I somehow managed to make it into the shade and hobble to the finish line in a time of 8:52:09, with an absurd 3:06/ 5:46 split! While finishing thirty minutes after the next-to-last runner, technically I wasn’t really last because three others more intelligent than I had bailed out soon after starting the second half. It took me umpteen bowls of chicken soup, cold water, cold sponges and an hour and a half sitting and cooling off in the shade until the wooziness wore off, my leg stopped twitching and I felt capable of driving home. I say “cooling off” but that’s a relative term because the bank thermometer in Clayton still read 92 degrees at 7:30 p.m., so who knows how hot it was in the middle of the afternoon with direct overhead sun. This may not seem like such a big deal to someone running the 135-mile Badwater race through Death Valley, but at least there you are prepared to enter the blast furnace.
So I will chalk this one up to experience, like I have with two dislocated shoulders and other assorted sprains and strains in the past few years. I did gain a healthy respect for the power of the sun, and the perils of hyponatremia (low sodium levels), but other than that, for the benefit of those who worry about me, I don’t expect to change my overall approach to the sport very much. Instead of taking counsel from the wise and exercising a caution more befitting my age, I will most likely continue playing the fool and maybe even re-double my efforts, in sympathy with the immortal words of the great Ted Corbett who said, “I WOULD RATHER WRECK MYSELF THAN RISK THE CHANCE OF NOT BEING FIT!” They say nothing great was ever achieved without obsession.
While the fire roads and trails are very runnable, with only a few moderately technical sections, this is a difficult 50k. The 8900’ of ascending and descending is comparable to that of the Headlands 50k, but the fact that it is packed into two long steep climbs makes it feel harder. Kevin Sawchuk ran 5:17:58 in 2000 on a longer course measuring 51.2K. Luanne Park owns the women’s record of 5:44, also set in 2000. My feeling is that these records are a bit soft and should easily fall if enough quality talent enters this race.
To reach the Mitchell Canyon trailhead take either 80 or 880 to 580, then 24 east to Ignacio Valley Rd., right on Clayton Rd., and right on Mitchell Canyon Rd. There are rest rooms and a visitor center where you can purchase maps, books, and t-shirts.