Mount Diablo 50K Trail Run | California | June 8, 2008
By Gary Dudney
Mount Diablo is a brooding hulk that rises unnaturally high above the valley just east of Oakland and the San Francisco Bay. Native Americans found the place so mysterious they treated it with reverence and imagined it played some part in the creation of the world. Its ecologically isolated high slopes are home to several rare wildflowers. Unknown species are being discovered to this day.
The 50K at Mount Diablo has a reputation for being the toughest in the Pacific Coast Trail Run series. From an elevation of 606 ft. at the Mitchell Canyon Trailhead, we’ll climb to the summit at 3,849 ft., loop back to the start and then do it all again. An unusually hot and dry day will push the race into the red zone, or as one runner exclaimed reaching the top for the second time, “This mountain tried to kill me!”
The course follows a roller coaster fire road around the base of the mountain and then singletrack into a canyon beside a bone-dry creekbed. The sun is out and hot from the start. Runners in an 8K event split off just as the trail switchbacks up the side of the canyon toward a saddle that connects Eagle Peak to Mount Diablo proper. From the saddle, Eagle Peak is imposing, a giant spire off to our right. But later from the top of Mount Diablo, it is hard to pick it out from among all the other miniature formations far below. Heading over the saddle, we drop down a jeep road losing about 500 ft. before resuming the climb up the mountain.
The mountain’s name comes from an incident dating back to about 1805. Spanish soldiers bent on capturing rebellious Mission Indians had surrounded them in a willow thicket at the base of the mountain. But when night closed in, the Indians managed to escape. To cover their embarrassment at being outsmarted by the Indians, the Spaniards claimed a devil had appeared and tricked the Spaniards. So they called the place “el monte de diablo,” the devil’s woodland.
The view from the first aid station at Juniper Campground is stunning. California stretches out below us like a 3D topo map. The Indians had no reason to make homes at this height, but they ventured up here for ceremonies and to worship. No wonder. Who could not be moved to contemplate higher things looking out through this vast expanse of air and sky?
Leaving the aid station, we rush up and down some overgrown singletrack along the side of the mountain and then ascend one rock strewn twisting, rutted trail after another. At the top, is a weird stone building, the Summit Museum, where the observation deck marks the turnaround. The trip back down is fast and tricky with plenty of face plant opportunities. It requires almost an hour of continuous quad-pounding effort to loop back around to the start.
The second trip up the mountain does not go well. The electrolyte and fluid intake system that has served me for years fails in the heat and desiccating air. Veteran runners, me included, are attacked by multiple cramps. My core temp seems to be rocketing out of control with the least exertion. Barely moving in the final climb to the top, I hear the equally slow runner ahead of me mutter, “Bataan death march.” My calf locks up and the edge of the frozen muscle looks like it could be used to split wood. At the top we are bizarrely met with an infestation of pincher bugs, or earwigs, the insect that supposedly burrows into your ear as you sleep and deposit eggs in your brain. They cover the ground and cloud the air to the extent that small children are screaming and running for their cars in the museum parking lot.
Limping back down, I am attacked by horseflies. Lizards and skinks swarm over the trail. I come upon two kids chasing a full-grown rattlesnake across the parking area at Juniper Campground. Forgive me for feeling the race has turned a little diabolical.
At the finish line, others are complaining of muscle cramps. Everyone has a story to tell that they’ve taken from the mountain. At last, we pile into my minivan and start the long drive home. We had gone maybe a quarter of a mile when my friend in back popped up out of his seat like a target getting reset in a shooting gallery. Clutching his leg, he yells, “CRAMP!”