Dueling on Diablo

Starting the Mount Diablo 10K, with the woman behind me pushing the pace.

Starting the Mount Diablo 10K, with the woman behind me pushing the pace.

On Sunday, November 2, I was in the middle of a 10K race on Mount Diablo that felt like a nightmare. My feet were weighed down, I kept slipping and almost falling, and I was reduced to running in slow motion as though sloshing through waist-high water. The nightmare’s monster had a three-letter name: MUD. It grasped my soles and kept adding more and more clumps of clay until the bottom of each shoe was caked with at least six inches and five pounds of dark, sticky, cement-like soil. I could barely lift my knees, so I transformed my running into gliding, as though cross-country skiing. With each lift of each heel, I worried the earth would cling so tightly that my foot would pop out of the shoe. Halfway, around mile 3, I was in the lead but my closest competitor caught up. Our duel in the dirt would come down to which one of us could master the mud.

I didn’t expect the race to be dramatic. I had chosen Save Mount Diablo’s Trail Adventure as a low-key, below-the-radar return to racing — my first race in five months, since the broken foot in June. I’ve done this event many times, but this was the first year I opted for the 10K rather than the half-marathon. (Last year and last year only, they offered a marathon, which I did, but that’s another story.) I didn’t have speed in my legs for a fast road race, and lacked the endurance to feel confident about the challenging half-marathon course. A hilly 10K trail run sounded perfect. It would take about 10 minutes more than a regular 10K, given the hills and terrain. Based on previous winners’ times, I’d be glad to finish around 50 minutes.

The day before, it poured, so I knew the conditions would be dicey, but at least the weather cleared Sunday. The light filtering through the clouds and hitting the grassy foothills made for stunning scenery at the start, which was at Castle Rock Park in Walnut Creek. I spotted a woman there who was hard to ignore because she had a pair of incredibly sculpted legs (I later found out she races with the Impalas in San Francisco). I took one look and figured she would probably own the race.

Marty Breen from Forward Motion Sports (the main sponsor) counted down the start, and we took off on the dirt Stage Road along Pine Creek. The area felt wonderfully familiar; I love all those oaks that shade the trail and the creek crossings we have to hopscotch over. A downed tree forced runners to line up and take turns bending over to thread the needle through horizontal branches. I was feeling pretty relaxed at that point, reconnecting with thoughts I use to self-coach during races; e.g., run from your core, keep it steady, etc. The footing was fine in this first stretch, but then as we split off from the half-marathoners and turned onto the big connector hill (the Dusty Road Trail) toward Wall Point Road, I spotted mud ahead of me and that woman close behind. I ran up the steep hill, pulling ahead of a pack of about five guys. We left the forest and entered the rolling meadowland of Macedo Ranch, the final three miles of the 10K. And that’s where the mud monster started to attack.

I have conquered mud in the notoriously muddy Catalina Island and Golden Hills marathons, but never have I encountered mud this gruesome. As the conditions went from bad to worse, I kept cursing my shoes. They were old and worn out, and their knobby bottoms gripped the dirt. Damn them, I thought, they’re in cahoots with the mud, the enemy! I’d love to be done with them, just ditch them then and there. (Here’s where an illustrator would draw the big light bulb over my head.) A-ha! It would be taking a gamble if I did what I was thinking of doing, but what’s the worst that could happen? My feet could hurt. So what? Then I’d have a legitimate excuse to limp home and end this sorry excuse for a run. I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna get these god-awful things off my feet!

I barely stopped my stride and didn’t bother untying the laces; I yanked one off, threw it to the ground, yanked the other off, chucked it next to the first one, and got right back to running with my socks still on, not looking back at the runners behind me. I felt like Clark Kent ripping off his suit or Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt — I broke free, here I go!

Around mile 3, the shoes come off.

Around mile 3, the shoes come off.

A few steps into it I realized my feet actually felt good. The mud formed a smooth, springy footing, firm enough for running, like on a beach right next to the water’s edge. I looked down at my white socks with the toes turning brown and couldn’t believe what I had done — would I get in trouble? was I somehow cheating? — but it was too late to do anything about it but just run and run and follow the dream that had emerged from the nightmare.

I pulled farther ahead of the woman behind me and reeled in a guy from the Forward Motion racing team. The next mile and a half I ran as hard as I could, on hills that felt like the surface of a cloud.

I wish it could’ve ended at mile 5.5, but it’s only fitting I should pay for my cockiness at some point. The payback came in the final mile, when we reconnected with the start of Stage Road. The mud from the meadow turned rocky and dry, and I had about three-quarters of a mile to go on a pebbly dirt road. The final stretch was all gravel. I thought of people who walk on shards of glass or hot coals — their trick is to go fast; if you slow down, then you get poked and burned. If I needed any more incentive to go fast, the guy from the Forward Motion team was right behind me to provide it. He tried to catch me, so I sprinted, thinking to myself, c’mon feet — I’m sorry, feet — I promise I’ll soak you and wear Birkenstock slippers for the next 72 hours and never put you through this again — and I made it to the finish without him passing me, crossing as first female and third overall in just under 52 minutes.

Shoes -- who needs 'em? When the trail is this soft, it's like running on a cloud.

When the trail is this soft, running in socks is like running on a cloud.

Morgan and the kids had shown up to surprise me at the finish. Colly, my daughter, was the first to notice and ask, “Where are your shoes?” Morgan said, “Are you insane?” The guy who finished behind me very graciously came up to congratulate me and told my husband, “She was the smartest one out there.” Thanks, but I don’t know if I can call myself that. Impulsive, yes; intelligent, not necessarily. I just felt so grateful to be out there running again, injury free, and having the most ridiculous, up-and-down-and-up-again 10K ever. My feet now have a sprinkle of freckle-like bruises, but they’ll be okay.

Thanks to Calvin Wong for taking photos on the course; check out his gallery. To everyone who put on a great event, and to the other racers out there, and even to the mud: Thank you, too.

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2 Responses to Dueling on Diablo

  1. The Fwd Motion Runner Behind You November 13, 2008 at 2:05 am #

    Thank Ralph for tagging and sending this to me.
    You still ran smarter than the rest of us because your misery came on the last mile. Us possessive hard-headed types who stayed with our shoes endured a 3 mile memory resembling a monsoon aftermath nightmare.
    Again, congratulations. It was a good win (especially coming out of your injury), but a better story.


    ps – if I succeed at putting on an impromptu mud run come this Spring, your invited….with or without shoes.


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