When writing, the most soul-sucking dilemma I encounter is how to start. There’s always a zillion ways to start a story. But until now, I’ve always forced myself to pick one. Not today. This happened so quickly and so suddenly that I’m not even sure where to begin.
Do I begin with Tarawera? The 102K/11K-foot vert I finished last month in New Zealand that made yesterday’s 105K/12K-foot vert even remotely possible in my mind?
Would I begin with the zeitgeist of our time: COVID-19? The pandemic that’s blown up everyone’s race calendars, postponing not just the Oakland Marathon this weekend (which I was likely to pace), but the Boston Marathon (which I was training for)?
Or, would I start with David’s message Friday night?
During a rest stop yesterday, Lucas, our crew caption (and the only full-time crew David and I had) asked me when I started running.
“Just over 3 years ago.”
“Have you run this far before?”
“I ran my first 100K last month.”
Later, KK Fischer, our second crew member, was surprised to hear the same thing.
When I heard about David’s project, the first thing I asked was how far it would be.
If I were to join, it would be my second 100K.
Despite apparently running a pretty good time — 14 hours 45 minutes there — according to some runners I’ve spoken to since then, Tarawera hadn’t gotten particularly well for me. Redeeming that performance was on my mind.
If there’s one positive thing that’s come out of this pandemic, it’s been the opportunity to take my mind off all of my upcoming races and explore new and unknown roads and trail, at least until the summer.
So on Friday afternoon, when I saw that Doug Miller and a friend would be gunning for David von Stroh‘s Two Bridges FKT on Sunday, the first thing on my mind was that I would go for it too. Maybe even jump the gun on them and do it Saturday! I was already planning on running the 2017 Oakland Marathon route, anyway — why not extend my long run into an ultra and maybe bag my first FKT along the way?
As I’ve descended further into “the dark side,” (i.e. the addictive, alluring spiral of ever running longer and farther), I’ve started thinking about setting FKTs.
But how would I go about setting one? From what I’ve read, watched, and heard, I knew there were customs and designations around what would constitute a real FKT. Things like contacting the record-holder before an attempt (often the night before), as well as the differences between Unsupported, Self-Supported, and Supported efforts.
In any case, David had already called me (and others) out last November after he had created a First Known Time, by establishing the Bay Area Two Bridges route, to beat his time. So it was easy for me to hit him up to tell him that I intended to run the route.
Almost immediately after asking if I wanted company, he told me that he had actually been planning another First Known Time — this time from Stinson to Diablo.
Because of COVID-19, almost all of his planned support logistics, and pacers, had dropped — some because of possible exposure, others because of unexpected schedule changes, and others because he had essentially called it off (until I joined).
Ultimately, he was able to get Lucas Horan to crew us, and another friend Jill, to pace us from Alvarado to Lafayette. We would start as he’d originally planned: we would leave the East Bay around 3AM, start from Stinson Beach at 4AM, and finish on the summit of Mt. Diablo at 6PM.
By the time we wrapped up our conversation, it was almost 6PM. I finished packing around 8PM. I got into bed around 10PM, while setting an alarm for 2AM.
2:23AM: I got out of bed.
2:43AM: David messages me and Lucas. He’s running a little late. I feel the air outside. Cold but not too cold. I lift my duffel bag full of energy drinks, extra clothes, a second pair of shoes, and 5 bottles of pre-mixed Roctane. It’s heavy and I struggle to close its main zipper, but I wonder if I’ve packed enough. I’m nervous and excited. But strangely I don’t feel the usual “pre-race jitters” at all.
3:04AM: I get another text message. It’s time.
A huge part of why I run, or do anything in general, is for the story. One of the most amazing things about this story, though, was that it almost ended before it started!
After Lucas drove David and I to Stinson Beach, David discovered that he had forgotten his hydration pack… along with everything he had prepared in it. Like his headlamp.
Would we start? Would we call it off? Lucas didn’t think it was a big deal. I had to suppress the urge to wonder “are you fucking kidding me?” out loud (but was ready to go). I offered my backup flashlight, but it turned out that Lucas had brought his own headlamp, which David gladly borrowed.
On one hand, I had almost felt relieved: we would go back home, tuck in under some warm sheets, and think about adventure another day. (I had to suppress the urge to wonder these thoughts out loud, too.) But, on the other, I also felt a little annoyed. “We’re PROFESSIONALS” I thought at one point (despite realizing the absurdity of that thought) — but surely, professionals couldn’t forget equipment as critical as a hydration pack on an ultramarathon!
But with all those thoughts in my mind, I also decided that, yes, if I were in David’s shoes, I would do it. I’d want to see how far I’d get anyway. At least it was “only” 15 miles to go up and down Mt. Tam into Larkspur, where we’d have our first support stop with Lucas. If it were me, 1 liter of fluid in early morning temps would be enough.
But of course, I didn’t know what David was comfortable with. So I shut my mouth and let him decide.
Finally, with two handhelds, David decides that we would start. I tell him that if he needed any fluid to not hesitate to ask me for any. I was already carrying two 500mL soft HydraPaks, but I decide that in case David really did need more fluid, that I should also carry two cans of V8 Energy Mix just in case too.
4:34AM. It’s so dark that we can’t see the beach. But the crashing roar of the waves made themselves known. We take our starting photos for what I hoped would be FKT verification later.
4:38AM. No bang of a starting gun, or rush of runners through a decorated, inflated arch. I count down: “3-2-1-START”. We were off.
Last June, I had the pleasure, or pain, depending on your perspective, of racing the Dipsea Trail. Twice, in fact, since I ran the Double Dipsea. I really only raced it because of its iconic status; I wanted to get in on the fun. But, because I hadn’t really gone out to enjoy it, I really didn’t enjoy it.
That experience was on my mind as we started the same, familiar, stair-filled ascent to begin our trek. I’ve got to enjoy this, this time, I thought. Don’t make this trip feel like work.
But, as soon as the clock had started, David took off. I had wondered how he was going to pace this run. During our pre-flight conversations, I noted that he had spreadsheeted 10:30 min/mile splits for essentially the first half of our run, and only easing into around 11 for the second half. While realistic, that also seemed ambitious, especially with the big Diablo climb at the end.
Chris Thoburn had put those paces and ETAs together, he told me. Whether he told me to relax, I don’t quite recall, but I knew that David had much more experience at ultras than I had. Especially given my poor pacing at Tarawera, my plan was to let David set our pace.
Because this was first and foremost David’s project, he had planned out our route. According to his original plan, we would start up Steep Ravine from Stinson to Matt Davis. This would be the most direct route toward Mount Tam, our first destination. But it would be steep (as its name implies) and, crucially, quite technical (ladders and all).
Given the poor lighting from Lucas’ backup headlamp, David decided that Steep Ravine would be too dangerous. I agreed.
But while less technical, the Dipsea isn’t that much easier. For those unfamiliar, it climbs up about 1400 ft over 3.2 miles (or about 8.3% grade) from Stinson Beach to Cardiac Hill. And we started at about a 10-ish pace, as scheduled.
With no warm-up (though the early morning was surprisingly not particularly cold), I felt my heart rate spike. My legs quickly started burning. I had a jacket on. I had to take it off. David continued to truck up the hill. I had to take breaks.
Finally, we made it to Cardiac Hill. From there, David looked for signs taking us to the Pantoll Campground. We had two options: Old Mine Trail or the Deer Park Fire Road. We ended up taking the paved Fire Road (I think mostly because it was better lit and had better signage).
But when we got to Pantoll, it wasn’t obvious (at least to me) where we should go, while David looked for directions to the next campground (Bootjack).
Fortunately, the facilities there were open, including the restrooms and water fountains (despite our concern that they’d be closed in light of COVID-19). I exclaimed that, while I had been there before, everything looked so different at night! We walked around the campground for a bit, checking our phones for directions, then finally headed up Panoramic Highway.
After getting to Bootjack, the path to Mt. Tam was pretty clear. After 4 miles of climbing, we now had a couple miles of easy single-track descent. My favorite. I had also warmed up. I felt good, and went ahead of David, until the West Point Inn (he had also asked me not to run too close behind him because my light was casting too much of a shadow in front of him).
I should mention that this could’ve easily been the most enjoyable part of the initial ascent up Tam. But, since this was early-morning, untouched trail, I also got repeated facefuls of light spider web. I’ve run through thicker webs before, but on this morning, the sheer frequency of web in my hair and face was just annoying. Oh well. David mentioned that he had a similar experience when he was running ahead of me at the beginning, so I was glad I was able to pay back the favor during this section.
Not too long after reaching West Point, we followed the Old Railroad Grade Fire Road up to the Visitor’s Center, before continuing up the Plank Trail to the summit.
Where a spectacular view of the Bay awaited us.
During the drive to Stinson Beach earlier, I had told David that I had seen over half of the route he had planned, with the main exception between the connection between Tam (Marin) to Alvarado (East Bay) over the newly-opened Richmond Bridge pedestrian walkway/bikeway, and trails between Briones to Diablo.
What I didn’t tell David was that I had actually never gone up Tam before. As a Bay Area trail runner, that’d be too embarrassing. So when we made it up to the tower at the summit, it was exactly how I had seen it in all the photos I’d semi-regularly see in my Strava feed, but had never seen in real life.
This also meant that I had no idea how to get off the mountain, to the other side, either.
We finally took our first wrong turn going off the summit. Actually, the summit itself was much smaller than I thought it would be. It was also much rocker. This meant that there were a dozen false “trails” that could lead us to an untimely demise, in the morning darkness. At this point, I exclaimed that I couldn’t even find the trail that had taken us up!
Finally, we found the exit to what I now see is called the “Verna Dunshee Trail.” It was a nice downward slope and easy to run. We ran almost to the end, where we saw a sign to the Visitor’s Center. “This isn’t right,” David said. If we continued back to the Visitor’s Center, we would be heading back where we had started!
Incidentally, there had been a sign we had passed about 10 minutes prior, at a trail fork, indicating “Trail Ends 400 Feet.” It was the only other way off Verna Dunshee, but neither David nor I had ever taken it (or so we thought). It was worth taking a look, so we ran back.
The good news: the trail didn’t end after 400 feet.
What neither of us knew was that this was essentially a “secret” trail, featuring 30-45% grade descents, boulder scrambles, loose scree scrambles, muddy sinkholes, and slippery pipes.
The “bad”news: now we were in for a real adventure.
But at least we were treated to amazing views!
Did I mention the scrambles?
Always a pleasure when my camera indicates that I’m taking a photo at an angle, when I’m actually standing on the flatest piece of rock I can find.
At one point, we started talking about what shoes we were wearing. Because though I was wearing Saucony Peregrine ISOs, which typically has excellent traction, I had more than handful of slip-and-slide moments despite careful step selection and ginger movements.
The silver lining to all this, I guess, was that all this slow downward “hiking” gave our legs a bit of a break. I got to take quite a few photos.
Even “better”, the fact that David brought two handhelds (rather than the usual hydration vest) actually paid off in spades along this descent — on one particularly slippery rock, he fell with his entire bodyweight onto his wrist. But, as luck would have it, the bottle in his hand massively cushioned the fall. “Without [the bottle], I would’ve broken my wrist!” he later told Lucas.
Finally, we got to the end. Indian Fire Road.
It took us longer to down up Mt. Tam than we had needed to get up, from West Point. I joked that anyone attempting this FKT in the future would have to go down the same way we did. When David planned this route, he had allowed Strava to map out this descent; the alternative was Eldridge Grade Fire Road, which was at least twice as long, but nowhere as technical. “I should’ve known from seeing the sharp drop on the elevation graph” he said.
In the end, we decided that it probably would’ve been faster to have simply run down that road even if it was nowhere as direct.
David mentioned that he had actually gone up the same trail at some point, but it had been in much better shape. Personally, I promised myself that I’d come back at some point. Maybe with someone unaware of how technical the trail is!
The Descent to Larkspur
By the time we were done with the Widowmaker, 3 hours had passed. This was certainly much longer than I had expected our first 12 miles to take. But at least now it was light, so the handicap of running in the dark was gone. As we took Blithedale Ridge to Crown Road down, it was all easy running. And boy, did it feel good to finally get to run after an hour of scrambling!
There weren’t many people out, possibly because it was still early, or because of the Shelter-in-Place Order, or both. But pretty much everyone we encountered had dog(s). I ran with a few that followed me for some time.
Finally, we left the woods and entered the city.
But, we had left our planned route. In fact, we were quite a bit away. I pointed this out to David, but he was unconcerned (now that I look at the map, it turns out there was a turn we should’ve made).
We were to meet Lucas at an Equator Coffee, where the SF Running Company often start their runs, but it was possible that David and I might be going to the wrong one. David gave Lucas a call; Lucas was close by, and ready. We just needed to head up Corte Madera northbound a bit.
Rest Stop #1: Larkspur Equator Coffee and a Guest Appearance by KK Fischer!
One policy I’ve maintained on Strava is that, if I were to follow someone, I’d need to meet — and preferably run or bike with — that person first. But I recently made an exception for a woman named KK Fischer.
What changed my mind was a 24-hour near-Everesting of Tam. While keeping her project secret, she climbed and descended Tam no less than 11 times, for 77+ miles and almost 29k feet of vert. There was no way I could not follow a Bay Area local that crazy.
So, when I realized that it was not only Lucas at our first rest stop, but also the Queen of Crazy, KK Fischer, I was very pleasantly surprised!
Funnily enough, when she realized who I was, she mentioned that she felt like she was a fan meeting an idol. But for me, it was honestly the other way around!
Logistically, her timing and presence also couldn’t have been better. Originally, David had planned to stop at various Starbucks along the way. This stop was supposed to be at a Starbucks too, until we realized that most, if not all, Starbucks would be closed due to COVID-19. This meant that we had to pack more food rather than rely on stores and shops along our way (and while we were running through Larkspur, I noticed this to be true — I didn’t see a single food place open for business, though I couldn’t be sure if it was because it was Saturday morning).
In addition to bringing herself, KK brought muffins, sandwiches, wraps, cookies, drinks, and more. I didn’t know it at the time, but the addition of these extra solid-food calories would really save my ass later in the day.
On that note, by the time we got into the city, I really needed to go #2. I had really packed on the solid calories the night before and morning-of, in anticipation of this run. I also had too much fiber on Friday morning and afternoon, before knowing that I would be going on a really long run on Saturday! Now I was feeling one consequence.
The trouble was, where would I find an open restroom? I knew pretty much every East Bay Parks restroom were closed — but what about Marin restrooms?
Fortunately, despite a sign saying otherwise, the closest restroom nearby was open. I spent some time using it. Then David spent some time using it. By the time we left, I had already gotten pretty cold, and needed my jacket; I’ve never spent more than maybe 10 minutes at an aid station, but we actually spent just under 40 minutes here!
Finally, we got going again. I was slightly annoyed we had taken so long, but I was also happy to feel super fresh again. I was ready for my first run across the Richmond Bridge.
The Richmond Bridge
The run down the Corte Madera-Larkspur path to the 101, and eventually from the 101 to the 580, was mostly uneventful, though it was my first time ever on these roads. I was actually a bit surprised that there was an unprotected, open pedestrian path along the shoulder of these highways to begin with!
Finally, just before 9:30 and just over 19 miles in, I saw the Bridge Trail sign — and The Bridge. This would be where we would be spending the our next 4.2 miles.
Rest Stop #2: Point Richmond
By the time David and I met up again with Lucas at the Richmond Social Club, my watch had logged 25 miles in about 5.75 hours. I was surprised to feel relatively fresh, probably because of the slow Tam descent, and our long stop in Larkspur. I was also back in familiar territory, after passing the bridge tollbooth and finally entering the East Bay!
KK had left after meeting us to either run Tam, or the Volley Up Vollmer virtual challenge (close to where we would later run). I wondered where she was.
In any case, more importantly, David had lined up another friend to help — Jill. She was already heading to Alvarado Staging Area, the northernmost “big” staging area of the East Bay ridge. According to our schedule, we should’ve been there some time ago. Instead, we were still 5 miles away.
Unfortunately, because we were so late, she wouldn’t be able to join us through Tilden and Briones.
Lucas also wanted to go on a run of his own (he’s an amazing ultrarunner in his own right), and asked David if he thought that was OK. But because we only had about 5 road miles to our next stop (Alvarado), David thought that it’d be better if Lucas could run after we got there.
We also knew that the next 5 miles would likely be the last “easy” section before really digging into the East Bay. So David asked Lucas to get his hydration vest for him before Alvarado; he was going to need it soon.
The Road to Alvarado
Richmond isn’t exactly the nicest or the most interesting city. So there’s not much I have to say about this segment, other than the fact that while we made good pace, each mile started to feel increasingly like sloggier and sloggier. Looking back at photos of myself during this section now, it’s clear to me that I’m sweating too much (though it wasn’t terribly warm despite the clear day) and that I’m sweating out too much salt.
That said, for most of this section (as well as on the bridge prior), I ran ahead and navigated.
Rest Stop #3: Alvarado Staging Area
When we got to the Staging Area, David found his car. But Lucas was nowhere to be seen. He had gone off to run (?) after all! When he heard we were back, though, he got back quickly, and dumped our food on a thermal blanket for us to peruse.
By this point, I wasn’t feeling so good. We were about 30 miles and 7 hours in, with maybe just 1/4 of our total vert done. I knew I needed calories, but I also had to resist waves of nausea. While we rested, I dry-retched several times. My head was feeling light; I had told David that, though I’ve run 2 50-milers and 1 100K in the past few months, 50K (31 miles) is still my effective range. I knew I was prone to problems after that, and this was it.
But we were only half-way, and my will was still strong. I couldn’t give in yet.
Familiar Friends: Wildcat Creek, Belgum, San Pablo Ridge, and Nimitz Way
Partly because I had joined David’s project so late, and partly because I really wasn’t sure if I could go the distance, I had only told two people about this run before embarkation.
Even the day after I was done (but hadn’t posted my run yet), only a few people in my East Bay trail running group suspected. Rather, the big news was how crowded the East Bay Parks were getting, with the Shelter-in-Place order exempting outdoor exercise.
Which parks were the busiest, and should be avoided for proper social distancing? Which trails would be the most secluded.
I could contribute here: Alvarado Staging Area should definitely be avoided. The last few times I had been here, there were a fair number of people. Now there were at least triple or quadruple that.
That said, I still thought the main trail, Wildcat Creek, was wide enough to accommodate everyone, though at times it was hard to avoid passing people less than 6 feet away.
In any case, David and I spent very little time on Wildcat Creek before turning onto Belgum, where I knew some fun would begin.
San Pablo Ridge Road
At last, we reached the turnoff to the San Pablo Reservoir. We would make our way to Eagle’s Nest, then follow the Old San Pablo Trail to Oursan Trail, which would lead us to Briones Overlook, where our next rest stop would be waiting. This sounded easy enough.
For the most part, it was. We got to enjoy some runnable downhill (apparently I’m now the 6th fastest person on the Nimitz to Eagle’s Nest Strava segment). The recreation area itself was also empty, which was both eerie and relieving — mostly because now I didn’t have to worry about dodging people for social distancing.
But I was also experiencing both waves of mild to moderate nausea and an increasing urgent need to poop. I had never run this area before, despite running Tilden so often, so I had no idea whether there would be restrooms (and whether they’d even be open!).
Fortunately for me, there were. While I used the first one I saw, there were actually quite a few (though I didn’t check if they were actually open).
Another surprise for me was just how much gravel there was. David had mentioned that we would be going down what he thought was an old road that was just no longer maintained. That’s definitely how it seemed to me.
Rest Stop #4: Briones Overlook
By the time we made it to Briones, I had recorded about 41 miles. I was feeling it. David was feeling it too, but now there was an urgency that wasn’t there before.
“Will we make it to Diablo before it’s dark?” I asked.
“I want to be. We’ve got to pick up the pace.” he said.
“Don’t let me hold you back!” (For me, being dead weight on a team is even worse than not finishing.)
“If we don’t stick together, one of us will get lost!”
“I have the map.” (And so did he.)
At this point, I knew I hadn’t bonked, per se, but I was seriously low on calories. My legs were also shot. But it was also “only” 10 miles to our next stop, in Lafayette, and I was familiar with half of it.
I picked up a chicken wrap that KK had brought for us earlier, and ate half of it. I also accepted a bag of Hi-Chews from Lucas to carry with me through the next section, as well as a kind of gel-like Clif Bar from David. I was also still feeling over-caffeinated, despite diluting my Roctane mix and V8 energy drinks at Alvarado, so I continued to dilute (despite knowing that this would deprive me of liquid calories).
I watched groups of people, old and young, enjoying their time (despite orders to stay away from one another). I wished that I was one of them — I felt like I had run enough, and now that it was once again cloudy as hell, it felt like the day was over, that I could go home, relax and hang out (virtually) in the warm comfort of my heater, and get some rest. As I sat on the camping chair, I felt myself drift asleep.
Suddenly, I woke up. David had also apparently dozed off in the car too. Just under half an hour had passed since we had arrived at this godforsaken parking lot. I hoped to Lucas that this experience wouldn’t scar my enjoyment of Briones.
“This will always be a great place to run,” he assured me.
In the end, David and I lumbered off, with Lucas trying to give us as much positive energy as possible.
Briones, and the Art of Getting Dropped
Soon after we got started again, David’s urgency returned. “We’ve got to pick up the pace!” Which he did.
But I couldn’t. As he realized that I was really in trouble, he confirmed that I had a map (and therefore could find my way). I did (and I was confident I wouldn’t get lost).
Shortly after, I lost sight of his green shirt.
I think it was Dan Ditty during CIM 2017 who made an analogy that’s stuck with me ever since: losing a pace group is like losing a life raft.
That was my thought as soon as I was alone. I felt my motivation sap away, not dissimilar to getting dropped by pacers 20 miles into a marathon; my will and ability to run was not far behind, even on flat sections.
There were hikers on the trail; I asked them if they had seen a runner come by, hoping to tease out how far back I was. Their answer was terse: “yes”, then they turned away like I was a leper (and I couldn’t blame them given narrow trail and, again, our social distance obligations).
The thing is, much of trail running and especially trail racing is done solo (and in fact, one of the main differences between my road and trail running experiences). So being alone now was not new to me.
So I tried to enjoy it.
After a not-trivial amount of walking, I finally the intersection of Bear Creek Trail and Bear Creek Road. I had run around the Briones Reservoir before, but I had never crossed the road to Bear Creek Staging onto Seaborg Trail and the Lafayette Ridge on the eastern side.
As I continued up the road, I was surprised by how many cars and families there were. As I turned into the staging area’s parking lot itself, I was shocked that the parking lot was full and bustling with people!
That said, it was getting late. I had gotten there just before 4pm. Most people seemed to be leaving. Furthermore, most people seemed to be going into Briones Regional Park, rather than toward Lafayette, where I was headed.
Lafayette Ridge and Rest Stop #5
On its own, Seaborg wasn’t terrible: “just” 700-ish feet of gain over 4 miles, or a grade of about 3.3%. That said, I still walked and power-walked most of it.
But as I crested the top of Seaborg, my heart sank. When I had studied the elevation chart the day before, Lafayette Ridge showed up as a short bumpy section. The bumps were tiny; I hadn’t even taken a second look.
What I hadn’t noticed was that, while short and actually net-downhill, these bumps were pretty steep, with 15-25% grade inclines and declines. I could feel the ascents draining my soul (to the point where I thought that I was literally giving up weeks of “life force” with each passing hill). The downhills were no fun either; if I were fresh, I knew I would bomb down and risk face-planting. But by this point, I couldn’t resist the urge to constantly brake (despite my brain telling me that I should try to keep my center of gravity forward).
Even worse, most of the trail faced directly east. This meant that I had to look right at Mt. Diablo’s face. Earlier, when David and I had crested Belgum Trail, in Tilden, we had stopped to look westward to admire Mt. Tam.
“Can you believe we were there earlier?” he’d asked incredulously.
Now, Mt. Diablo was taunting me: “Do you really believe you can make it over here later?”
Somewhere along the way, reception on my phone returned and I got messages from one person I had casually told about this trek, Yao, and another from Matt Chan, who had seen my somewhat cryptic Instagram story I had posted at 2:30am before I had left, with a photo of a ton of Gu’s, some running food, and gear.
Yao asked me how often I was cleaning my hydration flasks.
Matt simply asked “what’cha doing?”.
But the most important message of all: the fact that David got to Lafayette Ridge Staging… way later than I thought he would. In fact, after checking Google Maps, I was “only” 0.7 miles behind.
Now that I knew that I wasn’t actually that far behind, plus the fact that I was going to hit 50 miles by the next aid stop, I felt some pep in my step. The self-loathing receded. The downhills also became way gentler, and actually started to help. I ran down the remaining switchbacks, still taking care not to take shortcuts.
0.7 miles on hilly trail is actually still quite a lot, and I had zero expectation that David was still going to be there by the time I arrived. During the long hike along the ridge, I had pretty much resolved to finish at Lafayette Staging, and call it a day with 50 miles. While going up one of the middle hills, I told Yao that I was 80% sure I was going to drop. It felt a little weird to quantify how confident I was in failing, at first. But, with each passing hill, that number in my head steadily increased.
Though I had actually only spent an hour on the ridge (to travel 3 miles), I couldn’t avoid incessantly thinking about how I would justify dropping. There was no reason for me to hold David back from a better FKT time if he had to wait for me. Hadn’t I already done a pretty good job keeping him company on his project for most of the day? Sure, my time was going to suck, but no one would blame me for wrapping this fun run up at such a clean number, 50 miles, right? At Briones Overlook, Lucas had reminded me that I was doing this because it’s fun. I wasn’t having fun now, right? So no reason to continue now, right?
In due time, I saw the parking lot from the ridgeline. I saw a small figure waving: it was Lucas. I knew that I wanted to finish as strong as I could, so I ran in, to Lucas hollering and cheering. It was all over!!! Relief washed over me. This was no Diablo, but at least I had made it to the other side of the East Bay hills. There was still sunlight left. Sports Basement was holding a Netflix party to watch the climbing movie Dawn Wall at 6pm. I could still make it.
Then, I saw David. Hunched over at his car, with a slight, patient smile on his face.
One thing they say about ultrarunning (usually about 100-milers) is that you get to feel every emotion you feel in lifetime, in a single day. As soon as I saw David, the rush of emotion was almost overwhelming — mostly because it was so mixed. I knew I was surprised. I was glad to see him; I’m always glad to see a friend. I also knew myself well enough to know that, because he was there, my day might not actually be over; it was going to hinge on his decision (once again). If he wanted to go, there was NO WAY I was going to quit; there was no question about that in my mind. But if he was done, then I was also done. The apprehension felt palpable. I was shook.
One second passed while this mixed bag of emotions ran through me, before I gathered myself. He must have waited for me, I thought. But why? We only had one car. Maybe he and Lucas waited for me to finish so we could all go home together.
Or, he could’ve waited for me so we could continue together. I didn’t like this. The first thing (or second, after commiserating about the fucking hills we had both endured) I said to David was “I hope you didn’t wait for me.” I said this twice in a row. He didn’t answer me.
In any case, one thing was clear: he was going to continue. I was coming with him.
The Last Running Miles
Earlier in the day, we had to make an urban connection, on road shoes, between the Marin trails and the East Bay ridge trails. Now, we had to do the same between the East Bay ridge trails to the Diablo trails.
The connection earlier was pretty long: 16 miles. This connection: only 4 miles. But even without hills in-between, Miles 52 to 56 are worlds apart from Miles 14 to 30.
The previous day, we had joked about how Diablo was going to feel really different after 50 miles. I’ve experienced trail runs after 50 (trail) miles. But this was the first time I was running on solid, paved road after 50 (mixed) miles. Boy, did this feel different. We were actually making good time, even bringing our pace down to low 8’s, after warming up again. But dang, I was tired.
As the city blocks ticked by, I knew these were the last miles I would be running.
Rest Stop #6: Howe Homestead
While we were at Lafayette Staging, I asked whether Diablo would even be open after dark.
Technically, it was not. That meant our adventure really did have a “race cutoff”: sunset. When I left my apartment at 3 o’clock in the morning, I thought we would be done before sunset with time to spare. After all, I had run a 102K with just about the same amount vert, and even more overall technicality, than this route, just last month in under 15 hours! Beating a “cutoff” time hadn’t even occurred to me.
But would closing hours be enforced? Out of all the East Bay parks, Diablo has a reputation for having relatively lax enforcement. I wasn’t sure if I had ever gone up by way of Howe Homestead, one of three main trails into the park, but it was pretty certain that we would be able to enter on foot.
More concerning was whether Lucas could enter with our support car. After Howe Homestead, our next stop would be on Burma Road, after a gated road entrance into Diablo. We didn’t know when the gate would actually close, or, given the COVID-19 situation, whether a ranger would even be present to close it.
It was also possible that our car could enter before the gate was closed but have no way out after dark. Then we’d have to get off the mountain and somehow make it home… on foot? Not a pleasant prospect. (I told the two that I’d rather sleep and spend the night on the summit, if we didn’t have the car).
David and Lucas had way more experience with Diablo, and making these kinds of decisions, so I let them figure it out. In the meantime, I really had to take Dump #3. Unfortunately, there were no visible restrooms at Howe Homestead, and I was very sure that there would be none all the way up to the summit. If we were going to continue.
After I responsibly buried my biohazard waste amidst not-so-dense brush and returned to the car, the decision had been made: Dave and I would continue to Burma Road. We would see Lucas there… but possibly without the car (if the gate was closed)… Lucas was more than happy — even excited — to run up Diablo with us.
Part of David’s reason for continuing past Lafayette was so we could actually say we made it from Tam to Diablo. Whether we actually made it up to the top… well, let’s say that people running the Badwater Ultra “make it to Whitney,” even though it ends before Whitney’s summit. We would try to go as far as we could. Before reaching Howe Homestead, I had asked Dave if we were “probably” going to stop at Howe Homestead, or if we would “definitely” stop at Howe Homestead. He would only commit to “probably.”
Of course, after we arrived, the allure of “just one more” was massive. “Probably stop” became “probably continue”, which became “definitely continue.” Thinking that I was going to stop in Lafayette and then again en route to Howe Homestead, I had stopped eating. Now I began stuffing my face with food. With all the hiking earlier, the nausea I had been battling since Alvarado had subsided; my appetite was returning. I needed calories for the 3000+ feet of ascent that was coming.
Then, we continued.
Shell Ridge Open Space
I had gone on a bike ride on the iconic Three Bears Loop with a couple friends, Amanda and Aaron, a couple weeks prior, before the coronavirus Shelter-in-Place Order was a thing. It was my first time seeing all of those roads. After I came back, I posted the ride to Strava. Another friend, Sidney, commented how there was just so much to see in the Bay Area!
Every footstep I had taken after leaving the Briones Reservoir was new to me. Seaborg Trail had been new. The Lafayette Ridge was new. I had run part of the Iron Horse Trail in Walnut Creek before, but all the streets we had taken during this run were new. Howe Homestead Park was new. As David and I entered the Shell Ridge Open Space adjacent to Howe Homestead, en route to Diablo, I couldn’t help but marvel, and shake my head, at just how much trail I had missed here. Even if I ultimately didn’t make it to the top, this run had shown me so much, and literally opened my eyes to even more possibility in “my own backyard.”
At this point, David had brought his trekking poles (“Oh you’re getting serious now,” Lucas had commented). He still had some running left in him. I did, too — but how much I had left, I really had no idea. So whenever he ran, I ran.
During one of short bouts of running, it occurred to me that if this were actually a race, or if we were actually trying to beat a current Fastest Known Time, rather than “simply” trailblaze a new First Known Time, that I would be trying my best to run at this point. I was feeling my running legs recover. That said, it also occurred to me that running legs now didn’t matter since what I actually needed very soon would be climbing legs — and from past experience, I knew that my ability to run on the flats don’t translated well to ascents.
The Diablo Foothills
While David and I passed through Shell Ridge, I realized that David was using Google Maps for navigation. Google Maps is great… when you have a connection. But without reception, it’s not as useful… even with offline maps downloaded.
Fortunately, he had shared the route on Strava with me on Friday. While I like building routes on Strava, I also find its route analysis tools, and especially its routing on mobile, lacking. So I had downloaded our route’s GPX file and uploaded it to RideWithGPS, a navigation app primarily for cyclists.
I was on a free plan, which doesn’t include offline maps. But even without reception, it still gave me a pretty good-resolution map, with our route overlaid plus an option to turn on/off my GPS to identify where we were.
I had been using it since the very beginning of this run, but now using it was even more imperative. Neither Dave nor I were familiar with these trails, signage was sparse, and nightfall was creeping up on us fast.
Finally, we reached a gate with a nearby trail marker and map. They read: “Briones to Mt Diablo Trail.”
We passed the gate. We were really doing it! We were entering Diablo.
“Mt. Diablo Park Ahead”
One thing that neither Dave nor I knew is that the area around Mt. Diablo State Park is actually called the Mt. Diablo Foothills Regional Park. As we continued down Stage Rd, it was unclear to me where all the various parks started and ended.
What Dave knew was that we needed to find a way to Burma Road, where we would see Lucas one last time. What I knew was that we only had one way out, and that was forward. There was no way we could stop now, in the dark, kind of in the middle of nowhere with only our headlamps and the stars illuminating our path.
The road was windy, but fortunately it was wide and clear. Curiously, there were more than a few stream crosses. To me, the first seemed a little out-of-place; there wasn’t really any water I was aware of in the area, though I could make out some faint bubbling and gurgling of a nearby stream. We had also passed by many dry stream beds, a couple of which I had to confirm weren’t actually trail.
Then, a second crossing would come into view. Then a third. A fourth, a fifth. David later told Lucas that there had to be around ten that we crossed (luckily, all of them had rocks we could walk on, though I almost fallen over trying to cross via a branch on the second crossing).
Another curious observation: the frogs. I didn’t see any, but they definitely made themselves heard. Very much like my daytime experience running Tarawera in New Zealand, where the noise of the jungle was deafening at times, the rambunctious level of croaking near the junction of Stage Rd and Deer Park Rd, was impressive. I couldn’t recall the last time I had heard such a cacophony of frogs (or toads?), at least in the Bay Area!
After some time, a fork in the trail presented itself. In one direction, it read “Deer Flat Road.” On the other, it read “Park Boundary.” But wait! Above “Deer Flat Road,” it also read, in small font, “To Burma Road!” We were almost there!
We turned left. Now, we needed climb.
The Last Rest Stop. Number 7: Burma Road.
The initial part of the climb wasn’t bad at all. I was used to this. One foot in front of the other. “This isn’t going to let up,” Dave quipped.
After yet another unknown period of time, we saw a tiny light in the distance. Despite the darkness, I spied some movement.
Whoever it was also clearly saw our two bobbing lights, too. And immediately started blaring disco music.
It was Lucas. With the car!
I glanced at my watch. “Do you know what time it is???” I asked them. It was 9-fucking-30. No actual use of expletives on my part, but Dave was surprised. Time passes fast when you’re moving.
“I guess we’re summitting at midnight,” he said.
By that point, there was no debate whether or not we would continue. We had come this far, we had adequate supplies, we had already spent SEVENTEEN hours getting to where we were. No point in not finishing now; no one even mentioned it.
And actually, KK was coming up to the summit with us too, we learned from Lucas. She was on her way to drive Dave’s car (our support car) up to the summit, allowing Lucas to join our hike. They would both celebrate at the top with us.
With that in mind, the final push started.
Final Push to the Summit, Part 1
Before this run, I had climbed Mt. Diablo only once before. It was during a training run last May for the Broken Arrow Skyrace on the ski slopes of Squaw Valley. I remember the ascent being long but manageable — even runnable. But that was via another entrance.
This ascent was way steeper than I expected. At first I wondered if I was just imagining it: after all, even tiny hills feel like mountains after 60 miles. When we got to Burma Road, my watch had already recorded 100K.
Then, as I saw that David’s trekking poles make rather sharp angles to the ground, I realized that nope, this really was that bad. “People should be training on this trail for Broken Arrow,” David half-joked.
There were sections of milder slopes here and there. On one of these, I wondered out loud what we were looking at. There was a vast array of tiny lights dotting the horizon, and a dark area which had to be water, but I couldn’t tell one thing from another. “I think we’re looking toward the Carquinez Strait,” Lucas told me at one point.
Presently, the three of us stopped to try to identify landmarks in the darkness. By that point, we could look westward, which felt odd (to me), because now we were looking now at the East Bay, from the Farther East East Bay.
We could see hints of the Bay Bridge and the Salesforce Tower, as well as radio towers farther south, maybe in San Bruno. Lucas and Dave debated where Vollmer Peak was on the ridge that we had literally passed through earlier.
Later, I noticed a field of red lights slowly blinking in synchrony as we continued. Lucas told me they were wind turbines.
For the most part, I walked quietly ahead of Lucas and Dave. I turned off my headlamp because after hours of staring at a bright circle on the ground, my eyes were tired.
Suddenly, I saw a small, dark figure dart by in front of me. Was I hallucinating? As the light from Dave’s approaching headlamp grew brighter, I bent down closer to look.
Then I involuntarily shuddered away.
Dave and Lucas, surprised by my sudden backwards movement, stopped chatting.
“SKUNK!” I gasped.
Lucas switched his headlamp from low-light red to bright white.
Now we all saw the rodent clearly. Lucas was now in front (I had ran behind both him and Dave — I’m a brave soul). He stood his ground, made noise, and waved his arms.
The skunk scurried closer. So close it was almost on Lucas’ shoes! The three of us retreated. The skunk followed. It was following our light. Someone said, “Turn off your lights!”
With our lights off, I couldn’t tell where the hell the skunk was. It was close, I could hear it running closer to us in small sprints, I kept backing up.
Lucas was clearly having fun. Dave was also enjoying the moment. Though rationally I know skunks only spray as a last resort when feeling threatened, and this one was clearly just curious, I don’t like them, and I knew for sure that I did NOT want to end the night smelling like skunk.
Finally, I made a run for it. No matter how tired my legs are, or how steep a trail is (luckily, it wasn’t on this section), this is what I save my deepest reserves of life-or-death running capacity for. I sprinted by where I thought the skunk was.
Laughing, Lucas and Dave followed. “Now this is a real skunk run,” they declared. Ugh.
Final Push to the Summit, Part 2
Our next destination after Burma Road was the Juniper Campground, about 4.7 miles away. Then the summit would come 1.1 miles after that.
We were tantalizingly close. As we drew closer to Juniper, Dave had a few second winds. But none lasted long. I just powerwalked, with a few spurts of my own. Lucas tried to keep our energy up, and tried to entertain us with stories of his run-ins with park rangers and various destination ultramarathon stories. I was beat, but it was all or nothing now. One foot in front of the other.
11:30PM. 19 hours after we had set off, our final staging area was in sight. Juniper Campground. KK was meeting us here, but we had arrived first. Lucas gave KK a call; she was just ahead, on her way down.
As we proceeded through the length of the empty campground, we saw a moving headlamp in the distance come toward us. Lucas whooped. The bobbing light whooped back. It was KK, and man, was she glad to see us! It felt like a reunion of sorts, though it really hadn’t been even a day since we were all together.
Now, as David had mentioned to me a few times earlier, we had one last technical section. It wouldn’t be too bad, but it would be our final mile.
Lucas and KK chatted as if they hadn’t seen each other in ages. Dave joined in from time to time. I quietly hung out behind the three. “Is there anything I get you?” KK asked me several times. “I just want to finish,” I said, and hoped I didn’t come off as too glum. It was our FKT, after all! KK merrily reminded us every 10 or so minutes.
12:31AM. While we hiked up Juniper Trail, I asked Dave if the big flashing light across the dark valley to our left was where we were going. Yup, he confirmed. Though we were less than a mile away, the darkness made everything seem far away. “We’ve still got a ways to go,” I said. But before I knew it, we hit pavement; I recognized the road. There really wasn’t that much left. “We’re practically here!” I exclaimed. Practically.
The Summit sign quickly appeared. Then the parking lot, where KK had driven Dave’s car, and our ticket down the mountain. Then, it was the Visitor’s Center.
As we passed through a lower summit, I asked David what our endgame was. How would we demarcate the end of our journey?
“How’re we gonna call it?” I asked.
“There’s a stone in the Visitor’s Center,” someone said.
“Is the Visitor’s Center open?”
“It’s always open.”
“But maybe they’ve closed it [because of the Shelter-In-Place].”
“We can knock on the door [and call it],” Dave said.
“What about going up the tower?” I asked.
In the end, our plan was (1) If the Visitor’s Center was open, we would go in, touch the rock, and call it. (2) If not, we would go up the tower stairs, then call it. (3) If the stairs were closed, we would simply knock on the Center doors.
To our dismay, two signs outside the Visitor’s Center indicated that it was closed, along with all other Park facilities. Nonetheless, we took a “finish photo.”
Still, there was a Plan B: the stairs.
The view at the top was gorgeous. I had only been up here once before, during the day. I couldn’t believe that my second time would be under these circumstances. Earlier, I had exclaimed to Lucas and Dave that I had NEVER imagined that I’d EVER hike Mt. Diablo at midnight. The idea would’ve never ever entered my mind. Now we were doing it.
“Would you have imagined hiking Diablo at night AFTER having run from Tam?” David said through a smile.
After we reached the top of the (short) tower, I was eager to press my Garmin’s Stop button. For some reason, every passing second now counted. This is going into some database somewhere, I reminded myself. As I watched KK and Dave serenely soak in the nighttime view, a strange sense of urgency grew over me. In my mind, I thought “we’ve crossed the finish line, and we haven’t stopped our watches!”
There was a set of doors into the tower on the observation deck. I tried to open them. They opened. There was a rock inside with an inscribed plaque on top. I held the doors open and yelled to Dave: “It’s open! Let’s call it!”
That seemed to shake him awake, and he quickly joined me, along with KK and Lucas. KK murmured, “This is the highest point on Diablo.” (Oddly, this was actually her first time on the summit.) Dave and I both took a quick look at the rock.
“3-2-1-STOP” he said. I heard beeps from both our watches go off.
The Way Down
If that was the end of this story, this adventure would’ve been way too boring.
Thankfully, it wasn’t.
“There’s something we have to tell you guys,” KK and Lucas told us after we were done celebrating.
“The gate’s closed.”
“I’m paying your ‘race entry’ fee,” Lucas continued.
“You got a ticket. $95. But I’ll take care of it!”
“What about the car? How’re we gonna get out?”
“Well, we have four options…”
To summarize, our options were
- Go down to the ranger station and hope a ranger could help us unlock the gate.
- Go down to the gate, leave the car, take KK’s car outside the gate home, then retrieve Dave’s car in the morning.
- Option 2, but leave someone with the car (most likely Lucas) to ensure that it wouldn’t be towed.
- Call the dispatch number posted on the gate. Which would likely send a ranger to get us.
None of these options seemed appetizing. Dave was unhappy, and now seriously concerned.
“If we go to the ranger station, and wake him up this time of night, he’s going to be seriously pissed.” (It was now definitely past 1am.)
“I don’t want my car to be unattended. That $95 will be $1500 if it gets towed!”
“Let’s call the number. It can’t hurt.”
In my mind, I wanted to try Options 4 and 1 first, before leaving Dave’s car in the park overnight. KK agreed that we should get help as our first line of action.
As we all got into Dave’s car, KK called the number.
“East Bay Parks Dispatch.”
“Hi, I’m at Diablo. I’ve been locked in.”
The woman on the other end let out a loud sigh. “Where are you?”
“I’m at the summit.”
“Go to the north gate. You’ll find padlocks and two combo locks there. The combo to one of those locks is <redacted>.”
I had been half-asleep with my eyes closed during this conversation, but as soon as I heard this, I perked up and looked over at Dave. He was ecstatic. I pumped my fist in the air. YES. KK and Lucas were similarly excited.
We made our way down. The combo worked.
Lucas drove Dave and me home, while KK followed in her car.
2:12am. I get home. I message some friends.
I didn’t have the strength to upload my run to Strava. I knew I needed to do some kind of work for FKT verification. But that could wait. I couldn’t believe Dave and I made it to the end. I thought about all the people I would acknowledge:
- Dave von Stroh, of course. This was his project; I was really just tagging along.
- Lucas Horan. Our crew chief, and really our only crew, for our entire 20-hour journey. He had also joined last minute, just after I had committed the day before. Without his support, there was no chance this would’ve happened at all.
- KK Fischer. Without KK, we would’ve needed some way to get more solid food. Or maybe even go with less food than we did. Seeing us at Larkspur in the morning, then the escort at night (especially helping out with moving the car so that Lucas could join us) was instrumental.
The End, Part 2
Did you think the story ends there?
During our hike up Diablo, Lucas, Dave and I briefly talked about race bandits. Lucas asked me why I thought it was so important to run under my own name. If a runner wasn’t taking an opportunity (like a Boston spot) from someone else, wasn’t the personal knowledge and thrill of finishing a race good enough? What else did I want?
Simply put, I want my name in a database. I know it’s silly and I know that I enjoy running for running’s sake. But goddamn, if I put a serious effort in, I want something recorded. Legacy? Recognition? Bragging rights? Who knows.
As it turns out, after we were done, David had uploaded photo, written, and GPS evidence of our run, and had submitted them with unbelievable speed. What he got back were questions.
The guy in charge of fastestknowntime.com, Peter Bakwin, thought our route was “VERY convoluted” (with the caps). He didn’t think it warranted a new entry into The Database (caps added for emphasis).
Dave forwarded, and included me, in the email thread. Then he explained the context, exactly as I had in my own mind: Tam and Diablo are two of the most iconic summits in the Bay Area (if not the two most recognizable and run summits). Before the opening of the pedestrian and bike path over the Richmond Bridge, running between the two was unimaginable (though personally, I think it might be “fun” to run the 150+-mile “long way” around one day). We had taken the most direct route possible, even if it had been rather “convoluted,” though David (and I) didn’t actually really care how future attempts might go from Stinson to Tam summit to Diablo summit, which Dave expressed to Peter.
After another day of forlorn waiting, Peter got back to us. With this context, he was satisfied. He added our route, and our names, to the database.
Our journey was over.
Near the end of my run, I was astonished. “I can’t believe this hurts so much!”
I thought about my previous hard efforts. 15 marathons. 5 finished 50K’s. My move up to 50 miles last October, and my now-former longest run, most vert, and longest time on feet person record just one month ago, that I had broken today.
I wondered if I was ready for the 100-miler on the Tahoe Rim Trail that I would be running in 4 months (if it’s not cancelled).
I wondered why I was doing this to myself — a familiar question.
When I had mentioned this project to Yao the previous day, she asked “Are you trained for this??”
My answer: “you dunno what kind of adventure awaits :)”
I was reminded of a fellow ultrarunner: Kristine Barrios.
After we had run the Dick Collins 50-miler last October, she immediately went to race another 50-miler/100K at Ruth Anderson the following weekend, to battle for a first-place finish in her age group on the PA circuit for 2019.
As I ran part of the course with her at Ruth Anderson, her mantra was “This is a story. I want to see how this ends.”
This sense of uncertainty, adventure, and perservance was on my mind several times as Dave and I sought to write this chapter of our respective stories: “I want to see how this ends.”
I’ve been looking for some guiding principle to live my life, and though I knew it in the back of my mind, I’m surprised that I’m only writing it down in words now.
I wonder what chapter I’ll experience next?
Now that you’ve read my side of the story… read David’s!!! I avoided reading his writeup for the entire week while I worked on putting this together. Now that I’m done, I’m really enjoying the read from his perspective — especially on all the behind-the-scenes planning that he had painstakingly put together, which almost all fell apart with the self-quarantine order… I’m glad that, in the end, everything pulled through!
- FKT: David Von Stroh, Victor Yee – Tam to Diablo (CA) – 2020-03-21
- David’s Strava activity: Corona 105k. First Known Time from Stinson Beach to Mount Diablo summit (including a Tam summit)
- KK’s Diablo Summit Escort Service