Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge Review

Signing up

Fresh off completing my second Half-Ironman I decided to sign up for a race that caught my eye a few years ago: The Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge, put on by Brazen Racing. I had run one previous trail race with Brazen in the South Bay and loved the experience. Something about the “vibe” of trail runners was much more relaxed and running through the hills with the only sounds being my footsteps and the rustling of trees in the wind beat running on surface streets any day of the week.

Three days before the race I pulled the pin and signed up for the half marathon course. After clicking the button to register, I figured I might glance at the run course and elevation chart. Why not, right? The chart revealed what looked like a great stock right before that crashed hard around mile 10 with a total ascent/descent of about 2,492 feet. This could be a bit hilly, I suddenly realized. I wasn’t too worried, I was still on my post-race high from completing Ironman 70.3 California two weeks earlier.

Elevation chart for Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge

What really excited me about the course was not only being able to run the same hills I grew up exploring, but doing it with my RWB friends. Plus, I could ride my bike less than two miles to the start. When else could I say that?

Race Day

Waking up around 5:30, I pedaled my hybrid up the road to Castle Rock Park and changed out of my warmup sweats and into my American Flag too-short shorts. A dozen people were already milling about and picking up their race packets. Parking was limited, but most people showing up by 7:30am could find a spot in the overflow lot located a half mile from the start. Later arrivals parked at Northgate High School and took the free shuttle up to Castle Rock Park.


Me posing in front of the starting line of the Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge.


The 50k race had kicked off before I arrived, and the crazy ultra-runners like Jenny Ong were already working their way up the mountain. I had a ways to go before a marathon, let alone an ultra up Mt. Diablo was in the cards for me. I chatted with a few of the other runners as my Team RWB buddies arrived, all sporting the red eagle shirts. A few were doing the half, a few the 10k, and one settled for the 5k. That was Dave Pearson, a friend from the GORUCK community. I learned that he was doing all of his races and challenges with a pacemaker, so the choice to run a 5k in the hills was him “taking it easy.”

Team RWB friends posing before the Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge


Heading Out

When the horn sounded, I paired up with one of my newer RWB friends, Jason. The first few miles were easy and flat, crossing the creek atop river rocks four or five times. As we turned off the main trail and began our first ascent up a single track herd started to thin. Running with Jason was nice, neither of us were trying to set a PR and I learned about his time in the Army as we climbed the first few hills. Around mile 3 I decided to push ahead, telling him I’d “catch up with him at the finish.” This turned out to be hilarious and played on a loop in my head after he smoked me around mile 9. But more on that later.

Most of the runners I encountered had a good sense of humor about the course and the never-ending uphill slog.

“Don’t worry guys, this is the last hill.”


Aid stations

Feeling adventurous, I decided to forgo carrying water or food and instead rely on the aid stations set up throughout the course. The first aid station was just over a mile into the course and I passed it completely. Only a couple miles up the trail Jason and I found the second aid station. I accepted a cup of water and on a whim I stashed half a PayDay bar in my navy blue fanny pack. Yup, I decided to field test that bad boy. Of course I made it tactical by silencing the zippers with duct tape. All was going well as I came to the summit of our run, just shy of 2,000 feet. Trails Challenge veterans had been telling me the last couple miles about the aid station up top, around mile 8. Great, I got this. It was only when we crossed the South Gate Road and started the descent that I realized how much I had banked on that aid station being there. Someone said later that there must have been a mix-up between the slight change of the course and the people setting up the aid station. But whatever the reason, I felt my motivation wane and energy levels drop. Perhaps I was not as fat-adapted as I hoped.

Welcome to Bonk City, population: me

The trip back downhill was beautiful. Poppies win full bloom dotted the green hills and framed a clear view of the delta in the distance. In the not-so-far-off distance, I started to fatigue. Part of this was not running more than once between Ironman and this race. Part of it was doing zero hill training. But a big part was the choice to not carry any food in my tactical fanny pack. A familiar feeling took over as I reached the bottom of the descent and fell on my face combat rolled. I was bonking hard. My legs were slow and uncoordinated, ignoring the commands from my brain to push on at a decent pace.

I walked for a bit to shake it off while one woman passed me yelling “You can’t walk wearing shorts like that! Come on, we’re almost there!” Sure thing, I’ll get right on it.


My running shorts for the Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge

Pale thighs of freedom


True, I let America down by walking. But oh well, this would serve as a great lesson for training, nutrition, and race-day planning. I ran-walked until hitting the final (or first on the outbound) aid station, taking a break to consume a few snacks and rehydrate. After a few minutes break I resumed my weak jog to the end. Rounding the corner, I kicked it up a few gears to run the last 100 yards.


Team RWB friends posing with race medals after Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge


I have never been so relieved to see a finish line.



Brazen puts on a great post-race spread. Chips, pretzels, pie, cookies, and It’s It’s ice cream sandwiches complimented my bagel with peanut butter. Not my proudest moment of eating, but my body had entered the calorie-deficient desperation mode that accompanies high intensity workouts where glycogen stores become depleted. Another reason to improve my aerobic base. I felt great to have finished even if it was my slowest time yet. Trying to compare flat-course times with trail runs doesn’t work. They are two entirely different experiences and even attempting to compare times between different trail races is fruitless due to the different elevation changes. All in all this was a great day. I got to support Save Mt. Diablo by running some stunning trails with my friends. I’ll be back next year.


Fanny pack, sunblock, race bib, hat and glasses worn during Mt. Diablo Trails Challenge

Author: mike

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