John Diana didn’t want an out if his plan didn’t work out.
Before competing in what he had decided would be his last 100-mile Western States Endurance Run two weekends ago, he had made it public that he had dedicated his six months of training to his father, John Diana Sr., who passed away a year and a half ago.
The Napa Valley orthopedic surgeon also revealed that, two weeks after his 50th birthday, he wanted to go out with not only his best time in the world’s oldest century run – but to conquer it in less than 24 hours, and be able to place a coveted silver buckle next to the two bronze buckles he earned for finishing between 24 and 30 hours in 2014 and 2015.
What he didn’t talk about – before he finished the race from Squaw Valley to Auburn in 23 hours, 13 minutes and 13 seconds, placing 91st out of 319 finishers – was the cracked rib he’d sustained when he tripped and fell on a rock during a training run a month before.
“I didn’t want to say anything about it because I had decided in training that my motto would be ‘no excuses’ – for anything,” Diana said. “When you’re training this long a race, it’s really easy to have minor injuries and setbacks. You just can’t run 50 to 100 miles a week, with climbing and stuff, and not have something happen. So I told myself, ‘I don’t care if you get shot or there’s a tornado on the course, there’s just no excuses whatsoever.”
He also didn’t mention that his family had lost its Silverado highlands home in the October 2017 wildfires, nor that he wanted to at least get to the first crossing of the American River and release the last of his father’s ashes.
Two years ago, running helped Diana come to terms with losing his home and father three months apart. No rib injury was going to keep him from making all those miles pay off.
“I couldn’t even run for four or five days because my rib hurt so much and I had a 50-mile warm-up race in Reno coming up 10 days later, a higher elevation race that really didn’t want to miss,” he recalled. “But the pain lessened enough that I could actually run it. It was hard, but I ran it pretty successfully. I think I came in like 12th out of 80 or so runners. My training partner told me ‘You don’t need ribs to run, so don’t worry about it.’ The rib didn’t affect me during the Western States race, but it certainly made my training less comfortable for about a month.
“There were only two people that actually knew about it. If I had told the race director and he told me he would give me a free entry to do it next year instead, I wouldn’t have taken it. I had done virtually everything I wanted to do to get ready.
“Looking at the bright side, it probably prevented me from overtraining. I had built up with three big weeks right before that and I was due for a lighter week. I think one of the reasons I tripped was because my legs were getting fatigued. So having to rest it probably prevented me from having an overuse injury, which is much worse.”
Runners had to deal with this winter’s huge snowpack not only for the first 16 miles, which were covered with snow or had patches of it, but also where the Western States Trail first crosses the North Fork of the American River outside Auburn. Runners this year were required to take a raft, instead of using a rope to wade through it like in past years. Preparing for and taking the raft ride didn’t take any longer than it would have to plod across the river and its boulder-strewn bottom.
Diana took the opportunity to let his father experience the river, too.
“My dad grew up on a stream in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, near Canada, and the American River at Mile 78 always reminded me of that stream,” he said. “I put the ashes in there because I thought he really appreciated nature. My pacer, Katelyn Rogus, had found a four-leaf clover the day before and given it to me for luck, so I let that go with the ashes. I kind of envisioned it as he was going down the river with me, because you cross the river again at Mile 97 at No Hands Bridge.
“I felt rejuvenated after I did that.”
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Diana had felt good about his chances over the last 70 miles, actually.
“I felt my hardest section was going to be the first 30 miles, before Robinson Flat, because mountains aren’t really my forte, but in the middle I was about an hour and a half ahead of a 24-hour pace,” he recalled. “I got a little bit more conservative over the last eight or nine miles because I didn’t want to mess it up. This year’s female winner, Claire Gallagher, did not finish two years before because of a knee injury with seven miles left.”
Unlike after his previous WSER, when he had to leave before the awards ceremony and have his bronze buckle mailed to him, Diana stuck around for his first silver buckle.
“I’m going to set up a little display with all three of them. I’ve been waiting because my other buckles burned in the fire two years ago, as well as my San Diego 100 buckle,” he said.
Diana is in his third year as Director of Research for the WSER, and it was because of that he was asked to pick lottery winners for the 2018 race in December 2017. He, his wife, Theresa, and their children, Grace and Andrew, hadn’t even moved into their new house in the Monticello Park area of Silverado yet.
“They had me pick the last 20 tickets,” he recalled. “About 500 people were there and after I drew the last number and started walking away, they said ‘Oh no, Dr. Diana, stay on stage.’ This board member gets up and he says ‘I don’t know if any of you knew, but Dr. Diana’s entire house burned down and lost everything in it. He called us up and said he was really upset about losing his two buckles in the fire.’
“The audience was looking at me and a lot of them were still mad because I had called only 20 of their names. But when they presented me with my buckles, everybody stood up and just screamed (in joy). Some people were even crying on stage. That was really a nice thing that they did for me.”
Eventually the Dianas moved into their new home and put the fires behind them.
“Sometimes a new house is a blessing. You don’t have the things that bothered you about the old house,” he said. “So I it all worked out. We’re happy.”
Even though he said he’s done competing in the Western States Endurance Run, he plans to stay on as research director and report to the board at meetings and coordinate ultrarunning research projects.
“I enjoy supporting the research,” he said, “and I like being at the race in any capacity. It’s a well-organized and exciting event, even if you just crew, pace, man an aid station, or help in some other capacity. That’s why there are more than 1,500 volunteers each year to help.
“I still plan to run but not a 100-miler, just because of the magnitude of training it requires.”
He’s especially done running Western States.
“There are now more than 5,500 applicants who have completed a qualification run each year for under 300 lottery slots – the other 100 slots are for winners of certain events – and some have not gotten once after qualifying seven years in a row,” he said. “So I think they should get their chance.”