Race Review: XTERRA Black Mountain 16K Trail Run 2014

Summary: Good event.  Difficult climbs and descents.  Single Track running, so be able to keep up.

Key Information

Race Name XTERRA Black Mountain Trail
Location Black Mountain Regional Park in the northern San Diego
Elevation Profile Lots of Hills both big and small
Organization Excellent
Terrain Trail.   Some of it single track early in the race
Water Stations Enough, but carrying water and gels
Highlights The scenery
Other Events 5K
Good for Beginners? Neither the 5K  nor the 16K are good for beginners because of the steep hills.


I have wanted to run this race for about 4 years now.  Unfortunately, my favorite trail race, the Mission Gorge Trail Run is always about 3-4 weeks prior to this event and I have never really wanted to make the drive down to San Diego on consecutive months (how un-California of me).

This training cycle in preparation for the Big Sur Marathon did not according to plan.  Most of the preparation races I planned on running were either cancelled due to weather or I skipped because of injury or family commitments.   Just three weeks before this race knee/calf problems forced me to limp home 3 miles into a long run. The most I had run was a quarter-mile down the block, just days before this race.  I had concerns, but I knew this 9+ mile race would be a good test for me.  If I couldn’t finish, I shouldn’t even try the more difficult Big Sur Marathon two weeks later.

Elevation Profile
My mistaken perception of this race was that it was flat with a pretty intense downhill the first few miles and a bear of a hill at the end.   I was right about the beginning and the end.   Even looking at the graphic below, I didn’t fully appreciate how many rolling hills there were during the 16 kilometers.

The 16K Elevation Profile
The 16K Elevation Profile

The Trail

San Diego trails are beautiful, let’s get that clear right off the bat.  If you have the opportunity, you should try to run them. As we took off out of the gate I was remembered how much I love running on God’s unpaved roads.

The First Quarter Mile
The First Quarter Mile

The first mile of the race was a bit crowded, but in a good way.  Trail runners are fun and delightful.  They tend to be a little more tuned in to their surroundings, mostly because we are all conscious of the trail and where our next footfall should land.

Single Track, Keep Up or Step to the Side
Single Track, Downhill.  Keep Up or Step to the Side

The race turned quickly to single track.  This meant falling into line with the other runners and running about 2 minutes/mile faster than I had intended for the first two miles or so.   Luckily, the knee and the calf felt great!  This stretch of pack running was probably the highlight of the race for me.    I thought of my friend SugarMagnolia during this part of the race, as she had trepidation during the downhills of Mission Gorge.   I smiled as I recalled showing her how to run down the hills Gagnam Style.  I missed my running buddy that day.

Hills with Awesome Trails

At Mile 3, we had to make a transition from trail through a community and back onto the trail.  It was there, that my right calf, for lack of a better term charlie-horsed and locked up tighter than a Miser’s wallet.  Unfortunately, I was running down a steep hill at this point.  If you have ever seen a baseball player stain a quad or a calf as they ran down the first baseline, that was what I looked like running down this hill. I hobbled off the tail and ended up rolling my calf with a huge rock.  Most of the race passed me while I tried to work this out.

Lonely at the back of the pack

With six miles ahead of me, I kept going.  I sure as hell wasn’t going to wait for Search & Rescue to give me a ride back to the start line.

Pretty much the rest of the race looked like the image above.  There were two runners ahead of me and I hobbled after them the best I could.   I passed the guy in front of me at the top of a hill after about a mile.    The runner you see going up the hill, well I chased her all the way to the end.  I was able to get within 15 feet of her at mile 6, but I never caught her.

What I thought was the River Crossing (above) and What Actually was the crossing (Below)
What I thought was the River Crossing (above) and What The River Crossing Actually was  (Below)

My wife and I have a running joke that it’s not a real XTERRA race if your feet don’t get wet.  I knew there was a river crossing, and when I came across it, I was a little bit disappointed.  I put my foot in the mud as a symbolic gesture.   About a mile up the road, I came to the real river crossing, which was about 17 inches deep and took about 4 strides to get through.   My feet were soaked, but I was happy to partake of the ceremonial bathing of the feet.

The Hill at the End
The Hill at the End and the Runner I had been Chasing

The hill at the end of the run was an absolute bear.  I felt my age and my lack of training. The race crew had announced that due to some new development near the park they had to reroute the race at the end so rather than the steep quad-killing hill at the end, there was an even more steep, quad-killing hill.   I just kept telling myself that it was good warm up for Big Sur, which would have similar hills.

My calf hurt and my quads were exhausted; I swear I checked my Garmin every 50 to 75 feet.  Normally on a steep hill like that, I will sometimes walk backwards to get some relief, but my calf wouldn’t support me walking uphill backwards. I tried to sprint near the end, but truth is I hobbled across the finish line.


I consider myself neither a fast runner nor a particularly good one.  What I am is stubborn with boarderline pig-headed tendencies.   My conditioning is the poorest it’s been in a few years.  This race was humbling.   The fact that I hadn’t run much in the weeks leading up to it was a small consolation.

After the race I caught up with the woman who I had been chasing for 6 miles.   Turns out she saw me rolling my calf at mile 3 and I was motivating her to keep going,  Apparently she didn’t want to be passed by the guy hobbling the race.   I guess that was good to know.

One could also look at this race and say, that for the second time in a month, I couldn’t complete a 3 mile run without calf problems.  I would ignore such a person.   It’s important to state goals and tasks clearly.   I told myself that if I finished this race, I was going to run Big Sur.   I finished the race with some minor problems, but I finished.   Life is always going to bring us problems.  There will always be limitations, some external, some internal.  What are you going to do?  Wait for Search & Rescue to bring you home?

XTerra Black Mountain Trail Run
Press On
Race Review: XTERRA Black Mountain 16K Trail Run 2014

Race Review: Xterra Mission Gorge 15K – 2012

Summary: Good event.   Difficult, possibly insane course with killer climbs and descents.

Key Information

Race Name XTERRA Mission Gorge Trail Race
Location Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego.
Elevation Profile There is 1,981ft of climb. Almost as bad is the 1,952 ft. of decent.
Organization Good. 
Terrain Trail.   Some of it very technical.
Water Stations Enough, but carrying water and gels
Highlights The scenery
Other Events 5K
Good for Beginners? The 5K is good for beginners. The 15K is not.

I am at the point now in my running, where I can on any given day, go out and run a good 10 to 14 miles fairly easily.  It won’t be a fast run, but I will be functional after the run and not moaning and groaning. 

That being said, every XTERRA trail race I have ever run has been to some degree humbling for one reason or another.   The Mission Gorge 15K is no different.  In February 2011, I was disheartened to finish the course in 2:28:04 at just under a 16 minute mile pace.  It was my first 15K and when it was over, I was wiped. 

January of this year, I was working on my short distance speed and running up hills.  I also worked out this great plan that involved pacing myself before the great hills and saving it all up for the end of the race and finishing strong.  You know what they say about best laid plans?

Elevation Profile
Why is this race so difficult?  It’s the elevation. I don’t mean like 6,000 ft. XTERRA Snow Valley race, where my lungs were pumping and nothing was happening, I mean like 1,980 feet of climb, 1,219 ft of which come in the form of 2 very large hills.

The Trail
There are six distinct parts of this race, all of them beautiful, some of them brutally difficult.

The first mile, out to the river crossing is packed fire road.  There is some up and down with little  net gain in elevation. The participants in this race are all strong runners and in this first section, one has to watch carefully due to pace of the pack and the terrain.   Ignore your Garmin and watch where you run.

The second phase of the race starts after the river crossing.  Over the next half mile, the participants climb over 525 feet at a 10% grade.  The climb is made harder by the fact that it wraps around the side of the hill, so that at least twice when I thought I was done, I turned corner and there was more climbing to do.  For two years in a row, this one older lady has passed me on this segment of the course.   She just power walks right on by with her arms pumping.  God bless that woman;  I hate her.

As one approaches the summit of the first hill, it gets a bit rocky as well as very steep.  Keep the feet moving or risk sliding backwards.

The first water station is located at the summit, about 2.15 miles into the race.  In my fantasy plan for the second running this race, I  filled up my water bottle and blew out of there.  In reality, my 46 year old body needed a minute to recover.  

For about a quarter mile after the summit, there was steep downhill.   Watch yourself on the grade, it’s easy to slip.

The third phase of the race takes place over the next 1.6 miles.  The trail turns a beautiful shade of  iron-red.  There are lots of short up and down hills with winding trail, but nothing too taxing.   It’s fast and it goes too too quickly.  The 5K runners  never see anything close to this beautiful in their race.  At this point, the first hill had spread the pack, so there weren’t many runners around and, I had the whole place to myself.  I could just run to my heart’s content.  This is the part of the race that I remember and miss.  I don’t know how to describe it other than to call if a perfect experience. 

All good things, must come to an end,and so did this stretch of the race.  The next phase of the race starts about mile 4.2.  It involves approaching and then climbing what is known as the 1,000 Steps.  If you click on the picture below, you will see the runners ahead of me as they make their approach.

I don’t know if there really are 1,000 steps,  but I know that from mile 4.1 to 5.1  I climbed just short of 700 feet (13% grade).  The image below present the scene at the bottom.  Not too bad, but as you go further up, the steps become closer and the step ups get higher.  One day, I hope to say that this section of the course is fun.  

About a half mile before the steps, I paced behind the gentleman to the right in the picture above.  He was running at a nice even clip and I figured that a nice steady pace would help me save energy for the climb.   Let’s just say that tactic probably didn’t help much.

It might have been a hallucination, but as I came to the top of the 1,000 Steps, I saw an  incredibly fit angel. It was somewhat surreal to see her dancing to music and cheering the runners on.  It brought a smile to my face though.   The picture below was taken at the top of the climb.   For some perspective, the valley below is where the two pictures just above were taken.

As I passed the angel,  I took a few breaths and started to take off, not remembering that the 1,000 steps introduced another 100 ft of climb.  Imagine being at the end of a boxing match, thinking you had won and all of a sudden hearing the bell sound one more round. That last 100ft climb seemed much harder than it actually was.

Another water station was located at the summit.  At this point, my upper quads felt like there were hotpacks inside them.   But on the bright side, there was only about 4 miles left and nothing hurt.

The next phase was all down hill.   I don’t mean easy, just down hill.  The first mile was -13% grade. At one point, I had to reach out to grab onto a branch to slow myself down. Maintaining control was difficult.   For lack of a better description, I found myself galloping down the hill.  At the end of the second leg of downhill I was out of gas.  

I had travelled and joked with another running during the previous 7 miles. This person had been passing me on the hills and I would then passing them on the flats.   When we hit the last bit of flat, I had nothing in the tank and the other runner disappeared ahead of me.

The last mile of the race was frustrating run/walk, just like it was last year.  I had to keep pushing in order to maintain even a slow jog. I approached the finish line slowly, completely on fumes.  I got my medal and headed for the eggs that were made fresh for the runners.  

My results
 The winner of the race finished in 1 hour, 7 minutes.   The winner of my age bracket finished in 1 hour 22 mins.   I finished in 2 hours 28 minutes at a pace of 13:55.  Last year I finished a slightly shorter course in 2:28:04, at a 15:54 pace.  Progress not perfection.    Humility for sure.   Both years I finished in the bottom 5% of the field.   I know all the stuff about the victory is not in how fast your run,  but having the courage to start, but the truth is, this course still kicked me in the gut and showed me the reality of where I am with my fitness.  With 5 months left until my first marathon, I need to turn things up a bit.

I will do this race again next year and every year thereafter until they have to fly me off of it in a helicopter.

Race Review: Xterra Mission Gorge 15K – 2012