February 7, 2013

Xterra Mission Gorge 15k Race Recap

As I wrote in a previous post, my athletic goal this year is to do things that scare me. Ever since I completed my first half-Ironman in September, I've come to realize I'm capable of doing pretty much anything, as long as I train for it. I don't know why it took me so long to come to that realization---I mean, before that I had completed many races, including a full marathon, several half marathons and several smaller triathlons. But in my head, doing 70.3 miles was a different beast altogether (and in reality, I was right---it was!).  After successfully completing the race, I had a new confidence. I may not be fast out there, but I know I can complete a distance if I train.

This year, I am not planning on doing a triathlon. I *may* do a few this summer with the Tri Club, but those would be just for practice, and are free for me as a Tri Club member. If I do another 70.3 triathlon it will be in 2014.  But this year is the year to do things that scare me in every sport. I will be attempting my first century ride for cycling; an Ironman-distance (2.4 mile) ocean swim; and a trail race. This past weekend was the trail race.

Why does trail racing scare me? Well, for starters, I don't really trail run.  Sadly, I live in an area with an abundance of beautiful trails to run on, and I don't take advance of them. I do sometimes run on horse trails but that can hardly be counted as real trail running. I am kind of clumsy, and trail running is fraught with danger--tree roots to trip over, dirt to slip on, rocks to twist an ankle on. I did a trail run back in 2003, as I was training for my marathon. I don't think it was a long run, maybe 3-4 miles, but I twisted my ankle during it. That put me off trail running for a long time---a decade, I guess! Also, I've had a life-long fear of going down steep hills, especially ones made of dirt.  Asphalt hills I can handle running down...but put rocks and gravel and dirt on it, and it's slip-and-slide city for me.

My friend Mihael convinced me to give trail running another try.  (He's done it the last 2 years in a row and wrote a great recap last year, with more technical information than I could ever give). After much persuading via text, twitter and a phone call, I signed up for the Xterra Mission Gorge 15k.  This is part of a series Xterra puts on, and by many accounts it's one of the hardest.  Here is the elevation profile. Gulp. Per Mihael's report last year, it's 1,980 feet of climb (with 1,219 from two hills alone). I'm too lazy to plug in my Garmin to get my elevation reading, so I'll rely on his report and the official elevation profile:

9.3 miles of hell
The night before I had the Electric Run 5k with my son, but we walked a lot of course, so my legs felt pretty fresh.  Mihael told me to prepare for this race like it was a half marathon, so I packed up my Nathan fuel belt with what I would normally carry on a half mary---32 ounces of Gatorade, a few Gus, a Honey Stinger Waffle, etc.  I do not own trail shoes, and wore my usual road running shoes.  On Mihael's advice, I bought a pair of fingerless gloves (used for weightlifting) to protect my hands in the event that I fell.

The race started at 8, but I got to the area early, at 6:30, in order to get a space in the parking lot---we were advised that parking would be limited. I picked up my bib and timing chip, which was unusual for me as most races I do I need to pick the packet up prior to race day.  The vibe was very relaxed, very laid back. I told someone it was my first trail race, and he was incredulous that I chose such a hard one for my first one. Thanks for the vote of confidence, buddy!  I got back in my car, pinned my bib on my shirt, tied the timing chip to my shoe, and waited until Mihael came.  Soon enough it was time to head to the start line. (All photos courtesy of Mihael).

It didn't exactly inspire confidence that they have the Sheriff's Search and rescue on hand.
start line

We crossed the start line, and within about .2 miles most of the runners were far ahead.  There was a small hill close to the start, and that's when I started walking. I didn't want to burn myself out, knowing the elevation ahead, and also uphills really hurt my sciatic nerve these days, so I wanted to be cautious.  Soon we got up to the first BIG HILL.  This picture doesn't do it justice....it was amazingly long and steep.  The hill never ended.  The people around us were all walking up...I have no idea how the front-of-the-pack runners ran up it.  Mihael showed me how to walk backwards for segments to save my calves, which were already tight and burning with the effort.  I thought I would never get up, but somehow I did. There was an aid station at the top, and the volunteers looked like angels to me.

It's MUCH steeper than this photo shows!

As hard as it was going up, I knew the downhill afterwards would be awful for me. Like the uphill, it was long and steep.  Not only that, it was very slippery, full of gravel.  I walked very slowly down, side-stepping the whole way.  Even then there were times I was slipping and sliding, but I never fell.  At times I almost cried (remember, this was my big fear) but I didn't.

Look, I'm trail running!

The next part was fun for me.  Pretty flat, nice trails, just rocks to leap over. Here is where I felt I was in the zone....this was fun.  It was also getting hot (which I wasn't expecting in February). With my increased efforts going up and down the hills, I had gone through more than half my Gatorade by mile 5! Usually all 32 ounces lasts me most of a half marathon!  Luckily I was able to refill at the aide stations.  I seem to recall some rolling hills here, and Mihael showed me how to gallop down like a horse, which I was finally able to do, albeit very slowly.

Next we got to the part I dreaded---the Thousand Steps. I was told that there were only a few hundred actual steps, but no matter---this was super-steep, a real climb. On some parts I literally I had to use my hands to pull myself up on from the rocks. I was glad I was wearing gloves here.  Although my legs were screaming with the effort, and it was really hard, I felt strong on the steps. I stopped a few times to catch my breath, but was able to do it. Like the other huge hill, it seemed never-ending, but suddenly the steps were behind me.

At the bottom of the Thousand Steps.

Climbing a technical section.

After the top of the Thousand Steps was another steep downhill section. Again with slippery gravel. Again, I side-stepped down slowly. Again, I tried not to cry.  Again, my fears were crushed.

Soon we were on the home stretch.  We ran by a creek, and I did my second creek crossing of the race. As Mihael said, it's not an Xterra race unless you are soaked and exhausted. I had no problem splashing through the water; in fact, it felt good.  Around this part of the course we began to see other people. Not too many other runners (although we saw one or two) but families and people out enjoying nature. I was happy to see them, as for much of the race we saw literally no one else around us. Civilization!

One of the creek crossings.

The last mile was flat, but by then I was done. My legs were shot.  It was hot. I was happy to see the finish line ahead, but I was surprised--according to my Garmin, we had gone 8.9 miles, not the 9.3 that would make up a 15k. But I didn't care. I was happy to cross the finish line. I got my medal, and we went and got food and drink----they had a vegetarian breakfast burrito, score!  After some rest, we were ready to leave. We weren't the last place finishers, but close---it took almost 3 hours to finish. Considering I can do a half marathon (13.1 miles ) in about 2 1/2 hours, it was humbling that it took me half an hour more to do 4 miles less!  But I was ecstatic---I had finished!
Proud finisher!

Although this was definitely the hardest run I've ever done, I had so much fun!  It was tough, and I was on the verge of tears at times, but I saw some of the most gorgeous views out there. I have lived in San Diego since 1987 and have never seen views like that.  And I conquered my fears of the trail. I can go down a steep downhill.  And up a steep uphill.  It doesn't matter how slowly I go---what matters  is that I complete it.  And complete it I did. I can definitely see myself doing more trail runs (and races) in the future.


  1. Great job! I admire you for facing your fears and taking on such a tough course! I really want to try trail running - gotta get past my huge fear of wiping out first :)

  2. This is awesome!! I'm so proud of you for pushing yourself like this (and a little jealous too). :) This is definitely an accomplishment and time has absolutely nothing to do with it.

  3. Woo hoo! I tried my first rail race last October. It was a 10K. Wasn't worried until, at around mile 4, I saw a guy getting a splint duct taped to his leg. To assure me the guy was not hurt too badly, the race director told me he drove himself to the hospital. :-)

  4. EEEE so excited that you completed your first trail race! Your finishing time was awesome! I am a slow trail runner. You would have had me beat! Great job!


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