At 1,558 feet, Black Mountain looms like a beacon of pain and suffering over North County San Diego, welcoming anyone who dares climb it with anaerobia and inevitable moments of self-doubt, especially after you’ve already been in the saddle for upwards of eight hours.
Racers & Chasers – a local San Diego mountain bike racing series – held their second annual Multi-Park Marathon on September 10, featuring both a 50-mile and 100-mile race. And to make sure everyone suffered adequately, race promoter Robert Herber made each racer drag their weary bodies up and over Black Mountain both at the start and finish. And for those taking on the 100-mile race, four grueling times.
Besides the rocky, steep and technical trails of Black Mountain, the rest of the Multi-Park Marathon course is quite fast and extremely scenic. Most of the course uses trails in the San Dieguito River Park, taking racers up Del Dios Gorge, past Lake Hodges and out into the San Pasqual Valley. In Leadville 100 fashion, the Multi-Park Marathon is an out-and-back course.
But unlike Leadville, on this course, not only do you have to dodge oncoming racers on some tight, singletrack sections, but you also have to make sure you don’t run over any innocent hikers and families with pets out for a peaceful morning stroll. And if you can lift your head long enough to shut out the pain and suffering, you’re rewarded with incredible scenery throughout the Multi-Park Marathon.
The race began at dawn, with nearly 200 lycra-clad maniacs lining up under the imposing, radio-towered peak of Black Mountain. As if racing 100 miles wasn’t challenging enough, I decided to make matters possibly more interesting and definitely more painful by racing my singlespeed. I’ve never been known for my wisdom of judgment (just ask my wife), and after realizing nobody else in the 100 mile race was rocking a single gear, I concluded my decision was either pure genius or utter suicide.
After humping over the peak of Black Mountain, which included one steep, rocky pitch that even geared racers were hiking, we screamed down its face and bottomed out more than 1,100 vertical feet in the valley below, ripping down some warp-speed, well-packed fire roads in the process.
At the bottom I looked around and saw four other guys in my group. But these weren’t just guys, they were all the local pro studs – including Dana Weber, Brent Prenzlow and Guy Sutton. Since the entire Multi-Park Marathon is on trails I ride all the time, I figured I would keep up the lack of good judgment and hang with them as long as humanly possible.
After a short stint of pavement, we hit the famed “switchbacks” trail, featuring at least 20 tight 180-degree turns lined by wooden fencing to ensure everyone stays honest. It’s so windy that you might see a racer only 200 feet away from you, but time-wise, they are more than a minute out in front.
After passing the first of several fully-stocked aid stations, we climbed past Lake Hodges dam and along the lakeshore’s fast, windy singletrack. I sat on the back of a four-man bullet train spinning my 35:18 gear without too much difficulty, but I knew I was burning fuel way too fast. At some point I was going to have to pay, but in typical credit card mentality, paying was for later.
We hit the turnaround point 25 miles in and got ready for a healthy game of chicken. It didn’t disappoint. Racers screaming by each other only inches from locking handlebars through sandy sections of trail that inadvertently shoot you off line – I was just waiting for the big wreck to happen. And finally, it happened, and it happened in a blind, loose, 90-degree corner. As the five of us entered the turn, a group of four in the other direction entered it as well, and within a second, eight bodies and their bikes were on the dirt.
Thankfully there were no injuries, and as we blazed along Lake Hodges, I started thinking about having to climb that blasted Black Mountain. I figured it was time to start fueling the tank, and reached down to switch out bottles from my jersey and eat something. I looked up, and literally within 10 seconds I was gapped off. With gears, being gapped isn’t a big deal, but with a singlespeed, it’s the beginning of the end.
At mile 40 there was an aid station, and that’s when my better judgment took over. I stopped, letting the big dogs carry on, while I scarfed down bananas, a muffin and some beer I stashed before the race.
The next 20 miles I paid. Hard. Leg cramps of all sorts emerged, my gear suddenly seemed twice as tall as the start of the race, and as Black Mountain loomed before me like a spire of anaerobic hell, I knew a fair amount of bike hiking was in my future.
I made it to the halfway point in decent condition. The first time up the mountain was tough, but not unbearable. I knew I had it in me to do one more lap, but it was so easy to quit. My truck was right there. I could see it. Have a beer and call it a day. But I couldn’t quit. I had to carry out the mission. I loaded up with as much food as I could and rode off…for about couple hundred meters until I had to start hiking my bike up Black Mountain again.
The second lap was long and lonely. I had no clock, no iPod or anything else but my imagination and the debut Naughty by Nature album in my head – the last music I heard before the start of the race. The second time around was far slower than the first thanks to a combination of a flat tire and flat legs, but I worked through both, spit out some lyrics from “Wickedest Man Alive” and settled into a pace that I knew could get me to the finish line.
At mile 95 I found myself looking up at that blasted Black Mountain again. It sneered at me. Oh it was so smug, with those radio towers resembling a bejeweled crown on its high-and-mighty peak.
I cursed it. I cursed it out loud. I cursed loud enough for all the flora and fauna around me to hear, because there surely weren’t any humans. I was all alone, on the steep uphill road of pain and perdition.
When I wasn’t hiking my bike, my cadence was agonizingly slow. I barely ticked over the pedals, but they ticked. Rather creaked. Or maybe that creaking was my legs. Then I heard a POP. That was it. The final pedal stroke from my legs. Finished. I cursed the mountain so loud and fierce that every parent in the county had to earmuff their kids.
It had conquered me. I was only two miles from the finish. I could see my truck in the distance as a little white dot. In the midst of my weary hallucinations of failure, my legs were still slowing turning the gear. I looked down and saw a popped spoke jutting out from the rear wheel, rubbing the chainstay with each revolution. At that moment I realized that my bike might fail, but I won’t.
I humped my weary carcass over that cursed peak and rolled downhill to the finish eight-and-a-half hours after I started. I grabbed anything with caloric value and shoveled it down. A half hour later, I was beginning to feel human again and could communicate coherently with speech.
It was an epic day and a terrific race that pushed my mind and body to its limit. And as I sit writing this in my backyard, I can see Black Mountain standing tall. It doesn’t say anything. It’s just there, looming like a giant over everyone who has the fortitude to ascend it. But I know what it’s thinking. And I’m thinking the same thing.
“See you next year.”