May 16, Monday: Assault on Mt Mitchell (102 mi, 11000+’) / A+ Event / COMPLETE: Well, I did at least finish it, but not before lots of suffering was had. Just did not have a good day for some reason. I have a separate ride report on this one so all the details are there. Kinda disappointing for an A event but that’s gonna happen every now and then.
Wha? That is “Assault on Mt Mitchell 2011 Kicked my A$$”.
I’m not ashamed to admit it. I did at least finish it, just not as gracefully and pretty as I had imagined. It is, after all, one helluva race, to the top of the highest point in the continental US, east of the Rockies. I expected to do much better than I did. It just wasn’t my day I guess. There are so many variables that could possibly go wrong to make one’s ride take a turn for the worse. I was just unlucky enough to have whatever bad mojo I had going on, to surface at such a strenuous event. I’m jumping ahead though, so let’s rewind a bit.
Last Summer, as I was registering for my second annual Six Gap Century in Dahlonega, GA (which is a similarly brutal event involving over 100 miles of arduous climbing in the North Georgia mountains) I let my imagination run amuck a little and sought to find an even harder event. Now nearly every ride touts itself to be something great; the longest, the highest, the hottest, etc., so it’s very hard to sort out the facts as to what is actually “tough”. I knew Six Gap to be a monster, and knowing its statistics helped me to find something possibly even tougher, and it turned out to be “The Assault on Mt Mitchell” in North Carolina. This ride is usually sold out so it’s definitely important to plan and commit well in advance, so I immediately began the process of getting into the event. I joined the requisite Spartanburg Freewheelers so I would be able to bid on an entry earlier than the general population and when time came due in January for registration, I pulled the trigger within hours of when it was opened online, in fact I was the 26th person to get registered of the 1000 person limit. Along the way, I also made acquaintances with my running mate, Dougie. Dougie, turns out, is just as driven as I to test oneself against all odds. I say that because neither of us fits the prototypical cyclist mold. I mirror an oxen, being over 200lb, my build is not that of a natural “climber”, and Doug reminds me of steam locomotive, with a climbing cadence that I can count on one hand. Doug also wanted to make an attempt at Mitchell, so we joined forces to train, travel, and generally get each other through this (as well as some other ridiculous things we hope to accomplish throughout the year).
At the beginning of the year, I laid out a schedule for us to get into good climbing shape by the May 16 date of the event. This simply involved us completing a bunch of centuries (i.e. 100+ mile events) and finding as much climbing as we could. So we decided to do: Tour of Pike and Wheels of Fire here in Georgia, Cheaha Challenge in Alabama, and Three State Three Mountain Challenge in Chattanooga. This was on top of normal weekly training and whatever else we could find to do. We completed everything, and had an absolute blast doing it. I unfortunately had to miss 3 State so I made up my own torture test early the next Sunday morning by riding 72 miles with no food and only 1.5 bottles of water, trying to get myself better able to handle the stresses that I imagined Mitchell would put on me.
On top of all the training, I also desperately wanted to shed some weight for the event. For climbing (via bicycle), weight is everything. I typically run up in the 225lb club. For this however, I was hoping to get into the sub-200 class. Now being a big boy isn’t all that bad. As a sprinter, or riding the flats, or into the wind, all that extra muscle mass actually does some good. For climbing though, it’s a death sentence. I focused a little more on increasing my cardio and doing much less strength training and was able to get down to around 208 by the day of Mitchell which was okay. I’ll continue chasing downward since the really nasty races are yet to come. One of those is Fool’s Gold (my nickname for this one is the “Dumbass 100”). It’s a 100 mile mountain bike race in Dahlonega, GA with something like 16,000 feet of climbing. This is so ridiculously hard that only a true dumbass would try it, hence my nickname for it.
Anyway, having completed our training, we were ready to race. The event itself took place on a Monday, which is extremely unusual. I never sought to find out the reason why, but can only assume that it is due to the need to have road closures, particularly into the Mt Mitchell park. Turns out that last year, when the race was on a Sunday, they had to close down the Mitchell State Park, preventing some of the riders from completing the race. The park itself is the last 3.5 miles of an event over 100 miles. Imagine how PO’d you would be if you rode all that way to be denied the ability to finish. It would be a really long ride home. Anyway, Doug and I both took off work for the event. I only wanted to burn one vacation day so I could save some of my precious time for other things (almost all of which don’t involve me spending hours on end with other sweaty dudes in spandex :). This meant we were gonna have to race both the event itself as well as a race back to home in Atlanta so I could go to work the next day. I expected to be a total zombie but must have still been hopped up on adrenaline and a post-race sugar high, because it wasn’t too bad at work the next day.
So about a week out from the event, I began looking at the weather forecast. It didn’t look too good. I was checking both the race start, in Spartanburg, SC, as well as the race finish, at the top of Mt Mitchell. The weather between these two spots could vary wildly. A rider only has whatever he (or she, there were some seriously strong cycle mamas out there) can wear or carry to get through whatever the weather may be throughout the day. The forecast at Mitchell, which is the more critical of the two, was for rain and temps in the mid to upper 60s. That would be kinda yucky, but not a total train wreck. Unfortunately, the forecast kept degraded as the event approach until the night before, the forecast was for rain and temps in the low 50s. Turns out that even that forecast was way off too as you’ll read later. So Doug and I spent some time trying to determine what to wear. Yes, I’m sure that may be entertaining to the female readers, a couple of dudes talking about clothing choices. Hey, we also shave our legs too and armpits and even arms sometimes (well at least I do, I didn’t check Dougie out). We collectively decided on shorts, undershirt, jersey, half-finger gloves, arm warmers and to carry a rain jacket. Most of the rest of the field made identical choices so we felt good. Well, except for one female who I think was wearing something like a bikini top. Not sure how well that worked out for her, assuming she made it onto Mitchell 🙂
So race day was here. We got up uber-early in order to get to the auditorium in Spartanburg in plenty of time to snare a parking spot. We were staying over in Greenville in order to save some money on hotel and kinda stay out of all the race day craziness (its no fun to wait for a couple hours on a table in a restaurant when a small town is overthrown by cyclists). We got there, by 5:00am for a 6:30 race start. I think we were #3 in the lot and got a prime spot. We checked our bikes, got dressed, and then hung out until close to race start. We had time to go over and meet a couple of other riders from our area, Louis and Dave, and wished them well. Turns out we would actually ride the entire event with them so the well wishes kinda seemed weird in hindsight 🙂 The race was self-seeding, meaning that it was up to the rider to determine where to place themselves at the start. If you went too close to the front, and weren’t a strong rider, you risked getting literally run over and causing a major crash. If you went too far back, then you may be the “runner-overer” or at least burn a lot of unnecessary energy trying to work your way further up the peloton. I found us a spot about a third of the way back from the lead, seemed about right, we’re both generally front of MOP (middle of pack) in our races. As we’re rolling up to our spot, I hear the telltale crack of a ruptured tire tube followed by a hiss of air. Naturally, about 200-300 riders immediately look down at their tires. Turns out it was Dougie’s. Now I am entirely comfortable changing a tire. However, we were now within 5 minutes of start so I figured there would be a little extra pressure here to get it done fast and right. Luckily (or unluckily as it turned out), a course mechanic was standing there as we pulled back out of the pack, tube and pump in hand. Whew, I thought to myself, at least someone whose blood isn’t entirely flooded with adrenaline, like ours, can calmly fix this thing. Unfortunately, you could only get one of the two aforementioned needed qualities with this mechanic, fast (but not right). He somehow screwed up Doug’s rear wheel / tire / derailleur such that he couldn’t reliably shift gears and had a brake rub. Doug would discover that within the first mile of the ride.
We reseeded ourselves and watched the countdown clock tick away until it was go time. With police sirens blaring, horns honking, and a handful of news camera crew on hand, we took off in the early morning darkness, It was 6:30 and very overcast. Temps were in the 60s so it was pretty comfortable considering how we were dressed. That unfortunately would change significantly later in the day. We tried to be extremely careful as we rolled out. Generally, one of the most dangerous times in a mass start event is the start. It’s when everyone is getting things shaken out on their bike (and themselves) so they aren’t necessarily paying attention to what’s going on around them. In addition, you are riding in close quarters with people you don’t know. It’s not that I don’t like to meet new people or anything, I’m just not sure how they act (or more importantly, react) to situations on the road (i.e. pothole, roadkill, gravel on the road, etc.). In such a tight space, if one rider makes a bonehead move, literally dozens of people could end their day early. We made it about a mile or so down the road and I could tell something wasn’t right with Dougie. I pulled up alongside and he said he thought he had a brake rub. We pulled over into the next side street and took a quick look. He was right, somehow his rear brake was dragging. The wheel was true, so we just loosened up the brake caliper to give the wheel more room. This was an almost exclusively climbing event (i.e. all uphill, no descending) so brakes were kinda optional equipment (for the most part). We jumped back into the pack and continued a couple more miles North, away from Spartanburg on our journey into North Carolina. Doug was still having problems with his steed, only this time it was his shifting. His bike was jumping gears. This was gonna be a real problem once we began climbing. I convinced Doug to try to limp along to the first rest stop since I knew a bike mechanic (hopefully not the same guy) would be there who could put it on a stand a figure out what was really going on. We were just here to ride this day, not race, so if we needed to take some time to get things right, it was okay.
We headed out into more rural areas and the sun tried to shine through the overcast conditions. Sunrise out on a bike can be a really beautiful thing. Unfortunately, we were robbed this day by it remaining pretty much overcast. Maybe it was a premonition for the misery that lay ahead for me, I dunno. Anyway, Doug and I worked our plan, sitting in a large pack, trying to save energy for the end of the ride. This particular event is a recipe for a monumental struggle. The first 74 miles are generally flat and take one to Marion, NC. At this point, the real climbing begins as riders climb to the top of the highest peak in the US, East of the Rockies, over the next 27-31 miles (I’m still uncertain of the actual course length, the ride description is for 102 miles total but my accurately calibrated PowerTap indicated 105 miles, could just be the error introduced over a course of this distance by choosing different riding lines?). That is a tough thing to do, put all the hard effort at the end of a pretty long ride. I know personally, my performance starts to drop off after about 80-85 miles of hard riding. That’s why it was so important for us to pace ourselves and conserve energy by drafting as much as possible, early on. So we were sitting in the pack. I kinda let my mind wander as I was just watching the wheel in front of me. All of a sudden, I hear lots of yelling and look up to see a wall of riders swerving all over the road. I was only about 20 feet back from the incident but was going around 20+ miles per hour at the time, so not much time to figure out what to do. I tapped the brakes quickly but then found a narrow hole between some downed riders and the shoulder of the road. I managed to get through. Not sure what happened but I can speculate that two riders had crossed wheels in the pack, taking them both to the pavement in short order. Not a good way to start (or possibly end) your day. I was definitely awake at this point. We regrouped and soldiered on, trusting that the SAG wagon or medical would be close behind the downed riders (they were still conscious and seemed generally okay or we wouldn’t have left, we aren’t that heartless).
We approached the first rest stop and wheeled straight over to the mechanics area. Doug got his bike up on the stand and we all refueled and watered. After a couple minutes, the mechanic worked his magic and we were off again. We were all together now, Doug, Dave, Louis and myself. We passed into North Carolina and could see the Appalachians off in the distance, looming overhead. Occasionally we would pass riders changing flats on the road. We would try to give the thumbs up or ask if they had what they needed, willing to lend a hand if needed. As long as we made the time cutoff, it really didn’t matter how long it took us, so we were more than willing to help another rider along the way. As we approached one rider, Doug wheeled off the road quickly. He was up ahead about 50 feet or so. I saw him go off road but knew I couldn’t get there safely as I had a pack of around 75 or so riders barreling down my backside. I continued on another couple hundred yards until I could navigate onto a side street. I had already lost sight of Doug. Somehow Dave and Louis had managed to get off road back closer to Doug. I thought I saw them approaching as the peloton reformed. I jumped back in the pelo as it approached only to find out that it wasn’t Doug, Dave nor Louie. Well crap, now I was even further away. I figured I would keep on until the next rest stop and wait. I took my time, made it to the rest stop and waited a bit. Dave and Louis finally arrived but no Doug. We ate, watered the grass, drank some, etc. while we waited on Doug. After about 15 minutes or so, Dave’s phone rang. It was Doug. He was at rest stop #3. We unfortunately were at stop #2. Somehow we had missed each other. Stop #3 was at the top of Bill’s Mountain, the only climb on the Assualt on Mt Marion (the shorter and much easier version of the ride we were on). I asked Doug to wait and I’d be there shortly. I took off at a pretty good clip. I wasn’t sure what type of pace Dave and Louis were hoping to keep for the ride but knew they had each other. I rode off the front, chasing my way towards Doug. I climbed Bill’s Mountain at a pretty good clip, able to draft off a minivan and truck going uphill. Yes, that’s kinda unusual, an uphill draft. They were going slow enough for me to hang on as they were navigating around other riders as they also climbed the mountain. I made it to Doug pretty quickly and after a brief water refill, we were off again.
We made our way down to Marion and the Tom Johnson Campground. This is where the Mt Marion riders day ends and also where it really begins for the Mitchell riders. I set my bike down in the grass so I could get some food and water in before we began all of the climbing over the next 20+ miles. I knew this was going to be grueling and wanted to make sure I had enough electrolytes and water onboard to keep from cramping. Lo and behold, as I went for water, Dave and Louis were standing there. I didn’t think we would see them again as I had set a pretty high pace to catch back up to Doug. Turns out that when Doug and I stopped at the last rest stop before Marion, Dave and Louis had actually passed us. So we were all back together again. I was still feeling pretty good, I thought, so we took off. We essentially had all of the climbing of the Six Gap century (11,000+/- feet), compressed into the next 20-25 miles or so. This was truly gonna be a grind.
As we headed out, the climbing began gradually. We were deep in the woods, riding alongside a creek and with a canopy of foliage overhead. The temperatures were just about right, keeping us comfortable as our effort increased to climb the mountain, up towards the Blue Ridge Parkway. Louis was setting what seemed like a blistering pace. I was having a hard time holding on. I checked my heart rate. It seemed to be okay, in the mid 150s. My wattage was between 275-300W which was perfectly acceptable. Doug had already taken off, in usual attack mode. I didn’t expect to see him again until the Parkway. Now Louis and Dave were up front. I was struggling at the back, still confused at what was going on. I was keeping them in sight but was burning it up to do so. Finally, a rest stop appeared on the climb and I immediately jumped in. I knew I had to get away from Dave and Louis, not because I don’t like them, but to keep myself from trying to chase them down. I needed to get into my own little space and find my rhythm to get up the mountain. Trying to match someone else’s pace is a sure fire way to blow yourself up. Not sure why I was struggling so much this day but I had to figure out how to work with what I had. I hit some pretzels and a little bit of Poweraid and remounted. I settled into a decent pace and finished the climb. Doug was waiting, ready to come back down the mountain for me. We both do this for each other but I honestly did not want Doug to come down for me on this day. This ride was hard enough to do once, much less to tack on some extra to drag a “sub-par” performer back up the hill. I would make it, I knew, it’s just how rough it was gonna be for me to get there. Plus I had two pre-purchased jerseys in my truck. I could never wear them unless I finished, so this thing was personal now 🙂 At the rest stop, I gobbled down some oranges. They usually can help bring me back around and I was desperately hoping they would work for me today. We exited the rest stop and up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I had never been to this part of the country. I had imagined that the Parkway ran across the mountaintops, thus being roughly flat. Turns out I was wrong, it was more continuous climbing, well except for one tiny descent, only a couple hundred yards long, right near where we got onto the parkway. We started down the descent and I quickly wheeled into the first “scenic overlook”. The temperature had dropped dramatically, I’m guessing we were now in the upper 40s, maybe lower 50s or so, and I was now shivering. I pulled my rain jacket out of my pocket (yes, cycling clothes are very thin, so much so that you can put a whole jacket into your pocket) and put it on, hoping it would hold enough heat in for me to not freeze. We rolled again. It was tolerable but still cool. We started climbing, followed by a little more climbing, and topped off with a healthy serving of climbing. We climbing along sheer rock faces, along the edges of the mountains, and through numerous tunnels carved into the mountain. It was so beautiful but I was having a hard time enjoying it. As I stood a couple of times, I got a twinge in my right quad, a sure sign I was dangerously close to getting a full blown cramp. If that happened, I would have a really, really tough time seeing this thing through. I tried to be as careful as possible to stay under the threshold. I had to let our group move ahead, dropping my pace to a crawl so as not to ignite the bomb in my leg. I pushed on, desperately hanging onto a group that was near my pace so as not to be left totally alone. I held onto a couple of riders. None of us knew each other, nor did we speak, but just being near each other was enough to keep us all chugging along. We came to a scenic overlook as I was nearing the end of my rope. I didn’t make any “unofficial” stops this day, that is until now. I let myself turn in and quickly took a seat on the curb, contemplating my situation. Why was I in this condition? I really had no idea, I had done all the right things, had trained pretty hard and rested well enough, had followed a good nutrition plan, not taking in too many calories or too few. The only thing “different” was the cold, but we were all subject to that, so why was I the only one suffering. I still don’t know, maybe it’s just a fluke. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter, I just had to finish at this point. I took in some more pretzels and drank some water, and then just laid back, looking up at the clouds. I just needed a minute or too to pull it all back together. I sat back up and remounted, determined not to stop again unless I literally fell off the bike.
I picked up the pace a little and rejoined our Southside group at the next rest stop, at the entrance to Mt Mitchell. The temperatures were now really cold. All the rest stop volunteers were in full winter garb, jackets and hats. We didn’t want to stop for long for fear of cooling down too much. This was our last stop before the summit. A fog had rolled in over Mitchell and we could no longer see the top. We departed, ready for the last big effort. I was nearly exhausted, just hoping to hang on to the end.
So we turned onto the road leading up to the top of Mt Mitchell and it immediately began raining. “Dammit”, I thought. I was already struggling and cold, the rain was only gonna make this more painful. Again, I watched as Doug, Dave and Louis motored off into the distance. I was no longer able to put out enough power to keep up. I found a wheel and locked on. I watched the rider legs in front, counting his pedal strokes, not mine, in an effort to detach myself from the pain. He was going so incredibly slow that I wasn’t sure I could match his lack of speed. I finally piped up, “what gear are you running?”. I knew something was different, I mean I really couldn’t go that slow. Turns out he was running a 34 tooth mountain bike cassette whereas I had a 28 tooth road gear. Now I was in a bit of a bind. I couldn’t go as slow as him, but I didn’t have the energy to make a pass. So we wheeled, side by side, for a couple miles, not saying a word, both in our own world of hurt. I also noticed while we were driving, a junkyard more or less of bike water bottles and other assorted items. It was the sure desperate signs of riders attempting to shed weight in order to make it to the top. Kind of like the space shuttle dropping its solid rocket boosters in order to exit the earth’s atmosphere. I briefly looked at the two HD cams, spare memory cards and batteries as well as the saddle bag with two tubes, 4 CO2s, tool kit, etc and considered that in total this was about 5-6 lbs. I then did the math and decided that I would not donate nearly an additional $800 in gear to “do” this race, I’d just have to muscle it on up. Finally, I caught sight of Doug, Dave and Louis, They were holding back, wanting to cross the finish line together. By now, I had caught another wheel, just a little bit faster than the MTB gear dude. He picked up the pace as he sensed we were nearing the top. I followed suit. We (me and the new stranger) ended up passing the Southsiders. I heard them yelling to wait up but I couldn’t stop this momentum, afraid I might not make it if I did. I continued on, now passing my lead out man. I was hungry to see the finish, pushing even harder, now in a near sprint (or so it seemed, I was probably only going like 10 mph). I couldn’t see further than 50 feet or so due to the fog and thus had no idea where the finish was. There was no cowbell to follow. I just pushed on, I had maybe 1/4 mile left in me when out of the fog came the orange cones, marking the finisher’s chute. I went far enough along to see the finish line timer and then made a U-turn, to go find our group and indeed have us all finish together. We rejoined and rolled through, all nearly frozen. I couldn’t feel my hands nor feet anymore (hell, I couldnt feel them for the past 1.5-2 hours). I was shivering deep down inside. Turns out that the temps on Mitchell that day were in the 30s. With the rain and exhaustion, it was super-cold. At the line, catchers were there to take your bike and wrap you in a space blanket. Thank God it was over. It was a miserable ride for me. Yet, the misery wasn’t quite over, just yet.
So we picked up our drop bags which were naturally just laying out in the rain. Thank goodness I had packed my change of clothes in a garbage bag for just such an event. Our intent was to kind of wipe off and change into dry and warmer clothes in the changing rooms. That is until someone yelled out that a bus was headed down to Marion and the next one wouldn’t be coming for a while. Since this was a point-to-point ride, one had to take a bus to get back to the start (and presumably your car, etc.). We would take a bus to Marion, where some people would end their trip. We however, would then catch another bus to get back to Spartanburg, where we started. We sure as heck didn’t want to wait around too long, we had to drive all the way back to Atlanta this night, so we decided to catch this bus, in our wet and cold cycling clothes and all. We hopped on a maybe 1960s vintage school bus and started down the mountain. The bus immediately fogged up with all the sweating bodies into a nasty, moist greenhouse. Between the exhaustion, the sweaty stinkyness and the twisting roads, I nearly immediately became motion sick. I looked over at Doug, he too had the death stare out the front window. If just one person were to yak, that whole bus would explode in a mixture of PB&J, pretzels and Poweraide. I kept my cheek pressed against the window, attempting to use it to cool my face and reduce the nausea. After nearly two hours of riding the puke-mobile, we finally made it back to Marion and Tom Johnson Campground, where we would change buses. Well almost. Apparently the driver, who undoubtedly had been driving this route all day, suddenly forgot how to get there and made two wrong turns. I thought Doug was gonna lose it. I had long since resigned to be miserable, so it wasn’t too upsetting to me. Once we got off the bus, we finally got to take a quick shower and change and then immediately boarded the next bus back to Spartanburg. We finally got there about 7:30pm, packed it all up and raced back to the ATL.
Wow, I haven’t had a craptastic adventure like that in a while 🙂 Not sure where it all went wrong and probably never will. I truly just made it through on sheer willpower this day. That and having the best riding partner around in Dougie. The pain is still fresh but I know it will fade and I’ll be back to turn myself inside out on the next adventure 🙂