Stage 1, Part 1: In Which I Begin to Race
I know I’ve said it before, but I have to say it again: Kim is awesome. There is no way this would have happened without her – I was so personally unprepared for this that I didn’t even have time to research past editions of the race, let alone get stuff ready. Kim had it dialed, cooking food and gathering supplies while I was in Minneapolis, all the while dealing with two sick kids and a house full of laundry. I did manage to get out of work just a bit early on Friday with enough time to help unload firewood and set up my tent; I tried in vain to take a nap, and I did get to eat dinner and put the kids to bed. And then it was go time.
I got to the campground with enough time to get settled and lie down for about 45 minutes. Sleep again eluded me, but at least I was relaxed – that is, until Eric unveiled the Stage 1 passport at about 11 p.m. With an hour to go before the race start, I checked in by the raging camp fire, greeted my fellow competitors, and got dressed for a long, long night in Pisgah. It was a bit breezy and in the mid-30s, but thankfully the weather had blown through earlier in the day without much precipitation. In fact, by midnight the stars were shining and the crescent moon was absolutely glowing in the sky.
If you were to ask me to design a first stage for an event called The Most Horrible Thing Ever, there is only one route I would create. And wouldn’t you know it? That was Stage 1. Exact route, taking photos at each mandatory checkpoint along the way to prove we were there:
477 (CP at Bennett) > 276 > 475B > 225 (CP at Cove Creek) > Cove Creek > 475 > Pilot Mtn Rd (CP at Farlow Gap) > Kissee Creek Rd > Courthouse Falls Rd > Sumney Cove (CP at 215) > 215 > Courthouse Falls Rd > 5003 > 140A > 475 > Cathey’s Creek Rd (CP at Butter Gap) > Butter Gap (CP at Long Branch) > Cat Gap > 475 > 276 > 477.
This was big; this was old Pisgah. In fact, maps made today don’t even show some of the road names – in the past few years, they’ve all taken on official Forest Service numbered designations. Thankfully, I had dragged Greg way over there during Double Dare back in October; I wanted to reach Sumney with him, but was glad we didn’t have to “ride” Sumney Cove Trail. Of course, this wasn’t DD – this was TMHTE, and a trip over Sumney was a suitable way to kick start the race.
Eight of us were sitting by the fire, comparing our watches like some sort of perverted SNL Mission Impossible skit. “Mine says 11:52.” “Well, mine says 11:55.” “Mine says 11:54:30.” Finally, at 11:55 agreed-upon time, Eric headed out so he could snap photos of us on the road. And five minutes later, we were off.
I was already astride my Spearfish, so I was first across the bridge and up the road. A few seconds later I was joined by FlavC – Charlie Roberts, the only other person (besides Brad Key, who was not racing this year) who had ever finished P36. He was also the odds-on favorite for the win: Charlie is an experienced multisport adventure racer who has some serious skills in the rough stuff. He took second to Brad in 2010, and there was strong determination in his approach this year. I was about to find out how much, just 40 minutes into the race.
|Charlie and I at the start. Thanks to Eric for the phto.|
That’s when things got interesting. As we neared the top, he made a comment about pacing: “You want to be going a speed that allows you to eat just about anything,” he said. Which, at that moment, seemed to be just a bit slower than my pace: we hit a pitch and I put a couple of seconds into him. But we came together at Bennett Gap, the first checkpoint: I dropped my bike and fumbled with my camera; he didn’t even dismount and snapped a photo before I could get mine to focus. I was a split-second from being done, but he was already gone – not a word, and he was blasting down toward 276. What the heck?!
This was not the “nice” Charlie I had done trail work with in the past. In fact, as we dropped the gravel road, he was pulling away from me! I had to remind myself repeatedly that not only were we 45 minutes and only one checkpoint into a 36-hour race in the heart of Pisgah National Forest, but I was not there to race Charlie – I was racing the event, racing my own race, and I’d deal with Charlie later. But, this was a race, and I wasn’t there just to chill out!
That said, Charlie was gone. By the time we were on the pavement, I couldn’t see him for the curves in the road, and it was very dark as I headed for 475B. I got a little demoralized, but not too much – you never know what’s going to happen when a race spans two days, after all. And soon enough, I could see him, and without a word I rode right past him, letting him know that I knew it was game on.
We crested the first gap and he again rolled away from me on the downhill. But he wasn’t that far ahead, and on the next uphill I caught him again. “Wow, man, you’re really rolling tonight. What tires are you running?” “I’ve got these Specialized 1.95s, with an S-Works [super-bling, thin and light] on the front.” “That’s interesting – I just have my normal Pisgah setup.” “Oh, yeah: I have my race setup.”
Charlie’s response told me a couple of things. First, he would beat me on the downhill gravel sections. Second, some of the rough stuff might be slower for him, but he does have skills, so that might be a wash. Third, some of the mud might be tough. And finally, he was in it to win it, no question. We wouldn’t be riding together much, and definitely wouldn’t be talking. At all.
I pulled away again on 225, but on the downhill we were again together. My camera didn’t focus again at Cove Creek, and he took off – I chased pretty hard, knowing his tires weren’t as good in the muck, and I could see his light ahead of me through the forest here and there. But I had to do a quick bike adjustment, and by the time we hit 475, he was again up the road and around a bend – and way out of sight. I figured I lost probably 2 minutes, but kept after it, steady climbing and grinding out the gravel.
Before I even could register it fully, there was a soft glow on the road ahead of me. I was pulling him in, slowly but steadily, and despite another quick stop to adjust my bike, I caught him just past Long Branch. He led the turn onto my least-favorite stretch of gravel in all of Pisgah – Pilot Mtn Road on the way to Farlow Gap – and despite my self-avowed desire to “just settle in,” before I knew it, I was pulling away on the climb. I did the math, and figured I grabbed back 2 minutes on the way to Gloucester Gap, which meant that if I could keep on it, I’d have 2 minutes or more by Farlow. Just in case I needed it.
I tried really, really hard not to focus on how much I dislike Pilot Mtn Road. I’m not sure what it is, but for some reason I just can’t seem to come to grips with it – I’d rather do just about anything else, other than ride up there. And yet, here I was, for probably the fourth or fifth time in the short span since Halloween. I mean, I rode up it maybe three times in the first 2 years I lived here – and now, in just four short months, I was back at it four more times, at least. And it just never gets any better.
Thankfully, in the dark, I was able to lose all the reference points I was used to. Between that, and trying hard not to look behind me, I managed to make the parking lot without falling apart mentally, and I was excited to plunge into the extension that is more singletrack than road. Within the narrow confines of my light, and because things up top have been fairly dry, the old roadbed was rideable, and there thankfully wasn’t a lot of ice around. In fact, I cleaned the erosion rut for the first time in a while, thanks in part to only being able to see one line!
|Farlow Gap, 2:30 a.m. Dan's tent is in the background|
By that time, I had grabbed my camera and taken a shot, and Charlie had pulled in and snapped a pic as well. As we rolled out together, I shouted over my shoulder, “Thanks Dan, catch you later!” and Dan’s voice from out of nowhere put a startled look on Charlie’s face. It was just enough that it threw him off-guard – and we rolled out going the wrong direction! I quickly got us turned around, and absolutely bombed down Kissee Creek (aka FS5031), especially when I realized that Charlie had stopped to put on more clothes and I had a gap.
Sure enough, though, he caught me toward the bottom, and we rolled into Sumney Cove together. And then I almost died.