Stage 1, Part 2: In Which I Almost Die
As we rolled into Sumney Cove, with Courthouse Creek roaring beside us, I reminded myself that I wasn’t racing Charlie. We were going toe-to-toe, for sure, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for his abilities, and I know that when I race someone other than myself, I get into trouble – fast. Conversely, if I focus on my own race, the results sort of end up taking care of themselves. And given that there had only been two finishers in history, and we were starting with the absolute worse stage I could imagine, I needed to calm down and focus on me, not Charlie.
So I let him lead it out.
The bottom part of Sumney Cove, which runs right next to Courhouse Creek and the attendant Courthouse Falls, is flat. In fact, it’s an easy lead-in to a hike-up, hike-down hump that I’d sworn I’d only ever do in one of Pisgah Production’s races, after doing it solo once in 90-degree heat. Charlie and I didn’t exactly ease into it, but we weren’t pushing too hard either – logover followed rock followed wet seep, Charlie in the lead and me following along.
And then it happened.
Charlie eased over a small log water bar that had a mud hole on the other side, and I watched him hump over the rocks on the other side and make his way up the trail. It was a move I’ve done a thousand times if I’ve done it once, all over Pisgah and around the country, but for some reason this time went pear-shaped: I planted my front wheel into the mud and instead of going where I wanted it to, it shot out to the left and I was headed straight for a small tree. I feathered my brakes but I wasn’t stopping, just sliding in the mud, so I grabbed a handful of front brake and pulled a slight nose wheelie. I re-aimed to miss the sapling, and unclipped my left foot to steady myself.
And there was nothing there.
I was too close to the giant log that was horizontal and formed the brace holding up the trail, and when I stepped off, I stepped off into mid-air. In the blink of an eye, I was falling, flipping upside-down still attached to my bike, which then wedged itself between two trees as I continued to tumble. I rolled backwards down the slope another 20 feet, before jamming into a rhododendron and slamming to a stop. In the half-second it took to register that I was not on the trail, I was not where I was supposed to be, I also realized that I was in a very precarious situation: All at once, sight and sound returned, and as I stared back up the near-vertical slope, my bike illuminated in my head lamp, I realized that the rushing water of Courthouse Falls was mere feet below me.
If not for that rhodo, I may not have survived.
I managed to extract myself, and wedged my feet against the trunk to gain purchase as I steadied myself on my knees. I looked around and saw that I had lost a water bottle, but everything else seemed intact. (Let’s hear it for Camelbak! Yeah!) I stared up at my bike, expecting the worst, but it seemed that the only damage was that the fork and front wheel were flipped back against itself. I had lost my rear blinkie light, but it had only come apart, and miraculously as I pulled myself from root to root back up the slope, I found the fallen piece in the leaves. I yelled for Charlie but he was already out of earshot: I was completely alone, with the next rider not due through for another hour. I had to make it out on my own.
I half-slid, half pushed my bike back to the edge of the trail, and managed to haul it up and over the trail-edge tree from about 9 feet below. I was slipping in the mud and leaves, trying to use roots and trees to stay somewhat upright but failing and slipping backwards as I tried to get myself up on top. I honestly don’t remember how I did it, but I managed to gain enough purchase to get one leg up and sort-of barrel roll myself onto to the trail – what I do know is that I sat there, not moving, for several long moments while I collected myself. I was more scared than I think I’ve ever been while out riding, and if we’d been any closer to the campground, my race would have been over.
It was 3 a.m. We’d only been racing for 3 hours.
Instead of being close, we were out there – way, way out there. In fact, the safest and “easiest” way back would be to forge ahead – I figured I was 10 minutes or more behind Charlie at this point, but there was a chance that a volunteer would be at Rt. 215 with whom I could check in and gather myself – and maybe bail out. So I started hiking up, and kept hiking down, not wanting to chance anything at this point. It was very dark and I was feeling very alone, and it was a welcome relief when I saw the trees open up and the edge of the pavement arrive.
|Lonely, lonely Sumney Cove.|
As it turns out, there was no volunteer – our passport had been reprinted from the 2008 edition of TMHTE, so I was 4 years too late to meet anyone. I had no choice: I snapped a quick photo and started rolling down 215 – the pavement was a welcome respite, and I knew the “roads” heading back wouldn’t be too bad, as long as I paced myself. Which I did once I hit 140A – there were a few pitches where I stopped to walk, since I tweaked my back and the adrenaline of the crash had worn off, so I wasn’t in a place to push it. We were a long way from home, but like I said, taking Greg out there on DD was a great decision for me in hindsight: I knew what to expect. I reached Gloucester and grabbed a bite to eat: Like the Oracle says, by then I was feeling right as rain (or nearly so), and by the time I cleaned Butter > Cat and was back on the road to the campground, I knew everything would be OK. In fact, I rolled in just 10 minutes behind Charlie, and we both transitioned very quickly – the race was on, and we were both going after it!
Race time at the end of Stage 1: 5:37