30 March 2012

How can we sleep when our beds are burning?

Check out this pic from Greg, taken this week while Pisgah burned:

This was the Mills River fire, which ended up being contained pretty quickly -- though the fact that it was started by an untended camp fire is pretty disturbing. In a funny coincidence, we were on a lunch ride out that way just the day before, and noticed a new billboard from the USFS ... if you haven't seen Smokey in a while, check this out: http://www.smokeybear.com/

It's like they took a cue from the James Bond franchise -- I think Smokey and Daniel Craig have the same trainer!

It was eerie heading into the Hatchery last night, driving past the remnants of this week's other fire, the prescribed burn on Bearpen Mountain. The north side of US-276 from FS477 all the way to Coontree was burned, and it always amazes me how the Forest Service is able to control the fire lines so well. The edges all look so uniform; it's just a strange sight to behold. I'm looking forward to heading up to Bennett between now and the 15th, when it closes for the season, to see the results up close.

Ever since the Summit, I've been ruminating on a few things that I'll be writing about. The Forest Service approach to using fire is one example of an agency that has experienced change relatively recently, and I posit that we will see more -- and accelerated -- change from the USFS and others as we see a wave of retirements take place in the next few years. But more on that later.

In the meantime, it's weird living in a place where fire season is in the early spring. I was out on a ride the other day in my short sleeves and shorts -- no warmers -- and already have well-defined tan lines. Spring just hit last week, and with the nonwinter, it feels like we're already in June ... and I realized we have 7 months until November 1, which usually signals the end of the picture-perfect riding weather around here. There's going to be a lot of guys going down in flames in July this year ... I just hope I'm not one of them!

26 March 2012

Home of the free

Strangely, my record continued last week: Until yesterday, it had been 2 weeks since I had been in Pisgah. 2 weeks! It just felt ... weird.

I had a very good reason, though, in that I was a delegate to the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC. More than 800 bicycling advocates took our case to the Hill, and in addition to spending 30 minutes with our 11th District Congressman, Heath Shuler, our large group from North Carolina got 30 minutes with Sen. Burr's office and 45 minutes with Sen. Hagan's. We also got to meet John McCain in the hallway of one of the Senate office buildings, and Chris Pieck and I accidentally almost stumbled into a hearing on the Afghan war with a four-star General that I later saw on C-SPAN. Oh, and I wore a suit.

I'll follow up with more from Washington later -- lots of thoughts are percolating, and there is a lot to do. This is always a weird time of year for me: training is going well, I'm gearing up to race, but then events like this remind me that there are so much more important things to be thinking about and doing. And what's more, those things are fun. Game changing. And I'm lucky to be a part of it.

And for the record, yes, I got my Chipotle on. In Chinatown. What an awesome country we live in.

19 March 2012

Madness!

Just how unusual was last week and weekend?

I never made it over to Pisgah, not once. That's gotta' be some sort of record for me.

Instead, I got to see a whole lot of this:


The planets must have been all out of whack last week. By now you know that not only did Lehigh snuff the Blue Devils, but Norfolk State took out Mizzou too -- it's been 11 years since a 15 took out a 2, let alone twice in two days. But the Warriors Golden Eagles started out strong, and but for a few dicey moments on Saturday, they're looking pretty good. Not bad for small guys, really. Pretty Sweet!

As for me, we had an all-morning photo shoot over on Rose Hill and Pinner's on Thursday, the first time I've been over there in a long time. In fact, I only do Rose Hill about 3 times a year ... and mentioned that to one of my coworkers. Damn jinx.

Rain rolled in Thursday afternoon, and with the remnants of a nasty head cold still lingering, I chose to bail on the assorted group rides that were available. Apparently the Liberty road ride wasn't that wet, but all the same, discretion was better than valor this time around.

Then I heard about this, but with upcoming travel couldn't justify the hour drive to get there. Instead, I headed over to Corn Mill Shoals parking, and holy cow! I think I fell back in love with DuPont. I ended up on some trails I'd not seen before, looped Micajah a couple of times chasing an elusive Mukluk in the wild, and managed to absolutely rail Burnt Mountain in a pouring rainstorm. What was amazing was after that, heading over to Big Rock, and seeing dry dirt -- the weather patterns here are incredible. (Darn good thing I've "rediscovered" that side of DuPont -- this summer is set to be insane over there!) If you haven't had a chance to check out the work on Wilkie and Micajah, I highly recommend it -- super fun, and you're never that far away from the car!

More rain on Sunday morning, but with clearing, meant that it was time to put in that road ride I've been avoiding for the past 6 months or so. The schedule said to climb, and rather than heading down to South Carolina first, I instead pushed as far north as my time would allow, making it from Hendo to Craggy Gardens with enough time to make it home. And remember that jinx? Yeah -- climbing Rose Hill with nearly 4 hours in my legs is not exactly the most fun I've had recently. Especially for the second time in just four days. But all in all, it was a fun, successful ride: 7,500ft. of climbing or so and a nice jump-start on my suntan for the summer!

Given that it's only March 19, that's pretty crazy, wouldn't you say?

12 March 2012

Hero dirt

Last week went from this:
and this:
To this:
and this!

It's been a long, long time since Kim was able to get out and ride solo, and thanks to the fine folks at Salsa she has a new whip to do it!

Rice Pinnacle parking lot > Wolf Branch > Ledford > Rice Pinnacle Road > Wolf Branch > Hardtimes Connector > Hardtimes > Pavement

Kim's first official Pisgah notation! In keeping with the tradition I've started, Kim did indeed get lost in Bent Creek. Thankfully we were at Trail's End for the Foundry demo last weekend, and as she topped out on Ledford she realized where she was and found her way back. Meanwhile, Kate had fun playing with the Trails End gate (you can see her in the background of the photo), pretending it was a bike, and Daniel and I just sorta' hung out, soaking in the beautiful sunshine. We still have a bit of setup to do, but this is Kim's first new bike in, um, way too long, and I have to say, the build came together very well. Super stoked to get her out on the trails!

Not to be outdone, I got some trail time myself while the kids slept. It's been a long time since I went down Avery Creek, and with some of the best conditions I've ever seen out there, it was time to tackle a nemesis or two ...

Ranger Station > 477 > Clawhammer > Buckhorn > SMR > Pink Beds > 276 > 477 > Club Gap > Avery Creek > Buckhorn Gap Tr > 477 > Bennett Gap > 477 > 276

At our photo shoot on Thursday, Devon pointed out that we had "hero dirt," and he was right. A bit of rain on Thursday night into Friday, just enough to tamp down the soil, and trails that were almost perfect on Wednesday and Thursday were unreal by Saturday morning. Pisgah is a place that gets more treacherous the more wet it is, but we've had a bit of a drought lately, and with no snowmelt, the little bit of precip last week turned already-great trails into absolutely bomber ribbons of singletrack. I'm not sure I've ever seen conditions this incredible before.

So there was just one route to do on Sunday, with conditions this ripe and after everyone slept in on DST Sunday ...

We loaded up the kids and headed to Davidson River, where we parked at the Art Loeb trailhead. Kate and I walked over to the bridge, and Kate delighted in tossing small rocks into the river. Then we went back and rounded up Kim and Daniel (who had been sleeping in the car), and returned to the bridge to play some more. Then Kate wanted to ride with me, so I geared up and we returned to the bridge yet again ... in fact, Kate rode her pink Strider all the way to the bridge and about halfway back! Along the way she told me her next bike will have two wheels and blue pedals "like yours Daddy!" ... good thing, 'cause she's starting to outgrow her Strider! Gulp!

Kim took the kids home for some well-earned rest while I headed up and over ...

Black > Thrift > Black > Turkeypen Gap > SMR > Mullinax > Squirrel > SMR > Buckhorn > Clawhammer > 477 > 276

Oh, man, it was awesome. I underestimated my time and had to abandon an all-Black finish, but made up for it by stomping up to Buckhorn and along 477 > 276. I also almost pitched myself off the side of Squirrel when I caught a pedal (thanks, Woody, for that well-placed trail feature), but I made it down TPG for the first time to the stairs, and absolutely railed the bottom part of Squirrel. Hero dirt indeed!

09 March 2012

Dirty Thursday

The most esoteric bike in my collection has to be my Cannondale Caffeine. The butt of many jokes ("you know, they don't call it crack-and-fail for nothing"), it was purchased and assembled in a bit of haste early in my mountain biking career; come to think of it, it was the first bike I put together all on my own (with a ton of help from Mr. Craig DeAmbrose, I would add!)

As a 26" hardtail, there wasn't much to Big Blue. It was nimble enough, and served me well as a backup in my early endurance races. But it wasn't special, wasn't anything spectacular, kind of flew below the radar for the most part.

But now, Big Blue is finally getting its day in the sun.

It all started when I began working with Brendan and got my first Song Fifty-Five. I immediately fell in love with the mixed-wheel concept, and sought to minimize parts and maximize efficiency. So I took Big Blue and slapped on a 29er fork: voila! instant six-niner. Actually, it wasn't instant -- rather, Paul at SRAM helped me track down a Gary Fisher-spec G2 100mm Reba that we converted to 80mm of travel to help take up some of the slack.

Still, it rode pretty well, and made a killer commuter bike on the winter streets of Chicago. The raked-out front end could carve with the best of them, and it was fun swooping and cruising along Halsted and Clark on my way home from the office. And being a hardtail, it was nice not to have to worry about too many complications -- just keep the drivetrain clean and lubed, and I was pretty much good to go.

When I first got here, I took Blue out into Pisgah once or twice. The slack geometry up front helped me carve downhill, but darn it if it wasn't that much fun going the other direction, nor in anything tight. Still, it wasn't too bad, and in the interest of getting to know our products better, I installed a short-travel Thudbuster seatpost. What a difference! With minimal fuss, all of a sudden, Blue was riding more like my Songs. Not quite there, but closer -- and Blue became a fun winter-road/DuPont cruiser bike, always ready for a short adventure of some sort.

And then magic happened. In the summer of 2010, our engineers developed AngleSet, the best-ever headset that allows you to change the head angle of your bike. Lucky for me, the first prototypes were 1.5" head-tube conversions to 1-1/8" forks -- exactly the fit for my Cannondale! All of a sudden, I had a solution for the raked-out front end ... and it worked! We installed one of the first production protos on Blue, steepening the head angle, and holy cow what a difference. Instead of the Harley I'd been riding around for several years, all of a sudden I had a motard, ready for the dirt!

Still, Blue wasn't pretty. My friends loved to pick on it. I'll admit, it's whacked -- but if it's fun for me, who cares, right?

But then something funny happened. Last summer, I had all my bikes in various places getting ready for the Wausau 24. Because of the way shipping was, my Spearfish was on its way to Wisconsin, and I was training on my Siren here at home. Blue, therefore, got the call to go to Utah. And as we're standing there in the hot mountain sun, a dealer from Michigan walks over to me.

"I'm looking for ways to help my customers refresh their bikes," he says. "I'm a Cannondale dealer, and I'd like for my customers not to spend a whole lot of money, but be able to do something different."

Sir, you've come to the right place.

I spent the next few minutes talking over Blue's spec, and showing this retailer all the modifications I'd done. I'm not sure Cannondale would be completely on board, but what better way -- with just a few changes -- to turn an old 26er hard-tail into a Midwest singletrack killing machine?

Since then, we've had this conversation with a handful of other dealers. Most of them are in the Midwest, and all of them share the same sort of message: They want to help their customers, but their customers can't afford a completely new ride. Or they have a new ride, and their other frame is sitting there, neglected. Each time, we talk about Blue, and my weird ghetto 69er has become a conversation piece.

And after yesterday, a poster child.

We've been searching for the right message for Thudbuster for a long time. It's a funny product -- huge in Germany, but not necessarily much traction here in the U.S. But we're seeing sales go up, and more and more are making their way into the field. It's a great product -- once you ride one, you love it -- and has been the darling of the tandem crowd for a long time. But it's taken a while for mountain bikers to embrace it.

Now, though, we have one piece of a solid message. And yesterday afternoon, Blue and I headed out to Bent Creek with Devon, our engineer-cum-photographer, for a photo shoot. Blue's gonna be in an advertisement! Focusing on the "refresh" angle, Devon and I (and Blue!) spent nearly 2 hours at the stream crossing of 479H and on Lower Sidehill, going over and over and over again to get the right shot. To make it "authentic"(ish), I even smeared dirt on my face and helmet, and on the seatpost, so it would seem like I was just out enjoying the ride. Which, really, I was -- Blue is fun, and I wouldn't recommend the modifications unless I believed in them. We really do ride what we build here, and it's fun to mess around on something as kind-of strange, kind-of fun as Blue.

Still, it was funny trying to explain to folks at The Hub, where I headed afterward for a delivery, why I had mud in visible places if I hadn't yet ridden. I managed to wipe off my face, but missed my ears -- and Jimi called me out. D'oh. At least I was primed for the Sycamore ride, which headed up Maxwell and down Black, where -- in a moment of indecision -- I lost my front wheel at the base of the stairs, fell into the sidehill, and actually got muddy. For real.

Kim's bike is nearly complete now, and we're all itching to "go into the trees" as Kate says -- I think it's high time I start taking Blue out with me more often, starting this weekend! It may be esoteric, but it's fun!

05 March 2012

Calculus maximus

Lest you (or more precisely, Eric "PMBAR Honcho" Wever, who holds the keys to the future in this case) think the Horrible wasn't Horrible enough, I give you this:

You know a race is Horrible when it causes you to rethink your ride ... a full week after you finished.

After last week's long, long, long gravel-and-pavement climb from North White Pines to North Mills River to Mt. Pisgah and back, I was looking for as much singletrack as possible yesterday. I calculated that if I skipped my usual 1206-from-Fisherman's preamble and started right at the Laurel Mtn. trailhead, and if I connected to Slate Rock Loop and took the waterfall side down, I would get about 3 hours and enjoy 93.4% singletrack. I managed to re-set my front brake before I headed out -- it's amazing how great a bike rides the week after a race! The ride itself was amazing, and I cleaned a couple of switchbacks on Pilot (including the first exposed rock face double-switchback!) that I've struggled with. It felt good to get technical, and it was fun chasing Jason and Russell up the side of the mountain after they overtook me about halfway up. The Papa's & Beer from Saturday night provided me all the energy I needed.

But holy cow, I was cold. Or rather, I wasn't that cold, but with a chill in the air and snow flurries above 4,000 ft., I thought I was cold. I had plenty of clothes, and extra dry layers, but oh, man -- my body and my mind just did not want to go there. Memories may fade, but right now, that plummet from the Pisgah Inn is fresh in my mind, and all I want to do is snuggle up in the flannel sheets, bury my head in my pillows, and stay warm!

Thanks to Kevin for the photo!
The rest of the weekend was pretty awesome. It started Friday night at Liberty Bicycles with an official "launch party" for Foundry Bicycles -- a new, all-carbon brand from the masterminds in Minneapolis. My friend Jason (a different Jason than the one I met on Laurel) heads up Foundry, the tag line for which is "It's a Tool, not a Trophy." They've hit a niche spot-on -- in a world of ultralight carbon ├╝berbikes, Foundry offers a 10-year warranty and an "anti-pretentious" mindset that puts some horsepower and trust behind the crabon.

A launch party is one thing; actually getting to ride one is another. I've seen Jason a few times since he took the helm at Foundry, and have seen his bikes in various build states, but it wasn't until Saturday that I got a chance to experience Foundry for myself.

Aw, man. It was fantastic. Un-fricking-believable.

All of a sudden, I'm dreaming of  a carbon hardtail.
Mmmm ... hot dogs! Thanks to Kevin
for the photo!
Saturday morning, Kim and I loaded up the kids and headed to Trails End, the Bent Creek inholding owned by Mike and Claudia Nix, proprietors of Liberty Bikes. While Mike fired up some delicious (although slightly pretentious, being all-organic, Asheville-raised local beef) hot dogs, I hung out with the kids, Jason and Kevin from Liberty while Kim got in a quick run, and Jason did a fairly brisk business of sending his small Foundry fleet out into the wild. I was deferring my option to ride until the last minute -- as I geared up for my road ride home, Jason and Kevin swapped out my pedals and checked the seat height on the size-large Router he had hanging from the bike stand.

Wow.

The folks at Foundry have hit the nail on the head -- if I may borrow an overused tool reference.

I started out up Rice Pinnacle Road, just getting used to the slightly smaller gearing and the wider handlebars. But then, about 6 or 7 minutes into the ride, I realized that I was going pretty quick -- the Router is responsive, stiff, sturdy but also forgiving, without deadening the trail. Then again, gravel is one thing -- I needed to see what this baby could do.

I headed up toward Five Points via Ingles Field, on the one hand trying to keep an eye on the time (it was a demo, after all!); on the other, intent to put this thing through its paces. Climbing was a snap, and I found myself consistently 2-3 cassette cogs smaller (bigger gear) than I expected when I went to shift. Standing and hammering was confidence inspiring, and although my legs still had a bit of Horrible in them, I was able to work the bike enough to know that this baby could climb -- even in the rough stuff. It felt great ... but what about the downhill?

Dang!

Let me be clear: I love taking the Spearfish down fast, swoopy trails. I'm not the best descender, but I've gotten better -- and I'm most comfortable with a bit of give in the form of a rear shock to absorb my poor line choices.

The Router changed my mind, at least a bit.

As I headed down, I intentionally looked for little lips, rock chutes and root bolls to plow through -- and the Router just ate them up. If the Spearfish begs to be ridden somewhat like a hardtail due to its 80mm of rear travel and tendency to tighten up on rebound, the Router felt like it could be ridden like a full-suspension rig -- but with the added snap of a stiff rear end. At one point, I boosted a small tabletop and pulled the bike up with my feet -- a move I make on the Spearfish a thousand times when I don't preload enough -- and dang if the lightweight Router didn't jump up and smack me in the underside! With big Stan's rims and balloon-like Conti Mountain King 2.2s, I was bashing through everything without bouncing too bad, and as I dropped Ledford and hit the slower root sections down low, I enjoyed having the extra push when I put down a power stroke. Granted, a quick spin in Bent Creek does not a full-review test ride make, but as I pulled back into Trails End 30 minutes later, I was contemplating how a carbon hardtail would be a great compliment to my Spearfish, and how I could go really, really fast at the Ocho in a few weeks ...

Kim made a great observation last night: It was a great weekend, and the days seemed long. But dang if it didn't go by too fast!

03 March 2012

Just ... Horrible: The Profile

A few relatively quiet moments at home for the first time in a while equals a chance to check out just how Horrible things were last weekend ...

No data beyond time and altitude, which, when you add it all together, comes out at 22,474 ft. of ascent -- give or take, of course! Total pedal time was something like 25-1/2 hours out of 31-1/2 of racing -- in hindsight, I keep telling myself I wish I could have gone for more checkpoints, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made it home!

Thanks for reading along; big thanks to Clay for pushing the buttons and Eric for being agreeable! And, of course, thanks to everyone else who played the game!

Click on the profile to see the detail!

02 March 2012

Just ... Horrible: Stage 6


Stage 6: In Which I Think About Going All-In … But Thankfully Don’t Have To
There I am, 5:30 in the morning, 6-1/2 hours to race, my next-closest competitor standing beside me ready to start his next stage, my bike upside-down on the ground next to me, front wheel off, ready to do some minor repairs …

… and I don’t have the right parts.

Anyone who knows me, knows I overpack. I’m the guy who, when it was 20 degrees colder than predicted at one road race many years ago, you could go to, to get an extra pair of knickers. I’m the guy who carries enough stuff to field-rebuild an entire bike at a 24-hour race. I’m the guy who has done it.

Not this time.

This time, instead of grabbing the small bag of Avid Elixir brake pads I have stashed in my basement workshop, I grabbed the small bag of Juicy pads.

Right brand, wrong model.

And they’re not compatible.

Shit.

Matt headed out, for all I knew just one hour behind me but one checkpoint up, with only an easy stage separating us. I scrambled, digging through my bin knowing I didn’t have the right stuff, before doing what I could to re-center the caliper and hoping that might help. At the very least, I could find out what was next, and make the call whether I would have to retire due to a mechanical.

In point of fact, I was relieved. I know Matt well enough to know I was in trouble if he was just an hour back: Depending on what Stage 6 had in store, making up a CP on him might just put me over the edge into oblivion, were he hot on my heels. A broken front brake was a legit excuse to retire from the race, and with everyone currently sacked out, I had no way to know whether anyone else had the right pads. I could check in, make the call, and jump in my sleeping bag if I didn’t think my bike or my body would survive. No dishonor in that: I made a mistake when I packed my gear, and better men than me had DNFed this Horrible thing anyway.

So I rolled across the bridge resigned to defeat, and I’m pretty sure Jonathan/Dennis was there to greet me. I was chilly, but not nearly as cold as I had been 2 hours before. I went over to the check-in table, turned in my Stage 5 card, and pulled the card for Stage 6.

And let it be known: There is benevolent mercy in the world. Even a Horrible one.

I couldn’t believe my eyes: There were six checkpoints listed, but only one – ONE! – was mandatory. And it didn’t matter which one. I had my pick, which meant I could be out for 90 minutes or I could be out for 6 hours. All of a sudden, things were looking up!

Ready for more? Thanks to Eric for the pic!
At this point Eric may or may not have been awake, and Jonathan may or may not have been joined by other cohorts. All I know is that I geared up for a long battle, coming up with an epic route that had me nabbing one CP early but taking me way up high before dropping down and coming at it another way. The sun was starting to break, warmth was indeed returning, and I figured I’d make the call on the trail: If my brake worked, I was all in. If not? Well, at least I could finish. Right?

477 > Buckhorn Gap Trail > Twin Falls (hike only, CP at the Falls) > Buckhorn Gap Trail > 477. Left on the table: CPs at Club Gap, Turkeypen Gap at Black, Long Branch at Halfway Road, Daniel Ridge at Farlow and Barnett Branch at Pink Beds.

I headed out and headed up. The climb from the bridge was mercifully short, and as I dropped in on Buckhorn it became immediately apparent: I was screwed. No amount of pulling on the brake lever would get it to engage, and I had to grab a fistful of rear to skid half-sideways into the first left-hander. Aw, well – it was worth a shot. At least I could get Twin Falls, and at least I could say I finished.

I picked my way along the banks of Avery Creek, another area I thankfully know well. I wimped out in the 20-degree, predawn air, and rather than blast my way through frigid mountain streams, I bailed out to the log bridges that dot the lowbottoms there. I sort of slip-slided my way along, admiring the beautiful ice crystals at the side of the trail and watching my line to make sure I didn’t fall over.

I finally made Twin Falls Trail, and stashed my bike in a rhodo. One of the cool things about the Salsa Spearfish in Green Machine livery is that it is exactly the brilliant shade of green we have in Pisgah – in fact, in midsummer, it can hide in plain sight for a good dose of trail banshee. So although I had a bit of reservation leaving my ride on the side of the trail, I figured there wasn’t too much risk at 6:30 on a Sunday morning.

I set out up the cove, one of the few places that close-in that I haven’t seen yet. The trail was longer than I expected, and I kept my ears open for any sign of Matt, making his way up behind me. I expected him to arrive at any time – with no real ability to control my bike, I figured he’d be making up time on me hand-over-fist between Sycamore Cove and Avery Creek. But I also figured I didn’t care – at least I would finish, at least I would have that. I was disappointed that I didn’t win, but I could hold my head high and come back again next year.

I still had my light on when I got to the falls, and I sat on a rock there to enjoy a trailside Coke. I ate an energy bar, snapped my photo, and started the walk back. The way in seemed to take forever, but strangely the way back only took a few minutes – time was warping along with my mind, and before I knew it, I was stashing my Coke bottle in my backpack and remounting my bike.

I did OK on the way back – as expected, I hit the stairs way too hot, so I put myself into the slope before I went ass-over-teakettle into the mudpit at the bottom. I walked where I needed to and grabbed every chance to keep my feet dry – I was almost done, but I was done. With my goal in sight, and 5 hours to travel only about 3 miles – most of which was downhill – my mind shut down and I started to stumble and bounce off of things I shouldn’t. I’ve been here before, long into a 24-hour race, and I knew I needed to just relax, concentrate when I could, and just. make. it. out.

Still, in the back of my head, I was worried. I kept expecting to see Matt coming up the trail, and was surprised that there was no sign of him. Maybe he had taken a different route? It didn’t make sense that he wouldn’t grab Twin Falls first, but then again, stranger things had happened during this race. Still, the lower I got, the more I expected to need to yield the trail, and I was shocked when I made 477 with no sign of him, and even more surprised when I made the bridge. But then all at once I realized that I was almost done, that I was about to finish, that just one mile separated me from my goal …

HOT DAMN!

I rolled into camp at 7:30, and Eric was there to greet me. He offered to let me borrow his front brake, and I was grateful to decline. It was all I could do to step off my bike and call it good: In that moment, I became only the third finisher ever of the Most Horrible Thing Ever, and the first person to complete all of Pisgah Productions’ and all of Blue Ridge Adventures’ races. As Eric put it, “I created something to break Brad Key, and you finished it. Thanks for playing the game.” Even if I didn’t win, I was still on the podium, and I still attained my dream, my goal.

But wait, where was Matt?

I had been gone just over 90 minutes, surely enough time for him to hit Sycamore and make his way back. But as 7:30 gave way to 8, we began to speculate: Maybe he was doing multiple laps? But wait, why would he? That would be a dangerous strategy, not knowing what Stage 6 had in store. Unless he saw the passport? Nah, that wouldn’t be in his nature, not in keeping with the vibe of the game. Oh, wait: He’s training for the Arizona Trail Race. Maybe he’s bivvyed up over on Thrift, as practice.

Where the heck was Matt?

Eric told us that last time he saw Matt, it was at the end of Stage 3. At that point, he had come in 3 hours behind me, but I spent an hour in camp, and he was geared up and ready to go – so he was only 2 hours back. Doing the math, that made it about 11:30, maybe midnight – about the time I was cresting Yellow Gap and rolling into North Mills River Campground. Matt had gotten the passport for Stage 4 – the long, long ride to Bent Creek Gap and over the Parkway – and Eric had warned him about how cold it was bound to be way up top. (Like, yeah – no kidding!) Eric had said to him, “Be sure to check in with me before you leave.” To which Matt replied, “Consider this my check-in.”

Which meant he’d been out for 8-1/2, 9, 9-1/2 hours.

Even if he lost 2 hours to me on Stage 1, Stage 4 was nowhere near as difficult. As long as you stayed focused, there was nothing technical about it – the scariest part might have been the rocky descent on SMR, early on in the stage. But then it hit me: His Stage 4 card wasn’t there. What if – a long shot, maybe, but with each passing minute it became more of a reality – when I saw him at 5:30, he was headed out on Stage 4, and wasn’t over on Sycamore after all? What if his comment about waiting for it to warm up applied to the 5,000 ft. elevation at the Mt. Pisgah Inn?

All of a sudden, we were having visions of Matt, lying prone on the side of a closed section of Parkway, exposed to the elements and fading from this earth. Tara was set to go on a trail run over on Sycamore, so she headed out with the express aim of running it backwards so she could find him. The rest of us set about breaking down camp, watching the clock and wondering when we’d need to launch a search party. Finally, about 10 or 10:30, we made the call: There was no way he was on Sycamore, the only explanation was that he had gone for the gravel grind, and we’d see him between 11:30 and noon. It was the only rational answer.

"So Clay, I think ... zzzzz." Thanks Eric!
So we did what we Pisgah folk always do: We (well, everyone else) drank beer, took pictures, hung out by the fire, and eventually hiked up to hide the gnome. I fell asleep, first standing up and almost falling into the fire, and then later mid-sentence while I talked to Clay. Our feelings of worry gave way to more euphoria with the warmth of the rising sun: Surely Matt was OK, and it was a fine day after all to celebrate a successful The Most Horrible Thing Ever!

I stayed with Patrick while everyone else climbed up the cove, so we were the only ones there to witness Matt’s spectacular return. For more than an hour, every bike we saw on 477 was him, but for more than an hour we were disappointed and still a little worried. Finally, though, at 11:15 on the nose, Matt came storming into camp and pulled an impressive skid, throwing rocks everywhere as he slid to a stop. He was smiling and happy, and despite only having 45 minutes to finish an hour loop, he checked in and checked out, and he was off for Stage 5 before we knew it!

That’s right, Stage 5 – which meant I won! I was pretty stoked, to say the least, though I was pretty wiped out and my celebration was pretty muted. Clay returned from the gnome excursion, and a few minutes later Eric and the rest of the crew came down. We were all relieved, and while we waited for the final finish, Eric snapped a few “podium shots” for Facebook and for posterity.
Podium shot! Thanks to Eric for dreaming up the Game! (and for the photo!)
Eventually, Kim and the kids came by, and we all welcomed Matt back just after noon. He may have been disappointed, but he sure didn’t show it – as always, he was laid back and good natured as he packed up his gear. Kate and I wandered around the campsite, and she pulled out her first massive endo on her Strider going across the bridge – unperturbed, though, she rolled around the rest of the campground and pulled off some drops for good measure!

Eventually we settled down for a quick picnic lunch, waving to the riders as they passed by. “Hey! There’s a Horsethief!” shouted one of them … he was mistaken, but still, it was pretty cool that he recognized my bike as a cousin to the bigger-hit HT. Finally the fatigue and the warm sun took their toll, and I was just done – it was time to head home. Kim let me sleep it off: I woke up after 2 hours for dinner with the family, but didn’t wake up again until 7:45 the next morning. And by then it was Monday, and time to go to work.

Which, come to think of it, wasn’t all that Horrible.

Race time at the end of Stage 6: 7:30

Just ... Horrible: Stage 5


Stage 5: In Which I Play It Safe … and Almost Crash Out Anyway
I wasn’t too upset at the broken promise of a raging fire – after all, it was 3:30 in the morning, and we’d been racing for 27-1/2 hours. Not only that, but it had taken me 6 hours to traverse Pisgah, so it was only natural that most of the Horrible “volunteers” would be taking a well-earned rest when I returned. In fact, one of them – Jonathan – was on a cot right there by the fire pit, and despite spending the better part of the next hour with him while I piled on wood and tried to get warm, I thought he was Dennis. That’s how out of it I was – I didn’t find out it was Jon until 5 hours and two stages later.

I stood as close as I dared to the fire, worried that the flames would begin to melt my beloved Lake winter cycling boots. On the other hand I didn’t care, and I purposely moved myself around the fire pit with any little breeze, making sure the warmth was headed my direction and ignoring the smoke I was ingesting with every breath. “Dennis” – Jonathan – did his best to help, even breaking out the mini blower to stoke the coals, a sublime move that counts among the 5 best volunteer moments of my racing career. It was just that cold.

I think I kept apologizing to him for one thing or another – to be honest, I’m not really sure why. I just remember him telling me that I didn’t need to be sorry for anything. Looking back on it is completely surreal – like, I know this all happened, it must have happened, but it doesn’t feel completely right. I do know that I eventually calmed my shaking enough to go get food, which I warmed in the fire – actually, the second I stepped away from the flames, I was back to shivering uncontrollably. But I needed to eat, I knew I needed to eat, and warm food was probably the only way I could help raise my core temperature – In hindsight, I should have packed coffee and a pot, as warm liquids would have been even better.

In fact, I ended up eating all my “fire food” – the leftover pizza and pre-cooked scrambles that Kim had so thoughtfully prepared and wrapped in tin foil in the days leading to the race. (Have I mentioned how incredible is my wife? Yes? Well, let me tell you again!) I drank the last not-freezing sip of coffee I had left – the only not-cold drink I had – and I hopped around in place to get the blood flowing, even just a bit. Eventually, mercifully!, I wasn’t convulsing so bad, and I went over to turn in my Stage 4 card and find out what awaited me at Stage 5:

Lap Race: 477 > 276 > Black > Thrift > Grassy > Sycamore > 276 > Black (Repeat for up to 6 laps, each lap is 1 CP) > 276 > 477

Diabolical! Though I hadn’t done much research, I did know that traditionally the Horrible finishes with a lap race – a one-ish hour loop that participants can use to make up checkpoints. Only this year, Eric included it as Stage 5, meaning I had to take a chance: Try to make up the one checkpoint I was down on Matt now, or bust out just one CP and roll in, risking it all on an extra CP on Stage 6 – which, for all I knew, was set to be a 6-hour ordeal with multiple mandatories.

I knew I was at least a couple of hours up on Matt, but I also knew I was one CP down. After an hour of trying to get warm, I realized I had nothing to lose – I was never going to get truly not cold, and maybe the climb of Black would help stoke some inner fire. Or not – as I rolled out along Davidson River, I was reminded that the cool waters of a mountain stream are most enjoyed in August, not February …

At any rate, thankfully the lap isn’t bad. I know this one cold (ha, ha – pun intended), and had even done it just days after Daniel was born. Since October I’d probably ridden it 7 or 8 or 10 more times, so I knew I had nothing really to worry about – I could just focus on staying upright, walking the steepest parts to save my back and save some energy, and make sure I could get back down to 276 in one piece. Once I did one lap, I could make the call on whether to go for more. I figured if I could get back to the camp by 6 a.m., that would give me 6 hours to do the final stage – at the pace I was going, I might get two CPs from the laps.

Then again, maybe not.

The first part went OK. I did walk the steepest of the steeps – the big turn on Thrift, the root climb at the start of Sycamore – but for the most part I was concentrated on tractor-beaming in my smallest gear, turning the cranks over and grinding my way up. But then something funny started to happen.

I’ve had brake trouble before. I’ll admit, I’m a SRAM loyalist, and I tend to give their products a lot of rope. In fact, since the beginning of the race, I knew my front brake was likely on the fritz – I was having to pump it more than I should (which is to say, I was having to pump it at all to get any grab), and after the soggy mess at the start of Sumney I had quite a bit of ice glazing going on. But I was doing OK on the long gravel/pavement grind, and I was confident as I headed into a section of trail I knew well.

So as I crested the shoulder halfway through Sycamore Cove and started my way to the step-down switchback, I was confident. Not cocky, just sure of myself. No problems – Sycamore isn’t tough up there; it’s further down, through the stream crossings, where you need to be careful. I shifted my weight back, leaned slightly to the left, eased on the rear brake, began to squeeze the front, and …

… nothing. No grab. The lever pulled all the way back to the bar, and I was still accelerating!

I pumped it hard, but still nothing – so in the same split-second, I jammed on the rear and put myself into a small skid. I hate doing that on the trail, but I needed to stop almost completely to make the turn – even then, as I came about to the right, I almost slipped off the trail. WTF?! Crap!

All of a sudden, this just got interesting.

The last half-mile or so of Sycamore isn’t the most technical piece of Pisgah, but it does require some precise braking – and all I had was a rear. Damn. I stopped for a second and tried to pump up the front, but nothing going – once I started rolling, I jammed on the front and just kept going. Yikes! I hit the first stream crossing OK, but then in the next couple I found myself coming in too hot, and the trail was throwing me around. I nearly impaled myself on a side bush, and finally hit a flat spot where I could come to a complete stop – I needed a minute to collect myself and my thoughts before the final drop to the road. I used body English a bit more than usual, which was kind of tough given my fatigue level, and I’ll admit more than a little relief when I hit the road and made a right turn back toward camp. I flirted with the idea of going on one more lap, but then I realized that having no brake would, ironically, slow me down somewhat – at the very least, I had new brake pads back at camp, so why don’t I just roll back, get them swapped out, and decide what to do then?

I tested my front brake in the relative safety of the road, and sure enough it was gone. No amount of pumping could get any modulation, and as I rolled down toward 477 I even had the lever fully engaged as I picked up speed. The last stage was going to get interesting, but thank goodness I always came prepared and always overpack for everything. Swapping pads should only take a few minutes; it’ll be interesting to see how far ahead I was and whether I would go back to Sycamore for one more lap, or head out and try to nap an extra CP on Stage 6.

As I headed up 477, I could see the Christmas lights at the fire off through the trees. And then I saw another light – what’s this? Holy cow, it’s Matt! He was at his car, the door open, putting the finishing touches on his gear as he got ready to head out.

“I was going to go earlier, but I wanted to wait until it got a little warmer,” he said. It was 5:30 in the morning. “I’m not sure it will, but it’s worth a shot.”

Oh, shit.

I did the math. If I was 3 hours up on him at the start of Stage 4, and he wasn’t back when I went out for my one-hour Stage 5, that means he made up 2 hours on me on the Parkway and was now just an hour back. I flipped my bike upside down, removed the wheel, and opened the back of my car.

“What are you doing?” he asked , too casually.

“I don’t have any front brake. I need to swap out some pads,” I replied.

“You going to be all right?” he said.

“Sure. I’ve got them. Right … here.”

I was wrong.

Race time at the end of Stage 5: 5:38

Just ... Horrible: Stage 4


Stage 4: In Which I Almost Cause Permanent Damage to Myself
I knew when I was climbing Wash Creek Road a couple of weeks ago – for the second time that night – that I would somehow end up there again during TMHTE. I knew – just knew – that Eric would send us to Bent Creek Gap. That much I could handle. What I didn’t expect, and what may be the cause of some permanent tissue damage (jury is still out!) was the way back. We were required to follow this exact route:

477 > Clawhammer (CP at Buckhorn Gap) > Buckhorn Gap > SMR (CP at 476) > 476 > 1206 (CP at NMR campground) > 5000 (CP at Bent Creek Gap) > BRP (CP at 276) > 276 > 477 (CP at Bennett)

I took an hour to get out of camp. I needed to eat, and I absolutely needed to put on more clothing. I was still 3 hours up on Matt, only I had lost a checkpoint: He grabbed four in Stage 2, whereas I only grabbed three. Hmmm. I couldn’t have gotten another one without risking life and limb; on the other hand, I needed to begin to plan to make up one somehow in the last two stages. That could be tricky; we received each passport only after the stage was complete, and I didn’t know what was next.

This was kind of an interesting place for me to be, and a blessing in disguise. Like I said, I hadn’t had time to do my customary race research, and so I was really flying blind. But it was a good thing: Had I realized that we were essentially repeating 2008 (minus, benevolently, a couple of mandatory CPs), I may have given up a long time ago, knowing how difficult the next stages were set to be. Instead, I could only focus on one CP after another, which was how I approached this monster grind ahead …

Eric and I argued about whether I was in the lead: I said no, since I was down a CP. Really, though, it didn’t matter: I had many miles of gravel and pavement ahead, and it was silly to think I shouldn’t get started as quickly as I could. Still, I took my time getting in some food, and did some rough calculations that would have me at Bent Creek Gap at about midnight.

Boy was I wrong.

Under normal circumstances, I maybe could make BCG in 2-1/2 hours from the campground. But these weren’t normal circumstances. And, quite honestly, I totally miscalculated – I figured on a 9 p.m. departure, when it was really 9:30 or 9:40. That, plus another crawl up Clawhammer, had me rolling into the campground at midnight, and it was another hour before I reached the Gap – at 1 a.m., there is maybe no more lonely place on that side of Pisgah. Thankfully three of the climbs were over, but the danger zone was just about to begin …

I just needed to make it to the Inn, about 8-1/2 miles and 1,730 vertical feet above me. It was quiet, it was clear, it was only a little breezy: but it was cold. Below freezing, in fact. I knew the long climb to the Inn wouldn’t be too bad, but I also knew the long, long downhill on the other side might be a problem. Still, I set out with resolve, just putting one pedal in front of the other as I made my way upward.

I’m not too proud to admit: I walked. On the pavement. Slowly. For probably a mile and a half total. There were a couple of stretches where I just needed to give my back some relief, and one point where I needed to stop to pound my frozen water bottle on the ground to free up some liquid trapped in the ice. It was eerily silent, way up above everything – as I passed the Hominy Valley overlook, I could hear a dog barking more than a thousand feet below me. It was spooky, but I tried really hard not to think about it: I’d done this climb once before, in searing heat, and I knew that every foot gained was a foot closer to the peak. So I stayed focused, tried to eat when I could, and ignored the sweat ice that was building on my hat and balaclava.

And I hurt. Bad.

My back wasn’t protesting too badly with the right breaks, but about halfway up I discovered another problem: My toes. The walk through Bradley Creek at the end of Stage 2 and the subsequent 2-1/2 hours of wet, cold feet had given me a bit of frost nip, and my toes had taken a pounding on the hike-a-bike on Farlow and Bennett. By the time I dismounted somewhere near Ferrin Knob and was walking, either the blood returned to my toes thanks to my fantastic Lake winter boots or they were banging against the inside – either way, I was in pain. Every step was excruciating, and even when I remounted and started pedaling, the pain would only subside, not go away. I kept hoping that I could numb them with less walking and more riding, but my back would protest just enough that I’d have to get off and walk just as they were starting not to hurt as much. And the cycle would repeat.

The crazy thing about the ride up to Mt. Pisgah is that you can see it. Especially at night, when the TV tower at the peak is illuminated in red. It looks like it’s right there, just beyond your reach, for miles. But then you turn a corner, and it’s out of sight, only to reappear around the next knob, further away than it seemed a minute ago. It’s enough to drive you batty.

I’m not familiar enough with the climb to know the mile markers on the Parkway, but I am familiar enough with the top to know when I’m getting close. Only, I thought I was close when I passed through one tunnel – only to find that I was a tunnel too soon. Damn.

I finally crested the ridge, and the sign announcing Mt. Pisgah was a welcome sight. It was disorienting – coming from that direction, the actual mountain is behind you at that point – but I had the presence of mind to know that it was mostly downhill from here. I whizzed past the Inn, bathed in a red glow from one of the buildings, past the campground, and out onto the open, exposed hillside that faces toward Brevard. I wasn’t sure how far I had to the intersection with 276, but the wind was picking up and I knew it was downhill – holy crap, this was going to be cold.

I had no idea.

The ridgetop was playing havoc with the breeze – the knobs caused the wind to come from one direction one minute, only to switch and hit me face-on the next. It was eerie as I dropped the 450 ft in 4 miles down to Wagon Road Gap; I could see miles across to the next ridge, where the mountains rose up above 276 and there was a car coming down from Graveyard Fields. I was lit up front and back, and fully expected it to be Parkway law enforcement – though I was there (somewhat) legally, there were bound to be questions about why I was way out there at 2 in the morning!

To my left was the empty expanse of Pisgah National Forest, with just a few lights dotting the hillsides below me. It was as beautiful as it was lonely, and I concentrated on breathing deeply into my balaclava – it was the only way to keep my cheeks and nose from completely freezing. The wind was picking up, and I wasn’t able to pedal – I focused on making my legs go around a few times, but as I picked up speed and the shivering started, it was getting more and more difficult to both pedal and stay upright as I flew down the ridge.

I made 276 in short order and wasn’t feeling too bad. I snapped a quick photo at the checkpoint and turned down the off-ramp. I came to the intersection, reminded myself to watch out for potholes on the way down (lest I end up on the side of the road needing to get my moustache sewn back on, like KoP Wes Dickson!), and turned left.

And it all went dark.

Not literally. Thankfully, my light was just fine, and I had a backup battery just in case. But I only remember two things from the next 10 minutes or so: I remember seeing the sign that said the Forest Discovery Center was 4 miles ahead, and I remember seeing a giant pothole with spray paint marking its location.

Beyond that, nothing. I was so cold, and shivering so violently, and it was so dark all around me, that my memory has been erased. I don’t remember the descent; I don’t remember the twists and curves that I know are there – I see them on the map above my desk, every day. Instead, I remember the sign at the top, and I remember reaching the Discovery Center and being passed by a maroon Corvette – the lights I had seen on the distant ridge were not, in fact, a Park ranger. Or at least I think I got passed by a Corvette – at that point, 2:30 in the morning and freezing cold, all bets were off.

I was back on familiar ground, though, and I safely made the left onto and up 477. I let momentum take me as high as I could, before the pedaling kicked in and I began to generate a little bit of heat. I just focused on moving forward, not caring what gear I was in, and knowing that after a couple of pitches early on, the contour opens up and I could pedal the false flat to Bennett Gap. It was as beautiful as it was brutal, with temperatures in the teens and the distant hills backlit from the crescent moon hanging above me.

I made Bennett, snapped my photo, and started down. And then I stopped. And stopped again. For anyone who knows this descent, it is relatively short and can be fairly steep – but it’s not difficult. Only I was so cold, and my back was seizing so badly from violent shivering, that I had to stop twice to relieve it. It was all I could to roll to the horse stables, and my legs barely turned over as the grade flattened and I crossed the bridge. I bounced through a giant pothole, my vision shattered from my chattering teeth, and I focused all my being into making it back to the fire – I was promised that it would be blazing when I returned. I rolled down the road, illuminating other campsites in the narrow beam of my headlamp, until I saw the welcome sight of the Christmas lights marking our fire ring at North White Pines.

I turned left, made it across the bridge, and that’s when I saw: The fire was almost dead.

I was so cold, it was all I could do to get off the bike, and I tripped as I stumbled toward the giant wood pile. I was nearly in full-on convulsions, and I had no other thought in the world, except that I needed to get the fire going. Now. Nothing else mattered.

Race time at the end of Stage 4: 3:37

01 March 2012

Just ... Horrible: Stage 3


Stage 3: In Which I Re-Climb Pilot. Again.
I rolled into camp having been awake for 29 hours, the last 11-1/2 on my bike. I was falling asleep on my bike, I’d been through a bad patch emotionally, I’d crashed and nearly put myself in the drink. All I could focus on was grabbing a quick bite to eat, setting my alarm and falling asleep.

And then I saw Charlie.

In street clothes.
Game on! Sad Charlie was out, but ready to go ... once I woke up again ...
Thanks to Eric for the pic.

All of a sudden, it was a new race.

For every stage, we were given a very specific set of checkpoints that we needed to reach, sometimes in order, sometimes in more of a choose-your-own-adventure format. Stage 2 was the latter, and somewhere soon after I saw him (at 5:30 in the morning), Charlie had made a couple of navigational errors – one led to another – that set him back nearly 3 hours. He rolled back into camp and was given a choice: Restart the stage or call it a day. He called it a day.

Which meant I was winning the race.

I’ll admit: I went into this wanting to win. I figured that as long as I could finish, I had better than a 50/50 shot at the top step of the “podium.” I’d been planning my assault for a year, even through the uncertainty of whether it would happen again or not. There were no prizes on the line, no medals, not even official recognition of any sort. I kept telling myself that I was racing Eric (the Dr. Evil who dreamt up this crazy race) and I was racing the course – I wasn’t racing my competition. I even told Eric that when I rolled in and he declared that I was in first place. “I’m not racing,” I said. “I’m just trying to finish.”

“No you’re not,” he replied. “You’re racing.”

And, in hindsight, he was absolutely right. Thankfully, I was able to delude myself into focusing on “just finishing” enough that I didn’t dig myself into a too-deep hole that I couldn’t get out of. But at the same time, yeah – my whole outlook on things had changed.

Still, the first order of business was some rest. Though it was tempting to head out into the warming sun – and Charlie tried to talk me into it – when I saw the Stage 3 passport and determined my route, I knew I would need sleep before I tackled it. So instead, I scarfed down some food while I plotted my course, set my alarm on my phone, and promptly passed out in my nice, warm sleeping bag in my nice, warm tent.

My 2-1/2-hour nap stopped short: 15 minutes early, Eric’s wife and daughter came to camp, and his little girl’s voice invaded my subconscious and made me think of Kate. I jolted awake, and felt strangely refreshed – I was ready, once again, to do battle. Matt Fusco, half of the Pisgah-slaying duo of Fusco and Key, still hadn’t returned from Stage 2, meaning I was several hours ahead at this point. That gave new determination as I changed clothes, ate yet more food, and got rolling: I knew that out-of-sight was out-of-mind, and I didn’t want him to see me.

477 > 276 > 475 > 475B > 225 (CP at Cove Creek) > Cove Creek > 475 > Pilot Mtn Road (AGAIN!) > Farlow Gap (Mandatory CP at Shuck Ridge Creek) > Pilot Mtn Road > 475 > Davidson > 475 > 276 > 477 > Bennett (CP at Coontree Gap) > 477. Left on the table were CPs at Butter Gap, Buckhorn Gap shelter and Pressley Gap.

This wasn’t the most fun stage, given that both Farlow Gap and Bennett were hike-a-bike out-and-backs. And I left my sunglasses out on the singletrack part of Pilot Mtn Road, so I lost 15 minutes or so going back to find them. But sunset way up on Shuck Ridge was beautiful, and the bomb down Pilot Mtn Road was phenomenal. It wasn’t yet cold when I stopped by camp on my way to Coontree Gap, and though I thought about leaving my bike at 477, I took it all the way up, which meant the return to camp was super-fun – just can’t get enough of the lower part of Bennett! Big thanks to Greg for this one too: He proved that hike isn’t that bad, way back in Double Dare …

I rolled into camp to an evening that was becoming rapidly chilly. The sun was gone, the crescent moon came out, and the stars were absolutely brilliant. Someone mentioned that the wind was forecast to be gone, which was a good thing after the breezy afternoon: “it won’t be so bad on the Parkway,” he said.

Wait, what?!

Race time at the end of Stage 3: 20:23

Just ... Horrible: Stage 2


Stage 2: In Which I Almost Throw in the Towel
I spent about the same amount of time in transition as Charlie did, grabbing food, checking the passport and planning my route. Two of the eight starters were already back at camp, the most surprising of whom was Clay – he washed out his front wheel at the top of Cove Creek (sound familiar? I crashed in exactly the same spot a few months ago!) and took out some spokes. His day was done, so he was content to enjoy the campfire, drink beer and give really bad advice to those of us who were headed back out. Thankfully, after spending time with he and Zach at the campfire during DD, I knew better than to listen to his route suggestions.

Instead, I figured out where I wanted to go, and was pretty surprised when I heard Charlie say that he didn’t see any good loop options – “I guess it’s just going to be out and back,” he said. I saw things differently, and though it would only mean getting three of a possible six checkpoints, I figured out an OK loop that wouldn’t kill me, would keep me on track to finish, and gave me an option for a couple more CPs if I was out there and feeling good. I ate and drank what I could, and I was out of there in about 10 minutes.

477 > Clawhammer > Black (CP at Buckhorn Gap Shelter) > Buckhorn > SMR > Squirrel (Mandatory CP at Cantrell Creek) > Laurel Creek > Bradley > 5015 > 1206 (CP at Laurel Mtn trailhead) > 476 > SMR > Buckhorn > Clawhammer > 477. Left on the table: CPs at Slate Rock overlook, Bennett Gap at Perry Cove, Pilot Rock at Thompson Creek. Oh, and US276 was off limits for this one, as were the hiking-only trails of Thompson Creek and Perry Cove.

Shelter at Buckhorn Gap
The climb to the shelter wasn’t too bad, and I enjoyed a just-before-dawn moment of rice cake and Coke sitting on the wooden bench. My friend the copperhead was sleeping this night, though the rest of the forest was beginning to wake up as the sun began to rise and the sky started to glow. I felt pretty good despite taking my time coming up Clawhammer, and I was really looking forward to doing Squirrel end-to-end as a morning wake up.

Uneventful drop to the river, and I was surprised as I crested Horse Cove Gap to find snow everywhere! It wasn’t much, just a dusting really – maybe 1/4 in. – but it was enough that the already slick, off-camber rocks and roots of Squirrel Gap were even more treacherous than usual. I took it slightly more cautiously than usual – which is to say, pretty dang cautiously – and as I made my way over to Cantrell and beyond, I kept expecting signs of Charlie – he’d either be coming the other way or would have at least dropped in at Horse Cove and left tire marks in the snow. Instead, I was making fresh tracks all along, and as the sun reached full force I crested Laurel Creek Gap and got ready for the fun downhill on the other side.
The cove at Cantrell -- just beautiful!
The biggest debate for me was the river crossing – I was bound to get my feet wet, but how cold would it be and how dangerous? Thankfully crossing Wolf Ford didn’t seem too bad, so I just forged ahead and made my way out to 5015. I knew it would be a slog, but I thought I was ready for it.

I was wrong.

“There are these decisive moments in bike racing. And when the time came, I gave up.” – Kevin Costner as Marcus Sommers in American Flyers

I made it halfway before I fell apart. I walked a couple of the small pitches on the way up, and once 5015 crossed through the ridge, I knew I was almost home free. But then all hell broke loose. In the span of 8? 10? 12? minutes, I went from “I’m OK this is OK” to “Holy Hell, I’m losing it.” Out of the blue, my thoughts drifted back to the long moment lying there in Sumney Cove, and I realized that I might never have seen Kate, Daniel or Kim again. Melodramatic, maybe – but realize that I’d been awake for 26 or 27 hours by this point, and had been riding for more than 8. And then, out of the blue, a snatch of lyric from Les Miserables entered my consciousness, and my thoughts rocketed from my family to my Mom. Before I knew it, I was sobbing uncontrollably, yelling at the top of my lungs to no one and everyone, and this vast well of anger bubbled up inside me. Still I pedaled as the grade gave way to fast, flowing contour, but my resolve was gone and I was ready to quit.

And in a flash, it was gone.

I passed through the gate, and there at 1206 were a couple of riders gearing up for a ride. I didn’t want them to see that I was struggling, so I muttered a quick hello and turned left to drop down the road. Thirty seconds later, I was snapping the checkpoint photo at Laurel Mountain trailhead, and then I was off, dropping down to Bradley Creek and making my way over to the horse camp. I was tired, I was literally falling asleep on the bike, but I was whole again.

Just like that.

I had to focus quite a bit of energy making my way up South Mills River, as fatigue threatened to shut me down right there in the woods. But I didn’t feel bad – just tired – and as long as I planned short walking breaks, I was good to go. There was still a pretty high risk of failure, but I knew what had to be done: Even if it meant losing, even if it meant I might not finish, I needed a nap before I started Stage 3. I was exhausted, and had reached a critical point. Dropping Clawhammer was harrowing as I almost missed a turn after a split-second of inattention, and I rolled into camp resigned to take a break and risk a DNF. I was too tired to be demoralized, though I wasn’t happy about it.

And that’s when I saw Charlie.

Race time at the end of Stage 2: 11:30