Monday, May 18, 2009

Who conquered whom?? The Man, or Mt. Mitchell??

Yesterday was the day. Over the weekend, I nearly psyched myself out about the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. The ride began to take on almost mythical proportions. I posted on my facebook status: JD is ready to conquer Mt. Mitchell - or to be conquered by Mt. Mitchell.....the Mountain will decide! However, if he doesn't like the decision, he will fight it! The day had come to enter into battle with Mt. Mitchell. Was I really ready? Kip, Yukie and I left Greenville at the scheduled time (~5am) to begin the Assault at 6:30 from in front of Spartanburg's Memorial Auditorium.

Because I did not pre-register, I had to purchase a registration number from someone who wasn't going to be able to make the ride. I was very lucky to respond to a guy in NC who had everything I wanted (Number, jersey and t-shirt). We made the deal, and he communicated the change to the event organizers. He simply asked me to mail him a check (which I did the following day). Thanks Mark!

I was either very lucky or very unlucky in getting this number from him. It put me out with the first wave of riders who not by coincidence are the folks with the fastest estimated finish time. I'll count myself as lucky for now, but you'll see how it might have been different.

At 630 on the dot, they released the first wave. My strategy was to see how things were shaking out with this group. I had told Kip I was thinking about holding back until his wave left (he was wave 4 - about 3 minutes behind wave 1). As my wave left the start line, I decided to just go with the flow - they didn't take off as quickly as I thought they would. In fact, wave 2 had caught us in almost no time - before we even got to the interstate crossings.

Although I had decided to stick with this lead pack, there were times we were riding 4 and 5 abreast. I wanted nothing to do with that, and even though I occasionally felt the force of the wind, I opted to stay to the far right. Regardless of what else might happen, I felt safer to that side of the peleton.

It turns out this was a very smart decision for me. As we entered the bridge on the (I don't recall exactly which) interstate crossing, Mt. Mitchell fired her first volley. The cry 'HOLE' was suddenly raised. Despite the experience of the group, there was a lot of braking and swerving. Of course, this meant that someone was going down. Unfortunately, it sounded like about a dozen someones. This occurred to my front, and as the 'wave' of crashed bikes spread across the peleton, I was riding my own brakes to keep from hitting the guy in front of me. All this while drifting towards the barrier at the edge of the interstate bridge. I was extremely lucky to have been able to just squeeze between a falling rider and the bridge barrier. I don't know if anyone was hurt, I hope no-one was. I was able to accelerate and keep with the front pack. Mt. Mitchell had drawn first blood.

It seemed like no time before the mess was straightened out and the front pack had grown to have probably 300 riders in it. What a sight! I was in the front 1/3 of this pack, and through my helmet mounted mirror, I could see nothing but the head and shoulders of a huge mass of riders behind me. As we rode past some spectators, I heard a little girl exclaim "I have never seen so many!!" It truly was a sight to behold - riding within this group was an experience I'll not soon forget. An army had amassed and was sending it's best forward towards the inevitable battle for the summit. .

As we counted off the miles, I watched our average speed increase - early on, it was 18mph. Soon it was 19, then up to 20 and climbing. We were out in the country now, and into the rolling hills. I knew I would not be able to keep this pace forever, even though I was drafting in this massive group. I started to work my way to the back of the pack.

As we would go up a roller, I would allow a bike or a few bikes to leapfrog in front of me. As we rolled down the other side, I'd hold my position in the peleton. For each roller, I'd allow a few more bikes in front of me. We had reached an average pace of 21 mph somewhere in the early 20s (mileage) or so (who knows exactly when...). As I rode in and worked my way back through this pack, I also learned a couple of things.

I have never been especially comfortable with using frame mounted water bottles. I gave them up about 18 years ago when the first camelbacks came out (and I was mostly riding mountain bikes). After purchasing this road bike last year, I tried a few times to get accustomed to their use. I never really got the hang of it (not to mention the camelback is so much easier). As I rode in this peleton, I watched a rider in front of me. He simply left the spout of the water bottle open! How simple! Now, I only had to reach down, take a drink and replace the bottle!! You'd think an engineer (me) would be able to figure something like this out! It only took once for me to see it. I also realized I could reach down and open the spout with my hand before even pulling the bottle out of the cage (for that first drink). Previously, I pulled the spout open with my teeth. This was a great revelation, and I managed to successfully consume my first bottle of Gatorade almost completely by the time I finished my rear-ward drift.

This too was a part of my ride strategy - I had two bottles with Gatorade and about a dozen packets of gel. The goal was to completely consume the two bottles on the way to Marion. I also carried a 100 ounce camelback from which to drink.

As for the gels, originally, I planned to consume one gel pack every 45 minutes. I changed my plan and at about 1 hour consumed my first one on the ride. Partly this was due to the fact I had to maintain this pace and handle the goo - while staying in formation! Last thing I wanted was to cause a wreck while slurping down a goo pack! I managed to get the first one down, with only minor adjustments to my riding. Good Job JD! Staying on track with the strategy (mostly).

As I continued my rear-ward drift, I was still feeling good, but knew it was important for me to find a pace that would leave something left for my personal battle with the mountain. Also, I began to feel the need for a little rest stop (read this as I needed to pee!). At something just over 30 miles, I found myself near the back of the main peleton. Again, what a sight! From the back, I could see that we stretched for almost 1/3 mile! Riders were 3 and 4 abreast up near the front, but towards the back, we had formed double pace lines. There was a lot of accordion effect back there, but at mile 35, I found a good spot to make my little rest break. I said good-bye to the main peleton, and dropped off the back. My average speed for the 35 miles showed 21mph.

When I remounted after my little break, I decided to let the road dictate my pace while I tried to maintain a consistent pedaling cadence. Occasionally, I would come upon another rider or group of riders and I would hold pace with them for a while. Somewhere around mile 45, Mount Mitchell fired another volley - this time directly at me - I felt the first spasms of my outer calves. I began to realize that Mt. Mitchell had her own strategy - first my body, then my mind. My body began to tell me that Mt. Mitchell was going to be a formidable foe!

I had already consumed my second gel pack, and was into my second bottle of Gatorade. I had started the ride well hydrated and felt I had sufficient nutrition from the previous days (I tried to eat well throughout the weekend). I could only attribute it to pushing myself too hard by staying with the front peleton. That is the fastest average pace I have ever held for any kind of distance. Who knows, there could be a thousand other reasons for it. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had a fight on my hands. Maybe Mt. Mitchell had her own psy-ops in play (psychological operations - using the enemies mind against them).

I backed off my pace a little. I had to re-think my attack strategy. I started to take some time standing up in the saddle, moved around on my seat - anything that would change the way my muscles were working or which muscles were working. When I stood up the first time, I felt little spasms in my outer quads, just above the knee. This was not going to be easy.

Again, I tried to settle into a consistent pace. I had powered another goo pack and drank more Gatorade along with some water. I was watching my pace drop from 21mph - now at 20, now at 19. As Marion got closer, my average speed dropped further. The descent from Bills' Hill was fun. That hairpin was truly hairy! I was glad to see the course workers had it well marked!

As I ticked off more and more miles, I had periods where I fell into a paceline and had no trouble with cramping, then at other times, the calves would begin to spasm. Whenever this happened, I had to move out of the pace line, slow down and do my little bike dance again - standing, stretching, moving around to relieve the cramps. I managed to keep them mostly at bay and I was feeling ok when I came upon Tom Johnson's Camping Center.

Yukie was waiting for Kip and I with her little cowbell! What a welcome sight! I already felt a huge sense of accomplishment - to date my previous personal record for distance on a bike was 68 miles. Now, if nothing else, I could say my new personal record was 75 miles (my computer showed 4:14 with an average of 18mph - I had done this with only two stops to pee). Yukie gave me a cookie (a really really good cookie!), and snapped a photo. I was a little surprised to hear that Kip was still behind me. I think I can attribute this to the fast pace while riding in the big peleton. I told her I was fighting cramps already. She wished me luck, and off I went.

I got concerned briefly as I passed the camping center, and did not see the rest stop! (Was this another psy-ops ploy by the mountain??) I did not want to turn around, but I did need to grab some food (something besides gel packs) and top off my camelback. I was about to turn around when I saw the stop at the corner of hwy 80 and 70. They also had a counter there counting the number of bikes to have passed. When I pulled up, I think the number was at 316.

I stopped and ate two cookies, took a quick porta-john break and topped off my camelback. When I hopped back on my bike, I think almost 50 riders had passed - the counter was now up in the 360s (I think). I started off on the last of the ride's easy roads.

Almost immediately, I fell in with another rider to form a mini-paceline. He pulled into the wind for a while, then I got up front to give him a break. I was feeling pretty good, and was able to maintain a decent pace, but after a short time, Mt. Mitchell fired another burst. The cramps came back again - and this time with a vengeance! I pulled off the front, told the guy I was fighting cramps. He was super cool - he asked if I would be able to maintain some speed - I think he was going to slow up a little to allow me to work it out. What a super guy. I didn't feel right about holding him up, so I told him to go ahead, it was going to be a few minutes before I could resume the pace.

I managed to work the cramps out with my little bike dance just in time to begin the real climb. Mt Mitchell was not going to give itself up easily. I started with a slow pace up the mountain. Doing my dance occasionally as a preventive measure. Continually drinking little bits of water to try to keep up my hydration.

After some time - 30 minutes, maybe 40, Kip pulls up behind me and asks "How much do I charge (for him) to catch a draft?". I was glad to see him, and not surprised at all. He is a strong climber, and he knew exactly what to expect from this ride. He probably stuck to his ride strategy better than me. After all, he's done it 11 times in the past. I'm sure he was also a bit more motivated knowing how far in front of him I was - Yukie said I had something less than 10 minutes on him - maybe closer to 5.

He stuck with me for a little while and we had a bit of a chat. I was not really breathing hard, but my legs were definitely working! I was in my easiest gear, but I felt as if I was pushing the big ring! I didn't want to slow him down, so I told him to go ahead. We did agree to stop briefly at the entrance to the parkway for the rest stop.

I'm not sure eating those cookies at the Marion rest stop was a good idea. I think one would have been ok, but three was too much (one from Yukie, and two at the stop). About the time Kip caught me, I felt as if I was crashing from the sugar rush (more psy-ops?). At the Parkway rest stop, I decided to forego the cookies, and immediately reached for a banana. It tasted really good.

Again, Kip waited for me and we entered the parkway together. We rode and chatted, he told me he was rocking some Dan Fogelburg for the climb - memories of his high school days when they would come up on the parkway for camping. I know he's a stronger climber than me, so I encouraged him to go ahead, I'd be along eventually. As he began to accelerate away, he looked back and commented to me - "for old times sake, you should sing some 'Hotel California'". This is a reference to a backpacking trip he and I took quite some years ago - for some reason on that particular day, that song was stuck in my head, and I was singing it as we hiked.

It's funny how things happen sometimes - a few days ago, during my correspondence with Mark, he gave me his perspective on the ride. He commented:
Mt. Mitchell is as much mental as physical. Make no bones about it, you will be climbing for around 3 hours or so. The attitude you take into the climb is important. I think a lot of people (including myself many years ago) would look up the road and it would look like the climb would let off around the next turn. In most cases, it doesn't. Being repeatedly disappointed by the road going up around every turn tends to have a detrimental psychological effect. For me, it always worked best to expect the climb to continue and embrace it. (If you tell yourself that enough after a while you'll actually believe it :-)"

This is a wise man! He may have said how many times he has done this ride, but I can't recall. I do know he has done this ride several times in the years past. As I read his comments, it reminded me of my Military time.

I responded to him:
"...after some research... I began to realize the climb at the end is really going to have a huge mental component. In the mid-'80s, I was in a Ranger unit at Fort Lewis Wa. As you might imagine, there was plenty of mental games that went on. As I went through the training leading up to my assignment to the Ranger unit, I learned early on to mentally embrace the difficulties I faced.

One of the more difficult things we did was the 'forced march' - heavy pack with full combat load of ammo, marching (you could say hiking) along roadways for 25 miles (and frequently more). Honestly, it truly sucked! As I felt my mental state shifting from positive to negative, I would begin chanting (to myself of course) "you gotta love it". Perhaps not surprisingly, I would begin to get really pumped up and would have renewed strength. I sometimes wonder if my comrades thought I was crazy with that stupid smile on my face!"

By the time Kip made his comment to me about 'Hotel California', I had already just about worn my personal mantra out. I won't even hazard a guess to how many times I repeated that phrase to myself - "you gotta love it". Now, Kip had given me something else to distract myself with. Almost immediately the guitar riff began in my head. It seemed my cadence was in perfect time to the song.

I continued up the Parkway as Kip put distance between us. While the temperature was not warm, the sun was bright and it actually felt much warmer than it really was. There is two climbs on the Parkway, separated by a beautiful downhill - beautiful of course because it is the first break you've really had for at least 7 miles. These are not 7 easy miles either! Along with the grade, Mt. Mitchell begins to bring out the big guns - the altitude begins to take it's toll.

I wolfed down another banana at the rest stop before making this descent, then fired my way down it. No brakes - why would I even think about slowing myself down on this section?? (ok, I'm not stupid, I probably did use my brakes where my personal safety required it, but I used them as little as possible!). I didn't do a lot of pedaling down this descent either - I used the time to do as much on - bike stretching as possible. Mt. Mitchell wasn't done with me yet. At the end of the descent, the parkway continues up (again!).

I occasionally had to do my little bike dance, but for the most part, I guess I was moving around enough to keep the muscles from cramping too badly. Once in this second climbing section along the parkway, I stopped at a view area and enjoyed the view while I did a few basic stretches and to catch my breath. The mountain was relentless in it's attack between the never ending climbing and the altitude. In fact, I can't recall how many times I looked down at my tires thinking I had a flat - "riding my bike shouldn't be this difficult", I would think. Of course, it was the reduced oxygen in the air (or was it Mt. Mitchell's psy-ops?). Although I was aware of my time, I was in more of a survival mode than a 'personal best' (attack?) mode. After all, it was my first time - no matter how long it took, it would be a personal best.

Finally, I came upon the entrance to Mt. Mitchell State Park. Wow! Something on the order of 4 miles left to go!!! I was actually very excited, but my body didn't respond like it was excited....My body was telling me 'let's just get this thing over'! Now, I started doing the time calculations in my head. When I entered the park, I was just around 6:45. I seemed to be hitting something just over 4mph on the steep sections, so I felt really good about being able to beat the 8 hour goal I had set for myself.

Although Mark had warned me that the first couple of miles of the Park Access road was steep, I didn't realize how difficult it would really be. I continued along, doing my bike dance when necessary and standing up to allow a greater volume of air intake. Still, during this first couple of miles up the access road, I made the choice to stop to catch my breath. This was Mt. Mitchell's way of reminding me that I was the invader, and She would not be conquered easily - now she really started working on conquering my mind - the body was already weakened.

While I'm not the greatest physical specimen, I do have some experience with what my body is telling me, and I'm a pretty good listener. If you doubt me, think about what I have just described to you. I began cramping nearly 55 miles before this point in my story. If I didn't know my body, I would have never made it this far. When my body starts to speak, I have to listen. Three times on this climb, Mt Mitchell hit me with her best shots, causing my body to raise it's inner voice (to a volume above the chorus of 'Hotel Calfornia' :) to talk to me. Rather than argue about it, I stopped for a brief moment, took a few deep breaths to re-group and set my new attack strategy before getting back in the saddle. At the top of this little climb, there was another rest stop.

I took the opportunity to grab another half banana, and this time, I also grabbed half a cookie - I only had one mile left right? I should be able to go into full attack mode for the final push to the summit - right? The next section was a beautiful easy grade that I was able to shift up a number of gears and actually carry some speed. This really gave me confidence to beat my 8 hour goal.

Unfortunately, Mt. Mitchell wasn't finished with me yet. She realized she couldn't stop me with her psy-ops, so she fired her last volley which resulted in not simple spasms but full on cramps of my inner thighs. She was not giving up - taking her final blows to my stressed out legs. She didn't realize who she was dealing with though - because neither was I. With less than a mile to go, I got back into my dance mode and fended off her best attempts at conquering me. I saw the cars parked in the lower parking lot, and I felt victory at hand. As I rounded the corner, I was surprised to see the finish line there in the lower parking lot - surprised and relieved!

I looked up at the timer as I crossed the line - unofficially, I conquered Mt. Mitchell in 7 hours and 55 minutes. I had managed to fend off the final cramps on the last grade and cross the line. I felt it was a hard fought and well earned victory. She was a very formidable foe - firing her best shots even as I breached her final defenses.

As I crossed the line, I was very pleased to hear Kip and Yukie cheer me on. Finishing the ride was an accomplishment to be proud of, but sharing it with good friends made it that much better.


  1. awesome post JD! i'm going to link to it from my post tomorrow. that's a great report, and you really show how challenging that ride is. i know you're proud of your accomplishment. Good job!

  2. Sorry for taking so long to read your post. I've finally had a chance to sit down and enjoy it. Great job! There are countless others who know exactly what you have described!

  3. Your description takes the award for the best detailed account of Mitchell. You faced challenges and faced them head on. Fantastic job!!!! At first I was concerned while reading that you where not taking in enough fuel but you listened to your body well and responded. Patch, jersey, and shirt… well earned!

    Btw – I use a gel flask. Hold about 6-7 gels. Keeps from having to rip packs open while riding. I place it in the back of my jersey and only have to reach back to refuel while riding. It is one of the best items I have purchased.

    CONGRATULATIONS!!!! So will you do it again??


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NOTE: I have switched on the comment moderation because I have been getting a number of spam comments lately. Be patient, I'll post it up as soon as I can! Thx JD