There it is - the 2010 edition of the Assault on Mt Mitchell is in the history books. What can I say other than Wow! It was an incredible ride. As proven to me last year, the Mountain does not surrender - it is a battle all the way to the top.
Perhaps this is why they call it the 'Assault'? I was wondering that as we drove home from Marion this evening. Those who come to make the Assault are ready for this battle. For all it is a physical battle, for many it is as much mental as physical. It is that way for me.
A number of times today the Mountain played with my head - psy-ops (short for psychological operations). It all started at the very beginning.
The way the line-up was supposed to work was those who were targeting 6.5 hours or less were to line up in the front, the hard-core recreational riders behind them followed by the increasingly less hard core riders. Like many running races I have entered, it sounds good on paper, but seldom works in reality.
This was the mountain's first play - The clock released us and I immediately started chasing. I probably passed over a hundred people who I probably should have lined up in front of. There was a number of riders playing the same strategy as I, working their way through the crowd chasing after the lead group. That lead group fired off the line like a round from a howitzer - they immediately launched their attack - no warm up necessary.
As we began to clear the slower riders, a second group began to form. I got out with many others to do the work trying to reel the lead group back in. We busted our tails launching our own attacks, but alas after 10-15 miles, it was obvious that we weren't going to be able to reel them in. Our pace was at 24 mph and we were just keeping them in sight.
I think it dawned on the group about the same time - we needed to settle down and do our best to hold a steady pace so we would be able to fight back when the Mountain began it's attacks later in the ride. We began to get a little more organized and our pace started dropping - slowly at first, then more as we began to get into the rollers.
As we continued to roll through the country, one of the lady riders called to see if anyone wanted to take a nature break. I was ok to stop if there would be others who I could work with to reel the group back in. So, I stopped, but only about 5 other stopped with me. Oops, that may have been a mistake.
I did my business as quickly as possible and started riding again. I chased down a couple of other riders and we started to get in a rotation, but I left them when we got to a roller. I was actually very happy to see the rollers - I was catching the group, and I knew the downhills would be my chance to reel them back in
There is a wicked downhill with a super sharp hairpin turn that is always well marked. I was beginning to reel the group in, and I took full advantage of this downhill to make the final bridge. I was alone when I flew through the hairpin, and sprinted to catch the tail end of the pack. I was quite relieved to have bridged back up.
On Bill's Hill the group fractured. Two small groups went off the front while a group containing me, Jim Cunningham, several of the Lady riders from Headstrong (including our own K. Wienaker (sp?)) and a number of Cyclists against Cancer riders continued at a steady pace.
We kept this pace, and actually reeled in the 2nd of the two groups. We were about 15 miles from Marion and I found my self at the front quite a bit. After a number of pulls where it seemed I would rotate back only to find myself in the front within a few minutes, I decided this was not for me. I dropped back in the pack and decided I had done enough work for a while.
Jim Cunningham did some major pulls for us during this period. Another who did some major pulls was a blonde woman riding for the Headstrong team. She was on her way to Marion and all these guys just kept doing token pulls while she would be out there rocking it for some super strong pulls. I believe she was the first of the Marion Riders to finish.
As we made the final turn alongside the Tom Johnson Camping area, I pulled off the pack and stopped to say Hi to Yukie - my friend who is Married to Kip who was also riding today. She is awesome! She dropped us off in Spartanburg, watched the start, then drove to Marion to meet us and provide us with a water refill and some of the most awesome cookies I have ever eaten (I saved mine for the summit). I made a brief stop with her, then filled my other water bottle at the official SAG stop.
I was now pretty much on my own. It was me against the Mountain and I was as battle ready as I could be. My quads were talking to me a little - I think the early effort to reel in the lead group was a bad idea - especially because I spent a fair amount of time at the front of the pack. Each time I stood up, they would talk to me a little and I had to use a very deliberate pedaling motion to keep the cramps at bay. No problem really, I just had to be conscious of them.
It was here that the Mountain started playing with my head. I had though we would arrive at the switchbacks relatively quickly, but in fact it is about 7 miles from Marion before you hit the Hwy 80 switchbacks. It is a beautiful 7 miles however.
When I started the switchbacks, there was markings on the ground every half mile starting at 3 miles from the parkway. At first, I didn't like that, but in fact once I got to the 2 miles to go point, I decided it was showing me progress. The Mountain was relentless in her attacks - now I had some muscles talking to me that I have never felt before - on the upper quad. Perhaps some of my flexor muscles? I don't know. Also, my inner thighs began to talk. This is the Mountains strategy of course - slowly wearing your body down bit by bit.
As I ascended the switchbacks, I came upon Jim with his client Gene stopped on the side of the road. Jim had worked really hard on the way to Marion, and when I stopped to see if I could do anything for them, he said that both his hands and his face had gone numb. He needed water, but I only had powerade or whatever the SAG stops were offering. It was a little scary, but after 30 seconds or so, he said he felt better and for us to continue. I was glad to see him at the summit later in the day.
I was quite happy to see the SAG stop at the parkway. I decided to stop as I had drank all of one bottle and most of the 2nd in that (short?) 10 miles since Marion, and I needed food. I had consumed about 5 of the go packets but thought it would be good to have some other food. I also wanted to get my muscles working in a different motion so I set my bike off a ways away from the tables and walked around a little to include a nature break.
I took off from the SAG stop and began my Assault on the parkway. The Parkway is an incredibly beautiful ride, but the ascents are continuous. There are a few spots where it lets up a little, but mostly it is climbing. I was generally riding between 7 and 10mph on these long ascents on the parkway. I felt pretty good about that - certainly faster than last year's assault.
I was passing folks and folks were passing me. We got some light rain, but it got heavier as I approached the SAG stop before the 2 mile descent. I stopped again at this SAG stop and had (for the first time ever!) one of the 'uncrustables' PB & J sandwiches. This is a food that will now be a 'must have' for all future rides! That sandwich made me feel better than any other food item I took in. I should have had two of them. I started the descent in a driving rain, another volley from the Mountain - looking this time to weaken my spirit. However, I was in 'Peanut Butta Jelly time' mode. I mean seriously, that PB&J put a huge smile on my face as I made that very cold and very wet descent.
After the descent, you are something in the range of 8 miles (give or take) from the summit. In looking at my ride time, I felt sure I could beat 7 hours clock time. The problem was I had no idea how much time I had spent in my several stops. Not quite my revised goal of 6.5 hours. Was this another volley by the Mountain?
I did some calculations in my head and thought I could actually get pretty close to 6.5 for ride time. All I had to do was maintain a 6mph average pace. At this point, 90 something miles into the ride 6mph on some of those climbs was about all my body could take.
I knew I had an opportunity once inside the actual park to pick up some speed, and there was one other chance just before making the turn onto the park access road. I put my head down and concentrated on my cadence. Occasionally I would shift up a gear or two and get out of the saddle to work the muscles in a different way. It helped a lot. I kept drinking lots of water as well.
When you make the right turn onto the Park Access road, it gets steep. Perhaps not as steep as Hwy 80, but pretty damn steep. Again, I concentrated on maintaining as close to 6mph as possible. I started to feel the Mountain's final blows - the altitude. Last year, I had to stop several times on this section of the course. Mt Mitchell had really weakened me, but that was last year. This time I was prepared for this volley and I fired back with some mental games of my own - yes, the Eagles were rocking Hotel California in my head the entire time. If any song can get me up a mountain, that one can. Mt Mitchell was no match for me and the Eagles!
I managed to keep my strong pace up this steep section and was very happy to see the park entrance. I knew there was a faster section coming up, so I geared up for it. More psy-ops from the mountain - this section was much longer than I remembered! It started to weaken me and I fought for the discipline to maintain my pace. It was clear now that I was going to be pleased with my ride time results. However, I was quite sure my clock time would not be meeting my goal.
As I made the final turn, and the clock came into view, I was actually very surprised! It was showing 6:31 (ish). I tried to make a final push, but I'm not convinced I really gained any speed. I crossed the line with the clock showing 6:33:11 (this should be the published results as they had them up back in Marion).
I knew there were many of my friends coming behind me- fighting their own battle against the mountain. I waited anxiously for them and was pleased (and not at all surprised) to see Courtney leading Kip across the line in 7:48 (ish - their final results were not posted when we looked in Marion).
Courtney called me a little while ago and said her computer showed a ride time of 7:14! This is a great result for her. I'm very proud of her. Another friend John had a great day, coming in just a few minutes after Courtney and Kip to show a Sub-8 hour ride. Great results for my friends. There were many others out there, but I was not able to chat with all of them.
So, now the question remains - with a clock time of 6:33:11 - did I meet my goal of 6:30? One could argue that I did indeed meet my goal if you count only the ride time. However, technically the goal is for the clock time. In considering all of this, I can only say one thing - 6:33 - I'll take it!.
1 year ago