The Assault on Mt. Mitchell, Spartanburg, SC to Mt. Mitchell, NC, Saturday, May 20, 2000
How great is this sport that I can ride 103 miles with 11,000 feet of climbing in under 6 and a half hours and feel a sense of crushing disappointment- humiliation really (in addition to leg cramps, dehydration, profound fatigue and a touch of delirium)? Well, gather 'round the box and I'll tell you the story.
As everyone here knows, this is one of the most sought-after cycling events in the southeast, although riders came from all over the country (at least one was from Australia). The Freewheelers of Spartanburg put it on, and frankly fighting WWI was probably less complicated. There must have been hundreds of volunteers- it's a point to point ride (one group to Marion and one on to Mt. Mitchell) and around 2000 riders and their bikes need to be fed, watered and brought back to Marion and then to Spartanburg. Rental trucks triage the bikes either to Marion or Spartanburg and one set of busses shuttles riders off the Mountain while another set of more luxurious busses takes us back to Spartanburg.
After coming off the mountain I had a hot shower in Marion and a free massage as well as a meal. (And soup, bread and drinks were provided at the summit of Mitchell.) The price of entry? Fifty bucks (plus $20 for the second bus from Marion). The organization was efficient and execution was flawless. The planning for this apparently goes year-round.
My wife and I drove down Friday (she did the 72 mile ride to Marion) whereas I was able to get an entry for Mitchell. The mailing list rules for the Assault on Mitchell are complicated- first applications go to those that have done the ride before. A rider who don't have decent fitness will re-sell their tickets (while maintaining their spot on the list), so there's a secondary market for Mitchell tickets. They issue 1000 Mitchell numbers and the Park Service will allow only 750 riders onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Why the discrepancy? Experience dictates that the attrition rate is 25% before the Parkway (I had a much better > understanding of this phenomenon after making it onto the Parkway and giving some thought to turning back.) Entry for the ride to Marion (it's the same course but stops right before the last 27 miles of climbing) is unlimited- I suspect the combined field size was in the vicinity of 2000.
On Saturday morning I squirmed reasonably close to the front of the start line, having heard that it generally goes ballistic for a few miles while packs get sorted out. I wanted to be in the front pack for a tow to the mountains which is essentially how it worked out; however it was an unusually moderate tempo at the beginning of this year's ride and the lead pack was 200 to 300 strong, if not more. At 30 miles I hopped off my bike to commune with nature while the peloton was rolling along at about 24 MPH. I jumped back in and the line was unbroken but it took me 6 miles to work my way back to 50th or so. Drafting was easy but with so many riders eager and able to cling to the front bunch there were a number of crashes.
At one point George Hincapie and a small posse rode by on my left and I thought the hammer was about to fall, but later saw George sitting toward the front of the pack content to motor along at a competent but not particularly taxing pace. He's lean and edgy and looks fast just sitting there.
The first 72 miles (to Marion) has 4,500' of climbing. There are a few challenges such as Bill's Hill at mile 45. I was fully expecting to get dropped there (and started asking at mile 40, "is this it?" every time we hit a roller). And then we were on it and it was hard but not definitive enough to have gotten rid of me. I drifted back down the line and took a long sashay into Anaerobia but worked my way back to the front over a couple of miles. For serious climbers the pace was probably conversational, but we did lose a few hundred off the lead bunch, which seemed now down to 150 to 200. Just after this, at mile 50, our average speed was just over 22 MPH (and was almost 23 MPH by Marion at mile 72).
Approaching Marion I found myself getting into trouble with the steeper rollers- drifting back and then sprinting my way back on the descents. I felt fatigued. The temperature at the start of the ride was in the 70's and by now it was approaching a humid 90+ degrees. Although I wasn't hungry or particularly thirsty, I was forcing down some food and water (but mostly filling up with dread at the prospect of the upcoming sustained climbing). I knew soon enough there would be no pack and that I would settle into a climbing rhythm. It had taken us less than 3 and half hours to get to Marion - that left me with 2 and a half-hours to finish the last 30 miles and I would break 6 hours! The first of many is expanding delusions (of course the principle delusion is that I can climb).
Without ceremony, at around mile 80 we hit a wall, which except for some very brief descents would not relent for 23 miles. I would have to ascend to the highest peak east of the Mississippi at over 6500', which was the total remaining elevation. I popped off the fragmenting pack and dropped into my 27 cog and immediately wished I had a triple. What's this? I was toast. My legs were fasciculating and I felt a blanket of exhaustion weighing me down. The several mile climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway was said to be the hardest (and it was) so I had to break it down- "just make it to the Parkway", I chided myself. I couldn't contemplate climbing for 23 miles, it was overwhelming, I had to focus on intermediate targets. I struggled to maintain 7 MPH and eventually dropped to 6 MPH. After a couple of miles I hit a feed zone- they were handing out cups of water or Gatorade and judging by the litter trail, the 100 or so riders ahead of me drank and then tossed their cups as they moved up the road. I pulled over drank several cups of water and poured one over my head and then tottered on. I eventually made the Parkway, stopped again and wolfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some cookies while straddling my bike. It was here that I was also fed my next delusion. "It's easier on the Parkway". The grade was less I suppose is what they meant, but just moving forward became a massive effort. I rode with a guy from Miami for awhile- I was able to talk but my legs felt ruinous and the exhaustion blanket was now wet wool. I was dizzy. I glanced with dulled appreciation at the spectacular views below us. We rode through some tunnels and I got dripped on and it was cool and I wanted to stop for awhile but trudged on. I mostly stared at the cyclocomputer watching the hundredths click by, doing obsessive little number-crunching games trying to break down the remaining distance to digestible fragments ("4.68 to the turnoff to the Park, geez, now only 4.62"). A cooling breeze would kick up occasionally but it mostly seemed hot and I was resentful that it wasn't snowing. I was resentful that I had taken up biking. I hated my mother for giving birth to me.
I stopped briefly at another feed zone to take on more liquids. The very helpful volunteer hurriedly filled up my bottle while I was thinking "take your time". That testosterone-fueled drive which kept me at the front for 72 miles had completely dried up and flaked off. My grandmother rolling past me in her wheelchair would not have provoked any urgency. I shoved off from the food stop (now my third in about 15 miles where I had taken in probably a gallon of liquids) and found myself on a several mile, very fast descent. Even this was depressing- I had to make all this climbing up which is how I thought about it, but then I did click off 2 miles on the computer so there was a glimmer of an upside. And then I hit the upside and it was 6 MPH again.
Another feedzone at the entrance to the park- I was both bloated and dehydrated, and drifted on by with a limp wave to the volunteers, accompanied by my own posse of flies who found my pace (and layers of secretions) quite companionable. I rode with another rider coming out of the feed for awhile. Our conversation lacked much in the way of elaboration- he was about as worked over as I was. "How far?" "Four point seven from the turn". I immediately began playing number games with the cyclocomputer. I thought, "o.k, just get to 100 miles". That was the holy grail (and from there it was about 2.7). But at around 99 miles I looked up and saw the Ranger Station at the top. I knew that's where I had to go. It looked about as attainable as riding my bike to the Space Station. I caved - veered off the road and fell off my bike in the weeds. I then crawled a few feet into the shade pulling my bike behind me like a dead horse. I was there for 6 hours - or so it felt like. (Later I compared the total time on my heart rate monitor with the trusty little cyclocomputer. The difference was a total of 7 minutes for the 3 stops and my roadside collapse, which was positively Shakespearean in its drama.) Sparked mostly by embarrassment I think (I > consider myself stronger than this), I crawled out of the bushes and remounted after probably 2 minutes. (I had also developed an itchy rash and the flies were calling in their various bug friends now that I was immobile.)
I rode past yet another feed zone. They now seemed to be placed about every thousand yards- but it took 40 minutes to ride that far so it was about right. "How far?" My battle cry. The man held up a banana and another delusion, "bout half a mile". Half a mile? This was at complete odds with my calculations, but could it be true? My tired heart quickened with the news. I rode a half mile and past a parking lot with some rental trucks. "How far?" I yelled. "Bout a mile" came the response. More delusions. I wanted this down to millimeters not 1 mile plus or minus 2 miles. But the road leveled off a bit and my speed picked up 10-12-16 MPH. More importantly the hundredths clicked by at an unprecedented rate. "Must be here, must be here....". And then I glanced up and saw the Ranger Station, still hovering in orbit above me. I wanted to scream but my tongue was cemented to my palate with desiccated Power Gel.....it's another grade to the finish! Back to 6 MPH! Galaxies collapsed. Entire civilizations came and went but eventually, eventually I dribbled cross the finish line. It was the longest and hardest 6:26:22 in my life and nowhere near the lofty goal of sub-6 hours. The desire to surrender my bike for scrap carbon has faded since yesterday as I did an easy metric century this morning, already thinking about the strategy for next year....(or as the Tin Man sang, "if I only had a brain"...)
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