Here's how it went down. Someone on our team (not me) decided that we should leave Thursday night so we could make the 9.5 hour drive down to Pisgah, rest up, and then start the race. In theory, excellent, in practice, merely the first miscue. We stopped for about an hour to sleep on the way down, and easily gathered a collective 15 minutes of sleep a piece in short sweet behind the wheel narcoleptic moments. So if you are keeping track, lets say we started Thursday at Midnite and now have 1:15 of sleep. We got to down to Pisgah, stopped in at Sycamore Cycles to pick up my bike and buy a few last minute supplies. Miscue #2: don't ship UPS. I'm officially running out of shipping companies not to bad mouth. I now have a dent in my Dierenger LARGER than the dent my old SOMA work ride has, and I got hit by a car on that one. Watch UPS try to blame this on packaging. We pulled into White Pines, shuttled our gypsy camp across the river, and started triple checking equipment. We headed off to Pizza Hut for what was supposed to be an informational meeting with the map, but it served only to remind us that there were lots of trails out there, and we knew none of them. Fast forward through the evening, the waiting and waiting undoubtedly by design, this was, after all, the most horrible thing ever, and starting when your body wants to would be too cush.
We got handed our first passport, a collection of 6 checkpoints and a mandatory route, at least for this stage we wouldn't have to think too much. We were looking over the map, apparently like confused pirates, because it didn't take long for the locals to offer their help. "That gate isn't there," "Watch that turn, its kind of hidden," "you won't feel this hairpin, but you'll feel this S turn after it." What are we doing out here with people describing the feel of a turn when we can barely orient our already sleep deprived selves north?
The race starts! Chip and I are still at our tent fumbling around. Our map skills took a good 30 minutes longer than anyone else, and the countdown started as we were still putting lights on bikes. We caught up with some folks on the climb up 477, chased down another group, and then what we thought were the leaders. (two incredibly fast guys racing as one man teams had already disappeared) We settled in, and I think our gear ratios just pulled us off the front. I kept soft pedaling but we were still dropping the other guys. Not a good idea. Not for sake of legs or heart rate or anything like that, but now we had to lead our way through a February dark Pisgah National Forest at 1:00am. The first check point at Bennett Gap was a no brainer. The no brainer of the evening. For instance, this is not FS 225 at Cove Creek.
This is the entrance to some backwoods bootleg campsite. To add to the confusion, at the top of this short hill lay 6 or 7 bottles of spring water, a sure sign that we were on the right course. So we decided to drink some, continue down the trail, only to have it peter out, clearly "the bathroom trail" from the bootleg campsite. Great. And remember, we have now drank water we found laying in the woods. We continued down FS 225 and came to the end of it, without finding the mythical Cove Creek. Maybe it's like Brigadoon, and our timing was just off, or, as we found out, the map is kind of wrong. We later pointed this out like proud explorers, only to be met with a look of, "no shit, the map is wrong in a couple places." After becoming intimate with FS 225 in its entirety, we find Cove Creek (AKA 225b on the map if you ever find yourself in Pisgah)This relatively fast and flat little trail dumps back out on to 475, and we take a hard right and start the climb up Pilot Mountain road, a 7.5 mile, 2500 ft grind, that breaks down into loose rocky singletrack right at its penultimate peak. This was the first time I found myself next to the bike, using it as a two wheeled walker for the pre-geriatric crowd, all the way up to Farlow Gap. Remember those two words, Farlow.....Gap.....
The climbing subsided and we got a nice little down hill, leveling off and starting the Summey Cove trail, which at first was a bike trail, and then it quickly turned in to a scramble. Product Note: You can hang a bike off the harness system of an Ergon BD1 pack, thus freeing your hands to clap as your race partner loses traction up the muddy hike. Little things like this can provide the much needed motivation to continue at 5 a.m. Back to the action; we continued on our way, making to the next check point, Butter Gap, which provided some nice single track riding, and an unplanned 35 second nap as Chip looked over the map.
I now look something like this. But no worries, because Chip looks like this too. We got lost a few times, but honestly, I can't even remember where. If you know where you got lost, were you ever truly lost?
We made it back to camp around 9:30, 30 minutes shy of missing out on any further fun. A lot of the other teams had made it back earlier but where still sleeping/resting/eating/drinking beer, so we hung around for 45 minutes or so, put all the lights on chargers, restocked on food and headed out for the second passport. Now came the decision making part of the event. We had 6 checkpoints, one of which was mandatory, and was also conveniently located very far away. Well, we have to go all the way out there, so we might as well hit Bennett Gap and the Buckhorn Shelter, they are both along one trail, and then we can connect over to the Cantrell Creek at Squirrel Gap mandatory. Great plan. Excellent. Shortest path between 3 points right. We left the White Pines campground, rolled down FS477 for about a half mile, and then hit the Bennet Gap Trailhead, which we actually enjoyed for about a quarter mile, and then dismounted. And then took 3,759 steps next to our bikes as we hiked over Bennett Gap, and then even more ridiculously looked skyward and hiked over Buckwheat Knob. We kept seeing a hiker in the distance, eventually "chased" him down, and then traded pulls over the next few miles, the hiker always smiling more frequently than us. We finally hit Buckhorn Gap, rolled down and around the Smalls River Trail to the bridge, and then started climbing to the junction of Horse Cove. At this point we had been out for about four hours, and morale was hard to come by. We knew we had a cutoff of 4 p.m. and it was already 2 p.m. I did some serious soul searching, and no longer saw the point. Chip did some series persuasion and we carried on, reaching the crest of yet another hill, where the Squirrel Gap trail started. We started down hill a bit and things felt as though they would be okay. Then the blowdown started. Blowdown, if you are unfamiliar with the term, refers to large trees that have blown down during a recent Memphis leveling storm. And this particular variety of blowdown occurred every 25 yards.If you are lucky they provide a nice backdrop for a photo. If you are participating in The Most Horrible Thing Ever, they fall from 50 feet up hill of the trail, landing you smack dab in their most branchy tangled mess, turning you from bike racer to manual laborer as you climb over and hand your teammate your bike, close your eyes, and push through the gauntlet. Or maybe you skip the get off your bike part and try to just do the close your eyes and ride through part.
This move only leads to jealous girlfriends or a really good fake anecdote to your frat brothers. "And then she was all, and she dug her finger nails in..." sounds way better than I spent 18 hours wandering around the woods with a dude.
We finally made it down to the the Cantrell Creek split, took a picture of our last checkpoint, and had the pleasure of turning around, and seeing if the lashings felt any better on the way back. Amazingly they did. Even that kid in Singapore had to enjoy counting down the last 5 right?
We landed back at camp, were greeted with some cowbells and cheers, and were handed the 3rd passport. We had been out for just over 6 hours. We know had 80 miles under our belts, and probably nearly 15,000 feet of "travel." My wrist was screaming, and Chip's achilles was showing signs of mutiny. The mandatory checkpoint on this required a trip back up to....Farlow Gap...yeah, the point after the nearly 8 mile climb, and then down the trickiest descent in Pisgah, which on a hardtail singlespeed in the dark, would be a challenge. We sat around, had some veggie chilly, a couple nilla wafers and blueberry cream cheese, gave it some thought, and joined a number of the other teams on the sidelines. We were done, more accurately, broken, crushed, and aching. Continuing at this point would probably take the fun out of it, and if we didn't finish the remaining 3 stages, we'd DNF anyway. Stage 3 was said to be a minimum 4 hour roundtrip to the mandatory, Stage 4 was a series of one hour laps, and then Stage 5 was a 43 mile gravel road grind, appropratly name, "The Gravel Grind." Nope, I'm fine here. Had a few beers, and then fell asleep for 15 hours.
The Aftermath: While not a huge success on our part, this was a hell of an event. Eric Wever and Pisgah Productions provided all the comforts of home, some food, beer, a great base camp, plenty of charging stations, and a course that has to rival anything out there for the title of the hardest 36 hours. To everyone that actually showed up, the roughly 20 of us, we all deserve a lot of credit, although I don't actually know if anyone truly finished the initial plan, a few of those guys really pushed the envelope. Chip and I took from it a great mental preparation, and a lot of basemiles that couldn't be had in the snow covered landscape of Ohio's February.
And we won a trophy. A pink flamingo yard ornament for being the furthest traveled.
And somewhere in there, we lost our minds.