04 May, 2009

PMBAR 2009 redux

Right off the bat.

I think the best thing about PMBAR is that there IS so much to write up about a silly little mountain bike race. A normal race write up, mine included, makes ample use of phrases like; felt good, chased down so and so, got tired, completed lap X, got passed by so and so, finished in umpteenth place.

Not PMBAR. PMBAR starts with 60 teams of two riders with very little idea what to expect out of the next 7 to 14 hours. You rarely "chase down" the next fastest team. They are likely half way across the forest, heading straight for you. The lycra clad duo that pops into sight up the trail are just as likely to be civilians as they are racers, and if they ARE the latter, they probably aren't your competition.

When you toe the line at a Pisgah Productions event you have to come armed with knowledge of the forest, all day fitness, and a level of self sufficiency that is lost on most events, even those tagged as "ultra endurance." The race format changes slightly from its proven form every year, but involves a half million acres of forest, some of the hardest trail east of the Mississippi, checkpoints, and a two sided map.

Ed and I lined up with the familiar faces of Pisgah Productions. A rag tag bunch of adventure seekers, different than your typical race bunch. Maps were handed out at 8:25, and the race started at 8:30, when you were allowed to open the maps to learn the day's 5 checkpoints: Two of which would be mandatory, a total of 4 of which would be required to finish, and the 5th was left like a carrot, teasing you with a two hour time bonus. You win based on your finishing time with either 4 or 5 checkpoints. If after your fourth checkpoint, you think you can get the 5th, without it taking an additional two hours, it'd be worth chasing that carrot, if not, you'd better find your way home in a hurry.

A funny thing happens at race start. Two groups, lets call them Locals and Contenders, take off up the mandatory climb up Black Mountain, while everyone else opens maps to see just what they are in for. We chose the first option, assuming we belonged to one of those groups, and tucked the map firmly in a jersey pocket as soon as it was handed to us. Maybe the climb up Black would be better if we didn't know what was in store afterwards.

Our Christmas morning was at Presley Cove, where we tore the map open with the misguided exuberance of a sixteen year old thinking that the small present that lay before him contains car keys instead of a tie tack (uh, thanks Mom and Dad). Our race was now 30 minutes old, we had made good time up the climb and were in the presence of the usual suspects; a third group, The Veterans. These are the guys that routinely spend 9 hours in the forest without pride on the line, ride shit the wrong way, and can persevere beyond whatever Eric throws at them. The false sense of brotherhood experienced during these few crucial minutes lead us to believe we were not only Locals, but actual Contenders. As such, and to stay "in the running," we didn't spend what one would call an "ample" amount of time with the map. Most folks continued up Black Mountain, we were the very first team to not, and dropped down Maxwell.

What did we know that they didn't? Only time could tell. After the initial "racey" start, the reprieve of coasting down Maxwell and the casual climb up Clawhammer was a fine decision according to our legs. Let those other teams tackle Black Mountain the "wrong" way right off the bat. We were going to ease into this thing, AND we thought we'd have two checkpoints under our belt in just a bit more time than most teams would have one.

After our climb to Buckhorn Gap on Clawhammer, we descended Buckhorn Gap trail to the North Mills river trail. Most of my time spent on these trails is headed the other direction, so the continued descent felt great. We may have had the longer route planned, but we were doing 15 miles an hour while the other teams were walking up and over Black. We crossed the suspension bridge at Mills river and started our journey along Squirrel Gap.

I can never say enough about this trail. Its gentle in its elevation changes (for Pisgah), is technical in a rideable kind of way, is rarely more than 12" wide, and is one the most remote trails in the forest. The hour of riding we had under our belts had me primed to ride this trail. In my last Pisgah Productions vs. Squirrel Gap bout I hit the trail with 15 hours of riding behind me. This time we were both feeling great, I was a little spun out with the 32 x 22, but had geared for the unexpected, and was making fine progress in light of it. We hit the first checkpoint at Cantrell Creek with 3 other teams, two of which had taken our path, one had gone up and over Black, but all were here now, getting passports stamped. One team dropped Cantrell, and the rest of us continued on Squirrel Gap.

Some bike acrobatics on the part of the two lead teams allowed us to take the pole of our little cohort. We knew there was one team ahead of us, and the other team that dropped Cantrell was now in the unknown. Just as that thought settled in, Adam and Eric came flying straight at us, followed by Bruce and Ross. Some real Blue Angels shit got us all though the Rhodo unscathed. I knew we could get the second checkpoint by continuing on Squirrel, and then taking Bradley Creek. I had a strong hunch that Mullinax would also get us there, but considered the time it took to take out the map and mull it over, and made the executive decision to blow the Mullinax intersection, passing a team exercising geographical conservatism. As did Indiana Jones' adversaries, we chose poorly, and found ourselves waist deep in Bradley Creek and a few minutes late to the second checkpoint. So goes PMBAR.

Back across Bradley, just in time to see Dennis and Bob come darting out of a hiking only trail ahead of us. Ooops. These kind of accidents always seem to follow Dennis. Shucks. And to think they eventually finished a mere 4 minutes ahead of the next team.

Onward! We reversed Bradley to the intersection with Squirrel, took a right and continued to 5015. We pulled the map out. Something unconscious caused us to second guess ourselves. The plan was to climb 5015 to Yellow Gap. But there was a possibility to continue on Bradley to 1206. Had we spent about 6 seconds more looking at the map it would have jumped off the page like a 3D schooner (Bradley to 1206 up Pilot etc), but the suddenly unlost Dennis/Bob duo sparked that stupid race mentality again. Chase Chase Chase, so we did, all the way up 5015. We passed them when they stopped to fill water at a drip, foregoing the bastard modernity of pressurized indoor plumbing 15 minutes away.

From Yellow Gap to the 3rd Checkpoint at Washcreek was a no brainer. Drop 1206, work 5000, get the check point, and reverse the whole situation. It started to rain on the way back from the checkpoint, and continued enough that it had now entered its hand into our decision making and eventual fate. Wet Pisgah is a different creature entirely, and changes the race dynamic, in our minds, a great deal. After dragging ourselves back to Yellow Gap, we took a moment to recover. This is where we also ran into typical race favorites Brad and Matt. Brad had strangely cracked a frame, climbing the first 20 minutes of Black Mountain. After returning to camp and negotiating his 9 foot 6 body a ride on a medium Trek, they had continued, and were now smiling high on Yellow Gap. Perseverance is the name of the game after all.

This is where it got interesting for us. We had slowly lost sight of the teams we knew to at least be ahead of US, knowing little of what that actually meant in the grand scheme of things. Our entire cohort would be heading to the aptly named "Good Enough Gap" on Laurel Mountain. Its called so because as you climb Laurel Mountain, most of it rideable, some of it a short bike shouldering hike-a-bike, you reach an intersection that takes you to Pilot Mountain. If you continue past this point, you get to stumble/ride through Lord of the Rings (does anyone else call it that?) and eventually do a mandatory hike along the no biking Blue Ridge Parkway zone. Most people hit the intersection, say "Good Enough" and go drop Pilot Mountain instead.

Back to our story. Everyone was heading to Good Enough Gap, but HOW? The entrance to Laurel Mountain is nearly pissing distance from the top of Yellow Gap. But its a long trail. And it rooty, rocky, and now, most importantly we though, wet. The bottom of Pilot is further along 1206 (emphasis on the "further" in further) but Pilot is much shorter. But its also straight up and as technically challenging to walk up as it is to walk down.

Here's the thought process penned out. If we continued up Laurel, chasing the other teams, we would be relying on our fitness to close the gap over wet technical trail. we didn't know if that all important gap even mattered, the winners could be on their second beer by now. We thought the gamble of doing "something different" was worth it, and decided to stay gravel bound a bit longer, and march funeral procession pace up Pilot Mountain. Maybe we'd make up a little time, maybe even get up and back before the other teams saw us, so they wouldn't know we snuck around, or maybe just make up a few minutes that could help position us with some of the other unknowns floating around the forest. On the way up we passed everything imaginable. Teams coming from their 1st checkpoint on their way to their 2nd. Teams coming down from their 2nd on to their 3rd, some of which had done what we did, some of which had come up Laurel. At this point in the day it was hard to tell what was going on.

On we marched. I was watching the time elapse from when we left Yellow Gap. 30 mins. 45 mins. 1 hour. 1:15. We were getting dangerously near the top, and giddy with the idea we might get there and back unnoticed. Then we saw the biowheels jersey. Dennis' vocabulary is limited to "get the fuck out of my way" when descending, so talking to him would be useless. The Lake Blue Moots duo of Thad and Dicky came next, and we stopped to talk strategy a bit. Always a pleasure riding with both these guys, they both know what its all about. Dicky said he had considered our same idea, which made us feel less idiotic, or more idiotic, I couldn't tell. Thad kind of grunted something. Dicky was dragging him around all day, and I think it was his first time down Pilot. That's a recipe for disaster, but he kept it together. We on the other hand, had just been handed our final blow. The rest of our rabbits slowly dropped by us, adding more and more weight to our Sisyphean situation. Who's idea was this anyway?

Alright. Checkpoint 4. Laurel Pilot Connector at Laurel Mountain, a.k.a. the aforementioned Good Enough Gap. Heartbreaking name at this point of our epic saga. The Greeks couldn't write it better. A little of the old out and back, and we were again at the bottom of Pilot. Descending that thing fatigued was an eye opening/elbow contusioning experience that I can't strongly recommend, but then again, I've never bragged about my gravity skills, even when fresh. The only thing on our mind at this point was the Black Mountain parking lot. It was a decision made more out of strategy than unwillingness to continue. Our cliff note study of the map 7.5 hours ago had immediately dismissed the 225 checkpoint. At this point, it wasn't even under consideration. Of course we could go get it, but it would obviously take more than 2 hours and wouldn't be worth it. (We were wrong by an average of about 25 minutes, for the record)

The end is boring. As it always is. Journey vs. Destination kinda thing. Just get it done. Ed and I traded back and forth an ability to turn the pedals over; his coming first on the North Mills River and Buckhorn Gap trails; mine making a surprising appearance on the way up Maxwell. We were able to pass one team on this final climb. The only hilite of the last hour. One more hike up a short section of Black out of Presley Cove, and we were at our final summit of the day. A quick descent down the sometimes-technical-sometimes-swoopy Black Mountain trail and our day had ended.

P.S. CURSED PMBAR!!! If you care about your final position, your day doesn't even end when you cross the finish line. You have to sit around and watch 120 revolutions of your big hand to see if anyone went to get the 5th checkpoint, earning them a 2 hour time bonus, and slotting you further back into the pack fodder. I can say that it almost made the first pint unwelcome.

ts my first PMBAR, which means I've skirted a very important rule in doing both Double Dare and The Most Horrible Thing Ever. Its good to finally be legal. Kudos as usual to Eric for throwing these things. I guess he ACTUALLY makes a buck on this one, which he firmly deserves for all his gratis efforts the rest of the season. Thank God. If he ever stops doing these, a certain ilk of rider will wander the woods aimlessly, thus differing very little from what happened on this fine day.

Cheers to Ed for signing me up and being just under the weather enough to keep it interesting. Cheers to those of you I rode with throughout the day, discussed the merit of one route vs another, IPA vs. Summer ale, SS vs. Gears and Camp vs. Not to Camp.

And a big Congrats out to Jonathon who unsuccessfully tried to kill himself; twice.


W o (r)S said...

No wonder you sounded so spent when I talked to you today.

dougyfresh said...

nice story. it was a good read. sounds pretty daunting at times. way for you and Ed to follow through!!