22 November, 2009

Pisgah 99

In the middle of yet another map driven, trail exploration ride in a lesser used corner of the Pisgah National forest, Clay Faine asked me what I thought about a Pisgah 100. We were lamenting the loss of Pisgah Production’s Double Dare event that typically takes place in the fall, and hungry for something big and cheap in our own backyard. Our adventurous group all thought it was a good idea, and Clay set to work.

The next we heard of it was via a very ominous sounding email. All Caps and Bold letters spelling out that we were ON OUR OWN, with NO ONE TO COME GET YOU, and NO SUPPORT. The date was set, urged to be kept quiet, and that was it; We’d have our day.
Map Stolen from Clay's Blog
That was two months ago, and in the mean time, I’d spent next to no time on the bike. The occasional weekend warrior ride was all I could muster within my busy work-on-the-road schedule. These rides, while fun and reminiscent of what having a personal life was like, were probably doing more harm than good. Over exerting myself on 4 hour hard road rides, or 4 hour tough mountain rides wasn’t really adding to my deteriorating fitness. Mother nature blessed mid November with 70 degree days, clear skies, and dry trails. The pull to a day of adventure out weighed my endurance concerns and I showed up to the Friday night party with the usual crew.

Its very cold at 4 am in November, regardless of what the projected high is for the day. Under the glow of headlights, 12 riders made last minute preparations. I opted to use my Epic Designs Frame pack to keep a wind shirt, space blanket, extra socks, long sleeve UL merino top, frame pump, headlamp, tools, a bunch of food, and knee warmers. All that went on my back was a small camelback with water, my Light n Motion battery, and a banana. There were a lot of lighter riders out there, most of whom simply underestimated how long 100 miles would take in Pisgah. Needless to say, they didn’t make it very far. Some riders were leaving food drops, opting for a different level of self support.

5:10. Start. Under total darkness, Brad Kee, Dave Cook, Emily Brock, Matt Fusco and myself took off up 477 and made the turn on to Clawhammer. Being the only SS, I slowly pulled away. I wasn’t going fast, but only had one option, and soon found myself well off the front, and all alone. Clawhammer went well enough, and I passed Clay fixing his bike. We exchanged wide eyed glances, and I moved on trying to keep my heart rate low. With the leaves down, you could see the lights of towns I never knew existed in the distance. Probably Brevard, or some trailer park; the only two things within 20 miles.
I walked most of Black Mountain. There are short sections that are rideable, but all the effort and dismounting wouldn’t be worth it on a long day. Some ambient light started to enter horizontally through the woods, but most of Black was still done under headlamp. Somewhere in here I came across Eric Wever, who had started pretty early, rumors put it at 4 am. Between catching people that started an hour before me, and holding off Kee and Cook, I was mildly worried that I was going to fast even though I was walking a lot and generally taking it easy.

The early fog and thin veil of morning clouds created an amazing sunrise, which started early on the downside of Black, and peaked during the fun first half of Turkey Pen. Daylight, as it often does, brought with it a sense of new found energy. The hikes up Turkey, and the leafy steep descents repeated themselves throughout its length, and I eventually hit the Turkey Pen trailhead lot, where I had promised myself some food. It was still early, and only a few hunters were parked. I descended and climbed Mullinax without event. Not to fast, not painfully slow, it was taking a lot of mental focus to pay attention to my body this much. Even during a more traditional 100 race, I can allow myself to push it a bit, turn the mind off and let the legs work, but this was different. The task at hand was so daunting, so beyond me, that I had to constantly work to conserve energy; missing rocks, looking for easy lines, watching pedal form, even when hike a biking I had to pick easy lines to push the bike through. All of this made Squirrel gap a lot less fun than it is on a 3 hour ride. Times where I could power a downhill section to try to momentum through an uphill tech section, I simply rode the bike, efficiently dismounted and walked through some of the power sapping technical stuff. All in all, still a great time. It was warming up in the sun, skies were clear, and it was November, when it could have been raining sideways.

Warming up at Cantrell Creek
Squirrel behind me, I crossed the bridge and climbed out of South Mills river. Halfway up Rich Dillon caught me, trying to “stay away from success” as he called it. He got a late start and had caught Dave, Matt and Brad, but didn’t like the idea of riding with guys who were stubborn enough to finish. I held his wheel for a bit, chatted with him, and was generally happy to have someone to ride with, even Rich, through the monotony of the South Mills river trail. That was short lived though, and I sent Rich on his way, opting to take it easy again. I stopped at the horse camp at the end of the gauging station rd to clean and lube my drive train in the river. The sand/horse shit mixture that collected from South Mills was making a lot of noise, which, if nothing else, made me THINK it was sapping energy. Cleaned, lubed, and silent, I watched Kee and Cook head into Pink Beds just ahead of me. “There,” I thought, “that’s better.” The fit and fast guys were now where they should be; ahead of me. Feeling better about the alignment of the world, I made my way through the wrong trails of Pink Beds. I think I opted to stay straight where others had turned left, so off I went on the tour de bridges that is the south side of Pink Beds.

When I got to the picnic shelter, Brad was just leaving. I asked him where the sign in was, and wished him luck. I’m kind of a big Brad Kee fan. He’s a quiet guy who gets things done. Both respectable qualities. I found the hidden potato chip can that was acting as our sign in. This was to offer some level of safety. If someone disappeared, Clay could figure out where they were by checking sign ins. It was the only “formal” sign of event structure, and that’s if you call a potato chip can and a pencil formal.
That shiny spot is where we start the climb...
276 to the BRP. Ugh. A healthy eight miles of suck. Road riding on a mountain biking is one of my biggest mental hurdles during an event. It just feels so slow and out of place that it tends to break me. Halfway up 276 I saw a skinny figure descending on fat tires. Rich was offering me a peanut butter sandwich and pulling the plug. His watch and acute skills in math were his undoing. We had traveled roughly 30 miles in 6 hours, and he didn’t like the extrapolation of such humbling numbers. I didn’t either: it put the finish time at roughly 20 hours, and that sounded painful. I decided there that I’d see how I felt back at Pink Beds in another 35 miles.
Mt. Pisgah on a clear day
Up on the parkway I tried numerous times to find some water. No luck. Nothing at the Inn. Nothing at the snack shack. I did find a Dave Cook, who was fixing a flat in the parking lot above Big Creek. I checked in on him, and waved goodbye as I coasted down to the trailhead. Knowing that I wasn’t the fastest descender, and because I was stopping to give my brakes a rest, and my mouth some food, I really expected to see Dave somewhere along Big Creek.
All the creek crossings were high, fast and cold. Ida had hung around western NC during the week, and her rains were still making their way out of the forest. After a few attempts at crossing by jumping on rocks and debris, I gave up and quickly plunged through a handful of knee or higher crossings. Dave finally caught me at the start of Fletcher’s creek. I never know which one of the many reservoir trails is which, so I followed Dave up the more easterly trail along the creek, which turned out to be right. We gained the road to nowhere, and continued up and up, and then carried our bikes along the upper half. Dave stopped again to get some food, and I continued on to Trace Ridge.

The mostly wide open and straight Trace Ridge is in bad shape with all the rain of late, but with all the leaves down, you’d never know. Dangerous. I just kept to the edges, knowing that somewhere in the middle was a deep rut that can steer you at will, and clip pedals. I ran into a couple weekend guys from Buffalo along the reservoir. In exchange for some water, I discussed some ride options in the area for them.

After chatting with Mike Brown, and the weekend warriors from the north, Dave caught up to me, and we rode the rest of 5000 together, struck out for water at the campground, and once again with the campground host. November is a tough time for a race as all of the forest shuts down. Just the way an adventurous day in the woods should be. We both filled water at the fisherman’s bridge and chatted with Eric Wever and Mike Brown. They were pulling out and had a car already. Even if I pulled out, I was miles from camp. They kindly offered us anything we needed, but the reality of it was that no amount of food or battery was going to help, and I wanted to stay self supported, so I just took off up 1206 after Dave.

The climb to Yellow gap has served many many times as a gentle warm up before tackling Laurel and Pilot on shorter weekend rides. But this time around (just like the PMBAR ride) it hurt. I was crawling up, or at least felt like it. Passing Dave helped a bit, but that mental boost quickly faded. I still made the top in 30 minutes, which isn’t bad, but then I lay down in the middle of the road, bike and pack strewn about. I didn’t even take my helmet off, just let the two long ridges dig into the gravel and support the weight of my head. It felt good. Which was a sign that I was done.


1) bail down 5015 to Bradley; nope, too much hard trail riding, and why ride hard trail if you are quitting, right?

2) Bail all the way across 1206? On a single speed, fuck no, I’d rather just do Laurel to get up and over.
And there you have it, the only thoughts I could muster were strategy. My mind was so tired that even my inner monolgue had quieted it self. What a strange phenomenon. Total silence, both exterior in the woods, and inside my head. Laurel was a battle. I passed Dave, and got a laugh when I said the “only reason I came up here was to avoid fucking 1206.” It took forever. When I’m riding well, all the gaps come and go and I’m at the hike before I know it. This time, I kept walking my bike THINKING I was on the hike a bike section, only to realize that I was on a section I normally ride. I was lost on the trail. Different than being lost in the woods, but still a bad sign.
There were multiple times I simply sat on the trail, and tried to put food in my mouth. The sun was hanging low enough in the sky that I knew I wasn’t going to make it back to my lights stashed at the Pink Beds picnic area. It was getting surprisingly cold as the sun set, and all signs started to point to failure. One foot in front of the other, I reached the connector, and then Pilot Mountain, already in complete darkness less the small spot from my BD headlamp. This was a small achievement. I figured all I had left was to go down. Dangerous, but down. Pilot by headlamp cannot be recommended. It was slow going. I found out my fork wasn’t working, which explained my wrist pain. I walked a little bit of the real rocky stuff, and some switchbacks I just couldn’t see. They were painful steps, stumbling and kicking rocks with tired feet. My knees were shot from all the unplanned half dismounts. I rode a surprising amount of trail, but the descent still took much longer than usual, and I got spit out onto 1206 a chewed up shell of a man.

The rest of 1206 was easy and boring, and I actually didn’t feel that bad. The ability to ride, spin the legs, not hurt my wrists, and not need a fork, was providing a little energy. Just enough energy to reach 276, make the left, and descend to the picnic area and finally pick up some real lumens. Descending the rest of 276 at 30mph with some more light was reassuring.

As I blew past the turn to 475B, I ended my Pisgah 99 race. Although the idea of descending Cove Creek sounded good, the climb back up to Gloucester, and then Farlow didn’t. Nor did single speeding all the way from Cove Creek to White Pines if I pulled out after from Cove. With such unattractive options, I chose to simply head back. It was a very cold descent down 276, and I was immediately happy with my decision. Wandering around, pushing my bike up to Farlow 2 hours from now with my body unable to produce heat would be a disaster. As it was, I was shivering violently along 276, not really doing enough work to stay warm.

I arrived back to the campsite to a series of cheers, whoops and cowbells. Most of the riders were already sitting around a big fire. The WNDC had provided a much needed spread of food and drink.

These kind of events, by which I mean the underground Pisgah lunatic fringe events, are becoming my favorite. No other race atmosphere compares. I was talking with Eric Wever around the fire, and he asked me “What did you think about what you saw when you showed up for The Most Horrible Thing Ever.” I had driven 10 hours from Cleveland, was pretty much a standard race guy, used to big productions and hooplah at races, AND I had never been to Pisgah. That night I walked into a small hardened group of riders, sitting around a fire, drinking beers and sorting gear. There was a gypsy camp of tents, shelters, a small PA and an Ipod, Christmas lights, and a light up skull. There was just enough organization that you knew something was going on, but so little that you knew for the next 36 hours, it was up to you. I’ve dived head first into that lifestyle now, as far as my riding and racing goes, and I have to think that it all started back then.

The Pisgah 99 was definitely the hardest one day thing I’ve tried. Much of that is helped by my current lack of fitness. This got physically hard immediately, and then it was a battle of will. It was much harder than any single day out in Colorado, harder than 24 solo racing, and harder than TMHTE. Thanks to Clay for picking up a little of Eric’s sadistic nature and “organizing” this thing for all of us, and authoring a damn fine route, that will probably haunt my dreams until I go out and try it again.


Emily said...

Nice write up.
food drops? now I wish I had dropped my food somewhere I could have gotten back to it. Top of trace= not a useful spot to have left things

Chan said...

Dang. My head hangs low with the knowledge that others suffered hard in the mountains of WNC without me. Well played sir, well played.

ExtrmTao said...

Excellent words as always, I felt like I was along for the ride.

Big Bikes said...

Ah, just further Pro-NC propaganda making me want to pull up my roots and move down that way.

Hey, I had a pretty sick ride Sunday...on a bike path with goats (he said while staring at is shoes).

Good stuff.


beth said...

Thank you thank you for writing 'bout this.. i've been patiently waiting. F-N brutal eh? thats what it's all about I guess. Good on ya for giving it a go.

brado1 said...

nice work rob