Put on by Chilhowee Outdoors, this grassroots gravel race is a self-supported adventure through the Cherokee National Forest. This is not for the faint of heart, as it boasts 16,000-18,000 of elevation gain, depending on your GPS. There are no aid stations nor is the course marked. It is up to you to navigate and find resupply points. Having said that there are a few stores along the route that you can hit up for food and water ... if you get there during business hours.
I ITT'd it last year due to a conflict with the Grand Depart. My time last year was 12:54 with a moving time of 12:07. I really was not in "racer" mode then, so I figured that a sub-12 hour time was doable.
|"Crockett" be his name, adventurin' be his game!|
|All this packed onto the bike. Nothing on my back, save for my phone.|
The 6 am start called for the use of a light. Since the first 10 miles are a climb up Brock Mountain, I used a Bontrager Ion Pro RT mounted on the bar. Enough lumens to light up the gravel and enough run time to get me out of a jam, should I need a light on the finishing miles.
I was in the fun company of Chris Joice and Scott Rusinko. We merrily made our way to the top and were greeted with a beautiful sunrise. Have I said just how much I enjoy riding into the dawn? Well worth the 4 am wake up call.
They stopped at the top to fiddle with their gear. Chris had a slow tire leak and Scott needed to take one. I motored onto FS 80. Mostly downhill, but chunky as the road bed was made up of rock slabs. The guys eventually caught me and passed me, along with the TVB dudes and another single speeder. I approached this descent cautiously, as I did not want to risk a flat for only a couple minutes gain in time.
The Lost Creek (FS 103) passed by swiftly as my legs were feeling sparkly and the was smooth dirt. I hit Webb Store (mile 32) in 2 hours 43 minutes and caught up to all those who had passed me on the descent. I took my place in line to refill my bottles from the bathroom sink, dumped in some Infinit powder (this stuff is the crack cocaine of liquid nutrition/hydration), applied some Chamois Butt'r, and began the push to Coker Creek, where the next water stop would be. I somehow managed to leave before most of the guys.
Crossing creek alongside the rail road in waist deep water, I just "voided" the earlier Butt'r application. The water wasn't even cold enough to make it pleasant for my feet. As I saddled back up and hit the gravel of FS 27, I began imagining what my chamois would begin to grow over the next 8 hours. I caught up to Chris and we rode together over to Starr Mountain. We had some great conversation.
Freshly laid gravel in the first few miles of Starr had me fishtailing through the corners. Along the false flat, an older gentleman and a young boy had come out to watch us racers. They also had a mini aid station set up for us! That ... was ... so ... cool! Unfortunately I could not partake, as I had topped off back at Webb's.
Chris slowly pulled away as the road steepened. I was soon joined by Scott, Colin, and John. Those 3 miles up to the ridge is one of the harder climbs on the course. Once at the top, I rolled quickly along and then plummeted down to Hwy 315. Now that was fun; the gravel was golden and traction was amazing!
The stretch from Hwy 315 over to Hwy 68 and the Coker Creek Welcome Center is 10 miles of pavement. But even those are not easy miles. Ivy Trail and Towee Road have several steep pitches that had me in granny gear. I even began to question: Is my brake rubbing? Is my hub seizing? Then there are the neverending undulations of Epperson and Hot Water Roads. Sheez!
I had one of many dog encounters on Towee Trail. As I passed by a lady who appeared to be holding a GPS like device, I said, "Good morning." Immediately her 60 pound black retriever mix gave chase. I soon realized what she was holding was a shock collar remote. As this dog gave chase, he would be thrown off track by a shock. It deterred him but did not stop him. Each time she hit the button, he would wheel around and bite at his side; I suppose he thought yellow jackets were after him. Even though I was at my limit trying to outrun him (uphill), I had to laugh!
Once the road semi-flattened out, I pulled out my first of two rice cakes. It had fallen apart in the ziploc so I just tore a corner off and squeezed it like a gel into my mouth. That savory taste was mighty good going down the hatch.
I descended down to Shuler Creek Road and went into TT mode along this 5 mile flat section. As I was approaching the turn off to Buck Bald, I came upon Audrey. WTF?!? How was she ahead and why was she riding in the opposite direction? I slowed down just a little (as I was in a zone and feared stopping and legs seizing) as I approached. She seemed just as confused, turned around, and began back tracking. I kept it a wee bit slow as I turned onto FS 311, hoping she might catch up. She seemed to slow up as well, so I went back on track. I figured it would make for a good campfire story later. (Found out that night that she had ridden the "sucker" part of the lollipop in the reverse direction)
Once again Chris caught me as I was climbing up to Buck Bald. Which was a good thing, as his phone and Wahoo were both misbehaving. One of the rules of the race was that you had to take a selfie on Buck Bald. Since Chris' phone was not working, I vouched for his being there.
|How did we ever survive w/o cell phones and GPS?|
|The mountain in the background is where I am headed.|
The descent off Buck Bald and back down to Hwy 68 did not seem as rowdy as last year. After a brief pedal on 68, I turned left onto Bailey Road and immediately grabbed a good size stick out of the ditch. Last year I had to fend off two aggressive pit bulls. Today I got lucky as the owner was out and called one of her dogs back (the other probably had died of East Tennessee lead poisoning or heartworms). As I thanked her, she responded that it might be wise to carry bear spray or mace. I had to bite my tongue as I wanted to respond that I wouldn't have to if you were a responsible pet owner.
One steep kicker up to Duckett Ridge (FS 22) and I was rolling along and feeling fantastic. I love this section; it has super flow! I rocked it all the way down, crossed the little bridge and then that devil of a 1 mile climb up McCulley Mountain.
I caught back up to Chris as he was HAB'ing this section and throwing some food down. I must say I really enjoyed his company for a good portion of the day; a great motivator. Sadly, this would be the last I would see of him. The remainder of the ride I was by myself. Which is not a bad thing; it is during these times of the race, when you are hurtin' and have to dig deep that you truly get to know yourself. Having done hundreds of races, I know that these lows are inevitable. Where before I feared them, now I embrace them. They will pass.
Motoring along the pavement of Towee Pike and Childer's Creek, I stopped alongside the road and filled two bottles from the adjacent creek, popping a filter tablet into each. I did not want to pedal off route to purchase water at the Reliance C-Store. I knew there was a piped spring around mile 106, but would need water before then.
Pedaling along PowerHouse Road, I relished my second rice cake and took a time check. It would be interesting to see if I had the same surge of energy (in about an hour) as I did with the first cake. Kim was roadside taking photos. I slowed down and briefly chatted; she said that Rusinko was just ahead. I didn't take that to mean too much as "just ahead" could be 30 seconds or 30 minutes!
After crossing the Hiwassee, I began to smell the finish. Kim had prepared home made chili and I was eager to be off the bike and not seeing food as fuel but as an opportunity to enjoy the company and stories of the other racers. By now, the rice cake had time to kick in ... and I can say that I did feel the surge of energy. I hit the 4 mile FS 236 climb aggressively, utilizing every bit of glycogen and grit that I had. I stopped at the pipe spring to refill one bottle. Then a short descent, a bit of a false flat, and then the "test your mettle" climb began.
The last big push (1800 feet, 11 miles) was daunting but doable. I wanted to do it fast! But at 107 miles in, with everything aching, fast was only in my mind. The first 3 miles I felt great, all things considered. Yes, my low back was achy, my left shoulder felt like someone had a knife in it, and my right foot was on fire, but I was good. THEN ... the right hand turn onto the double track of death climb. Oh My God! So chunky that I began to cuss every slab of rock. Just around the corner would be more climbing. The short descents were no fun either ... just a way of making me climb the f*!! more. Even drinking water became an effort, causing my heart rate to increase by 10 bpm. I looked at my GPS, seeing 10:25 elapsed time. I told myself, "You can suffer 1 hour longer ... you got this."
A mile later, after I tried another little surge, my field of vision narrowed and I got a little wonky. Hmmm ... this must be what low blood sugar feels like. So I stopped and threw down a handful of Cliff Shot Blocks. Hopped back on the bike and eased back into the climb. Within 10 minutes, I felt better and proceeded to descend the final bit down to FS 68.
Hitting 68, there were still 5 more miles of climbing before I would begin the final 10 mile descent. As I was chugging along, I was passed by about 15 motos, a wee bit annoying as a couple came rather close to me. Once at the top, I saw I had a chance to hit the finish in 11 1/2 hours. I also knew from last year that this descent is not easy. My body was so thrashed that every little bump felt excruciating. It's funny, for the past 3 hours, I was looking forward to getting to this point, but now that it was hear, I was dreading it.
The miles ticked by ever so slowly that it felt like climbing miles. Just get me to the pavement, I kept telling myself. Never was I so looking forward to blacktop. I relished the few brief ups as it gave me a chance to stand and relieve the pain in my hands and low back. I came upon the moto guys who were spread out all in the road. I had to "ahem" them several times before they gave notice and moved their machines. If they only knew how many miles I had pedaled under my own power, many egos would have been popped.
Finally to the pavement, where mph's exceeded 40! Yaaassss! Almost there. I almost got taken out by the Great Pyrenees, who thinks that section of road is his to protect. Close call! I was just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the finish.
I had the brief thought of. "I am getting too old for this shit!" But then quickly realized I picked a sport that is ageless. So I guess I am stuck with doing this crazy pedaling for hours on end.
I rolled through the finish line in 11:28, beating last year's ITT by 1 hour 26 minutes! I also managed a 3rd overall, which I am pretty stoked about. Guess I am not too old.
Kim Murrell out did herself with this Grand Depart. I had a cold creek soak, followed by a cold water hose shower, and bottomless chili with all the fixin's. And great stories to be had around the picnic table as we awaited the arrival of others.