Over the years, there have been variations of the Death March Loop. The first time I did it was probably 15 years ago, just about the time the Cohutta 100 came to be. Then, it was just a group of friends riding for funsies in the Cohutta Wilderness. I suppose I could say this was my first official gravel ride. Then it was just 74 miles, started from Thunder Rock campground, and did not include the Mulberry Gap loop or the Big Frog section. And I still died at least twice!
Since then the fine macabre folks at tennesseegravel.com have enhanced the route with more miles and a crap ton more of elevation. Now back to its original start at Thunder Rock campground, they added the Mulberry Gap loop which allows you to climb up to Potato Patch TWICE and replaced a nice flat section with the Big Frog section.
The rules of the ITT are simple. Start on your own, ride on your own, and finish on your own. Although you may do it with a friend, there is no drafting allowed and you cannot share nutrition, gear, and any mechanical must be dealt with no outside assistance. You must take a photo of your bike computer at the start and finish, showing the time of day and the mileage.
So a few weeks ago, one of my favorite riding buddies, Jeff Cohen, messaged me and asked if I was up for some gravel. To which I replied, how about the DMR? Funny, he said, he had been thinking about the DMR as well.
I had first met Jeff at the Cherohala Crossing a few years back. Since then, we have been thrashing each other on many a gravel BDR. A few times a year, we can get our busy schedules to mesh and grind out big days in the Appalachian mountains. Always positive, he keeps me focused on not just the numbers, but on appreciating our surroundings, our capabilities, our families, and our now, our dogs, Honcho and Ellie. Good stories come out as we are knocking out the climbs.
|Smiling while we can.|
We started at 7:30 am with a temperature of 66 degrees. The high was supposed to hit the mid-80's but I was hoping we would be at the higher elevations mid-day. I was unsure of how the body would respond as I was just two weeks post-Marji and had an out-patient spinal nerve ablation two days prior. The doctor said I could resume "normal activities" in 48 hours. He might have extended that out a bit had he known what is "normal" for me 😆😆😆.
|Flat section after Tumbling Lead.|
|Cold and tastes wonderful!|
|Jeff descending Potato Patch|
|Grimacing on the inside|
We rode quietly now, both of us lost in our own thoughts (mostly negative for me) as we made our way back up to Potato Patch. Jeff was still going strong and once again pulled away from me on the climb. At this point, only 47 miles in, I was wondering if I had enough juice left. I began to contemplate cutting out the Big Frog section, but told myself that there were many miles before I needed to make that decision and my mood probably would change, as it always has in the past. Looking back now, it is funny how I seem to have the same exact conversation with my inner demons every stinking big ride or race. Sometimes it is a short one, but today it seemed to go on forever.
|Just one of many vistas.|
|Just one of many short "ups" on FS 16, which one would think would be all downhill.|
|Getting my mojo back after a cold shower at mile 71.|
|This is the smooth section of Big Frog|
Exiting the Big Frog section, I took another caffeinated gel. I hard charged it to the end, knowing I only had to pedal 6 1/2 of the remaining 10 miles, the final 3 1/2 being all downhill, baby! I hit multiple short climbs with gusto and even got a Lance Armstrong shout out by a local as I was climbing out of Big Creek.
|Physically whooped but emotionally overjoyed.|
|Right at 10 hours moving time; very happy with that|