Sunday, October 3, 2021

Death March Revival ITT Ride Report

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 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 😆😆😆.

I outfitted "Freedom," my 2017 Niner Air 9 RDO with a small top tube bag and a Revelate Designs Mountain Feedbag.  I wanted all my nutrition easily accessible on the bike, pre-cutting the packaging on my waffles and shot blocks, to minimize stopped time. I carried about 3000 kcal, 750 of which was Skratch drink. I also carried 800 kcal in the form of gels.  The remainder was waffles and shot blocks.

Flat section after Tumbling Lead.

The climb up FS 45 was pleasant, the heart rate came up nicely, and the legs felt good.  I made it a point to stay around tempo on the climbs and spin easily on what few flats there were, as I knew the day was gonna be long and I wanted to feel good even at the end. The 3 bitches came and went, and that was a good thing; they did not feel as hard as in previous rides.  

This route is touted as being 100% gravel: it almost is, but there is one short stretch of maybe 1/2 mile at the most of pavement leaving Tennessee and heading into Georgia. 

The gravel over to Watson Gap was in great shape.  I stopped briefly for a nature break.

It was nice to finally descend down to Jack's River campground.  Mmmm ... the smell of burgers!  Now the real test began:  the slow grind up to Potato Patch.  But first, stopping at the piped spring about 0.7 miles up from the campground (mile 26.7).

Cold and tastes wonderful!

The next 25 miles was my low point.  The gravel on the ensuing climbs had been chewed up by vehicles so it was like riding on marbles.  Jeff was looking strong and slowly pulled ahead.  I was going as hard as my tempo heart rate would dictate, but I was in my granny gear alot (32 x 50) and not feeling the love.  I knew that "this too shall pass" would eventually end, but I also feared it might continue for the remainder of the ride. It was also getting hot out and the direct sunshine was not helping my mood.  

Jeff descending Potato Patch

The descent off of Potato Patch should have been fun, but knowing that I was going to have to climb right back up did not make it so. I stopped at Mulberry Gap (mile 41) and made it up to the bath house to relieve myself and refill my bottles.  Still being in a sour mood,  I did not have the energy to pedal uphill any further and see Kate and Andrew.  Bad Carey! I was in a dark place knowing that I had to go back up to Potato Patch (2000 foot climb); I wasn't in a very talkative mood.  I waited on Jeff, as he went up thinking he could purchase some cold water, but ended up getting some Biolyte instead (no ice cold water). 

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.

Once I got to the top, I started feeling better.  Jeff had pulled over to break out his PayDay bar.  Seeing how strong he was, I told him I was going to motor on, thinking that he would catch me either on the never ending rollers on FS16. As I hit the game check station, I was almost completely out of the two 28 ounce bottles I had refilled at Mulberry Gap.  I was surprised Jeff had not caught me, but I figured he would pull up as I was refilling at the next piped spring on the initial Big Frog climb (mile 71).  The next 6 miles flew by and I had gotten my second wind; the caffeinated gel I had taken just before the FS17 descent probably helped.

Just one of many short "ups" on FS 16, which one would think would be all downhill.

I arrived at the piped spring and immediately stuck my head under the cold water and washed all the sweat and grime off my face.  Feeling refreshed, I refilled my bottles and stretched out my lower back.  After about 15 minutes, I started getting concerned.  What if he had a mechanical?  What if he had crashed and was lying unconscious somewhere?  No cell service so I couldn't just call.  So I started pedaling backwards on the course.  Fortunately, Jeff was only a hundred yards from the Big Frog turn off.  Come to find out later that he was at his lowest point of the day, having run out of water about an hour ago.  Had I not shown up when I did, the "bail-out demons" may have convinced him to skip the Big Frog section.  He was very apologetic, saying that "screwed the pooch" for me getting a good time.  I instantly replied that it was my choice and I would not have forgiven myself if something bad had happened to him. 

Getting my mojo back after a cold shower at mile 71.

Now that I knew he was safe, I told him I would see him at the finish.  And if worse came to worse, I could always drive back to him.  But I wouldn't have to, because Jeff is not a #quitter.  With that respite, I had renewed energy and that heavy leg feel that often happens when I stop for an extended period of time did not occur.  I felt like I was able to attack the last 22 miles.  Well, except for the hard climb up to Big Frog followed by the wicked descent.  The roadbed was RAW!  And by that I mean, chunky embedded gnar.  Holy crap!  This section just continues to deteriorate over time.  Definitely "enhanced."  The last thing I wanted was a flat or crash, so I rode cautiously up and over.

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.

I got back to Thunder Rock at 6:19 pm, 10 hours and 42 minutes after starting this adventure.  Jeff came rolling in a bit later, looking pretty ragged but in good spirits.  The first time, he told me, that he not only had a physically tough day, but a mental one as well.  

Jeff kept apologizing for keeping me waiting.  Although my official time might not have been as good as I wanted it, I had a great time riding this route with him.  And wouldn't change it for anything.  In the long run, I will forget my clock time, but I will never forget the day spent with a great friend riding in what I am blessed to call my "backyard."

Physically whooped but emotionally overjoyed.

Right at 10 hours moving time; very happy with that

No comments: