Monday, September 25, 2006

6 Gap Century

Every year a couple thousands roadies show up in beautiful Dahlonega, Ga to ride 100 miles over 6 mountain passes. I think the total elevation gain is 11,000 feet. It felt more like a million. A picture is worth a thousand words.

The day started off well. My girlfriend and I arrived about 1.5 hours before the race started. We just missed the long line that forms trying to cram all those cars into the Lumpkin County High School parking lot. It was nice sitting in the back of my car holding my girlfriend's hand watching those poor suckers who came thirty minutes late. I felt relaxed and ready for the race. My only concern was the weather and what clothes should I bring to prepare for it.

As I rolled up to the line, I saw my parents standing there. My mom snapped a bunch of pictures, and my dad came up and talked to me about the race. It was nice having them there.

The horn sounded and we sat and waited for 1000 riders ahead of us to get rolling. As soon as we left the parking lot it started raining. I knew I should have brought my arm warmers. The rain wasn't too bad though. I tried to settle in a pace slightly slower than last year. If I am going to climb six big ole mountains, I don't see any point in trying to race people on the flattest part of the day.

The rain got a little worse and the downhills started to get interesting. I don't ever remember riding a road bike in the rain so this was a learning experience for me. I learned your brakes no longer grab like you are used to. They slow you down some but you couldn't really stop if you needed to. I was going so slow around corners that I never really noticed my tires slipping out from under me. I will have to experiment with that some other day.

After about 20 miles of rolling stuff, we hit the base of Neels. I remember from last year this climb being somewhat difficult for me. I tried to keep with this other rider for most of the way, and I felt pretty worked when I got to the top. This time I took it easy and did my own thing. I sped up a couple times to get around cars but other than that I stuck to the game plan and felt fresh as daisy at the summit. The climb seemed so much shorter this year.

The rain was coming down really hard by now. I contemplated chickening out and doing 3 Gap. Luckily some guy said "We are already soaking wet. We are not going to get any wetter. Might as well go for it." Thank you to whoever said that. That was good advice and just the encouragement I needed to hear.

On the descent, I started shivering pretty bad. It was cold. Cold enough to make me think about 3 Gap for a minute but not cold enough to quit. At the bottom of the hill, I was happy to be pedaling again. I kept checking my heart rate hoping it would come up so I would get warm again. Finally we hit some hills, and I felt myself warming back up.

All day I ate as much as possible when I wasn't going straight up or straight down. I mixed my energy drink really thin this time, and I never felt the naseau I normally get. I also stayed more hydrated than normal. I did lose energy towards the end of the race. I might add a little more mix next time.

Jack's Gap was steep. This was the first time I felt my back hurt a little. It wasn't too bad though. I practiced pedaling in circles and stretching my back. Other than the cold everything went pretty smoothly over Jack's and up Unicoi.

At the summit of Unicoi, my girlfriend and some family were there. It was nice seeing them. They were giving me a weird look but I figured they were just trying to figure out if I was dying yet. My girlfriend gave me some arm warmers. At this point the arm warmers were more of luxury than a necessity but a little pampering never hurt anybody. I filled up my bottles and took off. The descent was more enjoyable now that I wasn't shivering so much.

Then came Hogpen. This climb is really steep and long. I would sit and pedal focusing on pulling up and over. I would try to count to 100. When I got to 100 or I couldn't stand the pain anymore, I would stand up and count to 30. After 30 I would sit back down and repeat. Why would I sit back down if standing was easier you ask? While standing made the climb less painful, it would however send my heartrate rocketing. I had to limit my standing time so that I wouldn't burn myself up and not have enough energy to make it to the top of the climb.

I repeated this process of sitting and standing for a really long time. Then I saw a rest stop that I thought was the top. I saw my family so I turned it on a little sending my heart rate soaring. When I get there I learn there are a couple more miles of climbing to go. I kept rolling and tried to let my heart rate come down. After that there were so many false summits I stopped counting. I was hurting by the time I got to the top.

I filled my bottles and took off down a super steep downhill. I rode the brakes most of the way. This was beyond my comfort level. I need to go back here and practice. I am not comfortable in the drops so I rode down the whole way on my hoods. My hands kept feeling like they were going to pop off the bars. I tried wrapping my pinkies around the bar for extra control. I worried the whole way I was going to hit a pothole and loose my grip on the bars.

I was glad to see the bottom, but I was worked. Climbing back to the 3 Gap turn was hard work. I was already dreading Wolfpen. I ate as much as I could.

Halfway up Wolfpen my right knee gave out. I could no longer pull up or push down with any real force. It still hurts now as I type this. I am not sure what I did. I think I may have stayed seated too much. I remember standing more last year because staying seated would make my back hurt. I guess the weakest link moved from my back to my knee this year. I thought about quitting. I decided that if I made it over Wolfpen then I could probably limp home the rest of the way.

I used every trick I could think of to get over Wolfpen. I would grab my knee with my right hand and force my knee up and down with my arm. I tried standing for 100 seconds and sitting for 30 seconds instead of the other way around. I tried moving my knees further in then more further out. I tried riding bow legged. I tried favoring my left leg and letting my right leg be almost limp. Nothing really helped but it was good distraction. Somehow I made it to the top. By this time both my knees were hurting. The right one still a little more than the left.

My girlfriend and sister were there. I remember giving my girlfriend my best "I am hurting so bad and I want you to tell me to quit look". Not sure if she noticed but she said "You are doing great. You can do it. You are almost done." And that was that. I slumped back on my bike and kept going.

The downhill of Wolfpen was the most fun I had all day. It wasn't too wet or too steep. It was twisty and fun. I swooped down the mountain and forgot about my knee until the climbing started again.

I felt sick at this point. Not sure if I was tired or hungry or what. I took off my rain vest while I was riding. I thought it was cool trick but after I did it, a guy rode by me and looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe it wasn't a good idea but it was fun and made me feel like one of those guys in the Tour de France. I even felt a little bit better without the vest on.

Luckily none of the rest of the climbs were as steep as Wolfpen or Hogpen. I made it over Woody's in considerable pain but I made it. The downhill was long. The rain started heavy again and it was hard to see. The sweat stung my eyes and I had to slow several times because my eyes were closed.

Eventually the hill got more gradual and I was able to pedal some of the time. Lots of riders passed me on this section. I was pretty passed caring at this point. I just wanted to finish. I was going to be proud no matter what my time was.

I couldn't believe it when I saw the high school. It didn't seem real. I pedaled as hard as I could but I must have looked pretty pathetic. I rolled over the line in 7 hours and 30 minutes.

My family was there to congratulate me. My nephew pushed my bike up the hill. It was nice talking to my family about the race. I grabbed some spaghetti dinner and talked with them some more. On the way home I stopped and got a blizzard from DQ. It felt really good to have finished the race.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Firewater 50

Climbing up Bear Creek has never hurt so much. Every pedal stroke is a mental struggle not to quit. I am doing my best to pedal in complete circles focusing on applying force for all 360 degrees. My mind keeps drifting thinking about what I did to make something that is normally effortless for me become so difficult.

I guess it started in December. After several months of absence from my bike, I bought some Spinervals DVDs and started riding my trainer in my living room. For the next several months I rode that trainer into the ground literally. Starting with an hour at a time, I worked my way up to over 6 hours on Sundays. Hard workouts too. Not just sitting there and spinning in the same gear. One week I think I logged like 16 hours.

When the weather got better and the trails started drying out, I got out on my mountain bike. I remember the first time I rode Ft Yargo. After two laps I was toast. Barely had enough energy to drive home. A couple months later I did 5 laps and was bouncing around like a school kid afterwards. Could have rode more if they didn't close the park at 10 pm.

My first race came and rode around Yargo for 12 hours. The last lap was tough but for the most part I felt really strong. How I went from being dead after 2 laps to riding strong for 9 laps, I don't know.

After this race, I decided to work with a coach. I can remember those first couple weeks working with him. Those intervals were brutal. I got saddle sores so bad I cried.

I remember one week I had during training where I felt invincible. I climbed faster than I ever had in my life. Climbing was no longer a struggle but just pure joy. Every pedal stoke made me feel stronger instead of weaker.

I remember crashing after this week. I kept trying to do the workouts my coach gave me, but every day I just felt like I was getting more tired instead of more fit. Eventually my coach stopped giving me the intervals and basically just told me to do whatever I felt like I could do.

ORAMM came around and I was still tired. I did my best, but didn't put in a very good time. I did still feel strong afterwards and was proud I finished. The course was very technically challenging for me.

After ORAMM, I did some group rides both on the road and on the mountain bike. I commuted some which always makes me feel good. I stayed away from the intervals. It was a hard decision but I decided to stop working with my coach. He taught me so much, but the pressure I put on myself to validate the need for a coach was too much.

That brings me back to today and why I am so tired climbing Bear Creek. Maybe my being tired has nothing to do with anything that happened before today. The last four hours of riding have definitely been enough to zap me of my strength.

The day started out with the combination climb of Windy Gap and Tibbs.

(not my heartrate)

In pictures the bottom of Windy Gap looks so smooth and harmless. In reality it is pretty difficult. I am not sure if it is the steepness that makes it a hard climb or the fact that the climb starts directly from the parking lot

and you have no time to warm up. I remember singing happy birthday to Barry and the next thing I know I am suffering on the wall of death.

While I am climbing, I kept looking up hoping to see the sign that marks the turn off to Milma and brief respite from the climbing. I must have looked up a hundred times before finally I saw the sign and turned off on Milma. I grabbed my energy drink and drank as much as I could without getting sick. This climb was tough but I think I still should be able to climb Bear creek without suffering completely.

After Milma next comes Tibbs. It is hard to describe Tibbs. Think about that tricky rocky uphill section on your favorite trail. You know the one where you are in your granny gear barely moving. Trying to pick your way at super slow speed through a mass of boulders, loose gravel, and dirt. Hoping not to run into a rock and fall over or move your weight too far forward and spin out your rear wheel. Now instead of that section lasting 5 or 10 minutes imagine that section lasting 30 minutes to an hour. That is Tibbs.

Riding up Tibbs, I remember passing a rider on their first look at Tibbs. This rider gave me a look like this is not real. Are we really supposed to ride up this thing? It looks like an avalanche of rocks fell where a stupidly steep road used to be.

The truth is many people can ride this trail. In fact people try to ride all the way up to the top without putting their foot down for fun. I met one guy a couple weeks ago that can actually do this. I think I dabbed (put my foot down) at least 5 times today. Compared with the number times I dabbed a couple weeks ago on my first attempt of Tibbs I was quite happy with 5.

I checked my watch at the top of Tibbs and I had been riding for 1 hour and 25 minutes. I was happy with this time. I almost died a couple weeks ago trying to follow the inhuman mama up that climb. Counting her breaks to wait on me and the rest of the humans we were only 5 minutes faster that day. I felt much better at the top, then I did that day. I didn't push my pace so fast that my heart rate went out of control. I felt like I controlled the damage as best I could. I imagine the deadness in my legs on Bear Creek has something to do with this climb. Still I should have more than one match to burn after all of my training.

From the top of Tibbs, I turned right on the long forest rode ride over to Mountaintown. There were a couple of good climbs on this ride but nothing really scary or remarkable. It was nice chatting with the other racers as they went flying by me. :) The view from the overlook was spectacular. Surely this almost leisurely death march over to Mountaintown could not have done my legs in. Cars can even ride on this road.

After a couple of moments of confusion on the proper turns I found the trailhead to Mountaintown. The trail starts off pretty steep but rideable. I remember thinking this isn't so bad. Then you hit the deep woods where sunlight does not shine. The steep and somewhat dry trail turns into a steep and super slick trail.

In the beginning I tried to ride some things I probably shouldn't. I came down this super steep section filled with round mossy hundred pound boulders. When I realized it was steeper than it looks, I tried to hit my brakes. Instead of slowing down my tires lost traction on the inch of moss on the boulder and I started to speed up. Luckily I saw a big patch of boulder free moss and dove off my bike into the big green blanket. Other than the embarrassment of the guy asking me if I was okay I was fine.

From that point on I decided to follow this guy. He seemed to know when it would be better to just get off your bike and run. I think I would have gone faster if I wasn't behind him, but I am sure I would have also fallen several times. We ended up running maybe 30 times. We crossed probably 15 creeks plus there were some rocky sections that just didn't seem worth the effort. I didn't really enjoy this trail. It would be a pretty hike, but I don't really enjoy riding/walking on wet muddy trails.

Mountaintown was mostly downhill, but there was a lot of running. I admit I started feeling weak on the last little climb before you get back to Gates Chapel. Maybe all the technical parts kept me from drinking and eating like I should. Who knows?

After Mountaintown, I climbed up the gravel road to the trailhead and hit the one and only rest stop. My girlfriend helped me make a super quick stop including new energy drink, camelback bladder, and chain lube.

Rolling out I immediately notice that I am out of gas. What follows for the next hour is pure torture. Tick, tick, tick my pedals are turning over but at the slowest rate possible. Any slower and I would fall over. I climb all the way up Bear Creek past the overlook and on to the forest service road that leads to Potato patch. This part is the worst. No technical features to take my mind off the pain. Just the sun, loose gravel,and dust from the cars that drive by. I pedal seated for as long as possible. When my legs feel like they will explode if I pedal one more time, I stand up. My heart rate shoots up while standing and after counting till thirty I sit back down.

People pass and ask how I am doing. I must look awful, but I nod and either say I'm okay or sometimes I just say "shitty" which makes them laugh. I reach Potato patch which is good moral victory but the climbing is not over. I turn left and heads toward Windy Gap. Those easy rolling hills of the morning have turned into gigantic almost unpassable mountains. I give everything imagining what it will be like to coast down Windy Gap back to the parking lot.

Finally I see the sign to Windy Gap, it has been about 2 hours since I left the rest stop but it feels like a lot longer. I turn left onto the Windy Gap trail and guess what greets me? Not a pleasant downhill but a tough rocky climb. Sweet. After the climb, the rocks increase. I ride some, walk some, and repeat for a really long time. The trails are amazing. I would love to have pads, a full face helmet, and downhill bike. I think a lot of the stuff I walk I could ride if I was willing to pay the price for falling.

Finally the rocks let up a little and I am riding. Flying down the mountain. There are huge banks on the turns taller than a man. Giant whoop-de-doo water bars at least waist high. Every muscle in my body is screaming as I try to find some balance between rocketing out of control and riding my brakes so much that I take all the fun out of it. Luckily I make it back to the parking lot with only a handful of close calls.

I look down at my stopwatch.

6 hours 25 minutes. Average heart rate 154.

As I pedal towards the cars, I hear people cheering and clapping for me. I see my new friends Roger and mama sitting in their chairs looking rested and relaxed. One of the organizers hands me the bottle of Firewater to take a swig and everyone cheers me on. The drink burns but it feels so good to be done.

I collapse on the ground and listen to everyone's stories of the day.

The nicest man ever makes me a grilled chicken sandwich off the camp fire. It tasted amazing. My girlfriend shows up from manning the rest stop and congratulates me. We hang out for a couple hours and cheer the people coming in. What a great day.