On and off over the past couple years a buddy of mine and I have tossed around the idea of riding the Assault on Mount Mitchell. We decided to ride Assault on Marion first, to “scope out” the event and also to do it old school – in times past Marion was a pre-requisite for Mitchell.
My friend had health issues and had to bow out this time around, but I decided to man up and go at it myself. Truth be told, I had been hoping to hang on my friend’s back wheel all the way – and now I had to make it happen “alone.” I also wanted to have a good result for my friend who couldn’t join with me.
I started the year with a puny time up Paris Mountain and no clear plan on how to get some speed. I had been faster in times past, but for lots of random reasons (mostly not having a constant stream of cycling goals to keep me in shape) I had let myself slow down and gain weight in the process.
Two books helped me out of this situation: Chris Carmichael’s Time Crunched Cyclist, and Tom Venuto’s Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle. I’ll cover these more in separate posts, but suffice to say I hit two preliminary goals for this year – I dropped about 10lbs of fat and I achieved a PR up Paris Mountain.
After a few months of training and working on my nutrition, this was the day. Below follows a journal of the day …
I had butterflies like crazy at the mass start. Truth be told, I couldn’t sleep for most of the night! I positioned myself in the middle of the start, with a group of guys I knew and wanted to stay with, hoping to capitalize on the speed of those around me to pull me along. Once we started, it was all a mad rush and I let myself be taken in by it – instead of trying to find a pace for myself, I worked a little too hard attempting to get into and stay with the “right” group. Newbie mistake – I should have realized how dynamic things were and not wasted so much energy at the beginning. I saw my heart rate jump many times in my attempts to stay with certain groups – only to see everyone bunch up again due to road obstacles, hills, whatever reason… and then slowly drop me off the back.
After about 30 minutes of this up and down behavior I started to get a hold of myself as I realized I couldn’t sustain this level of activity. I reigned in all these mini-sprints I was doing, came to my senses and let myself get dropped from a group I had no hopes of hanging with and got my heart rate down. (Charmichael writes that his method will give you some strong burning “matches” for when you need the power – but with the limited training time you only get a few!) Soon I was part of a large group that caught me and we were making good time down the road. Then just like that, we were upon the first rest stop – which I skipped along with many other riders. My plan for the day was to stop only once if I could make it – at the top of Bill’s Hill, then on to Marion. I could feel that I could use a restroom stop but I wasn’t about to lose the train to Marion – so on I went.
The next hour went fairly quickly as well, with being part of a fairly large group, we were running a 20mph average. The second rest stop was upon us and I could have used it – but Bill’s Hill wasn’t that far and I was with a few guys still moving along. So I pushed on, attempting to keep my pace under control to have another “match” for the climb up Bill’s Hill. After passing the second rest stop, we encountered the right hand hairpin that is apparently so bad it’s specifically mentioned in the event release.
I discovered another surprise at that curve that continued to make itself more and more evident as I got closer to Marion – no one else I encountered likes to descend (much less descend and corner), or I’m just a little crazy, or a little bit of both. I could have passed two riders on the inside in that hairpin. As we approached I simply followed along, but as they rode the brakes longer and longer I realized I had lost an opportunity. Later, I used this to my benefit to catch groups that would pass me up climbs … up the hill they’d go, but down the other side I’d catch them, and I’d still be able to hang with the group on the “flats.” Maybe some people thought this was reckless, I have no idea … but it just seemed like normal behavior to me, with the number of times I’ve descended Paris Mountain. At any rate, no one said a word … so I figured no harm, no foul.
With the approach to Bill’s Hill looming ahead, I slowed a bit to get my heart rate under control and began to climb. (Little did I know my family had just arrived at the SAG spectator spot and just caught me rounding the bend… but I did hear lots of cow bell!)
I recalled looking at Strava data a few days prior that the climb appeared to be about half of Paris Mountain (in length … about the same grade). Here I was 40+ miles in and thinking “could I climb Paris with all these miles on my legs?” Well apparently yes, as I managed a good cadence all the way to the top and was ecstatic to see the third rest stop. And no line for the porta-john. So far so good with the plan – restroom stop, refill the bottles, stretch out the back and legs and get going again.
After Bill’s Hill I realized another newbie mistake…. assuming Bill’s Hill was the last “big hill.” For goodness sakes, it seemed most of the rest of the ride was descending a number of curves (what a rush), crossing a small bridge and having to make the climb back out. Up and down, up and down, a couple times I thought I was going to explode from the climb, trying to keep my cadence high to save my legs, but not so high that my heart rate would blow me up.
I wanted to save one last “match” for a sprint to Tom Johnson Campground at that last turn, and finish strong. A few times the road would change to a bit more flat and I got a break, but towards the fourth rest stop I was really starting to feel the burn in my legs. I remember this feeling – like the time I rode 50 miles a few weeks ago just to experience more saddle time. I had to hit this rest stop and stretch out. That tingle in my lower back was starting to act up a bit more. Ugh.
Quick stop at about 65 miles, stretch, and hop back on trying to stay with another group of riders that were just leaving. No dice. How demoralizing when you think you can hang with a group but you know you’re almost out of gas. At this point I was alone with 10 miles to go, and two realizations came upon me. First, I knew I was very close to either achieving, or missing, my goal of a sub 4:30 Marion finish. Second … if I was going to get there, I’d have to man up, dig deep and push. There was no waiting for the possibility of another group to pull me along. I had never been on this road before, and had to pedal on into the unknown despite whatever hills were there to slow me down.
On I went, through the literal and figurative roller coaster of hills and emotion. Another climb and fighting against gravity … then another descent and speed! In the fog of my brain I struggled to convert my remaining distance, current average and remaining time into whether or not I’d make it. I might as well have been doing Calculus. I glance at the cue sheet taped to my top tube, noting the turns, calling into question my Cyclocomputer accuracy and wondering, where am I really? Is it 5 miles left or 6? Or more?
I squeezed what little brain power was left in the midst of this struggle against time and distance and I remembered the Google Earth view I had studied just a few days before of the final roads to Marion. There was a turn onto Green-something … after that, best I could remember it was all downhill, flat and then that last right turn onto Resistoflex? What a strange name … was that really the name of that road? Who cares … where am I now? Another glance at the cue sheet … I knew I was on Nix, there had to be a turn soon! But how many more hills?!
Oh there were more hills. Up and down. Up and down. Yet, this is where I started to feel a little kick. I was catching some riders on the descent, but also passing up the other side. I still had some steam. How long could I take this? How much longer?
Another turn, then another … I’m on Greenlee! That was the turn I was looking for, and then one of the most fun descents I had on the whole ride. Smooth asphalt, fun curves, one blind corner I took a chance on (I am not using the brakes and losing speed!) – I’m sure I hit 40mph at one point. What a blast.
Then the road turns “flat.” Did I remember the map right? Was it really flat from here on in? I became a sudden prayer warrior. Please Lord let there be no more hills. It had to be less than a mile. It had to be. I glance at my bike computer – this is going to be really close.
Then the “moment” arrives. You know what I mean if you’ve experienced it. It’s like that feeling when you’ve been riding in the cold for most of the day waiting on that afternoon sunshine that the weatherman promised. You feel something on your skin … not the bite of cold winter wind, but the soothing balm from the power of the sun. The anticipation of it leads you into the deception of ignoring it’s presence. Yet it’s power pulls you in, even as you resist, not wanting to fall into the depression of acknowledging it’s presence as it disappears from you. Yes people, I’m talking about the FINISH LINE. You KNOW IT’S THERE!
Slowly coming into view I see a whole crowd of spectators at the turn to Resistoflex. Clanging cow bells, shaking signs, waving and yelling. I’m almost there. I’m holding back for one last sprint … two clicks up, stand up and hammer on the pedals. Around the corner, hammering with all I have, pass a tractor in the road? (who put that there!?) and I see the messenger. The messenger of elation to some, despair to others. It is … the CLOCK. For my glaring eyes, it reads:
(and a couple seconds … I was staring at it in disbelief and missed the last numbers. I do wish AOM would have been chip timed!).
You’ve seen race winners celebrate as they cross the finish line first, with fist pumping about-to-jump-off-the-bike type of energy? Well I did that. Glad no one had a video of it. I’m sure that was a bit anti-climactic for some, being surrounded by riders with Mitchell bibs who were only halfway through the pain. But I did what I set out to do, and I had reason to celebrate!
My “moving time” on the course was 4:15 (STRAVA link) … only 10 minutes of stop time, not bad for a guy who takes an hour to get ready for work in the morning.
Then to see my wonderful family greeting me at the finish – what a way to end.