How can I possibly start this article? How many different ways can one be subjected to the most extreme elements mountain biking can offer? Obviously quite a few...
Somewhere out in Asheville, I believe Todd Branham and his merry little crew of masochists let out little snickers of joy as they traverse the intended race path thinking of all the pain, suffering and misery we subject ourselves to. That's my conspiracy theory. In reality, Blue Ridge Adventures once again steps up to the call for setting up the most intense epic mountain adventure races in the Pisgah mountain area. Like moths to the flame, we drive out there to challenge ourselves against the forces of nature while following Todd's roadmap over treacherous terrain, unrideable creek crossings, as well as hanging from vines on the edges of washed out trail. I will tell you right now, I almost entertained the notion of quitting this time around. Something about biting cold weather and brutal rocky descents make one weak all over....This is one of those races where legs and technical must meet properly. Once you have those two factors down, you then have to turn your attention to factor in the elements. It is biting cold when you leave and if done at the snail's pace I encountered, biting cold upon arrival. I learned so much from this race, much more than my ORAMM experience since I really focused on listening to my body scream out loud at me while partially ignoring it.
The Swank 65 is the final epic race goal for the season that I had set for myself. It is by far nothing like I had expected. I arrived early Saturday morning to setup camp since it is included in the rider registration fees. I arrive to find the camp area very much desolate and devoid of human life except for a few Blue Ridge Adv associates. They inform me Cove Creek campground is also the Start/Finish for this fine event. I accept the information, find my little spot in the woods, setup camp nice n quick, get some hot coals going for cooking, then proceed to wander about trying to find things to do without blowing myself out since I am supposed to be resting up for Sunday. I try helping out with registration setup and find there is not much I can do there. So, I strap on my biking shoes and go putter up Cove Creek trail on the blue section for a little bit. This was an enlightening experience as I find it totally covered up with leaves and no sign of roots or rocks hidden beneath. I spin around after a few brisk light spin miles upward, and descend back towards camp at full speed. The rush returns and I realize I am looking forward to riding some new terrain tomorrow. A few more campers arrive and night soon falls as everyone hugs the edges of the fire, I realize I am truly having a great time camping, but know I must go to bed shortly. 10pm comes quickly and I retreat back to my frosty campsite and slide my way into my sleeping bag restless, anxious cold and a bit nervous hearing all of the horror stories of past years events....
Sunday comes up fast! I am up and awake at 6am. Coffee is on by 6:30. Restless, I get suited up and go over my battle/survival plan. While eating my dozen pancakes breakfast, I notice the grassy knoll which just yesterday was littered only with a pack of dancing dogs from nearby campers was now overridden by car after car after SUV. The hotel stayers had arrived. I would say about a good hundred or more. The madness started right away. Time sped forward and before I knew it we were instructed to lay our bikes in a large group area and walk up and away from our bikes to start in a "Le Mans"-like fashion (Indy car racers would have to run to their vehicles when the green flag was waved). Todd briefed us on the start and instructed us on where to run. While he was talking I notice Andy Campbell had shown up to race! Awesome! I wish him good luck and just like that we were running through the woods. I notice many were simply walking which forced the runners up through them all. I say we must have started in the upper third of the pack upon grabbing our bikes and spinning off. I immediately realize running up and down a mountain before a race really sucked. I was winded before I ever got onto the trail, not a good feeling. The ride winds up Cove Creek and it is climbing singletrack mixed with a handful of tricky creek crossings. I fall into a rhythm almost immediately and hope that my breathing can slow down before I pass out from sucking wind. I feel every bit of the cold mountain air deep in my lungs and grow a bit more upset that I just cannot acclimate properly. I notice myself passing many riders who are having a worse time than I am at breathing and quickly understand I am not the only one battling the elements. Rest stop 1 comes quicker than expected and I find myself warm and optimistic. The rest stops were AWESOME! The attendants were so organized and really there to wait on you hand and foot. I was told not to get off my bike, but to ask for what I needed, so I ordered a peanut butter sandwich, my water support bag, and a fresh set of lungs. They simply could not fulfill the lungs part, but that is a difficult request...Off I rode from rest stop #1 in less than a minute of arriving which was a shock to me as I had expected to lose 5 minutes at each stop.
Up a long gravel road climb I went. Daniels Ridge connector is around here. Onwards to rest stop#2 which came quickly, so I must be deprived of oxygen by this point. Once again, awesome reststop! I fly through this one, only eating a sandwich, climbing on and quickly entering the singletrack in Gloucester gap. I start making up tons of spots here. I finally catch up to Andy and am flowing along with the large group he is mixed into and notice he starts slowing because he has popped a rear derailleur cable! I stop to check if he needs anything, but he already has his hex wrenches out and working on the problem, so I scoot on ahead. I drop the rest of the group and am feeling really optimistic about finishing around 5 hours based on my current speed and physical status. Then it happens...a simple creek crossing turns into a nightmare when I get my front wheel hooked in a gap between rocks. I flip over, hit my helmet on rocks, my shoulder and part of my back go into the cold creek, and my feet are still clipped in! I cringe from the impact and both my legs cramp solid. It is agonizing pain. I force my legs to unclip and straighten out for the next 10 minutes staring at everyone fly by me asking if I am ok. Andy passes me again at this point and checks if I am ok. I tell him thanks, and to get moving, no problem here and I never see him again for the rest of the race. Not being able to move freely was the downward spiral to the entire race. In pain, cramping everywhere, cold, and slightly wet, I pedal on. No more optimism. I make it to rest stop#3 and look forward to drying out a bit on the climb up Pilot Mtn. Rd. This climb is a lot like Curtis Creek on the ORAMM, long steep and ridiculously long. I actually find I don't mind climbs like this as much anymore. I did dry out, but the cramps would resurface again after a few miles upwards and send me looking for a nice sunny warm spot to allow my legs to carry me onwards. It was time consuming and something I will be focusing on entirely throughout next season. I finally make it to Farlow Gap and breath a sigh of relief because despite everything terrible I have heard about this descent, I am looking forward to some time not pedaling and simply flowing...WRONG. As I enter Farlow, I realize it looks pretty and simple, but underneath the overgrown grass, moss, and barrage of leaves, are boulders, baby head rocks and sharp protruding rocks everywhere. It is one of the most difficult decents I have ever attempted to make. I make it a third of the way and go over the bars again. Fortunately, I catch myself clip back in and try again...halfway down, the banging, constant line changing and state of panic for my body's safety grow to a level where, I simply cannot proceed on the bike and get off and start walking quickly. I carry where I can, and roll it where I can, but I try everything to keep moving along. I am not only afraid someone is going to catch up, I am afraid I will be stuck here well past dark. I reach some trees I must climb over and start complaining out loud about how I am not having fun not riding my bike, but then I think hard about how cool it is to be out here in a spot which is hard enough to hike to and using my bike to get me here and out of here. It is also quite beautiful out here. I come to a creek crossing and notice a nice waterfall off the right edge, don't fall here! I hike onwards and upwards. Up and through junglelike singletrack, wondering if I am still on the right course. I come to another creek crossing and realize I haven't ridden my bike in quite sometime. Finally, I start seeing some steep uphill singletrack and clip back in and creep forwards since my legs are screaming in pain now. 2 riders actually catch up to me and my spirits sink for holding what few spots I had retained. I make it all the way to Davidson river trail and this area actually sends nice vibes through my soul since it flows and makes up for the setbacks I had on Farlow Gap. I start really cruising along now and make it back to rest stop#1 which signifys I am coming close to the end of the race. I am really happy I made it to this point because I learned I can ignore some pain in my body and continue forwards. Onto Cove Creek I ride, discovering another long arduous uphill gravel road climb was in store. I actually made this entire climb in my middle gear, so I am assuming it was not nearly as steep as Pilot Mtn Rd. It winds upwards for around 4.5 cold cold miles according to my computer and then quickly enters some super nice single track which is Cove Creek. I start jamming on this trail as soon as I realize it is the same trail we rode upon the start! I take tons of chances, roll over some of the same creek crossings that I earlier walked across and hop over rocks and anything else which would get me to the finish as soon as possible. I then hear the beautiful sound of people talking, and cheering as they see me coming through the woods. As I approach the finish, Todd announces my arrival and gives me a hi-five which sends a smile across my face! I made it! 6:07:02 official time, 5:21:33 computer time. I actually made it back in time to have a beer from the keg which was one of my goals as well! I hang out for the next few hours watching riders roll in amazed there were still so many out there! There were also quite a few DNFs and a few riders still not present as darkness set in! There were dozens of people who were getting ready to camp for their second night and although I wanted to stay one more night and really engage in the merriment with others whom I had met here, I had to get back to work the next day. With that said, I said my goodbyes, thanked Todd and crew for their fine work, and I hopped into the car, and drove quietly into the night taking with me a strong feeling of accomplishment and awe. I am sure I will return next year for another round of punishment, 'err enlightenment.
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