Saturday, August 23, 2014

TNGA: The Push to Helen...

So there I was ....pedaling onward up the side of Highway 28, with a million thoughts racing through my mind.  My thoughts kept racing back to the last minute choices I had made leaving vital gear behind, worried that it would present itself as a poor choice later in my adventure.  I kept trying to compartmentalize and develop a scheme to keep myself focused on the task at hand: get to Helen.  Earlier in July, during my desktop preparation phase, I spent a solid day analyzing the route via GPS, maps, others blogs, Karlos' strategy guide and cue sheets.  This was all in an effort to summarize my goals into smaller goals/milestones.  My first major effort was to get to Helen and I gave that a timeframe of 12-15 hours.  I guess looking back, that truly was a very optimistic timeframe based on my rookie status.  I put everything in my milestone checklist on a timeframe of an average of 5mph average based on estimated miles to reach each checkpoint.  This did not factor in elevation delays nor mechanicals.  As I pedaled along those first road miles, a dozen names and faces were swimming through my head.  Asa, Colin, Celso, Derek, Chris, Drew, Curtis, so many strong riders, so many cool bikes and bike packing setups.  I wanted about a week to go over each of their bikes and geek out on the setups.   Surprisingly, I met a few riders who had completed the Tour Divide recently.  This in the bike packing world is kind of the Holy Grail of major accomplishments.  It goes from Canada to Mexico down the middle of the United States.  So much respect for the persistence to ride so far...I was riding with giants!  One thing I noticed was a lot of riders running Wolftooth GC 40 and 42 tooth gear upgrades.  This had me a bit concerned as I was already feeling the burn on my 1x9 setup with my lowest gear being a 36t.  What is ironic was that the 12/36t cassette was a last minute addition thanks to Greg Jones at Ride Bikes who handled it very priority for me as I had given up on finding a lower range cassette to climb the mountains and planned on running the 11/34t cassette currently installed.  My only real testing on this gearing choice had been made on our local bridge, the Ravenel, so in reality I was going in blind.  It is amazing that even though I was feeling the burn, those 2 extra teeth really made a huge difference in tackling monster climbs.  So, my mind went back to my average speed and my pace and I made a quick observation that I was going way too fast for my anticipated output.  I had discussed this with several of my close friends and TNGA veteran finishers, Mark and Mike who both stressed for me to ride my own ride and not go off the start too hard and simply allow those who wanted to race to go ahead.  This turned into my mantra, ride my own ride.  This is a ride not a race, I mumbled repeatedly.  I truly abandoned all hope as we made that first turn off the pavement onto the gravel roads leading to Dillard.  My heart sank as reality set in and I realized this was going to be really, really hard based on my gearing choice and overall weight of my bike.  I played a good poker face, because a few around me mentioned how relaxed I seemed, as I jokingly replied I just haven't woken up yet...ask me again in 3-4 days I said.  Inside, I was terrified of the unknown, running through a hundred worst case scenarios over and over, and more awake than I had ever been in my life.  Those first few miles climbing were the hardest miles I did the entire route, mostly because they forced me to handle my emotions and focus on forward movement.  I finally convinced myself that everything was going to be fine and that I had everything I needed on my bike.  As I settled into a relaxed pace, I noticed that all of this time I was going up, up, and more up!  It seemed never-ending and this was only the first 10 miles!  OMG, it was steeper than practically anything I had attacked in Pisgah on the heaviest setup I had ever rolled.  As the miles rolled on, I started to come back on riders who had passed me!  This was either a very bad sign or a sign that my strategy was accurate.  As I passed an unknown rider who was having early problems from the climbing, I realized my legs had opened up and felt fantastic.  I was riding in the saddle and expending energy very efficiently, only standing up to climb in the punchier sections of the gravel.  Another few miles in and I roll up on a few of my fellow yurt mates who had already started hike a biking which I knew at this point in an endeavor like this was not a good sign...Rode a while with Bill Bailey who was pedaling, but looking like he had throttled back after an earlier hard effort.  Colin also came up and matched my cadence so we shared a few early miles together talking about trying to stick together.  I initially thought this would be good, but seeing how I was losing more energy early on by throttling back to match the lower geared group pace, I finally cracked and started pedaling away on my own knowing they would find me, catch me and overtake me.  Another reason I broke away and started riding more on my own was the fact that I don't really talk much when I ride and there was a ton of nervous chatter going on around me and while I enjoy listening, my feedback was implied on several occasions, so I buggered off.  I was also running in panic mode since I felt undergunned in the gearing department.   Onwards I trudged slowly but surely, in my lowest gear riders everywhere ahead started to become apparent.  I felt like I was going way too hard, but I kept to my calculations and was right on target.  6.5mph avg.  Everything felt right, so I continued onwards.  After a few more hours, I realized this was going to take everything I had learned from riding single speed for so many years in the mountains.  Pace, leverage and moderate, yet consistent effort...Then just when I had developed a strategy for dealing with the never-ending climbs, they started pitching even steeper.  I could not believe looking up some of these damn steep.  I fell into an attack-rest-attack routine and shared the gravel with a solo female single speeder, who I later found out was named Eleanor.  She also kept attacking and surging forward, only to stop, unclip, rest and repeat.  After awhile I would jokingly pedal by and mumble "tag".  It was a fun game for a while because she would not give up the fight and kept me moving forward.  She seemed to want to win this game as I could hear her grunting up behind me and overtake me with everything she had.  I kept wondering how long she was going to be able to hold up that kind of effort.  She was running a really tallish geared single speed and she seemed tiny compared to some of the burly single speed crowd I associated with.  After some time, more single speeders came into view.  One was a guy who had previously completed TD and Mike Pierce!  Yes, I was in shock.  I was barely 4 hours into this ride and I had caught up with a few of the stronger riders out here!  It seems like Mike was having a really tough time maintaining his efforts and soon, I surpassed the whole lot of them.  It was not like we were on flat roads yet either, I was currently climbing 20-25% grades on gravel feeling every turn of the cranks.  Then just when you thought it couldn't get worse, it did...35%+ grades...ridiculous!  I have never seen such steep gravel roads in my life.  They went up for what seemed like miles with micro relief groins scattered here and there.  There is just no way to accurately describe just how hard this section was.  Finally, this all led to Darnell Creek Horse Trail which was my first major descent of this big bad adventure across Georgia.  I cherished the relief the downhill gave my legs.  I did not care how messy the trail was nor how tricky the lines were, I was using every bit of this as relief from the constant upward pressure my legs had just been put through for the last 4 hours.  It felt good to actually still be pedaling this far into the game!  Then just like that, I popped out into a clearing which was to be Dillard.
 This was my first stop for water since I knew the post office at the corner of the intersection would be my most convenient break.  Eleanor and a few others buzzed past me shortly after I consumed some water basking in the tiny celebration of reaching Dillard in my intended time window.  They never stopped to reload and kept on pedaling as hard as they could.  That is the last I would see of them as they completed the ride a full day ahead of me.  The unnamed TD finisher rider came up to reload on water and mentioned being entirely dehydrated and had stopped sweating hours ago.  I, on the other hand, was drenched in sweat as I was carefully sticking to my electrolytes plan.  2 bottles of electrolyte water at all times loaded as well as chasing it with clear water.  I was eating every 45 minutes and chasing it down with sugars.  I was sticking to the plan.  Upon leaving the post office, I also downed my last small can of V-8 which left my legs feeling very good afterwards.  I started to pedal onwards feeling very good about the last effort I had made and visions of making it to Helen earlier than I anticipated started entertaining my thoughts.  I went onwards wondering when Mike was going to catch back up, but he never did.  The road rolled up and down until Patterson Gap Road when another climb was attacked and I then blazed through up and to Tallulah River/Charlie's Creek.  At this point in the ride, I was feeling great, my legs were probably numb, but they were still producing output and motoring me along, so I kept cruising and most importantly keeping my head up enjoying the sights as I was now passing through some fantastic national parks and enjoying the beauty around me.  Feeding off the positive energy of the river flowing and the people swimming, fishing and enjoying nature kept me motivated and pedaling along at a constant pace.  At around 3:30pm, I stop for a quick lunch near the river enjoying the moment.  This brief pause reinvigorates me to continue at a more upbeat pace.  Finding the creek crossing to Charlie's creek road was tricky, but I finally get back on track and continue on my way.  I finally run low on water and use this opportunity to be around super clean running water to take a break and practice using my water filtration system.  I prop myself up on a rock in an off the route creek soaking my sore feet in the water and filter out 3 water bottles worth of water.  I then chug down a bottles worth of water and top off everything else.  As I was post treating my water and loading up, another rider caught up, Curtis, who was also about to do the same thing as I had done, water loading.  I tell him that the water tastes great and that I would definitely see him again soon.
 I roll onwards up the jeep trail road grunting and huffing as the road was a total workout.  This is my first time feeling truly exhausted, but the voice in my head whispers do not stop.  I trudge onwards mile after mile and find myself on a main road.  The tires on my bike are power suckers on the road, so I gauge my output as I spin along.  Curtis catches up and matches my pace.  He is looking for someone to pas the miles with and I am ok with this.  He tries to make smalltalk, but I am useless in this department especially now that I am trickling energy to the pedals only.  He carries on since he is much smoother on the road and I lose sight of him until I see him hanging out at a side road support station!?  Top of Georgia Hostel has setup a table with free PB&J sandwiches and Cokes and Water.  I swerved across the street and quickly scarfed down an entire sandwich as it sounded fantastic at that very moment.  As I downed my Coke, I chatted up Curtis who was laid out and looking a bit worse for wear.  We talk for a while, thank the wonderful lady who was manning the support station and we proceed on our journey together for as long as that would last.  Turns out, whenever we hit single track I was able to easily fly along and then as soon as we hit pavement, I would wait up for Curtis as he would then be the faster of the two.  Knowing each of our strengths helped us gauge how to best ride together.  We rode like that for the next 15-20 miles until the single track really started to build up and then I had my first mechanical of the ride.  It seems my constant stand up style torquing on the cranks was making my rear wheel slip in the dropouts.  I stopped about a dozen times to readjust the quick release lever which was now insanely tight and was hoping this would not be a show stopper.  I could tell Curtis was not enjoying all of the stops I was making, so I urged him to go on and that I would catch up.  He went and I never saw him after that.  I stopped for what seemed like 20 minutes analyzing the issue and realized the wheel was midway up the dropouts and not being shored up by the monkey nuts.  This meant anytime there was incredible pressure causing the wheel to slip, the drive side would inch forward leaving the opposite side tire rubbing the chain stays.  It was so annoying, but I finally resolved the problem and motored onwards down the final decent to the base of Tray Gap Climb.  I had no idea what this climb had in store except that my elevation chart pegged it as 10 miles of long and arduous climbing.  I heard others mention climbing Tray Gap.  So there it was, close to 9:30pm and I was just settling in to climb Tray Gap.  I was excited, but I also knew I was way behind schedule.  I knew it was because of all the slow moving riding I had been doing all day, but I was not going to get upset.  I settled in for the climb. Up the gravel I went.  Up more gravel.  Up Corbitt Creek Rd I went into a super steep ridiculously punchy initial climb which hurt so bad, but I had no choice since early on I had determined pedaling this beast was way easier than pushing it.  I soft pedaled my way up and over this climb with a super short recovery descent. which led to yet another uphill burner.  At this point I was pretty much done with climbing and wanted to just unclip and find a nice spot to rest.  I knew that if I stopped at this point, I would have to bivy for the night.  This went on for another few hours and was really just a long slow dull burning climb for what seemed like forever.  At some point near the top of this ridiculous climb, I ran dangerously low on water and had to go bushwhacking through the woods for water since I could faintly hear a creek trickling.   It is close to midnight and I am up on some mountain tired, hungry and thirsty in the woods searching for water.  Totally awesome.  I load up on water, and feel the bonks coming on so I decide to take a break and eat something real.  I look around and find a can of sardines in my tail bag.  12 hours ago, this was not the most appealing thing to eat, but right now I was drooling over it.  I crack open the tin and discover a pulpy mess of what was once sardines.  Turns out the sardines have been shook up from the downhill descents to the point of being pure fish pulp.  So there I was on the side of the gravel road eating sardine pulp with my fingers,  chasing it down with fresh mountain creek water and for dessert, honey stinger chews, yum!  I was living the life!  As sarcastic as that sounded, the real food and the quick break brought me back from the edge of bonksville not a moment too soon as I had crested Tray Gap and was about to descend on Hickory Nut Trail...but not before I get a little lost.  I am so excited to be nearing the descent into Helen that I pedal like mad to get into the groove.  I then find myself at a dead end at a camp circle and the fire pit is still warm and there are beer bottles all around it.  I am stumped, where the hell is the start to Hickory Nut?  12:30am and I want to get off this mountain!  I backtrack almost to the point where I stopped to eat.  Nothing.  I intensify my helmet beam and I get off the bike and start slowly walking through the campsite area looking for a sign.  I back track once again and see a sliver of what resembles a trail clearing 20 years ago.  My GPS seems to line up with it.  I creep into it and I find what I am looking for...Hickory Nut Trailhead.  It is a rutted out trail that does not see very much use.  1:15am  and I am finally descending this stupid trail.  I was pissed to have lost so much time looking for this sliver in the dark.  I set out rolling quickly only to be throttled by the hordes of randomly placed square mini-stonehenge style rocks everywhere!  I do not know why they were strewn all over the trail and I didn't care at this point.  My only objective was to get down off this damn mountain.  So tired, body spent and the only thing holding me together was my desire to make it to Helen.  I carefully pick my way down the trail slowing down over and over due to the rocks and sudden turns as well as the dark dropoff to my immediate left.  It took every bit of concentration to stay on target and not screw up.  I kept telling myself ride smart, you've got time.  No whammies!  I turn up the juice and do what I do best and that is descend on my mountain bike.  After about a million miles to the bottom, I pop out on a road headed towards Woodys Bike shop....My hands hurt so bad and I cannot believe I made it down that entire descent without a scratch.  I arrive at Woodys only to discover they are closed and no longer cooking, or anything...just my luck.  I continue onwards to Helen at 2:00am and find an empty town on the tail end of last call.  All the people are either drunk in bed or stumbling on their way home. No vacancy signs are everywhere.  I grow more weary and almost decide to turn around and continue onwards to  Vogel, but first I roll into the Days Inn to find a front desk clerk who is clearly super high and cannot comprehend that I would like a room for the night.  He looks at me and moans that he is just not sure, just not sure, just not sure, eyes bloodshot....and buries his face in room records trying to figure out what to do.  Its like a scene out of a surreal movie.  There are other people in the lobby and they all just look at him like he is crazy.  There is a biracial couple that was just married and was denied a room at another hotel who were super upset and the Limo is running into the entrance.  I spy a huddle house which I am going to feed my face in before I head off to Vogel.  One lady is there waiting on her husband who called ahead to have her to pick him up as he is quitting after Helen.  She asks me to explain how to read the Trackleaders dots.  I ask her for his name and show her how to track his dot on her iPad.  He has not even started Tray Gap according to his dot and it was a recent update, so I tell her its going to be early morning before he rolls into town.  She tells me I must be wrong since he told her it wouldn't be that much longer.  I decide not to argue and simply shrug my shoulders.  She looks up my dot and notices it last reported me down the road about 10 minutes ago.  She then proceeds to accuse me of "cheating" since my dot does not follow the same perfect path her husband's dot had taken and uses this argument to justify the fact that I am here and he is not.  I almost lose my shit at this point and simply walk up to my bike leaning in the corner of the Days Inn checkin entrance only to disturb a couple across from it in the dark having full on sex outdoors in the shadows.  The girl leans over and pulls up her shorts and casually walks away while the guy slinks off into the dark.  The front desk clerk notices that I am clearly upset and about to leave when he runs out and offers me a nasty room in the corner where one of his employees was living up until a few hours ago when he was fired.  It wreaks of cigarettes so bad, I feel like I burned my nose.  I decline, thank him for the strange offer and pedal onwards to the huddle house.  At the huddle house, I am greeted by 5-6 drunk bike lovers.  These old guys have never seen a fully loaded bike with fat gnarly knobby tires before so they are oooohhing and awwwwing... I ask them if they are going to be ok with me leaving my bike out here with them and they mention how they will take gooood care of it.  I sigh, walk into the Huddle house and find that the head cook never showed up for work and they are working on one short order cook for the night.  Once again, patience....I sit down at the counter and BEG for a large orange juice and a large coke.  The waitress happily obliges and I down them both within minutes which catches her off guard.  I order another orange juice and she says really?  I say absolutely.  After rehydrating, I order a super breakfast combination platter realizing this could take a long long time.  So, I pull out my phone, turn off airplane mode and sift through the dozens of FaceBook messages and texts.  I finally sort it out and starting catching up on other riders status and locations via track leaders.  I find Derek's dot is clearly in Helen!  So I go back on FaceBook and over to Derek's page where his status reads he has checked into a room close to the Huddle house and mentions having room for another if needed.  I quickly mention to the waitress that I would like my order to go.  She packs it all up and by 3:00am, I am on my way to a room for a few hours.  I find the room, beat on the door to no answer. Wrong room?  Wrong hotel?  There is a guy in the grass in front of the hotel walking his dog who tells me that he doesn't think there is anyone in the room I am knocking on.  He offers to let me stay in his room though!  WHAT kind of place is this??!  I beat harder on Derek's door and he finally answers it. I push my way in as he is disoriented talking about how today was the hardest effort he has ever done on his bike.  I close the door and handle all my business, shower food, clean my kit and hang it to dry.  I sit there in my bed listening to Derek talk about he is not going any further than Helen and I disagree with him and tell him to get some rest and reconsider a late start tomorrow.  He falls off into sleep and I finish my huddle house meal.  I quickly brush my teeth, dry off and fall asleep finally at 3:45am.  Alarm set for 7am.  I fall asleep....Longest day of my life ever.  I blink my eyes and tomorrow comes....quickly.

GPS Stats:

The Dillard Push

The Push to Helen