Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Beech Mountain climb (Memorial Day 2006)

As best I can remember, I read Lance Armstrong’s famous (or infamous depending on your opinion of Lance) book “It’s Not About the Bike” nearly two years ago. At the time, I wasn’t particularly interested in cycling other than watching the Tour de France, didn’t even own a road bike, and was about 60 pounds overweight. But the book was keenly interesting to me because it describes an event during Lance’s post-cancer training on the climb to Beech Mountain, NC where I used to own a rental cabin. Even without a personal interest in cycling, I got goose bumps while reading about Lance’s epiphany as he rode to the top of Beech Mountain. I was familiar with those three miles of insanely steep switchbacks and even as an overweight couch potato I could picture myself one day making that ascent on a bicycle.

A year later (by mid summer 2005) I had lost those 60 pounds and had just begun cycling in earnest but I did not attempt the Beech Mountain climb for two reasons: (1) having sold the rental cabin I had little excuse to make the four hour drive west and (2) my neighbor Mike who was in pretty darn good cycling shape had failed miserably at an attempt to make the climb earlier in the year. Yet I still dreamt of one day making the climb, and the thought of it provided added motivation to get out on the bike 3-4 times per week during the winter (outside when possible, on the trainer when the weather was bad).

After completing the Assault on Mount Mitchell on May 20th 2006, I finally felt like I was ready to attempt the Beech Mountain climb so my neighbor Mike and I planned out a Memorial Day weekend ride that would start east of Boone, head up the Blue Ridge Parkway past Grandfather Mountain, spill down into Linville, and culminate in a climb to the top of Beech Mountain. On the morning of the ride I was pretty excited but still a bit apprehensive. After all, even though the Beech climb is only 3 miles long it would be much steeper than anything in the Raleigh area and represent a more difficult sustained grade than anything in the murderous Assault on Mount Mitchell. Mike’s wife was kind enough to stay on yellow alert during our ride so that if the numerous climbs along the way got to be too much for us we could call her and bail out—but I knew that failing to reach the top would be extremely disappointing.

The weather was excellent as we started our ride: cool but not cold, with little or no wind. The temperature at 7:00am was just warm enough to wear a short-sleeved jersey, which was fantastic because I knew that trying to make the final climb in the heat of the day in a long-sleeved jersey would be miserable. I had taken my typically obsessive-compulsive approach to eating/drinking before the ride (relatively big meal at least an hour before the ride, lots to drink, plenty of high-carb snacks, two water bottles, and money to buy more grub along the way). In short, it wasn’t going to get any better than this.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a fabulous cycling destination. I can’t believe I had never ridden any of it on a bicycle but I will confess that my recollection from driving it in a car was that it is mostly flat with an occasional hill. Turns out it’s just the opposite: all hill with almost no flats. In fact, within a few miles of the start of our ride, I felt really stupid for having left the clip-on aero bars on my bike. They added a pound or two of dead weight but served no other purpose the entire day.

The scenery was gorgeous, we were in absolutely no hurry, and I made sure I kept my heart rate below the 85% mark at all times during the early climbs, but by the time we reached Linville I could tell Mike was getting tired. He trains almost exclusively for Sprint Triathlons so he was not accustomed to three hour training rides even on flat terrain. My legs were feeling fine but I’ll admit to feeling increasingly apprehensive about the impending final climb. The average grade over the three mile ascent up the front of Beech Mountain is 9% but there are several short stretches that reach well into the mid teens. What if I ran out of gearing and toppled over into traffic? What if I ran out of gas halfway up the mountain? Would the altitude (topping out at well over 5000 feet) take its toll? I’ll admit I was making a mountain out of a—well, out of a mountain.

When we got to the base of Beech Mountain, Mike began to cramp up and was momentarily overcome by a fit of wise and prudent judgment: he pulled over to call his wife. I waved him goodbye, and began plodding my way up the switchbacks, confident that dying on the mountain would be better than the humility of not even making the attempt. As was my experience during the Assault on Mount Mitchell, I was once again surprised by how quiet everything becomes on a bike when you’re only going eight miles an hour. All I could hear was the sound of my breathing and the throbbing echo of my heart beating at 96% of its maximum. And all I could smell was the pungent odor of overheated brake pads as oncoming cars tried to keep their speed reasonably close to the posted downhill speed limit of 15 miles per hour. Or maybe it was just the smell of my quads exploding as I went long stretches where I had to stand on the pedals to keep my cadence high enough to maintain my balance, I couldn’t be sure.

Around every corner I kept expecting to see a rising switchback I could not scale but the mythical mother-of-all switchbacks that had plagued my nightmares never materialized. I rounded the last corner, the road leveled out, and I saw the Beech Mountain Township ahead. I had made it. A bit slower than my buddy Lance, but I had made it nonetheless.

You would think that I would revel in having finally conquered the mountain that for the last two years had filled my dreams, and I’ll admit to feeling pretty proud of myself as I sat—still shaking from exertion—in the back of Mike’s wife’s car on the drive down the backside of Beech Mountain to the cabin where we were staying. But it was then that I realized, much to my dismay, that the road on the backside of the mountain is much steeper and more challenging than the climb I had just made up the front. So, at least for now, Beech Mountain still remains unconquered (the backside at least), a goal for another day, the stuff of dreams. I can’t wait.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

2006 Assault on Mount Mitchell

Due to the obvious difficulty of getting a large group of riders and their bikes safely back down the crowded switchbacks of a 6600 foot mountain after a grueling ride, the annual 102-mile Assault on Mount Mitchell is limited to 750 riders. To give additional riders the opportunity to participate in the 31-year-old Assault, the ride organizers added a 73-mile version of the ride some 13 years ago that stops in Marion, NC just before the horrific climbing begins. The rules for entry into the Mitchell ride are fair but somewhat complicated: online registration is first-come-first-serve but you can only attempt to register if you signed up for one of the two rides the previous year. This year’s Mitchell ride filled up in less than two hours.

I signed up for the 2006 73-mile Assault on Marion with the sole purpose of being able to register for next year’s Mitchell ride. This would give me a chance to learn more about the event, plan a training strategy for next year, and give me a whole year to prepare my legs for the sustained 20 miles of essentially non-stop climbing at the end of the ride. With 4500 feet of ascent over rolling hills in weather that historically seems to be miserable more often than not, the Marion ride is no cake walk so I had put about 150 miles per week on the bike since the beginning of March.

On the Tuesday before the ride, I was checking out the event web site for the umpteenth time and noticed that there were a number of riders signed up for Mitchell who were selling their ticket. Some of these folks were trying to make a hefty profit but others were simply unable to ride due to injury, surgery, or lack of training and wanted to give someone else the opportunity to take the slot as a ghost rider. On a whim, I took someone up on the offer: I was going to be able to ride Mitchell THIS YEAR! Of course it soon dawned on me that my longest rides in the last two months had been a couple of jaunts on a nearby 62-mile course that has a kinder elevation profile than even the Marion ride. Oh well, I told myself, what’s the worst that can happen? If I don’t make it to the top I’ll still be no worse off than if I don’t even try, right?

Trying to decide what to wear was challenging because the temperature was supposed to be about 48 degrees at the start, 70 degrees in Marion, and 45 degrees on top of the mountain. I ended up bringing several layers of clothing figuring I’d put on and take off layers as needed during the ride. At least it wasn’t supposed to rain so I didn’t bother purchasing rain gear.

So I arrived on Friday evening, picked up my race packet, checked into a run-down motel, and scoped out a place to get breakfast the next morning. Turns out there was a Waffle House right next to the motel (wow, what a surprise—imagine my luck finding a Waffle House in South Carolina!). I tried to go to bed at 9:30, ended up not getting to sleep until around 11:00, and woke up at 4:00am to the sound of thunder and rain. Oh, well. I don’t know how much the AccuWeather system cost to develop but I can promise you that the money would have been better spent on booze and prostitutes.

After a hearty and surprisingly delicious breakfast of way more food than I would eat under normal circumstances, I drove to the start and sat in the car trying to postpone the inevitable drenching. Unsure what to wear, I opted for a short-sleeved jersey and shorts underneath with tights and a long-sleeve jersey on top. I also packed long-sleeved Underarmor which I wrapped in my Mitchell jersey to help it stay dry, an extra pair of gloves, three gels, two granola bars, an iPod (which I did not use), a bag of ibuprofen, and some candy. I was pretty darn loaded down—probably a good five pounds heavier than I would be on a normal ride—and that was before all the clothing got wet.

At the 6:30 start it was still raining. I opted not to try to ride with the lead pack for fear that the exhilaration of being pulled along at upwards of 25 mph would end up causing me to spend energy on the Marion leg that I needed to make it to the finish. Besides, drafting in the rain seemed to me to be a nasty and dangerous proposition. Fortunately, the rain soon stopped and within a couple of hours the roads were nearly dry. I was able to work with several groups of riders on the flat sections but once we hit the endless rolling hills that typify the area south of Marion I found myself wanting to maintain a more consistent speed than the rest of the group. On the downhill sections, the ragtag group would bomb past me at speeds with which I wasn’t comfortable and on the uphill stretches they would bog down and I’d have to work my way around them just to keep a rhythm. So I’d be the first one to the top of the hill and the last one to the bottom. Still, it was fun to have some company and my average speed when I arrived at Marion was just a hair under 20 miles per hour.

I think I did a great job keeping hydrated and fed along the way but had to stop at the 42-mile point to use the bathroom and shed my outer layer. With my outer layer on my jersey pockets had been more full than I would have liked, but now they were bursting at the seams. Everything I had packed at the start was still there (sans one granola bar) but I now had an additional pair of full tights and a long sleeve jersey to carry. I looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and to make matters worse all my clothing was wet so it was like wearing a heavy backpack. But the sun was shining and my legs felt fabulous.

I stopped in Marion just long enough to refill the water bottles and use the bathroom again and then pedaled my way to the toughest section of the ride: the climb from Highway 80 up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Once the sustained climbing started, I was feeling pretty darn good about the fact that I have a triple on my bike—almost to the point of feeling a bit pompous about it, especially when I started passing people who were struggling—but my pride would soon turn to humility when I noticed that my derailleur wouldn’t shift onto the largest ring of my 11-23 cassette. So, although I did indeed have a triple chain ring, my lowest gear was a 30-21 which meant, of course, that I was essentially no better off than those poor suckers who were trying to make it up the mountain with a 39-27 and I was considerably worse off than the compact crank folks running a 34-25. Still, the psychological benefit of the triple was there because I never, ever use the small chain ring during training rides so it felt like I a bailout gear even though it wasn’t actually an advantage. And man did I spend a lot of time in the bailout gear!

There’s something thrilling about voluntarily engaging in an activity that sane people would never attempt. And, basically, the joyous insanity of climbing at an average grade of over 5% for 20 freaking miles straight is what kept me going. In a way, I felt like the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining. He’s obviously clinically insane or he wouldn’t be trying to track down and kill his own family but you can tell he’s having fun doing it. What surprised me the most during the hour-upon-hour of endless climbing was how quiet it was. The carnage along the mountainside tends to spread out the riders so there were long stretches where I was all alone with only the fleeting glimpse of riders cresting the switchback above me as evidence that it was an organized event. At 5 miles per hour the bike and the wind aren’t making much noise and all you can hear is your own rhythmic breathing and throbbing heartbeat. It was almost peaceful.

Never having tackled a climbed like Mt Mitchell, I didn’t know how long I’d be able to keep going or what pace I’d be able to sustain so I forced myself to take things easy enough that my heart rate stayed around 155 (during an hour-long time trial my average heart rate is about 170). I stopped briefly at a couple of rest stops to refuel and stretch rather than trying to push straight through. When I riding next to someone else I made sure I was going slow enough that my breathing didn’t impair carrying on a conversation but I could tell that the ride was affecting my mind because the response to some of the chatty comments I made to other riders seemed to indicate that perhaps my jokes and one-liners weren’t as hilarious as they seemed to me to be.

When I finally reached the crest in the road and the sign marking entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park (only 5 miles to go—wait that means it could take almost an hour!!) there was so much thick fog that I saw a rider ahead of me miss the turn. I tried to yell to him but he was too far ahead. The thought of that rider flying down the hill only to realize however many miles later that he had had missed the turn and would have to climb back up to the park entrance and then climb five more miles up to the summit has made me miserable ever since. It is the sole dark spot on an otherwise very silvery cloud.

The ride from the park entrance to the summit was actually much less difficult than I had anticipated—perhaps because along the way I half expected to reach a stretch of mountain that I simply could not climb—so when I reached the finish line and saw my time of 7:02 (a total of 6:42 saddle time, meaning it took me three whole hours to cover the last thirty miles!), my immediate reaction was that I should have pushed harder along the way so I could tell all my family and friends that I had finished in under seven hours. But my family and friends think I’m pretty much a whack-job ever since I lost 65 pounds by cycling and running and tracking every calorie and they’re pretty much sick of hearing about my cycling escapades. Besides, seven hours means nothing to anyone who hasn’t done this ride and the best guys finished two freaking hours before me anyway, so it’s not like seven hours is anything to brag about. So what difference does two minutes make? Well, to be honest, it means I’m going to train with a vengeance and set a goal to finish in under 6:30 next year. The best part of being crazy is being able to enjoy the ride.