“Pain is weakness leaving the body.” We have all heard this quote and some cycling friends have even credited Lance with its origin. In reality the quote comes from General Lewis B Puller who was in the Marine Corps. And it simply means if you work through the pain, then strength replaces it. Well after the Assault on Mount Mitchell, my body has a whole lot of room for pain.
The Assault on Mt. Mitchell (AOMM) is a ride that brings the pain like no other I have ever experienced. And after 11 Hours and 8 minutes, the pain stopped. This is my review of pain and suffering that I have labeled “the hardest thing I have ever undertaken both physically and mentally.”
A year ago, my good friend KP the Masher, completed his first AOMM. I was there along the ride, specifically in Marion, 2 hours by SUV from the starting point, and at the top of Mt Mitchell, 2 hour bus ride up the mountain. As I recall my spectator status was filled with “those people are crazy” and “I would never attempt this.” Yet one year later, I had helped organize 8 fellow riders from the Bluegrass Cycling Club to attempt the AOMM. Besides myself and Kevin, there were Linh, Gene, Ken, Howard, and Adam, all going to Mitchell. We also had Steph and Rusty going to Marion.
All along, my plan was to just ride to Marion. I knew I could do that. After all, it was just 5500+ feet of climb and 72 miles. I was telling myself this so that I would not have to cross the mental hurdle of facing the 20+ mile climb so far away from the ride. So as I do, I poured myself into the details of the organizing the ride – the hotel, the cars, the meeting places, the car drops, etc. Still not even thinking of the climb but focusing on the fun our group was going to have.
I trained more this year for this ride than any previous ride I have ever performed. Several of us went to Clingman’s Dome and after a near death experience, I decided that I could make the climb. It was on and the climb became my focus. I was even helped by the news that Clingman’s climb was rated harder than Mitchell’s by some bloggers. Next up was a practice century that was dubbed the Masher’s Hilly Hundred. Awesome ride at over 8,000 feet of climb that was challenging but reinforced that a century with 11,000+ feet of climb was now possible.
Time ticked away at a rapid pace. And before I knew it we were on our way to Spartanburg, SC, the starting location. We got there Saturday night and rested up. On Sunday we went to Church and I prayed for surviving the ride. The Linn and I set out to Marion to meet Steph, Ken and Gene to drop vehicles for ride day. After getting back to Spartanburg, all of us met for the pre-ride dinner and tried to forget about the climb. We all went back to our rooms and prepared everything for the morning. Bottles filled. Attire laid out. Bike checked. Food and hydration checked. Nerves checked. Sleep.
Race morning was a blur. We met at Sunoco from the three separate hotels at 5:45 am and rode 2.5 miles down to the starting line. The weather was perfect and the nerves were settling down. We took lots of pre-ride pictures and prepared to start the journey along with about 1,000 other riders.
When the ride started, it was somewhat chaotic. I tried to just settle in and ride carefully watching for crazy riders and dropped water bottles. The ride to the first rest stop was fast at over 18.3 mph. I saw everyone there except for Gene, Kevin and Linn. I wouldn’t see them again for 10 hours. The ride to the second rest stop was a more realistic pace for me at just under 16 MPH and 42 miles complete.
Now we start the pre-climbing 5 miles to the next rest stop and an average of under 13 mph, which as consistent from 3 to 4. From 4 to 5 I was down to under 10 MPH for that section that included Bill’s Hill. I still felt OK after Bill’s Hill and Marion was close.
Marion – I rolled into Marion with Rusty right behind Ken, Howard and Steph. The ride so far was not very painful with an average pace of 15.2 MPH. A few big climbs, but I was rocking a new 11-28 cassette that was a huge improvement over the 12-25. I also had Skratch fuel onboard and my hydration plan was being followed exactly. Refueled my body and my bottles and decided to go check out the food with Ken while we were waiting on Howard to get ready for our departure. As I was checking out the food, a fellow taps me on the shoulder to wish me luck for the climb as he saw I had a Marion bib number. I turn around and low and behold, it is Phillip, the trail angel that saved my life on Clingman’s Dome. (Read Masher’s story about Clingman’s for more details.) His encouragement was all I needed to set out on the climb and know that God was with me and I would complete this task. (Insert story that many of us now believe Phillip may not be real but areal Angel.)
Now I knew there was no stopping. Most likely everyone would be waiting on me. And there was no way I was going across the finish line on top of the mountain in a SAG vehicle. I was either going to ride, walk, or crawl across.
Five rests stops left meant five five mile rides. The rest stops were not equally spaced but my approach was just that. Five rides. Nothing more, and nothing less. It was harder than I imagined. After the first two stops, I did not see Ken or Howard again. Ken had said at the second stop, that he was thinking of calling a SAG. That was all the justification I needed – if he could SAG out so could I. But did he? That crossed my mine at least 1,000 times in the final 15 miles.
At the Blue Ridge Parkway I was still average over 13 MPH but I still had almost 5,000 feet of climb ahead. The riders were thinning out. I was still being passed but much more infrequently. Was anyone behind me?
I remember vividly walking for a about a mile. I was looking out over the mountains and God’s creation. It was an amazing feeling. But then I started to feel pain in my hip. This was very unusual for me. But I think it was a message to get back on the bike. During this walking period, I did learn that I can walk at about 2.2 – 2.5 MPH and I can ride as slow as 3.5 MPH. Riding would give me about a 30% improvement in speed which meant I would finish faster if I rode and maybe less pain.
At about this same time, I was contemplating whether I had enough time left. I calculated again that even if I had to walk the rest of the way – I was going to make it.
Now it was time to bear down and make it happen. 2 miles form the top at the last rest stop, the volunteers lied to me. But I am glad they did. It was a tough 2 miles, but there lies made me not face the mental side of 2 more miles of climbing pain and suffering. The last four miles seemed like an eternity – 4.4 miles and 1500 feet of climb = PAIN!
The finish line – what an amazing view – eight friends cheering me on when I came around the last turn. All yelling words of encouragement. Steph and Rusty taking pictures. Kevin running along side of me. I had completed the challenge. I had beaten the mental and physical demons. I had accomplished what I had set out to do – finish the Assault on Mt. Mitchell.
Final stats from AOMM:
If I said it once I said it a hundred times – never again will I make this ride.
So after about four weeks, my goal for next year is to finish in 8.5 hours.