May 21st 2012, thousands of cyclists would gather in Spartanburg and bicycle 101 miles to the top of Mt. Mitchell. This is not a ride to do without some planning, so let me back up…
The Assault on Mt. Mitchell is a ride I have done several times in my past. Beginning in my 20’s, I have ridden this event once each decade of my life. The last time I biked this event was in my early 40’s. It was during my 40’s my life got a little busy and my bicycle began to collect dust. When I turned 50, my doctor placed me on two different types of blood pressure medications. Between that and the fact that I weighed 278 lbs, I realized it was time for a life style change. I knew I needed to exercise more and so I turned to what I have always loved, cycling.
I started bicycling again in April 2011. I went for a 7 mile bike ride. When I returned back home I felt horrible. A short hill almost had done me in. I had never been so out of shape before. I was wondering if it was even possible for me to get back anywhere near the shape I had once been in. My oldest son began to ride with me and encouraged me to continue. We set a high goal to be able to ride the Assault on Marion in 2011, which was only a month away. 7 miles turned into 14, then 20 and so on. I was building, but this was a slow process. Before I knew it, the Marion ride was upon us. My son and I with two other friends decided to use Mt. bikes to ride the 73 miles to Marion. With my weight, a street bike was not comfortable and I needed a more upright position. My weight at this time was close to 250 lbs. It took me 6 hours to go from Spartanburg to Marion in 2011. It was a long time on the bike, but I felt really good about it. I then set my goal to ride to the top of Mitchell in 2012.
I continued to ride, adding mileage and shedding the pounds. I complained to my Doctor about one of my BP prescriptions called a beta-blocker. It was keeping my heart rate down and made me feeling like I was fighting with my heart rate on the hills. When I got my weight was down to 240 lbs, the beta-blocker was removed.
I switched over to riding my Trek 5000. It was very uncomfortable at first and I had to raise the handlebars. I continued to train to achieve my goal for Mt. Mitchell. I have always set myself goals as it helps to keep me focused on target. At this point I had one goal and one material reward set. My goal was to make it to the top of Mt Mitchell in 2012 and the reward was going to be a new bike when I lost 50 lbs. It was around August –September I weighed in at less than 230 lbs and the purchase of a new bike was made.
I was increasing my training adding mountainous climbs, longer rides and continuing to drop more weight. My average speed was increasing and so I began to join a few local group rides. I was now able to average 15 to 16 mph on a 30+ mile ride. To a lot of folks this may not seem like much, but I was very pleased to be making this kind of progress. My son, 28 years of age was still riding with me and whooping me on the bike. There was one time I recall my son and I were on a hill climb and he was asking me numerous questions. I finally said to him “Do you want to ride or talk, because I can’t do both?” as I was gasping for breath.
After a year of training for the Assault on Mt. Mitchell, it was now upon me. I had pre-registered and had a room at the Marriott at Renaissance Park. The Marriott is very close to the starting line and the closer we got the more bikes we saw. The town has been invaded by high dollar two wheeled vehicles.
As I tried to check in, I was informed there were no rooms ready. I guess there is some type of local event that weekend and the rooms were slow to be cleaned. While waiting for a room I decide to head over to the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium and pickup my packet and information. There were thousands of packets lined in alphabetical order. I located the “S” table where I had to sign and show a photo ID to pickup my packet. The fellow assisting me was very helpful, offering additional advice for the ride. He suggested making use of the baggage ticket so that I would be sure to have dry clothes on top of Mt. Mitchell or in Marion when I arrive. The trucks were already in the parking lot and being loaded with tote bags. I cannot begin to grasp the overall logistical nightmare of planning an event of this magnitude combined with its unique dynamics. Overall, the volunteers, support crews and organizers did a marvelous job!
I finally get situated in my room so I can now head out for dinner. I take in some pasta and salad, then stop at the local store and get a few bananas, snacks and cereal and then back to my room. One thing I always do is wipe down and wax my bike before a ride. I check the chain, shifting and then oil. If you want the bike to take of you the next day, then you better take care of it the night before. The night before is also the time to get the rider number on your bike and jersey. I was not using the rider number for the tote bag, so I attached it to my bike in addition to the bike number. Often I have seen rider numbers in the roadway during a ride and I did not want to have any conflicts with identifying my bike later. Finally, ready for sleep…
Monday, May 21, 2012 morning comes fast. 4 AM wakeup. I fix myself a small bowl of cornflakes and have a banana. I double check my bike, Garmin, water bottles and so on. Clothed and ready to roll head downstairs at 6 AM. As I arrive at the 7th floor elevator, there were several folks waiting with their bikes. Each time the elevator opened, we could not get in because they were already full. After about 4-5 full passes of elevator door openings we decided to press the up button. The “going up” elevator door opened and it was empty. We were able to get 6 or 7 people with bikes into that space. As we continued our trip up, the door would open 2 more times and I could hear the aggravation in the voices of those still waiting for an elevator. That elevator stopped at almost every floor on the way back down.
Free! I made it to the lobby and then out the main doors. Bikes were everywhere! A cyclist’s paradise. I remember looking around at the variety of bikes and thinking about how much money invested in bicycles that was located in this one place and time. Then I began looking at the cyclists themselves and feeling slightly intimidated. I proceed to get inside the pack and lined up a little more than half way within the group. I stood there for about 10 minutes before the start and made idle chat with those around me. Where you from, what is your goal to the top and so on. I had set my goal at 7 to 8 hours to the top, remembering it took me 6 hours to get to Marion last year.
As the timer counts down those last few seconds of time, all you hear is the sound of thousands of shoes clipping in. When the start kicks off, it was another 15 seconds or so before I was able to begin moving. Alertness is on an all time high for the 1st 20miles. Folks were losing their water bottles causing cyclists to brake and swerve. The one term you will consistently hear is “SLOWING”. It doesn’t take long for you to get tired of hearing this term. I tried to locate a smooth and consistent rider to draft off within a larger group. I found a nice group of about 20-30 riders that seemed pretty steady until Bills Hill. After Bills Hill the group broke apart and dwindled in size.
I was trying to get to Marion as quick as I could yet not burn myself out in the process. I did not stop at any aid stations along the way to Marion. I was happy when I rolled into Marion in 3 hours and 35 minutes with a 21+ mph average speed. At this point let me reflect, 2011 in 6’ verses in 2012 in 3’35”. Now that is personal improvement! My wife (Beverly) was on the edge of the roadway waiting with refreshments. I changed out my water bottles and ate a pack of crackers. I guess 10 minutes or more went by and it was time for the fun part, the climb.
Only 25 more miles, but… They are the most difficult miles of the ride. A little ways into Hwy 80 you start to wonder if this is the climb and begin to think that it is not that bad. It sure doesn’t take much longer to realize you were not on the climb at that time. Heading toward the Blue Ridge Parkway is a tough climb, but you are still comparably fresh on the ride. I opted to bypass the aid station at the entrance to the parkway and continue on. The ride was slowly turning into a hard steady grind of pedal strokes. It was on the Blue Ridge Parkway where I began to feel a little fatigued and I was running out of steam. My legs were feeling the steadiness of pushing uphill for such a long time, but were still doing fine. It was my body that needed fuel. I did not take in enough fuel along the ride. 80+ miles into the ride all I had eaten were a couple bananas, pack of crackers, gel pack and two power bars during the ride. Along with the small portion of cornflakes and banana that morning, it was not enough food.
I knew I was on the edge of Bonking and arriving at one of the aid stations on the Blue Ridge Parkway I stopped for the 2nd time. I ate a few oranges, peanut butter and Jelly Sandwich, Lay Potato Chips. I drank some powerade, a small coke and water. Stretched my legs while doing so and soon I was back on the bike. But it was too late and I had biked too far without taking in fuel. My stomach was full, though my body was still waiting for the fuel to arrive. I would stop 2-3 more times for a couple minutes on the Blue Ridge Parkway before arriving at the Mt Mitchell entrance. Once while I stopped on the Parkway, another cyclist stopped, then looked at me and said “I will NEVER do this ride again”.
At the Mt. Mitchell State Park entrance there is approximately 5 more miles of climb and I’m there. Five miles may be a short distance, but not in time. I was slowly recovering from lack of fuel intake and was feeling much better. I was in a steady spin at about 6-7 mph. There were cyclists both ahead and behind me. After this many miles you can bet that most of the riders around you are your equal in ability. Behind me I could hear a female cyclist talking to a male cyclist. The male’s voice was faint, but the female’s voice was loud and constant. It was fine at first but for some crazy reason her voice was becoming annoying. They were not passing me and I didn’t have enough left in me to pull away. I was trapped, forced to hear her conversation. I finally stopped and waited for them to pass. Normally that would not have bothered me, but the mind goes to new places when broken down and tired.
I rolled across the finish line in 6 hours and 55 minutes. Within that time I had 45 minutes of stop time and burned over 9,000 calories. The volunteers took my bike and placed it on the bike rack to be transported back to Marion. A couple of my friends who I often ride with were already finished and waiting on others to finish. I spoke with Ryan and asked him how he had done. He said he had a time of 5’16” and placed 14th overall! I placed 226th out of the 768 riders that finished. Over 25% of those registered for the Assault on Mt Mitchell did make it to the top.
Beverly was near the finish waiting for me. She had taken the bus ride from Marion to the top of Mitchell. It was great to get out of the cycling attire and into dry clothing that she had brought. They had food at the top, although I didn’t feel like eating. I was ready to head back down and so we got on the bus and waited for it to fill. I guess it took about 20 minutes and we were on our way back down the mountain. As the bus traveled down the entrance to the parkway I was watching the cyclists who were still climbing the Mountain. I noticed two more Melo-Velo riders (my hometown cycling club/team) making their way. Yes, I was glad to be on the bus.
The bus ride was about 2 hours long and we were back in Marion about 3:30. The bus route goes almost into Ashville NC and then back to Marion to keep the congestion down along the Mt Mitchell ride route. Back in Marion it was “wait on your bike” to return. Beverly and I decided to drive into town for an early dinner. When we returned back to the Tom Johnson Campground my bike had still not arrived. It was shortly after 5 PM when my bike was unloaded and I was free to go home.
I am planning to ride The Assault on Mt Mitchell again in 2013 if all works out to do so. I have set myself a goal of 6 hours or less. It only makes sense that as I get older I should get faster, right?
Keep riding and stay healthy and safe!