“Mind over matter. They’re gonna break you down to feel like nothing, and build you up with all the confidence in the world. It’s gonna be the hardest thing you’ll ever go through, but if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. Mind over matter.” Those were the words of advice given to me by Sgt. Hardy, my USMC recruiter, before leaving for Parris Island, SC to attend boot camp after graduating high school. They were also the words I drilled into my mind as I prepared for the Assault On Mt. Mitchell, an annual cycling event hosted by the Freewheelers of Spartanburg, where riders attempt to trek from downtown Spartanburg, SC to the highest elevation east of the Mississippi River, the summit of Mt. Mitchell, NC 102 miles away.
I arrived in Spartanburg on Sunday night and picked up my registration with my good friend Tim (the Renaissance Man) Stout, we had dinner, and settled into the hotel to rest up for the big ride. I was able to talk with Jim Simes, a good friend who was also riding, and he offered some last minute tips, since he has completed the Assault multiple times. He was there to support me and be at the top to hopefully see me finish. Monday morning came early and I was definitely a little nervous as he dropped me off downtown and I headed to the start. I was able to connect with another cycling blogger, Aaron West, who writes on “Steep Climbs” (you can visit his site for some great ride reviews, click the link on the right of our home page), and I lined up behind him and some of his friends. After the National Anthem was sung, we counted down the final 15 seconds, and it was go time. I took off behind Aaron, Wes, Julie, and Jack Daniel (yes, singular), who coincidentally, has family from Kentucky.
It was a humid, very foggy morning as we took off, and we were rolling fast, but the weather which can always make or break a big event like this, turned out to be wonderful for my first attempt at the Assault. I was timid for the first 5 miles, not sure where to ride. Cyclists were constantly moving forward and backward trying to find the right pack, and there were several crashes and close calls with dropped water bottles, dropped chains, flat tires, and other on the road issues. The most common comment for at least ten miles was “Slowing!” Finally, around mile 7, I became comfortable with the pack as it formed into structured chaos. It was at least organized at this point. There was small groups of 2-5 still pulling off the front and popping off the back, but for the most part, it had developed into 2 lines of bikes nearly 150-200 deep, rolling along at an average pace of 20 mph, and it stayed this way until the second rest stop, about 42 miles in. I pulled off to use the restroom, along with a lot of other cyclists here, and my pack riding (although I didn’t know it yet) had come to an end for the day.
I departed and found the first climb of the day after turning right toward Bill’s Hill, then the next thirty miles were basically long drawn out rollers. They were much more gradual slopes than the ones I’m accustomed to, not really a tough grade, but they were a warm up for what would come later in the day, without the downhill part. I wanted to mash out on these in my big ring, and I did on a couple, but I remembered my game plan, and not knowing the route, and how hard the mountain would be, I made myself take it easy, thinking I may need my legs later.
I rolled into the rest stop at Marion feeling strong even though I had let up some on my pace. I met Tim there, ate a banana, refilled with water, and headed back out, knowing it was getting ready to get serious. I passed several cyclists and a few passed me over the next section, then I passed a sign that said “Steep Winding Road Next 10 miles.” I hit the next rest stop to use the restroom again and refill, knowing how important it would be to stay hydrated and fueled. In fact, my game plan became key at this point, because I’m not used to drinking on a climb, normally I wait until I reach the top, then turn up a bottle, but if I had waited on this climb, I would not have made it. I also had to look at my Garmin check the time, knowing I needed to eat every hour, even though I didn’t feel like I needed it.
This climb really tested me, as I expect it did to most riders. The first couple of miles don’t seem that bad, but then the grade turns up a little, and it just becomes an all out out grind, both mentally and physically. It was somewhat demoralizing when I would witness riders that had turned around, and headed back down, or the ones laying on the side of the road waiting for the energy to try it again, and especially the ones I passed walking their bike. I remembered the only ride event that I had to get off and walk, and it was not in my game plan this time. Nor was stopping. I experienced a ton of different emotions on the side of this long taxing climb up the mountain, but I never once thought about quitting or walking. I really only stopped at the rest stops, just to rest briefly and refuel, and occasionally I had to pull off at an overlook and take in the view while taking a picture with my phone. I know there’s a bunch of cyclists that do this event with the idea of setting a personal record on time, but I found it impossible to ignore the awesome views that were all around. Looking out over miles and miles of mountains, being above, in and below the clouds, witnessing the shadows of the clouds on the tree covered slopes, was just simply heavenly to me, along with the sounds of the rushing water in the river below, and periodically running off a cliff of rocks.
I passed the eastern continental divide, and rose up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. More of the same. Same taxing pedaling, same awesome picturesque views, same 15-20 cyclists I had been riding with for the last hours moving along at what felt like a snail’s pace. Sometimes I found a burst of energy and passed them, and sometimes it was the other way around. I finally reached the stop at mile 93, and I could see a mountain top with communication towers. I asked the volunteers if that was Mitchell and they said no, it was over to the right of that, actually in the clouds at this point. Geez, it looked like it was twenty miles away, but I knew somehow it was only ten to go. Then I found a downhill run for a mile or so, but when you know you’re going to the top, it really stinks to give up some of that hard earned elevation, only to have to climb it again.
Finally, we turned right onto the state park road, and found the toughest grade of the day. This slope, after the last 15 miles, is a real kick in the butt. It was all I could do to keep the bike upright at times. For hours my speedometer showed 3-6 mph, and the miles accumulated as quick as paint dries, but still, I never gave quitting a thought. I wanted to finish, and if that meant 10 or 12 hours, so be it. Other than some lower back pain and normal soreness, my legs never gave out on me, and I kept grinding. I sipped a cup of ice water at the final rest stop and the guys said it was getting ready to flatten out. I didn’t believe them, but it did. It almost felt like a downhill after the last 4 hours for me, and I managed to get back in the big ring momentarily. The grade turned back up and we started to pass people sitting along a wall on the road. I knew the end must be near. Then it happened, I made a turn and into a shoot with cones and a finish line. At that moment that I could see the end, a deep emotional experience came over me. I suddenly felt a cold chill, and I wanted to cry. But then I spotted Tim with his phone on record, and I changed to a smiling cyclist as I crossed the line and said “I made it,” as the clock posted 9 hours 24 minutes. I got off the bike and felt a little disoriented, but was happy to hand off the bike to a volunteer and take in the view.
A volunteer handed me a patch with the Assault logo on it and I changed clothes, laid around for fifteen or twenty minutes then boarded a bus to head back down. I told Tim, “if I ever talk about doing this ride again, please knock some sense into me.” It was a long miserable ride down the mountain that took over an hour just to get back to flat roads. But it was impossible to not smile, knowing what I had just accomplished. My overall time was 9:24, with over an hour of stopping, as my ride time was just over 8 hours, with an average pace around 12 mph. We found an Outback steak house on the way back to Spartanburg, and I destroyed some food. We picked up Roadie (my bike) back at the auditorium, and headed back to the hotel for a hot shower.
Headed home on Tuesday, and was greeted by my family who were overjoyed by my accomplishment. I went out for a nice 38 mile recovery ride on Wednesday, just to make sure my body is ready for another century ride this weekend, since we have one in my hometown on Saturday. I’m fine. My butt is a little sore, but the legs and back feel fine, I’m ready for another big event. And just for the record, now that I’m a couple days removed from the mountain, I’m thinking Tim may have trouble talking me out of it again someday. Maybe sooner than later …
I will proudly wear my 2013 Assault On Mt. Mitchell cycling jersey at my hometown century ride, the Horsey Hundred, this weekend, for the first time!