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!
“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!
I stopped briefly at the intersection of Hwy 80 and Blue Ridge Parkway along the eastern continental divide, and refilled both water bottles, adding Skratch Labs hydration mix to one. I then saddled back up and thanked the park rangers as I pedaled up onto the beautiful BRP. Thoughts running through my mind include hopes that the grade lightens up from the hard work I had just put in on Hwy 80 leaving Marion, NC headed to the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River. I pass through two spectacular rock wall tunnels and catch a quick breather on a short descent. As the pavement once again turns up, I witness two female cyclists up ahead, and hear two males coming up from behind. There are no quick passes on this part of the ride. Eventually, the guys catch me about the same time I catch the gals, and we all leap frog each other. I offer greetings to all, and soon we are all separated again.
On down the road, after many more climbing miles, I find another descent, this one much longer and extremely fast and frigid cold. Shortly after beginning to climb again I was passed by a female who softly said “only 8 more miles.” Last year my goal was simply to finish and I preached to myself, “if I don’t mind, it don’t matter.” This year my goal was to ride the mountain segment in at least an hour less time than last year, a goal that may seem unrealistic to some, but one that I took full aim at to conquer. I held her wheel after she pulled in front of me for a mile or so and she finally managed to pull away. This year was not about mind or matter, it was about truly testing myself, and when you find yourself pedaling a low cadence with no gears left for miles at a time, you come across some testy moments.
Why do we feel the need to do this to ourselves? I’m not built to be a climber, why don’t I stick to rides that favor my strong suits? Why drive six hours from home to put myself through this agony when I have a hometown century ride later in the week? Why, why, why …? And as simple as the questions arise, so too is the answer simple: because I can! And with that answer, I continue to push the pedals forward, with no stopping. I would enter the Mt. Mitchell State Park in under seven hours total time and had an emotional feeling hit me as I finally endured the first 3 miles of the park entrance road, the toughest section of pavement on this 103 mile trek from Spartanburg, SC to the top of Mt. Mitchell. As the grade became less, I shifted the chain onto the big ring and stood out of the saddle, and took off as if I was in a county line sprint. Soon, I made the final turn, and was all smiles as I crossed the finish line, and I was more than ready to get off my bike.
I hung out at the finish line area waiting to see my Bluegrass Cycling Club friends, who made the journey from Lexington and Georgetown, KY to the Assaults. I looked out over the mountain in every direction in awesome wonder at the beauty beneath us. I wondered what it must be like to be a bird and be able to fly over this immaculate area and witness the art of God’s canvas we call mother nature. It is simply stunning, only an experience you can truly appreciate by seeing for yourself in person.
Not long after I finished, I saw Jack Daniel from South Carolina come across the line (I had met him here last year when I started the ride with Aaron West, a local cyclist and excellent blogger). The finish was emotional for him too, and I could see he was also glad to be off the bike. It was nice to see him and converse for a few moments until my guys started coming in, one at a time.
I was very calm and not anxious at all leading up to the ride this year. I came along with 8 other cyclists from the central Kentucky area, and I was the only one who had done the ride before. We picked up our packets on Sunday and fueled up for the ride at Mellow Mushroom in Spartanburg. I had salad, a calzone, and water, with a Michelob Ultra later at the hotel. We all met around 5:45 am and rode our bikes 3 miles to the start point. The first part of the ride was again nerve-racking as I maneuvered my way through the pack and settled into a nice group riding along around 22 mph average until the climbing began with mileage in the forties. Finally, climbing up Bill’s Hill, our pack was split up. I continued to ride strong into Marion and felt fresh and energized as the real climbing began with about twenty miles to go.
I felt pretty good about my training plan for the event after my rookie year, and I think it paid off as I took nearly two hours time off my ride from last year. My stats last year were 9:20 total time for the event, with around 8 hours riding time and 3 hours, 57 minutes on the mountain segment. This year I had 7:35 total time, 7:07 riding time and rode the mountain segment in 2:49, achieving my goal. Again, at the top, I told my friends I was not interested in doing this ride ever again and most of them agreed. Having said that, my goal for next year will be to break seven hours total time. I’ve got a year to talk myself out of it, but I’ll probably spend that time training for it instead!
KP the masher