Spring on The Buffalo National River

Do you like to get away from it all, and escape into wilderness away from the hustle of civilization?  I recently traveled to such a place, and I will never be the same again.  In the far reaches of Northwest Arkansas, in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, lies the Buffalo National River and surrounding wilderness areas.  Two hours off Hwy 40, after many twisting and turning two lane country roads, one arrives to this sanctuary of wilderness and wild country.  We were staying in the headwaters area of The Buffalo National River, which is roughly 12,000 acres of remote wilderness littered with waterfalls, mountain bike and hiking trails, caves, and the start of the otherworldly Buffalo National River, the creme de la creme of rivers.  The headwaters area is part of the larger 1.1 million acre Ozark National Forest, which includes the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area, the 135 mile Buffalo National River, and three other designated wilderness areas.  The Buffalo is one of a hand full of undammed rivers in the country and is truly a wild and scenic river.  Tall cliffs line its banks and the turquoise blue water of the river is spellbinding to the traveler.  IMG_1549My wife, Shannon, and I had a week to explore the region and how I wish I had more.  We just scratched the surface it seems, but made many lasting memories and experienced a level of peace and solitude that will last for many years to come.

We arrived on a Sunday evening just in time for the sunset and to check out our accommodations at Falling Trails, which is owned by How Kuff, a local mountain bike guide, author, and pioneer of biking in the Upper Buffalo.  http://fallingtrails.com/ We rented a rustic cabin on How’s place that he just built on the 150 acre property.  This cabin sits atop the highest point on the property with 360 degree views of the Ozarks and the surrounding wilderness.  The cabin has no running water or electricity (solar panels and spring water sink will soon be added) and is about a 15 minute drive on a forest road off the small country highway.  IMG_1478As soon as we arrive, we are greeted by the overwhelming silence, which will be the solace after each of our day’s adventures.  Silence like this gets deep inside of your soul and cleans you out.  It rustles your wildness inside and helps you to forget the troubles of life and get back to the simple concepts like gratitude and being awestruck at the world.  We take a short hike on trails near the property and find some of the singletrack in the National Forest we will hit in the morning.  We also say hello to the farm animals on the property, numerous goats and two horses.  They roam freely on the property and add to the wonder of the place.  After our short exploration, we light a fire in the cabin’s wood stove and relax on the porch watching the last of the sun’s rays dip behind the horizon.  The sky is a mixture of deep orange and red hues and the picture adds to the sense of wonder and awe we are experiencing.  We sleep soundly that night and set out to explore the singletrack in the morning.  How gave us a small tidbit of information and said there is a 3 mile loop near the property off his driveway, so we set out on the first exploration into the unknown.  We luck into the singletrack and the trails just keep opening up to more trails in an expanse of multiple forks and options.  We take one of the freshly machine built sections of downhill and are treated to a beautiful section of trail with berms, flow and technical sections all in one.  The trail eventually loops around to the section of trail we hiked the previous night and Shannon decides to cut it short and head back to the cabin.  I decide to push on solo, since we crossed multiple sections of singletrack that were begging to be ridden.  I hit a super technical descent down the mountain and was reminded of my home trails of Pisgah National Forest.  The rocks, roots, tight switchbacks, and big drops were just like the local North Carolina trails.  The trail loops back around to where we originally started and I decided to take a few variation side trails, which eventually led to the Buffalo River.  One section was a really long, machine built section that was ripping fast and flowey.  I was all smiles.  On the climb out the rain started, light at first.  I climbed back up to the ridge that headed to the cabin and then the rain came in earnest, along with lots of thunder and lightning.  At one point on the ridge, the lightning and thunder crashing all around, I kind of got in panic mode and pedaled like a man possessed.  The closest the crashing came was a four second count, and I probably should have stopped and gone into lightning drill.  The cold made the decision for me and I high tailed it to the cabin through the storm taking my chances.  The storm started to move off, and I made it back in one piece.  Shannon already had a fire going and I ate a late lunch.  I got 15 miles in and I was so psyched to ride later in the week with How.  He was going to take me on a real tour of all the 40+ miles of trail on Friday.  With all the multiple side trails and forks, I was so excited to have a guide for the next upcoming ride.  Right now the Upper Buffalo River trails are not marked on any maps and are all unofficial trails.  They have been like that for ten years.  How recently met with the Forest Service and in June all these trails are going to be officially designated for mountain bikes and recreational use.  The trail system has already received IMBA Epic status and it will be amazing when all the trails become official.  How is creating a bike ranch that will have campsites, skills trails, local races and a cabin(the one we stayed in).  The ranch will be a central hub for the trail system and How will help manage the trails and be a liaison with the forest service.

Day two, we decided to go rock climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Guest Ranch, which is a world-famous rock climbing destination.  It is a sport climbing and traditional climbing paradise, with over 411 sport and trad routes and more than 400 boulder problems.  IMG_1527The climbing is on sandstone and has a mixture of incuts, chickenheads, crimps, jugs and plates.  Needless to say it is world-class.  IMG_1497I hadn’t climbed in about a year, so I was a bit nervous.  The moderate grades at Horseshoe Canyon and the safely bolted routes enabled me to jump right back into lead climbing with no hesitation.  I was having a blast at my previous sport obsession of dancing over the stone.  The day turned sunny and warm and as usual on the trip, no one was around.  We only saw 3 groups of climbers the entire day, and only on very brief occasions.  We had the entire canyon to ourselves.  If this place was in Boulder, Colorado and not miles from anywhere, the crowds would be horrendous.  The remoteness of the Upper Buffalo River Wilderness and the lack of big cities or even towns is the key to its isolation.  The 1.1 million acres of surrounding forest is an isolating factor as well.  Shannon and I were having a blast and we were having some good bonding time.  After all, we met as climbers and climbed together for 15+ years.  The day was just like old times and we were all smiles.  IMG_1501Horseshoe Canyon Guest Ranch is worth a trip to Western Arkansas in its own right, but this day was just one in our adventure filled week.  We took a shower at the ranch too, which was nice.  They added a bath house since our last visit four years ago and have upgraded the camping accommodations as well to include a covered common area with a fridge, BBQ grill and a few more wooded campsites.

Day three would take us to the famous Buffalo National River and an eleven mile canoe trip on this mystical river.  I had not been in a canoe for many years and this adventure was one of my favorites.  The scenery is truly mind-blowing and around every bend there was something to look at and awe over.  We put in near the tiny one gas station town of Ponca and floated to Kyle’s Landing.  The scenery reminded me of desert settings in New Mexico with the cliffs and vistas keeping our eyes skyward the entire float.  Again, we saw only three people.  Two people were way ahead of us and we only saw them once and never caught up to them.  One person we saw hiking down a side trail as we hiked up to view a waterfall along the way.  The solitude was immeasurable and intense.  You felt connected to a deeper feeling in nature and felt like an explorer discovering new regions.  The only sounds were the wind and the gentle flow of the water against stones.  IMG_1560Times like these open up your mind to wandering thoughts of deeper connections beyond yourself and how truly wonderful nature’s gifts really can be.  Simple thoughts of oneness and calm envelop one’s being and smiles are not far behind.  We stopped for a side hike to Hemmed in Hollow Falls.  This magical place was one of the best places I have been to in my life.  A gentle one mile hike leads to a box canyon with a 225 foot waterfall that shoots away from the cliff in a snake-like pattern.  The wind was blowing the water in spiral-like patterns and creating a beautiful spectacle.  We had lunch in the canyon and soaked up the sights and sounds.  The water crashing on the ground put us into a mesmorizing trance and complete state of relaxation.  IMG_1594I would love to come back and camp along this river and really experience what it has to offer.  The day was one for the books and one I will never forget.  This trip was getting better and better each day.

Day four was for hiking and caving.  We hiked into Lost Canyon near Ponca to see a natural bridge, many waterfalls, an old Native American bluff shelter site, and to hike into Eden Cave that has a hidden waterfall deep in its dark chambers.  It was raining hard on the way there, so when we pulled up to the parking lot there was only one car, and they left of course.  Solitude once again.  We hiked in the rain up the canyon and then the storm stopped.  The sun started peeking out and the water was flowing loud and cutting the canyon like an orchestra of sound playing to a grand audience.  We did not mind that we were the only listeners, two wanderlust travelers seeking truth and peace in the remote Arkansas wilderness.  IMG_1626The natural bridge was a site to see.  We walked through it and the water sliced the rock like glacier run off in Alaska, cutting a large channel through the rock.  The sounds of water were creating a grand musical for our ears.  Further up the canyon was the Native American bluff shelter site.  It was beautiful there and I can just imagine people thousands of years before waiting out storms under the rock and storing their grains there.  It was a site to see.  There was a many-layered waterfall further up the canyon and another waterfall was coming out of the rock above the shelter site that free fell to the ground in gentle sheets.   We stayed there awhile and then trekked further up the canyon to Eden Cave.IMG_1636  A local said there was a hidden waterfall deep in the 200 foot cave that you can reach with a short squeeze through the rocks.  We brought headlamps and my bright bike light for this excursion.  Shannon led the way and fearlessly crawled through the thirty foot section on hands and knees to reach the waterfall.  I was definitely out of my comfort zone and moved forward reluctantly.  After crawling through the tight two and a half-foot high, 30 foot long squeeze section, the cave opened up to a large room with a waterfall crashing through the rocks at the back.  IMG_1641The chamber was around forty feet high and the waterfall rushed out in loud and powerful gushes and sprayed water vapor all over the room. I felt like I was in the bowels of the earth and at the site of creation.  The sound of water hitting the rock and pool on the chamber floor was a force you could feel to your core.  The room vibrated and echoed, charging your body and mind with energy and power.  Once, we turned out the lights and just listened to the power.  I felt like I was a rechargeable battery and was being infused with energy and life from this natural recharging station before us.  We crawled back through the cave and walked back to the car in a daze for the remainder of the day.  What a treat!

On day 5 of the trip, I hired How Kuff to guide me into the Upper Buffalo River to ride on his favorite singletrack.  As I said before, none of the trails are marked, so having a guide was the way to go.  It turns out my exploration ride from day one was just a meager scratching at the surface.  We went on a full on, back-country ride and he showed me a wide selection of classic trails from machine built flow sections, to long, technical and rocky descents.  The route had a mixture of climbing and downhill and was very similar to riding in North Carolina.  We rode 30 miles of some of the best back-country trails I have been on, and never once did we see another person, except once we saw a car going up a remote fire road.  A real treat How showed me, was a local fire tower I got to climb up.  He volunteers manning a research camera that is housed in the tower.  It takes pictures that scientists in Boulder, Colorado analyze to examine the area’s air quality.  He unlocked the gate and we scaled the 150 foot tower.  The 360 degree views were outstanding.  My climbing skills came into play as we forgoed unlocking the ladder to reach the stairs 20 feet up.  We scaled the metal tower like cats and needless to say, climbing in mountain bike cleats is a little sketchy and slippery.  How had his flats on and climbed with ease.  I worked my way slowly up the slippery metal beams and made it to the stairs safely.  I wish I took some pics of this excursion, but I did not have Shannon’s phone.  Memories will have to suffice.  The downhill descent from the firetower was a really nice way to end the day.  It was at least a four mile descent on fast and flowey machine built trail that led us back to How’s property.

Hanging out each evening was really fun and relaxing, too.  We would make a fire, eat dinner, talk about the day, and just relax on the porch watching the sunset, or would just listen to the quiet sounds of the woods.  These were some of the best times of the trip.  They were times when your mind would move towards thoughts of thankfulness and happiness at the incredible gifts being shown to us each day on this trip.  Sitting quietly among a still world of trees and clean air, one reflects on the joy that can be experienced in life, and one is reminded of the sanctitiy of wilderness and wild places.  I now truly understand Thoreau’s quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  In wilderness we become whole again.  In wilderness, we cleanse our minds and bodies and can take on life with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.  With heavy hearts, the next day we packed the car and started the long two day trek back home to Asheville.  As a pleasant reminder of the gifts we received this week, right as we turned onto the paved road, a young bobcat walked casually out of the woods.  We were able to walk fairly close to it and watch it meander slowly back into the woods.  IMG_1697It was a special moment that sealed in the joy and incredible experiences of the week, making them permanently etched into our memories.  Turning onto the main Highway 40, we went to get some food.  I was definitely in culture shock at all the people and noises.  The week of solitude and silence was in stark contrast to the busy world of life.  We headed for our final treat to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for a soak in the healing waters at Quapaw Baths and Spa.  It was a refreshing end to the trip and a way to rejuvenate after all the weeks activities.  We then started the drive home in a blissful, relaxed state.  In the end, I am so thankful that there still are wild places we can go in life.  Places we can go to escape and to reconnect, places we can go to remember gifts of nature and to create experiences that make us once again whole.  Until next time, thank you Arkansas.

Here are a few more pics from the trip.  IMG_1517IMG_1543IMG_1573IMG_1613IMG_1632IMG_1639IMG_1643IMG_1644IMG_1653IMG_1654IMG_1657IMG_1667                                                                                       IMG_1671       .IMG_1688

Thoughts While Riding the Snake, January 2014

What a day at the Snake Gap Time Trial mountain bike race last weekend in Dalton, GA. Many lessons were learned and mental barriers came crashing down.  Racing with a cold was probably not the best idea, and I literally never slept Friday night, so I was pretty delirious that last hour of the race.  But needless to say I was happy with my goal of pushing through when I knew it would be really difficult.  The mind is a very powerful force in life and capable of many great things.  I was reminded of that many times on the Pinhoti Trail.snake gap5

First off, this race was so unique and different from any race I have ever done.  A time trial format is really cool for mountain bike races.  Because we were all spread out, I never felt pressure or frustration at the beginning, which is so typical at other races.  I never once felt crowded on the first climbs and singletrack and I never felt rushed in any way. Spreading everyone out by 15 second intervals really works.  After awhile you found a group of riders to pace with and that was the case the entire 34 mile day.

So the next fun thing is getting to the race start.  I registered at the finish, a.k.a.”the snake pit”, picked up my number and decided to forego the group-shuttle on the buses.  I was with a friend who has completed the race many times and he suggested we do a self-shuttle instead of the mass bus-shuttle.  The added benefit of doing a self-shuttle is that you get to be in the warm car right until start time.  It was around 24 degrees, so I am glad we chose this option.  Although I will have to do the bus shuttle one day just for the camaraderie.  I hear it is legendary.  People started to arrive and a couple trailer loads of bikes showed up and the line for the start quickly began to grow.  We hopped on the bikes, put on our toasty shoes and got in line.  We waited only 10 minutes to get to the start and the vibe in the air was overwhelmingly positive.  Everyone’s faces were smiling like kids playing Hotwheels in the mud on a hot summer’s day. snake It is a very surreal experience waiting in line to start a race knowing that a huge test of limits was about to commence.  I got through the line and started nonchalantly to the cheers of a few people and I was off.  Everyone was going at a comfortable pace because as you know, The Snake has a bite to it.  The first fang is within the first two miles.  The dreaded river crossing that is the stuff of legends and endless chatter on every racer that has or ever will ever do The Snake.  There are a million methods to cross a knee-deep river in January and today I chose the take off my shoes, run through the river with wool socks and stop and put on dry socks and dry shoes.  I once again was happy I decided to take the few extra minutes to do this task.  Only a few people rode through and many were there at the crossing doing the same as me.  We all cheered on the brave souls who forgo-ed stopping.  There was even a tandem bike couple that rode through to major applause from the gallery.  Once again, a shared fun camaraderie that only this race knows how to create.Snake Creek Gap Time Trail

We then started the climbing.  The Snake TT profile is pretty impressive and there is a lot of climbing, with around 10,281 feet of total elevation gain.  But that number includes a lot of really fun downhill as well and ends up being around half of the total elevation.  ttI had been on the course once before and I didn’t remember as much downhill, but there really are some superb stretches scattered along the entire route.  I was reminded of my home trails of Pisgah so often and loved the mix of flow and technical all day long.  There were lots of technical, rocky descents in the latter half of the day and many fun flowey sections scattered in between the entire day.  The first big climb reminded me a lot of Spencer Gap Trail in Pisgah with a gradual accent on smooth trail heading up to short, mini-summits along the side of the mountain.  There was a lot of cresting a ridge, riding down awhile and then slowly making your way up to various gaps on the mountain.  I made a beginner cold weather mistake and forgot to get my Camelback flowing at the start, so it was frozen.  I had a bottle of Infinite, but prefer to chase it with water.  It thankfully opened up about an hour later, so I was able to get water at the second big climb.  I don’t remember a lot about that climb, because I really was getting into the zone on the first half of the route.  The trail was in really great shape, and everything was flowing so nicely that the miles were going by very easily and without much thought.  I was in the flow, but I was also a bit sleep-deprived, which is a fun combo.  I literally never slept the night before the race and that was a very interesting experience.  I usually get a few hours of semi-restfull sleep before races, but Friday night I was having a terrible time in the hotel room I shared with my friends from Asheville.  So even after a couple of hours in I was kind of numb to thinking, which was probably a good thing.  More time to just be in the moment and keep going.snake 4

My main goals for these races were to have fun, finish with decent times, have breakthrough moments, and to use them as training for the Southeastern Endurance Cup that starts in February.  My goal for this first race was to push through when I knew it would be challenging because I was sick, sleep deprived and not in the best endurance shape.  My winter season has been slow and I have not ridden nearly as many long rides as last year, but that is all right.  I feel breaks in fitness are good for a body.  So in this race, I wanted to get to a point where I wanted to stop, but to keep going and to break through the pain and just experience the moment of forward progress.  This experience would definitely come later in the day and it would be one of my best breakthroughs ever.

I made it up the second big climb and did the fast downhill section to the midway road crossing.  That section is really beautiful with ripping fast, smooth singletrack all the way to the road.  There are lots of jumps and twisty, flow turns and the bike just lets it go on that downhill.  I made it to the halfway spot and decided to lube up the chain, take off my winter gloves in exchange for summer ones, eat a little and refill my Infinite bottle.  I grabbed a couple of Fig Newtons as well.  Solid food would be needed later.  I took a few minute break and headed out on the next climb, which seemed long.  There were a few hard transitions of up and down on this section where you were going along in big ring and had to shift down fast in order to make the transitions.  After the big climb, I remember a really cool Pisgah-esque downhill that had lots of roots, rocks, leaves and drops.  I was back in my element and ripped the technical downhill smooth as butter and even passed a few people.  Pisgah really is the great training ground for riding everywhere in the country. Once you ride Pisgah, you can ride anywhere.  I was really enjoying myself, even though I was starting to get tired.  I made it up a road section climb up to the last aid station and knew the next ten miles would be the most challenging.snake gap

The last ten miles are really fun, but they also are the hardest, technically, on the race course.  You are on top of a beautiful ridge and go up and down off the ridge in an endless roller-coaster like ride that plays tricks with your head at times.  The views are outstanding in both directions, but one has to pay attention to the trail close here, because it gets more rocky and varied.  The famous rock garden sections are in this stretch and they were amazing.snake gap2  I played it fairly conservative in these sections and walked places I probably would have ridden earlier in the race.  I was able to clear a lot more than I thought I could by just peddling in a low gear and hanging on.  It is a superb section of tech, views, downhill, climbs, flow, ridge riding bliss and everything all in one.  I started to bonk somewhere towards the end before “the wall”.  My pace had slowed tremendously and I was just moving along in a dreamlike state.  It was pretty cool, I just kept thinking keep it going, be here now.  I was having just the experience I wanted.  The ridge kept playing tricks on my head and it seemed interminable.  But I never lost hope or faith, I never lost my cool, I never got mad, I just kept peddling.  Where was this determination and power coming from?  It was really cool, I was truly in the zen.  I was joking and talking to people, but not many were talking at this point accept this really cool single-speeder.  They are always cool, so we stayed together awhile for moral support.  He was talking away and it was great.  I remember him talking about doing trail work in the area, and doing the race a few times.  He was just out for a fun day and it was inspiring to ride with him.  Before you know it we hike-a-biked the wall and rode a couple of more short downhills and climbs and the tower was in view.  I had just passed through the old Civil War walls and caught up with a local from Asheville.  I rode with him out of the woods and he took off. snake3 I cruised down the fast fire-road and last section of singletrack onto the road to the snake pit and the finish.  I still had a kick at the end and sprinted to the finish line.  I finished with a slow time of 5:19, but under the circumstances I was more than happy with my accomplishments.  Mental breakthroughs like this one don’t occur very often and this grit and raw determination will carry with me into many other races and other areas of my life.  Biking is capable of bringing the mind to places of acceptance and perseverance that not many other sports are capable of achieving.  Keeping it all turning, round and round we go in this crazy world with a smile on our face.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday in the woods with a bunch of other like-minded and hearty souls.

http://pisgahmountainbikeadventures.com

Pronouns to Think About

Me, you, he, she, they, them, we and us.pronouns

Labels or words?  Names or what?

It depends on your context I guess.

I hear “they” or “them” used as words,

Words with labels attached.

Who is they that we are afraid of?

English: Words associated with Fear

English: Words associated with Fear (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or them that we distrust?

Labels or words?

Isn’t they or them

Really just we and us

And even you,

The same as me

And I?

55.5K and Smiles in Pisgah Forest

Pisgah Forest has a very unique characteristic common to its visitors.  Almost every person you come across in Pisgah is smiling.  It is easy to smile in Pisgah, and smiles were abundant at the Pisgah 55.5K mountain bike race.  chris pic3The weekend brought buckets of rain, and yet racers braved the elements and came out for their own personal journeys and personal experiences of smiling while trudging through the mud, rain and elements.  The thing about Pisgah Production races is that they are more of a cultural event and an experience instead of a race.  A rider commonly experiences things like inspiration, mental breakthroughs, moments of deep reflection, personal achievement, mental fortitude, and moments of pure joy.  Eric Wever, the race director, and I chatted about the race and he said that helping people create these reflective, breakthrough moments is why he organizes races.  Afterall, a person must be after something if they would go into the woods willingly climbing 8100 feet in 35 miles of mostly single-track, and riding all day in less than ideal conditions.  My own journey was definitely one filled with all the above mentioned emotions and experiences.

chris pic2Right away we started up Black Mountain trail and the pack quickly spread out.  I was feeling really good and rode with my friend Patrick at a good pace up Black and settled into the hike-a-bike to Turkey Pen.  My legs were feeling fresh and I seemed to be walking easily up the hill.  We pushed through the hike-a-bike to Turkey Pen and started the super sketchy descent.  I was flashing back to my days in Colorado and imagined I was skiing on a run at Crested Butte or Vail.  The two-inch layer of soup was really slick and descending felt more like carving big giant slalom turns in the snow instead of riding a mountain bike.  What a rollercoaster ride that section was.  At the end of Turkey Pen, I came up to an out of towner and told him to have fun on the last mile which was smooth and fast, but be careful of the waterbars at the end.  Famous last words.  I was feeling very confident because of the new rebuilt Fox fork I just got and was ripping the last mile.  I hit the waterbars way too hot, and endoed really hard on the last turn.  My full body weight came down on my bar end and dug deep into my left thigh with incredible force.  I figured I was fine and rolled into aid station one.  My leg hurt, but I figured in five minutes it would be fine.  I stopped quickly for a new Infinite bottle, lubed up the chain and I was off.  The pain in my thigh started getting worse with each peddle rotation and I knew I was in for a long day of sore and painful muscles.  Bradley Creek was next and it was quite the mud fest.  Wow, it was really thick in places!  I crashed again on the big washed out gully on Bradley, but I made it onto 5015 and started the long climb to 1206.  I usually can crank this section at a good pace, but it was evident my leg was getting worse by the minute.  I slowed my pace and knew I would have to settle into a grind it out pace instead of race pace.  I lost a few spots on this climb.  Luckily, at aid station two, someone had Advil and I took some to get my mind off of the pain.  Next up was Laurel and I made it up to the top right when the afternoon thunderstorm hit.  It was pretty wild with the thunder and torrential downpour on Laurel.  It was like the heavens unleashed a raging torrent of water and it all was being unleashed on top of the mountain.  I started down Pilot and witnessed something I have never seen before.  The trail was a complete river and you literally could not see the trail at times.  The mass of water was flowing straight down the trail and all you could see were a few rocks sticking out like lost islands in a sea of chaos.  chris picI was laughing it up the whole time, and thinking this is crazy!!  I knew my brakes were getting trashed, and sure enough about half way down Pilot, my back brake was gone.  The front brake was working very minimally, and that was interesting to say the least.  I rode it out as far as I could and had a few holy s*** moments where I was not slowing down and heading straight for drop offs, boulders, roots and general carnage.  I started to walk it out just before the rock garden.  I made it to 1206 safely and headed straight to the aid station.  I brought some brake pads and Chad, who just the day before had rebuilt my fork, graciously replaced my back brake pad so I could safely make it down Black.  Sure enough the pad was worn to the metal spring and we were laughing about that as well.  The front pad had just enough life to get me to the finish.  I settled into a steady pace and rode out South Mills and made it to the hike-a-bike on Black.  I actually passed a few riders and it was nice to talk with someone a little while.  Mostly, the day was a solo adventure and company is nice during these jaunts.  I made it to the hike-a-bike, knowing I was almost finished and looking forward to the fun descent off Black with a new brake pad.  My leg was throbbing bad with each step up Black, but a weird thing happened.  I just accepted the pain knowing in my mind that it was just part of the process.  It hurt like hell, but I knew I was alive and I knew I could make it.  Your mind pushes you forward in these moments and it was doing just that, willing me forward to a place of acceptance and learning.  Pain is not really that bad, and it helps you to realize that you are living and experiencing what you are really capable of doing.  It would have been easy to give up way back at 1206 when I got to the top of 5015, but I was determined to push through and find the courage and strength inside of me to keep the grind going.  Being alone in Pisgah with the quiet, the mud, the wind, the rain, the sun, and all the life, helps you to reflect and to dig deep.  I was experiencing breakthrough moments in my abilities to move forward and I was experiencing joy in action.  chris pic 5Cresting the top of Black was like going through a door at a carnival.  Warning, single-track bliss to follow.  The next four miles was pure, unadulterated fun on human-powered wings.  The trail descends in technical, rock infused, rooty mountain bike heaven, and my game was on.  I felt like I was flying.  The last two miles the trail smooths out and you can rip it like a luge course competitor in the winter Olympics.  Fun flow and smooth descending all the way to the finish.  I never get tired of that stretch of trail.  The woods opened up and I saw the finish line and crossed to a band of applause like I had won a stage at the Tour de France.  I pumped my fist and smiled ear to ear, and immediately grabbed a burrito and a beer, PBR of course.  chris pic 4I finished the race midpack, and yet this day was really not a race, but a shared experience of joy, pain, belief in one’s abilities, and the power of human determination.  Afterall, in Pisgah, smiles are a guarantee, not an option.

http://pisgahmountainbikeadventures.com/

Mind Games at the Green Gobler 6 Hour Mountain Bike Race

March 16, 2013 turned out to be a wonderful day of racing in Georgia. We rode the same trails of the first Olympic Mountain Bike Race in 1996, and part of the same course in the documentary 24 Hour Solo, which is the quintessential endurance mountain bike movie. The day was cloudless, the sun shone down on the dry course, and a cool breeze made for ideal racing conditions.  The course was fast with smooth, flow single-track, some tight and twisty sections, only a few moderate climbs, and lots of longer downhill sections where it was easy to get into the groove.  After the race spread out, I found a good rhythm and kept the wheels turning for the first two laps.  Endurance racingMy break after lap 2 was fast and efficient.  Grab a new bottle, pee, and lube up the chain.  The lube really helped as the dry conditions were kicking up a lot of dust and my drive-train was caked in dirt and grim.  Lap 3 and 4 went smoothly and during lap 5 I began to get fatigued mentally and physically.  My pace slowed dramatically and I started doubting I could ride much farther.  I rode for a while with a guy named Mike from Alabama and we talked about the mental aspect of endurance racing that was so key to the sport.  The warmer afternoon temps were taking its toll on us and we seemed to both be feeling fatigued.  endurance racing2We both agreed to keep pushing on, and to dig deep for that mental nudge over the cliff.  He said that what he loved most about endurance racing as opposed to other shorter races, is the mental fortitude you have to pull out of yourself.  He was determined to push through and that determination was contagious.  There is definitely something about another person willing themselves to go further, which in turn helps to inspire you to do the same.  I came in to the pit after lap 5 feeling fatigue really hit me hard.  I needed some solid food if I was to continue.  I ate half a bagel and more Perpetuum.  I went out for the 6th lap and immediately something clicked in my head and body.  It was like the mind said all right what do you have inside?  What can you do?  How far are you willing to go?  And then a resounding let’s do this.  I magically starting cranking the pace up a notch and felt alive.  endurance racing3The juice was flowing and my bike, body, and mind were gelling together and working flawlessly.  It seems I had willed myself to keep firing and to push through my perceived fatigue from the last lap.  On the two climbs I was passing others that had begun to walk the climb.  The miles were passing by and I was not really thinking anymore, just riding and being.  The lap ended and I felt a lightness in my legs and mind.  I was pushing through the mental block from before and finding new wings.  I went out for a 7th lap and finished strong with my 6th and 7th lap around the same times as my 1st and 2nd.  The day ended with me finishing 58.1 miles in 5:45.  What a sweet day of racing and mind games on this day.  The mind is truly the key to these events.  How much more are you truly capable of doing when we will ourselves to overcome and to push through perceived barriers?  I am exploring these ideas and see the journey as one of understanding in the realms of possibilities.  Keep it going in your head and the horizon is just the door to the limitless and infinite possibilities within your reach.

The Steadfast Mind of Endurance Racing

Endurance mountain bike racing is a blast.  Yesterday, I raced my first 6 hour mountain bike race called The Big Ring Challenge in Hayesville, NC.  It had rained the day before and there was a major downpour about 30 minutes before the start, but the rain did not deter the die-hard racers.  There were probably 250-300 starters.  It was definitely going to be a long and sloppy day in the saddle.  We were all together at the start and they moved us up about 50 feet to the loud screeching sound of wet disc brakes rubbing together and a collective laugh from the crowd.  

English: BC Bike Race 2010 - Day One - Nanaimo, BC

English: BC Bike Race 2010 – Day One – Nanaimo, BC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The gun went off and we were off.  I let the speedsters go ahead and settled in to a rhythm early on.  There was no sense in going out fast and burning the legs.  Slow and steady and leave the kick for later in the day.  The first few miles a lot of riders were together, but the pack spread out quickly and by mile 6 there was plenty of room between everyone.  I found a couple of guys from the 9 hour race and settled in with them.  We kept up a good pace for two laps together, but never went in to overdrive and my breathing and heart rate stayed even and consistent.  The first 2 laps were really slick, but the trails began to dry very quickly each hour.  By hour 3, most of the trails were really smooth and tacky.  Only one climb at the end of the loop stayed soopey the entire day.  It was about a half mile section that you could slowly grind out.  The rest of the trail was fast and smooth and it was amazing how effortless the ride began to feel the longer the day went on.  I stopped every two laps and cleaned and lubed the chain, grabbed a new bottle of Infinite, peed and drank a bottle of Ensure.  Ensure is the new secret fuel for endurance racing.  It keeps people in nursing homes alive, so I am convinced.  I used it during the Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventure Race (PMBAR), and it kept me going then for 80 miles and 12 hours.  Today’s race was no exception and I know it helped tremendously.  It has 350 calories in 8 ounces and is loaded with vitamins and minerals, and you don’t have to keep it cold.  My stops were about 4 minutes at the most and I refueled, peed and took off.  The chain cleaning took the most time after the first two laps as mud was everywhere on the drivetrain.  I am glad I took the time for this necessity.  I knew that it would help later in the day.  I heard a lot of people’s dry chains really squeeking later in the day, so for me it was worth the extra time.  After the first two laps, I really settled in for the long haul.  You get in to a natural rhythm after a while and your body and mind really start to get in sync.  I just kept it up and as the trails were drying I really started to enjoy the flow and fast descents.  I got really in tune to the twist and turns of the trail and the bike and body were merging with the smooth natural rhythm and motion.  Everything gets shut out during these times and you merge with the trail, your surroundings and the moment.  As the day went on there seemed to be fewer people on course and I was digging the solitude.  When you would come across someone, most people would chat for a while.  There was a common bond out there that you don’t get during shorter races.  Everyone was happy and laid back.  We would talk about where we were from, our mental and physical state at the time, bike stuff, etc.  No one ever seemed to complain and everyone seemed happy.  Endurance racing breeds a different crowd, one that is more laid back and generally easy-going and supportive.  If anyone was pulled over, everyone asked if they needed help or if they were ok.  I like that about this sport, the camaraderie.  My 3rd, 4th and fifth lap went really well.  I had kept about an hour pace per 11 mile lap throughout the entire race.  I went over the line on my 5th lap in 5 hours 10 minutes, and decided to call it a day.  I did not think I could pull off a 50 minute lap on lap 6.  You had to have all laps completed to count.  My fastest lap was 56 minutes on lap 2, so I reluctantly stopped for the day.  I was happy with the result and learned I got 8th place in the sport men.  Only 5 people got in 6 laps it turns out and maybe 4 of us got 5 laps, so I was happy with that result.  I was bitten by the endurance bug this day, and I think I will do this again.  There is such a great community of bikers and people in the endurance scene.  I have never seen so many smiling faces purposely paying money to suffer and ride all day in the saddle.  When everyone is in it together the pain melts away and it is just a common experience of joy and mental fortitude.  It is amazing what the human psyche is really capable of doing when we explore the limits of human endurance.  We dig deep and push through and adversity is just dealt with and we move on.  There are no hang ups, just adjustments and perseverance. What noble traits these races bring out in the human experience.  What a beautiful thing to experience the wonders of a human-powered machine combined with a steadfast mind.  More please.

Racing and Volunteering at ORAMM and The Jerdon Mountain Challenge

Last weekend was one of the best racing and volunteer biking weekends I have had in many years.  Saturday, I raced The Jerdon Mountain Challenge, and Sunday I volunteered at aid station #2 at ORAMM (The Off-Road Assault on Mount Mitchell).  First off, Todd Branham and Heather Wright are two of the best race organizers around and really know how to put together a classic two-day event.  These are not just races, they are more of a cultural phenomenon.  The races are a mixture of colorful and friendly locals, to out of towners from Florida that come here to test the draw of the mountains and elevation.  Pro racers mix with newcomers to the sport, and blend together into a common bond of pain, suffering and technical, single-track descending bliss.  One of the best parts about the event is the after-party, along with ample food, beer and camaraderie that is unmatched even at some major concert venues.  Afterall, the best part of endurance racing is the sharing of war stories at the finish line, while sipping a Fat-Tire and slurping down endless pasta and salad.  Most shorter races are just the racing, and after the finish line, people scatter with the wind and it is over.  At ORAMM and Jerdon Mountain, people mingle and bond in the shared experience, the net effect being bringing the cycling community closer together.  The weekend started on Saturday with ORAMM’s little sister, The Jerdon Mountain Challenge.  The course was a fast 30 mile loop with 4000 feet of climbing that consisted of two long climbs, two fun single-track descents, a long, rolly fire-road climb and descent, and a quick, flat time trial on road back to town.  The first 7 miles of the race was a long, gradual climb up the paved, old railroad grade of Old 70.  The group of 134 riders were very chatty on this section and I knew this race would be fun.  You have to love races where everyone talks and shares in the experience during the race.  The out of towners were wondering about the climb and I said to take it slow and steady and save some for the steeper Kitsuma climb which is on single-track.  I did the first few miles of the climb slower, knowing that many people would go out too fast on this climb.  I lifted the pace the last mile and a half and passed many riders before Kitsuma.  Kitsuma is a five-mile section of trail with about a mile of single-track climbing on tight switchbacks, combined with a fast flowey descent.  It was great to have local knowledge of the trail, because I passed a few riders on the climb and some on the descent as well.  Kitsuma has two tricky false summit sections where you crest a ridge and start a fast descent for a minute or so only to transition quickly into a steeper climb.  I have been dialing in this section on pre-rides, getting the shifting correct.  I passed at least two people in these areas because they did not down shift quick enough and were stuck in too big a gear.  The true Kitsuma downhill was beautiful.  It was dry and fast and I felt really dialed in, and I connected easily with the sweet flow and fall line.  Kitsuma is a fairly long descent and when you get to the bottom, your brakes are usually screeching and not working as well.  The last half mile is usually a little wet, but today everything was really tacky.  I finally dumped onto the road and the 3 mile cruise up to the start of Heartbreak and Star Gap.  I knew Shannon, my wife, would be at aid station 2 to give me a bottle, so I ate some gels and drank the rest of my bottle of Infinite.  I kept the pace steady, but tried to relax a little and rest up for the second climb to come up Heartbreak and Star Gap.  I rode through the aid station and Shannon handed me my bottle on the fly, me dropping my used bottle on the ground and flawlessly grabbing the replacement bottle smoothly from her.  I felt like a racer in The Tour de France and moved forward to the cheering crowd and supportive words from my wife.  The climb up Heartbreak/ Star Gap was next.  The first mile is flat and I cranked this out smoothly.  The last two miles is a steep climb mixed with some hike a bike sections on a few of the tight switchbacks.  I still haven’t dialed in all these switchbacks and had to walk a couple of them.  I passed a few people on this climb as well and felt really strong.  I crested Star Gap and started the fun downhill section to the Jarrett Creek fire-road.  Todd had graciously cut out two trees on this section and I flew down the trail with no hesitation.  The switchbacks are tight here, but they are all rideable.  I passed two racers on this section as well.  Local knowledge is key.  I made it onto the Jarrett Creek fire-road.  The first mile is overgrown and basically a fast single-track descent.  The next few miles are a gradual middle ring climb up to the first gate.  This section I planned to attack and I kicked up the pace on this climb.  Unfortunately, I seemed to be alone now.  I kept pushing onward and made it past the gate onto the first longer downhill section, which is a fast fire-road descent mixed with loose gravel on the turns.  I let it out here and went fast, slowing enough on the turns to not wash out.  I knew that this road is pretty sketchy in places, and I nailed the right lines safely through the loose rocks.  I caught one rider on the second to last small climb on the fire-road.  He was riding a downhill big-hit bike and was casually listening to tunes on his IPOD.  Wow, he must have really cranked the beginning sections to be so far ahead.  I made it onto Curtis Creek road and started the 6 mile time trial back to town.  I cranked this out in about 15 minutes and never saw anyone in front or behind the whole way.  I finished in 2:43, beating my personal record on the course by 11 minutes.  I was 10th in the 40+ category, and 25th out of 134 overall.  I was very pleased with my performance and enjoyed hanging out with everyone at the end of the race.  We ate pasta and salad, hung out in the river, and swapped stories.  I seem to have been bitten with the endurance bug, and have found my niche in these races.

Day two I was not racing, but worked aid station #2, before the dreaded Curtis Creek climb.  This day would prove to be one of the most inspiring days for me.  I arrived early, and talked with a lot of friends before the race.  The area around the museum in Old Fort was buzzing with bikes, people and anticipation.  The sky was a mottled grey, mixed with haze and clouds.  The earlier drive in from Swannanoa over the rise was inspiring.  The sun kept creeping in and out of the clouds and haze in that mystical North Carolina kind of way.  The riders gathered and Todd gave his pre-race speech, and then shot off the start gun.  The crowd of 500 bikers all laughed because everyone couldn’t move and was still.  Only the first wave of riders leapt off the line.  It took everyone else a few minutes to begin the roll out.  The racers took off and my crew of volunteers started packing up all the bags riders left for us to shuttle to aid station #2.  We had a smorgasbord of bags, coolers, and Camelbak’s that contained hundreds of gels, water bottles, bars, pills, tubes, burritos, you name it.  These were all the fuels people would need to get them over the notorious Curtis Creek climb.  We packed up and headed to aid station #2 at mile 26 of 63 at the bottom of the famous 9 mile climb which is Curtis Creek.  I knew we were going to be slammed later, because anyone who knows about ORAMM, has heard of the dreaded and feared Curtis Creek climb.  It is like the Alpe d’huez in the Tour de France.  It is legendary and mythical.  In reality it is not very steep, just long and arduous, and most racers would be hitting it after 11:00, and would be on it in the heat of the day.  This no doubt is how tales of dread and hardship have probably been hatched.  I have friends that won’t ride with us if we plan to do Heartbreak via Curtis Creek.  It is that famous, and dreadfully so.  We packed up the supplies and drove to the aid station and set up for the long day.  Jeremiah Bishop and Sam Koerber, with Thomas Turner on their heels cranked by the stop at 9:45, and did not even slow down.  Sam seemed to want to stop, but since Jeremiah didn’t, he cranked on.

Sam Koerber flying by Aid Station #2

Those guys are amazing and legends in our sport.  I heard they made it up to the Parkway by 10:30.  Inhuman machines they must be.  Well, about 5 minutes later, the fast Experts and Pros started flying through.  Most stopped and we began our rush of filling bottles, Camelbaks, opening bags for the racers, stuffing gels in their jerseys and handing out words of encouragement.  A good chunk of time went by, and the advanced masters and weekend warriors started arriving, along with the first woman.  She was cranking by the way.  The next hour was a blur of filling bottles, handing out electrolyte pills, giving out route information to out of towners and keeping people going with doses of motivation.  We had lots of stretches with no people coming through, and later the novice/ recreational first time racers started coming through.  At this point, we had slowed our frantic rush to a more supportive, encouraging role.  At this time is when the true meaning of volunteering and aid support really took on meaning for me.  We were now coaches and moral support for riders.  We were a beacon of hope to hold onto, and a wind of encouragement that could sail their boat emotionally up the next hill.  I now realized I was part of something bigger than myself at this time.  I was part of a force of movement and hope and overcoming obstacles most would never even consider trying to take on.  Now I was looking into the face of true grit and determination.  People were in over their heads, but it did not matter.  They were moving forward and they were not going to give up.  That kind of raw determination is truly inspiring.  Endurance racing brings out the best in people and I was witnessing it and was a part of it.  I have never helped someone on a journey like this, and it was pumping me up and I was flying up the mountain in spirit with these souls.  You really have to experience this kind of feeling.  The day slowly came to a close and our 2pm cut-off time approached.   One guy came by a few minutes before the cut-off, and I can only hope he made it.  He was pretty out of it, but he was determined to get to the Parkway.  I know he made it because he wanted it so bad.  We then packed everything up and called it a day.  We drove back to Old Fort and joined the after-race celebration.  The winners had already come in and a new course record was set by Jeremiah and Thomas with a time of 4:33 and 4:36 respectively.  Wow, they truly hammered it out there.  What a ride!  We joined in on the celebration, ate pasta, had a beer or two, and relived all that is ORAMM.  The last finishers came in with a time of 12:57, right at dark.  Those guys have even more true grit than most.  They finished and that is impressive.  If only I had half of that determination.  In the end, many lessons were learned on these two days.  Not giving up in the face of hardship, giving back in times of need, pushing on and overcoming obstacles, and moving forward and fast when you feel good.  Thanks Blue Ridge Adventures, and thanks racers, spectators and volunteers alike.  What a great cycling community we are a part of here in Pisgah Forest.

written by Chris, co-owner of

Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures

http://PisgahMountainBikeAdventures.com/

All pictures are taken from the Blue Ridge Adventure’s Facebook page