Breaking Down the Limits

Going down Clawhammer Road, image by BradO

It has been three days, and I am still reeling in the excitement and wonder which is PMBAR.  The Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventure Race is not just a race, it is an experience, a state of mind, or for me a journey into new possibilities and new states of understanding.  May 5th, 2012, will forever be etched into my head as the day biking changed for me.  I experienced new levels of awareness, and new states of mental fortitude I have never come close to achieving in the past in my many adventures.  I experienced a level of precision this day between my body, bike and mind that comes a few times in your lifetime.  It was one of complete unison with the machine, body and mind that was hard to describe, except that it was like being completely lost in the moment of action.  The miles floated by and I did not even feel them.  Thoughts were very minimal, and a natural instinct of movement and rhythm filled my mental space.  Hills did not seem to phase me and I just kept peddling and ticking off the miles, which strangely did not seem to be that hard.  I even wanted to go faster, but held back for fear of bonking and losing the momentum.  Where was all this coming from?  Deep in my head I was pulling out new limits of possibilities and drawing forth strength and resolve I was not aware of before.  Eric Wever, the race promoter, later told me that the reason he does this race is so people could have these breakthrough experiences.  I was having one of these moments and pushing though pre-conceived limitations.  I knew I could do about 60 miles comfortably, but when we got to 70 and I still felt strong, I was rewriting my personal limits and expectations.  At the end of the day we went 80 miles, with 9755 feet of climbing, in nine hours and forty-three minutes of ride time.  I broke my personal best on the bike by 30 miles and I felt like I could have gone farther.  PMBAR like I said is an experience.  It started with breakfast that morning at 6am with my group of biking friends casually eating their meals.  Each person must have felt a tinge of nervousness, which I know I did.  Normally, I like to get to a race about an hour and a half before the start, but my veteran PMBAR friends said to relax and not worry about the time.  This is PMBAR, it is different.  Upon arriving an hour later at the start I soon realized they were right.  The relaxed vibe was so thick it was like peanut butter and jam.  People were casually talking and laughing, there was even a woman dressed in a fox costume.

Image by BradO

She was the one who later gave us our passports for stamping our checkpoints, and at the end of the race a much deserved beer and burrito.  How many races give you a beer right when you finish?  How cool is that?  The next reminder that this race was different was at the start.  Eric gives us our maps and then casually says your passports are at Pressley Gap, a long three-mile or so climb up Black Mountain trail.  All 200 racers let out a half laugh and sigh and started the slow climb.  The climb was classic with 200 people.  We were laughing and talking and building our resolve and commaderie as we climbed as one on this crazy quest we had embarked upon.  Forty five minutes later, we arrived at Pressley Gap and the fox woman gave us our passport.  The scene was very bizarre, with maps strewn all over the place and bikes in every space available on the small grassy area.

Photo from Eric Wever Facebook page, unknown source?

Alex, my partner and I plotted our course, but one small detail was amiss.  I mistakenly dropped my reading glasses on Black, so the map was a blurry mix of lines and names which I could half make out.  Alex was going to have to be my close up eyes this day.  I tried to not let it get me down, and played it off.  It would add to the challenge right?  Well, a few minutes later, and we were off.  We bombed down Clawhammer Road with grins a mile wide.  We talked a lot in the first two hours, the excitement filling our heads and the conversation being very light and witty.  We turned left on 477 and right on 276, the only paved road of the day.  Our pace was very high and we motored onto 475, then turned right up the first climb of the day on 475B, a long, gentle fire road that led to the first checkpoint of the day at Cove Creek.  Along 225, we saw a beautiful six-foot black snake and marveled at its grace of movement as it slithered effortlessly across the road.  What lessons could this snake teach us?  We arrived at checkpoint 1 and plotted our next route to Avery Creek.  After making a short side trip to refill our water at the Pink Beds picnic area, we headed up Club Gap.  On the way up, we saw our good friends Patrick and Jered, who were bombing down the trail at breakneck speeds.  We whooped and hollered words of encouragement at our friends and felt energized by the commaderie.  In fact, every group of racers we encountered this day would always smile and greet us with the same friendliness that you do not see in other races.  Every single person either said,”Hey,” or asked things like, “Having fun out there?” or other forms of encouragement and support.  Afterall, we were all in this together, a shared experience of pushing limits and breaking possibilities of endurance.  We were all in this shared experience of pain and suffering that we knew would be 50-70 miles, but everyone was so darn happy.  PMBAR does that to you, even if you are really hurting.  Everyone smiles and that is half the battle won, when you can smile in the face of a supreme challenge.  Smile we did when we crested the first minor hill on Club Gap and hit the first smooth single-track of the day, a short section of trail that started the flow of Pisgah.

Alex on Clawhammer Road, image by BradO

After climbing again, we crested Club Gap, meeting another friend Christopher at the junction.  We then took off on the first technical downhill single-track of Avery Creek.  Avery Creek is a typical Pisgah Forest trail, with huge rocks and drops and fast flow in between the technical spots.  We were really riding now, and casually floated into checkpoint 2, where a nice volunteer from South Carolina was manning the checkpoint.  It was very surreal there at the small clearing at a junction between Avery and 5057, which is a heavily overgrown forest road.  It was peacefully quiet there and the woods gave you that closed in feeling as the trees swayed in the breeze.  We got our passports stamped and headed down 5057 to Clawhammer Road, and up to Buckhorn Gap.  We rolled through Buckhorn, and onto South Mills River for the long smooth descent to South Mills River.  After stopping at the bridge on South Mills, we fueled up for the long climb up Squirrel Gap.  Cresting the top of the Gap, we downed a bit more gel and hit the sweet single-track of Horse Cove to Cantrell Creek.  This section is really fun with technical sections mixed in with fast and smooth trail.  One of the best parts about going to the farthest away checkpoint first was that we were alone in the woods all day.  Most everyone seemed to be on the other side of the forest as we slowly made our way to the other checkpoints.  This fact allowed Alex and I to ride solo most of the day, which to me added immensely to the experience.  You really get into your head during these moments and at this point in the race, we had been going for five plus hours.  Your mind starts to go into auto-pilot and you completely merge with the moment and action.  It is just the bike, your surroundings, and action.  Not a lot of thinking, just being.

Image by BradO

We got onto South Mills River and cranked out the last few miles at a high pace to checkpoint 3 at Bradley Creek and South Mills River.  The odometer read 50 miles at this point, and a regrouping was in order.  Now the grand surprise of the day.  The friendly volunteers at this checkpoint nicely carried in a full keg and grill, and offered up free libations and burritos.  Really?  Beer during a race?  Oh yeah, this is PMBAR.  We needed the carbs, so why not?  We settled in for a while and had a drink, lubed the chain up, and had lunch.  We stayed there for 25 minutes, but it was well worth it.  Now on to Hell’s Gate, I mean Bradley Creek with its 15 or so creek crossings all while going slightly uphill.  I had never been on this trail before and now I know why.  There really is not a lot of riding going on, but the cold creek crossings do feel great on the legs.  This section was very beautiful though, and the ferns on the sides of the trail here were breathing bright green life and gave off a very tropical rainforest feel.  I tried to not let all the stopping and starting get to me mentally, and tried to laugh and smile with each new crossing.  It helped a little, but man I have never been so psyched to see a forest road as the blissful sight of sunny 1206.  We made it through Hell’s Gate and now were on our way to surprise number two.  Sometimes there are angels sent down to earth to help mortals out, and we came across one on this day in the form of Stephen Janes and free ice-cold Cokes and grilled cheese sammies.

Stephen Janes giving out Cokes and sammies, image by BradO

He gave these treats out selflessly and we sat down in chairs even, to enjoy the nectar from the gods.  These treats were really the best thing I had tasted and drank for years.  This surprise was just what we needed to keep going and gave us the resolve to finish the race.  The caffeine kicked in on the fast descent towards Yellow Gap trail.  A gentle forest road climb led to the Yellow Gap single-track, which is some of the fastest and smoothest trail in Pisgah.  I can not believe I had only climbed up this gem before now.  Riding down this trail the flow came back in tidal waves and the bike was gliding like a dream.  Have you ever skied fresh powder out West and floated down the mountain with mile-wide grins on your face?  That is what this trail is like.  Fast, flowey and beautiful.  We made it to checkpoint 4 at North Mills River and Lower Trace Ridge at 4:45 and a cool local named Carlos was there hanging out with the checkpoint volunteer.  It was nice to chat with him, but we had places to be and miles to pound out.  We climbed back up Yellow Gap trail to 1206 and did the long and hard climb up to the real Yellow Gap and more sammies and Coke.  Another round of treats and Army men surprises and we were off.  Stephen’s kid let us have an Army man he was playing with as a memento to put in our packs that would keep us safe.  It seemed like a cool thing, so I grabbed one and stuffed it in my Camelback.  We started the long slog back to the start/finish down 1206.  We went by the trail to Laurel Mountain, checkpoint 5, but seeing that it was getting late and we already had ridden like 68 miles, Alex and I both decided we were all right with 4 out of 5 checkpoints, which would be enough to finish.  We were determined to finish this beast and were all right with pedaling by Laurel.  This decision was a good one it turns out, because we probably would have been disqualified from coming in past the time cut-off if we had gone for Laurel.  Our goal was to have fun and finish and we were determined to make that a reality on our first PMBAR attempt.  Off to the finish.  We started the long ride down 1206, left on 476 to South Mills River and up to Buckhorn Gap.  We rode through Buckhorn, down Clawhammer Road and turned left on Maxwell Cove Road.  The sun was getting low and the temperatures were starting to drop.  Our sweat drenched jerseys gave us a slight chill, and I actually zipped up my jersey for the first time that day.  Half way up Maxwell, I downed some Vitamin I as the top of my shoulder near my Camelback strap was starting to really ache and seize up from the extra load.  We made it to Black Mountain trail and had now made a huge circumnavigation of all of Pisgah Forest.  A short hike a bike led us to the top of the last climb of the day just as the sun was setting on the horizon.  Cresting that last hill was like walking through the door to a new dimension.  It was quiet, the wind was gently rolling through the leaves and the light was magical.  Deep oranges mixed with blue, lavender and grey all merged to form the magic that is Pisgah at sunset.

Image by BradO

We were going to make it now, the only thing between us and the finish was sweet single-track bliss.  The descent was fun, but it was definitely getting dark fast.  With a mile to go we passed a group of backpackers that gave us that extra boost of encouragement to make it down.  They hooted and screamed and said, “You can make it.”  The light had faded and we now rode the last single-track by feel, letting the bikes take the brunt of the obstacles and rocks.  We were determined to finish with no lights and we squeaked in around 8:40 I think, by the last rays of dusk.  Our friends Patrick and Jered were standing at the last fifty feet of grass field between us and the finish, and they shouted out a big yahoo at our arrival.  We then rode under the banner and completed the journey of all journeys.  We had finished our first PMBAR.  I felt like I just won a stage of the Tour De France as we crossed the line because everyone went crazy.  The fox woman immediately brought us two beers and two burritos.  These were our trophies and our initiation tokens into the club I guess.  Coors beer never tasted so sweet, and that burrito was a godsend as well.  We did it and I shook Alex’s hand and gave him a huge hug.  We dug deep and we broke down the limits of possibility.  Pisgah Forest had shared one of its treasured secrets that day and I felt completely happy and content.  As Randy Pausch said in the Last Lecture, “Brick walls are in our life to show you how bad you really want something.”  On this day, the walls crumbled and I walked through a changed person for life.