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. The 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.
Right 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. I 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. Cresting 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. I 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.