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.
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. 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.
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. I 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.