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.

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

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

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.

Finding Flow in Pisgah

I have finally completed a goal I have been working on for a while now.  Yesterday, I finished my first mountain bike ride of 50 miles in 5 hours and twenty minutes, with an average speed of 9.3 mph.  My great friend, Patrick, accompanied me on the ride, and we had an incredible day biking in the woods.  We linked up all the classic trails in Bent Creek and Mills River in Pisgah Forest near Asheville, NC for a sweet epic ride.  Surprisingly, the ride was not as hard as I thought it would be and I did not bonk as I have in the past on long rides.  There were lots of long climbs, but we mixed in all the classic downhills in order to spice up the action.  The day started cloudy with a nice gentle breeze and the temperatures were pleasant as well.  The forecast was for rain later in the day, but luckily we only had lite showers about five times during the ride and did not get too wet.  The rain actually kept us cool and settled the dust on the trails, making the soil tacky and perfect for biking because our tires gripped like velcro.  The big deluge came literally the moment we set foot in our cars at the end of the ride.  Funny how that goes sometimes.  A weird thing also was that no one was out on the trails and we had the forest to ourselves.  I guess everyone was scared away by the forecast.  Their loss I suppose.  We talked a lot on the ride, but Patrick is really fast on the climbs, so he would usually take off at one point.  I would steadily ride at my pace, alone with my thoughts and breath as a companion.  These times spent alone were very memorable and meaningful.  I kept immersing myself in the beautiful surroundings.  The woods were really exploding with the bright yellow-green of the new Spring.  There are hundreds of colors of green in North Carolina and the early bright green of Spring seems to be some of the most vibrant.  It breathes life and glows a radiant yellow hue as if the pulse of life is surging through the leaves and shining the suns rays directly through from above.  The clouds were blanketing the mist covered valleys and creating a rainforest-like feel of freshness and abundance.  The trees swayed gently in the breeze and water dripped rhythmically off the leaves, creating a sense of newness and reawakening of the life within that is Spring.  Sweat was pouring off by brow, and my breath was going in and out as if in sync with the sounds around me in the trees.  You have funny conversations in your head at times like these trudging up a long climb alone.  I felt alive and I felt calm and satisfied.  My body was working in harmony with the bike, the surroundings and the moment.  I felt as if I was right where I was supposed to be, moving my bike up a mountain against the fall of gravity.  I was challenging my mind and pushing through pre-conceived limits and enjoying every moment.  And for every climb, there is a much deserved fast descent on narrow single-track.  You are on the edge of safety and yet flowing effortlessly over rocks and drops, a smile a mile wide the entire time.  The pain of the climb melting away with each pedal rotation and burst of speed down the narrow trail.  A gentle tap on the breaks, a few pedal turns, dodge a rock or obstacle, flow down the fall line.  You are merging with the pull of gravity and speed like a downhill ski racer, making slight adjustments and most of all letting go of your thoughts and just being in the moment.  Flow is the name of the game on descents.  Fear is pushed aside temporarily and you let the bike do what it is made to do, namely bring you down a trail fast and smoothly, absorbing most of the impacts.  Your mind is temporarily detached from the fear and your body just goes.  These moments are fleeting and yet attainable by anyone.  Just let go and ride.  Mountain biking is a great avenue to find these treats in yourself and in nature. When you are out in the heart of wilderness, away from the hustle and bustle, with only your thoughts and actions as companions, good things seem to follow.  I felt this peaceful feeling of flow on this day and it helped me to keep going and to push through the pain. And it truly was one of my favorite rides of the year.  Not bad for a Tuesday afternoon in Pisgah Forest.