Lessons from Injuries

What is it about extreme sports and injuries?  It seems they go hand in hand, and don’t they always seem to happen at just the wrong time?  Or do they happen at just the right time?  Sometimes we learn things from our injuries and sometimes the lessons do not set in and we have to get injured again to really make it stick.  In the end though, life has a funny way of repeating circumstances until the lessons truly take hold. Every time I get injured, I ponder all these questions, and I go through a range of emotions from anger to guilt to finally acceptance.  Acceptance is the hardest one, and it takes a lot of introspection, but it usually comes.  So first, I want to catalog all my major injuries and then I will talk about what I learned in the process.

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Hiking in Congaree National Park, SC.

My first really big injury was in 1990.  It almost killed me.  I was a young mountain sport enthusiast, living in Gunnison, Colorado.  I was skiing every sick line I could find, jumping off big cliffs at Crested Butte, and skiing crazy shoots and trees 100+ days a year.  I was kayaking every river I could find a shuttle to, biking every trail in the area from Gunnison and Crested Butte to Moab and Fruita.  I was rock climbing every rock face I could find, and basically living the mountain lifestyle dream of doing everything related to mountains and doing it with wholehearted abandon. The adventures were always epic, and I do not regret the fast and crazy living of the Gunnison Valley, but did I mention that I was young and inexperienced?  When you are young, you don’t have a healthy respect for fear, and you basically huck yourself into every situation without much thought about the consequences.  When you are 20, you don’t realize that rocks can hurt and they can even kill.  So that Fall season, we had gotten a lot of early season snow for about two weeks and the powder gods were dumping the area with tons of snow.  We decided to hike for some turns on Crested Butte Mountain before it was open and we were treated to the best powder day I have ever experienced.  It was literally chest deep and some of the best light and fluffy snow I have ever skied.  We had been doing laps on some of the front side runs mid-mountain and during the last run, we were slowly making our way down the mountain.  They had cut a new black run on the front side of the mountain and we wanted to check it out.  Apparently, the stumps were not yet completely cleared out on that section.  I noticed a few strands of long grass sticking out of the snow, but I figured we would be all right and I dropped in.  I made three turns, caught a tip and went down on my side, right into one of the hidden tree stumps.  In my inexperience, I did not realize that the early season snow had not set up an adequate base layer yet, and so we were basically skiing right above the rocks.  It was fine up higher, but not down lower in the valley. Stumps do not mix well with ski tips, even if you are not going fast.  I went down and did not hit hard, but the wind was immediately knocked out of my chest and I was in a lot of pain on my side and gut.  I caught my breath, but was still having excruciating pain like a knife cutting into me with each breath I took, so I decided I needed to get out of there and find some help.  Each breath and every bump on the way down felt like hell-fire and  I was about to pass out from the pain.  Something was wrong.  At the bottom of the mountain, I laid down for a minute, while my friend went to get the van.  Luckily, he was not able to hike up to where the van was because he had on old Sorrell boots that were terrible for hiking uphill.  I wanted to lie there for awhile,  but he sensed something was wrong.  He came back to where I was and immediately got me up and we stumbled to the nearest clinic in Crested Butte.   I started to knock on the door and the door opened simultaneously.  The only paramedic in town was literally on his way to the store and we surprised him.  If I had been a minute or two later he would have been gone, and I found out later I would not have made it to hospital in time, which was 30 minutes down the road in Gunnison.  We went inside, took x-rays and determined I had two broken ribs.  I was getting very dizzy and was about to lose consciousness, so the paramedic called an ambulance and we set out to the hospital.  He got an IV in me and it turns out that is what saved my life.  If I had driven on my own, I would not have made it.  We made it to the hospital in Gunnison.  They put a catheter in me and it was all blood.  They did an exploratory surgery to see what was going on inside.  The broken ribs had punctured my kidney and I was bleeding internally.  The doctor thought it was not that bad and it would seal up on its own, so I sat in the hospital for a week with no progress.  Each day I kept bleeding out a small amount of blood in my urine.   A week later they sent me to Montrose, Colorado to have a MRI.  The doctor there said I needed emergency surgery to repair the kidney.  So they sent me to Denver General to a kidney specialist and he repaired the kidney the next day.  Two days later the stitches broke and I had to have a second surgery. After about three more weeks of recovery, I finally was released from the hospital.  Later, I went to retrieve my skis from the clinic in Crested Butte and met the guy who saved my life.  He said I could have died from that injury and I was lucky to be alive.  I thanked him and we talked a lot about the thin line of life and death.  So as you can see, that day gave me a new-found sense of life and purpose, and I gained a new sense of the fragile nature of life.  I decided I needed to slow down a little and think about things more before jumping in head first.  In one quick moment, I was given a glimpse of the transient nature of life and it woke me up.  I was thankful to be alive and it gave me a new sense of being thankful for every breath and every moment.  I vowed to cherish life more and to live life with more purpose and direction.  I would still ski, bike, climb and kayak, but now I would have a better sense of respect for possible injuries and I would listen to my gut instinct more when it said to back off.  I was learning to turn off the ego, and to live for my own joy and not to impress others.  When you are young, you sometimes do things so others will be impressed and my competitive nature always drove me to do better and to go bigger than someone else and to do it faster, etc.  I was now realizing the futility of ego and I was learning to live for my own goals and aspirations.  Who did I need to impress?  Who cares what others think?  In sport, you have to do things for your own joy and passion. When you can do that and learn to live in the moment, you are free to pursue sport for the sake of sport and you learn to push yourself in ways you never realized were possible.

My next injury was many years later and it was a big one too.  I was rock climbing one day on a two pitch route in North Carolina at the Looking Glass called Rat’s Ass.

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Climbing the super classic finger crack Shredded Wheat 5.11

After the first pitch, I had set up a hanging belay in a crack and brought my wife Shannon up to the stance.  I had noticed a shooting pain in my lower back and it was killing me.  We finished the day and I went home and took some Ibuprofen to help with the shooting back pain.  It never went away and for the next month, every time I was standing, sitting, or walking, I was in intense pain.  The pain radiated down my leg and and was debilitating. The only time it did not hurt, was when I was laying in the fetal position in bed.  I had been getting massage and adjustments at a Osteopath for a while and the pain would go away for a day, but it would come back with a vengeance.  The Osteopath finally ordered an MRI and gave me a diagnosis of a slipped or herniated disc.  A lifetime of skiing bumps and hard mountain living had finally caught up to me.  Surgery was the only option, so I traveled to Dallas, Texas and had surgery with a neurologist friend of my dads.  Two hours after the surgery, I was pain-free and I walked out of the hospital.  The laminectomy/dissectomy surgery was a complete success.  The doctor said I could not rock climb for three months, and at the time I was a complete climbing addict.  What was I going to do?  How could I not climb for 90 days?  At first I was super depressed and angry.  I got bored very quickly as well.  The doctor said to walk as much as possible for therapy, so I started hiking more. Slowly, my mental state started to change.  I went to some amazing places in North Carolina and started hiking a few 6000 foot peaks.

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The ridge to Plott Balsam

I discovered a hiking program called SB6K, which stands for South Beyond 6000.  SB6K is a hiking challenge to hike all the states 40 peaks over 6000 feet.  There are actually 60 peaks, but some are just sub-peaks of other peaks.  I completed the program a year later and that was one of the most meaningful and tough projects I have ever completed.  For a full write up of that experience, see my post Bushwhacking in High Places.  In the end of that experience, I discovered that life can show you many beautiful things if you take the time to find them and step out of your comfort zone and try new things.  The back injury forced me to stop climbing, and I learned to climb in new ways, through hiking.  I saw places of beauty during that summer that I cannot describe, and I learned more about perseverance and overcoming great odds in three months than I had in all my entire life.  I learned patience and how to wait for things.  After three months I started climbing again, and the lessons I learned during that time helped my climbing tremendously.  I learned to wait for the right moment, and I learned that injuries get better when the time is right.  I learned that not doing your main passion all the time opens other doors of learning and opportunities that are sometimes hidden.  Once again I learned about moderation and managing risk.  I would still climb, but I would do it smarter and in ways that did not tax my back so much.  I learned to respect my body and to cherish it for what it is, a medium through which I discover beautiful things and places in the world.  I needed to take care of my body and slowing down is always a good thing for your body.  I did not stop, I was just more mindful and not as careless.

My next injury was tearing my glenoid labrum joint in my shoulder while bouldering at the climbing gym.  I had been pushing it really hard and completed a strenuous problem, but in an instant of ego, I dynoed to a higher hold to show I could do a hard problem, plus one more move.  The instant I lunged for the hold I heard and felt the click, which signaled the tear of my shoulder.  I instantly had a shooting pain all through my arm and knew I injured it.  I rested for about a week and it still hurt bad, so I finally went to the doctor.  He ordered a MRI and yes, I tore the joint.  It would never completely heal, but he did say to rest for a while and see what happens.  I did not climb for a month.  He said to go out and test the waters so to speak.  I went out and climbed on it.  It seemed fine, so to this day, I still climb on it and never got surgery.  I just have to be aware of it and not overly exert the shoulder too much.  I can still climb hard, but I have to use my feet more and push through moves instead of yank hard on my shoulder or do a crazy dynamic move on the shoulder.  So once again, the lessons were moderation and control.  I learned to have control of my body to not flail around on climbs haphazardly and jump for holds.   I learned to control my mind to not over do it when I might want to do “one more route before we go”, and most of all I learned to control my mind and let it go and relax in situations that might be stressful.  I have learned to be in the moment more and to take things for what they are now.  If I fail at a route and it is too hard, it is all right and I know I tried my best.  At least I am still out there giving it a go.  I do not have to be the best and I do not have to do every route, but I still get out there and do it.

Last year I was injured hiking.  That injury was pretty funny actually, because I got hurt trying to help a dog get a ball out of the river.  My wife and I used to walk a husky for extra money twice a week.  That day we went on one of our favorite hikes to a local waterfall in Montreat College.  Finn, the dog we walked, loved the water and he loved tennis balls and chasing them.  He just did not really understand the art of fetching.

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Finn the dog

He would do it sometimes, but most of the time he would only bring back the ball half way, or he would drop it in the river, like he did that day.  I threw the ball and he chased it and brought it back half way and it rolled back into the river.  Slowly it tumbled down to a lower pool in the river.  He would not get it and so dumb me went for it.  I started to walk towards the slanting, slick wall of rock near the water and slipped.  I tried to run it out, fell and almost made it, but hit my hand hard on the rocks and severely dislocated my ring finger.  I had to get stitches and luckily I got my wedding ring off before the major swelling started.  They later numbed my hand and finger with Novacaine and set it back in place.  The shots on my finger and hand they gave me really hurt by the way.  Have you ever had a shot right in the sensitive nerves of your fingers and hand?  Yes, it burns like fire and feels like someone is grinding your hand  with a meat cleaver.  It is now a year and a half later, and I still have a swollen knuckle on my finger.  I can get my wedding ring on and off if I put baby oil on it.  At least I still have complete range of motion and I can still ride and race my bike and run my guide service I started called Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures.

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Firetower in The Buffalo National River trails, AR.

So through this injury, I learned that even simple outings can become dangerous and if you let your guard down, even for a moment, things can happen that you do not expect.  I was not thinking and went down the steep, wet slope towards the water just to get a tennis ball.  I let my guard down and fell on a slope I knew not to tread on, but I did anyways in a momentary lapse of judgement.  After this experience, I learned to slow down and evaluate situations, even simple ones, for objective hazards, and think before you act.  One of the best lessons I learned from rock climbing that could be applied here, is to think of a challenge and fear of the unknown as a bubble.  You have a circle around you at all times.  If you stay in the circle, you stagnate and never grow.  To grow, you must step out of the circle and push through your fear.  You see the fear or objective danger for what it is, you evaluate all the hazards, you look at your abilities and know you are capable of doing a move, and then you decide to move forward.  You do not do it recklessly, but in a controlled manner.  You see the fear and danger and you push it aside for a moment and not let it paralyze you, and you move forward.  In that way, you learn to have a healthy respect for the fear or challenge, and for the time you move through it and push it aside.  In that way it does not control you and you learn to use it to grow and challenge yourself in new ways.  You go outside that bubble and you make it safely to the next hold and you realize you can do it.  In that way our fears are there to help guide us though the challenge and in the end it is our mind that breaks though the challenge.  If I would have slowed down and looked at that ball and saw the danger of the steep, wet slope, I could have made a better plan to crab crawl down the slope or find an easier way around.  I let my mind get clouded by the reward of getting the ball fast and I slipped and screwed up my hand.  Once again, lessons through injuries.

Now we come to the present.  Four weeks ago, I was biking and crashed hard in a rock garden and fractured my fifth metacarpal in my hand and got six stitches in my arm.  The doctor this time said no biking for six weeks.  I am four weeks out and I am finally starting to get range of motion back in my hand and fingers and it is healing great.  I have been hiking a good bit again, bagging summits from the SB6K program again, and I am in a pretty good space right now emotionally.  For the past year I have been biking really hard and the month before my injury, I had really been pushing it and exploring new trails I had never been on before.  I was getting a little too comfortable with fast riding and taking things for granted a bit as far as health and injury.  It is funny how your brain shuts out that part of life.  I had been riding solo a lot before the injury and I was really feeling confident and dare I say a tad bit invincible?  Then bam, I hit a tree with my bar, right at a serious rock garden, and go into the rocks way off-balance trying to recoup.  The first rock my front tire hits sends me flying over my handlebars.  I fly off the trail and land 15 feet off the trail straight on my arm on solid, sharp rocks.  Blood is gushing everywhere and I was a little worried at first.  I move my fingers and they seemed all right.  It hurt, but not that bad.  I thought I just jammed my finger, no big deal.  After a few minutes, the blood stops gushing, and so I bike the mile back to the road, holding on with two fingers since my fingers hurt a bit when I put pressure on them. I walked any technical section and rode the rest.  I made it to the road and coast two more miles to where Shannon had waited for me after our earlier ride together on the first loop.  I did a second loop solo of course, and that was the new to me technical loop.  What could possibly happen I thought earlier?  I will be fine I told her.  I guess I was a little off that day, because I crashed three times that day, once on an uphill fire-road even.  Who knows?  I came up to her and said I think I need to go get some stitches, since I had a pretty big gash on my arm.  At the urgent care in Asheville, I learned I did indeed fracture my hand.  Crap, here we go again.

I have been thinking a lot about this hand injury and what it means.  I have tried to stay positive this time and for the most part I have done well with this part.  It could have been much worse and I feel lucky that it was not my head or that I did not break any other major bones like my arm or leg.  This time I learned to be thankful for what I do have.  For two weeks I could not use my hand and that was a challenge.  Actions you take for granted like showering or brushing your teeth, getting dressed, writing, etc., were impossible to do alone.  Shannon had to help me wash my arm pits and help me get dressed.  Luckily, we have a bidet in the bathroom.  Even my wife draws the line at times.  Slowly, I started to adapt and learn to do those things on my own.  I got pretty good at typing left-handed, showering and brushing my teeth.  In the process, it taught me to be truly thankful for health and simple things like grabbing an object, or writing my name on a paper.  Now I am typing with my right hand and I am getting better range of motion each day.  I learned to not take health for granted and I learned to be grateful for the little things.  I know it will heal, it will just take a little time.  In the big scheme of things, six weeks is nothing and it could have been much worse and I feel truly grateful that I will make it and live to ride again.

It is really hard to see events and circumstances just as they are and not have negative reactions to those things or events. When we can do that, we learn to control how we react to situations and we take them for what they are in the moment, namely learning experiences. We learn to regulate our emotions and not be attached to outcomes or controlling things that are out of our control.  We then are free to be happy in the moment and learn from the experience and not brood over things. All these experiences have been hard, but I have tried to stay positive and learn from the experiences. In the big scheme of things, 6 weeks, 3 months or a year and a half is nothing, and all these injuries could have been much worse and I feel grateful for that fact. Injuries are great teachers. You just have to look hard for the silver lining. “Healing is a matter of time, yet it is also sometimes a matter of opportunity.”

Giving Back

Some of the best moments I have experienced in life are times when I am giving back and helping others.  Two years ago I started a mountain bike club at the alternative high school where I teach English.  We have gone on four bike trips so far, and each time the good feelings I experience just keep getting better and better.  The best part of giving back is the fact that I loose my ego for the moment and all that matters is helping to facilitate a growth moment in another person.  All worries and thoughts about life like job responsibilities, bills and other concerns drop off, and the reality of the moment is all that matters.  bike3These moments help clarify my life and make it real.  When I see a student of mine smiling and growing in new ways and trying something new like riding a bike, it helps me to realize that life is more about helping others and creating new experiences for others.  bike1By doing these things my own life takes on more intense meaning and I feel whole.  So much of our lives are about what makes me happy or what can I get in life.  Giving to others makes life have more value and it takes the me out of the equation.  bike2

In that moment I am transcending myself and I am becoming a part of a life that is bigger than just me.  I am becoming part of a community of people and a larger world, and in that moment everything seems just right.

*Thanks Stephen Janes and TripsForKidsWNC for the donation of 5 bikes to our club last year.

Reflections of a Mountain Bike Guide

I learned so many amazing things this summer guiding mountain bike trips for Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures.  It is incredible the things one can learn while guiding and riding a bike.  The best thing has been sharing our incredible local trails and the emotions that were experienced with our clients while riding.  I felt like I really tapped into something that was very inspiring on so many levels.  There were so many moments talking with clients and them saying things like, “that was the best trail I have ever ridden in my life”, or “I have never ridden that far before”. or “I did not know I could do that.”  Basically, what I experienced was sharing the love of biking, and in that moment I saw people grow in ways I never realized.  When a client struggles yet perseveres to the end of a ride, and looks at you with a complete sense of accomplishment and beams with happiness, it makes me smile too.  I get to experience breakthrough moments with clients every time I go out and it reaffirms why I do this job.  When you see someone light up and smile with a grin so big after they thought they could not go another mile, I capture that moment as well, and am inspired and lifted up.  Sharing trails helps me to find my purpose and to find my own joy.

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I love showing people the incredible riding here, and when I am in the moment with a client when they have such joy, it helps me realize how good I have it in my own life.  Sometimes we locals take the trails for granted and we loose sight of the beauty all around our area and how special it really is.  Sharing trails creates clarity in my own meaning making moments.  It helps me to be grateful to be alive and to experience these beautiful places both when I am guiding and adventuring on my own.

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This summer I also got to experience families and friends coming together in a common goal of having fun and creating moments together.  When I see a family struggling and laughing together, and ultimately overcoming obstacles together, it helps to seal my own bonds of family and the bonds we share together.  It also helps inspire me to go home and hug my wife and to tell her I love her, and to pet my cats and revel in the bonds we all share together.  Sharing trails strengthens my own family connections.  reflections1

This summer was the summer of the kid at Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures.  We took out so many young kids and helped to inspire the next generation of shredders.  Kids on bikes is the ultimate expression of freedom and joy.  When I see them smile and shout WooHoo, the only thing one can do is smile.  Kids are the best Zen Masters and when they ride they pass a bit of that mastery on to you as well.  I was inspired so many times by kids sharing their stoke to the world this summer.  It is impossible to not smile when you see a kid ripping down a trail, fearlessly charging into the unknown.  We all could learn a thing or two from that level of inspiration.  Sharing trails with kids helps strengthen my own sense of freedom and spontaneity.

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Last night I saw a movie about a guy named Frank Sanders, owner of Above All Climbing Guides, who guides rock climbing at Devils Tower, Wyoming.  He was so happy and loved to share the experiences of climbing the tower just as he had so many times before.  He has been there for many years and it seems that he will do it as long as he physically can.  It brought him to a higher level of understanding and helped him to be at peace with the world.  I am realizing that guiding for me is very similar.  It helps me to be at peace with the world and my purpose, and it helps me to find my place.  Sharing trails creates peace of mind and a sense of purpose, and it shows me my way in the world.

I hope I can do this guiding thing for a long time, and everyday I am reminded of how grateful I am to have the opportunity to be a co-owner of Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures and to share the love of biking with others.  I have grown so much this summer and found moments of clarity that surprised me each day.  Sharing trails has made me grateful to be alive and helped me to find my way home.

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

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/

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

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.  http://pisgahmountainbikeadventures.com/