Adventure is Driving Me
[This is the second part of “The Biggest Bike Week of My Life” previous blog entry. I was left on my mission alone; riding in the dark in a forest area of almost two million acres.]
My headlamp cast shadows, fixed silhouettes like pop-up books. Smoky grey and browns and charcoal black: the new colors of the night world. It was spooky. Trepidation, the fear of the unknown; the dark place in the mind creates much worse things than the real places where darkness dwells.
That having been said, the silhouette of a pit bull charging toward me in the dark was something really to be scared of! Because my lights only pointed forward, I could just get a couple glimpses of the muscled white dog getting into position. My hair stood on end. Out of the corner of my eye, I could only see teeth barking at me from 7 o’clock. I burst to full speed and could hear its nails on the pavement. “Scratch, scratch, scratch,” from each paw searching for traction. I could hear the tires ” vrrrrip, vrrrip, vrrrip” and I drove the pedals full gas on the slight uphill.
As the dog sounds’ faded into the distance, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. ‘That was not cool,’ I muttered.
(Days after my adventure, my wife overheard me telling this story to a friend. She exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell me about that? You should carry a gun so you can shoot at things you can’t see in the dark! Especially in Africa!” Not a great idea, on second thought.)
My hands and arms were raw and tired and my back hurt under the strain of rock moves, log jumping, portages and hike-a-bike sections.
Entering Douthat State Park was a nice respite from the evil backcountry trails whose rocks, ravines and tree-strewn trails threatened to swallow me whole. I was now on a mountain bike roller coaster around slender bench-cut singletrack. Delightful ribboning switchbacks are the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
I finally hit my first real stop 11 hours into my ride. At the end of the Park road, I pedaled toward the lone gas station, stomach growling and legs weak. I was hoping it was open at 2 a.m., since there was nothing else there. My pedals turned slowly. I tempered my excitement, thinking if it’s closed, I guess I’d just take a nap in the wet grass.
Welcome to Vegas! I rounded the corner to see the lights on that said “OPEN!” WOO HOO! As I entered the store, it was sensory overload like a casino floor of sweets and junk food and salty heaven! All the shiny wrappers and glowing signs blinded me and stole my night vision.
I bought giant bag of trail mix, had a “white-trash mocha” (equal parts gas station coffee and machine-dispensed cappuccino) a Snickers, a doughnut, some mini chocolates and cheeseburger.
The bloodshot-eyed attendant asked in a southern draw, “You need a bag?”
“No thanks.” I ate it all on the spot. I had to get caught up with calories since my poor planning had me without food for the last two hours on the trail.
Recharged and feeling solid, powered by a 2,000-calorie snack, I got back in the groove and finally started north. As I climbed, I exited the groomed State Park and it was evident I was again in the backcountry!
While riding the damp sapling-hell of tangled low trees, at times I could only see three feet ahead of me. I thought how easy it would be for a bear to get surprised by my unexpected appearance and attack. (The night lets thoughts creep in which normally don’t pop up in the day.)
On Little Mare Mountain I had a couple scares. Portaging my bike over a down log, I smashed my shin sharply into the pedal and almost collapsed from the pain. I thought, ‘I might be stranded out here.’ Luckily the pain subsided. No major injury, I carried-on. Trying to ride a rock garden, I crashed which had me putting my ankles between two rocks as I fell. This one could have been BAD! I managed to go the rest of the route without too much trouble; not an easy task when I couldn’t even see below the knee-deep brush. I pushed on.
It was 3 a.m. I finally got a call through to my emergency pit stop crew and coordinated a drop. I navigated the strange new trail in awe that I had never ridden Brushy Mountain and its sick side-benched goat path before. Was I 100 feet up? 2,000 feet up? Since it was dark, I was not sure, but didn’t plan to fall down and find out.
After riding for hours with not even a flicker of light from a house a car or anything, I crossed the swinging bridge over the Cowpasture River. Ahead I spied a car headlight. I heard some kids shouting? As I got closer, I heard “MUNGA! MUNGA! MUNGA!”
It was the boys! I was ecstatic to see my friends Danny Gibney and Dan Wolfe who surprised me out here at 3:30 in the morning. I had some cold pizza and shared some stories over a few Cokes. It was sweet after the jungle track I had just survived.
Elliots Sun Rise
My next section was twenty miles of road and dirt road. This however brought faster speeds, and as the temperature dropped, my knees were freezing cold and causing quite a bit of pain. I pushed hard, as I have found the endorphins block pain.
The darkest hour before twilight – the witching hour – was approaching. I matched my longest bike ride ever during this hour. Elliotts Knob – the biggest climb to the highest point – was ahead. I was dreading the hour and a half of climbing with steep leg-saping pitches, hike-a-bikes, rock gardens and impenetrable briars wet with dew would make it the biggest test of the ride. I pushed through, talking myself into thinking if this is only one of the three big pre-Munga tests, then its worth at least $20,000 to be under 20-hours (my time goal for the ride).
I was rewarded at the top by the golden orb burning thru the mist.
The most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen; like a giant tangerine wrapped in downy rose petals against antennas at the top of the 4,500-foot peak. Hello, sunshine!
Wave after wave of clouds filled the valley floor below. It was like being on an island!
The descent off Elliotts Knob was indescribable; high-speed sidehill singletrack interspersed with rock gardens, switchbacks and small trees in full autumn foliage as I descended into the clouds!
Then Crawford Knob’s “four walls” nearly stopped me in my tracks. These hike-a-bike sections were hell. I could barely push the bike without my feet sliding backwards. Like walking up a ski slope, I was starting to hurt again but in new ways; feet and hamstrings ached. I felt like a fly on flypaper.
I eventually toped out on Crawford Knob. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel!
One more trail to go! Half an hour climb up Hanky Mountain and then I’ll be able to sail back to the Stokesville Lodge. But first, I had the best descent of the whole ride: bench-cut side-hill single track at 30+ mph with carve-alicious turns and switchbacks. I had Cinderella’s shoes on, powered by sunshine again! I knew, despite my excitement, that my sleepiness could have me wrapped around a tree, broken and bleeding in no time, so I checked my excitement.
At the bottom of the descent, I saw two ribbons hanging from a tree with reflective tape marking a drop box the guys had stashed for me. I dreamed of pepperoni pizza. I could taste bacon, egg and cheese on a buttery croissant in and all its salty glory.
Inside the box were just some gels, energy bars and a Coke, but I guess it was all sugar I needed to keep on going. I made a quick pit, decided upon sitting down for two minutes. I was only training, so it was okay.
I pushed hard at the final climb, finding a new energy and motivation and the hope that the harder I went up to climb, the faster I’d get back. I was amazed that I was actually starting to feel good again! The sun warmed me. The shivers and bad dreams of the night seemed days ago. I was in flight, hammering! WOW!
Reflection on how it felt
20,000-feet of climbing! 19.5 hours and 165 miles with darkness, hike-a-bikes, thorn caves and stream crossings, steep-ass trails with loose rocks, glowing animal eyes, and riding through brush traps all paled in comparison to the mental beast. I had overcome thorny doubt, cold despair and crystalline fear. With an escort by Chris Scott through the final mile of trails, I was fired up. It felt better than winning an XC national! I had done something no one has done before and something I thought I might not be capable of doing!
I have just opened the door on this game, but have a newfound respect for ultra-endurance cyclist. The dull ache of the legs, the raw skin-breaking pain of a saddle wearing your skin, and then there’s the pain of mental fatigue: the drain, the sinking feeling. Much like waves crashing up against the beach with different pulses of intensity and duration, but always the farther it recedes and the better you feel. You know it’s going to come back strong again just when?
Over coming these obstacles is a huge thrill. Honing your mental game is to sharpen an ax, doubling its effect at cutting anything you should choose to go after.
I was surprised how many times I smiled on this ride. I did actually have a blast. It wasn’t the hell I thought it would be. During the trip, I was under a magic spell. The feeling of riding at night with no one else around, the stars twinkling, the animals howling and hooting under the moon, just the silence of my bike moving in the woods. The mission kept the pain away and in this case, the thrill was well more than the cost.
I thought how extremely lucky I am to be able to do this ride: living a dream. I felt with this big test behind me, I was definitely capable of going the distance in The Munga.
Then like a bombshell, I read the headlines, “The MUNGA is postponed until 2015.”
After the initial shock subsided, I got to thinking a bit.
Munga training made a man out of me and helped me find a new side to riding! Adventure, new friends and the inspiration to try what I thought was impossible.
Now I know I can do it. In 2015, when The Munga takes place, I will be ready.
Amazing thing is: I really enjoyed the epic training and the SDS expedition, and I will do it again next spring as an invitational event. To be in the forest covered by canopy and propelled by dreams is something you have to experience to truly understand. The Munga may be why I set out on this, but it is clear that the adventure is what is driving me to new heights.
As one door closes for a time, another door opens. I am very excited to have found a new home with a great team. I’m excited to break the details of this news very soon.
In the mean time, I will look forward to the rest of this season and perhaps a more relaxing December after all.
Hit the play button for a playback of my first ever non-stop through ride of this route.
Here’s a video from Shenandoah Mountain Touring about Stokesville Douthat Stokesville, in case you’re thinking of planning your own adventure.