I didn't get much sleep for the few hours I laid down thanks to the local wildlife but at 7am Sunday morning I didn't feel too bad as I got ready to get back on the bike. As I was packing up Fusco, Party of 3, came up the road and we said hello as they rolled over the top. Then as I worked my way along Helton Creek I passed Justin Pokrivka camped in a picturesque spot along the creek looking like he was having a nice and leisurely Sunday morning. He later passed me past Vogel State Park as I slowly walked my way up some mountain.
I wasn't feeling too good at that point. The big miles and big climbs of the day before combined with a lack of sleep and poor nutrition had taken their toll on me. My knees were fine, or at least as good as could be expected, but my right Achilles was killing me. I was a little worried about it and couldn't decide if walking or riding was better for it but decided walking was easier so that is what I did. I also noted how much the various factors played a role in my moods. At this point it was all a mental game so the more I knew about what was going on the better chance I stood at beating it. When it was hot and I was walking up yet another mountain I wanted to quit and go home. When I was hungry I wanted to quit. But when I got a long downhill or a nice cool stretch it was the BEST THING EVER and I felt like I could ride forever.
I got my first real food of the race at a gas station around Cooper Creek. It was a grilled cheese and took forever for the guy to make but patience is a virtue so I waited patiently. As I waited up rolled who else but Fusco, Party of 3. They should have been way in front of me but when I pointed that out Curtis told me that I was the one who was supposed to be in front of them. I ate my grilled cheese and followed them on down the road.
It was flat and easy cruising and I had some real food and once again I was having the time of my life. After a nice stretch along the river there was a gas station with a restaurant and Fusco, Party of 3 were sitting out front. I had just eaten but it seemed like a good idea to eat again so I ordered a fish sandwich and we sat around and chatted while it was cooked. Of course it took forever to cook but it wasn't like we were in a race or anything. When it did come it was the best food I have ever had. We ate fast and prepared to roll out when up rode Ruth. It was like we had the band back together again. We all left the restaurant separately but arrived at the next section of trail together.
I must say I was very impressed with the race route from what I saw of it. Although there wasn't much single track in the first half of the race the gravel was surprisingly enjoyable and it made for a good single speed route. The course seemed to either be straight up or straight down without too much flat stuff. The single track that was there was fun, often fast and flowy but also at times technical.
It took us a minute to find the start of the Long Branch trail as it seemed to have been recently rerouted and didn't quite match up to the gps track. Once on it the trail started climbing steeply and Ruth put on one of the most impressive climbing clinics I have ever seen. For most people even when fresh this trail would have been a push but Ruth managed to ride almost all of it. Her climbing prowess is right up there with people who can climb most of Black Mountain. Very impressive, especially for already being 150+ miles into a race!
About halfway up this mountain I ran out of water. It wasn't 100 degrees like the day before but it was still quite hot and I knew I would need water soon so I tried to heed Ruth's advice that it isn't hard as long as you don't try too hard and got back on my bike and pulled ahead of the others in search of something wet. The climb took longer than expected and I was seriously thirsty when the trail finally topped out. There was a long and fun downhill that followed but all I could think about was finding something to drink. Once I got back to the gravel road there was a muddy little stream and I dipped my bottles in it and took a minute to fiddle with my gear as I waited for the bleach to take effect. The others passed me as I stood on the side of the road and I was sure that was the last I would see of them as a flat section was coming up and with their fancy big rings I didn't stand a chance of keeping up.
The imminent rain was still very much on my mind and somewhere out on the pavement it started to rain. This day had been taking longer than expected due in a large part to the leisurely pace I had been taking and with still well over a hundred miles to ride rain didn't sound like too much fun and I knew I had to try and plan for as much comfort as I could manage. So, at the first drops of rain I took off my mostly dry jersey and put it in my dry bag so when I finally crashed for the night I would have something dry to wear. I went on ahead in just my bib shorts not planning on seeing anyone else along the way.
Of course Fusco, Party of 3, and Ruth were a short way up the road stopped at a church getting water so I pulled up to join them and we all got a kick out of my Strong Man at the Circus outfit.
At this point we were getting close to Mulberry Gap, or we should have been getting close anyway, and Ruth was going to stay with Fusco, Party of 3, for the night and I kind of decided to just tag along with them as well. We were having fun and being with friends really helped keep my mind off the suffering at hand. There was a long climb up to Watson Gap and I felt good and strong. It was over 12 hours since I had walked up the climb past Vogel and now I was actually riding my bike again – crazy how things change! I still took it easy and got off and walked some just to keep it mixed up. After the climb up to Watson Gap there was yet another climb up to yet another gap and I kept doing the math in my head of when we should get to Mulberry Gap. We had been thinking it was 210 miles to Mulberry but somewhere along the way we realized it was 225 miles. Fifteen miles might not sound like a lot but it is. We all talked about how far we were trying to get that night and what our plans were.
I desperately wanted to get past Mulberry Gap before I crashed for the night. My truck was at Mulberry as well as a lot of other comforts and I was worried if I stopped there I wouldn't be able to bring myself to start again in the middle of a tropical storm. I think the rain was on all of our minds. We knew it was coming and knew it was going to make for an absolutely miserable day or couple of days. My plan was to ride as long as I possibly could before the rain came. I was hoping to make it past Mulberry Gap but would just have to see how things played out. We weren't making good time and with several mechanicals along the way seemed to be doing more stopping than riding. It didn't bother me, we had all night and there was no need to hurry. Somewhere along the way we rode some single track and got our first taste of the Pinhoti.
Around midnight the others decided to call it a night while I kept going. I dug out my safety kit, got my mp3 player out, had a few swigs of whiskey and kept rolling trying to beat the rain past Mulberry Gap. The single track was slow going but was still a lot of fun and I felt like I could ride all night. My navigation system was working perfectly – I had no idea where I was but had no need to know, my gps would beep any time I approached a turn – and there was no place I would have rather been than where I was right then - somewhere in Georgia in the middle of the night by myself with just a bicycle and a few things on my back.
There was an enormous 400 year old Poplar tree on Bear Creek trail that I just had to stop at. You don't often see trees this big and I was thinking how it would be a great place to camp under other circumstances when the first rain drops fell.
I was within five miles of Mulberry Gap but didn't want to stop there out of fear of not starting again so I decided the big tree was good enough for the night. I scrambled to try and find two suitable trees for my hammock and once again fumbled with the knots before finally getting it set up. I picked the two worst possible trees and got set up just 15 feet from the creek. I quickly found better trees I could have used on higher ground but it was raining hard by that time so I decided what I had was good enough. I took off my riding shorts for the first time of the weekend and was greeted by a very rancid odor. Maybe I had used too much chamios cream or something!
I got in my hammock around 3am, had my last few swigs of whiskey and tried to find a country station on my mp3 player. I was down in a hollow and there were no fm radio signals so it was off to sleep while a tropical storm settled in overhead. The rain was very hard but my set up was surprisingly good and dry and I actually got a full night's sleep.
Monday morning I slept in. At 7am I woke up but the rain was very hard so I rolled over and went back to bed. At 9am I woke up again to still more hard rain and tried to decide what to do. I wanted to finish the race but with a full day of hard rain ahead I wouldn't be finishing that day. I was tempted to just stay where I was and wait out the storm from my hammock under my tarp but my set up was far from ideal and was too close to the creek which could easily have flooded. I knew I couldn't ride out the last 130 miles to the finish in the middle of the rain storm and even if my body could have handled it my bike and especially brakes would not have been able to. So I packed up in the rain and decided to try and make it to Ramhurst or Dalton where I could get a hotel room and wait out the storm.
The next few miles down to Mulberry Gap came easily enough even with the rain. It was a tough decision what to do. I wanted to finish and to set the single speed course record but even if I did the record would not have held and two days of misery seemed to be on my horizon. When I got out onto the gravel road that leads to Mulberry Gap I kept telling myself not to go to Mulberry Gap and instead to just make the left turn onto the Pinhoti and stay on course and finish the thing out. I had myself resolved and convinced and was going to keep going when a car pulled up and told me they were calling the race. “Okay,” is all I said and rode off to Mulberry Gap. No need to argue.
Fusco, Party of 3, a few hours later: