Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Support Ho's

Last year, I needed a 600K to qualify to go ride the Rocky Mountain 1200K, so I did the one hosted by the Harpeth Bicycle Club's ultra-cycling group. It started from McMinnville -- about an hour's drive from my house -- and the middle 200K of the route is basically the Cherohala Challenge "century," which I had done a couple of times.

How hard could it be?

Well, about 26,000 feet of hard. You expect 375 miles of hard with a 600K, and you may think that you know how hard 26,000 feet of hard is going to be over 375 miles of hard.

But you don't. You can't. You just have to do it, and probably that isn't enough because your brain blocks out portions of it in the vain attempt to retain some semblance of sanity. Where was that sanity when you needed it (i.e., before you signed up to do this horrible thing to your body)?

Once Bitten ...

I would say that my momma didn't raise no fools, but I've got siblings (and a big shout-out Happy Birthday here to my brother, John!). I will say, however, that last year, at the end of the 600K, while the memory of this ride was fresh, I done something smart: I volunteered to help support the riders this year.

Jeff Sammons, the middle Tennessee RBA, remembered my promise and held me to it this year.

Thank you, Jeff!

And so it was that, with a heavy heart (and an even heavier rest of me, as evidenced by my inability to go uphill fast), I did not ride the Tennessee 600K last weekend.

Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee. That's gleeful laughing, in case you didn't recognize it.

The first thing that I discovered, in supporting this ride, is that it is not as difficult to get up at 3:30 am for a 600K ... if you know that you can go back to bed once the riders have all left. All I had to do was put on some clothes, wish everyone "bon route," and re-hit the hay.


A little after 5 am, I got back up, dressed, packed, and drove to Tellico Plains. Jeff had rented two cabins for Saturday night, and these would be the controls for the middle portion of the route. The riders had left drop bags with Jeff, and he would deposit them at the cabins so that they could replenish their gear and put on clean clothes. The plan was for the riders to grab a little sleep at one cabin or another in the wee hours of Sunday morning, after which I would fix them a big breakfast.

Dammed If You Do ...
Driving to Tellico Plains took almost three hours, with some extra time thrown in for getting gas for the RAAMinator and groceries for the breakfast. I was in a hurry because, once I got to Tellico Plains, I had to change into cycling clothes and ride the middle portion of the 600K, which is also the Cherohala Challenge 200K permanent. Yes, I could have just hung out at the cabin ... it's a sickness.

The Cherohala Challenge permanent is a tough route, with over 10,000 feet of climbing -- including the Tail of the Dragon into North Carolina over Deal's Gap, then returning to Tennessee via the Cherohala Skyway to Santeetlah Gap. Since it was just me, I stopped often to take pictures of my Lynskey (RandoBoy). If you read my blog from Canada, this is a theme for rides where I'm all by myself. It really just gives me an excuse to get off the bike for a minute.

The great thing about climbing is that you get to enjoy the views from the top. This is a view of Lake Santeetlah from about a third of the way up the Tail of the Dragon.

This is a very popular route with sports cars and motorcyclists, so it can be a noisy road. Fortunately, most of these drivers are at least civil with cyclists ... so long as we stay as far to the right as possible. Since that's where the view is -- and I'm not moving
particularly fast, anyhow -- I'm usually willing to oblige.

You descend a bit after Deal's Gap before starting the long easy climb into Robbinsville, NC. This stretch got a little warm, and I was starting to worry about my speed. I had originally planned to start the ride at 10 am, so that's what I put down on the paperwork for the permanent. However, it had been almost 10:30 by the time I got to the first control, and I had then missed a turn to get 10 "bonus" miles. I planned to be back at the cabin by 8 pm, so that I could eat and get cleaned up before going to the top of the mountain, so my schedule was tight.

After rushing thru a burger and fries in Robbinsville, I stopped at the store on the way out of town and got three more bottles of Gatorade Rain. These had to last me the 50 miles to Tellico Plains, including the 11-mile climb up the Cherohala Skyway.

When I (finally) got to the top, there was a couple on a motorcycle enjoying the view. Thus, you get to enjoy a picture of me and my bicycle.

The "fun" thing about this route, by the way, is just how hard it is even after you get to the top. For one thing, it's a little cool and windy -- even in summer. After dark, it's really cool and windy. More on that below ...

As you head for Tennessee, however, it warms up. Part of this is because you are descending, but the other part is because -- oh, joy of joys -- there's still more climbing! You start down for a mile or so, and then the road turns back uphill. It does this twice, with fairly steep and long pitches.

It is, frankly, a cruel betrayal.

Of course this, too, soon passes. After some good, fast descending, I eventually made it back to Tellico Plains. It was almost dark, and I had to then frantically clear the last control, get back to the cabin, pull a lot stuff out of the van (more on that below, too), put other stuff in, shower, dress, eat, and try to make hot water for coffee for the riders (the stove had two settings: Off and Meh). It was almost 10 pm when I finally starting speeding up the mountain.

Just over half-way up, Micah Fritzinger and George Hiscox zoomed past me on the way down the mountain in the dark. I was almost to the North Carolina line when Steve Phillips went by. They probably all would have welcomed a full bottle and the momentary comfort of the RAAMinator at the top.

Sorry, guys.

Finally, I made it back at Santeetlah Gap (elevation 5390'). I would have experienced some deja vu, but the gap at night looks nothing like its daytime version. In this way, it is like women I dated when I was still single.

I had not been parked long when Steve Godbey came by. He was still riding very strong, but was hungry. He said he got so hungry on the way up the mountain that he ate his roll of Tums. I gave him the last of my Gatorade Rain, along with some chips and pretzels, and topped off his bottles. He then went on his way.

Alone in the dark again, I listened to the wind as it picked up, growing back into the howl that I remembered from last year on top of this mountain. Then, it had been Jeff Bauer sitting up here in his van, and I had been very glad to see him as Jeff Sammons (no relation) and Bob Hess and I came up. I was so exhausted then that I fell asleep in the van for over an hour, and had to descend by myself that night. I remember thinking that my teeth would break from chattering in the cold fog.

This year, however, the fog had not yet rolled in when I set up the therma-rest pad and my sleeping bag in the back and took a nap. Less than an hour passed before Peter Lee and David Rudy came in, followed closely by Jeff Bauer and Mary Crawley on a tandem. They, too, were in need of fuel and a warm place to sit.

I just wish that I could have offered them coffee.

After topping off their bottles and energy reserves, they all soon headed out into the growing cold and wind. Perversely enough, they were in really good spirits.

Here's a picture of my sleeping accomodations for Saturday night. It was actually kind of cozy.

Once my visitors had moved on, I settled back into my bed to wait for the last two riders. I knew that they would have to be along before 5:30 am (local time) to have a chance of getting thru the control before it closed. I also knew that I had promised to fix breakfast for the riders at the cabin. Since I had no cell phone coverage on top of the mountain, I had no way of knowing whether the remaining riders had DNF'd. So, when 5:30 came, I left two jugs of water on top of a picnic table, and headed back for Tellico Plains.

Unfortunately, that was about half an hour before Hamid Akbarian got to the top of the mountain. Since he had gotten thru Robbinsville after the stores had closed, he had climbed the mountain without fluids. Since he didn't know who had left the water jugs, he didn't trust those, either. So, he rode all the way back to Tellico Plains without any help. He was very thirsty when he got there about 9 am. As this was after the closing time for the control, he then DNF'd.

Sorry, Hamid.

Meanwhile, when I got back to the cabin I fixed breakfast (do you know how long it takes to cook a pancake on a stove using the "Meh" setting?) as the riders began to wake up and get ready to move on. The pancakes and bacon (I had also brought a George Foreman grill, which worked great) were much appreciated, but the real winner was the espresso.

Remember me mentioning that I had unloaded a bunch of stuff from the van? You thought I was exaggerating.

After the riders had eaten and left, Hamid rolled in and we got him situated. One last rider -- Dave Harris -- called Jeff Sammons to DNF, so Jeff drove back over the top of the mountain to get him. Meanwhile, Hamid and Bob Hess -- who had DNF'd in Tellico Plains on Saturday -- got into the RAAMinator and we started back to McMinnville.

We followed the route, more or less, and checked on the riders along the way. This got us back to McMinnville just after noon, where we found Kevin Warren (who had also DNF'd on Saturday) returning to the hotel room control with pizza.

Micah was the first rider back to the room, coming in just before 2 pm. I decided to ride up to the top of Baker Mountain and come back in with some of the riders, and passed George and Steve Phillips on the way. Once up on Baker Mountain, I waited for half an hour, but no riders showed up so I rode back alone.

I had been back for almost an hour when Steve Godbey came in. He had gotten a little lost on the return -- as had just about everyone. Finally, just after 6 pm, the last group of four came in.

I  learned some interesting things from this ride. One is that, when I support it next year, I have to start the permanent earlier and not get lost, so I can help more folks out on top of the mountain. Also, somebody else will need to fix breakfast, because the person on top of the mountain at night should probably drive to Robbinsville to pick up the remaining riders on the route.

When it comes to that breakfast, toasted waffles will be fine, but I must bring the espresso machine again. And maybe we can set it up on a folding table outside, to let riders sleep a little longer.

I also learned that I ride with some really strong people, who can put up with a lot of pain. Jeff Bauer had done the Georgia 600K the weekend before, and that was supposed to be an incredibly hard ride. For him to turn around one week later and do this 600K puts him in the "legendary" class.

Strangely enough, however, I learned something else sitting on top of the mountain in the middle of the night. I learned that I really like supporting other folks doing this kind of thing, and did not miss doing it myself. Although I have only done one 600K, it was the most painful thing I've ever done. The shorter routes -- 200K, 300K, and even 400K -- can be a lot of fun ... maybe because you can get them done in a single day.

Next year, I have to do a 200K, 300K, and 400K to have a chance of riding Paris-Brest-Paris in 2011. But right now I don't think I will do a 600K, since I'm not interested in doing any 1200K other than PBP. Originally, I was thinking of doing the Cascade 1200K next year, but right now I would rather take that week of vacation and do a fully loaded tour on the tandem with RandoGirl. Ride maybe 100 miles during the day, and then eat a big hot meal and sleep in a nice bed.

Right now, that sounds better than a fast Wendy's burger and a cold, foggy mountain.


  1. 600K? That's a lot of clicks! Randonneurs are amazing.

  2. In the internet world, it's all about click count.