In 2006 and 2007, I had gone to ride the Cherohala Challenge with my friends and Heart of the South teammates Jeff Bauer and Vida Greer. We did not go in 2008, since Jeff and I had just finished RAAM -- the Race Across America (he rode and I supported) and the Harpeth River Ride was the same weekend.
But this year the River Ride is a different weekend (actually, this Saturday ... so sign up!), and Kevin Kaiser is racing RAAM by himself (more on that below). Thus, with nothing to stop us, we reformed the band.
Jeff, Vida, and I drove to Sweetwater Friday night, and had an excellent dinner at the Gondolier Restaurant there. We then checked into the Comfort Inn, slept, got up the next morning, put on Gran Fondo kits, and headed to the ride start in Tellico Plains.
This is just the way we did it in 2006 and 2007. It's kind of a tradition.
In 2007, I did this ride in just over seven hours. That's not too bad considering it's 114 miles long and has just under 9,000 feet of climbing. I thought I was stronger this year, although my weight was up three pounds, and felt that I could do the ride in less than seven hours.
Jeff got held up at the start by things that I'd rather Jeff tell you about, but Vida and I rode together for the first 50 miles. It was a pretty fast pack -- but big with at least 60 riders -- so that it surged and stalled a lot. Vida and I worked together just past Vonore and got the group into a better paceline, which we pulled to the base of the Tail of the Dragon.
The great thing about riding with Vida is that she challenges you. Saturday she would work her way to the front and take the pace up. I stayed with her because it was fun and I was feeling great. But as we started climbing the Dragon the pace caught up with me, and I fell back.
After a couple of miles, knowing that Vida was not too far ahead, I took my pace up for the second part of the climb. About a mile from the top I caught up to her, and even managed to pass her to take the King of the Mountain points and state-line sprint.
I paused at the rest stop there to drink some water, top off bottles, and eat some snacks. Vida does not usually descend as fast as I do, so she left the stop before me, and I began my descent a few minutes later.
Under the Tail of the Dragon Lies a Hot, Stinky Place
Apparently, while we had been higher up climbing into North Carolina, the world had become hot. As I rode hard to catch up with Vida, pulling together a few straggling riders into a paceline, my stomach began to complain. I tried to quell it with sports drink, but the liquid was fairly warm itself by now, and made things a little worse.
Soon, Vida and I re-united our respective pacelines, and we continued up the valley toward Robbinsville at just under 20 mph. But the pace and the heat, and not being able to drink, started to get to me.
Just before the next rest stop, I saw a small grocery store. I fell to the back of the paceline without alerting Vida and pulled in. It was cooler inside, where I quickly drank a Diet Coke, and after a minute I felt better. I then rode another half mile to the rest stop, where I found Jeff.
Now, in case I've never mentioned this before, Jeff is one hell of a cyclist. He is very strong, fast, and has great endurance. But, more than that, he is really smart. He had started this ride with the Camelbak full of ice, while I had thought, "Gee, that's gonna be heavy. It will slow him down."
Jeff and I left the rest stop together, riding thru the Joyce Kilmer Forest towards the Cherohala Skyway, which is a pretty much un-broken climb of over 11 miles. I felt pretty good again ... at first. I made myself drink, but the liquid was warm and did not seem to help.
Right after we started up the Skyway, the first cramp hit. Left adductor. I pedaled thru it, but slowed down. I told Jeff to go on, but he stuck with me.
Three miles later, the right hamstring seized up, and I had to pull over. I told Jeff to go again. He stayed.
At the rest stop half-way up the mountain, I ate some Tums, drank two full bottles of water, and tried to choke down some pretzels. My mouth would not make saliva -- a sure sign of dehydration. Again, Jeff refused to leave me.
We had to pull over to the side of the road one more time before we reached the top, thanks to another full-leg seize-up. When we finally began our descent back towards Tennessee, it was 2 pm. My seven hours were up.
Back to the Furnace
It was cool up at Santeetlah Gap, but it quickly warmed up as we began the 32 miles back to Tellico Plains. Most of it is downhill, but there are a few remaining uphill portions -- one of them almost a mile long. Fortunately, at this point I was too close to the end -- I ignored the cramps when they came and rode thru them.
Again, Jeff stuck with me the whole way. You can't even tell from this picture that I'm suffering, because he kept talking to me and keeping me distracted.
We got to the finish eight hours and 20 minutes after the start. It was 94 degrees. Vida had been in for over an hour. Jeff and I got some food with the other suffering riders streaming (and steaming) thru, while Vida changed into street clothes. We then headed for home.
I spent a lot of time the next day thinking about what I could have done differently. Getting my weight to back under 180 pounds would have helped, as would wearing my own Camelbak and filling it with ice.
But one thing I would not change is the friends with whom I rode. They challenged me to ride at the peak of my abilities, then shepherded me home when I went a little too far. What more could you ask for?
Kevin's in Sixth Place
I mentioned last week that Kevin Kaiser, who was Jeff's teammate on RAAM last year, is doing solo RAAM this year. He had a couple of dehydrated days early in the race in the desert (more queasiness ... guess I'm in good company!) that saw his average speed fall to single digits, but has since been tearing up the race! He is now in sixth place overall, and is the leading American in the race.
Kevin has wanted to do RAAM for as long as anyone can remember. We are all proud of him, and happy that he is having such great success. The fact that he dropped so far behind in the early days, only to force his way back into the race like this, is a classic Cinderalla story.