The Assault on Mt. Mitchell

Assault on Mount Mitchell
A First Timer's View


What motivates a 50 year old guy to get in the best shape in his life?

After 80 miles, I looked off to the left to see an impossibly tall mountain in the haze far in the distance. It had to be Mount Mitchell and I questioned whether it was reachable. But I'd been training hard and I was rolling forward steadily. I can make it, I thought. I will make it.

It all started last Fall in casual conversation during a bike ride with my wife and with Bill Blackburn, a buddy...

A few years ago, Joan wanted to start biking for fitness so we went to a local shop where she bought a 21-speed hybrid. Then I bought "Bike-in-a-Bag," a frame with two wheels with all the parts in a plastic bag at a neighbor's garage sale.

Skip at the bike shop put it together for me for about $120, replacing the front deraileur and a couple of other parts. The end result was an older, 20-pound, down-tube shifting Reynolds 501 12-speed Peugeot. Decent, although a bit small.

Joan met Bill at our kids' soccer games and we started riding with him. He talked about having ridden The Assault on Mount Mitchell a few years ago and about doing long rides, tweaking my interest.

After a visit to The Assault web-site, we started talking about doing it again. I'm a 49-year old 196-pound physically inactive self-employed businessman who took up snow skiing and blew a knee after having blown the Achilles tendon in the same leg 10 years ago. Biking seemed a good way to get active again, especially since my wife and I could take off an hour in the middle of the day and do some miles.

I remember the day when we rode more than 10 miles - quite an accomplishment. Then, we started riding 20 or so miles through the rolling countryside here in northwestern South Carolina. So, with Bill's encouragement, I started riding a bit farther and a bit harder. By November, the casual conversation started becoming a commitment. By February, with a very temperate winter, Bill and I were riding regularly a few times every week and I was doing lots of miles, more than ever imagined.

In March, the sponsors of The Assault, the Freewheelers of Spartanburg, started their training rides. The first one was about 30 miles, up through the Greenville Watershed, a nice climb that takes you up to the Saluda Bakery. It was neat to ride with 80 others.

Then, some checking of the newspaper saw an interesting ad - and a visit to Jesse Tate had me walking away with a nearly new Lemond Zurich with Campy Record gear. Good stuff, good deal!

Then, longer rides with more climbs. A few weeks later, a 78 mile ride with a tough climb of Caesar's Head. Then, the decision to do my first Century ( a ride of 100+ miles) - Bill and I adding another 30 for a 108! Never thought I could do it and always thought a Century was some unreal achievement.

Now with a goal in mind that is becoming believably achievable, I start paying more attention to diet, increasing carbs and decreasing fat. I even started reading articles in the magazine and surfing the web for "performance" information. My weight drops down to 181 and plateaus there as the flab goes away and the legs become hard. I even start going to the Tuesday Night Training Rides hosted by the Greenville Spinners. These are four laps of a 7-mile course and involve my first experiences with riding in a pack.

The first time, I get dropped and ride with a few others, doing some paceline work. Interesting. Second time out, I ride with the pack. Okay. Third time out, an experience causes me to drop out at the end of the third lap: too much hydrating immediately before the start and you pee. Drink right after starting and the hormone vasopressin works to limit urine production. Aha! But I was also handling the speed easily.

On my 50th birthday, my wife gives me a Campy Racing Triple crank, a three-ringed set of gears for the front craknshaft. It adds a lower range better for all the climbing and my old man's legs. So I play with the rear cassette gearing for my next ride.

Two weeks before The Assault, Bill and I do Isaqueena's Last Ride. This is a Century starting from Walhalla, SC and we do not know much about it, other than there is "a climb" at about mile 55 and then back to the Park. My confidence is quite good, after all I'd been doing a lot of climbing lately, doing the 7-mile climb of Caesar's Head 3 successive times the weekend before and averaging about 150 miles a week. So why not. And neat to see 300 bikers in one place.

So, with Bill and I jumping in with the A-pack, we're flying along while I'm wondering if this 25 mph pace can be maintained for 100 miles! Then, Bill and the flying pack miss a turn. At the back of the pack, the guy on my left spots it, yells and we slow and turn left. Now, we're at the lead and moving quickly. But the rolling hills begin to take their toll and the pack eventually comes flying by. Our small group of "back packers" didn't have the conditioning, the youth or the teamwork to sustain high speeds.

Miles farther, after a short rest stop (my first ever, actually!), five more miles and then the climb. A long hill and steep. Bill catches up with me about half-way to the top - I'd wondered where he went. Getting to the top, we turn left and encounter the hill - about as steep as I've ever seen. Some people are walking, but Bill and I pound our way up and then basically survive the next 40 miles back. A Century in 6 1/2 hours, with a Big Climb. So, I must be ready for The Assault. And I need to change the gearing for better climbing.

On to Mitchell!

With a 6:30 am start, I'm now in a mob of about 1600 or so riders across a 5-lane street with me 25 yards from the front and another 50 or 100 yards of bikers behind me. My thinking is to avoid a crash. Good thinking, as it turns out; it seems like half these people have never clipped in before as they wobble in front and both sides as we just get moving. Amazing what a bit of nervousness can do. pictures

But there we go. And I feel right. Lots of carbos in liquid form the three days before, 4 gel packs, fruit juice in the Blackburn Hydration System on my back, with gloves and leg warmers for potential cold on the climb near the top, and no need to pee.

The first few miles are encouraging. I'm steadily moving past a lot of riders and sitting in as much as possible. As a faster group moves by, I jump on and sit in with them. I'm constantly going faster and faster yet moving within myself. Bill suggested that I not stop before Marion because I'll lose the pack. As we roll along, a lot of others do stop. Marion comes up at 72 miles - I stop and reload on water and Powerade, a few cookies, a gel, and a few slices of orange. Then off again, looking for another pack.

The strategy for me, not being a macho biker, is to conserve energy. As you can see from the chart at left from the Freewheeler's Assault website, the last 27 miles is almost all uphill, with about 6500 feet in total climbing. So, another few miles and we start one of the steep parts, the climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Yes, it is uphill, very uphill! And the weather is hot and humid, not cold and windy as it had been when I drove part of the route 2 weeks earlier.

Then to the top of that climb and a rest stop (the little level spot at about mile 85!). At this point, I realize how superbly organized this ride really is. There are 15 or 20 volunteers there catering to bikers, asking repeatedly if they can get me water or a drink of some kind. And this is one of 10 Rest Stops, with 900 of us permitted by the Park Service to climb to the top, where there are shuttle vans back, trucks for the bikes, etc.

I take a few minutes to reload, then off on the next leg and on The Blue Ridge Parkway. People at the stop look pretty beat - probably just like me. This hill goes on and on and on and on for 4.5 miles. Tired legs, hot and humid, and no end in sight. But persistent steady progress. The going is slow but few people are passing me and I'm passing others and riding with only a little discomfort in my toes. Spin, spin, spin and survive. Only 15 miles or so left.

Then the top and a stop. Water only this time - only two hours to go and I am well carb'd, with maybe a quart in the pack. And with the effort and the heat, I need to absorb water quickly. Then, a long fast downhill giving up every inch of the height I just gained and then more climbing, passing a few water stops and people resting.

My initial plan was to keep going to the end from this water stop and the plan looks good. Maybe 6 more miles of climbing and I'm geared right. One thing learned from all this biking and climbing: "Persistence. Adjust as necessary. But just keep rolling."

Then a major feeling of accomplishment as I pass the sign saying, "1500 feet to entrance of Mount Mitchell State Park." This marks the beginning of the end - a major milepost and the first since the Parkway entrance. I climb past that water stop, with lots more people resting, then do almost 3 miles of hard climbing to the second gate. The last part of this is said to be a 33.2% grade for a quarter mile. It's not obvious since I am so tired anyway!

The second gate has another rest stop, but I'm still chugging along at 5.5 mph, maintaining my distance ahead of a young guy I passed earlier and passing more people resting. The rest is almost anticlimactic as I realize I will make this and I'm not racing. The focus is making an attempt at a smile for the people applauding riders and spinning. Almost at the top, a bike goes by me; he must have been saving something; I'm counting revolutions, one by one, and pedaling like a drunken sailor.

At the top, they point me to the lane at the right and I cross the ribbons marking the finish line. They call out my number and a cameraman takes an official picture. I'm giving my best imitation of a one-handed "Rocky" salute being sure to not let go of the bars so as not to crash because I still have the "wobblees." But I've made it, with all my ride planning and preparation paying off, and little capacity left.

The van ride back was educational. There were riders all over the course, still struggling upward. Many were at least 3 hours from the top and moving very slowly ahead; some were walking, but all were making progress as best they could. Imagining their pain was impossible even though mine was so recent.

And I can't believe that some riders made it almost 2 hours faster than me. The "Half-Century Man" with only 2 years of casual riding flourished on The Assault on Mount Mitchell and finished almost an hour better than his goal. We are all on our personal journeys onward and upward and this focus pushed me to my best condition probably ever. (We'll know for sure soon because I go back to Furman University for a Stress Test -- my last was when I was a 28-year old professor who played basketball or ran almost every day.)

Now, the challenge is to do it again only faster, certainly not easier: weight training, more miles and longer rides, a few more pounds moved about with more attention to heart rate in my training regime, and a few more Centuries for preparation.

And no more fooling myself in thinking that I'm in better shape than I am!

It is amazing what setting goals can accomplish. And it's really a wonderful experience to achieve them, driving a new cycle of goals and achievement, with a some confidence added in each cycle. Who knows what you can accomplish after a few cycles!

Key Personal Learning Points -

It's never too late to set some new goals and prepare for new challenges.

Accomplishing goals results in new goals and new accomplishments.

Develop a plan of action about rest stops, fuel and fluid consumption, speed, etc. Go out at a manageable and sustainable pace. Be careful at the start when all is chaos and confusion and be careful in the curves - talk with those around you.

Learn about training schedules, hydration and diet. Information is readily available. Learn from your riding experiences. Keep a log and ask others about their ideas.

Use the Web to get information - it's wildly available at a lot of good sites. Why reinvent the wheel?

Work on your equipment and plan for failures. Fix and adjust your own bike - it's a key learning experience. Re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance!

Great equipment is readily available, used. (I've got a Campy Record Crank and deraileurs in my garage - guess I need to build a new bike!)

Work with people - ride in packs and support others around you. Watch the overlaps, call out the potholes and gravel, keep in good communications. It reduces the stress of riding. It decreases the energy needed to roll. And relax your arms and shoulders continually, unless you are climbing out of the saddle.

Build a mileage base. Take breaks. Lighten up. Have fun.

Some thoughts gleaned from reading about nutrition and hydration.

Tips for improvement:

Lighten up! - Body weight makes a significant difference when climbing. Saving 2 pounds of body weight is equivalent to $2000 worth of spending on bike hardware for the equivalent gain! I lost 16 pounds for this event.

Make no significant changes in equipment or preferences right before the event. Be sure that you like and can tolerate the drinks you carry and that are provided by the event organizers. "Don't write a check your body won't cash." This is not your optimal time to experiment with new seat positions or new performance drinks and food.

Consume massive quantities of carbohydrates the 3 days prior to the event. Consider a liquid supplement like one of the weight-on or even the weight-loss powders you mix with skim milk. You then have less "bulk refuse" to purge from your intestines, which can save time during the event. You should gain a few pounds because of increased muscle glycogen stores which are your energy source for long, strenuous activities. Each gram of glycogen stored also adds 2 grams of water. Both will be appreciated by your muscles as you roll along.

A carbohydrate meal 4 hours prior to the start is most important. If that is inconvenient, consider a few cans of the liquid carbo meals like "Ensure" about that time. If you have any question about whether you will like this, try it long before the night before the event! Eating later may not work for you, since your excitement will interfere with normal digestive functions and you'll start out with a stomach full of an unsightly mess that you will carry the whole time! Upchucking while riding in a pack is generally not acceptable.

Stop consuming all forms of caffeine a week or two before the event.

Then, drink some an hour or so before the start. You'll find that caffeine is a great energy booster for the event if you are not habituated to it. A cup or two of coffee or some caffeinated sodas (be careful of the carbonation) before the start is helpful.

Drink continually 2 or 3 days before the event to hydrate up. You should have to get up at night to relieve yourself. But do not drink fluids the 30 minutes or so before the start. Once you start exercising, the natural release of vasopressin, a pituitary hormone, will redirect the energy consumption away from kidney filtering and more to the muscles. It will suppress the need to urinate.

Plan on drinking a quart of fluid an hour during the event (more or less, individuals will vary). If you are hydrating correctly, you will not gain nor lose weights. Fruit juices are good if they are about 8 to 10% sugars - higher concentrations interfere with absorption.

I liked using the carbo gels, but drink a pint of water with each one to speed absorption.

Consider one of the backpack-type water tanks - they carry 72 ounces or more of liquids plus many give you some storage capability. I loaded mine with fruit juice at the start and then Powerade at the first stop 72 miles into the race. I also carried an empty bottle, that I filled with water.

The minute before the start, I ate a gel pack and drank half a bottle of plain water. But I was also fairly calm and had previously tested this strategy. I started regularly consuming fruit juice right after we started rolling. Do not wait until you are thirsty - it is way too late and your performance will already be downgrading.

Note: The Freewheelers of Spartanburg and the hundreds of volunteers did an unbelievably outstanding job of organizing and executing resources, enabling a smooth ride for rookies like me.