The Assault on Mt. Mitchell
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Assault on Mt. Mitchell 2.0
July 26, 2011 by Brad Campbell
Hard to believe it’s been almost two weeks since the big ride.
I’d intended to post earlier while things were still fresh in my mind,
but I haven’t had the opportunity. I will try to provide as much detail
as possible to help me plan for next year.
There was quite a lot of logistical to-ing and fro-ing on Sunday. Since Judyanne wasn’t going to be able to pick me up on Monday, I drove to Spartanburg, dropped off the bike at the hotel and registered. I then proceeded to Marion where I parked the truck at Tom Johnson Camping Center and met Judy. We drove back to Spartanburg and met a friend, Tony Hauser, and some of his riding buddies for dinner at the Mellow Mushroom.
Two insights: 1) pizza makes a really good pre-ride dinner and 2) rest stops are for sissies. While chatting with Tony, I asked about how he planned to hydrate during the ride and where he planned to stop. He gave me a funny look and said, “I don’t stop.” As someone who rode the Assault last year in under 7 hours, I figured he knew what he was talking about. He went on to explain that he brought all his food with him (Cliff bars, gel, etc.) and might only stop once quickly to fill up a water bottle.
While I had planned to shorten my stops this year, this seemed somewhat radical to me. But the more I thought about it, I decided to adopt this strategy, carry my food on-board with me and minimize my stops even further.
After dinner, Judy dropped me off at the Marriott, which was so much more convenient than last year’s hotel. This is definitely the place to stay, with comfortable rooms and a great location just a block from the start. I finished my prep, watched a little of the basketball playoffs and hit the sack. I actually slept pretty well and got up at 4:30 feeling much more rested than the previous year.
Another great thing about the Marriott: they offer a first-rate buffet the morning of the ride. A little pricey at $14 but worth it. I loaded up on fruit, eggs, bacon, a bagel, coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice while chatting with a rider who was participating in his first Assault.
I positioned myself in the first third of the riders, optimistically hoping to catch onto the lead pack. Shortly before the start, I spotted Tony and his friends. I figured if I could keep Tony in sight, I’d be doing alright. Long story short, Tony got well out in front of me within the first five miles and I wasn’t able to grab his pack. I did hook up with an unusually large group, though, that was setting a pretty good pace. In riding this year’s Assault, I realized that the ride really breaks down into three distinct sections:
A) FIRST 35 MILES
This is the easiest part of the ride, but a little more taxing mentally because of the large packs. Phyically, I felt very comfortable in this group and didn’t feel like I was over-exerting myself. Before you know it, I was two hours into the ride and was averaging 20+ mile per hour.
B) FROM THE ROLLERS TO TOM JOHNSON
A few miles before Bill’s Hill, the rollers start and this is, like the previous year, where I lost contact with the big pack. My hope was that I’d catch them when they stopped at the 43 mile rest stop. When I reached the rest stop, there weren’t nearly as many riders there as I’d seen the previous year. Still, it was satisfying to pass this stop and calculate the minutes I was saving. My plan had been to stop for a minute or two at the rest stop at the top of Bill’s Hill, but I had plenty of water and there was really no need. I pressed on. And this, for me, is where the ride becomes a grind. I encountered tons of rollers and found myself getting passed by a few riders on every hill. They weren’t blowing past me, but they were passing me. In some cases I was able to catch them on the downhills and flats, but not always. I managed to pick up a pace line here and there, but in most every instance, I’d get dropped on the hill and have to find some new riding partners. Finally, at about the 68 mile mark, I knew I needed to get some more nutrition. I skidded to a stop at a SAG, refilled a water bottle without dismounting and ate an orange slice, a banana and a NutriGrain bar. In less than two minutes I was pedaling circles.
For most of this time, I had my bike computer set to my average speed, which was now in the 19 MPH range. I switched it over to the local time and left it there for the remainder of the ride. Right around 10:30 I cruised into Marion. There was no master clock display like last year, but I calculated by the time that I’d made it in just over 4 hours. This was actually pretty disappointing. In short, I’d ridden the first 73 miles only twenty minutes faster than the previous year and most of that time savings had come from not stopping!
I reminded myself that any improvement over last year would still be a great outcome and that, maybe, just maybe, if I stayed with it I might be able to get close to the 8 hour mark. I dismounted, filled water bottles, drank a lot of liquid and ate a banana and half a sandwich and jumped back on my bike. This stop was about three minutes.
C) THE CLIMB
Actually, the climb can further be subdivided into four sections. Thinking about it this way really helped:
1) The flats
The first ten miles after Tom Johnson are relatively flat and fast. I stepped on it, determined to make up some time. I did make one quick stop by the side of the rode to pee. It felt good to relieve myself prior to…
2) The Hwy 80 climb
It’s three and a half grinding miles, but the numerous switchbacks actually make it a little easier mentally. Thank god I brought my ipod. The music helped a ton and kept my mind off the pain. I set a goal in my mind of doing the last 3 miles in under 30 minutes. Low and behold, I managed it. I knew I would need to eat some more but I passed the SAG stop at the entrance to the parkway. It felt good to pass all those riders stopped there.
3) The Parkway
Having ridden it a few weeks before and logging the miles, I knew exactly what to expect: a tough 6.4 mile climb, a quick 1.8 descent, and a 3 mile moderate climb. I was now monitoring my time pretty closely. As I added up the time I thought it would take to knock off each part, I realized that an 8 hour finish time was within the realm of possibility. I recognized a female rider as she passed. We’d been passing each other back and forth for about 40 miles. She rode up alongside me and said hi. We chatted a bit. She’d ridden the Assault nine times and said she felt like she was going to make her best time ever: 7:30 hours. That definitely got my attention and further reinforced my conviction that I might make a sub-8. I mentioned that goal to her and she said, “Oh, you’ll make that easy.” Before I had much time to revel in her assessment, she dropped me. I tried to stay in contact with her, but before long she was out of sight. I just kept grinding away, trying to figure out if her pace would put her more than 30 minutes ahead of me by the finish. About four miles into the climb I realized I was feeling weak. I pulled over at an overlook and gobbled down another NutriGrain bar.
4) TO THE SUMMIT
I turned off the Parkway at about 1:30, seven hours into the ride and now realizing a sub-8 hour ride was definitely a possibility. I couldn’t really believe it and was having a hard time figuring out how it was even possible. The first two miles on the road up to the entrance of Mt. Mitchell State Park are definitely the toughest of the ride. I just kept my head down and counted the number of songs. I figured it would take about 8 or so songs to get to the entrance. I passed some riders. Others passed me. I noticed several riders just sitting on the shoulder, completely gassed. Others were off their bikes, walking. Still others were stretching. There was one rider in particular I kept seeing. He’d pass me. Then I’d pass him as he stood on the side of the road, stretching. This must’ve happened about four different times.
Finally, I made the entrance. The hardest part was over. But still, I was fearful of bonking or somehow not being able to make it the last two miles. The weather had gone from a cool overcast to downright freezing with heavy fog and mist. My hands were almost frozen, but my core was pretty warm. I didn’t want to take the time to pull on my arm sleeves. I did, however, pull up at the SAG stop and guzzle two quick cups of Coke. It tasted great and I shoved off for the final two miles, the first part of which is fairly flat. I dug in with my pedals, not just wanting to improve my time, but just wanting to get it OVER with.
As I rounded the last corner and saw the timing clock, I was overjoyed. It read 7:46 and some change. I couldn’t believe it. I grinned like an idiot and was momentarily overwhelmed with emotion. I’d knocked an hour and ten minutes off last year’s time. How could that be, especially after the sub-optimal first 74 miles? I didn’t have time to analyze. My bike was taken from me. I retrieved my backpack with dry clothes. I got my cell phone from the bag and went back to the finish to have my picture snapped for posterity, then went back up the hill and dressed. The only description that fits is “satisfied.” While there were tons of riders who finished ahead of me, I’m not sure any of them felt more pleased than I did.
I was finisher #396 out of 880 riders. putting me in the top 44%. My total in-saddle time was 7:34, meaning my five stops totaled 12 minutes. The previous year, my stops had totaled :x x. Based on this, my 1:10 improvement was the result of saving :30 minutes on stops and riding the course :40 minutes faster, most of it between Marion and the summit.