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Race Result

Racer: Aaron Schwartzbard
Race: Mountains Of Misery
Date: Sunday, May 26, 2002
Location: Christiansburg, VA
Race Type: Bike - Century
Age Group: Male 20 - 24
Time: 7:10:00
Comment: 70 miles on Saturday, 100 miles on Sunday, 60 miles (including mt. michell) on Monday!

Race Report:

I was planning on leaving the office around 3:00PM on Friday to avoid all the traffic of Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately, every time I started out the door, something stopped me. I finally escaped at a quarter to 5:00PM. For the next couple hours, I battled other travelers heading down I-270 to the Outer Loop to I-66 West. Finally, I left the traffic, and the stress of real life behind. I had the open road ahead, the windows down, the radio up, and I was singing at the top of my lungs, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to looooooosssssseeeee!" I arrived in Christiansburg, VA at 9:30PM. Several friends were hanging out in the parking lot of a field that had become a campground for the weekend. Chris and Kelly were there, as were John and Gordon. After a couple moments, I saw Tom and Kurt wandering around too. After chatting for a little bit, I pitched my tent, and went to bed.

Saturday morning, we woke up, ate whatever snacks we could find in our respective cars, prepped our bikes, then rode across town to the beginning of the Wilderness Road Ride. There are several options for the WRR, ranging from 20 miles to 70 miles, so it attracts a wide variety of cyclists. I was there to do the 70 mile ride. If I were to do this ride any other weekend, I would call it fairly challenging. However, this weekend, it's just a warm-up. I started with several friends, but by the first aid station, we had splintered into several groups. I spent the first part of the ride watching Gordon ride away from me as we'd pull out of an aid station, then trying to catch him at the next one. Eventually, he got so far ahead of me that I lost all contact with him. Overall, I pushed myself through the ride... Not hard, but just enough that I was a little outside of my comfort zone. After finishing, everyone regrouped and indulged in the free ice cream. We then rode back to the campground. I grabbed my running shoes, and ran a gentle four miles on the track behind the campground. Then shower, then relax a bit, then dinner, then bedtime.

My alarm woke me at 5:30AM on Sunday morning. It was time to get ready to ride. The event of the day was Mountains of Misery --- a brutal 103 mile ride, ending with a five mile climb that'll make you wish you had never been born. After getting some food in my belly, and prepping my bike, I was ready for the 7:00AM start. I wished the best of luck to several friends, and John decided to leave his keys in my car during the ride. As we rolled out of town, I let myself drift to the back of the pack. Don't get me wrong, I had seeded myself correctly. It's just that many riders seemed to believe that sprinting during the first 10 miles would make the day go significantly faster. So I let everyone go. My plan was to ride well, stop twice (for water only) before the finish, and practice my fueling. My plan worked well: by the first climb I was passing people, I was eating every fifteen minutes, I felt good despite Saturday's ride. (I should note that not many people do the 70 mile WRR on Saturday AND MoM on Sunday.)

At mile 50, I took my first stop. I filled both of my water bottles, added powdered sports drink that I had brought in a plastic baggie, and was off again. More hills, more wind... I was starting to get tired, and I was starting to crave pizza, rather than the fig newtons and hammer gel I had with me. During this stretch, I passed by a young girl (perhaps eight years old) in her driveway, with a little pink bike with training wheels. As I passed her, she called out, "Where are you going?"

All I knew was to follow the signs on the road. So I said, "I'm going all over the place. I'm riding 100 miles!"

"Oh," she replied, somewhat sadly, "I can't go anywhere."

I wanted to offer her words of encouragement. So as I was cresting the hill, I called back to her, "Don't worry, someday you'll be able to ride wherever you want!"

For the next couple miles, I amused myself with the though that in 20 years, the greatest female cyclist in the world would talk about standing in her driveway one day, and learning that someday, she would be able to ride wherever she'd like. Unfortunately, it wasn't long after that point that my amusement ended, as I reached the base of a monster climb. It was only two miles long, but those two miles were straight up. I dumped the contents of a water bottle, and started climbing. Out of the saddle, pushing my lowest gear (39x26), any bit of effort that wasn't going to the pedals was put toward preventing myself from falling over. Even though this climb was in the shade, my shirt became saturated with sweat. I was dripping sweat (or was that lactic acid?) from my helmet and sunglasses. Approaching the top, I felt like I was in a cruel version of Xeno's Paradox: half a mile left, the a quarter mile, then an eighth of a mile --- each time I cut the distance in half, the remainder became twice as hard. It seemed as if there was still an infinite number of iterations left.

Of course, eventually, I crested the hill. I stopped at the aid station at the top to refill the water bottle I had dumped at the bottom, and to stuff my lungs back into my chest. The next 25 miles were uneventful. The terrain was rolling hills, with a couple fun descents, and some tough (up to 18%), but short climbs. Finally, I reached the base of the final climb.

Really, the first 98 miles of this ride would, on their own, constitute a grueling ride. However, on that last climb, it becomes clear that Mountains of Misery is really a 98 mile warm-up to a five mile climb. So I dumped the remains of a water bottle, and settled into the climb. During the last mile of that last climb, with the sun blazing on the road, in my lowest gear, out of the saddle, riding as hard as I could to maintain my four mile-per-hour pace, all I wanted to do was stop. I kept going back to the phrase that some training partners and I had used for previous tough rides, "Say no to vomit. Say no to vomit." Why did I come back to this? It's not as if I had the excuse of ignorance; I had done this ride before. Now that I was on this climb, I had to finish it. It was a well-trained body that got me this far. But it is only at this point --- when the body has been pushed to its limit, and the job is still not done --- that the mind can be trained. With a fierce determination to finish this climb without stopping, I continued until a half mile lay between my wheels and the finish line. Then a quarter mile. Then an eighth...

After crossing the finish line, I stood over my bike for several minutes, not quite trusting my equilibrium enough to stand on a single bike cleat and swing the other leg over the saddle. Once I was finally able to extract the bike from between my legs, I had to lie down for several minutes, then feast on pizza, with the satisfaction of knowing that I had completed some great riding this weekend. The time to rest had arrived.

Arriving back at the camp site, it became clear that everyone was packing up and heading home. I had originally planned on driving home Monday morning, but as long as everyone else was leaving, and the rain was coming, it made more sense just to drive home Sunday night, leaving Monday free to rest, run some errands, get my life in order, unpack, and do whatever else someone does with a free day. Then, Tom and Kurt invited me to join them for yet another adventure on Monday: Mount Mitchell.

The proposition was to give up my free Monday, to drive an extra 400 miles during the weekend, to get on our bikes early Monday morning with trashed legs and fatigued bodies so that we could do a 60 mile ride --- a brutal 30 miles climb to the highest point in the eastern United States, then 30 miles back down. Well, there's only one POSSIBLE choice! We caravaned 200 miles to Marion, North Carolina, and found a Comfort Inn (none of us felt like setting up tents, dealing with rain and weather, and being generally uncomfortable if we were only going to get a couple hours of sleep anyway).

As I was going through my car to grab anything I would need for the night, I found something that made my heart skip a beat: John's keys. In all the excitement and exhaustion of the day, I had completely forgotten that I had them. Now I was 200 miles away. Oh crap! The question was what to do. In my condition, there was no way I could drive the 200 miles back to Christiansburg that night. Even if I could, I doubt that John would be sitting in the middle of a field in his bike clothes at 2:00AM (the time I would have gotten back). I made several calls to try to get in contact with the organizers of Mountains Of Misery, but I wasn't able to get through.

Monday morning, at 5:30AM, my watch alarm started to beep. I had forgotten to turn it off on Sunday. I got up to stop the beeping, so I could get one more hour of sleep before our planned wake-up time. After getting back to bed, I realized that my legs hurt an awful lot. *sigh* It was going to be a long day.

We got up at 6:30AM, moved slowly around the hotel room getting ready, watched a bit of the Weather Channel and flipped to MTV for just long enough to ensure that I would spend much of the ride singing, "IIIIIIIIII'MMMMMM comin' up, so ya better get this party started!!!!!" I made another attempt at getting in touch with someone who could tell me if John was totally stranded without his keys. In the end, I could only assume that if he had been totally stuck, he would have gotten my cell phone number from the ride organizers, and gotten in contact with me. So with a bit a guilt in my heart, we were riding shortly after 8:00AM. The first five miles miles of the ride were rather flat. After that, the road turned skyward, and continued up from our starting altitude of 1,200 feet to 6,600 feet.

There's not much to report about the ascent. For 25 miles, we pedaled. It was slow. It was tough. There was nothing to do other than to settle into a rhythm, and realize that at between 7 and 9 MPH, it was going to be several hours before we could stop pedaling. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, we could occasionally see Mount Mitchell in the distance. We could see it getting closer and closer until we were just outside of Mount Mitchell State Park. Five more miles to the top, and the peak towered over us. Those last five miles were not necessarily more difficult physically than what had preceded them, but mentally, I was starting to have a tough time. We were going slow (as fast as we could, but that was still pretty slow). I just needed to be done climbing. The weather had been good, but as we got higher, and as clouds rolled in, the air started to get cold. Two miles from the top, it started to rain. Despite the effort I was putting forth, I was starting to get very cold, and I was loosing power in my legs. Tom and Kurt picked it up to get to the end. I lingered, unable to pick up even my tongue, which was dragging behind me on the ground. Finally, I made it to the top, saturated by the rain.

Fortunately, I brought a rain jacket/wind breaker and some arm warmers since I assumed that the descent (at least the first half) would be chilly (I assumed that I would be soaked with sweat, not rain). I put on my gear to try to warm up. I bought a hot chocolate at a snack stand, I tried to warm up a bit, standing under a shelter. It didn't work. While waiting for the rain to let up a bit, Tom and I looked at some of the weather charts and instruments on the wall of the shelter. It was 55 degrees. According to the wind chill charts, without the rain, the wind on the descent would make it feel like the low 30s. This was going to get ugly.

Normally, I would love a descent like this. I could just tuck down with my chin just above the stem, back as flat as possible, trying to cut through the wind as aero as I could get, glancing away from the road only long enough to look at my speedometer to check if I had reached terminal velocity yet. This descent was nothing like that. On this descent, I was sitting up, hoping my jacket would catch the wind, squeezing the brakes hard to keep my speed down to 25 MPH, focusing on the water cascading down the road and every twitch of my bike under me. For the first couple miles, I was in a big gear, trying to pedal even as I was braking in order to generate some heat. About two miles into the descent, I started to shiver. I had to stop pedaling in order to focus on suppressing my shivering. My shoulders and back were screaming as I had totally locked them into a single position.

I found that going down this mountain was every bit as difficult as climbing it. It took every bit of my concentration to hold my line, avoid hazards and traffic, and to avoid going into any curve with too much speed. That last point was particularly difficult in the last 10 miles of the descent. I would love to ride this road in good conditions --- even on the best of days, these 10 miles of tight, banked switchbacks would be an extremely technical ride. On this day, it became the hairiest situation I've ever experienced on a bike. Today, the ride motto had to become, "Keep the rubber side down, keep the rubber side down." As I reached the bottom, with five miles of flat left, the rain stopped. By the time I got back to the car, I was feeling much better. We had enough of a break in the weather to load our bikes in our cars, and change into dry clothes.

It was finally time to head home. Leaving town, as the rain started again, I remembered that there were 450 miles of road between myself and home. Possibly, many of those miles would be in heavy holiday traffic, made worse by the weather. But I had some granola and crackers left, I had a couple bottles of water to drink, and I had good music in the cd changer. After 238 miles of hills in three days, seven and a half hours of driving was the easiest part of my weekend.

POSTSCRIPT: It seems that despite my general terribleness in stranding him, using nothing more than his wily instincts, a stick fashioned into a hunting spear, and a bowl of oatmeal, John was able to traverse the state, and make it home in one piece.