*First things first, Happy Mother's Day Mom. Love you lots, will buy you a propane tank and cook for you next weekend.
It was around 7 o clock the evening before PMBAR when it dawned on me that it would be dark soon and I should probably take a look at the map of Pisgah National Forest. I attempted to piece together potential routes from scribbled lists of checkpoints of previous years' races. I quickly ran out of fingers to mark places on the map and gave up after about twenty minutes. My thoughts quickly turned to the steadily decreasing likelihood we would make it to the Davidson River Campground by 11. Jimmy, Nick, Sean, and Jason had already secured two campsites but it seemed that the volunteer night guard there was somewhat ornery about rules and there was "No way we would get in after closing time." In what would become the theme of the weekend we decided to figure it out when we got there.
Then the dude let us in with no problem and was even friendly about it. I took this as a good omen for the weekend.
For the uninformed PMBAR is the Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventure Race. It was been put on by Pisgah Productions since 2003 up in the rugged forests of Brevard, North Carolina. Riders in teams of two (Lee Neal joined up with me for the trip and there were a couple other teams from Birmingham as well) compete to reach up to five checkpoints spread throughout Pisgah National Forest within the time limit of fourteen hours. Four checks are needed to finish and three are mandatory. A typical day would comprise 50-80 miles of trail and up to 15,000 ft. of climbing.
As we stood around with 100 other teams at the start I couldn't hear a damn word that Eric Wever was saying. Oh well, I figured, I read all the rules online. Eric handed out each team's Passport and map of the forest. Turned out Eric was saying "Read all the rules before you start" over and over and over...yeah. Mistake.
1. You are required to read ALL the rules.
13. Every Team Race Packet contains a Wooden Nickel; that must be given to the Race Director prior to leaving the start!
With our Wooden Nickel firmly taped to the last page of the Passport we booked it up to Pressley Gap to figure out where to go from there. As we started to hike up Black Mountain we noticed some riders cutting left towards Maxwell Cove on a gravel road. I have gone down Black before and the thought of walking up it was not the least bit appealing. Bye bye hike a bike, hello gravel climb. The gravel eventually led us to South Mills River and we nabbed our first checkpoint and backtracked it out to the gravel climbs on 476 and 1206 to get to Pilot Rock. This ended up being the move that prevented us from getting the fifth checkpoint. Going in this direction would eventually put us at the farthest possible spot from the Daniel Ridge/Farlow Gap check making it not worth the three hour time bonus we would earn.
Anyone who made it through PMBAR without crashing is a better rider than me. My crash wasn't even cool looking. Uphill. Slow. Still clipped in. My right knee made sweet love to some granite and I spilled my first blood of the day. I popped some Advil and continued-no reason for a small flesh wound to mess up a good ride.
Lee and I both decided that we would rather hike up Pilot Rock than Laurel Mountain since it would be a MUCH shorter hike. We hoofed it up Pilot and made our second check of the day. Much to my surprise, the checkpoints actually had food at them. The Pilot Rock/Laurel Mountain check had Pro Bars, which are way better than they sound. For some reason I remembered the descent down Laurel as somewhat serene and fast. Wrong. We were met with plenty of steeps and off camber rock on the way down to 1206 and our third check at North Mills River/ Lower Trace. Someone on 1206 was cooking grilled cheeses on the side of the road and offered us some. Lee and I ate two each. Both amazing, way better than "energy food".
As we were downing the second grilled cheese, we chatted with a team that we had seen at the start of the race busting ass to get back to the Start/Finish. Turns out they were heading back to turn in their Wooden Nickel to avoid a two hour time penalty that we would eventually earn upon our return.
I had assumed, yes... assumed, that this was some sort of token to turn in at the finish. This knowledge did little to dampen the good mood going and we decided to just go on with our original plan and finish it out. Dumb and avoidable, sure, but this is one of those races that is a blast regardless of finishing position. Time penalty or not, we had set out for a huge ride and this was no reason to stop.
Water consumption was a big concern of mine using a Camelbak. I am horrible at estimating how much I am drinking if I can't see it and this day was no different. We missed the turn to Yellow Gap and ended up at the North Mills River campground and a beautiful sight: an old water spigot. After five hours of riding I opened up the 100 oz bladder to find close to 75 oz staring right back at me. Oops. I guzzled until I felt uncomfortable, filled it back up and decided I had enough for the rest of the day. Slightly dehydrated and running on denial, we took a longer gravel loop to North Mills River to avoid the potential failure of being unable to find Yellow Gap. This was a great choice as it earned us one of the best downhills of the day on Wash Creek. Steep, technical descents were plentiful and I loved every minute of it.
The climb up Yellow Gap was rough due it not quite being steep enough to walk but steep enough to hurt the whole damn way up. As if that was not enough of a treat, Pisgah served up another long climb back up 1206 to find Bradley Creek. The entrance to Bradley was well hidden but was fortunately home to a hiker that gave us a heads up before we blew by it. This is where the creek crossings began. We hiked across close to twenty creeks before we got to the South Mills River/Bradley Creek checkpoint. Once I figured out the correct way to get across without falling down they were a mere nuisance and we were still having a great time.
The checkpoint at Bradley Creek meant we would be official finishers of the event if we made it back before the 14 hour cutoff. We had been racing for eight hours at this point and our chances of getting to Farlow Gap and back in without adding more than three hours to our time was looking grim. With the help of a volunteer and some other racers, we decided to head back to the Start/Finish at Davidson River. The question was how. We had a few options:
1. Backtrack through the wading pool that was Bradley Creek.
2. Wade through South Mills River trail to get back.
3. Face the 6 mile hike a bike up Turkey Pen Gap.
As the volunteer at Bradley Creek put it so eloquently "Fuck walking through all those creeks..."
I agreed. Turkey Pen Gap it was.
We hiked, hiked, hiked some more and then had five more miles to go. The climb was the steepest, longest hike a bike I have ever done (600 feet of elevation gain in the first quarter mile and over 2,000 feet total). LATE EDIT: Looks like the max grade on this thing was a little over 35 percent. Yeesh.
It was downright brutal, not to mention a big time suck. Every time I expected it to level out, it turned even steeper. Every downhill meant we had to make up the elevation loss with even more hiking. This was the first time I have tried to walk backwards up a hill carrying a bike (Do not try this by the way, very poor idea). If there was a chance for a mental or physical breakdown, this was it. We held it together, voiced none of the complaints in our head, and continued towards the clouds. Close to two hours later, we made it to our reward for all the climbing: the Black Mountain and Thrift Cove descent. Whatever pain and fatigue was present was pushed to the back of my mind and I had a great time the last few miles.
Ten hours and forty five minutes after we opened our maps we were once again at the timing tent. I handed over the Passport to a volunteer and announced to him it still contained a wooden nickel. He handed over a two hour penalty to us and mentioned that a huge number of impatient teams made the same mistake. I am guessing a few teams argued with him as he was very ready to go on the defensive and point out all the rules again. Bleh. I was more interested in getting a burrito and as much beer in my belly as possible and strolled over to Lee's truck for a well deserved sit on the tailgate.
I know this is long as shit already but there is no way to boil one's first PMBAR down to a couple brief sentences so there ya go.
We would have actually had a pretty good finish if we had turned in our nickel, but it really does not matter. I can not recall a race I have had a better time at and this was easily one of the hardest rides I have ever done. Just the way I wanted it. Having a good partner is crucial to finishing this race and having a good time. Neither one of us complained or moped the whole day, although there were certainly plenty of times it would have been appropriate. Crude jokes and heckling other racers do wonders for team morale.
Thanks to Eric and all the volunteers out there. You guys rock. This race might just be my favorite one yet and I will be back next year.
Here is our route. It was about 70 miles.
Thrift Cove>Black Mountain>5058>Buckhorn Gap>South Mills River>Squirrel Gap>back on South Mills River>476>1206>Pilot Rock>Laurel Mountain>1206>5000>Wash Creek>Yellow Gap>1206>Bradley Creek>Turkey Pen Gap>Black Mountain>Thrift Cove