TNGA Part 3 – Day 2; Throwing Logic Aside

Day 2 was upon us, and so was chocolate milk, bagels and other delicious breakfast items. We were all feeling refreshed, and were sure to say our thank-yous as we pulled away from Woody’s and on to the next section of the TNGA, which were the Hog Pen and Wolf Pen Gaps. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, let me try to explain what these two sections were. They were the easiest, yet hardest climbs of the entire race. There, that should clear some things up.

But in all honesty, I enjoyed these climbs although I was cursing them at the same time. They were smooth, paved roads that were part of the scenic route system in north Georgia. And they were scenic indeed, especially once we reached the peaks. But reaching each peak took at least 40-50 minutes in the saddle, constantly pedaling in the granny-gear and hoping there was any resemblance of a plateau up ahead. I have to admit that I enjoyed these climbs much better than the last climb of the night before. Could it be due to the fact that I was fresh and had an entire day ahead of me? Probably. But regardless, we were having a grand ole time pushing ourselves up these mountains.

This is where I started singing different songs to myself. The first new song – another song that was being played on the radio often – was ‘Gotta Get it Right’ by Sixx AM, a band created by legendary bassist from Motley Crue, Nikki Sixx. I enjoyed this song, but had a slight problem with it at the same time. In previous albums, this band has leaned much more toward the heavy rock sound, at least in my opinion. However, this song sounded like it came straight from a Disney film in a sense. You can’t really blame them though, given the popularity boost of songs placed in recent movies such as Frozen or any other children’s movie. I mean, look at how some originally heavy bands such as Linkin Park and 30 Seconds to Mars have – in my opinion – gone soft over the years. Bands will lean toward whatever will make them the most money. It’s sad, but it’s business. I heard a quote the other day: ‘What’s happened to sex, drugs, and rock n roll? Now it’s just hippies in skinny jeans playing wind chimes and singing about their cell phones and producing music that is only fit for mascara commercials.’

This stuff is popular for whatever reason. Sometimes I don’t understand my generation.

As we make our way up Hog Pen Gap, I try to find my rhythm. The incline isn’t all that bad, and I’m feeling pretty good. But, I’m all alone. Jeremy pulled well ahead of me, and Josh is somewhere behind me. Knowing that there’s only one way up this road, I’m not too worried about getting lost or losing anyone. I figure that at the top, Jeremy would wait for me and we’d both wait for Josh. That is indeed what happened at the top, and the break was needed. According to both of them, we all reached the peak by about 10-15 minutes sooner than they both did last year. That’s great news, time for a mini celebration! And a quick picture.

We celebrated by going downhill, a downhill that Jeremy said he reached 50+ MPH on last year. Oh great, my specialty. We all sped down the hill at speeds that would get cars pulled over on this stretch of road, and eventually made it to the bottom after a few minutes. 50 minutes going up, less than 5 minutes going down; almost like waiting in line for a rollercoaster.

But this rollercoaster had a treat at the bottom of it. Before we descended at insane speeds, Jeremy told us to be on the lookout for a State Park entrance toward the bottom. I reached the bottom far behind the boys, but saw where they were. They actually slowed down once they reached a flat area so that I wouldn’t get lost I presume. We coasted on the flats, and continued to descent a little more, but at my preferred speed; somewhere between 10 and 20 MPH. I noticed Jeremy holding his left arm out as we came around a corner and wondered why for a split second. Then it hit me; here’s the State Park.

Neither Josh nor Jeremy was sure if the park had any food for sale outside of a few vending machines. But that wasn’t our first concern; that was whether or not the park guard would let us roll in for free or question us as to what we were doing. Jeremy led the charge and we slowly coasted up to the guard shack, where the nice older lady inside waved us through without even blinking an eye. We all said thank you, but I don’t think she heard us. We pushed through to what we thought was the heart of the park and were happy to come across a convenience store. Time to park our bikes, clean up, and fill up.

My first action was to head on into the convenience store to see what they had for sale. And wouldn’t you know, they had everything I wanted; ice cream sandwich, Coke, Gatorade, water, Cheetos, and our little ace-in-the-hole, Spaghettios. I walked around and picked up everything that I wanted, and then I noticed that the three of us were all standing in front of the Spaghettios, wondering if the other was going to grab a can of it. We didn’t have a microwave, or even a can opener, but the Spaghettios looked oh so good. Scratch that, we did have a can opener. Jeremy found a disposable can opener in the store for a dollar or two, so we grabbed two cans of the Spaghettios, the rest of our food, and claimed a park bench outside.

We also purchased a cheap set of plastic utensils so we could eat out of the cans (I lucked out and got the knife to eat with). As we enjoyed our early lunch, we took turns in the public restroom cleaning off our arms and faces. The two cans of small macaroni rings, cold tomato sauce and meatballs didn’t last long, as we were all pretty hungry. Neither did our other food items. Because I lost one of my two Gatorade bottles the night before, I kept this one about ¾ the way full and placed it into the storage in my CamelBak rather than my Viscacha.

As I spent a few minutes loading up, lathering on the sun screen and putting my gear back on, a little kid and his mother walked past us. He seemed really interested in what we were doing; not the whole biking across the state part, but the biking with that much gear part. I should’ve said we were doing the Tour-De-France just to see if they would even know what I’m talking about. They leave us, and we leave the park, past the same gate guard that we wave to again.

More paved road lie ahead of us, and of course, Wolf Pen Gap. This climb is yet another steady incline, but more on the dangerous side for our kind of biking. Let me explain how.

As we made our way up Wolf Pen Gap, we started hitting long, winding, uphill switchbacks. You know, the kind of crap that we have to deal with at Big Cedar (Dallas folk know what I mean), but this was on a much larger scale, and it was all paved. So these switchbacks were not as unnecessary as the ones found in our training grounds in Dallas, but they were annoying nonetheless. This climb, Josh was the lead man, as he pulled out in front of both Jeremy and I early on. I kept a steady pace as second in line, and this was a climb where Jeremy fell back a little ways. Something that we all joked about later on was that no matter what the climb was, I was always situated in the middle, while one of the other two were killing it ahead of me and the other was slightly taking their foot off of the gas pedal.

Coming around one of the first switchbacks, we saw an old couple unloading their car on the side of the road. It looked as if they were right next to a small park entrance and were getting ready for a fun-filled day. As we approached them, the wife asked Josh and I where we were headed. I remember seeing the look on their faces after I shouted back to them “Alabama”. Priceless.

As we continued our climb and after hitting a few sections of the switchback, we noticed quite the drop off on every other right turn switchback (as we were always looking to stay on the right shoulder). This gave way to some great views, but also some dangerous moments. Here you have 3 young guys putting their best effort to stay on the bike, trying to continue in a straight line, and not fall off the edge all while enduring the pain that comes with a continuous uphill climb. And then you have Georgia ghetto motorcycle riders who – although noticing the situation we are in – refuse to give us any space as their caravan of clunkers scoot on by. I let them know who was ‘number 1’ as they passed us.

I reached the top of this climb to find Josh already enjoying his afternoon snack. I didn’t want him to feel bad, so I grabbed some food out of my bag as well (I was starving). We sat down on the pavement off to the side of the road and tried to relax our bodies as best we could. We just conquered the back-to-back largest climbs of the TNGA. I’m feeling pretty good about that fact. We watch as Jeremy rolls up, and we collectively take a break because there’s still more to be climbed; this just happens to be where we get routed off of the pavement finally.

We begin to pedal into the forest again, but not for as long as we normally would. I noticed that there were walking signs as we entered, so I expected to see some signs of life; we weren’t disappointed. As we pushed our way through the area and over the gravel trail, we noticed a beautiful river off to our right side. As we pushed through the forest, we noticed a number of vehicles sporadically off of the beaten path. Not to anyone’s surprise, we also noticed people enjoying themselves in the river. I’m sure those who noticed us were wondering what was going on. If only they knew that we really wanted to be in their shoes (at least I would’ve liked to be able to relax in the water for a bit).

Climbing through this area isn’t all that horrible, and we eventually make it to what looks like a park entrance; rough gravel parking lot, trail signage, and a path that leads out to the paved road. We check our GPS (aka Jeremy) to make sure we’re still on the right path and then move forward. This section contained more downhill pavement, which I don’t necessarily mind, and yet another surprise at the bottom. This surprise, as Jeremy put it was another long climbing section going through a camp ground.

As we made our way down the side streets to the camp ground, I was again distraught at the thought of more climbing. But if there was anything to take away from all of my training and preparation, it was when Josh told me to never be content with going downhill or pedaling on the flats, because there’s always a climb right around the corner. I was beginning to accept this fact, maybe? Either way, we finally make our way into the camp ground and once again are blown away with the North Georgia mountain ranges.

The boys weren’t kidding, the camp ground service road was nothing but uphill given the direction we were going. Not only that, it was a loose, rocky uphill; a little more difficult than the paved uphills from earlier in the day. This one twists and turns and has a few flat plateaus, and is also full of truck traffic given the fact that it’s Sunday early afternoon. I would say there’s barely enough room for two trucks to pass each other at any given point throughout the service road (and that’s being generous), so having a few mountain bikers off to one side trying to pick out the best available line without stopping, made it a little difficult on everyone involved. We made it all the way to the top without incident, and continued on through more back roads and forested areas.

Josh recalls this section in a slightly different light: If I remember right, this “road” was more of a RockCrawler paradise. Much of it was a technical as singletrack with boulders, 2 foot deep crevices, and even some hike-a-bike. At one point we got passed by an opposite direction wagon train of 7-8 jeeps. Must’ve been a club out having a grand of’ time, and they enjoyed looking at us as much as we enjoyed watching them I think. But a mile or so later our minds we fully blown by a family in a Subaru wagon picking their way through. I have no idea how they got that far or how they made it out, but my helmet is off to them!

We make our way to a flat park road and begin to pick up speed. Sure we just ate, but we’re getting hungry again. As we spot the paved road again and realize it’ll be our home for a few miles, we notice a bike, an empty sleeping bag and a person off to the left side using nature. Wouldn’t you know, it was Asa! To me it looked like he was just waking up from his sleep; he probably went to bed around 4-5am and slept until a few minutes ago. It was great to see him, but we did not stop pedaling. As we passed, we had a conversation that only we would understand at that very moment. Of course we spent a good 5 seconds going back and forth with cheering each other on, but our next hour was determined with one sentence.

Asa: I’ll meet you for lunch up ahead

Neither of us fully understood what that meant at that point, but we did at the same time. We knew we had miles of road ahead of us and figured to cross a small town at some point. Wouldn’t you know about 10-15-20-25 miles down the road (I can’t remember at this point; 1 mile sometimes seemed like 50 and 50 miles sometimes seemed like.. well, 51 miles) we were staring a small convenience store right in the face. It looks like this is the place that Asa was talking about, so we all decided it would be best to stop and take a true lunch break.

This small convenience store was the best thing we’ve seen in a long time. It was promoting pulled pork BBQ sandwiches and had many other food items that we took advantage of; namely ice cream sandwiches, fritos, coke and Gatorade. On a normal day, this wouldn’t be a place where I’d go for a pulled pork BBQ sandwich by choice, but choice was one thing we didn’t have. It was either eat lunch here or forget lunch altogether. We all once again stocked up on the foods that made us happy and ‘ride better’ and all ordered a sandwich. As soon as our orders were ready and all paid for, I saw Asa roll in all by his lonesome. Alright, now our wolfpack has grown from 3 to 4 for the time being.

We’re all sitting at a picnic table outside the store under a makeshift roof that was doing a horrible job at shading us from the sun. Either way, it was lunch, this was food, and we were all friends. We start talking about what we did on Saturday (Day 1), and what we plan to do for the rest of the day. As we’re comparing notes, a red pickup truck pulls up to the convenience store. Out popped a satisfied Georgia native and his content (wife/girlfriend/sister/cousin/mother?). What were they so happy about? Asa was the first to find out when the man told us to go over and check out what was in the bed of his truck. (The perfect premise of any good Jeff Foxworthy “You might be a redneck” joke). It was a copperhead, and a big one at that. Someone apparently rolled over the snake’s body and left it for dead on the side of the road. This copperhead was still moving around, although not as graciously as it probably once had. We all took our time to check out the sight, and went back to our lunches. Hearing about bear the night before and seeing a snake today, awesome.

I wish I had a memory comparable to that of Josh, he remember the snake and its exact measure! I wish I still had a picture of the snake, but I don’t. The snake was actually a Timber Rattler, around 5 feet long. Beautiful snake with stripes sort of like a tiger, but green and brown if memory serves. We usually see Diamondback’s in TX, and I’d only become aware of it’s striped cousin recently when one turned up on one of our local trails.

I finish my lunch and lay down on the gravel right next to the store entrance. It’s the only place that’s shaded at the moment, and Josh had already laid claim to the bench that was also currently shaded. As we were trying to cool off, Asa came out of the convenience store with an entire bag of ice. Alright, I like where his head’s at, but there’s no way was can carry 5 pounds of ice with us for long. Or is there?

Everyone who enjoyed cold water put enough ice in their respective containers as they saw fit. I filled up my two bottles and bladder in my CamelBak. But we were still left with over 3 pounds of ice. What to do, what to do.. Asa came up with the idea that we use baggies to pour ice into and stuff them down our jerseys. Alright, now we’re onto something! Rather than buying a whole box of baggies, we ask the store manager if we can just take 4. I don’t know where they came from, but Asa walked out of the store with 4 and the manager seemed to not care. Works for me. I piled as much ice as I could into a baggie, zipped it up and proceeded to situate it between my jersey and the lower part of my neck. It seemed to fit pretty snug once we got going. All 4 of us were using this tactic as we left the store, and it was much needed at this point in the day.

We left on road and continued to make our way toward the Alabama border. It’s still early in the afternoon so the sun is shining down on us, but there are some clouds moving in. For the next hour or two, we didn’t encounter any large climbs, although the riding wasn’t necessarily easy. As we approached another small town, it started raining on us. To be honest, it felt great for me and I would be under the impression that it felt the same for everyone else. We continued on and finally reached a bridge that was known as ‘Iron Bridge’. The name is self-explanatory. It’s a unique bridge because of the way it’s built and because it was only one-lane. We approached the bridge in the rain and were immediately held back by a few locals who noticed a truck looking to cross on the other side. We stopped to let the truck cross, and then proceeded across into the small town.

This is a town that I’ve heard stories about from Josh and his adventure last year. Apparently there is a convenience store in this town that closes at 4pm on Sundays. Last year he reached the store at 4:05pm on Sunday and noticed what seemed to be a store operator trying to leave without being noticed and purposefully not paying any attention to a mountain biker in need. Today was Sunday, so our hearts sank when we looked at our phones only to realize it was 4:04pm. And once again, the shop was closed and locked up. As we stood there dejected, it started down pouring on us. Luckily, we had about a foot overhang to hide under outside of the closed shop, which is better than nothing. I remember slamming the remainder of my Gatorade from earlier just out of pure boredom (and thirst).

Asa used this down time to call into MTB Cast, which was the dedicated call-in number for the TNGA. He left a message about us being in a storm, riding with the Texas contingent, and then I think something about flowers or trees. Anyway, here’s the clip.

Jeremy and I sat on opposite sides of a small end table outside of the shop as it continued to rain. We talked about what we were going to do next, and Jeremy used this time to begin contemplating pulling out of the race.

I was still fiddling around with my Spot Tracker because it still wasn’t showing up on the map. This time I knew because I pulled out my phone and loaded up the site only to find Josh and Jeremy, and not me. For sake of finishing the race, this was not a problem because most people knew I was with Josh and Jeremy. But it stunk for friends and family looking to follow online who were unaware of the situation.

 

The rain continued, and we contemplated food. There was a restaurant just down the road maybe a half mile. If we went it would be dinner, and an early dinner at that. We all decided to at least stop and see what they had to offer. We biked down to the restaurant, parked our bikes and went inside. Immediately, I felt cold thanks to the air conditioning meeting my wet kit. Luckily they had a covered outdoor patio which was perfect for us wet bikers, especially since this was a decent restaurant and we weren’t the best dressed individuals. We sat down, and decided to order dinner; sandwiches and pasta plates. Asa was going to be a few minutes behind us, he said he was going to make another call or two and pack up his stuff before he came over. No one truly wanted to spend an hour eating dinner, but this was going to be the last place to purchase anything until Mulberry Gap.

Mulberry Gap was a huge conversational piece at the dinner table between the three of us. Josh wanted to go straight through the night until we reached Mulberry Gap, Jeremy said it wasn’t possible, and I was up for anything that got us to the finish line quicker.

To better understand exactly what was going on at this point, here’s what Josh has to say:

I remember this conversation between me and Jeremy pretty well. It brings a smile to my face because we have had many of these before. I generally set some unrealistic goal (they should all be at least a little unrealistic), he says it can’t be done, and I say that we should agree to try, and he gives me a nod to shut me up but he’s still shaking his head inside. I’m also smiling because this time it worked out, even if it’s only because I’m stubborn and Ryan is a tough dude who’s game for just about anything you can throw at him. At this point Jeremy has decided he’s done and arranging for a ride to MG, and I’m making my usual plans….

Josh: I think we should push through to MG. 

Jeremy: you can’t make it that far, you’ll have to camp somewhere.

Josh: we can make it. We’ll have to pull a 24 or more, but we can do it. 

Jeremy: you don’t understand how far it really is. It’s further than you remember. Not possible. 

Josh: it’s gonna suck, but we can do it. 

Jeremy: really man, it’s just so far. You’re going to have to camp. 

Josh: if we have to we have to, but I don’t think so. I’ll take a power nap if I need to, but we got this. We will see you in the morning, watch. (So cocky, but I think it helps to be a little cocky if you’re going to something as ridiculous as race across North Georgia)

See, a thing that had been on my mind the entire trip was the fact that I had told personnel in Florida that I would return by Wednesday so I could perform my TA/GA duties. This means that I would need to finish the TNGA by late afternoon on Tuesday at the VERY latest so that I could get a ride back to Mulberry Gap (which was close to the middle of the state) and drive back to Tallahassee by Wednesday morning in time to teach. This was Sunday early evening, which meant we had a little less than 2 days to finish this feat (officially, all riders have a week to finish the TNGA, but I needed to do it in less than half of that in order to get back on time). Another thing that was eating away at me was the fact that we ended early the night before and unfortunately got stuck at Woody’s. In my mind we were behind schedule, and something needed to happen in order to get back on track.

I told Josh that I was on board and willing to push through the night. After more conversation, Jeremy told us that he planned to pull out. We didn’t like to hear what was happening, but that was the decision that he had to make. His dynamo light was not functioning properly, and in order to make it through the night he was going to need a lot of light.

We finished our meals and got ready for the next push. Asa packaged up all of his pasta (I don’t think he ate a single bite) in a ziplock bag and put it in his storage pouch. Nothing like a hearty midnight snack. Jeremy called Leslee, and she was on her way to come pick him up at the restaurant. Josh, myself and Asa pulled ourselves together and prepared our bikes for our trip to Mulberry Gap. We all said our goodbyes to Jeremy and biked away, immediately hitting an annoying hill. I biked with a heavy heart for a while. The last thing I wanted to happen was for someone to take themselves out of the TNGA, especially a friend. At least this wasn’t due to injury, and it probably prevented one from occurring.

We peaked the annoying hill and were heading toward the next big climb at a steady pace; Stanley Gap. I remember the name of this gap specifically because of how much I disliked it. Leading up to it, I remember Josh and Asa talking about it, sizing it up in their own words and reliving their experiences from last year. One thing I took away from the conversation was that we had a rough series of climbs ahead of us in a single forested area, with some inclines hard for hikers to ascend. I also stupidly asked how long the overall climb was, and got an answer of “5 miles”. To the untrained eye, 5 miles seems like nothing. We’ve covered the same distance in previous steady climbs, so this shouldn’t be too difficult.

I was completely wrong with my own assessment. We weren’t even a mile in, and words were flying. Josh was in the lead, I was again a steady second, and Asa was manning the rear making sure to keep conversation going by making up new names for this gap. At this point I can’t remember exactly what was said, but it was non-stop, and entertaining to boot. I do remember that some created names were R-rated, and appreciated those the most.

Knowing the distance of a certain section is something I slowly learned wasn’t a good idea. Why? Because I would keep looking down at my GPS to see how far we’ve gone. Oh, we’ve been pedaling for 10-15 minutes, we must’ve covered at least a mile. Nope, 0.3 miles. My grandma can walk faster than that. The joys of walking/carrying/painfully pushing your bike uphill. There were points throughout the climb where we lost Asa, but he always reappeared after a few minutes (I could tell because it would suddenly go silent). My legs could handle everything we were presented with, aside from the ludicrous short sections of a crazy grade (Think of a 60-70% angled uphill trail with slick roots all around). Those crazy sections broke my momentum and continually made me get off my bike and walk, which led to me snapping and going into what I would like to consider ‘beast-mode’. Sections where I would earlier get off and walk my bike, I made an extra effort to push up them on my bike and glide into the next section where I tried my luck in the same manner. This lasted for a few minutes, and it launched me ahead of Josh by a good margin.

As I stood atop of a climb that I pedaled up, I took a short break, shook out my legs and treated myself to a drink. Josh rolled by as I enjoyed my extended break, and I let him retake the lead. We were about 2 miles into the climb at this point, so I was mentally prepared for 3 or so more miles before we got to enjoy some downhill out of this gap. No more than a half mile later (which could’ve been anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes), we reached a peak that looked to be the peak of all peaks for this gap. I promptly asked where the next climb was, because I couldn’t see anything around that went up.

We were presented with 3 options of going downhill and strangely one looking like it went slightly uphill, and our GPS’s were not helping us with the right choice. Given that we were relying too much on technology, we waited at the peak for Asa who had the TNGA ‘note-pad’ of turn-by-turn directions in his back pocket. He made it up to us, got out the pad, and told us to take the left path, which was all downhill. I like this already; it seems as if this trail may be 5 miles IN TOTAL, not 5 miles uphill. Miniature victory. Maybe.

I’ve mentioned before that downhill is not my specialty, so I of course let Josh take point, and I fall in behind him. Asa is behind both of us, but he is taking it more cautiously. As we start to descend, I notice that we’re on bench cut with the mountain on our immediate right side and a steep constant drop off to our left side. I personally didn’t want to go too fast because one wrong move could send me off the edge of the mountain. This section wasn’t all downhill as there were a few sections that required pedaling; these sections were where Josh and I met back up with each other and prepared for the next descent. Or more realistically, where Josh waited for me before he got further ahead and lost me.

As we got further away from the peak, it started getting darker which was natural given the time of day. I’d say it was somewhere between 7 and 8:30pm at this point. Given my poor eyesight, I recommended to Josh at one of the plateaus that we stop to put our lights on. For me it was as simple as connecting the light on my helmet to the battery in my backpack. But for Josh to get his light going, he had to stop, get his light gear out, situate it on his helmet and then connect the battery. Much more involved. Josh insisted that we were close to the exit of the trail, and we’d put our lights on once we got to the parking lot. I said ok, and began the next downhill section.

We must have been going for at least another 20 minutes, and there was still no exit in sight. It continued to get darker, my eyesight got even worse, and I became extremely nervous. The only objects I could see were the white rocks on the trail (there were rock of many colors that I couldn’t see), the outlines of the trees, and vaguely where the edge of the trail was on the left side. I braced my body as many mountain bikers would when anticipating a crash after every few seconds just because I didn’t have a clue what to expect. I’d seriously rather be bombing down the hill from the night before; at least I had light then! I lost track of Josh early on, and was simply concentrating on missing large white rocks and staying on the trail.

Being a veteran on this voyage, Josh didn’t view this section as dangerous as I had:

Regarding this whole section of trail, it was just brutal. After last year all I could remember was how hard Snake Gap was, and I guess it made everything else seem like no big deal. Well I didn’t remember Stanley Gap with enough respect. This was some slow, steep, technical hike-a-bike. It was hot and we were chasing daylight which adds some stress. When it came to the decision to put on lights, it was definitely too dark to be riding down the backside of this mountain without them, but sometimes I just get this determination thing going and can’t be convinced to stop for even a minute. And as we descended it just got darker and darker in the shadow of the mountain. We could barely see at all for the last 15-20 minutes, and we were really moving. It was a dangerous combination and not real smart but we got through it, and I still feel a little bad about Ryan hitting that tree.

It was getting even darker, and the white rocks were even beginning to fade away. I could take less than a minute to stop, connect my light to the battery and be on my safe way. But I was too stubborn, and wasn’t going to pop my light on if Josh hadn’t. I made another (what seemed like routine) move at this point to avoid another large white rock. However this time, what I didn’t see was the large darker rock that I so elegantly turned right into. This rock directed my tire to the left side (which was a huge no-no if I wanted to finish this race; the left side was the edge of the mountain), so instead of looking to take a risk at attempting to correct my direction and possibly sliding out from overcompensating and going down off the cliff anyway, I made the split-second decision to stay clipped in and accept my fate.

Off the cliff I went, clipped into my bike. Except, that didn’t happen. There was a large tree directly (now) in front of me that was just standing there, still as ever. No more than a few milliseconds later, I was doing the same thing after I pulled a Fred Flinstone as I ran into it. Fred Flinstone’ing is when face meets object, and arms and legs both reach beyond the object through impact force alone as if you were about to bear hug it. Luckily, through some mix of reaction, luck or act of the biking gods, my face missed the tree by mere inches as I ran into it. Somehow, the front tire of my bike missed the tree (it missed on the left side, left side is bad), but my whole body got to know it quite well. The bike remained clipped to my left shoe, which I’m thankful for or else I may have been sliding down the cliff after everything. I can’t remember for certain what I sounded like when I collided with the tree, but Josh mentioned later that it sounded like all of the air was forced out of my lungs at once as if a sledgehammer hit me in the stomach.

I peeled myself off of the tree and collected myself. Nothing seemed to be missing or broken, so I was relieved for the time being. I noticed that the tree I ran into wasn’t all that solid to the touch on the very outside, which wasn’t exactly great news. Good chances that the soft, furry vines covering the tree were in fact poison ivy, something that I am very allergic to. And to top it all off, I forgot to pack my Zanfel (urishol remover; urishol is the oil that poison ivy and poison oak plants carry). There’s nothing I can do about it now other than wash myself off with my water bottles and hope I don’t see a rash in the next few days. But given the fact that we’re still 40-50 miles from Mulberry Gap, I wasn’t about to waste precious water just to wash away some potential poison ivy. Time to man up and push on.

I finally made it to a section where it seemed to get slightly brighter. And by brighter, I mean that I could barely make out what I thought was a street lamp. Although when I finally made it out of the forest and to the parking lot, I noticed that the light was coming from a van. A woman who owned the van was talking to Josh, and through conversation we found out that she was out here taking pictures of nature. Interesting to say the least. She left us, and we took time to rest, get our lights going, and grab a quick bite to eat. It was dark out, and it was going to be dark until morning; about 10 hours until we saw the sun again. If we wanted to get to Mulberry Gap without stopping, we had to grind out the rest of our miles at night, in the dark. Josh remembers this location from last year, and recalls that Mulberry Gap is probably 5-6 hours from where we are. Not too bad, that would put us there somewhere between 2 and 4am Monday morning.

We left the parking lot and hit some pavement, a nice reprieve from the hell I just went through. We started to go through a little town which was nice and quiet this time of night. As we progressed on the pavement, we noticed a very tiny convenience store off to the left side, with a single, gas pump that looked to be from the 50’s still intact. It also had a Coke machine lit up out in front, which was good enough reason for us to stop for a minute. But that wasn’t the only reason we stopped. Josh had mentioned that he remembered this store from last year and thought that there was a hose in the back of the store that we could use to fill our water bottles and CamelBaks up with. Sure enough, there was a functioning hose in the back. We enjoyed our Cokes and filled up with enough water to hopefully get us all the way to Mulberry Gap.

Leaving the store, we had a minor debate on which way our GPS was telling us to go. Right as we decided and began to pedal again, Asa caught up to us and passed us in the direction we were heading. For the next hour or so, we got into a roadie groove, where each of us led the pack for a while and then dropped back. I can’t really say one was truly drafting off of another, but we were able to get into a comfortable road cadence and were probably averaging 20+ mph on the flats for long periods of time. To me this was a great feeling; finally able to let loose and knock off some easy miles. The only downside was the fact that it was dark, so we had to be extra cautious of passing traffic.

This is the point when things got interesting, as if they already hadn’t. We had been up for 17 hours, pedaling for 16 of them, had a pack of 3 turn into 4 and then again revert back to 3, and as we moved off of the pavement into what Josh called the Pinhoti trail, 3 had now turned into 2. Asa didn’t drop out – at least we didn’t believe for that to have happened – he simply fell a tad behind. Josh and I were alone and trudging through some of the most interesting forestry and wildlife North Georgia has to offer, at midnight.

It was now that I thought we had 3, 4, MAYBE 5 hours left until we reached Mulberry Gap. I say this because we stopped for a good bit and fiddled with Josh’s GPS. One of the pages he was able to flip to showed the upcoming elevation. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but it was something like this: If our current position was sea level (0), we saw a steep line up about 1,500 feet, then straight back down to 0, another straight, steep line up about 2,000 feet, then back down to 500, up to 1,000, back to 500, up to 1,000, back down to 500, up to 1,000, back down to 500, flat for a while and back down to 0 (with many more elevation changes after that of course). We stopped at that point because 1) that’s all we could see on his GPS, and 2) because Josh mentioned that one of the dips at 500 feet between the 1,000 foot peaks would be where we find Mulberry Gap. Finally, visible evidence that Mulberry Gap was within reach! At least I though so anyway.

Josh certainly remembers how much I loved hearing about the upcoming elevation: It wasn’t long after this that Ryan told me to stop telling him what the elevation profile said. He just didn’t want to know anymore. And I’ll admit, it can be torture sometimes, I usually don’t look at it myself.

So it’s about midnight as we entered the forest, and we quickly found out that the GPS wasn’t kidding; we were certainly going up on this Pinhoti trail. The very first sections of the trail were muddy as ever, we both had problems keeping our bike pointed and going forward as we pedaled through mud puddle after mud pit. But we couldn’t stop, unless we desired to have our shoes covered in mud and our feet cold and uncomfortable the rest of the night. I became the first victim of using my feet to catch myself, as my bike came to a complete stop in the middle of a mud pit unexpectedly; I was pedaling my heart out, but I was going nowhere, and fast. Josh was ahead of me, but heard me cursing my unfortunate luck from behind and turned to see me carrying my bike over the remainder of the pit. One thing I’ve learned through my few years of biking is that a clean bike is a happy bike, and a happy bike is a functioning bike. My bike was happy at the moment, and I intended to keep it that way.

We kept on climbing the Pinhoti trail, but never got away from the mud. This must have been a horrible storm that went through North Georgia just days before the start of the TNGA. We were notified at the racers meeting and beforehand that there is a good chance of deadfall (large trees and debris) covering random parts of the trail. The race director and others were going to do what they could to clear out certain sections, but there’s no way they would be able to clear out every section in less than a couple days.

Josh finally became a victim of the mud pits, and I got to witness it firsthand as I was right on his tail when it occurred. Both of our bikes seemed happy at the moment, so we really didn’t mind. The mud was just another obstacle; we’ve seen much worse, and little did we know, we’d experience much worse in the hours to come.

I wish I could say something nice about the Pinhoti trail at night, in the situation we were in, but nothing comes to mind. I’m sure it’s a great trail when the conditions are more favorable and you’re running on fresh legs and a fresh mind. But for what we were being put through, it was my little own personal hell. I got myself in the same situation as before while riding Stanley Gap; I knew the distance we were shooting for, so that was always in my mind rather than just pedaling. Rather than singing tunes to myself, I was thinking about the distance we had left. Had we even made it to the first peak yet? Nope, not even close. And to top it all off, we were looking at a hard left onto another section of the Pinhoti trail that looked to go straight up.

“Just a few more hundred feet”. Oh, is that all? Now I feel so much better. Because it’s taken us about an hour to get up 1,000 feet, just 500 more. Sarcasm. We finally reached the peak, and we could tell. The trail led us to some jeep road, and we both let out a collective sigh. But for me, being at ease was short-lived. As we started heading downhill on this jeep road, we ran into a pretty dense fog. I’m doing what I can to keep up with Josh, but every time he got more than 20-30 feet in front of me, I lost him; scary. 20-30 feet is nothing when you’re traveling at 20-25 mph down a backwoods jeep road. Just as I was earlier in the night, I was doing everything in my power to dodge large, noticeable rocks and of course try not to fall off of the edge, which was now on the right side.

Josh felt the same way: The fog was crazy and really frustrating. We should be going over 30 miles an hour on these gravel descents, and instead we are riding the brakes. I couldn’t see more than about 15 feet and just like in your car, lights don’t help, they almost make it more blinding.

We twisted and turned, and made our way to the bottom where we coasted for a mile or two. I dodged another bullet on that downhill and started feeling more confident in my ability to navigate with poor eyesight. Don’t get me wrong, I was still nervous every second I felt I was going too fast for comfort (about 15 mph, which was the entire way down, about 20-25 straight minutes). I know Josh was having difficulty seeing as well, because he’d normally be minutes ahead of me on that long of a downhill. He ended up only beating me down by a good number of seconds.

We hopped back onto trail after our little break on pavement onto what we thought was the Pinhoti trail again, just another section. Indeed it was, and this one proved to be just as annoying as the other section. It started by going down a grassy hill which was followed by a section of trail that seemed to be pretty flowy. The flow came to a quick end when we ran into a downed tree right in the middle of the trail. This was the first tree that was completely down and took a team effort to get our bikes to the other side. Unfortunately, the downed tree was right next to a turn which our GPS said we biked right by as we saddled up and pedaled on the other side of the tree. There’s no way the trail intersection is right where the tree is, right? Neither of us knew for sure, so we kept our bikes in the middle of the tree maze, and I took my GPS off my bike and slowly walked with it through the trail we though we had to be on.

Screaming at Josh from a distance, looking to the left where there was a wide, presumably deep river, which produced the only noise we could hear for the moment: “My GPS says we’re supposed to turn left here, but that doesn’t make sense, what does yours say?” There’s no way I’m going to swim across this river with my bike, given my current state of mind. This can’t be right; I didn’t want it to be right.

Josh: “Hold on, let me load up the map…….. Mine says a right up here, and we should be starting a climb here soon.”

My GPS wasn’t able to load the TNGA map file, so I was not familiar with the one I had to use. Turns out, the GPS I was using was in fact telling us to go right, I just didn’t know it at the time.

“Ok, but I still can’t find where we’re supposed to go right either. You think the tree covered it up?”

We biked very slowly in the straight direction as directed by the GPS and finally saw something off to the right side that resembled a bike path leading upwards. Finally! Excited to be able to finally move forward, but not excited for the upcoming climbing. This climbing was tough for me, as it was loose, slick and uneven. Tree roots were all over and made the climbing even that more difficult. Some sections had to be walked by either Josh or myself, and sometimes both. It was torture, but it was what needed to be done in order to make it out of the woods and on to Mulberry Gap.

Climbing is all we did for the next couple of hours, or so it seemed. I kept on asking Josh where we were on the hill, as if that would make everything better. It only made things worse. I should’ve known that by now. Josh then changed the game and mentioned something that would later play a huge factor in this story; chocolate milk at Mulberry Gap. I’ll state before and I’ll state it again, when people put themselves through long periods of physical stress their tastes can change at any point; from wanting cheese pizza to craving apple sauce; from wanting fried chicken to craving anything chocolate in a matter of minutes. Ever since chugging the chocolate milk earlier in the day at Woody’s, I had wanted more, but suppressed those feelings. Until now. It was now a race to get to Mulberry Gap; at least that’s what my stomach was telling me.

Being physically and mentally strong are huge components of ultra endurance racing. Here’s what Josh has to say on that topic:

After about day 1, ultra endurance racing is 90% mental (I’ve probably said this before), and you have to come up with ways to keep yourself going. Setting goals, breaking them down into manageable chunks, distractions like music or conversation… But one of my tricks is tethering my mind to some wonderful reward that I think is awaiting me, like chocolate milk or cheeseburgers. It works most of the time, but the mental darkness is still always waiting to pounce, and if it gets ahold of you then that chocolate milk becomes a torture as now you are focused on what you DON’T have. 

Our earlier estimates of reaching Mulberry Gap by 4-5 in the morning were way off. We hadn’t made the peak of the second hill yet, and it was already 2-3 in the morning. That upset me a little bit. Add in chocolate milk, and I was getting quite irritated. Not at Josh, but at the trail. Josh can probably recall better than I can, but I completely lost my cool as we dismounted our bikes and walked them up another difficult, non-ridable section. I think it went something like this: Expletive expletive [another expletive] this trail expletiving expletive are you serious [another necessary expletive] minor curse word followed by another expletive [something to do with an animal] how great of a state Georgia is [expletive] 2 in the morning, curse word chocolate expletive [x2] milk.

I probably woke up every bit of wildlife within a mile radius.

Immediately after, I apologized to Josh for going off the edge like that. He knew what was going on, so he shook it off (I think), and I did my best to shake it off as well. We kept on conversing and moving forward. Talking to each other at this point was going to be the key to making it through the night. After many more dismounts, walking and climbing, we finally made it to the top of the second hill. It’s still pitch black out, so our lights were our only eyes. We both had Grady’s XXX from TrailLED, so we were in good hands.

We moved at a good pace along the ridge line at the top, waiting for the drop in elevation to come. It came, and so did more fog. I cautiously made my way down to the bottom where Josh was waiting. However, it seemed as if we were not fully to the bottom, and I asked why we stopped early. This was apparently the location that Josh and Jeremy stopped last year and slept in the comfort of the outhouses until sunup. Neither of us wanted to sleep for long right now; as a matter of fact, I was still in ‘get to Mulberry Gap so I can get me some chocolate milk’ mode. But Josh had wanted to take a quick nap on the trail, so we did just that. There was a series of what I believe motocross racers would call ‘woops’ on the trail, so we laid our bikes down on top of one hump and used the backside as a pillow. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation, but it did the job.

It is quite interesting how certain moments get lost in translation. That’s what happens when you fall asleep and are out cold, as Josh can tell us: This was definitely not a comfortable place to lie down, but that was the point. If you want to take a short power nap, don’t get comfortable. Same as when I was sleeping on that picnic table bench back at Woody’s with the temps dropping. So here again I just put on my windbreaker and close my eyes as the temps drop below 60 at sometime around 1am (?). I don’t think I knew until now that Ryan didn’t sleep, but I do remember getting up grumbling that I guess I wasn’t going to be able to nap after all, just couldn’t sleep. That’s when he told me how hard I had been snoring. Hilarious because this same conversation happens with my wife when I insist that I can’t sleep in the car, and she reminds me that I sleep very soundly almost anywhere. Also, staying underdressed worked like a charm because I was freezing, my teeth were chattering and I was shaking all over. This left me no choice but to saddle up quickly and get pedaling.

I wasn’t able to fall asleep at all; I was too anxious to make it to Mulberry Gap and I had a sneaking suspicion that we weren’t alone. Josh on the other hand was out in less than 5 minutes; his snoring tipped me off. We agreed to set our alarms for 30 minutes later, which I believe ended up being 3:15am, and he took full advantage of it. I laid back, closed my eyes, but couldn’t clear my mind enough to fall asleep. Josh left his helmet light on, so rather than wasting my time trying to sleep, I got up and paced around a little bit. I grabbed a quick drink of water, checked my own helmet light to make sure it was still held in tight, and then sat down on top of the hump with my own thoughts. I couldn’t recollect what exactly was going through my mind for those few minutes (heck, I couldn’t even tell you what’s going through my mind right now), but I can say that it was one of those moments where everything started to connect. Josh was going to wake up in a few minutes and he was going to be fresh, which means we were headed straight for Mulberry Gap. There’s only a few 500 foot climbs ahead of us, which is nothing compared to what we just went through.

Moments before our alarms went off, a large beetle started buzzing near Josh’s face. Really insignificant in relation to the rest of the story, but I thought it was interesting. Josh woke up, we repacked our belongings, put our gear back on, and started up the ‘short’ climb. In the middle of the descent of this climb, we were directed back out onto pavement. We must be so close to Mulberry Gap, the surroundings look very familiar! But there’s one small problem. We come to a three-way intersection with both of our GPS’s telling us to go in different directions. I walk unclipped and with my bike between my legs over to Josh, who is standing over his own bike in the same manner, and we compare GPS directions. Mine is telling us to go right down the pavement, and this time I’m confident that it’s saying right. Josh’s is saying right too, but it’s not a straight line like mine shows. We spend about 10-15 minutes biking up and down the pavement a tenth of a mile each way to see what our GPS’s do (they’ll usually beep and tell us we’re off course once we get 50 feet or so off course). Both of ours beep. Now this is interesting. So it’s not the pavement that we should be on, at least that’s what we’re gathering from our technology. Just then, Josh remembers that there should be another entrance to the Pinhoti trail around this area. Wouldn’t you know, it’s hidden, and off to the right side. Bingo.

The next couple climbs and descents are pretty uneventful as far as I can remember. We pedaled when we went up, and prayed for no fog every time we bombed a downhill. But one thing that I do remember is the exact moment when I was able to turn my light off. We were twisting and turning through single track on our way down the final hill before Mulberry Gap, Josh in the lead and me on his tail. I had my light on, and I could barely make out the light it was emitting thanks to the sun light, so I knew the next step was to turn it off. And I did that with a smile on my face. Sunlight to me has always been a refresher. I’ve done multiple 24 hour races and one thing I can say is that when the sun comes up, I feel like a new man for at least an hour. It’s a great feeling. And it felt great today because I knew I’d be at Mulberry Gap within an hour.

Surprisingly, Josh and I have complete opposite takes on sunlight and morning riding. But one thing was shared between us; the desire to reach Mulberry Gap: One crushing moment during the morning that I remember clearly. We were both delirious and heart broken by a sign in the road. We came off of single track and onto some gravel, and we were badly wanting for this to be the road to MG. But we still had to ride P2. I knew because I remember stopping here last year and finally calling MG and they told me where I was and to keep on the trail. It was first daylight, and contrary to how it makes Ryan feel, dawn makes me feel terrible. Dawn is like a signal to my brain that something just isn’t right and I get really low for 30-60 minutes. I’ve even fallen asleep before while pedaling during this first hour of daylight. Combine that with a cruel tease that we could take gravel to the “barn” and I was totally beat down (and there may even have been a sign for MG there too). We had one more section of trail still and it took way longer than I remembered from last year, again. Maybe an hour later, lots of blowdown crossing, and one big crash for each of us (Ryan went over his bars), and we made it to the road that did take us to MG. I’ll never forget seeing the impossibly steep driveway to MG, with my wife cheering us in, and biting down to ride up it in triumph while my whole body screamed for me to get off and walk. Ryan and I both pedaled to the very top! Victory! 

We finished the single track and pedaled onto pavement again. We both had a feeling that Mulberry Gap was right up ahead of us. A mile later on gravel, and still nothing. Another mile, and still nothing, but at least we’re going downhill a little now. Another mile or so, and now we’re climbing. I’m starting to feel a little uncertain about Mulberry Gap being close. Maybe it’s in the next dip. That would devastate me. Off to the left side of the road, we saw a trail with a sign right in front of it. It faced straight out to the road, so we couldn’t read it until we were right up next to it.

It said…. Pinhoti 3 to the left… Mulberry Gap straight ahead.

If someone could have photographed my face at that exact point, I’m not sure what it would’ve looked like. How do you show surprise, excitement, exaltation, relief, and wanting to cry out of pure happiness all at the same time, on one face? Either way, this was it; the final push to Mulberry Gap, chocolate milk, all the food I could eat, a shower, a comfortable couch, a change of clothes and all of the Dallas crew. This was much needed.

We made it to Mulberry Gap, and climbed the steep driveway en route to the barn. Half way up, I could hear and see Leslee out in the driveway waiting for us. Apparently she was following our every movement and knew we were just minutes away. Seeing her, and Annette just a little behind her, made me extremely happy. We did it! At this point we had been up for 25 hours, biking for 24 of them, and had gone through so much hell. The feeling was amazing. I collected a hug from everyone who was near and leaned my bike up against the barn. All of my gear got dropped on the ground or strewn across my bike as I simply didn’t care at this point. I went inside and saw Jeremy, another smiling friendly face. I also saw Tristan and Scott, they were just about to pack up and head out. We talked for a minute or two on our journey the past couple days and how we got here, then they left. Go get ‘em boys!

I sat down in one of the only open chairs I saw, and it so happened to be at the DFW table. Leslee grabbed me a plate of food as I sat there in a daze. I wasn’t sure if I could eat anything; my stomach was in full-on liquid mode right now. I went straight for the chocolate milk. But they had none! Uh oh, minor panic attack. She said she had chocolate syrup in the back, so she brought that out instead and I helped myself to 4 glasses of Ryan’s special Hershey’s chocolate milk. So delicious. I sat back down at the table and checked out Leslees laptop. She indeed was following our every movement, and I was interested to see how everyone else was doing. Barnabas Forsythe was in the lead, and there were a good number of others ahead of us as well. But the most interesting fact was that many racers have pulled out already due to the dreadful trail conditions this year. It made me feel better about making it this far.

Just as that thought crossed my mind, JP came into the barn. We heard that he reached the barn last night, but he should’ve been out of here by now. Another sign of bad news, he was in street clothes. JP told us that he decided to pull out of the race, which is unfortunate. Another DFW rider was down this year, leaving only two left. We all chatted for a few minutes and then I decided it was time for me to take a shower before I napped. Only problem was, I had no clothes to change into while my kit was being washed. I had clothes in my car, which was in the Mulberry Gap parking lot no more than 20 yards away, but we were not able to access our vehicles while we were here. It was against the rules.

Long story short, that meant I was trotting around Mulberry Gap with nothing but a towel. I walked barefoot all the way down to the showers (trust me, the path is very rocky) and back. My feet had been inside my wet socks and shoes for nearly 2 days straight at this point, so they were not in great shape to start with. This made things worse. When I got back up to Mulberry Gap, I was a little hungry, so I ate some of the food they had made for us. Then I talked with Josh about our plans. It was about 8 in the morning, so we decided a 5 hour nap would be perfect; wake up at 1 in the afternoon, get our heads on straight, eat some more and get out of Mulberry Gap by 2. We agreed, and passed out. Only problem again is that I still had no clothes. A towel wrapped around my waist was my only cover. Who knew if it would come undone while I was sleeping. Who even cared? I certainly didn’t at this point, I wanted my sleep.

I woke up at 1 to notice Josh already up and eating more. I was starving, so I asked for a bowl of special soup that the ladies were passing around. I didn’t leave a bite. I also asked for a Sprite from the fridge; I felt dehydrated for some reason. And apparently a carbonated beverage was the best choice in my mind. After more food and drink, I went off into the corner to put my fresh kit back on. I felt like a new man, again! Although I felt like a new man, I still sat in the same chair with the same thousand-mile stare that I had earlier. Leaving Mulberry Gap meant it was on to the finish. It also meant the roughest part of the entire race; Snake Pen Gap. Essentially, Stanley Gap on steroids in terms of terrain and ability to ride. Leslee was giving Josh a pep talk in a char next to mine as she was massaging his legs. Annette came over to me and asked if I needed anything massaged. Of course I’m not going to turn down a free massage. Out of everything, I mentioned that my feet and my shoulders could use the most attention. I sat there in the same daze for the next 10 minutes, but my feet and shoulders felt a lot better.

The MG love was appreciated by Josh just as much upon arrival at the barn: I proceeded to inhale copious amounts of the famously large breakfast that Ginni, Diane, and Kate make for the riders who come through. It was amazing and did I already say that there was a lot of it? After a shower I found a couch in the corner of the dining hall (aka ‘the barn’) and slept soundly despite the constant crowd. I woke about 2 hours later and the Dallas girls had just brought back lunches from a restaurant in town. My wife Leslee asked if I wanted to eat and I said I’d have a nibble… I ate a full lunch and maybe half of hers. I have no idea how I found room for all of that food after the huge breakfast. I went back to sleep for another 90 minutes and when Kota woke later to find me eating again, I think it was for the third time. Yay Calories! 

I guess I felt so good at this point that Josh and I had what some would consider a photo-shoot with Jeremy. It’s good to see that we were still able to smile after all that we had been through.

Here are our poor dirty bikes up alongside the barn, before they were tended to.

And the photo-shoot…

I quickly washed off my bike outside so it was a little happier than before. I slowly put my arm-warmers (sun sleeves) back on, strapped on my cleats, and put my helmet back on. It was go time, no turning back now. We both make sure our water containers are full, we have all of our essential gear, and get ready to leave the comfort of Mulberry Gap. Jeremy and JP are great to have around, they’ve been through all of this before; the feelings, the emotions, everything. My entire time at Mulberry Gap, I had listened to what they were saying. As Josh and I were getting ready to depart, they gave us some final tips and their best wishes. I didn’t want to leave them, but we had to. We wanted to get out of the last Pinhoti section before dark, and that meant we’d have to leave now.

Us getting ready to tackle the final section, still in pain.

And the last picture that was taken at the Mulberry Gap barn before we departed…

We still had a lot on our minds. But we couldn’t start letting the demons get at us just yet. We had a race to finish!