Tag Archives: blue ridge parkway

The Length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, October 2013

Blue Ridge Parkway sign

Now that my fitness has been improving, and the France cancellation gave me some free time in the fall, I’ve been looking for a big goal. Having some sort of event on the horizon helps motivate me to stay in shape and keep training. Mitchell had that effect earlier in the year, but during the summer months I tend to languish. I need that dangling carrot to keep myself going.

I found my carrot, and boy, it is a big one!

In October, we’ll be riding the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, north to south. We’ll start near Charlottesville and Rockfish Gap. We’ll ride the entire mileage of the parkway, including a side trip to the top of Mount Mitchell, in 6 days.

This is a camp that’s being put on through Kinetic Potential Coaching. Not only will this be a tremendous challenge, but it will also be a valuable learning tool. As I write this, Coach Bobby just won a stage at the Cascade Cycling Classic challenge. He also swept the Pisgah Omnium a couple weeks ago. He’s a beast, a great coach, and I’m lucky to have him.

We’ll be staying in comfort at Bed & Breakfast Inns along the way. Bobby will have a couple support vehicles, and will be bringing along a chef to fuel our ride. It sounds expensive, but it’s actually quite reasonable for a trip of this magnitude – far less than what I’ve seen private touring companies charge.

There are still 3 spots open, but a lot of people are on the fence. If you’re interested, send me a note and I’ll get you in touch with the organizers. This should go without saying, but you will need some decent fitness to accomplish this task.

This will be a grand total of 484 miles and 58,000 feet of climbing. For those who have been following my injury progress this year, it might sound like a lot. Frankly, it is, but I’ve recovered to the point that I can actively train for such an endeavor. We expect the healing to continue over the next few months. Most importantly, this will be tremendous training for next year’s Haute Route, which is still on the calendar.

I’ll leave you with a couple Parkway pictures I’ve collected over the years. There will be more of these coming in a few months.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was gorgeous today. One of the three tunnels on the parkway.
Blue Ridge Parkway

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Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain Foothills view from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The first mini-climb of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Bike Lanes on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Back in mid-May, in the days before my latest Assault on Mount Mitchell, I heard from my old friends at Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine. They wanted me to contribute to a piece about whether bike lanes should be built on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

That article came out just this past week. You can read it here.

When they first approached me, they believed that I would be in favor of bike lanes. If you read my body of work, it makes perfect sense. I’ve long been a strong advocate of giving cyclists an unimpeded place to ride. I said yes, and I agreed to write the response in favor of bike lanes.

The deadline was very short, just a couple days, and I was in the midst of a busy week preparing for Mitchell. I wrote my 500 words with the best argument I could muster, but my writing was half-hearted. I wasn’t feeling it. Since time was an issue, I turned it in anyway.

The editor, possibly sensing the weakness of my argument, asked a good question. She wanted me to recall in the article a time where I thought a bike lane could be useful.

I racked my brain, looked at a few Parkway photos, and couldn’t come up with anything. As I thought about it further, I realized that bike lanes on the Parkway are a terrible idea. There had never been a time where I wished for a bike lane, and I probably never would.

The first mini-climb of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Where would you put the bike lane?

Since the pro bike lanes article was already out there, I turned in the revision. It was still half-hearted, but I’m of the opinion that either side of a debate can be argued. This one just didn’t align with my true philosophy.

I freed up a little time, and went ahead and wrote the same argument from the other side. This time I had passion in my writing, and put together a solid argument. The editor at BRO loved it. The only problem was that they already had someone else writing that perspective, and didn’t need one from me.

Doh!

A few days passed until I heard from them again. I had put them in a tough position, and I wondered whether my piece might get tossed aside.

They came back and really wanted to use my argument against bike lanes. I was relieved. I felt so strongly about the topic that I was questioning whether I wanted to have my name on an argument taking the other position.

Since the limit was only 400-500 words, I had to keep it short, and they even did a little bit of editing. I could have gone further. One thing that I didn’t get to include was the political aspect. In today’s budget-tightening climate, there’s no way the Park Service would get the millions of dollars of funding to add bike lanes. If they did get the funding, I would much rather they use it on areas where cars and bicycles interact more, such as in big cities. The Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville is a great example of where this has benefited all parties, while also boosting the local economy.

What do you think? Do you agree that bike lanes are not necessary on the Parkway?

We don't need no stinking bike lanes!

We don’t need no stinking bike lanes!


Mount Pisgah and Town Mountain, Asheville

Hello, Asheville. I was there to finally meet Coach Bobby in person. He gives a free bike fit to clients, something of which I had every intention of taking advantage. Mine was feeling out of whack, and I was looking for a good reason to travel to Asheville. It doesn’t take much. While there, I decided to put together a small group to ride up some of the featured climbs of the area.

Joining me were a handful of friends who live in Asheville, and a few others that made the trip from Greenville. Bobby joined us for an easy spin (for him), and he brought a riding partner, Ox, who lived up to the nickname.

The plan was to ride up Mount Pisgah, down through Asheville, up Town Mountain, then back to the car. Easy, right? Nothing in the mountains is ever as easy as it sounds.

The weather was unseasonably warm, but seasonably blistery. Even though the wind didn’t bite early, it would show up later when we least expected (or wanted) it.

We took the long way to Mount Pisgah, up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Overall it is not a very steep climb, mostly in the 4-6% range with a handful of steeper pitches. It started and ended with some tough stuff, with easier spinning in between. Even if the grade was not punishing, the distance was brutal. From Highway 191, where the climbs starts, we were pedaling 15 miles, gaining 3,000 feet of elevation, until we reached the top.

Most of this time was spent in conversation, getting to know each other. Bobby and Ox made great pro riding companions aka babysitters. They would ride back down to check on people that fell back. There were some people who were struggling early, so they lent a hand, literally, by pushing them up the climb. Now that was cool.

Bobby yelled out, “No push for you, Aaron!” Fair enough. He was my coach, after all, not my chauffeur. I was not at my strongest, but that is more due to the strength exercises I had been doing all week. When we were riding on the flats or rolling hills, I was fine, but the climbs were a lot tougher. I grunted up, watching others get a partially free ride, with no complaints.

What made the Pisgah climb more difficult was that nasty wind. It showed back up near the top of the climb, and was squarely in our face for the last several miles. We traveled through a number of tunnels. I kept turning my light on and off, but what I really needed was a windshield. It felt like a hurricane when inside the darkness, and an above average breezy day outside of them.

As we reached higher elevations, we saw ice and the remnants of snow along the side of the road. We were getting close. I could see the tower on top of Mount Pisgah, just southwest of us. Pisgah has such an iconic peak that it looked a lot closer than it was. Even when it was in clear view, we had a few miles remaining. The climb doesn’t take us all the way to the summit, but close enough. We found a nearby overlook for some nice photo opportunities.

Pisgah Conquered!

Next came the fun part. We descended a couple miles on the parkway, then made a quick turn onto Highway 151 the rest of the way down. The parkway descent was at this time a cross-wind and tail-wind, unnerving to say the least. 151 was a dream. It was a technical descent, with tight, winding switchbacks. Usually it would be under tree cover, but the leaves were already gone, allowing views all the way down. I wisely spent most of my time watching the road. Having not been here before, I took the descent conservatively, tapping on the brakes through the turns.

Bobby took us through West Asheville, which was tough, but a different kind of tough. The rolling hills had bite, and came one after another. The roads were smooth, and the descents fun, however short. As we approached downtown Asheville, he let us know that we had just finished with the toughest part. That was a relief, even if it lulled us into a false sense of security.

After coasting through downtown Asheville, we wound up at Town Mountain, the climb to end the day. How hard could it be? We turned left, and the climbing began shortly afterward. Kevin warned me that the lower portion is tough. He wasn’t lying.

The first pitch felt like it was delivered by Nolan Ryan. It was steep, double-digit steep, and continued in that vein for quite awhile. My quads were burning, feeling all the exercises I had done the week prior. Bobby rode alongside me for a short while, and I told him of my discomfort. All to be expected, he said. “That’s why we don’t lift weights during the season.” Good point.

One of my Greenville friends was Jana, who some might remember as being a dog magnet at Issaqueena’s Last Ride. It has not been the best year for her. She was a strong climber earlier in the year, but she has dealt with a lot of adversity since. The accident was only part of it. Her climbing legs were not dusted off, and she started to fall behind.

Bobby came to the rescue! He descended down to her, and again, started pushing her to the top. His red jacket was unbundled and flowing behind him, so in a way he looked and acted like a cycling superhero. He was certainly Jana’s hero. Ox would have made a fitting sidekick, but he peeled off towards home as we passed through the city. Jana and Bobby out-climbed most of us, including yours truly. He didn’t have to do that. Thanks, (Super)Bobby.

Who knew we had a superhero in our midst?

Town Mountain leveled out as we got higher up. The easier grades were more manageable for my winter muscles. I climbed and shared stories with Tom and Kevin. After roughly three miles, there was a false summit, and a descent, before we started climbing easily back up to the Parkway.

The wind found us again as we descended back to the starting point, forcing us to pedal downhill the entire way. I coasted back to the Visitor’s Center, while the others were treated to a little bear scare. Aren’t they cute? I must have ridden right by them. I hear they looked nervous when Tom pulled out the camera. Sorry bears, no porridge here.

Some friends were waiting for us.

Strava GPS Link

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Blood, Sweat & Gears, 2012, Valle Crucis, NC

Blood, Sweat & Gears is a huge ride. Nearly 1,000 riders were bunched in the Valle Crucis Elementary School entry-way, slightly off the main road. I arrived late and found a spot near the back of the pack. No worries. I didn’t want to go too fast anyway. I squinted to see the Mast General Store at the starting line. After a few announcements, the ride officially started. I could see movement at the front of the pack, but it would take another minute or two before I would funnel through.

We started in a dense fog. The forecast was for clear and sunny skies, so I knew it would burn off soon. The massive pack of riders left Valle Crucis at 7:30am, turned onto Highway 105, and made a quick left onto Schull’s Mill Road to start the climbing.

I’m a habitually slow warmer. My muscles are not ready for a climb at mile four, but part of the challenge is taking what is thrown at you. I was not afraid of this climb, having conquered it before (link to B2B). Schull’s Mill is a gorgeous stretch of road. Most of it is under heavy tree cover. I could tell we climbed out of the fog because sunlight pierced through the trees, leaving gorgeous sights like the cover photo above. My legs hurt, but I didn’t care. I pushed through the crowd and made sure to stretch out on the following descent.

The route took us beyond the Blue Ridge Parkway. Not to worry, it would be back shortly. We coasted through downtown Blowing Rock, across the connecting highway, and jumped back on the Parkway a few miles later.

This was a new section of the Parkway for me. It was gorgeous and scenic all throughout, naturally, but this time in a different way. The elevation was around 3,000-4,000 for most of this stretch, which is a little lower than many Parkway sections to the west. There were a number of short rolling climbs, and subsequent descents, all at that lovely moderate 6-8% grade that is characteristic of the Parkway. There was a lot of greenery and even some farmland, with only a small handful of overlooks. I stopped at one for a photo opp. The short, easy climbs went by quickly and soon we were escorted back onto country roads.

All of these short climbs were window dressing for what was coming up. The big climb of the day would be Snake Mountain, and that was all anyone was talking about. I encountered Gary, a rider from Raleigh who had done this ride a few times previously. He told me some great stories about Snake. There was one time when kids were pelting him with rocks at the top, which was nothing compared to the punishment of the 20% grade. I heeded his warnings by taking it easy and leaving something for the punishment up ahead. Ready or not, here it was coming.

There was a short climb followed by a short descent. “This is the easiest it’ll get for a couple miles,” Gary called out. He was right. The climb began easily enough, but I knew from his warnings and what I had heard from others that it would stiffen up soon enough. The more we moved ahead, the steeper it became. It settled into double digits, which were not fun, but I could handle.

I kept on turning the pedals, slowly but surely making my way upward. We went around some switchbacks. Gary had mentioned that when you see those, you think the climb is over, but the worst is to come. After traversing the curves, I faced what many called “the wall.” The pavement was covered in chalk writing, ranging from clever sayings to encouraging words for people I didn’t know. I kept pushing. People were on the left and the right, cheering the riders on. The first people I saw were two little girls. I playfully asked them if they would ride my bike the rest of the way. It wouldn’t fit, they said. Good answer! After a couple hundred more feet of beastly grade, I was over the top.

After descending Snake, we crossed the Tennessee border and then, moments later, we were back in North Carolina. The next big climb was George’s Gap, a grinder as Gary put it. That was about right. It was in the 6-8% vicinity, with enough variety to make you work and give you couple of breaks. At this point the temperature had crept up and I could tell it was having its way with people. A guy was struggling on George’s Gap and asked me how much longer. Guessing, I said three miles. It was closer to one more. Glad to have been wrong on that one.

After that, we had to ride through another gap on Rush Branch Road. There was a short climb, a big descent, and then another short climb. I knew that once we were through the gap, we would be home free. The problem with this climb was that it was totally exposed to the sun, with little shade. At this point the temperature was flirting with 90 degrees and the sun was taking a toll on me.

The miles crept by and I could tell we were approaching the finish. But what’s this? One more climb? Mast Gap was waiting at mile 98. What cruel, cruel person threw in this one at the end of a mountain century? It was short, barely more than a bump, but it was steep — the final punctuation on a challenging ride.

It was a gorgeous, very well organized ride. It was slightly less challenging than I expected, but I’m happy to have passed it regardless. My official time was 6:32, which was good considering I wasn’t riding for time. I was just there to enjoy the experience, which I most certainly did.

Strava Link

EDIT: This was my Ride of the Year for 2012.

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Assault on Mount Mitchell, 2012, Spartanburg, SC

The Assault on Mount Mitchell is hard. Insanely hard. I had forgotten how hard it was. If you want evidence, just check the results. Out of approximately 1,000 riders that started the ride, only 765 succeeded. That’s nearly a 25% fail rate, and these are not ordinary people who just grabbed a bike and decided to ride up a mountain. These are people that trained for months, focused on this one goal.

I bumped into a first-time rider at the hotel and he asked me for any tips. I said that you shouldn’t think of it as impossible. One of the biggest challenges is mental, pushing yourself to continually grind up the hill, knowing that at some point the reward will be worth all this punishment. That was good advice, but I reflected on it as those last miles slowly ticked by, as I noticed every passing tenth of a mile, reassuring myself that the end was getting closer. Hopefully I didn’t tell this guy the ride was easy, because it definitely is not. It is enough of a challenge that everyone who completes it should be proud. This is something that not everyone can do.

I was confident for this year’s Assault. I had my plan. I had put in the work. This would be my day.

The most stressful part of the ride is in the first 20 miles. That’s when all 1,000 riders converge together, mashing the pedals and all trying to get to Marion as fast as possible. Mistakes are made. People get sloppy. There will be plenty of ‘jerks,’ as Paul puts it. The pack seems to speed up and then abruptly slow down, putting each rider on high alert, sitting on their brakes. “SLOWING” is heard every minute or so. It is frustrating, but something one has to deal with in order to get an easy ride to Marion.

At mile 10, I fell victim to someone’s poor preparation. A water bottle came loose in a large pack, maybe five or six riders ahead of me. Everyone immediately slowed, swerved, and did everything possible to keep their bikes upright. The guy immediately in front of me swerved to the left of me, and then onto me. THWACK! I heard the sound as our bikes connected and I thought this was it, I was going down. Miraculously I stayed on the bike. All of us did and the pack kept going.

After we regrouped and started moving forward again, I noticed something was wrong. My left handlebar was crooked, pointing to the right and sitting a little lower. At first it seemed awkward and difficult to ride. The steering was fine. The brakes and shifters worked. I just had to keep my hand crooked to the right and lean a little differently to keep it balanced. I was able to ride through it with only minor discomfort. I chugged along.

I was feeling great early. I had missed the lead pack, but settled into one that was keeping a good enough pace. We were at 22 mph when we reached Bill’s Hill. This would be the first big challenge. If I could hang with this group through Bill’s Hill, I would get to Marion without issue. To my surprise, it didn’t seem too difficult this time. I climbed up comfortably either with or ahead of most of my pack.

I arrived in Marion at around 3:35. That was perfect, right where I wanted to be. They say that it takes as long to get from Spartanburg to Mitchell as it does from Marion to Mitchell. Last year I had made up time on the climbs, so at this point it looked like a good bet for me to break seven hours.

Unfortunately I made a crucial error at Marion. I had left some Gatorade with my wife and forgot to refill my bottles. All they had at the rest stop was water. I filled part of a bottle, figuring that would be enough to get me up Highway 80 to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Highway 80 starts out flat with some easy rollers. It’s a gorgeous ride along Lake Tahoma, but seems like forever until the climb begins. I was still feeling fine and skipped the rest stop just before the climb. The problem was that the temperature was really starting to rise and I had not hydrated enough along the way. I was getting thirsty. Soon enough, that meant I was getting tired.

I tried to conserve water, knowing it probably wouldn’t be enough to take me through the climb. I got slower and slower. The riders that I had been with before all passed me. People behind them passed me. I was bonking. The road has markings for every half a mile remaining. At 2 miles, I began to wonder if I could continue. I had nothing. An eternity later it said 1.5 miles to go. Are you kidding me? I ran out of water with a mile to go. It was a long mile. Finally I reached the top and guzzled as much water, Gatorade and Coke as I could, while filling both bottles all the way.

The elevation on the Parkway didn’t help the temperature much. It was still warm and sunny. I could feel the heat intensely. I tried to push at a good pace and simply couldn’t keep it. More people passed me. Around midway through the parkway, after having sufficiently hydrated and fueled myself, I started to get the magic back. My pace picked up and I started passing people again.

I was thrilled to find the short, 2-mile descent. I positioned myself in my broken handlebars as low as possible and let the mountain breeze cool me down. I felt amazing when I started climbing again, like a new man. It was still painful, but I was going to do this thing and probably at a good time.

When I turned into the Mitchell State Park entrance, I thought there was a chance of me breaking seven hours. Reality struck as I noticed my speed during the steeper sections. It was in the 4-5 mph range, not fast. I grunted my way up, slowly and surely to the finish line.

I looked down to find myself covered in bugs. It looked like I was wearing black arm warmers. They were everywhere. I continued to climb, going by the restaurant and then to the final summit, just a few hundred feet.

Mitchell accomplished, again! My final time was 7:07. While I didn’t break my goal of seven hours, I beat last year’s time by nearly an hour. I’ll take that. And I’ll wait awhile before I start thinking about next year. Who am I kidding? I’m going for 6:30 next year.

Strava GPS Link

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Back to the Parkway

I began increasing volume a couple weeks ago, going from right around 100 miles per week to above 200 miles. This past week turned out to be my heaviest workload yet, with 270+ miles between Saturday and Thursday. These were not easy miles either. My ‘recovery’ ride on Wednesday ended up with me fighting a 15 mph headwind up steep hills and running out of gas.

The plan for Saturday was to head back to the parkway and then Richland Balsam Mountain from the Holly Springs, Pickens area just north of Greenville, including the lengthy climb up Highway 215, which I had never attempted before. This would usually be the perfect excursion for me, if not for my wasted legs. Trying to climb with all that volume would be a first for me. I relaxed on Friday and spent a little extra time massaging my sore muscles via a foam roller.

The climbing began almost immediately. We started on Highway 178, crossing Highway 11, and headed towards Rosman via Rocky Bottom. I had been there once before when climbing Sassafras Mountain. Thankfully that behemoth was not on the menu today. 178 is not a difficult climb, but my legs said otherwise on this day. My legs felt like they were lined with bricks, barely moving. With every pitch, I became slower and slower, struggling to turn the pedals, grimacing with pain all the while. Was this the way the entire day would be?

Fortunately the 178 climbs are not terribly long. There are a few breaks with descents and that helped give my muscles some recovery time. My legs would scream every time the road pitched up.

I’m usually headstrong and rarely a quitter, but during those first 1,000 feet of climbing, I seriously considered turning back. I wasn’t sure I had the constitution to get myself up the epic climb ahead. I put off that decision until I could take no more. Fortunately that moment never occurred.

We passed through Rosman and my legs were finally getting warm. I was able to sprint and sustain 23-24 mph on a slight downhill, which is slower than usual, but good for that day.

The next climb would be Highway 215, one that I had heard about a number of times, but for some reason had never attempted. It starts out with rolling terrain and a few easy mini-climbs. The gorgeous views helped me forget my muscular woes. In the early going we were riding between rock formations while overlooking the French Broad River a few hundred feet below. We lost the river as we climbed higher, but then we had distant mountains and scenic vistas from above, eye candy of all sorts.

The big climb began just after a trout hatchery. It was right around seven miles and we obtained about 2,500 feet in elevation. It was not as difficult as I had been led to believe. It reminded me of a slightly more difficult Caesar’s Head Mountain. Most of the grades were in the 6-8% variety, with occasional easier and steeper sections. Even though I had not climbed this particular road, a lot of the far off landmarks looked familiar. It became a game to try and recognize them, and I don’t mind that I was wrong probably 99% of the time.

I felt great when I reached the Blue Ridge Parkway. From here it would just be a short trip, maybe 800 feet total of climbing, until we reached Richland Balsam Mountain, a familiar site that I’m always pleased to visit. The problem was the nasty weather up top. We saw a number of ugly looking fast-moving storm clouds, threatening to get in our way. We weren’t too worried about thunder or lightning, but rather cold. With a forecast in the upper 70s, we were not appropriately dressed for mountain rain. The wind was already plenty cold. Rain would be excruciating.

We plodded along until we saw a huge storm that looked to be consuming the Balsam peak. Gary wisely suggested calling the rest of the climb off. I and the others agreed. We’ve all been there before and will visit again.

After passing back through Rosman, we still had some climbs remaining. I had forgotten from the way up that 178 had some nice descents. Those are not as nice going back up. To my surprise, these mini-climbs were on the steep side, sometimes above 10%. My muscles protested, but did enough work to get me over and back home. Despite my difficulties in getting warmed up, climbing back to the mountains was definitely worth it. Next time I’ll taper a little more.

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Strava GPS Link


Richland Balsam Mountain

After conquering a Southern Sixer the day before, I found myself with a couple hours to kill and decided to take a stab at another. Richland Balsam Mountain, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, was literally in the back yard of my hotel.

I had already been there on the Blue Ridge Breakaway route, which went along Lake Logan Road near Cold Mountain (another Southern Sixer). We had descended down from that point and then climbed back up Waterrock Knob on the other side. This time I would climb up hard way, the same 12-miles I had descend the first time. Since I needed to get back home later that afternoon, all I could manage would be an out-and-back route, but that was fine. My legs were a little cooked anyway.

I parked at the bottom of the climb near Balsam Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway and immediately started the climb. Without the opportunity to warm up, my legs were a little stiff out of the gates. I found my hamstrings to be especially sore in the early going. What made it more difficult is that the first four miles of this climb are the steepest, averaging a 7% grade. It was quite the chore on cold legs.

I knew right away that this would not be a hammering ride. I was as much cyclist today as I was tourist and photographer. I stopped often along the way up. This was mostly to take in the sights on such a beautiful day. The first time in this area everything just blurred by as I screamed down the mountain. It was nice to stop smell the flowers this time (not that there were many flowers in early March). I got a picture at every overlook on the way up, some of which you can see in the gallery below.

My legs came back about mid-way. This was probably mostly due to the climb easing up. In the first four miles I had climbed close to 1,500 feet and the last eight climbed another 1,500. My leisurely pace continued. I saw that there was a forest near the top named after Senator Roy Taylor, and a nice overlook a little off the beaten path that I would have otherwise not noticed. These are the things you miss when you don’t stop.

Finally I reached the top. There were a couple other people marveling at the “Highest Point on Parkway” sign. They were nice folks and even took a picture of me with the sign (didn’t come out well). When they saw me they said, incredulously “dang, did you ride your bike up that whole thing?” Sure did.

The descent was just as fun as I remembered it from last September, albeit not quite as colorful. I had forgotten about the tunnel and had to stop, pull out my phone and use that to nervously guide my way through the pitch dark. I’ll have to make it a point to invest in better lights later this year.

The 12-miles flew by. I saw my car parked at the overlook and was disappointed. The descent ended there and I wasn’t about to climb back up. I’ll get to experience it again.

Strava Link

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